Israeli Journalist and Haaretz Correspondent for the Occupied Territories
Director of the Gender Studies Program
Mada al-Carmel Arab Center for Applied Social Research, Haifa
Professor of Political Science
Tel Aviv University
Liberal Arts Professor of Middle East History
Pennsylvania State University
Arab Center Washington DC
On March 24, 2021, the day after Israel’s 24th Knesset elections were held, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) and the Institute for Palestine Studies cosponsored a webinar titled “Israeli Elections 4.0: Israel’s Political Crisis and Impact on the Palestinians.” Speakers were Amira Hass, the Haaretz correspondent for the Occupied Territories; Areen Hawari, Director of the Gender Studies Program at Mada al-Carmel Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa; Amal Jamal, Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University; and Tamir Sorek, Liberal Arts Professor of Middle East History at Pennsylvania State University. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan served as the moderator.
The session began with Tamir Sorek, who explained that the growing legitimacy of the Palestinian Arab vote in Israeli politics is part of the question of the survival of the secular Israeli state. The secular Zionists, he maintained, understand that their own survival is dependent on collaborating with Palestinians within the green line. At the same time, he said, electoral discussions totally neglected the situation of Palestinians under occupation and the prospect of annexation, since so much framing of the election was centered on the person of Benjamin Netanyahu. Sorek asserted that the main principle in Israeli politics today is the contest between secular and religious claims to Jewish supremacy; those who are anti-Netanyahu are overwhelmingly secular and their movement is expanding, and the pro-Netanyahu group is becoming more religious. The membership in the left-wing party, Meretz, is shrinking, he continued, because the path to being both Zionist and leftist has become very narrow. Even if Netanyahu disappears from the scene, Sorek said, the ideological justification of the Israeli regime will remain because Netanyahu is only the embodiment of the deep sociological processes unfolding in Israeli society. Netanyahu needs the support and seats from the extreme right movement now, and it does not look like he will be exiting the political scene anytime soon. Sorek predicted that Netanyahu will try to break the alliances of other parties to survive and, if he is indicted and goes to jail or if he resigns, “we might enter a very ugly period in Israeli politics.”
Amira Hass focused on the ascendance in power of religious Zionists, citing the wins of Bezalel Smotrich (leader of the far-right Tkuma Party) and Itamar Ben-Gvir (leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party who had previously been part of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s radical movement). She noted that the majority of votes these candidates received came from the Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. Hass underlined the growing power of both of these religious parties in the control and domination of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, especially due to their deep involvement in nongovernmental organizations, the army, police, Shabak (domestic security service), legal councils, ministerial offices, and the like. Their aim is to maximize the interests of the illegal settlers in terms of developing infrastructure, attracting more Israelis to the settlements, and creating settlement blocs—goals the Israeli government already facilitates. These far-right religious parties are now gaining ground in Israel proper and continue to push for war because military aggression allows them to steal more land. Hass stated that the Yamina Party of Naftali Bennett also receives a lot of support from settlers. She cautioned that the more right wing and religiously motivated the government of Israel becomes, the more prominent and accepted will be discussions regarding the expulsion of Palestinians. Hass said that average Israelis must realize that the current reality in which they live “is not normal” and that something deep “has to be shaken about Israelis’ smugness about their normalcy.”
Areen Hawari addressed the idea of the Israeli right after it fully took center stage following the Israeli elections. She explained the diversity of Israel’s right wing—for example, the religious settlers and the Kahanists—saying that the movement has always existed but now it is actually becoming a legitimate part of the Israeli government. In the past, she added, the likes of Meir Kahane were shunned not only by the left and center parties, but also by Likud, which expelled him from the Knesset. All members of the Israeli right wing, she said, agree on critical issues such as keeping and expanding settlements, the continuing siege on Gaza, and the Nation State Law. As for the Zionist left, Hawari continued, they hold an essentially racist view of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and treat them as a monolith, failing to consider political nuances such as their positions on issues like human rights, secularism and religiosity, and gender rights. She said that for their part, Palestinians have the war of 1948 as their frame of reference (as opposed to the war of 1967 for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians) and they are now part of the discourse that points to them as part of the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She concluded by saying that to defeat Netanyahu and the Kahanists, Palestinians must confront Israel as a settler-colonial project and should ally with anti-Zionist Jews and the international solidarity movement in order to achieve social, individual, and feminist rights.
Amal Jamal attributed the current situation in Israel to long-standing issues that have served to polarize politics. The public’s special focus on Netanyahu, Jamal said, gives the impression that this one personality is the cause of all the problems, whereas in reality, the institutional system of coalitions is to blame, and it reflects deep social fragmentation in Israeli society. As for the Arab parties, the conservative national camp and liberal national camp in Israel both understand that without the Arab parties, they are not able to govern; they are needed to build a stable and long-term coalition. Although negotiations between Palestinian parties and Israeli Jewish parties have always been a part of the system, he said, the United Arab List (a conservative Islamic coalition), headed by Mansour Abbas, is using the system to maximize the impact of the Arab community on the Israeli political landscape. However, this has split the Joint List, which generated much public mistrust and resentment toward it, making some citizens stay home and not vote, Jamal added. The result is that the Arab leadership in Israel has lost an opportunity and now they need to reorganize and offer the public a new vision to move forward. If they could gain additional seats in the Knesset, this could help the Palestinian citizens of Israel garner more power and influence in Israeli politics. Jamal concluded by speaking as part of the Palestinian community in Israel, saying that “either we play the game or we stay home.”
* Photo Credit: Wikipedia/TZivyA