All commentators agree that this week’s Likud primaries marked a watershed event. Anti-liberal forces have gained considerable power, with Danny Danon, Zeev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely and Yariv Levin climbing up the ranks, and Moshe Feiglin, an extreme right-winger who has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nightmare for years, outflanks them. The Likud ministers who fended off the worst excesses of past anti-liberal legislation, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan will not be in the next Knesset.
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The Likud has always been torn between its right wing ideology and a basic belief in the principles of Liberal Democracy. This conflict has now come to an end. It is now an extreme right-wing party with strong racist undertones. The majority of its MKs are in favor of Israel’s annexing the West Bank; but unlike Speaker of the Knesset Rubi Rivlin they wouldn’t dream of giving Palestinians political rights. They are even delegitimizing Israel’s serving Arab MKs, and want to see Israel as an ethnically unitary state.
The one remaining classical liberals in the Likud is Rubi Rivlin and Carmel Shama-Hacohen. The former was visibly shaken in an interview he gave on Israel’s Channel 10. He made clear that this was not the Likud that he had grown up in, and that he was profoundly worried by the rise of anti-liberal forces – a concern many share. It is unclear who will now reign in these fervent young nationalists who will do everything in their power to limit judicial independence, freedom of the press and academic freedom.
In a case of remarkable historical irony, Likud has moved to the extreme right while Netanyahu has already understood that he can no longer stop Abbas from attaining non-member status at the United Nations. While Netanyahu has so far only paid lip service to the two-state solution, the international community will increase pressure on him to move ahead with the peace process.
Netanyahu’s situation is becoming well-nigh untenable: He is leader of a party that opposes territorial compromise and will no doubt want to step up settlement construction and expansion, while Palestine is becoming an established fact of international law, possibly with the endorsement of major Western states like Britain. Even if Palestinians refrain from bringing complaints against Israel to the International Criminal Court, they will now have increased international leverage in fighting Israel’s settlement activity.
Pitching UN recognition of Palestine against the new Likud’s extreme right-wing ideology could lead towards a showdown between a Likud-Beitenu government and the world at large. Skeptical about the possibility of reaching a viable agreement with Palestinians, most Israelis have opted for the prolongation of the status quo in which Israel expands settlements without annexing the West Bank. This gradual de facto colonization under the aegis of an unclear legal situation is now likely to come to an end.
How will Netanyahu maneuver between his increasingly right-wing constituency and Israel’s allies in the world? He might use his potential coalition partners from the political center to veer for compromise. So far both Labor Leader Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid, founder and leader of the new Yesh Atid party, have left open the option of joining Netanyahu’s next coalition.
But they will now have to rethink their position: They might still argue that they will be able to safeguard Israel’s democracy from within the coalition. But they may well have to consider whether Likud-Beitenu has now crossed the line between Liberal principles and totalitarianism, and whether they would not serve Israel’s democracy better by creating a viable fighting opposition. They might join Tzipi Livni who has announced her return to politics and made clear that she will not join Netanyahu under any circumstance.
I am of two minds in this respect: on the one hand Netanyahu’s moderate coalition partners have so far averted the anti-liberal forces’ worst excesses, and Labor and Yesh Atid might play a similar role in Netanyahu’s next government.
On the other hand, Israelis should be finally faced with two clear alternatives: if Labor and Yair Lapid will refuse to join the next Netanyahu government, the fiction that Israel’s right wing is moderate will be dismantled. Such a government would run into head-on conflict with the world at large, and four such years of conflict will make Israelis realize the price of the occupation.
They will realize that they have to choose between a political ideology that will turn Israel into an internationally despised Pariah state and the forces of moderation that seek compromise with the Arab world.