Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent book is Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
I felt the suspicion as soon as I entered the polling station in our local high school. Neighbours eyed each other warily: So who are you voting for?
After four rounds of elections in less than four years that were essentially one long referendum on the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, election No. 5 exposed the real issue motivating the Israeli electorate: fear of our fellow Israelis. Are you with us or with them? Are you with the camp that seeks to empty Israel of its Jewish identity, or with the camp that seeks to empty Israel of its democratic identity?
Mr. Netanyahu’s legacy is a war of Israeli identity against itself. Since the founding of the state, it’s been axiomatic that Israel is at once a Jewish state responsible for the safety of Jews around the world and for preserving a 4,000-year-old culture, and a democratic state ensuring the rights of all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike. Strip Israel of either identity, most Israelis agreed, and irreparable damage would be done to its being.
But a desperate Mr. Netanyahu – seeking to end his trial for corruption and form a parliamentary majority to pass what is known as the “French law,” which forbids prosecution of a sitting prime minister – has incited his supporters against the judicial system, police, media and, most of all, Israel’s democratic ethos. He did so in the name of defending the state’s Jewish identity, supposedly under threat by his opponents – most of whom are no less committed than he claims to be to protecting Israel’s Jewishness.
No Israeli leader has inflicted so much damage for his own selfish ends, tearing apart our national identity and cohesiveness, essential for a nation under constant threat from enemies on its borders. Thanks to Mr. Netanyahu, we have become a fearful nation – most of all, of ourselves. On election day, my Twitter feed carried a photograph of a woman holding a burning T-shirt with the Hebrew words, “Your future.” I couldn’t tell whether she was warning us about Mr. Netanyahu or his opponents.
Israeli politics are rarely gentle. But Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign crossed almost every red line. Netanyahu supporters physically assaulted campaigners for rival parties, taunting them as traitors and terror supporters, and spread rumours that left-wing politicians were the progeny of Nazi war criminals who slipped into the country after the Holocaust.
An unrestrained vulgarity has been released into Israeli discourse, and this too is Mr. Netanyahu’s legacy.
But Mr. Netanyahu’s greatest offence was breaking the long-standing taboo in Israeli politics against legitimizing the racist far-right. That taboo held for the mainstream right as well as the left. In the 1980s, when the far-right racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who won a single seat in parliament, would approach the podium, Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir demonstratively led his faction out of the plenum.
By contrast, Mr. Netanyahu has legitimized Rabbi Kahane’s spiritual heirs of the Religious Zionism party, which is committed to eroding our democratic institutions and fomenting discord between Jewish and Arab citizens. In part because of Mr. Netanyahu’s embrace, Religious Zionism has emerged as the third-largest party, an indispensable component of his coalition. Its leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, seek to control Israel’s security apparatus, and are demanding nothing less than the defence and police portfolios.
Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition of ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox intends to empty Israel’s fiercely independent judicial system of its power to oversee political corruption, and render judges subservient to politicians. Where the outgoing government created a model for Israel’s first-ever joint Arab-Jewish coalition, many members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition view Arab Israelis not as fellow citizens but a fifth column. In place of the gradual absorption of the ultra-Orthodox community into the mainstream, the Netanyahu government will massively fund its separatist institutions, including schools that refuse to teach math and English and other “secular” subjects essential for enabling participation in the work force.
The combined result will be a devastating blow to Israel as a modern nation, to those very elements that have enabled Israel’s astonishing economic and social success.
Mr. Netanyahu’s most successful political tactic has been to portray his opponents as “leftists” who oppose Israel’s Jewish identity and who are unwilling or unable to defend the country against terrorist threats. In fact, the two major parties aligned against him – Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity – are centre and centre-right respectively, committed to vigorously defending Israel and maintaining its Jewish commitments.
The argument between Mr. Netanyahu’s camp and his opposition isn’t over whether Israel should be a Jewish state but what kind of Jewish state. Will we continue to seek balance between modernity and tradition, security needs and moral restraints? Will we continue to aspire to a society that accommodates, however fitfully, its ideological and ethnic diversity?
In one sense, this election was a referendum on whether Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens are heading toward co-existence or rupture. Despite the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, most Arab and Jewish citizens have learned the habit of neighbourly decency if not quite intimacy – working together in hospitals, mingling in malls and restaurants, sometimes sharing apartment buildings.
During the past year, Arabs and Jews experienced visions of both hope and despair. The outgoing coalition was the first in Israel’s history to include an Arab party – improbably, the Islamist Ra’am, with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. Its courageous leader, Mansour Abbas, put aside the Palestinian nationalist agenda that defines Israeli Arab politics to concentrate instead on the practical needs of his constituents. By agreeing to sit at the government table, he began to reverse decades of government discrimination in allocating funding to the Arab Israeli community.
Given Ra’am’s ideological roots, right-wing wariness was understandable. And yet Mr. Abbas not only became the first head of an Arab party to join a government; he was also the first to publicly reconcile with Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. In a historic statement, which he made in Hebrew and then pointedly repeated in Arabic, he noted that Israel was founded as a Jewish state and would remain a Jewish state. But Israel, he added, is also a democratic state, and Arab Israelis belong in the mainstream.
However, along with being the best year for Arab-Jewish co-existence in Israel’s history, it was also the worst. During last year’s mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, mobs of young Arabs burned synagogues and attacked Jewish passersby on the streets of so-called “mixed” cities where Arabs and Jews live as neighbours. Meanwhile, mobs of young Jews retaliated – incited by Religious Zionism’s Mr. Ben-Gvir, who roamed from one crisis point to another, spreading hatred and rage.
This election, then, was a contest between two opposing visions of Israeli society. In the first, Arabs and Jews find a way, despite the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to work together for the good of all Israeli citizens. In the second, Arabs and Jews are not fellow citizens at all but mortal enemies, carrying the Palestinian conflict into Israel’s streets.
For now, the second vision has prevailed. Where, then, does Israel go from here?
Contrary to his reputation abroad, Mr. Netanyahu is not reckless. He is, in fact, one of Israel’s most cautious – critics to his right say timid – leaders. Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t want to become an international pariah. No doubt he will try to reign in Mr. Ben-Gvir and his other extremist allies.
Yet given Mr. Netanyahu’s desperation to extricate himself from criminal charges, and the political leverage that Religious Zionism now holds, he will likely find himself hostage to demands that will jeopardize Israel’s stability and international position – for example, annexing large parts of the West Bank.
In its constant balancing act, trying to remain steady in the midst of relentless and sometimes unbearable pressure, Israel has faltered. Perhaps the question isn’t why that has happened now but how Israel managed for so long to avoid the far-right politics that have infected much of the West.
Having been treated by Mr. Netanyahu and his allies as virtual enemies of the state, liberals are angry and afraid. Still, after the inevitable period of mourning, we will need to reach out to voters in the rival camp, get to work rebuilding the consensus around our Jewish and democratic identities. Certainly many Likud supporters still identify as democrats and voted for Mr. Netanyahu only because they believe he is best suited to keep Israel safe in a volatile Middle East.
Even many Religious Zionism voters support the party not because they have racist motives but in response to last year’s Arab riots and to a current wave of Palestinian terrorism. Learning from the example of Marine Le Pen and other far-right European leaders, Mr. Ben-Gvir avoided racist rhetoric and focused instead on security, convincing many voters that he was merely a tougher version of Mr. Netanyahu.
In our enthusiasm for the diversity of the outgoing coalition, which not only brought together Arabs and Jews but Jews from across the political spectrum, many of us in the liberal camp weren’t paying attention to the acute anxiety that this government provoked among its opponents. Even as we celebrated what we regarded as a triumph of our shared Israeliness, they were warning of the imminent loss of Jewish sovereignty, mortgaged to the Muslim Brotherhood, as they put it.
Even as we disagree, we need to respect the profound fears of our fellow Israelis. Besieged Israel cannot afford the kind of pathological politics that is tearing America apart. There is no room for delegitimizing whole sectors of Israeli society. We all share a deep love for this country; we’ve fought and sacrificed to protect it and will likely be called to do so again.
For all the transgressions of their leader against our common Israeliness, many in Mr. Netanyahu’s camp understand that Israel’s strength comes from the unity of its people. Without the shared belief in the justness of Israel’s cause, we endanger the foundation of the post-Holocaust Jewish reclamation of power. It is no coincidence that the 1982 Lebanon War, the first and only war that divided the Israeli public, was also the only one Israel ever lost.
Liberal Israelis face a protracted and perhaps bitter struggle. But we will not be fatally demoralized. While Mr. Netanyahu won a decisive coalition victory, only 0.01 per cent of the popular vote separates the two blocs. We are half this country; we will do all we can to prevent this government from fundamentally changing the nature of this society, and will vigorously challenge any attempt to trample on democratic norms.
Israelis across the spectrum feel a deep and personal commitment to the fate of this country. As forlorn as it may now seem, we will not concede our vision of Israel.