On April 9, Israel will have elections for the premiership. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, will be Israel’s longest serving prime minister if re-elected.
Netanyahu has long used demagogic tactics to get votes. Under investigation for corruption, he demonizes Israel’s press and legal system. In a previous election, he demonized Israeli Arabs by telling voters that Israeli Arabs were “heading to the polling stations in droves” to vote. Then there was the nation-state bill, which endorsed settlement construction, and, most recently, a bizarre Trumpian social media feud with an Israeli actress in which Netanyahu declared that Israel was not a state for all its citizens, but rather only its Jewish citizens.
Netanyahu has undoubtedly pushed his party, the Likud-National Liberal Movement, further to the right. This is most clear in his decision to form a coalition with Otzma Yehudit ("Jewish Power"), an extremist and openly racist party. The Israeli Supreme Court has barred Jewish Power candidates from running for prime minister due to their incitements of racism, but that hasn’t stopped Netanyahu from forming a coalition with them. Likud had previously denied Jewish Power’s strain of vitriolic politics from its coalition. Yitzhak Shamir, a Likudnik and former prime minister, rejected Meir Kahane, the extremist ideological predecessor to Jewish Power, by refusing to form a coalition with him and by condemning him.
Netanyahu’s biggest opponent is Benny Gantz, who formed the Blue and White Party, a centrist challenger to Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Gantz is a former high ranking general, whom many see as quintessentially Israeli. Raised on a kibbutz and a decorated former chief of staff in the Israel Defense Forces, Gantz may be the kryptonite to Netanyahu’s enduring grip on Israel’s political leadership. Electing Blue and White into the Knesset (Israel's parliament) and Gantz into the prime minister’s seat would at worst mean an extension of the status quo, at best, the type of ingenuity and leadership Israel witnessed with Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister. Rabin initiated the greatest peace initiative in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which produced the Oslo accords. Both possibilities are far superior to the prospect of Netanyahu’s racism, populism and illiberalism being reaffirmed and strengthened.
As an American Jew, Israel can be an unnecessarily tricky subject. The discourse surrounding Israel is dominated by extremes. On one hand, there is the position that Israel can do nothing wrong. On the other, that Israel is to blame entirely for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even broader instability in the Middle East. Supporting Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for Jews is not mutually exclusive with supporting the individual and collective rights and wellbeing of Palestinians. By supporting a two-state solution, it is possible to support both Jews and Palestinians.
In a perfect world a one-state solution would be ideal, where the land serves as a homeland for both Israelis and Palestinians under one state. There is nothing innate that prevents Jews and Arabs or Jews and Muslims from living among each other. Jews lived in the Arab world for centuries, facing far less persecution than in Christian Europe for most of history. Maimonides, arguably the most important rabbi in Jewish history, left Spain to escape the inquisition and went to the Ottoman empire, where Arab Muslim rationalists influenced his rabbinical thought, thus influencing Judaism. And in America, Jews and Arabs live side by side. No cultural, racial, religious or ethnic identity is predisposed with animus toward another. These identities are constructed over the complex course of history. Unfortunately, this course can include the development of some resented “other” which strengthens the internal bonds of the identity’s in-group dynamic.
Both sides of the conflict have legitimate grievances. Israelis have the 1967 war, when the dictator of Egypt swore to drive the Jews to the sea in service of Pan-Arabism. There were decades of PLO terrorism, the intifada suicide bombings, followed by Hamas terrorism today. Israelis would also point to the peace deals the Israeli government has made in the last 20 years that the Palestinian leadership has rejected. Palestinians in the West Bank have experienced half a century of occupation, checkpoints and resultant humiliation and abuse. They live with the fear of arrest and the presence of soldiers intruding in their daily lives and extremist settlers harassing them as the settlers seek to create an expansionist greater-Israel. Palestinians in Gaza have meager living conditions maintained by an Israeli blockade and the specter of Israeli airstrikes that devastate Gaza’s infrastructure and have deadly consequences. And for all Palestinians there is the memory of 1948, what they call the “Great Catastrophe” and Israelis call the “War of Independence.” Picking a side to assign total moral culpability is the wrong approach. Neither side is a monolith collectively responsible for the actions of each member of their group. But in the dynamics of the conflict, Jews against Palestinians, both have done wrong over the last 100 years. Continuing to bicker over who is worse stymies real momentum to change the status quo.
Given the intensity and length of the conflict, it is hard to envision how the two populations could live together peacefully in the near future, nonetheless create a cohesive national identity. Integrating the two populations would be a long, messy process likely mired by violence and what political scientists call “spoilers,” where extremists seek to undermine reconciliation between two groups in a conflict. A single state would probably devolve into a civil war type situation, in which either Israel would reassert military dominance or substantial third party intervention would need to assuage the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
A two-state solution is thus the favorable solution for the near future. Israelis and Palestinians need to negotiate borders that can accommodate both groups. Israel has significantly more power and thus bears more responsibility to initiate negotiations and a deal. But these same power dynamics mean the Palestinian leadership needs a greater willingness to compromise. Since the Oslo accords, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have not dropped the demand for the right of return to Israel proper, essentially meaning that they only support a one-state solution. And in Gaza, Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel and the death of Jews globally.
Netanyahu will pursue neither of these solutions. The one-state he would likely pursue would be one of a unilateral annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and the codification of second-class citizenship for all Palestinians. This will turn Israel into a pariah state akin to apartheid South Africa, in which Israel would be neither undemocratic, or in my opinion, truly Jewish. With Gantz, there is at least a chance that settlement construction is halted and negotiations for a two-state solution are initiated. Conflicts always seem more intractable as they are ongoing. Bold and decisive Israeli leadership may be exactly what is needed to achieve real change, securing a prosperous and just future for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Aaron Baker can be reached at email@example.com.