By Hannes Swoboda
Bibi Netanyahu is definitely a skillful politician. Not many have gained power early, lost it and gained it again in order to gain it for a long time. He defined Israeli politics for many years as few others did and he will continue doing it. But in the meantime, he is also a strong leader respected and supported by the global right wing. One could even say that he was a founder of right-wing populism. The Economist in one of its recent editions wrote in a comment about him: "He matters because he embodied the politics of muscular nationalism, chauvinism and the resentment of elites long before such populism became a global force". And once again, this brought him success. The old King is also the new King.
A right wing alliance in support of Netanyahu and vice versa
The Financial Times stated recently: "Israel is benefiting from the rise of a generation of nationalist - populist political leaders - from Washington to Delhi, and from Budapest to Brasilia - who ardently admire the Jewish state". It continues: "Indeed, a trip to Israel has become a compulsory stop for a new generation of "strongman" leaders." So Bibi could receive in Israel not only high representatives from the Trump administration - and of course, he visited Trump also some days before the election - but he received recently the new Brazilian President Bolsonaro after having received the extreme right wing Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte several months before. Only Erdogan is missing. While the Turkish president has another strategy amidst the Muslim community, as such, he is very similar in his divisive and authoritarian approach to politics and his willingness to use nationalist demagoguery to keep in power.
Of course, relations with President Putin are also very good and only few days before the election Netanyahu was going to Moscow to visit the Russian president. The relation with the Russian president is a special one. First, there are many Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel. Interestingly, there are also many Russians who are not accepted to be Jews. Russia is also necessary for Israel to counterbalance the Iranian influence in Syria. But beyond the strategic interest, Netanyahu feels also a strong familiarity with Putin’s approach to politics. Perhaps he learned from him how to use fake social media accounts.
The biggest election gift Bibi got from President Putin only five days before the Election Day. The Russian president handed over to the Israeli Premier the remains of the Israeli soldier Zechariah Baumol, killed 37 years ago in the first Lebanon war with assistance of Russian troops stationed in Syria. Of course, Netanyahu celebrated this gift in Moscow and at the funeral in Israel. Real friends know how to help each other.
Bibi loves the status quo
So one has to admire Bibi's skills and ingenuity, if there would not be the other side of the coin. He is not interested in a solution of the burning issue of the fate of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but also of the refugees outside Palestine. And insofar it has been doubtful if Israel is benefiting from such a politician, but anyway Netanyahu and the right wing is gaining. The permanent conflicts in Gaza show clearly the failure to deal with this sensible question. Indirectly, Hamas with its irresponsible policies help Netanyahu to demonstrate the impossibility of negotiations with Hamas, although with the help of Egypt such negotiations are happening permanently. The dreadful situation in Gaza remains an open wound. And you never know when it may infect Israel.
But Netanyahu has had no interest in solving these issues, same as he has not been interested in reaching progress in any talks about Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution, be it two states or one state. He loves the status quo. Why should he try to convince his voters to find a compromise with the Palestinian leadership? True, also on the other side, there are some who prefer the status quo to any compromise. But the stronger side, and that is definitely Israel, should recognize, that the present status quo may lead to a disaster if Palestinians really started to obstruct and fight the Israeli government and security forces. For the moment the Palestinians are very patient and even Hamas and Islamic jihad have no effective strategy fighting the enclosure and siege of Gaza. Therefore, for the moment and the foreseeable future the status quo can be kept and preserved without too high costs for the Israeli side. To approach and develop a peace agreement would be much too difficult.
For the status quo, the different and conflicting leaderships on the Palestinian side are of course a welcome excuse not to negotiate. In view of many observers there is one figure who could organize and mobilize the Palestinians on the one side and come to a negotiated agreement with a future Israeli government on the other side. But this man, Marwan Barghouti, is in an Israeli prison. Although many prisoners have been released by Israel out of tactical reasons, until now they rejected all requests to release Barghouti. He would force Israel to recognize him as a leader with strong support by Palestinians and a strong partner in peace negotiations.
Alliance of power and not of values and principles
This is characteristic for the right wing. Cohesion, inclusion and compromise is not something on their agenda. They always have an enemy they can blame for the existing ills. In the case of Netanyahu, these are the Arabs in Israel and the Palestinians wherever they live. In order to appear not too racist, he devoted a lot of efforts to win the sympathy of some Arab leaders in the neighborhood. His strong line and fight against appeasement with Iran is an important basis of an alliance with Sunni Arab leaders. Certainly, he is very much supported by President Trump. For Netanyahu, it is no contradiction to ally himself with European leaders who are islamophobes. Even if they are at least indifferent to anti-Semitism, if not outright antisemitic, they are welcomed as partners on the global level. It is same as Netanayahu’s attitude to gay people: he showed himself recently open to gay people in the US but stays homophobic at home. Power and influence count, not values and principles.
As the Financial Times wrote recently: "These days, Europe's far-right is far more hostile to Muslims than Jews, and that Islamophobia often translates into support for Israel". Netanyahu uses this ideological and often racist approach externally as he does use it domestically. In this respect, racist Jewish parties are welcome as coalition partner. Even if he shares not all their opinions, he wants their support for power and if necessary he shares power with them.
The special case of the evangelicals
A special line of connection exists between the right wing in Israel and the evangelical Christians in the USA and vice versa. President Trump has many voters amidst the right-wing conservative evangelicals. And he has evangelical members in his government, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. For him the Bible "informs everything" he does, and to underline that, he has an open Bible in his office. At one visit in Israel he confessed: "I am sure the Lord is at work here". And the Lord is certainly supporting Trump and Pompeo in their efforts to strengthen Netanyahu's role in Israel and the Middle East. Because Jews play an important role for the "rapture" which brings - according to the evangelical perception - all believers into heaven - after Jews recognized Jesus as their savior.
It is not about human rights and about equal rights for Jews and Arabs, it is about eschatology and the preparation for the end of the world. This sounds strange but that is part of the motivation for present US politics in the Middle East. And while many Jews in the USA are open to serious efforts for peace and deny uncritical support for Netanyahu, these evangelicals are the strongest support for the hard and uncompromising attitude of the right wing in Israel. As mentioned above, they are at the inner core of Trump's voters.
Victory for Bibi was expected
Few days before the elections, Haaretz published many reasons why Netanyahu will win - and a few why Netanyahu could lose. It was clear, that the reasons to win were stronger and more convincing. Israel is a right-wing country and became more so, especially due to Netanyahu's policies and the right- wing coalitions he preferred. He impressed many Israeli voters with his stubborn "Leadership", even if they did not like all his policies. Many Israelis could not imagine another Prime minister to lead the country.
But the greatest fear by democratic citizens was the readiness of the right wing to change the constitution and reduce the power of the judiciary. The clearly right-wing Parliament should have more power and the checks and balances should be weakened. In this respect, he could learn a lot from Orban and some other right-wing friends. Today's authoritarian right-wing is not satisfied with gaining power just for some years. They want to keep it, if possible permanently, and change "their" countries drastically, thereby expanding and preserving right-wing majorities.
What about the recent indictment of Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust? One small but for Bibi important element of drastic change would be to preserve his immunity against court proceedings while being Prime-minister. The corruption charges would be no harm for him during his time in office and what would happen after should be left to later decisions or further legal changes. The extreme right wingers who are all the time accusing the center and left politicians of crimes against the people never hesitate to bend the law in order to save themselves from indictment and trials.
And the Israeli Arabs?
One of the weak points of the elections is usually low participation of the Arabs in the them. Why is that so? Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer and writer, has recently offered a clear answer in a contribution to the New York Times International Edition: " It's because none of the leading candidates has a program for peace. The main contenders are committed to maintaining the illegal settlements that have been established in the West Bank… We Palestinians can only watch from our homes the results of an election whose outcome will govern our lives and the future on our land."
Maybe 18 % of Palestinians and 15% of Arab voters in Israel could change something if they were united. If one of the blocks of Israeli parties were courageous enough to include them in their coalition. But this is not the case. The right wingers always accuse the left and centre of using Arab votes in the Knesset to pass laws and they have been successful insofar as the left and centre refrain from any cooperation with the Arab voters and parliamentarians on important decision. As if the future of Israel and Palestine were only something for Jewish Israeli to decide.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote in a commentary after the election, that there are three actors responsible for the low participation of Arabs this time: Netanyahu, with his racist approach, the opposition parties - especially Kahol Lavan - with its fear to align themselves with Arab politicians and the Arab leadership which is not united in its strategy inside Israel. ‘First and foremost, of course, is the systematic incitement spearheaded by Netanyahu, who incessantly accused his rivals in the Kahol Lavan party of intending to form a "blocking majority" with Arab parties to prevent him from heading the next government - as if letting 20% of Israeli participate in government were a crime."
Also, the explosion of the United Arab List and the Centre-Left which "adopted Netanyahu's incitement and drove their natural partners away" is to blame. As in many other countries, the extreme right shifted the whole political climate and scene to the right. With their continuous propaganda and divisive talks and politics the right wing politicians pushed the centre to the right, because their leaders feared they would be accused of treason of the true national values and lacking patriotism.
But the renewed disaster of the Labour Party demonstrated that staying vague or even silent on vital issues of Israel's future does not prevent defeat. They would not have beaten Netanyahu with a clearer profile concerning peace and a two-state solution or any other solution overcoming the status quo. But they could only have achieved a better result.
The new Israel
In 1948 the Declaration of Independence of Israel stated clearly that the state of Israel "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or gender." Netanyahu and his right-wing colleagues lead Israel a further step away from this promise. Arabs became second class citizens in Israel and the more so in the occupied areas. And with the implementation of the election promise of annexation of all - illegal - settlements the declaration that Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East will become even more fake news.
Democracy is not a value or principle for which Netanyahu is fighting. He just wants to remain in power by dividing the country, inviting racists to support him and defying accusations of corruption against him. On the contrary, as all the right-wing politicians, he used the legal proceedings against him to attack legal authorities and the opposition as fighting with unfair and unjustified measures against him and his voters. Netanyahu remains a model politician for many extreme right-wing politicians around the globe. And with high probability he will stay the King of Israel - as long as he can avoid being officially indicted.
By Hannes Swoboda