What we’re seeing in Israeli politics and have seen since 2000, when the last Labor government ruled Israel, is the rise of a permanent far-right majority. Not a majority within the populace, but a ruling majority cobbled together from various right and farther right strands of Israeli nationalist discourse.
If we’re honest we realize that there is no electoral left or even center in Israeli politics. There is only right and farther right. The Israeli nationalists have so dominated the discourse with their national security mantra that no alternative can develop until there is a peace treaty. That is one of the reasons, whether consciously or unconsciously, the Israeli right can never allow peace. It would sound the death knell to their political hegemony.
Many might argue that this is the will of the people and therefore a legitimate political expression. I don’t think so. The Israeli situation reminds me of similar nationalist domination of Milosevic era Serbia, pre-1972 Northern Ireland, or Sinhalese dominated Sri Lanka. In these countries there was/is a nominal democracy. People have a choice. But no matter what the choice everyone, even voters of the left, know the outcome will be a right-wing Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum.
This, is catastrophic for Israel in the short to medium term, though most Israelis may not recognize this. But in the long run, and you’ll have to try to follow my somewhat perverse thinking here, this may actually be good for Israel. During the last election, Jerry Haber of Magnes Zionist argued that the best candidate was Bibi Netanyahu. He reasoned that if the most extreme politician won it would more profoundly expose the dysfunction and racism at the heart of Israeli society. If the least-worst candidate won (Tzipi Livni), Israel would continue limping along on the road to nowhere. Similarly, this is why I argue that a permanent Likudist government will hasten the day when the world will come to know that if it doesn’t intervene, then Israel will bring the entire region to the brink of Armageddon.
If you take my logic to the extreme, one might argue that one should support an Israeli attack on Iran since this too will prove catastrophic to all concerned. The outcome of the catastrophe may be a realization, just as happened after the Serbian massacre of Srebrenica or during the Serbian assault on pre-independence Kosovo, that allowing the status quo meant genocide. But I can’t go that far. I don’t wish to see thousands of Iranian and Israeli dead just for the sake of bringing closer the day when Israel will be restrained and compelled to make the compromises it should’ve made decades ago for the sake of regional peace and stability.
But know that if there is an Israeli attack, this will be the long-term consequence.
I write all this by way of bringing us to the current Israeli political moment. Though for many decades I was a liberal Zionist supporter of the left-wing of Labor, Meretz and all their various political permutations, I’ve come to believe over the past year or so, that Israeli politics is a sinkhole. The Knesset is a bunch of windbags droning on endlessly about matters having little or nothing to do with governing a modern state. Decisions of real import are made in élite ministerial committees and not subject to review or oversight by the larger body. That is, when decision of any real import are made, which appears to be exceedingly rare.
No, Israeli politics now consists solely of debating and passing legislation that would turn Israel into the sort of fake democracy that was Serbia or currently is Iran. Take the bills du jour under consideration or recently passed by the Knesset: the anti-BDS law which allows any Israeli to sue anyone for publicly supporting BDS and to secure a hefty monetary judgment against them; or the bill that would’ve prohibited Israeli NGOs (read activist human rights and peace groups) from receiving any more than nominal funding from foreign governments (recently derailed by Bibi after fierce opposition was expressed by the EU and U.S.); and the bill that would allow Israeli politicians and oligarchs to sue any media outlet for libel without having to prove that the so-called libelous story caused any damages to the plaintiff.
The bill could be especially pernicious for Israeli bloggers since none have the deep pockets of media conglomerates enabling them to withstand the legal onslaught of which a Leonid Nevzlin or Sheldon Adelson is capable. In fact, an Israeli blogger contacted me recently asking my advice about ways in which they could protect themselves in the light of the media Dark Ages which she foresaw. A word Dena Shunra used got me thinking even further about this: samizdat. Israel is rapidly moving into territory inhabited by the former Soviet Union in the days of the dissidents (yes, Virginia, there was a day when Natan Sharansky stood for freedom and liberty against state oppression), when they organized in small underground cells and passed around secret samizdat containing ideas deemed subversive by the government. The difference being today we have the internet and don’t need to print samizdat on mimeograph machines like in the old days.
But Israeli bloggers will still have to protect themselves by moving their blogs to offshore hosts not under Israeli jurisdiction. They’ll have to incorporate their blogs as companies or non-profits so they won’t be personally liable for any judgments against them. They’ll have to create mirror sites in case the government takes theirs down. They may have to protect their sources by taking special care possibly by using encrypted e-mail services. They will need to develop a network of attorneys to defend them from civil or criminal prosecution.
In short, Israeli bloggers fear their country is turning into Mubarak-era Egypt or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia in which dissident bloggers can be thrown into prison or bankrupted according to the whim of the rich and powerful. Bloggers are the canaries in the coal mine which warn a society when it losing the oxygen of democracy it needs to survive. This is especially true in an Israel rife with gag orders, military censorship, and intelligence services permitted to run rampant over individual rights. Israel needs its bloggers as much or more than it needs its mainstream media.
This is not an academic exercise, dear readers. This is not Chicken Little warning that the sky is falling. Israeli authoritarianism is here. The plague is among us.
This is what Putin did in steamrollering Russia’s independent media way back in the heady days when there was such a thing. These are precisely the sorts of prosecutions allowed in authoritarian regimes like Russia, Iran, Moldova, etc. where the governing élite simply use the judicial process to bankrupt their opponents. This allows the powerful to place a mantle of respectability over their machinations. It is naked political power concealed in a velvet glove.
Besides the bills and laws I referenced above, Bibi is also using regulatory power to silence his enemies among the press. I’ve noted here the closing of Radio All for Peace last week, and the done-deal dictating the closure of Channel 10, which has broadcast unflattering exposes of both Bibi and his chief bagman Sheldon Adelson. Further, today’s Hebrew edition of Ynet carries reports of a plan hatched by Netanyahu to take control of yet another TV station, this time the educational channel. Yesterday, Israeli journalists held an unprecedented emergency meeting to address the wholesale onslaught on the press. Make no mistake, these acts are not merely a series of discreet, disconnected undemocratic decisions. They are of a piece with a government and nation well on its way to a permanent right-wing majority whose control is ensured by rising authoritarianism.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s claim in his NY Times review of Gershom Gorenberg’s new book that the Israeli electorate is somehow powerless in the face of the onslaught of settler political power, though certainly consoling to liberal Zionists, in no way corresponds to political reality. Israelis (though not all) allow themselves to be willingly co-opted by their leaders. To argue that Israelis don’t want press freedom curtailed, or that they don’t want the government to control what they see and hear on TV, radio or in print, is disingenuous. Unlike the three monkeys, they see the evil, they hear the evil, and they do the evil. And do little or nothing to stop it.
I lived in Israel just before the first Lebanon war and remember Peace Now demonstrations which warned that former general Ariel Sharon, then a rising star of Israeli politics, was likely to stage a putsch to gain power. Today’s right doesn’t need a coup. It runs the joint. And will run it for the foreseeable future.
Lee Atwater, George Bush Sr’s Karl Rove, formulated a Republican political game plan that called for invoking wedge issues like homosexuality, abortion and immigration in order to gain support for implementing the Party’s real agenda. In Israeli politics there are now ONLY wedge issues. There is no overarching political agenda for the ruling coalition except permanent rule. Likud doesn’t stand for any big ideas. There is no debate about national health care or how to engineer an economic recovery as there has been in this country. There is only Arab-bashing, left bashing, settlements, and muzzling the media. This is what passes for a political platform.
I should make clear what I am NOT arguing. I do not support nihilism or giving up on Israel until change comes. Of course, the opposition, whatever is left of it, should never give up. It must make its voice heard. Not to do so would be a betrayal of Israel. But in doing so, the Israeli left must realize that it is simply hopeless to bring change purely internally. Change must come from the outside. It can be supported from within as happened in Serbia after Milosevic’s downfall. But the key catalyst must be outside intervention.
Of course, the world is not prepared to intervene in the Israeli-Arab conflict. It is either too preoccupied or too morally conflicted to do so. It seems there must be thousands of dead and blood running in the streets before the world’s conscience can be pricked. Of one thing you may be sure: with a permanent ruling right-wing majority in Israel, there will be blood, much blood. The only question is how much before the world will be called upon to act.
In this circumstance, I see Barack Obama as in the same position as Bill Clinton during the Rwanda and Serbian genocides. He declined to act because he knew he would have to summon domestic political resolve to do so. That meant expending his capital to get Republicans on board a policy of intervention, an approach Republicans are generally loathe to adopt. So Clinton allowed things to spin out of control not once (Rwanda), but twice (Serbia). The result was 800,000 dead in the first instance and 250,000 dead in the second. A million dead altogether. Those are a lot of bodies to burden one’s conscience. If Bill Clinton were a more contemplative fellow he could make a brilliant Shakespearean tragic hero a la King Lear or Hamlet. But I doubt his moral failures weigh heavily on his conscience.
I hope to God that a similar charnel house will not be required before Barack Obama realizes that he and the rest of the world must act regarding Israel-Palestine.
All of the above explains why I disagree so profoundly with the Gershom Gorenbergs and Haaretz’s of Israel who believe that liberal Zionism and a moderate left is still possible in Israel. These folks want to nibble around the edges of what’s wrong. They want to tinker with the machinery instead of overhauling it. We’re far past tinkering. And the well-intentioned liberals of Meretz, who may hate Bibi but will support him when he gets Israel into the next war, don’t have any answers that will work.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.