Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising victory proves that race-baiting knows no boundaries.
With polls showing his Likud trailing the opposition Zionist Union, Netanyahu pulled out all the stops to lure voters to support his right-wing party. The day before Israelis went to the polls the prime minister declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, a repudiation of his 2009 pledge to support a two-state solution to the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then on election day he appealed to Jewish prejudices against Arab Israelis (Arab citizens of Israel proper, who have the right to vote). “The right-wing government is in danger,” Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
This bit of race-baiting quickly earned Netanyahu a rebuke from the White House. “The United States and this administration is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One. “It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.” The Obama administration also was displeased by Netanyahu’s reversal on a Palestinian state, which suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry’s dogged pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement had been a waste of time. “It has been the policy of the United States for more than 20 years that a two-state solution is the goal of resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians,” Earnest said.
Netanyahu’s foray into race-baiting worked. But the cost may be the undermining of Israel’s long and justifiably proud record of how it treats minorities. Arab Israelis suffer discrimination, but they have the franchise and sit in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Israel deserves plaudits for managing, in a dangerous and brutal region, to preserve the rights of minorities and maintaining democratic traditions (in Israel proper, of course, not on the West Bank).
As Jeffrey Goldberg notes in The Atlantic, Netanyahu stole a page from the late Lee Atwater’s playbook by screaming, “The Arabs are coming!” Atwater was the Republican operative who worked on the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W, Bush and who refined the race-baiting approach — originally part of Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of 1968 — still used by a good number of Republicans to instill fear among white voters.
Despite the rhetoric, the Arab vote was not Netanyahu’s main concern. It is true that some Jewish Israelis worried that the new combination — the Joint List, which won 14 seats in the Knesset — of the previously fragmented Arab parties made the Arab vote a more significant force in the nation’s politics. Netanyahu appealed to that fear no doubt, but the real aim of his scaremongering was to attract voters to Likud at the expense of the other right-wing parties. The strategy of insuring that no politician or party was to Netanyahu’s right succeeded in wooing voters who previously supported far-right leaders Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu (Hebrew for Israel is Our Home) and Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home. As a result, Likud increased its share of seats in the Knesset from 20 to 30, while Yisrael Beiteinu’s share fell from 11 to six and Jewish Home from 12 to eight.
It is hard to predict what all this means for the future of Arab-Israeli relations and U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu has never been a principled politician, so about-faces on his about-faces are probably inevitable. Indeed, two days after the election the prime minister suggested that he still favors a two-state solution. Likud’s consolidation of the right-wing vote — and the weakening of the far-right, settler-based parties as well as the loss of seats by the ultra-orthodox parties — may give Netanyahu freedom to act boldly. Pressure to expand settlements in the territories could diminish because Netanyahu may no longer feel the need to placate a weakened Jewish Home, thereby removing a major obstacle to renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians. A Nixon-to-China, Begin-invites-Sadat-to-Jerusalem scenario is possible. A Netanyahu freed from the constraints of having to satisfy the far-right and religious parties might seize the moment and push, seriously, this time, for a two-state solution.
All that is possible, but the pandering to the right has its costs. It further marginalizes Arab Israelis, and it potentially alienates younger, more liberal Israelis who despair of the endless cycle of terrorist attacks and wars and who support Labor and centrist parties. Resenting Netanyahu’s fear-and-loathing campaign — and the potential further isolation of Israel in the international community — and guided by a wish to connect with their peers abroad in entrepreneurial ventures and cultural networks, these Israelis may reverse the long-standing Jewish trend and begin migrating out of Israel, particularly to the United States. As Harold Meyerson notes, a counter-aliyah — emigration out of Israel — would intensify the nation’s rightward drift, resulting in a tragic resolution of Zionism’s inherent paradox. “At once particularist and universal, exclusionary and egalitarian,” Meyerson writes, Zionism would devolve into an unhealthy tribalism with no prospect that Israel would ever live in peace with its neighbors.
Winning ugly also has consequences for relations with the United States. Israel needs Washington more than ever. Only America’s veto in the Security Council prevents international recognition of Palestine as a member of the United Nations. Relations between Netanyahu and the Obama administration frayed long ago; they worsened with the recent ill-advised speech by the prime minister to the U.S. Congress in opposition to an American-brokered nuclear deal with Iran. The Arab-baiting of the political campaign and the reversal on a two-state solution only makes a bad situation worse.
“On the way to his election victory, Netanyahu broke a lot of crockery in the relationship,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “It can’t be repaired unless both sides have an interest and desire to do so.”
Or enough glue to put the pieces back together.