Global Politics

Politics in Israel move to the right

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to a crowd during a visit to the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem one day ahead of Israeli national elections on April 8, 2019.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to a crowd during a visit to the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem one day ahead of Israeli national elections on April 8, 2019.

Credit:

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

If some of the campaign ads in the run-up to this week’s election are any indication, Israeli voters are feeling quite hawkish these days. 

There’s the one with an on-duty Israeli soldier being approached by a Palestinian man with a knife. When the soldier raises his weapon to defend himself, a military lawyer appears with a tape measure. The lawyer measures the distance from the barrel of the soldier’s gun, and the length of the Palestinian’s knife, and then shakes his head as if to say, “Shooting is not allowed under the rules of engagement.” 

The ad was put out by the Oztma Yehudit – or Jewish Power – political party, an anti-Arab extremist party that in past elections might have been relegated to the irrelevant fringe.  Israelis know full well, however, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed for his Likud party to make a deal with Jewish Power. 

Related: Israel's early elections: Netanyahu's best defense

Another ad stars the Israeli justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, who sprays herself with a satirically named perfume called "Fascism." Then Shaked, who has criticized Israel’s Supreme Court for being too liberal, says, “Smells like democracy to me.” 

Even the centrist candidate, and Netanyahu’s most serious rival, Benny Gantz, has been highlighting his right-wing bona fides for voters. 

The retired Israeli army general put out an ad that shows Palestinians marching with coffins of fighters killed during the 2014 Gaza war, while a number on-screen ticks upwards until it hits 1,364. That’s the number of Palestinian “terrorists” killed in the Israeli military operation led by Gantz, but the numbers are disputed.  

Related: For the first time in a decade, Netanyahu has a serious challenger

During this election cycle, politicians have been reaching out to right-wing voters because of the numbers, according to Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute. 

“The number of Israelis who put themselves on the left amounts to about 12 to 14 percent, so it’s in the margin,” Hermann says. 

Hermann says many Israelis would support a peace deal with the Palestinians or with Israel’s neighbors, but just not right now. Voters are thinking of security first, she says. 

“There are people on the left who think that diplomacy may help, that the signing of peace agreements is enough to increase security, but this is not the mainstream perception of where we live.”

Tamar Hermann, Israel Democracy Institute

“There are people on the left who think that diplomacy may help, that the signing of peace agreements is enough to increase security, but this is not the mainstream perception of where we live.” 

“We live in a very bad neighborhood. And in order to live a very long and secure life, you need to have a very big stick in your hand,” Hermann says. 

In the final hours of the campaign, Netanyahu has doubled down on his electoral pitch to the political right by promising to annex Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“I’m going to extend Israeli sovereignty and I don’t make a distinction between blocks of settlements and more isolated settlements. In my opinion, each block is an Israeli area and is under Israeli control. We — the Israeli government — have responsibility over these areas. I won’t hand them over to the Palestinian Authority,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Israeli TV's Channel 12. 

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said he is not surprised by Netanyahu’s statement about annexing settlements in the West Bank.

“Netanyahu has been saying that for the last 20 years, maybe not publicly," he said. 

Maliki said the promise from the Israeli prime minister came after much encouragement from United States President Donald Trump. 

“When Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Syrian heights, he felt, ‘Why not? If Trump approves and accepts everything that I ask and demand, then why not go further and demand from him recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank?'” 

Riyad al-Maliki, foreign minister of Palestine

“When Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Syrian heights, he felt, ‘Why not? If Trump approves and accepts everything that I ask and demand, then why not go further and demand from him recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank,'” Maliki said. 

There is a big reason why not, says Gilead Sher. 

Sher is an Israeli lawyer who led multiple rounds of negotiations with the Palestinians and is currently teaching at Georgetown University. Sher says Israeli voters are kidding themselves if they think they can keep moving to the right without consequences. 

“I mean, we’re comfortable in the status quo. Life is good. We’re indifferent to the other. And we’re indifferent to what doesn’t seem to be imminent as a danger to our future because it’s not visible.  ... But we are walking on a very unstable ground.”

Gilead Sher, lawyer and professor at Georgetown University

“I mean, we’re comfortable in the status quo. Life is good. We’re indifferent to the other. And we’re indifferent to what doesn’t seem to be imminent as a danger to our future because it’s not visible,” Sher says.  

“But we are walking on a very unstable ground.”  

Sher says the danger here is losing the ideal of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state. And he says it could happen imminently if voters make the wrong choice this week. 

That was part of Gantz’s closing argument in the election campaign, telling voters that a victory for Netanyahu would threaten Israel’s democracy. 

For his part, Netanyahu was doing what’s worked for him in past elections, wooing right-wing voters by presenting himself as “Mr. Security.” 

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