A sword of Damocles hangs over the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The sword of Netanyahu hangs over Palestine- and Israel. Which will fall first?
A court case approaches. A new election in September approaches. Netanyahu is being accused of a serious crime of corruption. He is fighting not just for his political beliefs but also for his own self-interest. If he wins the election he could seek immunity from prosecution.
Over the last decade Israeli politics has moved steadily rightwards. A compromise with the Palestinians has become increasingly remote. The liberal idea of a “two state solution” is all but abandoned by Israelis. The political left has been eviscerated.
The electorate are told by the wise old men of Israeli politics that Netanyahu’s leadership will lead to an unstable apartheid state where a minority will rule over a majority as far as one can see into the future. “The end of Israeli democracy is a clear and present danger”, warns Avaraham Burg, the former Speaker of the Knesset. Former heads of government and the intelligence services say the same.
President Donald Trump and the US’s powerful Jewish lobby, The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, although not happy about the corruption and graft charges are more than content with Netanyahu’s political direction. American Jewish donors keep the far right’s coffers full. It’s estimated that 99% of Netanyahu’s funding for the primaries comes from private foreign donors. At the same time funding for the liberal/left is constantly under attack, not least because they get what funding they have from foreign governments.
Israeli public opinion has moved steadily towards populism just as it has in the US and EU countries, for some of the same reasons. Working class Mizrahi (Jews who descend from Middle Eastern and North African states) are a major force for nationalism and the non-observance of human rights. Their voting power is huge. Many are strong supporters of Netanyahu and seem unfazed by his legal problems.
According to Haaretz newspaper columnist, Asher Schechter, liberal democracy now appears to be ill-suited to the sensibilities of Israel’s electorate. He quotes sociology professor, Nissim of Tel Aviv university, who writes, “What liberals see as the solution their working class opponents view as the problem. The weakening of religious and national boundaries which liberals consider liberating, often poses a severe threat to their opponents’ core identity.” In 2015 President Reuven Rivlin warned that Israel is an increasingly fragmented society, representing a federation composed of different ethnic, cultural and religious groups that have little in common.
Netanyahu, who believes that Israel “forever will live by the sword”, has dominated Israeli politics since 1996, when he first became prime minister. His public views on a two-state solution have veered over the years. He has never actually presented a clear plan of his own on how to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A majority of public opinion doesn’t appear to fault him for this.
Neither do they fault him for his savage public attacks on Israeli Arabs who make up 21% of the country’s population. In 2015, when it appeared Netanyahu was going to lose the election, he released a video on election day that said: “Arab voters were rushing in droves to the polls”. This helped bring out Jewish voters and Netanyahu won the day. This attack, attack, tactic is his constantly deployed weapon. Moreover, even elements of the left, desperate not to be constantly outflanked and to win back the trust of the electorate, have used some of his derogatory anti-Arab language.
In 2017, the Knesset passed a bill which enables Israel to expropriate privately owned land which has belonged to Palestinian families for generations. Even some people on the right thought this was going too far. President Rivlin (who used to be a MP of Netanyahu’s Likud Party) said the law defied international law. Netanyahu had opposed the bill when it was first discussed but then flip-flopped when, with his legal troubles moving centre stage, he decided to support it.
Right wing ideologues make no attempt to map out a coherent future that will enable Jew and Arab to live harmoniously live side by side. Blindly, they want to live with the status quo. But over recent centuries there is no example of such a situation being stable anywhere.
Even if a two state solution is now no longer on the table there are alternatives. The suggestion of President Rivlin is one- that the Occupied Territories should be annexed to Israel but under terms that would give Israelis and Palestinians full equality and citizenship. There would be a single democratic state.
But the sword of Netanyahu may fall on the Palestinians before enough Israelis push him to consider that kind of idea. Hopefully, the sword of Damocles, wielded by the courts, will fall on him first.