The last decade in Israel has been dominated politically by Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected prime minister for a second time (he previously served from 1996 to 1999) in 2009. Although his Likud Party came in second, he was able to form a government with other rightwing parties, a coalition that retained power throughout the decade by being reelected in 2013 and 2015. His future is now in doubt, however, after he failed to put together a government after elections in April and September 2019, and goes into a third election facing trial on corruption charges, but his prospects look stronger after a neat win over his rival in the Likud primary on Thursday.
Netanyahu added charedi Orthodox parties to his coalition in 2015, and these parties have made Orthodox Judaism paramount in Israeli law. They control such lifecycle events as marriage, divorce and burial. Secular parties have accused Orthodox parties of wanting to create a theocracy in Israel, and the Orthodox have complained that secular parties want to deprive Israel of its religious character.
There were two Gaza wars in the last decade – in 2012 and 2014. Tensions between Palestinians and Israel escalated again in May of this year after two Israeli soldiers were wounded by sniper fire from the Gaza Strip. Israel responded with an airstrike and the Palestinians replied by launching hundreds of rockets at Israel. This exchange continued for several days before a ceasefire was arranged by Egypt, which is now said to be negotiating a permanent ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
Gilad Shalit freed
Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured five years earlier in a cross-border raid by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, was released in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 prisoners. Immediately after his release he appeared in an interview on Egyptian TV. It was the largest prisoner exchange agreement Israel had ever made and the highest price Israel ever paid for a single soldier. Some 280 of those freed had been sentenced to life in prison for planning and committing violent attacks against Israeli targets. Collectively, they were responsible for killing 569 Israelis
Summer of 2014
- In June three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped from a hitchhiking post in the West Bank. The ensuing search and investigation gripped the country and diaspora Jews until their bodies were found 18 days later, setting off a brutal summer of unrest.
- A month later three Israeli teens, including two minors, retaliated by murdering Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian.
- Also in July, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, a seven-week military operation in the Gaza Strip in response to the kidnapping and persistent rocket fire launched from Gaza into Israel. The fighting left casualties on both sides, including the death of about 70 IDF soldiers and hundreds more wounded.
- HBO produced “Our Boys” in 2019, a TV series that showcases the events of the summer. It sparked controversy, with claims it was overly sympathetic to Palestinians. The summer of 2014 is seared into people’s memories as a pivotal moment, deepening a schism between the left and right that hasn’t recovered since.
The Iran Deal
- In an address before a joint session of Congress in March 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ripped into a negotiations over a deal with Iran in which Iran would promise to place strict limits on its nuclear weapons program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. Netanyahu, who appeared at the invitation of the Republican leadership without first informing the Democratic president who brokered the deal, Barack Obama, argued that the Iranians could not be trusted and would continue to develop a nuclear bomb, threatening Israel’s very survival.
- President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018 after Iran had agreed to in July 2015 with China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Germany. The American withdrawal was accompanied by the imposition of American sanctions on Iran. Trump had pushed for a renegotiated deal, calling the one negotiated by his predecessor, Obama, a “disaster” that could lead to a “nuclear holocaust.” Some analysts credited Netanyahu’s 20-minute presentation from Tel Aviv just days earlier in which he said Israeli intelligence had “new and conclusive proof of the secret nuclear weapons program that Iran has been hiding for years …. Iran lied, big time.”
Intense organization of BDS Movement
- Since its launch in 2005, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has sought to delegitimize the State of Israel, change its policies regarding borders and settlements, and has called for the absorption of millions of Palestinians in a move that Israel says would ultimately destroy the state.
- The movement has taken root on college campuses throughout the country, poisoning the atmosphere, stifling debate about Israel, energizing far left anti-Israel groups, and prompting President Donald Trump this month to issue an executive order that brings Jews under the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ironically, the campaign has had virtually no impact on Israel’s economy, which has increased by 160 percent due in part to population growth from immigrants and the highest birthrate among developed countries. In fact, since 2005 Israel’s GDP per capita is up by 27 percent.
Decline of the Israeli left
- Israel’s Labor Party, which dominated Israeli politics for decades, has lost much of its support in recent years because of what analysts say is a general distrust of Palestinian leadership, the trauma of the Second Intifada, and the erosion of center-left forces in Western democracies.
- An opinion poll published in Israel Dec. 13, 2019 found that if a new election was held today, the center-left Labor-Gesher coalition would still capture no more than the six seats it currently holds, and that the left-wing Democratic Camp would actually drop from five to four seats.
- The New Right, a nationalist, religiously liberal party to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, would jump from three to five seats. The poll said the opposition Blue and White Party – a centrist and liberal political alliance — would capture 37 seats (up from its current 33), and that Likud and its right-wing religious bloc allies would get 51 seats — a loss of four seats.
Shifting Middle East geopolitics
Not long ago, Israel had no ties with any of its Arab neighbors. But the threat from Iran and its proxies to dominate the region has prompted a rapprochement between Israel and its Arab Gulf neighbors. In fact, during a Washington meeting in July, Israel’s foreign minister publicly shook hands and posed for pictures with his counterpart from Bahrain, and he has flown to Abu Dhabi. Oman also played host to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and there are reportedly extensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic and intelligence ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israel-Diaspora rift intensifies
With the Israeli government and the country’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate seen as insensitive to the religious needs of American Jews – particularly the non-Orthodox movements that comprise the majority of American Jewry – a rift has developed in the Israel-diaspora relationship. And Netanyahu’s decision in 2017 to renege on an agreement to construct an area at the Kotel for egalitarian worship services has only deepened the divide. By bowing to pressure from his charedi Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu triggered an outcry from many American Jews, with one philanthropist asking for the return of the $1 million he invested in Israel Bonds. (More: Read this personal account by one of our editors on her shifting feelings towards the Western Wall.)
U.S. Embassy move
Although his last three predecessors signed waivers delaying implementation of a 1995 law that requires the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, President Donald Trump fulfilled a signature promise of his 2016 campaign and moved the embassy in 2018. The official opening, which infuriated Palestinians and much of the Arab world, was timed to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary. Earlier, in 2017, Trump also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the U.S. could no longer be viewed as an honest broker in future peace talks with Israel. However, the moves endeared Trump to many American Jewish leaders, the wide Israeli public, and Trump’s Evangelical supporters at home.
Jonathan Pollard released
Jonathan Pollard, a Navy civilian intelligence analyst who was arrested on charges of spying for Israel in November 1985, was freed on parole in November 2015 after serving 30 years. He had been sentenced to life in prison. To many in America, Pollard was viewed as a traitor. Many Israelis, however, hailed him as a hero who had provided Israel with documents related to Arab and Soviet weaponry, as well as satellite photos. Several years after his arrest, Israel granted him citizenship and acknowledged the vital work he had performed. The U.S. Justice Department last year denied his formal request to move to Israel.
- Much like the chant used by his political supporters which translates literally to “Bibi Lives,” the last decade in Israel has been dominated politically by Benjamin Netanyahu.
- A divide over religion, democratic principles and even the close ties between Netanyahu and Trump has led to an increasing number of American Jews feeling alienated and even willing to suspend their financial support for the Jewish state.
- Despite this gulf that now yawns between Israel and American Jews over pluralism, human rights and democratic principles, there are connections that transcend politics. We covered some of them here.
Peace plan stalled
- As 2019 came to an end, a Lebanese television channel claimed that the secret peace plan of the Trump administration would include a three-way deal between Israel, the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank and Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip. But the White House later denied the report, saying: “We are confident that the so-called source has not seen the plan.” For now, though, a lasting peace remains elusive.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer at The Jewish Week.