Word on the Street: Political Change in Israel

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on June 19, 2016

Political change is coming to Israel.

That’s the conclusion I came back with from a recent Congressional delegation to Israel and the West Bank.

Most Americans who care deeply about the future of Israel have watched in agony as Prime Minister Netanyahu has led the country ever further to the right politically in ways that challenge the democratic nature and Jewish character of the state.

I’m sure many viewed the replacement of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon with Avigdor Lieberman and the addition of his right-wing party to the governing coalition as simply a further reason for despair.

Yet what I saw on my visit — and what we saw this week in other political developments there — is the emergence of a fracture in Israeli politics that may well spell the end of two decades of Netanyahu dominance.

At the annual Herzliya Conference this week, Ya’alon announced his intention to challenge Netanyahu for Prime Minister in the next election.

His critique of Netanyahu and his leadership was scathing — accusing the government he quit of cynically using fear to divert attention from the nation’s real problems and expressing deep concern over the emerging fissures in Israeli society and the erosion of basic values.

Laying out a vision that he said could speak to the “sane majority” of the country, Ya’alon said, “The leadership of Israel in 2016 is busy with inflaming passions and causing fear between Jews and Arabs, between right and left and between different ethnic groups in order to survive in power and earn another month or year. The job of leadership is to bring together the people and not to tear it apart, incite and urge attacks.”

The number of figures on Israel’s political right and center who are alarmed by the rhetoric, ideology and policy emanating from the Prime Minister and his allies like Lieberman and Naftali Bennett is large and growing.

Bernie Avishai in a recent post in the New Yorker referred to this as a fissure between the ideological right, “driven by religiously inflected zealotry for the Land of Israel … and valorizing the settlement project as messianic” and the nationalist right that puts security concerns first, doubts its neighbors’ intentions and prioritizes military and national strength.

This nationalist right — now led by Ya’alon — is concerned that a government increasingly dominated by the “messianic” right is undermining the Israeli Defense Forces, threatening Israeli democracy and increasing the country’s international isolation.

In challenging the Prime Minister, Ya’alon could well be joined by other popular leaders formerly of the Likud — like current finance minister Moshe Kahlon and former minister Gideon Saar.

Polling released Friday in Israel shows such an alignment getting 25 seats and leading the typically crowded political field.

Most importantly, this new party reduces the bloc held by Netanyahu’s Likud, the settler party and Lieberman to under one-third of the Knesset and makes it possible to envision a re-alignment in Israeli politics after the next election that could put a centrist coalition back in charge.

Those who care about two states and ending occupation should have no illusion that this represents an impending shift to the left in Israeli politics.

And similarly let’s have no illusions about Ya’alon’s personal politics. This is a man who called John Kerry obsessive and messianic in his pursuit of peace, questioned whether Palestinian society grieves the loss of its children as Israeli society does and has expressed doubts about Palestinian readiness to accept or achieve a two-state solution.

But what we can now see is a political path to power for a government that puts the future of the state of Israel, its security, its democratic nature — not a Greater Israel ideology — at the heart of its agenda.

Above all else, driving such a government would be the question Ya’alon put at the center of his remarks: “What kind of state do [Israelis] want to live in and raise our children and grandchildren in?”

That is the question the founders of Israel asked themselves.

That is the question that Prime Ministers like Begin, Rabin, Barak, Sharon and Olmert asked as they tried to end the conflicts with Israel’s neighbors.

None of them pursued peace as doves. And several — like Ya’alon — were truly right-wing in their politics.

But they all sought to establish Israel’s borders and affirm its place in the region because it was in Israel’s national interest to do so.

And that is what will motivate the leaders who set Israel back on a path that ensures its security, reaches a regional agreement ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and integrates the country with its neighbors to address the strategic and economic challenges they must face together.

That is the first meaningful sign of potential change I’ve seen in quite some time.