The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu’s election bid and the shadow of apartheid


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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at it again. His countrymen will vote Tuesday in a second national election within six months following Netanyahu’s failure to cobble together a stable coalition after an April vote in which he sneaked a narrow victory. Now, Israel’s longest-ruling prime minister is resorting to his tried-and-tested tactics: stirring race-baiting fear over Arab voter fraud, hailing his unique ability to defend the nation (with President Trump’s brotherly support) and dangling red meat to his right-wing base in the form of vows to annex portions of the West Bank.

In the final throes of the campaign, Netanyahu issued a rather surreal video instructing Israelis to make correct use of election day — a national holiday — by casting a ballot rather than canoodling in bed with their lovers. As Steve Hendrix, The Washington Post’s new Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote, it was as if “Netanyahu’s final message has been: I’m losing.”

Netanyahu’s desperation is real. He knows that he needs to stay in office to marshal the country’s parliament into passing legislation that could insulate him from ongoing corruption investigations. Netanyahu’s Likud party is running neck-and-neck in the polls with the centrist Blue and White party; the prime minister can count on a number of parties even further to the right to back him in an alliance that would keep him in power.

With heavy voter turnout, Israelis are deciding whether Netanyahu stays or goes

Though it’s always a mistake to bet against his capacity for survival, there’s one clear reason Netanyahu may be foiled this time: The party of Avigdor Liberman, a former cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s government and a staunchly secular right-wing nationalist, may win enough seats to play the role of kingmaker. Liberman, whose refusal earlier this year to sit alongside ultra-Orthodox and other religiously minded parties in Netanyahu’s coalition prompted this week’s election, could throw in his lot with a possible alliance of secular mainstream parties and thereby doom Netanyahu to the sidelines.

On Sept. 17, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast his vote in a closely fought election that could unseat the country’s longest-serving leader. (Video: Reuters)

In the hurly-burly of the election campaign, the tensions within Israel’s Jewish population have come to the surface. “When religion and state get more space in elections, it’s always vitriolic,” Einat Wilf, a secular centrist former Israeli lawmaker, said to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “People understand the implication that their way of life is in danger. So the rhetoric in many ways plays into real fears.”

While Netanyahu scaremongers over Arabs and leftists taking over the state, Liberman released a dark video urging supporters to counter the votes of the country’s mobilized religious parties. These have propagated their own divisive messaging, featuring secular men disrupting children’s ability to observe Shabbat.

“The rifts are deepening, the gaps are widening and basic solidarity between us is unraveling: right against left, Jews against Arabs. The social fabric is torn,” wrote Benny Gantz, the former Israeli military commander who is Netanyahu’s chief rival. He called on Israelis to rally behind a more broad-minded government of unity: “After years of extortion and surrender to small parties that care about limited sectors of society, we will establish a government to represent the majority and take care of all Israel’s citizens.”

Then there’s the matter of those who don’t have the same rights as Israeli citizens. “At stake in the election is not only the balance between religious and secular visions for Israel’s future,” wrote my colleagues Ruth Eglash and James McCauley. “Netanyahu has promised, if reelected, to upend the longtime status quo in the occupied territories by annexing large portions of the West Bank, an initiative that would be popular with right-wing voters but could incur Arab outrage. When he announced these grand designs, he cited the approval of the Trump administration, slated to release its new Middle East peace plan after the Israeli election.”

Trump’s ambassador in Israel, David Friedman, is an envoy with close ties to Jewish settler organizations. He has publicly cheered plans for annexation and in the past has dismissed the two-state solution — the vision of an independent Palestinian state emerging alongside Israel that has been the official policy goal of successive U.S. administrations — as a “scam.” For years, the Israelis have mastered their system of control over the Palestinians without too much international blowback over human rights; annexation, though, could change that.

“This limbo where Palestinians are not citizens of Israel and not ruling themselves — it was supposed to be temporary, in theory,” Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that gathers testimony from past and serving Israeli soldiers to shed light on the occupation of the Palestinian territories, told my colleagues. “And Netanyahu basically came out in his speech saying it’s not temporary.”

Many of Israel’s supporters in the Washington foreign-policy establishment fear that a Netanyahu emboldened by Trump would confirm a dark reality. “If Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in prolonging his tenure as Israel’s prime minister following Tuesday’s election, the proposition that Israelis and Palestinians will be condemned to live in one state forever is likely to become inescapable,” wrote Jackson Diehl, The Post’s deputy editorial director. “That would mean a choice between a country that is secular and democratic but binational, or a Jewish apartheid regime.”

A victorious Netanyahu could renege on his annexation vows and return to a pre-election status quo. But, as Robert Kagan wrote in a lengthy essay for The Post over the weekend, there are fewer incentives now for such caution than in the past. As readers of Today’s WorldView know, Netanyahu has curried the favor of various majoritarian, nationalist, illiberal rulers around the world, from India to Russia to Hungary to the Oval Office.

“The right-wing nationalist movements in Europe are staunchly pro-Israel even as they maintain historical anti-Semitic tendencies,” wrote Kagan. “They admire Israel’s combative nationalism and its plucky resistance to their common enemy, the European Union. Even Germany’s far-right nationalists these days see an increasingly nationalist Israel as ‘a role model for Germany.’ ”

In the West Bank, my colleagues report the air is heavy with resignation and defeat: For Ibrahim Qtishat, a 50-year-old date farmer in the Jordan Valley, "there is no reason to believe Netanyahu was not serious about his plans, and the Palestinians have no means of countering any future attempt to execute that proposal.

“ ‘The whole world is supporting him,’ he said.”

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