“Strong against Hamas” – Slogan from Likud party campaign poster
Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party’s victory in the Israeli elections on March 17 portend a death blow for the hopes of a two-state solution in the near future. Netanyahu’s successful usage of anti-Arab prejudice and aggressive nationalist rhetoric to galvanize voters showed the worst side of Israeli society. That this strategy was victorious should sound alarm bells in the ears of those who champion Israeli democracy and a two-state solution. While Likud’s victory may represent a short-term threat to peace, the way in which Likud won this election highlights an endemic, long-term threat in the form of racism and exclusionary nationalism in Israeli society.
Netanyahu’s eleventh-hour appeal to his right-wing supporters exposed how distant the prospect of peace is between Israelis and Palestinians. On March 16, Netanyahu, otherwise known as Bibi, declared that he would never sponsor the creation of a Palestinian state while he is Prime Minister. Turning his back on previous promises to work towards a two-state solution, Netanyahu said that “anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel.” This statement is unfortunately not a shock to those who have monitored Netanyahu’s political career. On first becoming Prime Minister in 1996, Netanyahu went to Ariel, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and declared “we will be here permanently forever.”
Even though Netanyahu stated in a March 19 interview that he does, in fact, support a two-state solution, his actions past and present show that he supports the creation of a Palestinian rump entity under the control of Israel rather than a viable Palestinian state. In July of 2014, he said in a press conference that he could never brook the existence of a fully sovereign Palestinian state because Israel could not afford to lose control over territory in the Jordan River Valley. Netanyahu emphatically stated this position again on March 16, winning the favor of many Israelis.
Netanyahu managed to gain still more support through an ugly appeal to xenophobia and tribalism. On the morning of the election, Netanyahu posted a video on Facebook warning Israelis that “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes,” and that they faced the specter of a left-wing government which would partition Jerusalem and retreat behind the 1967 borders. Netanyahu’s advertisements during the last the week of the campaign stressed that he was the only obstacle standing between Israel and a hostile international community, both on its borders and in the West. Netanyahu even provocatively invoked the phrase “Tzav 8,” a military order used to call up reserve troops during national emergencies, no small call-to-arms in a state with compulsory military service.
While it is right to criticize Netanyahu for employing such scare tactics to win an election, it is more important to recognize that he was responding to the attitudes of the Israeli electorate. Two weeks before comments shifted sharply to the right, polling data indicated that Israeli voters who tended to support Netanyahu liked him for his ability to withstand pressure from the international community and to do what is in the best interest of Israel. Perhaps more tellingly, citizens in the West Bank settlements generally dislike Netanyahu for being too far on the left. Yet many of the votes which Netanyahu gained in this election through his last-minute stumping came from ultra-conservative voters who normally vote for the far-right Jewish Home Party. Given the attitudes of such right-wing voters in Israel, it is not surprising that Netanyahu spouted xenophobic nationalism in an attempt to gain more votes.
In addition, for all of the rhetoric Israelis voice about treating Arab citizens with respect, they remain comfortable with the Arab population only so long as it does not wield any political clout. About 20% of the Israeli population is Arab-Israeli, and the number of Palestinians in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and neighboring refugee camps is about 6.8 million, outnumbering the Jewish-Israeli population of 6.2 million. Despite their large proportion of the Israeli population, Palestinians own only 3% of the land in Israel. About half of Arab-Israeli families live below the poverty line, compared to only 15% of Jewish-Israeli families. There are also over 20 laws that discriminate against Arab-Israelis, and the Or Commission, a 2003 government inquiry, says that “the government of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory.” While Israel claims that its Arab citizens are equal, they are clearly second-class citizens.
Netanyahu did not singlehandedly cause Israeli citizens to fear Arab voters, a viable Palestinian state, or a more cooperative Israeli head-of-state. He merely recognized existing fears within Israeli society, ratcheted them up, and played upon them to his advantage. This should be the main cause for disquiet regarding the prospects of a two-state solution. Despite moments like the signing of the Oslo Accords and the Camp David Accords that gave the international community hope that peace could be found in the Holy Land, the 2015 elections reveal to us just how far away peace truly is.
While the blame does not lie solely on the Israelis for the lack of a peace deal, as Hamas’ actions have done just as much, if not more, to incite conflict, Israeli nationalism presents a serious impediment. Likud’s victory and the success of other right-wing parties indicate a society that is gripped by fear and racism. Until this can be overcome, the integrity of Israeli democracy and the survival of a two-state solution are at stake.
Tyler Bowen is studying Political Science and English in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. He is a Staff Writer for The Diplomacist.