There is something remarkable and frightening about the fact that Avigdor Lieberman’s Party, Yisrael Beiteinu, came in third in Israel’s recent parliamentary elections, gaining 15 seats in the Knesset, only 13 fewer than Tipi Livni’s moderate Kadima Party and only 12 fewer than the Conservative Likud Party. Yisrael Beiteinu, which translates to Israel is Our Home, campaigned on an anti-Arab ticket–denouncing Israeli Arabs as unpatriotic, and calling for their expulsion. The Party could very well decide whether Likud or Kadima is the head of the next government, unless the two should choose to form a unity Government.
Now, every Democratic nation should be able to choose who they please to run their Government, even racially driven, extremist Parties like Yisrael Beiteinu, but the fact of that Party’s success does call to question how long Israel’s current course will be sustainable. I am a great admirer of Israel, which I view as a a nation at odds with itself, a land of hope and tragedy, a strange mixture of redemption and defeat, startling oppression and the promise of freedom.
The birth of the State of Israel signaled the last chapter in the long Diaspora, but has led to sixty years of Palestinian existence as a homeless population–a sort of new Diaspora spread out across refugee camps, occupied territories, and Arab cities across the region; lead by terrorists, nationalists, and religious leaders; second class citizens in whatever place they have the bad luck of ending up in. Israel, once lively with the dream of the original idealistis who founded it, has over the years become increasingly militarized, entrenched, and anti-Democratic.
I do sympathize with the plight of Israel. It took a number of wars to drive them to this place. Those misguided socialists whose ideas founded the Zionist movement have all been replaced by more realistic leaders. Unfortunately, the reality that many of these new visionaries live by – be they Avigdor Lieberman or Tipi Livni – is one of stubborn refusal to make the hard choices necessary to bring about a lasting peace, and in some cases a stubborn resolve to see these compromises aborted.
Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, ostensibly a move toward peace with the Palestinians, was coupled with increased settlement of the West Bank, a region fast becoming a mini-apartheid state with an state; a three-year blockade that has severely damaged the living conditions of Gazans (who had already become a captive market for Israeli exports, and have now been made dramatically more dependent on Israeli mercy and goods through the blockade and recent war); and despite all of this, continued rocket fire out of Gaza, continued violence between IDF forces and Palestinians, assassinations, arrests, and kidnappings–essentially, for all the increased militarism on Israel’s part, it has been met only with violent reprisal and the collective suffering of Israelis and Palestinians.
And now, Israelis have voted into the Knesset fifteen seats for a Party dedicated to the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, and the continued expansion of Israeli settlers into the West Bank–a policy whose logical outcome is the total expulsion of Palestinians and Arabs from Israel altogether, or into smaller Gaza-like enclaves within the West Bank, surrounded by Israeli security forces, and utterly dependent on Israel for their continued survival.
The old saying goes, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, and the same will be true for Israel. In 1967, when Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, the Sinai, and Gaza, the pendulum of world opinion shifted away from Israel. When Israel declared Jerusalem its capital in 1949, the US and Europe were tepid in their response, but by the time Israel captured the Old City almost 20 years later, America had become Israel’s closest ally, in large part due to our containment policies against the Soviet Union, and the perceived intelligence benefit gained from an alliance with Israel. And American diplomacy in the region has helped lead to some amazing breakthroughs with Israel’s neighbors, namely Egypt and Jordan, and a fragile peace with those nations which has lasted for decades.
Unfortunately, one of the stumbling blocks to a larger peace – a stumbling block during the Camp David talks, and still today – is the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and no politician in Israel seems willing to tackle this obvious impediment to a two-state solution.
Israel is moving even further into a state of perpetual militarism. With Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party gaining momentum, and poised to form a coalition government, quite possibly with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, the fate of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians hangs in the balance.
I’ve said before that I’d rather live in Israel than in any other country in that region. Americans and Israelis have many shared values, and the bond of affinity unites us. However, that might not always be the case.
I wouldn’t want to live in a country where Arab reporters are prevented from reporting at Campaign rallies, or where it is perfectly socially acceptable to chant “Death to the Arabs” at those rallies; or in a nation whose policies lead to the expulsion of a specific race, or the oppression of that entire people in an apartheid like State; whose policies purposefully create a sort of racial caste system both socially and legally, propped up by constant, overreaching security measures. That is the momentum of Israel today, its original dream all but faded into memory–a dream often vocalized, but never practiced. This new Israel is fast becoming something unrecognizable and, should men like Lieberman gain control of the Government, almost diabolical. I’ve long resisted comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany, and even the expulsion of Arabs from Israel does not compare to Hitler’s Final Solution. But just because it is not as bad, does not mean that it is right. And thematically, the two are similar enough. The terrorists are winning if this is the only way forward.
Americans cringe at the notion of a militarized State, even if we, too, have increasingly moved in that direction, albeit more externally than internally. Nevertheless, it is hard to fathom a political Party with similar tenets rising to such heights in American politics. It is hard to imagine a call for the expulsion of an ethnic group being taken even remotely seriously. Our immigration debate has within it calls to somehow remove the millions of illegal aliens from our borders, but these are hardly in the mainstream, and more importantly they are not calls to expel any actual citizens.
As our strategic alliance to Israel wanes, and an increasing number of Americans begin to view it as a liability, public attitude in America will begin to mirror public opinion in Europe, unless Israel’s policies begin to better reflect our own. This is not to say that Israel should adopt American values based on any sense of American primacy or moral authority, but only to observe that if we lose both our strategic benefit and our common values and sense of affinity with Israel, it is hard to imagine public or political support from America lasting much longer. The expulsion of Arab citizens from Israel would be repulsive to American sensibilities and our ingrained notions of justice and equality. Such a move will hurt the Arabs, but it will place a tombstone on the dream of Israel.
Still, the State might live on even if the dream dies–increasingly entrenched and militarized. It may carry on as a pseudo-authoritarian, pseudo-democratic Police state–a race-based nationalistic island amidst a sea of hostile Arab neighbors. It will likely lose its peace with Jordan and Egypt, as the squalor and oppression of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs increases, with no political solution in sight. In the end, Israel will find itself isolated. American support will dry up, as Americans become increasingly disillusioned with our War on Terror, and increasingly disgusted with Israeli aggression, which is all too often asymmetrical and unnecessary. Media coverage may be skewed in favor of Israel now, but this too will shift.
Stories out of Gaza these past few weeks include the slaughter of civilians, of children, of entire families for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time–for being Arab in Israel. For being Gazan. For having elected Hamas to power instead of the irreperably corrupt Fatah.
Sometimes these things take time. Sometimes there are sea changes. With an Obama administration now in power there are too many unknowns to be sure. But if the hard-liners in Israel take control and begin implementing increasingly outrageous policies against the Arabs, I can’t see such unilateral and universal American political support lasting much longer. We could be on the edge of a sea change. Yisrael Beiteinu may be the catalyst.
And, in the end, Israel will stand alone. The barbarians will not be outside the gates. They’ve snuck in already, through the backdoor a long time ago. They sit in the Halls of Power now.
Update: I disagree with Yglesias. He writes:
If [Lieberman] had to exist within the framework of a center-right party in an American-style system, he and his followers would be the “base” of his party. He wouldn’t be a viable national leader, but he could still, à la Mike Pence, be an influential force. But more to the point, the larger center-right party would be anchored to the base’s views. Under the current Israeli system, there’s no procedural rule forcing Netanyahu to govern in coalition with Lieberman.
This may be true, but what Lieberman can do in the Israeli system is determine whether Likude or Kadima forms the next Government, and with it can contribute enormously to the policy direction. Even worse, should Lieberman not join a coalition, if for instance Likud and Kadima form a unity Government, then Yisrael Beiteinu will be the (rather loud) voice of opposition. Any (likely) fallout from failed the next Government’s policies can be used to inflate Lieberman’s base come the next elections.
Update II: For a more in-depth look at how all this power-broking, coalition building, etc. etc. works, read Noah Millman’s piece here.