The Israeli elections: a historical turning point

Israel is going to elections for the fifth time in three years, an unusual event by all accounts. These elections occur time after time because of one person, Binyamin Netanyahu, who challenges the saying that “the cemetery is full of indispensable people.” Netanyahu refuses to entertain the possibility of a loss. He is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust; the prime ministry is his last refuge, provided he can get the support of 61 Knesset members. This is the number that will determine his fate, and he will do literally anything to reach it. In the previous election he was ready to join up with Mansour Abbas of the Islamic movement, and today he relies on Arab-hater Itamar Ben Gvir, a protégé of Meir Kahane.

The United States is also preparing for midterm congressional elections, which will take place a week after the Israeli. In the US there are also two major camps: Republicans who support Trump and Democrats who support Biden. A line connects Netanyahu and Trump:  both are power-hungry populists ready to trample democracy and the rule of law. The difference is that Trump is less of a politician and much more aggressive. Not only does he refuse to recognize the results of the 2020 presidential election, but he even sent fascist militias and mobs to the Capitol on January 6 to prevent Congress from declaring Biden as president.

This failed coup brought the United States to a historical turning point. From Biden’s first days in office, he declared that the US was fighting for its very soul, that is, for the democratic regime that had existed for over two centuries. Although Trump is an American phenomenon, he belongs to an international wave that advances an extreme nationalist ideology. Other members are his friends and allies: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Andrzej Duda, France’s Marine Le Pen, India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, and of course Netanyahu.

Biden and the Democratic Party knew that the Trump phenomenon could not be defeated without eradicating the new fascist movement around the world. Therefore, he divided the world based not on the narrow strategic interests of the US, as was earlier the case, but in terms of ideologies and values that clearly define the democratic camp versus the autocratic. In Israel, Biden’s political ability was underestimated. Trump called him “Sleepy Joe”, and no one took seriously the change he proposed. For 200 years, after all, the US had not only gotten along well with autocratic regimes, but it encouraged them and opposed democratic movements, for example in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973. This behaviour had been an integral part of American DNA since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. Therefore, the change in Biden’s attitude largely went unnoticed.

America’s pre-Biden foreign policy had matched the Israeli strategic conception. For Israel, democracy can live in coexistence and symbiosis with autocracy, as evinced by the concept that a Jewish and democratic state is sustainable alongside an Israeli military regime in the West Bank and Gaza. Furthermore, Israel’s security is based on agreements with all the dictatorial regimes in the region – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Still further, on the international level, Israel was able to maintain a strategic alliance with the Trump administration alongside friendly relations with the Putin regime.

Yet Putin put Biden’s declarations to the test by invading Ukraine. Like everyone from Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman to Israel’s lowliest politician, Putin was convinced that Biden’s statements were hot air. After all, Putin had conquered parts of Georgia in 2008 and the US had been silent. He’d annexed Crimea in 2014 and America had sat by. In 2015 he had destroyed Syria to save Assad, without American reprisals. He had blatantly intervened for Trump in the 2016 US elections and America had swallowed the frog.

The Saudi regime also underestimated Biden, thinking he was in its pocket. It is a fact that the US concealed Saudi involvement in the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, and Bush preferred to accuse Saddam Hussein of responsibility for al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia has worked incessantly to eliminate every sign of democracy in the Arab world, and since the crowning of Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the throne, it has lost all inhibitions. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the dismemberment of his body at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul crossed all red lines. Yet the then President Trump chose to believe that Ben Salman was not involved, just as he chose to believe Putin, who denied interference in the US elections, despite the CIA’s position.

Israel too wasn’t moved by the murder of Khashoggi. On the contrary, it highlighted Israel’s status as the only democracy in the Middle East, and it presented the Arabs as unscrupulous barbarians. Nor was Israel moved by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Its intelligence assessments predicted a quick and easy victory for Putin. But Putin had miscalculated in more ways than one. It turned out that Biden had meant every word.

The world is changing beyond recognition. As the defeat of Nazi Germany determined the fate of everyone, so our fate will be determined in Ukraine. Trump sided with Putin, as did Mohammed bin Salman, and Netanyahu’s silence on Ukraine is worth a thousand words. On the other hand, Yair Lapid, prime minister of Israel’s transitional government, altered his position twice: at first from neutrality to timid support for Ukraine, and then to explicit condemnation of the Russian annexations.

Today, two important allies of Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia, are in direct conflict with its most strategic ally, the United States, and therefore Israel has difficulty choosing sides. Moreover, the mass demonstrations in Iran, the fact that women are taking to the streets, calling for overthrow of the regime and freedom, have reshuffled the deck. Biden unhesitatingly supports the women’s struggle in Iran and has halted negotiations on a nuclear agreement. On the other hand, Putin has made an alliance with Iran, which came to his aid in Ukraine by selling him drones.

Saudi Arabia also panics at the protests in Iran. What will happen if the women’s struggle brings down the ayatollah regime? What will be the response of Saudi women, who suffer even worse oppression? For Israel, however, the most difficult question is: what will happen if Putin falls? What will be the consequences for the American attitude to Saudi Arabia? And what will be the fate of Israel’s other Arab allies who suppress every democratic movement with an iron fist?

The Israeli strategic concept—that what was is what will be, that Putin will thrive forever, as will bin Salman and the other Middle East kings and generals—is collapsing. This is also the perception regarding the Palestinians. Israel’s insistence on managing the conflict instead of resolving it, its furtherance of a merely economic peace, and its use of military force in the Occupied Territories have weakened the Palestinian Authority. The result has been a new wave of protest, which grows with the number of Palestinians killed. So too grows the feeling of impasse.

The battle between the stalwarts of yesterday’s world and those of tomorrow’s encompasses every field of life. When Israelis go to the polls, however, most will be voting “Yes Bibi” or “No Bibi”— a question blind to the historical moment in which they stand.

About Yacov Ben Efrat