Middle East Stability at Risk as Ultranationalists Take Hold in Israel

The problem is not the end of any residual hope of achieving a peace based on the “two-state” solution in the Holy Land. For some time now, the “Palestinian cause” has been relegated to the last places on the agendas of regional and global powers who intend to redefine, in their own image, the face of the coming Middle East. The problem lies in Jerusalem. A problem that comes from afar, but which deflagrated on the night of Nov. 1, 2022, when the counting of votes in Israel’s legislative elections – the fifth in just over three years – sanctioned the triumph of the ultranationalist right. An identitarian, ideologically fierce right wing that has always had the design of “Greater Israel” on its mind. And this design can now become government.

To grasp the significance of the November 1st vote, an editorial in Haaretz, along with Yediot Ahronot, the most influential newspaper in Israel, is illuminating. “It’s already clear that the big winner in the country’s 25th Knesset elections is the chairman of Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben Gvir, and that the big loser is Israel. Religious Zionism, the Knesset list that distorted the Zionist project and transformed it from the national home of the Jewish people into a project of conservative, right-wing, racist, religious Jewish supremacism in the spirit of Ben Gvir’s teacher and rabbi, Meir Kahane, is now the third largest political force in Israel”. And the conclusion reached by Tel Aviv’s progressive newspaper it is not a journalistic stretch, but a sharp snapshot of reality: “In recent years, Israel has become terrifyingly more extreme […] Israel is now on the verge of a right-wing, religious, authoritarian revolution, whose goal is to decimate the democratic infrastructure on which the country was built. This may be a black day in Israel’s history”.

A day that could call into question old regional alliances and define new ones, hitherto unexpected. The November vote forcefully and dramatically poses the “Israeli question” as a disruptive element in the stabilization or explosion of the Middle East. The problem lies in Jerusalem and not in Ramallah or Gaza. By the Arab countries, with the addition of Iran and Turkey, the Palestinian issue has always been used instrumentally, as a pawn in a regional game of Risk. The “Abraham Accords” are the latest confirmation of this. Which is also corroborated by certain silences in the Palestinian camp, such as that of Hamas.

Hamas continues to be linked to Tehran through direct ties and through its long-established relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the other hand, in the face of an increasingly dramatic crisis affecting the Gaza Strip and its population – 57 percent of the more than 2 million Palestinians living there are now below the poverty line – Hamas cannot break with Egypt. Especially when President al-Sisi has expressed a willingness to handle the “Palestinian issue” himself. And if the “poster count” means anything, and it certainly does, it is no coincidence that in recent times in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi‘s face is plastered on walls, in squares, much more than the rather faded ones of Ayatollah Khamenei and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The fact remains that neither the PNA nor Hamas has the strength to be able to claim autonomy and be vocal in the face of political-diplomatic initiatives that discuss Palestinians without Palestinians. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Jordan, now Morocco…The Arab-Muslim warring brothers are in permanent action. To carve up what is left of the “Palestinian cause” and put their stamp on it.

A “fundamentalist” Israel calls into question relationships in the making or already partly established – UAE, Bahrain, even Saudi Arabia –, creates further difficulties for Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, and gives more space to maneuver to military-theocratic regimes that turn anti-Zionism into kind of weapon of mass distraction from very serious domestic problems, such as Iran. And this time, authoritative diplomatic and geopolitical analysts agree, the undoubted manipulative skills of the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, will not be enough to bridge the divide.

A troubling consideration was made by perhaps one of the more decisive voice: the United States, Israel’s longest ally. The US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, has warned in more than one interview that the White House will reject any attempt by the future Israeli government to annex the Palestinian West Bank, as Netanyahu had tried to do in 2020 and which Itamar Ben-Gvir, likely Minister of Public Security, intends to include in the executive branch’s agenda. “Our position is clear: We do not support annexation. We will fight any such attempt,” Nides told public broadcaster Kan. The ambassador’s comments came after Yariv Levin, a prominent right-wing figure, declared that annexation of the West Bank is at the top of the future government’s agenda.

“We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups” echoed State Department spokesman, Ned Price in a press briefing. Barak Ravid, an Israeli journalist at Axios, revealed that two officials in the Biden administration had told him that “the Biden administration is unlikely to engage with Jewish supremacist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is expected to be a senior minister in a future Israeli government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu”. Revelations that were promptly confirmed by the government.

The creation of a government marked by the ultranationalist right could also call into question the agreement that was reached and signed last October between Israel and Lebanon, rightly dubbed historic, demarcating the maritime border and the subsequent sharing of energy resources off their respective coasts. A step that opens the door to the exploitation of new gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanese President Michel Aoun had deemed the draft agreement, reached thanks to US mediator Amos Hochstein who shuttled between Beirut and Tel Aviv, as “satisfactory.” The agreement was finally signed on October 27th. “The Lebanese presidency,” reads a statement, “believes that the final formula preserved Lebanon’s rights to its natural wealth at an important time for its people.”

Similar satisfaction was also expressed by outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. “The draft agreement,” Lapid tweeted, “is fully in line with the principles presented by Israel on security and economics. This is a historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security, bring billions into the Israeli economy and ensure stability on the northern border.” The only dissonant note had come from then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, now premier once again, who had called the agreement “a historic surrender” to Hezbollah. “For more than a decade,” Netanyahu said, “my government did not bow to Hezbollah’s threats and we had no war. Then,” he continued, “Lapid came and in three months he gave in completely to all the demands”. Just electoral controversy? Perhaps, but there are many who doubt it.

In a long piece for the Italian broadsheet, La Stampa, published in August 2019, Abraham Bet Yehoshua, a major Israeli playwright, essayist, and novelist, who passed away earlier this year, wrote:

“In the current Israeli political reality, there is no political debate between opposing sides. The words ‘left’ and ‘right’ bounce around from all sides, devoid of meaning, useful only as a weapon to smear opponents. The term ‘left,’ in particular, is constantly used by right-wing activists, especially religious ones, as an automatic condemnation of those who do not support the prime minister. In order to avoid the prospect of a trial, Netanyahu has transformed from political leader into cult leader who, through threats and flattery, curbs the opposition of its members while the political system bends before him to grant him eventual immunity by canceling elections that have just been held, dispersing the parliament and calling for new elections within three months.

Not even the oldest and most experienced among us were prepared for this scenario of corruption and open political attack by the governing parties on the rule of law to keep the prime minister from going to jail. And all this with the support of a cheering crowd. In the face of such reality we feel a sense of disgust and prostration. This is no longer a matter of differing political positions or even of tendentious lies told by the prime minister and his aides, which follow each other at a relentless pace. This is a clear and shameless violation of the values of solidarity that were the basis of the Zionist promise to unite Jews of different backgrounds and levels in a democratic state.

In the 1970s two ministers in the Labor government were suspected of taking bribes and even before they were tried, committed suicide in shame. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1977 resigned because he was accused of maintaining a small foreign bank account, something then forbidden to Israeli citizens. President Moshe Katsav was sentenced to seven years in prison by an Arab district judge for sexually harassing his secretary. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to jail for receiving illicit funding for his campaign. Until yesterday we could console ourselves with the fact that there were still principles of justice and equality in the Israeli political swamp. But here now is a prime minister shamelessly trampling the law to save his own skin and leading the Country into a new, bitter and expensive election campaign just weeks after the previous one. Is it any wonder then that people like me, regardless of their political position, feel a sense of disheartenment and paralysis?”

Reread in light of the November 1st election results, Yehoshua’s bitter remarks sound prophetic. A prophecy of doom, fulfilled. The Middle East is already scarred by “forgotten” but real bloody wars, Yemen foremost among them. By failed states in danger of implosion, Lebanon and Iraq, and by states that are far from pacified, such as Syria. While in the Palestinian Territories under the ashes of apparent immobility grow anger, suffering, disillusionment, an explosive mix that could lead to a new uprising. Israel coming out of the polls is a part, and a large one at that, of this huge Middle Eastern problem. A part, and not the solution.

Cover Photo: Supporters of Israel’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) far-right party react at campaign headquarters in Jerusalem on November 1, 2022, after the end of voting for national elections. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP)


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