A worker hangs an election campaign billboard for Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party.
A worker hangs an election campaign billboard for Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. (Image: AP/Oded Balilty)

News that Israel will be facing a third election in 12 months after both major parties failed to form government has upset many citizens, not least one B. Netanyahu of Jerusalem, now facing criminal charges on numerous matters, some of them involving James Packer, for whom he pulled a few kabbalah red strings.

Bibi joins a growing and undistinguished list of Israeli politicians in the frame for corruption, including former PM Ehud Olmert (previously jailed), Ariel Sharon (dead from stroke) and former president Moshe Katsav (convicted of rape). For a country that could once boast of leaders who subordinated their personal interests to a larger cause, it is quite a fall.

Still, at least Bibi kept his faith with the Zionist project and announced that he would respect the state process. Oh, sorry, no, he did a Trump, portraying the inquiry as a legal coup to his supporters, sending the message boards fizzing with calls to rise up. They won’t of course, and if any did, the IDF would — at the moment at least — crush them pretty effectively.

But it’s a measure of how greatly the situation in Israel has changed that a political leader is even willing to do this. It arises from the paradox of Israeli politics: that while the country is now as safe as pie, its politics is conducted as being in a state of permanent existential emergency.

With its “Samson option” nuclear-loaded submarines, its vast defence apparatus and its alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, a certain stage of its existence is over. Thus its politics have lost whatever collective commitments — of its Jewish citizens — were once sustained.

Witness Netanyahu’s desperate promise to annex the West Bank illegal settlements, made towards the end of the last election campaign — a pure externalisation of the political difficulties of his centre-right party as regards to the more conservative forces within it.

But witness, also, the lack of response from the Arab world, at a proposal that would once have had people on the streets, and leaders breathing fire. Now, they are too busy fighting each other.

With no clear and present danger, Israeli politics has fractured in a way that it would not otherwise have done, even though its political system has always rewarded minor parties with seats. This has created a second paradox: the Jewish state now has two leading parties, neither of which can command sufficient unity to win government.

But the third force is now a relatively unified Israeli-Arab party bloc. Either party could form government decisively with them, but that of course would be impossible. Yet while the Jewish parties remain utterly fragmented, the relative unity of the Arab parties is dictating the course of Israel.

That is having disturbing effects not merely in Israel but abroad, as the myth of both “plucky little Israel” and “moral force Israel” — which, for two decades, have substituted for jaded Western lack of will — has dissipated.

“Plucky little Israel” disappeared in fact, but not in fiction. As the Western right lost all trace of its pre-2008 neocon/neoliberal swagger, succumbing to a national introversion designed to gain white/Anglo working-class votes, the need for “strong Israel” has become ever stronger among the right.

In parallel, the need for “ethical Israel” has become ever stronger among pro-Zionists in the West, unwilling to admit that the place has become like every other country.

Such antics have clearly entered their hysterical stage. Consider this: up to the 1980s, Israel faced militant Arab governments willing to invade, and extremely ruthless and bloody Palestinian guerrilla/terrorist movements. Both Israeli and diaspora Jews were lethally targeted. No one really spoke of “existential” threats. Now that those existential threats are gone, it’s all anyone ever talks about.

This is producing the usual morbid symptoms, such as the vastly exaggerated charge of institutional anti-Semitism within the UK Labour Party. Why is some stray and nasty residual stuff being presented as Jeremy Corbyn representing an “existential threat” to British Jews, as all three UK Jewish newspapers proclaimed?

Because, for the first time in the Atlantic alliance, a potential party of government is questioning not merely the reality of Israeli action, but the myth that underpins it.

Witness, as well, the attempts by the pro-Zionist leaders of diaspora Jewish community groups to deny that the threat to their communities comes from the hard right, with their renewed enthusiasm for old-school pre-WWII anti-Semitism.

This wilful occlusion produces its own absurdities, such as Peter Kurti and the Centre for Independent Studies’ (CIS) recent bizarre paper on anti-Semitism, which seeks to minimise the, erm, rather large role of the European right in its rise, attributing it all to the left.

The Australian‘s reporting of this focused on the vandalism of the Bondi beach wall, painted with a line of swastikas. Does anyone seriously believe that the painting of a traditionally Jewish area with swastikas was the work of anyone from the left?

How does such an absurd turnaround come about? Because someone like Kurti is so focused on the preservation of an “ideal Israel”. How does a once intellectually respectable outfit like the CIS publish such junk?

Because its current crop of directors seem to look with sympathy on the Russian-aligned ethno-nationalist eastern European right. As does Israel’s right.

Witness the ever closer ties between Netanyahu’s governments and Hungary’s Orban government, which is unquestionably anti-Semitic, and makes exterminatory noises about the Roma.

This is all subject to a deeper logic: the contradictory character of Zionism. For example, its frequent hostility to persisting diaspora communities. But, for the moment, what one can observe with simplicity is that, with repeated failure to form government, Israel has become both more “normal” and yet also more at risk of forces inside it trying to impose an authoritarian solution to political malaise.

That would be of concern not only for that region, but for us as well, since such a move would function for the West not merely as rallying symbol for some — “Israel did what needs to be done” — but a harbinger of what we are to face.

Peter Fray

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