“Iacta alea est” – the die is cast – said Julius Caesar and crossed the River Rubicon on his way to conquer Rome. That was the end of Roman democracy.
We don’t have a Julius Caesar. But we do have an Avigdor Liberman. When he announced his support the other day for the setting up of a government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, that was the crossing of his Rubicon.
I hope that this is not the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy.
Until the last moment, Liberman held the Israeli public in suspense. Will he join Netanyahu? Will he join Tzipi Livni?
Those who participated in the guessing game were divided in their view of Liberman.
Some of them said: Liberman is indeed what he pretends to be: an extreme nationalist racist. His aim is really to turn Israel into a Jewish state cleansed of Arabs – Araberrein, in German. He has only contempt for democracy, both in the country and in his own party, which consists of yesmen and yeswomen devoid of any identity of their own. Like similar parties in the past, it is based on a cult of (his) personality, the worship of brute force, contempt for democracy and disdain for the judicial system. In other countries this is called fascism.
Others say: that is all a faÃ§ade. Liberman is no Israeli Fuehrer, because he is nothing but a cheat and a cynic. The police investigations against him and his business dealings with Palestinians show him to be a corrupt opportunist. He is also a friend of Tzipi. He cultivates a fascist image in order to pave his way to power. He will sell all his slogans for a piece of government.
The first Liberman would support the setting up of an extreme Right government by Netanyahu. The second Liberman could support a Livni government. For a whole week he juggled the balls. Now he has decided: he is indeed an extreme nationalist racist. As the Americans say: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.
For appearances’ sake he told the President that his proposal to entrust Netanyahu with the setting up of a government applies only to a broad-based coalition encompassing Likud, Kadima and his own party. But that is just a gimmick: probably such a government will not come into being, and the next government will be a coalition of Likud, Liberman, the disciples of Meir Kahane and the religious parties.
SOME ON the Left say: Excellent. The voters will get exactly what they deserve. At long last, there will be an exclusively rightist government.
One of the proponents of this attitude is Gideon Levy, a consistent advocate of peace, democracy and civil equality.
He and those who think like him say: Israel simply has to pass through this phase before it can recover. The Right must get unlimited power to realize its program, without the pretext of being hindered by leftist or centrist members of the coalition. Let them try, in full view of the world, to pursue a policy of war, the overthrow of Hamas in Gaza, the avoidance of any peace negotiations, unfettered settlement, spitting in the face of world public opinion and collision with the United States.
In this view, such a government cannot last for long. The new American administration of Barack Obama will not allow it. The world will boycott it. American Jewry will be shocked. And if Netanyahu strays – even slightly – from the Right and narrow path, his government will fall apart. The Kahanists, up to then his full partners, will divorce him on the spot. After all, the last Netanyahu government was overthrown ten years ago by the extreme right after he sat down with Yasser Arafat and signed an agreement that gave (pro forma) a part of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority.
After the fall of the government, according to this prognosis, the public will understand that there is no rightist option, that the slogans of the Right are nothing but nonsense. Only thus will they arrive at the conclusion that there is no alternative to the path of peace. The voters will elect a government that will end the occupation, clear the way for a free Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and withdraw to the Green Line borders (with slight, mutually acceptable, adjustments).
For the public to accept this, a shock is needed. The fall of the deep-Right government can supply such a shock. According to a saying attributed (mistakenly, it appears) to Lenin: The worse, the better. Or, put in another way: it must become much worse before it can get any better.
This is a seductive theory. But it is also very frightening.
How can we be sure that the Obama administration will indeed put irresistible pressure on Netanyahu? That is possible. Let’s hope that it happens. But it is not certain at all.
Obama has not yet passed a real test on any issue. It is already clear that there is a marked difference between what he promised in the election campaign and what he is doing in practice. In several matters he is continuing the policies of George Bush with slight alterations. That was, of course, to be expected. But Obama has not yet shown how he would act under real pressure. When Netanyahu mobilizes the full might of the pro-Israel lobby, will Obama surrender, like all preceding presidents?
And world public opinion – how united will it be? How much pressure can it exert? When Netanyahu declares that all criticism of his government is “anti-Semitic” and that every boycott call is an echo of the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden” (“Don’t buy from Jews”) – how many of the critics will stand up to the pressure? How much courage will Merkel, Sarkozy, Berlusconi et al be able to muster? And on the other side: will a world-wide boycott not intensify the paranoia in Israel and push all the Israeli public into the arms of the extreme Right, under the time-worn slogan “All the World is against us?”
In the best of circumstances, if all the pressures materialize and have a maximum impact – how long will it take? What disasters can such a government bring about before the pressure starts to take effect? How many human beings will be killed and injured in attacks and acts of revenge by both sides? Such a government would be dominated by the settlers. How many new settlements will spring up? How many existing settlements will be extended at a hectic pace? And in the meantime, won’t the settlers intensify their harassment of the Palestinian population with the aim of bringing about ethnic cleansing?
The components of the Rightist coalition have already declared that they do not agree to a cease-fire in Gaza because it would consolidate the rule of Hamas there. They seek to renew the Gaza War under an even more brutal leadership, to re-conquer the Strip and to return the settlers there.
Netanyahu’s talk about an “economic peace” is complete nonsense, because no economy can develop under an occupation regime and hundreds of roadblocks. Any peace process – real or virtual – will grind to a halt. The result: the Palestinian authority will collapse. Out of desperation, the West Bank population will turn further towards Hamas, or the Fatah movement will become Hamas 2.
Inside Israel, the government will have to confront the deepening depression and perhaps cause economic chaos. All the sections of the government are united in their hatred of the Supreme Court, and the crazy manipulations of Justice Minister Daniel Friedman will give way to even crazier ones. Under the catchy slogan of “regime change”, targeted assaults against the democratic system will take place.
All these things are possible. One or two years of a Bibi-Liberman-Kahane government can cause irreparable damage to Israel’s standing in the world, Israeli-American relations, the judicial system, Israeli democracy, national morale and national sanity.
The positive side of this situation is that the Knesset will once again include a large opposition. Perhaps even an effective opposition.
Kadima came into being as a government party. It will not be easy for it to adapt to the role of opposition. That will require an emotional and intellectual transformation. For ten years I myself conducted an uncompromising oppositional struggle in the Knesset, and I know how difficult it is. But if Kadima manages to undergo such a transformation successfully – which is very doubtful – it may become an effective opposition. The necessity to present a clear alternative to the rightist government may lead it to discover unsuspected strengths within itself. Tzipi Livni’s games with the Palestinians may turn into a serious program for a Two-State solution, a program that will be strengthened and deepened by the daily parliamentary struggle vis-Ã -vis a government with an opposite program.
Labor, too, will have to undergo a profound transformation. Ehud Barak is certainly not the person to wage an oppositional fight – especially as he will not be the “head of the opposition”, a title officially conferred by law on the leader of the largest opposition faction. He will be second fiddle even in opposition. Labor will have to compete, and perhaps-perhaps this will lead to its recovery. The Bible tells us of the miracle of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37).
That is true even more for Meretz. It will have to compete with both Kadima and Labor to justify its place in the struggle for peace and social recovery.
A real optimist can even hope for the narrowing of the gap between the “Jewish Left” and the “Arab parties”, which the Left has until now boycotted and left out of all coalition calculations. The common struggle and the joint votes in the Knesset may bring about a positive development there too.
And beyond the parliamentary arena, the government of the extreme Right may change the atmosphere in the country and stimulate many well-intentioned people to leave the security of their ivory towers and start a process of intellectual rejuvenation in the circles from which a new, open and different Left must spring.
All these are theoretical possibilities. What will happen in reality? What will be the consequences of a “pure” rightist regime, if Tzipi Livni maintains her determination not to join a Netanyahu government? Will Israel set off down a suicidal road from which there is no return, or will this be a passing phase before the wake-up call?
It is a great gamble, and like every gamble, it arouses both fear and hope.
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This post was written by Uri Avnery