MOST POLLSTERS and exit polls had predicted the downfall of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party in the Israeli general election held on March 17. But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desperate appeals in the eleventh hour seem to have galvanised right-wing voters into action. In the process, he once again proved his true colours. He promised the electorate that if re-elected he would ensure that there was no Palestinian state. Netanyahu has been carrying on with the charade of “statehood talks” with the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) while at the same time pursuing his aggressive settlement policies in the occupied territories.
In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu openly skirmished with the Barack Obama administration by choosing to address the United States Congress at the invitation of the avowedly pro-Zionist Speaker, John Boehmer. On the campaign trail, he even alleged that some foreign powers were out to dislodge him. It was not only Obama and other Western leaders who had wanted to see the back of him, even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had indicated his preference for a government without the presence of the divisive Netanyahu. After the election results were announced, Rivlin called for the creation of a broad unity government that would include all the major Jewish parties.
With the Likud Party winning 30 seats in the Knesset (Parliament), 10 more than its previous tally, Netanyahu is all set to lead a six-party coalition government. All the parties in the new government are said to be right-wing and religious parties, which are hostile to the aspirations of Palestinians and intent on continuing with the apartheid policies of the previous government.
Although the turnout of Arab voters was less than expected, new-found unity among their ranks ensured a record tally of 14 seats, making the Joint Arab List the third largest grouping in Parliament. Palestinians constitute around 20 per cent of the population in Israel. Palestinian parties, ranging from the Islamic to the communist, put up a united list of candidates. Their numbers in the Knesset will make it difficult for the right-wing government to completely ignore their voices. The emergence of a united Arab bloc has been one of the positive achievements of the 2015 Israeli election. During the campaign, Netanyahu went out of his way to demonise the native Palestinian population. On the day of the vote, he told his supporters that his right-wing government was in danger of being voted out. “Arab voters are heading to the polling booths in droves,” he said. The White House, in a strongly worded statement, said Netanyahu was attempting to “marginalise Arab-Israeli citizens and this was inconsistent with the values that bind the U.S. and Israel”.
Most urban voters cast their lot with the opposition Zionist Union, a new political grouping that came out of an alliance between the Labour Party and the smaller Hatnua party led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. There were no major political differences between the competing parties. Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union, has been hawkish on Iran. On the campaign trail, he echoed Netanyahu’s views when he said that “all options are open against Iran”. Herzog also backed the brutal seven-week military campaign in 2014 against the hapless civilian populace in the Gaza Strip. More than 2,000 Palestinians, many of them children, were killed in the Gaza campaign. The opposition made no attempt to focus on the Palestinian issue during the election campaign.
It was the overwhelming support from Jewish settler groups on the West Bank and East Jerusalem that tilted the scales in favour of the Netanyahu-led extreme right wing. During his stints in office since the late 1990s, Netanyahu has played an important role in accelerating the construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory. As the noted Israeli academic Neve Gordon commented, “the outcome is clear. The people of Israel voted for apartheid.” He said Israel “is a democracy only for Jews and a repressive regime for Palestinians”.
Hannan Ashrawi, National Executive member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), said the election results “are the natural outcome of the Israeli Prime Minister’s policies of generating fear, hostility and distrust, as well as shifting the whole terrain of politics to a racist extreme”.
Palestinians, as well as independent observers of the region, are in fact happy at the electoral outcome. With Netanyahu at the helm, Israel’s apartheid policies will continue to be in the international spotlight. As Ashrawi observed, under Netanyahu, Israel would continue to be a “rogue state”, contributing to its “own isolation and delegitimisation”. If the so-called central-left coalition led by the Zionist Union had come to power, Palestinians would have been pressured to once again sit down at the negotiating table. The history of negotiations so far has conclusively shown that no Israeli leader is serious about the two-state solution envisaged in the 1993 Oslo Accord. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was signatory to that accord, fell to the bullets of a Jewish fanatic.
All the major parties in Israel, despite their formal commitment to a two-state solution, are in fact united on the long-term game plan to annex most of the West Bank and Jerusalem. The major issues in the just-concluded election were not about peace with Palestinians; they centred on corruption and issues concerning the economy. Unemployment rates and the cost of living have been rising. With Netanyahu’s re-election, Palestinians can legitimately claim that they have no partner to negotiate with.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has, however, said that he is willing to sit down for talks with any Israeli leader who believes in a two-state solution. Netanyahu is now trying to furiously backtrack on his statement that he would never allow a Palestinian state under his watch. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s credibility in the international community has sunk to a new low. His hypocritical posturings and brazen lying have alienated even a significant section of the influential Jewish community in the U.S. A report in The New York Times said many American Jews were now convinced that Netanyahu was “more committed to building settlements than to building peace with the Palestinians”.
Many of Israel’s Western backers are now ready to contemplate the introduction of sanctions against Tel Aviv for its wilful derailment of the peace process and racist policies. During Netanyahu’s years in office, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel took root in many European countries. Europeans have realised that only sanctions will make the Israeli government implement the two-state solution. Apartheid South Africa started serious negotiations with the African National Congress only after sanctions started to bite.
Obama waited for two days to congratulate Netanyahu on his electoral victory. He has had tense relations with the Israeli leader since the beginning of his presidency. When Obama ran for re-election in 2012, Netanyahu made known his preference for his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. What has angered Obama the most is Netanyahu’s strenuous efforts to derail the nuclear talks with Iran. Obama declined to meet Netanyahu during his visit to Washington in March when he was in the U.S. capital to address the U.S. Congress. More than 60 Congressmen refused to attend the session. Many Republican Congressmen have also politically distanced themselves from Netanyahu’s hard-line stance on Iran.
With all the signs pointing towards a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, despite the best efforts of Netanyahu, Obama may now turn his attention to the Palestinian statehood issue. Obama pointedly raised the issue during his belated congratulatory call to Netanyahu.
In 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave a two-year deadline for a two-state solution. According to that timetable, the process for Palestinian statehood should have begun by now. The creation of a Palestinian state has been a central element of U.S. foreign policy in West Asia.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, speaking to the media just days after the election results were announced, cast serious doubts upon Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process. “The diverging comments of the Prime Minister legitimately call into question his commitment to this policy principle and his lack of commitment to what has been the policy foundation of our policymaking in the region,” he said. The U.S. provides Israel $3 billion a year in military aid. Obama administration officials have said that this aid is not in jeopardy at this juncture although White House officials have indicated that a reassessment of policies towards Israel is imminent. They told the media that the U.S. was no longer automatically bound to veto resolutions against Israel in the United Nations Security Council, especially those relating to Palestinian statehood.
The noted Israeli commentator Gideon Levy wrote after the elections that his countrymen voted for a man “who will lead the United States to take harsh measures against Israel, for the man whom the world long ago grew sick of”. Levy said that the elections strengthened the foundations of apartheid in Israel. “Netanyahu deserves the Israeli people and they deserve him,” he observed.
Netanyahu has admirers in India though, notably Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had a long meeting with him in New York in September.