Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, a New York Times bestseller.
The outcome of next Tuesday’s Israeli elections could determine not only the policies of the Jewish state but its most basic democratic identity.
There are two essential stories about this election, and they tell of two very different Israels. The first is the replacement of the left-wing and venerable Labor Party with the new centrist Blue and White Party as the main opposition to the right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hawkish on security but flexible on territorial compromise with the Palestinians, respectful of both secular and religious sensibilities among the Israeli public, the political centre is an attempt to restore balance to the often conflicting commitments of Israeli identity. Crucially, the centre embraces the entwined identities at the core of our national being as both a Jewish and a democratic state.
The second story of the election is the transformation of much of the political right into an increasingly extreme and anti-democratic force, a process encouraged by Mr. Netanyahu himself.
The emergence of a viable centre capable of challenging the right is a moment of personal vindication for me. For decades, even as the political system seemed evenly divided between left and right, I have stubbornly voted for centrist parties, most of them small and ephemeral, disappearing from one election to the next. I persisted, because I believed that Israel’s often excruciating dilemmas, especially the Palestinian issue, couldn’t be resolved by the ideologues of right or left, but only by acknowledging the legitimate insights of both camps. The centre was the ground where our competing needs of security and morality could be mediated.
Centrist Israelis have two nightmares about a Palestinian state. The first is right-wing: that in ceding the West Bank, Israel will be withdrawing to borders barely 14 kilometres wide (at Israel’s narrowest point), unable to adequately defend itself in a disintegrating Middle East. No less than right wingers, centrists fear a radical Palestinian state on the West Bank that would complete the encirclement of Israel by pro-Iranian forces – from Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border to Hamas on its southern border, along with Iranian bases in Syria. Even Israelis who support a two-state solution seek reassurance that their government will not recklessly endanger the country’s security with naive notions of “peace now.” The Middle East of 2019 is not the arena for fulfilling dreams but of preventing nightmares.
But the centrists’ second nightmare is left-wing: that the occupation of the Palestinians will continue indefinitely, eroding Israeli democracy and undermining its ability to maintain a Jewish-majority state.
If forced to choose which of those two nightmares is a more compelling threat to Israel, most centrists would arguably opt for the second. And so the centre supports policies that would lead us, gradually and cautiously, toward a two-state solution, including curtailment of settlement building and strengthening the Palestinian economy, while remaining wary of Palestinian intentions and insisting on stringent security arrangements.
If, as polls are predicting, the right-wing bloc wins on Tuesday, Israel’s five-decade debate over the future of the territories won in the 1967 war may be approaching its moment of decision. Elements within Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition have vowed that, immediately following the formation of a new right-wing government, they will initiate legislation annexing parts of the West Bank. That move will effectively end any chance for a two-state solution, dooming Israelis and Palestinians to a single state in perpetual war against itself, resembling a disintegrating Yugoslavia or, closer to home, Syria and Iraq.
The most immediate casualty, though, would be Israeli democracy, which would bear the permanent burden and shame of the forcible incorporation of several million Palestinians denied the rights of citizenship.
In the past, Mr. Netanyahu has resisted annexation, keenly aware of its catastrophic consequences, not least to Israel’s international standing. But now, under threat of imminent indictment on charges in no less than three corruption cases, he is vulnerable to right-wing pressure. One persistent rumour in the political system is that Mr. Netanyahu will agree to an unholy trade-off: support for annexation in exchange for his coalition partners’ support for what’s known as the “French law,” which would forbid indicting a sitting prime minister and offer Mr. Netanyahu immunity.
But even if the push toward annexation is thwarted, Israeli democracy will remain vulnerable from growing assaults by the right. Several far-right parties have emerged that challenge Israel’s democratic ethos, most notably Identity, which bizarrely combines libertarianism and marijuana legalization with an extreme anti-Arab platform, including encouraging Palestinians to emigrate. Party leader Moshe Feiglin said recently that he hopes to rebuild the ancient Jerusalem Temple “now” – though any tampering with the fate of the Temple Mount and its Islamic holy places would cause the Muslim world to erupt.
Mr. Feiglin’s apocalyptic fantasies are a symptom of the growing despair, especially among young Israelis, for rational political solutions to seemingly hopeless dilemmas such as ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To some extent, the rise of anti-democratic sentiment here is part of a worldwide trend, from Viktor Orban’s Hungary to Donald Trump’s United States. But in Israel that trend is intensified by fears of terrorism and war, which can break out at any moment on any front. Under conditions of intensifying siege, the far right’s warning that democratic norms threaten security resonate.
In one video clip from the far-right party, Jewish Power, an Israeli soldier standing guard sees a Palestinian with a knife moving toward him. When he aims his rifle, a lawyer from the Israel Defence Forces’ legal department appears, warning him against shooting. The soldier lowers his gun; the Palestinian moves closer. Ludicrously, the lawyer takes out a measuring tape to assess whether the soldier is under imminent threat. The message to Israelis: Legal niceties and moral norms could threaten your ability to defend yourselves.
Israel’s significance as a democratic state has been its ability to serve as a laboratory for what happens to democracy under conditions of extremity. Born in war, and never knowing a day of real peace, the country absorbed one wave after another of Jewish refugees from countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East lacking democratic traditions. Against all odds, Israel has maintained flourishing democratic institutions like a vigorous supreme court and an irreverent media. The persistence of Israeli democracy has been a kind of miracle. But miracles cannot be taken for granted and require constant protection.
Instead, Mr. Netanyahu is inciting supporters to regard the courts, the police and the media as co-conspirators in a left-wing plot to bring him down. They can’t defeat me at the polls, he says, so they’re trying to defeat me through contrived indictments. His bullying tactics convey contempt for democratic institutions – such as barging in, virtually unannounced, onto a prime time news broadcast to berate its anchors for supposedly hounding him and his family.
The convergence of growing anti-democratic sentiment with Mr. Netanyahu’s legal troubles has resulted in the greatest threat to democracy in Israel’s history. No, Israel is not Turkey. There won’t be mass arrests of journalists here. Democratic institutions remain strong. But Israeli democracy is on the defensive.
Whether the newly invigorated centre finds itself in government or in opposition, its most urgent task will be to try to restore a broad consensus around Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state, and defend the miracle of Israeli democracy from those who threaten one of the great achievements of the Jewish people in its restored homeland.