My article in US outlet Forward:
On Wednesday, it was reported that in the midst of a tense election cycle, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed the right-wing Jewish Home Party to join with the Jewish Power Party, which is populated by followers of the racist, banned leader Meir Kahane.
So important was this merger to Netanyahu that he cancelled a planned visit to Moscow this week to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu leads the most extreme, right-wing coalition in the country’s history. The Jewish state’s occupation over the West Bank and Gaza is now permanent, imprisoning millions of Palestinians under military rule.
But despite all this — even despite inviting avowed racists into the governing coalition — Netanyahu isn’t really the main problem. Nor will removing him from office, through indictment over multiple corruption cases or a loss at the polls in April, do much to alter the political alignment of Israel’s power elite.
For the truth is, all the major candidates for Israeli Prime Minister support an indefinite continuation of the occupation. That’s the greater scandal that barely receives any press in the West or Israel.
Netanyahu is a symptom of Israel’s right-wing drift, not its primary cause.
Netanyahu’s loudest critics seem to believe that the crimes he’s accused of, like the relatively minor corruption of receiving gifts from millionaires, are the worst sins a leader can commit. They go on at length about how serious his alleged crimes are, and the consequences they’d like to see.
To be sure, it’s hard to ignore the reality that Israel remains one of the more corrupt nations in the developed world. But these are not Netanyahu’s greatest crimes by a long shot.
Netanyahu’s greatest hits include entrenching the occupation around Palestinian villages, building a new “apartheid road” in the West Bank, killing unarmed Palestinian protestors in Gaza and demonizing African refugees. These have all been far more damaging than the bottles of Champagne he’s accused of accepting. And yet, corruption is the issue that may bring Netanyahu down.
Netanyahu has other flaws, too. He’s perfected the art of selling Israeli military expertise, turning over fifty years of occupation into a lucrative, global business of intelligence and surveillance equipment.
The walls and fences he’s built around unwanted populations has been warmly received by US President Donald Trump, the European far-right and white nationalists who admire the Jewish state’s creation of an ethno-state.
Even worse, Netanyahu doesn’t mind anti-Semitism if it’s expressed by his allies; opposing Islam and Muslim refugees but supporting the Israeli occupation are enough to get him on board, a short-term kind of thinking that endangers Jews everywhere.
Still, despite all these flaws, American Jews, who are increasingly disillusioned with Israel and its leadership, should look closely at who may replace Netanyahu.
What they’ll find is tribalism and anti-Palestinian racism has become extraordinarily mainstream in the Jewish state.
A 2016 poll in Israel found that nearly half of Jewish citizens wouldn’t live in the same apartment block as Arabs. A 2018 study found that many Israelis Jews didn’t want to hear Arabic spoken in public spaces and a majority didn’t want their children becoming friends with Palestinians of the opposite sex.
Now look at Israel’s political options. Yair Lapid is head of the Yesh Atid party, a man with a long history of anti-Arab outbursts. From refusing to serve in a government alongside Palestinians to expressing opposition to inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews to urging the assassination of Hamas leaders in Gaza, Lapid is a more telegenic version of Netanyahu.
Then there’s labour leader Avi Gabbay, whose party is likely in its death throes, who urges more violence against Palestinians and refuses to serve in a government with them.
Then there’s newcomer and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who has formed a new party and is polling well. But he’s said little about his policies. He recently backed the idea of Israel keeping some illegal, West Bank settlements in any peace treaty. And a two state solution seems unlikely on his watch.
One of Gantz’s campaign ads even brags about the number of Palestinians killed during the 2014 Gaza war. And a Palestinian-Dutch citizen is suing Gantz for bombing his family home in Gaza during the 2014 war with Israel.
And those are just the so-called centrists. Pro-settler politician Naftali Bennett doesn’t believe that Palestinians are even under Israeli occupation (and he refuses to accept that all Palestinians in the West Bank be given full, civilian rights under the law), to say nothing of what Jewish Power is likely to come up with.
The state of Israeli democracy is parlous. At the April election, only one in four of the 6.5 million Palestinians living under various forms of Israeli rule in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, or around 24%, have the legal right to vote.
This leaves American and Diaspora Jews with a dilemma. When will the love affair with the Jewish state end, or at least, become so strained that automatic support isn’t guaranteed?
That moment has arrived with some Democrats in the US increasingly critical of Israeli policies (though the party leadership remains a close friend of the Jewish state). And young Jews in Europe and the US are vocal about their disgust with more than 50 years of Israeli occupation (notwithstanding the surging support for nationalist and pro-Israel policies in many European nations).
Older Jews are following — as they should be.
It’s foolish to believe that the removal of any leader, even a leader like Netanyahu, will radically change the political direction Israel has taken, descending ever rightward. There is no leader in Israeli politics today capable — or willing — to guide Israel into the warm embrace of the liberal, Zionist dream of a two-state solution.
This is not to defend or justify Netanyahu. He’s a corrupt menace to minorities and human rights and must be vigorously opposed and defeated. But the reason behind his rise to power and retention of huge amounts of support is the more uncomfortable question that must be answered.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent, investigative journalist who has written for the New York Times, Guardian and many others, author of “My Israel Question” and “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe”, amongst others, writer of the documentary “Disaster Capitalism” and will be releasing a book on the global “war on drugs” in 2019. He’s been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 2003.