Ambient bigotry in Israeli political culture has now become standard in its quotidian ordinariness. So much so, that over the years, it elicited meagre mainstream commentary, where it was not ignored altogether. Consider in that regard what the campaign messages, delivered by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and retired army lieutenant general Benny Gantz, revealed about that culture as the two competed to form Israel’s next government.
Netanyahu — who in the previous election had warned his supporters that “Arabs [Palestinian citizens of Israel] were heading to the polls in droves” — found a new political ally in the so-called Otzma Yehdit, or Jewish Power, a group that traces its lineage to the notorious fascist Rabbi Meyer Kahane’s Kach Party, which advocated the annexation of the West Bank, “trucking” — effectively ethnically cleansing — the Palestinians who lived there across the River Jordan, and resettling “Palestinians in 1948 areas” in Arab countries. Otzman’s leader, Michael Ben Ami, was denied a visa to the United States in 2012 because of his association with a “violent extremist group”. These are the kinds of people Netanyahu wants to bring to his Cabinet.
Then, of course, came the shocker last Sunday. In a last-ditch effort to rally his far-right, racist base, to ensure that he would remain in power for a fifth term, he promised that, if re-elected, he would annex the West Bank, extending sovereignty over the Occupied Territories and its 2.6 million people.
And, there was Gantz, who we all agreed, after hearing him speak, was not left-wing, was not right-wing, was not centrist and was not Netanyahu. What he turned out to be was an unrepentant warmonger. Just as Netanyahu, during his long tenure in office nurtured the emergence of a generation of Israelis socialised to believe that peace equals betrayal and Jewishness translates into supremacy,
Gantz throughout his long career in uniform advanced the notion that military conquest is the only language Arabs understand.
Slaughter of Palestinians
He was the top honcho in occupied south Lebanon in 1999 (after his predecessor had been killed by a roadside bomb), and during his stint as Israel’s chief-of-staff, beginning in 2011, he directed two major wars in Gaza in 2012 and 2014, the latter resulting in the slaughter, according to the United Nations, of 2251 Palestinians. Gantz reportedly often bragged about how he “always visited Arab countries without a passport” — a snide reference to how, when he set foot in an Arab country, he did so by resorting to force of arms.
Thus, whether it’s Netanyahu or Gantz, who cares? For Palestinians, they are tweedle dee and tweedle dum — in effect, two blades of one pair of scissors.
True, racism had become so encoded in Israel’s political culture, so quotidian, so pedestrian in sentiment. All the pity, because far from being inherently racist, diaspora Jews had historically been in the vanguard of the European liberal tradition. Racism, let’s face it, is an acquired habit. It is not inherited like a gene, but rather is worn and styled like hair. And that’s what Zionist Jews acquired once they arrived in Palestine.
But with racism there always comes a breaking point. Here’s one: Last Sunday, Beto O’Rourke, the wildly popular Democratic White House hopeful, weighed in on Israel’s election, describing Netanyahu as a racist and an obstacle to peace. He said that though the Israel-US relationship is important, “that relationship, if it is to be successful, must transcend partisanship in the United States, and it must transcend a prime minister who is a racist”. Who would’ve imagined that a public figure, a presidential aspirant no less, would have verbalised so unthinkable a thought!
But “the times they are a changing”, as the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s archetypal protest song would attest.
Already, polls show that generally positive views that Americans had traditionally held of Israel are eroding. Today, as a case in point, only 25 per cent of American liberals view Israel as an ally. The voting rate among young people in the US, a majority of whom view Israel as the bad guy and Palestine as the injured party, increased 50 per cent in the last election, compared to previous ones. And 22 million of these youngsters will be at the polls in 2020 casting their votes.
So, Palestinians, hold on. You’re moving right along, Israeli election results or no Israeli election results. Meanwhile, recall Reinhold Niebuhr’s wise mantra: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Right on, fellows.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.