In the last few weeks the arteries of my cyberworld have been clogged with articles about the most recent round of Israeli elections: news, analysis, polls, infographics, photo-essays, and endless other media. The reason for this level of attention is, of course, the belief that the outcome of these elections would shape the nature of future Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
Most of the coverage focused on the battle between the Israeli left and right. Of particular interest were the internal politics of the right dictating whether or not Bibi (Netanyahu) would manage to cling on to his seat as Prime Minister for another four years. In a cynical and, for many, terrifying disavowal of his Bar-Ilan two-state speech in 2009, Netanyahu promised that, were he re-elected, there would be no Palestinian state. This move bore rotten fruit, seducing enough voters away from extreme right parties, especially from Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, to secure yet another victory.
The ‘blue sky thinkers’ among you might argue that though Netanyahu’s win will do little to destabilise the status quo, this election was different. You would point out that, though less than the polls predicted, the centre left Zionist Union, Israel’s main party of opposition, did still gain 24 seats in the Knesset, three seats more than Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party won in the 2013 elections. You might point to the spectacular fall from grace experienced by Avigdor Leiberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu before playing your trump card: the considerable gains made by the Joint List, headed by Ayman Odeh leader of what Wikipedia describes as the “far-left” Hadash party.
And blue sky thinkers - congrats - you’re right. To think, however, that a change in the tenor of Israel’s internal politics will have any positive impact whatsoever on the lives of Palestinians would be seriously naive. For the Palestinians, these changes are purely cosmetic - to them your blue sky is covered by a big cloud of ash and debris left behind by bombs, housing demolitions and the world’s bullshit platitudes.
What distinguishes centre left parties such as the Zionist Union from Likud is their rhetoric - on a material level they are almost indistinguishable from one another. While Isaac Herzog may not be willing to call for the chopping off of heads like his bulldog counterparts, he is more than willing to take part in the systematic erasure of Arab-Israelis from the political life of Israel. Herzog joined the pre-election campaign led by a right-wing coalition between Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud, which called for the disqualification of MK Haneen Zoabi, an Arab-Israeli and outspoken critic of the Israeli government castigated for her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which tried to break the siege of Gaza in 2010.
But somehow, Herzog still acts as if he is superior to Netanyahu, denouncing Bibi’s pre-election no-Palestinian-state gambit as fraudulent and racist. Herzog is just another greasy politician who pursues racist policies behind closed doors but won’t stand up and own it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating racism – but if you’re racist at least do it in public where your views can be countered effectively. This Herzog won’t do.
If we take settlements, declared illegal under international law by numerous UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention, as an indicator of the true character of a party’s politics, the left is certainly no different from the right. Under the ostensibly peace-seeking governments of Herzog’s leftist predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, the level of settlement building was equal to and at times greater than that seen under Netanyahu.
Published in the run up to the elections, the Zionist Union’s plan to set Israel’s “final borders” is still based on principles that include ‘keeping the the West Bank settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty’ and maintaining Jerusalem as ‘the eternal capital of Israel.’ Though this plan supposedly differentiates them from Likud, who advocate settlement building, even mainstream Israeli NGOs such as Peace Now agree that the “consensus” settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion totally contravene international law.
What all this makes clear is that we cannot speak of Israeli politics in the left/right idiom of electoral politics because the logic which underwrites all Israeli politics is not that of social democracy, but of colonialism. To use the left/right binary is clearly dangerous for the Palestinians. It obscures the ways in which they are systematically disenfranchised and discriminated against, irrespective of the political leanings of the Israeli party in power. Paradoxically, it is also dangerous for Israelis. It allows us to avoid the insidious nature of colonial identity politics, where national identity is defined in relation to the colonised other. Accepting Palestinians as humans possessed of equal rights poses an existential threat to Israel that goes beyond the territorial – it calls into question the fundamental nature of Israeli existence, both individual and collective.
Genuine change in the attitudes of all Israeli politicians and publics – both left and right – towards the Palestinians cannot be expected to result from the marginal shifts the elections may have produced. The changes needed are too deep to be led from within – they must be forcibly changed from the outside. We must no longer look to internal Israeli politics for change, desperately hoping and praying that political shifts will get us off the hook of having to do anything. History tells us it won’t. Instead we must look to ourselves, to the Palestinians and to their calls for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) to bring the changes that are so desperately needed.