Ignore the handwringing. Israel’s shift to the right won’t change its Palestinian policy

Israel is about to have “its most right-wing government, ever.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the far-right party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) has accepted Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of the defense ministry.  The Israeli prime minister’s offer returns to the cabinet a man who is a past foreign minister and whose vision for the future strains the right-wing limits of Israel’s wildly divided political spectrum.

Israeli politicians are mostly horrified by the appointment. Benny Begin, son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and a longstanding member of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, said that Netanyahu had acted irresponsibly and “dangerously.” Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union (a joint party composed of Herzog’s Labor Party and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah) and who had actively sought his own place in the cabinet, said the policies now pursued would “verge on insanity.”

Netanyahu’s move indeed reflects a distinct tilt right. His coalition government has a majority of one — a nerve-wracking process in a legislature as fractious as the Israeli Knesset. Yisrael Beitenu’s six members make governing more comfortable; Herzog’s 24 deputies would have made it invulnerable. In spite of the numbers, Netanyahu decided not to use the Zionist Union to tack back to the center.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits next to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits next to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Lieberman, an immigrant from Russia whose party depended on fellow migrants’ support (and lost much of it in the 2015 elections), is a powerful, aggressive and intolerant man. His frequent calls for Israeli Palestinians, including fellow parliamentarians, to be charged with treachery have drawn accusations of racism. Though he has embraced the goal of a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians — the official position of the current government — he has been at best lukewarm. He prefers instead to see the future of the West Bank, where most Palestinians live, as an area into which Israel constantly expands.

Meanwhile, powerful Israeli officials increasingly fear that their nation is not just drifting rightward, but toward authoritarianism. A former senior Mossad (domestic secret service) officer, in an off-the-record interview earlier this week, vehemently insisted that Netanyahu was playing fast and loose with Israel’s civil society, for example, bringing legislation to the Knesset to restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations. The two most senior officers in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have leveled similar charges — in public — against Netanyahu.

Major General Yair Golan, the IDF deputy chief of staff, said in a startling speech during Holocaust Remembrance Day this month that Israel was showing signs of “moral degradation” akin to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He was defended by his boss, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who himself had drawn conservative criticism for saying that the army’s rules of engagement did not include soldiers “emptying a full magazine into a girl holding scissors.” (Eisenkot’s comments were seen as a reference to a November stabbing attack by scissors-wielding teens.)

Still more weightily, Golan was defended by the defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who called on the officers to “speak their minds … even if your comments are not part of the mainstream and even if they stand in contrast with the ideas adopted by the senior command or the government.”

He had a showdown with Netanyahu over this comment. Then he lost his job — to Lieberman.

When intelligence officers and generals accuse politicians, even obliquely, of taking their country to the dark side, it’s both disquieting and reassuring. The first, because it shows a disconnect between the executive and the military command — bad news for a country that depends so solidly on its army, Reassuring, because it seems to show that there’s no fear of an army coup to “restore order,” because it’s the nature of the “order” and the suffocating of a liberal society that worries the generals.

There’s a crucial footnote to this. Though the changes have already shocked large swathes of the political establishment, Israelis elected a right-wing government because they believed it would better safeguard their security than any combination of the center and the left.

Though most Israelis tell pollsters that they support the government’s two-state solution, it isn’t going to happen. Israelis are frightened of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, for two reasons.

First, they believe Palestinians themselves want only a single Palestinian-dominated state that occupies all the land of Israel, as well as Gaza and the West Bank.

Second, they fear that an independent Palestinian state would elect a hard-line Hamas government that, as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas warned this week, would allow Islamic State and al Qaeda into the country.

Thus, though the two-state solution is both the official and the public’s choice, no Israeli government will pursue it seriously. Netanyahu’s shift to the right will make Western leaders, especially the U.S. president, sigh with despair.

But it isn’t, in itself, evidence of a new policy toward the Palestinians.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics; 2004. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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