Two competing visions emerged from the polls on Tuesday in Israel’s national parliamentary elections. One was about Us vs. Them, with an emphasis on fear of Them — whether Them was Iran, the Palestinians, Israel Arabs or the Israeli Left. That was the increasingly strident narrative of Prime Minister Netanyahu and it seemed to be effective as his Likud Party came from behind in the last few days of the campaign to tie or perhaps exceed the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
Their vision was primarily of social change on the domestic level, calling for greater equality within Israel society economically, socially and politically.
Both Herzog and Netanyahu are more in agreement on foreign policy, including Iran and the Palestinians, than it would seem. It’s their tone and style that are so different. They each oppose any deal with Iran that would bring it closer to having nuclear arms and they agree that Israel needs a partner on the Palestinian side before any headway can be made.
But Netanyahu seemed to cross a red line in recent days with his statements about no Palestinian state on his watch, his acknowledgement that Har Homa construction in Jerusalem was planned strategically as a buffer between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem, and his comments about Israeli Arab voters posing a threat to the government.
Will the American Jewish establishment, consistently supportive of Israeli heads of state, speak out against such statements in the days to come? Will Netanyahu feel the need to walk back his words, particularly those suggesting that he no longer supports a two-state solution? And if not, where does that leave Israel’s relations with the White House, not to mention the Palestinians, the Europeans and the majority of liberal American Jews, going forward?
Much will depend on how this week’s close election results play out and who will emerge as prime minister and under what conditions. It may take some time — weeks or even months — for a new government to emerge.
For now, we need to remain mindful just how open and democratic Israeli society is, particularly in a region dominated by despotic rule. Nothing underscores that point more this year than the emergence of a united Israeli Arab political umbrella, known as Joint List, which brought out Arab voters in large numbers and resulted in a greater voice in the Knesset for 20 percent of Israel’s citizens. There is much to disagree with among the nationalist views and positions of various members of these elected Members of Knesset. But the fact that the four existing Arab parties merged in common cause, winning 13 seats (finishing third overall in the voting), indicates that they will work within the system toward improving minority rights. That is a victory for the very Zionist principles they disdain.