Professor of Journalism and Political Science
City University of New York
Director, New Internationalism Project
Institute for Policy Studies
Co-Founder and Board President
Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network
Arab Center Washington DC
On April 17, 2019, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a panel of experts at the National Press Club for an event titled “Unpacking Netanyahu’s Reelection: Future Implications.” The speakers were Peter Beinart, Professor of Journalism and Political Science, City University of New York; Phyllis Bennis, Director, New Internationalism Project, Institute for Policy Studies; Nadia Hijab,Co-Founder and Board President, Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network; Mouin Rabbani,Co-Editor, Jadaliyya; and Amir Tibon, Washington Correspondent, Haaretz Newspaper. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan moderated the discussion and offered opening remarks outlining the recently certified results of Israel’s 2019 elections. Jahshan posed a number of important questions about the aftermath of the elections: What kind of government is expected to be formed? What role will far-right members of the Knesset (MKs) have in the new government and how will the opposition and the Arab bloc of MKs work with them? Will Benjamin Netanyahu be saved from indictment? Will he make good on his promise to annex the West Bank? Finally, what is in store for the Palestinians, in light of the recently formed 18th Palestinian government?
Amir Tibon assessed the 2019 election results, saying that those who followed the run-up to the election and its polling data were not surprised by the results. Nevertheless, he stated that the outcome was a wake-up call for individuals on the left of the political spectrum in Israel. He also put good odds on Netanyahu forming a government with the religious right as opposed to teaming up with the center-left Blue and White Party. Tibon argued that the red flag came not from the success of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, or even the fact that he and his allies gained 65 seats. Instead, the true warning signs are that the Labor and Meretz parties—stalwarts of Israel’s political left—just barely met the electoral threshold while two far-right religious parties that would normally seem like fringe groups also just barely missed the minimum. To be sure, the religious and far-right groups are ascendant. Tibon explained that the major debate within the political left now centers on the path forward. Do the parties come together to form a big left coalition with the goal of turning out more voters, including Palestinian citizens of Israel? Or, as others suggest, do they cut their losses, recognize their shrinking constituency, and focus on campaigning for and elevating the causes specific to their sector of society?
Nadia Hijab opined about the implications of Netanyahu’s victory, saying that whether the next coalition decides to formally annex part or all of the West Bank is a question that is not of utmost importance right now. She argued that the rightward drift in Israeli government policies—stemming from the same forces that have expanded settlements and pushed for passage of the Nation-State Law—will continue whether territory is annexed or not, and the Palestinians will continue to suffer for it. Hijab highlighted the fact that the right in Israel, particularly the religious right, has always been largely hostile to Palestinians. Now, even secular Israelis are taking a more contentious approach. She said the only thing that will change with a more far-right government is the cruelty with which Israel carries out its policies.
Mouin Rabbani reflected on how, in the run-up to the election, US policy under President Donald Trump delighted Netanyahu and has generally paved the way for Washington to recognize annexation of the West Bank. However, he also noted that for Netanyahu, endorsing annexation was a political necessity to avoid being outflanked on his right. With Netanyahu as prime minister, Rabbani suspects that the religious right that will fill the new government will likely view the time between the Israeli elections and the next US presidential election as the best opportunity to annex the West Bank; they likely believe that this golden moment may never come again. Ultimately, Rabbani said that annexation would not destroy the two-state solution because it is already US and Israeli policy to reconfigure the current framework, leaving something of a Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip with certain outposts in the West Bank. Rabbani argued that this would be the logical conclusion of decades of Israeli policy, one that is tacitly approved by the United States.
Peter Beinart reflected on the United States’ big winners and big losers after these elections. First and foremost, Beinart argued that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was the biggest loser. With Netanyahu’s success, he said, Israel is further entrenched with the Republican Party in the United States, undermining AIPAC’s important focus and efforts to keep support for Israel a bipartisan issue. Beinart recognized two winners of the election. First, he mentioned the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), whose success comes as a result of AIPAC’s loss. ZOA’s orthodox constituency—a minority in the American Jewish community—tends to be Republican and ZOA has made no effort to cultivate bipartisan support, instead following Netanyahu in vigorously embracing Donald Trump’s brand of GOP politics. But according to Beinart, the other big winner from Netanyahu’s victory is Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in his presidential campaign. Beinart theorizes that during this election cycle, Sanders will wager that reevaluating US support for Israel’s oppressive policies toward the Palestinians is going to be a winning issue for voters. Netanyahu’s position at the helm of Israeli politics irritates many of the nearly 80 percent of American Jews who support the Democratic Party or liberal/progressive policies. Beinart said that Sanders is able to move far to the left on issues related to US backing of Israel and support for Palestinian rights; indeed, no one can steer the conversation as aggressively and to the left as Sanders, and Beinart suspects this will help garner extra support for the senator’s presidential bid.
Phyllis Bennis said that Netanyahu’s victory did not mean the death of the two-state solution or the end of unconditional, bipartisan support in the United States for Israel. This is not the case, she argued, because those developments have been unfolding long before this election. However, Bennis recognized a number of “gifts” Donald Trump gave Netanyahu—removing the questions of Jerusalem (by recognizing the city as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there) and Palestinian refugees from the list of “final status” issues, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, cutting humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and support of UNRWA, scuttling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization—as illustrative of how right-wing success at the polls in Israel is a culmination of the rightward shift in Israeli policy and the United States’ support of it. Bennis fears that although there has been opposition to the litany of decisions the Trump Administration has made in support of Netanyahu’s government, the policies may have shifted so far to the right that it will be extremely difficult for any future president or Congress to reverse them.