Israel suffered 13 deaths in the Gaza war. But we won’t know the full extent of the wound the nation has suffered until February 10, when elections are held. If current polls are to be believed, an extremist right-wing party stands to make historic gains. That outcome will demonstrate just how deep the psychic wound from the conflict truly runs; just how far the latest violence has radicalized the Israeli public; and just how big a problem all this will be for Israel’s long-term security.
The party in question is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (or “Israel is our Home”) Party. Lieberman has been a figure on the Israeli far right for years, but the Gaza war has given his party an unprecedented boost. According to the most recent opinion polls published in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Yisrael Beiteinu stands to win 15 or 16 seats in the next Knesset, which puts them even with the Labor Party. For a party of the extreme right to surpass Labor--the founding party of the state, the party of Ben Gurion, Golda, and Rabin--would mark a historic shift. Clearly, in the current mood of national anger and frustration, even formerly moderate voters are open to extreme ideas--and Lieberman has plenty of those. Under the catchy slogan “No citizenship without loyalty” (it rhymes in Hebrew), Yisrael Beiteinu is pushing for a new law requiring all citizens to swear an “oath of loyalty” to the state. Israeli-Arab citizens or others who refuse could have their citizenship stripped from them.
In order to sell that idea, Lieberman has focused much of his campaign inciting public anger against Israel’s Arab minority. He accuses Israeli-Arab lawmakers of harboring Hamas sympathies, and has called for the parties to be banned from running in the election. His campaign ads show Israeli-Arab students demonstrating against the Gaza war as a narrator ominously intones, “We won’t forget that, during the Gaza conflict, there were those among us who stood with Hamas.” As for the Gaza operation itself, Lieberman has denounced the cease-fire as a sell-out of the military. His preferred strategy is total war against the Gazan population: “We must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II.” The message is clearly finding its audience. Of particular concern is evidence suggesting Lieberman’s appeal is growing among young voters. While not a scientific barometer, high school straw polls show Yisrael Beiteinu trouncing the mainstream parties. And reporters visiting the party’s central headquarters speak of it buzzing with young volunteers--a fun-house mirror image of the young voters who helped propel Barack Obama to victory in the United States.
Like all nations, Israel has always had its extremists. But never have these ideas been so widely embraced by an outraged mainstream. Nor is the public’s anger confined to the fringes. Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and a leading member of the centrist Kadima Party, is pledging to assassinate Hamas leaders. Ehud Barak of the Labor Party is evoking Vladimir Putin, claiming that he will kill terrorists “when they are on the toilet.” But all this scrambling to the right plays directly into Lieberman’s hands. Yisrael Beiteinu’s steady rise in the polls shows that voters are concluding there’s no reason to settle for a watered-down version of radical nationalism when they can get the real thing.
For Israel, this unprecedented shift to the right is not just a moral danger--it is also a serious strategic problem. Israel’s national security depends on its position as a democracy and a member in good standing of the international community. As a sovereign democracy, Israel has the freedom of action to respond to terrorist threats, to maintain its military, and to be an undeclared nuclear power. Israel’s business connections with the rest of the world are fundamental to its economy. All of that will be threatened should Lieberman and his extremist supporters succeed in advancing their agenda.
Israel has always had its harsh critics in the U.N. and E.U. But, even at its worst, that criticism has been contained within well-defined limits. In Europe and the United States, calls to sanction, boycott, or prosecute Israeli leaders as war criminals have been almost the exclusive province of the extreme left. That won’t hold if Israel crosses an anti-democratic tipping point. If Israel ever actually began enforcing a loyalty oath or stripping Arab citizens of their citizenship or property rights, the road to real international isolation of the sort experienced by South Africa in the 1980s or Serbia in the 1990s could be shockingly short. And an Israel isolated from the international community would be deeply vulnerable.
To be sure, Lieberman is not about to become prime minister. A government even under the right-wing Likud Party is highly unlikely to implement the most extreme of Lieberman’s proposals. Moreover, Israel’s Supreme Court stands as a last line of defense against blatantly discriminatory policies. Indeed, the court has already acted to prevent an Yisrael Beiteinu-led effort to ban two Israeli-Arab parties from running in the current elections. But, if Yisrael Beiteinu performs as well as the polls suggest it will, then it stands a good chance of sitting in the next government. And, with 15 or 16 seats, it would have a relatively strong voice there. Lieberman would hold a prominent ministerial post, along with at least two or three of his colleagues. As a bloc, they would be able to influence the direction of policymaking for the coming years. At a minimum, this would further alienate Israel’s Arab citizens and complicate any peace efforts. It would certainly provide endless fodder to Israel’s harshest critics around the world.
Given the extent of the danger, Israel’s true friends in the United States and around the world must apply themselves to the task of helping the political center hold. That does not mean directly interfering in Israel’s domestic politics. But it does mean encouraging the Obama administration and others to communicate to the Israeli public the costs involved in breaking with democratic norms. Unlike most other countries, Israelis don’t applaud their leaders for taking on the United States. Israelis understand how vital their “special relationship” with America is to national security. If the Israeli public is made to understand that embrace of Lieberman’s radical ideas threatens the U.S.-Israel bond, it will nudge voters back toward the center. And ensuring that Israel’s center can continue to hold will be vital--to the peace process and to Israel’s long-term position in the international community.
Arik Ben-Zvi is a managing director at The Glover Park Group and a former soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.
By Arik Ben-Zvi