Opinion

This Is Israel's Last Ever Zionist Election

Neither Netanyahu nor his crude, illiberal, annexationist, political arsonist ‘friends’ comprehend the magnitude of the storm they’re about to bring down on Israel’s security – and its most foundational ideas

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. September 4, 2019
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

For decades commentators have warned that the politico-military and societal processes underway in Israel pose severe dangers to our national future, and therefore that each of the previous round of elections were nothing less than critical. 

The warnings were prescient, but the future does not happen all at once: it creeps up slowly over time, almost without our noticing - and it has now arrived, big time. 

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Indeed, it is questionable whether the enlightened Zionist enterprise can survive four more years of the current trends - and the upcoming elections may prove to be the last chance to save it.

There are six primary dangers.

The first danger is the possibility of an imminent formal annexation of the West Bank, or parts thereof, an eventuality that appeared entirely fanciful just a year ago, but which has since gained the support of the prime minister and right-wing parties. 

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared he would annex the Jordan valley if re-elected, and that the endlessly deferred Trump Mideast peace plan offers a "historic opportunity" for annexing more of the West Bank and other areas. 

Various bills have been introduced in the Knesset, some calling for broad and even complete annexation of the entire West Bank, others more moderate, sufficing with limited and "consensual" annexations, such as Gush Etzion or Maale Adumim. 

Neither Netanyahu nor the proponents of these bills seem to comprehend the magnitude of the storm they may be bringing down upon us.

Even a limited annexation is likely to lead to severe Palestinian violence and to the cessation of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. Should this happen, the IDF will be forced to take control over areas currently ruled by the PA, likely leading to its collapse and to renewed Israeli responsibility for 2.6 million Palestinians. Violence is probable in Gaza, too, and Israel may end up once again in control over the two million Palestinians living there. 

The donor states, who currently fund the PA, will presumably cease their support and Israel will also have to bear the financial burden of social and other services for millions of Palestinians. Moreover, in the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, in the "Jewish state," there will be a non-Jewish majority. 

Those who doubt the severity of this brief analysis, and believe that limited annexation is feasible, should read the details in the in-depth study conducted by Commanders for Israeli Security, a group of 300 former Israeli generals and other senior defense officials. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points out the Jordan Valley, an area he has declared Israel will annex, as he gives a statement in Ramat Gan. September 10, 2019
AFP

The second danger is that we are rapidly approaching the point of no return in the West Bank, beyond which no government, even a left-wing one, will be able to separate and disentangle Jewish settlements from Palestinian towns and villages, and Israel will become a binational state. 

The primary problem is not the ostensibly large number of settlers to be relocated: after all, during the 1990s, Israel successfully absorbed almost ten times as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who did not speak the language, have homes, or jobs.

The real issue is one of political wherewithal - the settlers’ and their supporters’ political clout - which may make a future withdrawal impossible in practice. 

In the meantime, the status quo is an illusion. The number of settlers who would have to be relocated grows continually; the territory available for land swaps, which is limited to begin with, is being used for other purposes, and positions continue to harden on both sides.

Already today, not in some distant future, 40 percent of the combined population of Israel and the West Bank is not Jewish and does not share the Zionist dream - and that is without taking into account the disengagement from Gaza, in whose absence there would already be a non-Jewish majority. 

An overwhelming majority of the Israeli public is adamantly opposed to a binational state, even though many continue, ostrich-like, to vote for parties whose policies lead precisely to this. Some simply do not believe that annexation will happen.

A massive Likud election campaign billboard reading ‘Netanyahu: Another league,’ shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump. Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept 8, 2019
Oded Balilty,AP

The third danger, after years in which basic norms of public decency and the rule of law have been systematically undermined, is to Israel’s democracy.

The prime minister, who faces a series of imminent indictments, continues to violate the law by intervening in policy regarding the mass media, and recently appointed sycophants as both the comptroller general and minister of justice. The prime minister’s wife has been convicted of criminal charges. One minister (Haim Katz) has already had his special pre-indictment hearing and faces criminal charges, two others (Deri and Litzmann) are soon to have theirs. 

Instead of forcefully defending Israel’s highly-regarded judicial system, the premier and his merry band - including both the recent and current ministers of justice - have done their utmost to undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, attorney general and law enforcement agencies. They have no shame.

The fourth danger is to Israel’s national unity, which will not be able to bear the incitement fomented by the premier and his co-arsonists much longer. Public discourse is replete today with despicable messaging designed to amplify tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Israelis, a scourge that should have been put to rest decades ago, and public life has come to be full of hatred and violence. 

The delicate relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority remains an easy target for their poisoned missives. Previously, the prime minister warned of Arab voters "converging" in droves on polling stations; he is now delegitimizing the Arab population with entirely baseless allegations of irregularities in Arab polling stations, during last spring’s elections, that supposedly prevented the establishment of a right-wing coalition. 

The message on Netanyahu's Facebook page: a secular left-wing government 'would depend on the Arabs who want to annihilate us all'
Screengrab

Netanyahu’s latest social media outburst – a message he later blamed, somewhat implausbly, on low-level staffers – was a message on his official Facebook account stating that "Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men," a fate which, he alleged, left-wing parties would facilitate – signals he considers even the crudest forms of anti-Arab incitement as legitimate.

The fifth danger is of growing religiosity. The Ministry of Education hired 477 new Jewish studies teachers this year, but just seven teachers of physics, eight of chemistry and 37 of civics. Gender separation is becoming increasingly common in publicly funded events and community colleges. Soldiers in an IDF base were recently ordered to turn off their phones on Saturdays. 

The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) population, which views rabbinical leaders as the supreme source of authority, not the laws and institutions of the State of Israel, constitutes a clear and present danger to Israeli democracy. It also constitutes an untenable burden on the national economy, whose inexorable outcome will be a severe economic crisis.

If current trends continue, 35 percent of Israel’s Jewish population will be Haredi in 2060. Deeply worrisome trends exist among the national-religious public, as well.

The sixth danger is to Israel’s international standing and relations with the U.S. In the era of Trump, things blur, but Israel has become a pariah in much of international public opinion and delegitimization trends are making inroads into the U.S., too. 

Support for Israel among Democrats, its historic base, is in freefall and many in the Jewish community, which votes some 80 percent Democratic, are distancing themselves, as well. Initial calls have even been made recently for cuts to the holy of holies, U.S. military aid to Israel. If things do not change soon, Israel’s ties with its closest ally will be marred by growing difficulty.

Israel won’t suddenly shutter up its polling stations for ever on September 18th. There will be more elections, but they may well not be elections for representatives of the nation-state as we know it, and as it was founded. The question is whether it's still possible to ensure Israel’s future as a vibrantly democratic and predominantly Jewish state.

Hypnotized by the imminent arrival (and gratification) in Israel of the Messiah, i.e. Amazon, the easy availability of low-cost flights abroad and a surfeitof binging on Netflix, the Israeli electorate is both too tired and stupefied to notice.

Nevertheless, it’s not too late. To paraphrase Netanyahu, every Israeli who cares about what "Israeli" really means, who cares about preventing a dark, illiberal future, who cares about the rule of law, who doesn’t want to pave the way for unavoidable, endless conflict – it’s time to descend on the polling stations in droves. Storm them with your ballots.   

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and a professor at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press, 2018). Twitter: @FreilichChuck