It was hard to anticipate the sudden inclusion of right-winger Avigdor Lieberman into the government, not just because negotiations between the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Herzog and PM Benjamin Netanyahu seemed a done deal, but mainly because it goes against all political logic. After the collapse of the previous government in 2014, in which Lieberman was a key player, and the stormy elections that followed, Netanyahu cobbled together a coalition of 61 MKs (the minimal number required for a Knesset majority), and since then his government has been hanging by a thread. The coalition obviously needed to be expanded. The question was the direction Netanyahu would take, toward Herzog or Lieberman. Although Lieberman is Likud’s natural partner, the coalition suffered from an excess of ministers from the radical right. To deodorize, there seemed to be no way but to go with Labor (officially known as the Zionist Camp).
Since the outbreak of a third Intifada last October, preceded by the kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the firebombing of the Dawabsheh family, Netanyahu urgently needed the Labor Party to add a semblance of sanity to his ultra right-wing government. The extreme right in Israel is trying with all its might to shake up the status quo and end the symbiosis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They oppose the constraints against them on the erstwhile Temple Mount (now al-Aqsa) , as well as the slowdown of settlement construction. They focus, therefore, on provocations at al-Aqsa, terrorizing the Palestinians, vandalizing their property, and keeping a light finger on the trigger at the checkpoints.
Moreover, much effort is being made by Netanyahu and Ministers Miri Regev, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, to weaken the “elites” in Israeli society. Writers and artists are branded enemies by the Minister of Culture (Regev), the Supreme Court has become a target for the Minister of Justice (Shaked), and the Minister of Education (Bennett) wants to implant religious education in the general curriculum. The dismissal of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, whom Lieberman replaces, now adds the military elite to this list of undesirables. But it appears that Netanyahu may have gone too far. Ya’alon’s position in the government had been crucial – indeed, he had served as Netanyahu’s “flak jacket” – so his ouster came out of the blue. He had been the security honcho of the so-called “Moderate Right,” the perfect answer to Netanyahu’s opponents in the defense establishment, such as the late Meir Dagan (former chief of the Mossad) and Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet, both of whom had called Netanyahu a security disaster.
The IDF and the security forces are expected to maintain the Occupation with minimal provocation. The military believes that, given the lack of a political process, Israel should provide the Palestinians with some sort of hope. It should at least make their lives easier, give more work permits, ease travel restrictions, and increase cooperation with the security services of the Palestinian Authority. Thus there is a need to have a strong political force in the government to check the extreme right and delay the next explosion. This was the position of Ya’alon, who wanted to subordinate right-wing political pressures to security needs.
Ya’alon shares Netanyahu’s ideology and cannot be characterized as a leftist. He has explained to the world that there is no solution to the Palestinian problem; he has called Secretary of State John Kerry “delusional and messianic” because of the latter’s support for a two-state solution; he has called Peace Now a “virus” because of its activities against the settlements; he has declared Breaking the Silence to be an organization of “traitors” because it washes Israel’s dirty laundry in public. Nonetheless, Ya’alon’s removal in favor of Lieberman might have altered something in his worldview. In his farewell speech from the Knesset and the Ministry of Defense, Ya’alon did not mention the “traitors” on the left, but chose to attack the “fascists” on the right (by which we may understand certain back-bencher Likud MKs and many members of that party’s Central Committee), who, he declared, have taken over Likud.
Ya’alon has suddenly discovered that those working against the Occupation are not the danger to democracy, and, more specifically, that those who reject any political solution are the bitter enemies. He said in his parting address, “I have fought with all my might against manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society, which are threatening its stability and also trickling into the IDF, hurting it already.”
Ya’alon did not explain how you can maintain a prolonged Occupation without “extremism, violence and racism.” Nor did he mention on what moral and ethical basis Israel can control another people for 50 years, if not on a basis of “extremism, violence and racism,” or how the “brutalization” of the army can be avoided when soldiers are sent to suppress a civilian population in order to force them to accept the Occupation as “normal.” Ya’alon indeed tried to preserve “normality.” He and his generals think you can tame the colonized by creating minimal conditions that would discourage the average Palestinian from rebelling against the occupier. The alternative to a political process is what Netanyahu calls an “economic peace”: to provide a reasonable social and economic reality with minimal friction between the army and the population.
However, reality is the joker in the pack. Reality is an angry Palestinian boy who sets out to stab a soldier at a checkpoint. Reality is an agitated soldier who kills a wounded Palestinian sprawled on his back. In these and other ways, the illusion of coexistence between occupier and occupied is breached again and again, in accordance with the designs of right-wing provocateurs. When Netanyahu joined them and indirectly expressed support for the killer-soldier (by phoning his father), and Lieberman organized a demonstration for the soldier outside the military court, the army freaked out. After realizing that his “allies” in the government supported his replacement by Lieberman, Ya’alon left the government and resigned from the Knesset.
Ya’alon’s resignation has created a huge public aftershock, which strikes Netanyahu in his soft underbelly. Roni Daniel, a top military analyst and former army officer who has justified any and all atrocities committed by the army in Gaza, suddenly declared, “After this week, I’m not sure I want my children to remain here.” Ehud Barak shouted “Fascism!” from New York.
A landmark in the process leading to Ya’alon’s resignation was a speech by the army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Yair Golan, on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. Golan compared certain trends in Israel to those in Europe in the 1930’s during the rise of Fascism. Netanyahu and the right-wing attacked the comparison, but Ya’alon supported Golan, urging army officers to speak their minds. In fact, the comparison with what happened in Germany is not exact. Hitler rose to power on the back of the Great Depression, whereas Israel continues to maintain its standard of living with low unemployment. Israel was not defeated in war, and it has not had to pay crippling compensation.
A closer comparison would be between the present situation in Israel and what is happening elsewhere in the Western world. There is a common denominator between Netanyahu and Donald Trump, for both are supported by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The equivalent of Lieberman’s “Israel Beiteinu” party is the party of Vladimir Putin, while the equivalent of Naftali Bennett’s “Jewish Home” party is the Austrian Freedom Party, as well as its far-right equivalents in France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
The racist virus is not confined to the right. Yair Lapid’s comments against Arab MK Haneen Zoabi and Herzog’s remark that “we [in the Labor Party] need to stop making the public feel we are Arab-lovers” show that radicalization and racism have deep roots on the left. If the British Labor Party is contaminated with anti-Semitism, then its Israeli counterpart is undoubtedly tainted with Arab hatred. Moreover, Herzog tried to pave his way into the Netanyahu government when he declared the impossibility of reaching a solution at present with the Palestinians and talked about unilateral steps in the West Bank. He also adopted the bizarre notion of a “regional conference” as an alternative to ending the Occupation. As long as Herzog aspires to enter the right-wing coalition, the Labor Party will not constitute an alternative to Likud, much less a fighting opposition. Labor under Herzog was the logical option for Netanyahu. By choosing Lieberman instead, and losing Ya’alon, he has aroused disgust both in the army and in public opinion. As a sign of this, the Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay today (May 27) resigned in protest.
It is true that the political battle being waged in Israel is a mirror-image of Israeli society. There is presently a question as to whether cultural events will be patriotic or universal; whether religious education will be nationalistic and racist or enlightened; whether the court will conduct itself according to Jewish law or universal norms; whether the press do the government’s bidding or be free to criticize whether the army will serve the settlers alone or the security of all citizens . This battle is also being waged right now in the US and Europe: conservatism versus liberalism, racism versus enlightenment, greed versus welfare. But in Israel there is an additional dimension – the Occupation. This is the burden that Israeli society has borne and perpetuated for more than 50 years; it continues to widen the schism in that society.
Ya’alon’s resignation and his replacement by Lieberman show that Israel is hell-bent on not resolving the situation. But the Occupation cannot be swept under the carpet. Israeli society must choose between the way of Netanyahu, Bennett and Lieberman or that of building a broad political front which combines Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, in a democratic, egalitarian and pluralistic society. This front must put an end to the Occupation, which only magnifies the “extremism, violence and racism” that Ya’alon talked about on the day he left office.
Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman