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Israel's worst election - so far

Netanyahu's return to power arm in arm with proudly homophobic racist is not "more of the same". It's a helluva lot worse. But it might spring new alliances, too. 

November 05 2022, 00.54am

 Benjamin Netanyahu is back in power, replacing the improbable alliance of flavourless centrists, ultra-right Jewish settlers and the Islamic movement that ruled Israel for an exceptional two years. The “Government of Change” was meant to be a clear break. Instead, it’ll go down as an interlude in Netanyahu’s more than decade-long rule, and the most progressive party on the Zionist spectrum - Meretz - has been wiped out altogether. 

To make things worse, Netanyahu returns to power entirely beholden to a Kahanist party - Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power, which has soared from the margins of the margins to kingmakers, almost tripling their share of seats 

It’s hard to describe to Western readers just how nasty these people are, because the postwar West hasn’t produced anything quite like them.  Imagine the worst combination of the AFD in Germany and the National Front in the UK, throw in supporters who participate in, rather than pine for, literal pogroms; garnish with views on abortion and homosexuality that would put an American fundamentalist to shame; and top with a leader who first gained notice by vandalising the car of the-then prime minister and boasting that “we’ll get to him, next.” That prime minister was assassinated a short time later, albeit with no tangible involvement from Itamar Ben Gvir personally.

This is the party now holding the power of life and death over Netanyahu’s premiership, and quite possibly over Netanyahu’s personal liberty too: The veteran leader is currently facing various graft trials, and one of the first orders of business for his government is to yank the teeth out of the institutions and legislation that make these trials possible.

Alongside that rather personalised move, Netanyahu and his allies have an ambitious wish list. On the agenda, in no particular order, are judicial reforms that will ban Israel’s Supreme Court from reversing legislation;  a ban on gay people donating blood (owing to stigmas about HIV) and, conversely, lifting the ban on conversion therapy; annexing at the very least parts of the West Bank; allowing Jewish prayers on Temple Mount, demolishing a fragile religious status quo that prevented tensions one of the Middle East’s most contested sites from exploding; and undermining the nuclear negotiations with Iran. 

Netanyahu and Ben Gvir might fail in some of those; they might be forced to delay on others; but the potential for damage is immense, and for every controlled detonation they might wish to set off there is a myriad unforeseeable escalations and chain reactions, from inter-communal violence to regional war. 

Given how bad things are, it was instructive to read two types of responses recurring among the conflict’s two diaspora communities in the UK - British Jews and Palestinian activists. 

Of the former, the best example is the editorial from the Jewish Chronicle, which read: “There has certainly been widespread unease throughout the diaspora at the rise of Ben-Givir and Smotrich. To many, they stand for a version of Israel that we do recognise and do not want to see. But it is important to remember that we are not Israeli. Israel is the eternal Jewish homeland and diaspora Jews have a uniquely close bond with Israel. But it is not for us to demand how Israelis vote or to make pre-conditions on our support for Israel.”

And the best iteration of the latter is in the Guardian op-ed of Palestinian academic Yara Hawairi in the Guardian: “For Palestinians, more than 7 decades of oppression, theft & colonisation has shown that Israeli left or right makes no difference... Palestinians don’t want different prison guards. They want to break free of the prison.”

It’s hard to blame any Palestinian for feeling that way - the Israeli parliamentary Left’s record on even moderating the state’s abuse of Palestinian has been dismal, ranging from complete failure, to endorsement (say, of every major military operation Israel ever conducted in Gaza) to participation (the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was carried out by the antedecents  of today’s Zionist Left parties). 

At the same time, writing off the election as “same shit, different day”, is, at the very least, a tactical error. The election and the policies it risks brining in its wake will radicalise many Israelis and shock many Diaspora Jews out of their complacency, as communities hitherto protected from the arbitrary violence of the state will be targeted. This is the time for securing and cementing new alliances, not eye-rolling. 

This, however, doesn’t come close to the catastrophic abrogation of civil and communal duty being advocated by the Jewish Chronicle. The last thing Israel needs now is unconditional support. What it does need are clear read lines, by its diaspora and by the international community more broadly, for its own good as much as for anyones. No state ever requires or deserves “unconditional support”. “

Instead, support needs to be reserved for those who will be taking a stance against this new government - the usual suspects, so far, but likely to include LGBTQ activists, judicial independence advocates and free press supporters, before the day is out. One can only hope they'll be able to find enough in common to unite better than the last anti-Netanyahu coalition did.