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The Real Divide in Israeli Politics is between religious and secular ultra-nationalism

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The election result offers us a simple but effective way to gauge how well the center-left did and understand the wider ideological composition of Israeli Jewish society as it exists today
The election result offers us a simple but effective way to gauge how well the center-left did and understand the wider ideological composition of Israeli Jewish society as it exists today
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Was Israel's election last week really a hotly contested fight between two sides an Israeli center-left and a right wing as the Israeli and western media keep characterizing the result?

And does the narrow defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party by the Blue and White party, led by former army general Benny Gantz, indicate, as some commentators suggest, a change of ideological direction in Israel, offering a hopeful sign for the future? That deceptive narrative has only been reinforced by the coverage of the Palestinian-led Joint List party recommending Gantz as the next prime minister.

The strangest thing about the reporting of the deadlock between the Israeli right and the "center-left" is that none of Israel's parties view it that way, as we shall see. Even according to their own assessments of their ideological positions, only a tiny fraction of the new Israeli parliament consider themselves to be on the so-called center-left.

Illusory Zionist 'left'

First, it should be noted, the very idea of a Jewish Zionist "left" is deeply flawed. Modern Zionism is an ideology that assumes one group, Jews, should enjoy superior rights in Israel over another group, Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the Israeli population, based on their different ethnic or religious identities.

In today's United States or Europe, any argument that citizenship privileges should be assigned to a group because of its ethnicity or religion would be considered overtly racist. That nonetheless is precisely the position of all the Jewish parties in the Israeli parliament without exception.

All of them believe, for example, that it is essential that Israel has two differentiated citizenship tracks. One, the Law of Return of 1950, allows all Jews in the world to automatically immigrate to Israel. The other, the Citizenship Law of 1952, bars almost all Palestinians from ever returning to their homes in what is now Israel. It also denies Israel's 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population, a basic human right: to marry a Palestinian non-citizen and live with them in Israel.

'Treasonous Jews'

But instead of holding Israel to the more usual civic and human rights standards adopted in western political systems, let us classify Israel's Jewish parties in accordance with the way they characterize themselves to their own voters (rather than foreign media outlets).

Again, there is a problem. In Israel nowadays, the term "leftist" is considered a dirty word by virtually all of Israeli Jewish society. Netanyahu consistently uses it as a synonym for "traitor".

It is usually forgotten that his notorious warning in the 2015 election that "the Arabs are heading to the polls in droves" was actually an accusation directed at the Jewish "left", whom he blamed for "busing" the Arabs to polling stations to subvert a pure Jewish democracy.

In this month's election, Netanyahu was at it again. Headlines focused on the fact that Facebook temporarily shut down his page for hate speech after it sent out an automated message warning that the Arabs "want to destroy us all women, children and men".

But Palestinian citizens were actually the secondary target of his incitement. His sites were again on the Jewish left. Here is the relevant section of the message supposedly sent out by a Likud party supporter via Netanyahu's page:

I am donating my time because we cannot have a dangerous left-wing government with Lapid, Odeh, Gantz and Lieberman in a week's time. A secular left-wing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all women, children and men, and will enable a nuclear Iran that will eliminate us. We cannot allow this to happen!

Of the four politicians mentioned, only one Odeh is Palestinian. The rest are Jewish, and notably none of those politicians are on the left. They are positioned firmly on the right.

Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteini party, is well known for his ugly racist incitement against Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens. He has even called for them to be beheaded. His political history includes a stint in the banned, anti-Arab Kahanist movement and in the Likud party, as director of Netanyahu's office.

Netanyahu's smears

In fact, of the Jewish parties contesting this month's election only two have historically described themselves as on the center-left. Because of Netanyahu's success in smearing the Jewish left, both entered into agreements with other parties or politicians during the campaign to shore up their nationalist credentials.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)

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