The most disturbing outcome of Israel’s general election this week was not the fact that an openly fascist party won the third-biggest tally of seats, or that it is about to become the lynchpin of the next government. It is how little will change, in Israel or abroad, as a result.
Having Religious Zionism at the heart of government will alter the tone in which Israeli politics is conducted, making it even coarser, more thuggish and uncompromising. But it will make no difference to the ethnic supremacism that has driven Israeli policy for decades.
Israel is not suddenly a more racist state. It is simply growing more confident about admitting its racism to the world. And the world – or at least the bit of it that arrogantly describes itself as the international community – is about to confirm that such confidence is well-founded.
Indeed, the West’s attitude towards Israel’s next coalition government will be no different from its attitude towards the supposedly less-tainted ones that preceded it.
In private, the Biden administration in the US has made plain to Israeli leaders its displeasure at having fascist parties so prominently in government, not least because their presence risks highlighting Washington’s hypocrisy and embarrassing Gulf allies. But don’t expect Washington to do anything tangible.
There will be no statements calling for the Israeli government to be ostracized as a pariah, nor moves to sanction it or to end the billions of dollars in handouts the US provides every year. In a Washington still wracked by the fallout from the 6 January riots, there will be no warnings that Israeli democracy has been sabotaged from within.
Similarly, there will be no demands that Israel commits to more rigorous protections for the Palestinians under its military rule, and no revival of efforts to force it to the negotiating table.
After a little embarrassed shuffling of feet, and maybe a token refusal to meet with ministers from the fascist parties, it will be business as usual – the “usual” being the oppression and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Dead and buried
None of this is to play down the significance of the results. Meretz, the only Jewish party that professes to favor peace over the rights of Israeli settlers, appears to have failed to make it over the electoral threshold. Israel’s tiny peace camp looks dead and buried.
The secular far-right, the settler far-right and the fundamentalist religious right have secured 70 of the parliament’s 120 seats, even if internecine feuds mean not all of them are prepared to sit together. Enough will, however, to ensure that disgraced former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power for a record sixth time.
All but certain to be at the heart of the new government is Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose party represents the brutish, nakedly supremacist legacy of the notorious Rabbi Meir Kahane, who wished to expel Palestinians from their homeland. Netanyahu knows he owes his comeback to the astonishing rise of Ben-Gvir and the Kahanists – and he will need to suitably reward them.
Several dozen more seats in the Knesset are held by Jewish parties that belong to the largely secular, militaristic right. Their legislators reliably cheer on what now amounts to a 15-year siege of Gaza and its two million Palestinian inhabitants, as well as the intermittent bombing of the coastal enclave “back to the Stone Age.”
Neither Jewish Party nor any of these parties prefer a diplomatic solution over the permanent subjugation of Palestinians, their gradual ethnic cleansing from Jerusalem, and the entrenchment of settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Those militaristic right parties who achieved victory at the polls 19 months ago oversaw what the United Nations recently predicted to be the “deadliest year” for Palestinians since it started compiling figures in 2005. While in government, they shut down six notable Palestinian human rights groups, claiming without evidence that they were terrorist organizations.
Nonetheless, western capitals will now pretend that these opposition parties offer the hope – however distant – of a peace breakthrough.
Awash in this sea of unmitigated Jewish supremacism will sit 10 legislators belonging to two non-Zionist Arab-majority parties representing a fifth of Israel’s population. If they can raise their voices loudly enough to break through the din of anti-Palestinian racism in the parliament chamber, they will be the only ones advocating a cause the international community claims as dear to its heart: a two-state solution.
Moment of clarity
The success of the coalition of Jewish Power and Religious Zionism, which has won 14 seats, should be a moment of clarity. In this election, political Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, broke cover. It has revealed itself as a narrow spectrum of ugly ethnic supremacist beliefs.
In particular, the ascent of Ben-Gvir and his party will tear the mask off Israel and its supporters abroad, who claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, with the barely concealed implication that it represents an outpost of western civilization in a morally backward, primitive Middle East.
Ben-Gvir and his allies in government make it only too evident that western support for Israel was never conditional on its moral character or its democratic pretensions. From the outset, Israel was sponsored as a colonial outpost of the West – “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism,” as Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, termed the role of the future Israel.
The central goal of Zionism, replacing the native Palestinian population with Jewish incomers who claim an ancient birthright, has been the same, whoever has led Israel. The dispute within Zionism has been over the means necessary to achieve that replacement, based on concerns about how outsiders might perceive and respond to Israel’s state-sponsored racism.
Over time, liberal Zionism has generally concluded that the best it can hope for is to herd Palestinians into ghettoes to secure Jewish dominion over the land. This is the apartheid model that the international community tried for three decades to formalize into a two-state solution.
But liberal Zionism failed to subjugate Palestinians, and has now been effectively swept from Israel’s political scene by the triumph of Revisionist Zionism. This is the ideology to which a clear majority of the new parliament subscribes.
In the face of Palestinian resistance and liberal Zionist failure, Revisionist Zionism offers a more satisfying solution. It prefers to make explicit Jewish supremacy, divinely ordained or otherwise, over an enlarged territory. It concludes that, if Palestinians refuse to submit to their status as third-class guests, then they forfeit any rights and create the grounds for their own expulsion.
Change within Israel
For Palestinians, Ben-Gvir will differ from legislators in the other parties he will sit alongside in government chiefly in terms of how boldly he will be prepared to embarrass the West – and Israel’s liberal Zionist supporters – by flaunting what can fairly be described as racist views.
Insofar as Ben-Gvir represents a change, it will not be in terms of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories. They will continue as before, though he may prove a thorn in Netanyahu’s side on the issue of annexation, like many in Netanyahu’s own party.
Rather, Ben-Gvir’s impact will be inside Israel. He wants the public security portfolio so that he can begin turning the national police force into a militia in his own image, replicating the settlers’ earlier success in penetrating and gradually taking over the Israeli military.
This will accelerate a trend of closer cooperation between police and armed settler groups, legitimizing even greater use of formal and informal types of violence against the large minority of Palestinian citizens living inside Israel. It will also allow Ben-Gvir and his allies to crack down on “deviants” within Jewish society: those dissenting on religious, sexual or political matters.
The fascist parties in Netanyahu’s future government will seek to build on the existing insightful discourse against Palestinian citizens living inside Israel to characterize the minority as a fifth column, and to publicly justify its expulsion. And this is not unprecedented: previous leaders and ministers have suggested that Palestinians are inherently treasonous, comparing Palestinian citizens to “cancer” or “cockroaches” and calling for their expulsion.
Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman, a minister in several governments, long ago set out a plan for redrawing Israel’s borders to deny parts of the Palestinian minority citizenship.
In the summer, Ben-Gvir touted an opinion poll showing that nearly two-thirds of Israeli Jews favored legislation he proposed to expel “disloyal” Palestinian citizens from the state and strip them of citizenship. Other Jewish parties, subscribing to their own versions of ethnic supremacism, will struggle to find a way to credibly counter Ben-Gvir’s rhetoric.
All of this will prove a difficult test for Israel’s supporters in Europe and the US. Most identify as liberal Zionists, even though their wing of Zionism was eradicated inside Israel some time ago.
Jewish liberal Zionists invariably argue that Israel is central to their identity. They have even insisted on redefining anything but the most bloodless criticism of Israel as antisemitism. An attack on Israel is an attack on Jewish identity, they argue, and therefore constitutes antisemitism.
It was precisely that logic that was reflected by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) when it drafted a new definition of antisemitism – one that has been widely adopted by western political parties, local authorities and universities.
The IHRA’s examples of antisemitism include labeling Israel a “racist endeavor,” comparing its actions to those of the Nazis (presumably even if real-life fascist parties are dictating Israeli policies), or requiring of Israel “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” (begging the question: what more does Israel have to do to stop qualifying as “any other democratic nation”?)
Those demurring, such as Britain’s former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have felt the full force of liberal Zionist wrath – as have those campaigning for boycotts of Israel to curb its excesses. It was liberal Zionists who shut down boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activism.
Will Israel’s supporters repudiate the IHRA definition or Israel, when Ben-Gvir is sitting in government, representing a large chunk of the Israeli population? You can bet they won’t.
If Ben-Gvir forces Israel’s cheerleaders to choose between the ethnic supremacism of their Zionism and their liberalism, most will stick with the former. What will happen, as has happened so many times before, is that Israel’s shift further rightwards will quickly be normalized. Having fascist parties inside government will soon become unremarkable.
Worse, Ben-Gvir will serve as an alibi for the other far-right politicians alongside him, allowing the US and Europe to present them as moderates; men and women of peace, the adults in the room.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.