It’s nationalist vs. nationalist.
On Tuesday, April 9, Israelis will go to the polls to decide the fate of indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A towering figure in Israeli politics, wily Bibi is throwing everything and the kitchen sink towards staying in power – including by allying with the worst of the worst in Israel’s spectrum. Meanwhile, his primary opponent, ex-Israeli military chief Benny Gantz, is hoping that a combination of corruption and Bibi fatigue will send his newly-minted Blue and White Party just over the edge – and end a political era.
Alas, it hardly matters. The contest’s personalities are fascinating, but they are also pretty much irrelevant. For on the other side, a more nationalist, dare we even say fascist, Israel lurks.
Israeli nationalism, briefly
Zionism emerged in Europe’s 19th century hotbed of romantic nationalism, so there’s always been a strain of strident “Israel First” political thought lurking in the background. But the experiences of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression morphed Zionism into a center-left political experience. Socialist in economics, largely defensive in military strategy, this Zionism from 1948 until 1977 emphasized a “land for peace” strategy that would grab up bits of neighbors to trade away for recognition for the territory conquered in 1948. It was also very wary of a rightward turn that might empower the ultra-Orthodox religious extremists who refused to sit next to women on buses.
But in 1977, Likud took power, and began to steadily reshape Israeli politics from a center-left country to a center-right one. Out went the Kibbutz and all those socialist overtones (though a few still function, they’re hardly a linchpin of Israeli society anymore). In came American-style capitalism and an assertive military strategy that thought land for peace was often bunk.
History has a way of changing people. From 1973 onwards, Israel no longer lived under the threat of imminent extinction, as it established military dominance and eventually diplomatic security with treats with Egypt and Jordan. Instead, the problem became managing the occupied territories with their increasing numbers of Palestinians.
That really changed Israeli nationalism. While before, Israeli leaders worried indulging nationalism would lead them to the same destruction witness by the hypernationalists of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, as Israel became more secure, Israeli politicians were more able to explore this ideology as a means to win elections.
New arrivals with different attitudes towards nationalism, most notably the Soviet Jews who arrived as the USSR collapsed, really moved this trend. Younger Israelis grew up in an IDF that more often occupied the West Bank and Gaza, where defiant Palestinian risings and obstinate Palestinian politicians often fought more for their own survival than for self-determination of their budding nation. Yasser Arafat was the epitome of this: when offered a new, albeit imperfect, peace deal in 2000, he chose intifada in large part because he worried he would not maintain his position in a future Palestinian state.
The nationalists may be center left or center right, but they’re definitely front and center
Israeli nationalism changed in response to these events. It became more hardline, more willing to annex territory, less willing to compromise. As the Arab world gave up on the Palestinians, and as Iran rose up as the great regional threat, Israeli nationalism could increasingly move into a space where it favored a one state solution.
Those are more or less the type of government that Israel will get after April 9. If Netanyahu wins, it’ll be because his alliance with extremists have churned out just enough ring wing votes to glue his nationalist-right coalition together. They will favor some kind of war with Hamas in Gaza (who has been harassing Israel for over a year now), and more importantly will push to take over bits of the West Bank with an eventual eye to take over the whole thing.
If Gantz wins – well, if Gantz wins, it’s pretty much the same thing, only on a different timeline. That’s because a Gantz government would need both the nationalists and what remains of the Left, slowing the process. But while that may give the Left a breath of political air after years of drowning, it probably won’t save them. Israelis are becoming more nationalist. After nearly 15 years of constant harassment from Gaza, few believe in the idea of withdrawing from the West Bank to give Palestinians a future state. A region in which its biggest foes – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah – are all scared of starting a war with them has also emboldened Israelis.
There’s a lot more to unpack and talk about when it comes to this trend. I’ve done some of that over at Stratfor – especially how the U.S.-Israeli relationship is set up for a real confrontation in the future. But as the headlines unleashed next week over the political drama, just remember the bigger picture: Israel has changed. Its elections will show its political center has moved. And the stronger nationalists, whether they’re Blue and White or Likud, are in charge.