Israel and the new politics of insecurity

The Israeli elections confirm the death of grand Zionist visions and the rise of new forms of fearful separatism.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘Today the people chose Kadima… We will form the next government led by Kadima.’

‘The nation wants a change, it wants to move forward along a different path headed by the Likud. Our way has won; it is our way that will lead the nation.’

Both Tzipora Livni of the ruling Kadima party and Benjamin Netanyahu of the opposition Likud party claimed victory in Tuesday’s Israeli elections (1), in which voter turnout was only slightly higher than the record low of 2006. With 99 per cent of the votes counted at the time of writing, of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – Kadima won 28 and Likud won 27. It is still unclear who will be Israel’s next prime minister, but the election results have shed light on the despondency that many Israelis felt for the politicians on the ballot (2).

Despite various Israeli politicians’ Obama-inspired rhetoric of change (3), the real shift in Israeli society, which this election has brought to the fore, is the decline of left-wing Zionism, and the prevalence of a politics of insecurity, which inspires defensive patriotism rather than ideological zealotry. The fall of the centre-left Labour party, which came fourth with only 13 seats, and the rise of the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Home), which got 15 seats, encapsulate these two defining features: the death of grand-vision Zionism and the rise of a new politics of hiding behind walls.

According to one leading Israeli commentator, writing on the day of the election, ‘If Israel has voted for change today it is not for change of the political map – it’s for a change of the political system’ (4). Admittedly, Israel’s is a messy political system. Unwieldy coalitions prevent coherent policymaking, necessitating constant compromises and negotiations which disempower the elected prime minister. But in a country that is under constant international observation, which has just come out of a war in Gaza, and which has seen 60 years of bloody conflict, one might expect ambition for political change to run higher. In reality, reports from inside Israel reveal a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this week’s election (5).

No mainstream politician managed to garner any groundswell of support or clear public mandate. Instead, the real talk of the Holy Land in recent weeks has been the 51-year-old Moldovan ex-nightclub bouncer Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu. In order to form a government, a party or a coalition of parties needs to have 61 seats. So Livni and Netanyahu, or Tzipi and Bibi as they are known, are desperately trying to woo ‘Avi’, who has been elevated to ‘kingmaker’ in this election, to form a coalition with them. Meanwhile, the biggest loser in the election was current defence minister Ehud Barak and his Labour party. Labour took a humiliating fourth place, winning only two more seats than the ultra-orthodox Shas party.

For Labour, this week’s election was a crushing defeat. This, after all, is a party which has held power for 50 out of 60 years of Israel’s short existence. Once headed by Israel’s founding father and passionate Zionist, David Ben-Gurion, Labour has been steadily losing ground over the past four decades.

Avigdor Lieberman’s political language has little of the PC, US-pleasing rhetoric of other Israeli politicians, such as Barak. With his Russian-accented, hard-line, straight-talking approach, Lieberman looks and sounds like change. He has proposed a mandatory loyalty oath to the Jewish state and has said that ‘Arab Knesset members who collaborate with the enemy and meet with Hamas heads should be dealt with sternly’ (6). On the two-state solution, Lieberman has asserted: ‘Israel needs to explain that the demand for a Palestinian state and the refugees’ right of return is a cover for radical Islam’s attempt to destroy the State of Israel.’ (7) By comparison, the heads of the mainstream parties sound like broken records, stuck in the old dichotomies of ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’, and regurgitating worn-out attitudes to the peace process.

However, while ‘Liebermania’ may have upset the intelligentsia and liberal commentariat in Israel and beyond (8), with a closer look it becomes clear that Lieberman’s anti-Arab rhetoric and attitudes to a two-state solution largely mirror the approach of the mainstream parties, not least the centre-left Labour party which initiated the peace talks under Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. In demanding clear and implacable separation between Israelis and Arabs, even if that means giving up some of Israel’s current land, which Lieberman is prepared to do (in fact, he has said he is prepared to give up his own home), he is actually remaining true to the partitionist, separatist logic of the recent peace talks themselves.

Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, has been portrayed as a collection of right-wing, Arab-hating lunatics, but the rise of Lieberman primarily encapsulates the rise of a new politics of insecurity, rather than a politics of security, in Israel. Lieberman plays into the existential fears of Israelis and seems to present clear solutions to external threats. The fall of Labour, meanwhile, embodies the death of left-wing Zionism. The demise of the party that once had a grand vision for a land of Zion alongside the rise of a right-winger who is willing to give up bits of land if it means permanent separation from the Arabs captures the defining feature of contemporary Israeli society: a post-Zionist desire to batten down the hatches and hide from ‘externalities’.

A recent study of Israeli Jews’ attitudes towards the 60-year conflict with the Arabs concluded that their collective consciousness is characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality and existential fear which tend to justify aggressive policies towards the Palestinians (9). Notwithstanding the study authors’ propensity to analyse the Israeli public through a psychological framework, and to present them as being collectively brainwashed by the ‘official version’ of history, they did reach some poignant conclusions. The strong victim mentality in Israel can easily be coupled with a politics of fear. Regardless of the objective reality of the conflict with the Palestinians, viewed through the prism of victimhood, aggressive tactics that carry great human costs can appear to some to be a justifiable response.

But Israelis’ victim mentality, and its realisation through policy, has changed very much over the years. In the past, it was accompanied by a confident, ideology-driven politics and, in times of conflict, by clear strategic aims. By contrast, the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the recent war in Gaza, or ‘Operation Cast Lead’, had no definable or achievable goals. These were violent, defensive statements of Israel’s ‘right to exist’, rather than ideology-driven, expansionist wars.

As Mick Hume pointed out on spiked last month, compared to the confident Zionism at the time of the founding of the state, ‘Israel today is a far more insecure and defensive society, concerned to bunker down behind its new security barriers and cut itself off from the Palestinians locked into Gaza and the West Bank, lashing out when it feels they won’t leave it alone’ (see War without ends?, by Mick Hume). In the run-up to the election, politicians played on the public’s fears and insecurities, competing over whom might best manage the country’s existential threats. For this, Palestinians – and a far smaller number of Israelis – have paid with their lives.

In recent elections, security has featured strongly in the sloganeering of the political parties. This time around, debate at first centred around honest leadership and transparency, following previous Kadima leader Ehud Olmert’s series of high-profile corruption scandals. Then, with the launch of Operation Cast Lead, the political debate turned to the question of which party could best deal with crushing Hamas and ending the steady rain of rockets in the south of Israel.

Many commentators have concluded that security is still high on the political agenda in Israel. True, the prospective leaders talked a great deal of Hamas’s qassam rockets, Hezbollah’s threat at the northern border, Iran’s nuclear programme, and Israel’s right to defend itself. But all of this talk has actually played on and perpetuated a sense of insecurity in contemporary Israel.

‘Just a few weeks ago, everyone was happily bathing in the pool of national consensus created by the operation in Gaza. How strong we are, everyone said, how united we are’, wrote Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest newspaper. ‘Now it becomes apparent that underneath this joyful power hides a frightened people, wishing for someone strong and forceful, who will miraculously fend off the people’s enemies, real and imaginary.’ (10)

Who precisely could that leader be? Rather than proving to the Israeli people that they can provide effective security, politicians spent the election campaign scrapping over who is most aware of, and sensitive to, Israelis’ fears. There were few rallies and little public engagement during the brief election campaign, and political leaders consciously steered clear of laying out any policy agendas. Seemingly resigned to the fact that there is little difference between the political candidates, some are now calling for a politics of pragmatism. Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Aluf Benn urged ‘for the sake of peace, Labour and Kadima must merge’. He argued that ‘there is no ideological difference between Labour and Kadima’ and that ‘differences of opinion mainly centred around personal differences between Olmert and Barak, not ideology’ (11).

Labour, which is part of the current coalition government, has failed to distinguish itself from the right-wingers and there is little disjuncture between Kadima and Likud, either. After all, Kadima was formed by former Likud leader Ariel Sharon soon before he had a stroke and fell in to a vegetative state. In 2005, Sharon resigned from Likud (which he helped to found in 1973) over his decision to evict Jewish settlers from Gaza. He dissolved parliament and formed Kadima, meaning ‘forward’.

The diminishing support for Labour suggests that Israelis have lost faith in the self-described peace doves’ ability to deliver a stable, secure and lasting two-state solution. Not even the offspring of the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the interim peace accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s, has faith in Labour to lead the country to peace. Rabin’s son Yuval has vowed to vote for Labour, but he also accepted invitations to a series of meetings with Netanyahu and expressed support for the Likud leader’s commitment to establish a national unity government (12).

Labour is known as the party of the establishment and of Israel’s Ashkenazi elite, and it is now suffering precisely as a result of this fact. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, once the party exclusively of former Soviet Union immigrants, is now a national player. Lieberman’s hardline take on how to deal with the Palestinians, his campaign for a compulsory national loyalty test for Arab Israeli citizens and his plans to transfer Arab-Israeli towns out of Israel, have struck a chord beyond the Russian constituency. His straight-talking, no-BS style appears comforting to many Israeli citizens who have become used to endless peace talks with no peace.

With his campaign slogan ‘No loyalty, no citizenship’, directed at Israel’s 20 per cent Arab population, Lieberman also alleviates fears around threats to the Jewish character of the Israeli state. His vision of a two-state solution is a land-and-population transfer. He has proposed that the heavily Arab triangle region of the Galilee, which borders the West Bank, should be traded for the Gush Etzion bloc of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (13). Lieberman may not be suggesting that Arabs be deported to Jordan, but he, too, is advocating getting Arabs out of Israel, cramming them into the occupied territories and sealing them off.

In other words, though Lieberman has been portrayed as a racist maniac, he shares much in common with the more mainstream parties who are equally keen to get the Arabs out of sight and mind rather than to realise the dead Zionist dream of a Greater Israel. The separatism that Lieberman advocates has underpinned the two-state solution peace talks since they were initiated by Labour over 15 years ago.

Tzipi and Bibi may be acting out the stereotypes of dove and hawk. But the more poignant symbols of this election are embodied in the ‘Liebermania’ phenomenon and the fall of Labour. These represent some big shifts in Israel in recent years, from Zionist dreams to a new kind of defensive nationalism, from national confidence to a dangerous desire for separatism.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild examined the death of the ‘Zionist dream’ and said Waltz with Bashir revealed Israelis’ post-Zionist stress disorder. Mick Hume reported back from a visit to Israel. He also said Israel is not what it was and pointed out that Western ‘culture wars’ have been exported to the Middle East. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

(1) See Israel’s Livni: Today the people chose Kadima, Yahoo News, 10 February 2009 and Netanyahu declares: I will be next PM, Jerusalem Post, 11 February 2009.

(2) See results in full here.

(3) In Israeli Contest, Reverberations of Obama Campaign, Washington Post, 5 February 2009

(4) What today’s election means, Jewcy, 10 February 2009

(5) Lieberman, Arabs and cannabis: pick of the Israeli election campaign clips, Guardian, 10 February 2009

(6) Lieberman: Judge Arabs MKs like in Nuremberg, YNet, 5 April 2006

(7) Hardline populist Lieberman could be surprise kingmaker in Israeli election, Guardian, 5 February 2009

(8) Is he really that terrible?, YNet, 6 February 2009

(9) Is an Israeli Jewish sense of victimization perpetuating the conflict with Palestinians?, Haaretz, 30 January 2009

(10) Israel’s election cliffhanger as Livni closes gap with Netanyahu, Guardian, 9 February 2009

(11) For the sake of peace, Labor and Kadima must merge, Haaretz, 11 February 2009

(12) ‘Your father would be ashamed’: Rabin’s son heckled at Netanyahu’s side, Haaretz, 9 February 2009

(13) Lieberman, Arabs and cannabis: pick of the Israeli election campaign clips, Guardian, 10 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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