Benjamin Netanyahu’s Second-rate Jews

Netanyahu recently claimed ‘the people’ gave him a ‘massive majority.’ It’s a bald untruth, but that’s not why it’s so revealing

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 9, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 9, 2020Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Two and a half months after a majority of Israelis voted for parties opposed to joining a government led by him, Benjamin Netanyahu will next week inaugurate his fifth government. Say what you will about Netanyahu’s policies, it is a personal achievement of political mastery. After failing to win a majority in three consecutive elections, he is still standing and swearing-in.

But he isn’t content with the devastation he has wreaked upon the opposition. He needs a false narrative of electoral victory as well.

On Sunday, at the press conference where he announced Israel’s emergence from the coronavirus shutdown, argued that the High Court cannot intervene to prevent him from forming a government because "I was elected by a majority of the votes. The Likud lead by me, received more votes than any other party in Israel’s history. There is a massive majority in the people that want me to lead the government."

There are major factual flaws in this argument. For a start, a majority did not vote for Netanyahu. Actually, no-one voted for Netanyahu since Israel has a parliamentary system and we vote for parties, not candidates.

It’s true that the 1,352,449 Israelis who voted Likud in March is the largest number to ever vote for one party in an Israeli election, but they still constitute only 29 percent of the voters, and parties in the past won far higher proportions of the electorate. 51 percent actually voted for parties which had made clear during the campaign that they would not support him, so either he’s lying, or "the people" means something other than it usually means in a democratic election context.

Netanyahu himself already made it clear two days after the election that the 13 percent of Israelis who voted for the Joint List cannot be included in "the people" since they voted for "terror supporters," but he hasn’t come out and said quite clearly what most of his supporters are willing to say openly – that Israel’s non-Jewish citizens may have the vote, but don’t mistake them for "the people."

"Ha’Am," we’ve been lectured numerous times since the election, is "Am Yisrael," and that means only the Jewish people. Semantically, they’re not wrong, but there’s just one wrinkle in the argument – Am Yisrael means ALL the Jewish people, not just those who are also Israeli citizens. Of course, considering the tendency of the largest Jewish community outside to overwhelmingly vote for Democrat candidates, it’s unlikely the Jewish people would ever give Netanyahu a majority.

"The People" therefore, no longer means the Jewish people in its historic sense, and neither does it mean the Israeli people in its contemporary democratic and civilian sense – for Netanyahu and his supporters, "The People" mean the Israeli-Jewish people.

It’s not a new concept of course. The notion that the majority which counts in Israel is a majority of Jewish voters first began to circulate in early 1990s, as part of the campaign against the Oslo Accords. The argument then was that such a major decision on the nature of Jewish state’s historic relationship with the Palestinians had to be taken by a "Jewish majority," but it was only ever heard on the fringes of the right-wing. Certainly not from senior Likud ministers.

An Israeli flag is seen flying at sunset in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya on April 29, 2020Credit: AFP

Netanyahu has finally transformed the notion of the "Jewish majority" into the real mandate for power in Israel. Benny Gantz, who had the support of a majority of Israeli voters to form a government himself, has accepted that only a Jewish majority can empower an Israeli prime minister.

This isn’t just resigning Arab Israelis to de facto second-rate citizen status, this is a historic re-ordering of Jewish identity – to be a true member of the Jewish people, you must be Israeli. To be an Israeli with first-class voting rights, meaning your vote actually counts, you have to be Jewish.

This doesn’t have implications only for Israel’s Arab citizens. It should serve to finally put Diaspora Jews on notice that the current Israeli political consensus is that we are not really part of the same Jewish "people." You may be Jews, but second-rate ones. Just like Arab-Israelis aren’t "really" Israeli. These distinctions are especially important now as the new government begins to discuss annexing large parts of the West Bank.

I happen to believe, as I argued here earlier in the week (Why Netanyahu Will Never Annex West Bank Settlements and the Jordan Valley) that Netanyahu isn’t actually planning to push annexation through.

Palestinian demonstrators run away from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest, Beita, February 28, 2020Credit: Majdi Mohammed/ AP

It was a useful election gimmick to rally the right-wing base over the past year of three campaigns, but he doesn’t want to go all the way and make the dormant Palestinian issue relevant again. He’ll find a way to delay and then blame the left for missing out on the "historic opportunity."

But for the next few months, annexation will be on the agenda. And the argument is already beginning to rage in some parts of the Diaspora, over whether non-Israeli Jewish individuals and organizations need to take a stand on this.

Some progressive Jews are already portraying this as a watershed moment when the Jewish establishment in the U.S. and Britain – which has paid lip service for decades to the vision of the two-state solution – will be forced to acknowledge that Israel, under its current leadership, simply doesn’t want to solve the conflict.

But whether what passes for the "leadership" of Diaspora Jews decide to take a stand against annexation, or more likely, remain silent in the name of some non-existent "unity," it will have absolutely no impact on what happens in Israel. In fact, it never had less influence here than it does now. The "Jewish majority" of the Jewish people has spoken, and it doesn’t include the Diaspora.

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