This past week I had the pleasure of participating in a Limmud Copenhagen gathering. It is my third time over the past six years of presenting issues of the day concerning Israel to the wonderful Jewish community of Denmark and southern Sweden.
I gave two presentations. In one, I reviewed the principles and details of how to reach Israeli-Palestinian peace, looking both at what went wrong and how it could be done right. This talk was called In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine – the title of my book from last year, in which I provide insights gained from 38 years of working across the Israeli-Palestinian conflict line, being engaged in negotiations and developing policy proposals through the joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
The talk also considered the real possibility – if Netanyahu wins the elections – that there might not be any renewal of a genuine peace process in the foreseeable future, and what the implications are for Israel in that case.
The second presentation focused on the upcoming Israeli elections, in which I reviewed our electoral system, the structure of the Knesset, the political parties running, their leaders, who they represent and what they stand for. I was genuinely hard-pressed to answer questions about what issues Israelis are being asked to decide on.
The number-one issue seems to be Benjamin Netanyahu. These elections are about the prime minister. Do we want him to continue for another term, or is it time for him to go home? The issue of Netanyahu is about the integrity of our leader, about honesty, about values, about governance and the rule of law. The issue is about who we are as a nation, a people; who is included and who is excluded. The issue is about legitimation, belonging and participating in the governance of the country, or being labeled illegitimate.
Even after more than 10 years in governments headed by Netanyahu and the right wing, after four years of the most right-wing government in the history of Israel, Netanyahu wants us to believe that the “Left” controls the country. When Netanyahu says “Left,” he means those he considers to be the enemies of Israel – meaning his enemies. “Left” is anyone who disagrees with Netanyahu.
“Left” is weak. “Left” is pro-Arab. “Left” is anti-Trump. “Left” is anyone who talks about peace. “Left” is anyone who mentions two states for two peoples. “Left” is anyone who thinks that Netanyahu should be put on trial for crimes of corruption. “Left” is anyone who criticizes his wife and her excesses.
Basically it can be summed up with the old saying: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” “Right” is all the opposite: loyal, strong, anti-Arab, pro-settlements and settlers, and definitely against the media, which – according to Netanyahu and his followers – is controlled by the “Left” and only seeks to unseat him.
Netanyahu preaches fear and riles up hatred and racism. In past campaigns, he played upon the actual threats facing Israel: Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS and Hamas. He presented all of those threats as existential and said that only he could protect Israel. Netanyahu embellished the fear and hatred of Arabs in the last campaign, warning that the Arabs were racing to the polling places – bused in by the “Left” NGOs.
THIS TIME it’s “Bibi or Tibi.” What is he trying to tell us? Bibi is good, Zionist, Jewish, loyal, and strong against the enemies of Israel. (Dr. Ahmed) Tibi is bad, anti-Zionist, Muslim, a traitor; he is an enemy – one of them – the Palestinians, and clearly an enemy of Israel. According to Bibi, Tibi is the ultimate fifth column, working to destroy Israel from within, exploiting Israel’s democracy to destroy the Jewish state.
So that is the choice of the electorate: Bibi or Tibi – according to Bibi. Netanyahu and his cronies say it explicitly: a vote for Blue and White – a party headed by three former IDF chiefs of staff – is a vote for Tibi. Blue and White is the only party that has a chance of defeating Netanyahu’s Likud.
But according to Bibi, Blue and White Party head and former chief of staff Benny Gantz is weak and will empower Tibi and the other Arabs against Israel. Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaign has been so successful, and Israel has become so apparently anti-Arab that – with the exception of Meretz, the only real left-wing, mostly Jewish party – Israeli politicians cannot even suggest that they will ask Arab voters for their support, or God forbid, rely on them to form a government after the elections.
Netanyahu manipulated and facilitated the merging of right-wing parties with the descendants of the founder of Kach, the Jewish terrorist organization. Bibi’s fear-mongering of Arabs led all of the other Jewish parties into not voting against allowing the Kahanist, racist, hateful Otzma Yehudit Party to run in the elections. Even the religious Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended to not allow them to run.
What has become of our society? What do we remember as Jews, with our 2,000 years of life experience as a persecuted minority? Ki garim hayinu – our liturgy reminds us that we, too, were strangers, and therefore we have a responsibility to those who live with us who are not Jews.
I cannot even imagine what Israelis would say if a similar campaign took place in France or Britain. Imagine elections in any country which suggested that sitting in the same government with Jews would be likened to sitting with the enemy, with traitors, with those seeking to destroy the country. Do we even hear ourselves? Do we listen to what we are being told by our politicians?
One of the participants in Copenhagen asked if the Palestinian issue was on the election agenda. He asked: “Do you still talk about peace in Israel?” The answer was quite simple: the talk of peace is on the agenda of Meretz and Hadash-Ta’al only. The main aspect in discussing the Palestinian issue seems to be heard mostly in boasting and bragging about who is responsible for killing more Arabs and preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel.
Perhaps a consolation can be found in the fact that the economy is also not being discussed. It is not only not the peace issue, it is also not the Palestinians, and not the economy. It is Bibi or not. It is clear, though, that getting back to the issues will depend first and foremost on replacing Netanyahu with someone else.
So for now, the issue is Netanyahu. And for the health of our society, I hope and pray that this is the last time we will have to face an issue-less political season, and we can begin returning to ourselves. We need a long period of healing after the divisiveness of our current leadership.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.