Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured his fifth term in office on 9 April and said he intends to be “the prime minister of all citizens of Israel: right, left, Jews, non-Jews”.
A day later, public relations firm Kaizler Inbar claimed credit for dispatching 1,350 volunteers with cameras to intimidate Palestinian voters in an operation conducted in “deep and close partnership with the best people in Likud”, Netanyahu’s right wing ruling party.
“Thanks to us placing observers in every polling station we managed to lower the [Arab] voter turnout to under 50 percent, the lowest in recent years!”, the company boasted in a statement.
However, it was not voter intimidation that made Netanyahu’s victory a foregone conclusion. It was the lack of any serious alternative in an electoral contest in which Palestinians were punching bags for far right candidates.
Since his first victory in 2009, Netanyahu has tightened the Israeli siege of Gaza in collaboration with Egypt. In 2014, he waged war on Gaza’s 2 million besieged Palestinian residents, killing 2,200, a quarter of them children, and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
Netanyahu defended his government’s use of lethal force against weekly Palestinian peaceful protests over the last year, telling the Hebrew-language daily paper Israel Hayom: “More than 300 Palestinians have been killed near the border ... We have used force wisely and powerfully”.
The prime minister also opposed a Palestinian state and told the paper of his determination to reach an agreement with the US that would maintain Israeli control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem without evacuating “a single settler”.
There are more than 600,000 so-called settlers living in the Palestinian homelands of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied and controlled since 1967, suffocating the national life of more than 2.5 million Palestinians. B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, notes:
“As of the end of 2017, there are 131 government-sanctioned Israeli settlements in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem and settlement enclaves within Hebron). In addition, there were approximately 110 ‘settlement outposts’ located throughout the West Bank. The outposts do not have official government recognition, although many of them were established with governmental assistance.”
The goal of these colonisation schemes is to annex as much Palestinian land as possible. (Israel doesn’t have official borders with the Palestinian territories, hence its ability to expand.) Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 12 News two days before the election that he intended to “extend [Israeli] sovereignty” to both “settlements blocs and isolated settlements” in the West Bank.
He also shored up support from his right wing allies by pushing through Israel’s Nation State Law last July. The law says that only Jewish Israeli citizens have a right to self-determination. It codifies apartheid by underpinning many laws that deny Palestinians basic human rights, in both Israel and the occupied territories.
Netanyahu’s main opponent – former Israeli Defence Forces chief Benny Gantz – offered no opposition to Netanyahu’s hard right, Greater Israel project.
In January, Gantz launched a new party, Israeli Resistance, offering a supposedly clean government in response to corruption allegations that have plagued Netanyahu. Gantz follows a long line of Israeli generals turned politician, including Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. Like his predecessors’, Gantz’s key message was one of negotiating “peace” from a position of strength.
Not to be outdone by Netanyahu’s warmongering rhetoric, Gantz made much of his military record, boasting of his role in destroying Gaza. One of his campaign videos, featuring footage from the air of the rubble of bombed Gaza buildings, boasts “6,231 targets destroyed” and “1,364 terrorists killed”. It concludes with the slogans “Only the Strong Wins” and “Israel Before Everything”.
Gantz’s “might is right” campaign should have been roundly condemned by any Israeli claiming to support peace with the Palestinians. Yet liberal Zionist voters abandoned the established, so called left Zionist parties – the Labor Party and Meretz – in droves to support Gantz’s “anyone but Bibi” campaign (Bibi is Netanyahu’s nickname).
The Labor Party, founded in 1968, governed Israel for nearly a decade and implemented a welfare state. Consistent with its Zionist ideology, though, Labor’s social welfare discriminated in favour of Israeli Jews. But the unravelling of the Oslo Accords, with which it was closely associated, resulted in its support plummeting from the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. Also contributing to the party’s woes has been its embrace of neoliberal economic policies.
Having once commanded nearly half of the popular vote in Israel, the Labor Party secured only 4.4 percent in this election, its presence in the Knesset (parliament) dropping from 19 to six seats.
Meretz (Vigour), the result of a 1992 fusion between Israel’s small left wing parties, has long advocated a “two state solution” and counterposed itself to Labor with socially progressive policies. Its fortunes have also declined as Israeli voters abandoned support for a Palestinian state. It secured four seats in the Knesset with 3.6 percent of the vote.
The collapse in support for Labor and Meretz has prompted some liberal Zionists to urge a reorientation toward working with the Joint List parties, which represent Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian residents. But such a move would conflict with Labor’s and Meretz’s Zionist ideology.
Zionism emerged in the late 19th century as a nationalist movement to found a Jewish nation state. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration signalled British support for the Zionist leaders’ coveting of Palestine, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. A 1947 UN partition plan, opposed by Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states, handed 55 percent of historic Palestine to a Jewish state. This huge transfer nevertheless fell well short of Zionist aspirations.
The Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 resulted in 800,000 Palestinians being made refugees as Zionist militias ethnically cleansed indigenous neighbourhoods and villages. Two decades later, Israel conquered the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean and the Golan Heights, bordering Syria, to gain control of all of historic Palestine.
While condemned as unlawful by many UN resolutions, Israel’s occupation has, since the early 1970s, been covertly and overtly supported by the United States. Today Netanyahu has a powerful friend in US president Donald Trump.
While such an alliance might not augur well for re-election in any other country, in Israel, Trump’s support has been a godsend for Netanyahu. In just over a year, Trump has recognised Israel’s illegal annexation of both East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, making him enormously popular with Israeli voters.
Netanyahu’s declaration of intent to annex West Bank settlements has gained no public response from the White House, but is consistent with Trump’s previous statements about a “deal of the century”, an attempt to achieve a historic defeat of Palestinian aspirations for a viable, independent nation state.
Contributing to Netanyahu’s momentum is the failure of the Palestinian Authority to offer any meaningful resistance. The PA was established as an interim self-government in 1994. But it has long maintained close security ties with the Israeli state, and it contributed to the Gaza blockade by withholding fuel subsidies. Today, it is not recognised by Palestinian factions outside of its ruling Fatah party and is widely despised by those living under occupation.
Trump’s support for Netanyahu’s colonialist policies has emboldened Israel’s settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to carry out terror attacks against Palestinians with impunity and with protection from the occupying Israeli Defence Forces. Just last month, settlers killed a Palestinian woman in a hit and run in a village near Bethlehem. In a separate incident, settlers poisoned a village well near Hebron in an attempt to kill local Palestinians and their livestock.
Such crimes don’t feature in international news coverage of Israel’s election. Instead, our gaze is directed at the jubilant faces of Netanyahu supporters waving Israeli flags, and flags bearing Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again”.
Yet, this dire situation has met determined resistance from Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians at protests at the Gaza fence each Friday show that Palestinians remain steadfast in their determination to resist the occupation and demand their right as refugees to return home.
As the mass uprisings in Algeria and Sudan have demonstrated, there is an ever widening gulf between the autocratic regimes of the Middle East and the Arab masses over which they rule. Palestinians’ time will come. We must stand with them.