‘Israelis will vote for Netanyahu out of fear’
In the legislative elections on Tuesday 22nd there is only one certainty: Binyamin Netanyahu, the current premier, will be reelected. It cannot be predicted what kind of coalition the rightwing premier will create. Carlo Strenger, a philosopher and clinical psychoanalyst who teaches at Tel Aviv University, says he is not sure whether Bibi, as the premier is known, will include in his government Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home, an ultranationalist religious party that does not hide its intentions to annex the West Bank to Israel, or if he will try to split the center-left bloc by inviting one or two moderate parties. Either way, Strenger, who writes a blog titled “Strenger than fiction” about Israel and the Middle East for the English-language leftwing daily Haaretz, believes, as he wrote in one article, that Bibi “is leading Israel into an abyss.”
However, he believes that Israel will continue to be a liberal democracy partly because the center-left parties will have a substantial presence in the Knesset (Parliament). Also, a coalition of rightwing and religious parties would eventually implode, as the different factions have different agendas. Being an existential psychoanalyst, Strenger knows what he is talking about when he says that Israelis are constantly confronted by an existential crisis. “Here in Israel there is no social gathering in which the question does not come up whether this country will exist in thirty years.”
CartaCapital: In a recent article you asked whether Israel could become an extreme rightwing regime under Netanyahu’s future coalition such as the fascist governments in 20th-century Europe.
Carlo Strenger: There are a number of reasons why I do not think Israel will go that way. First of all, the center-left forces are still fairly strong in Israel. They are roughly one third of the Knesset. That is not a lot, but it is a substantial part of the Parliament. Binyamin Netanyahu is willing to do things that can harm the liberals, whereas other parties would not do that under any circumstances. I don’t think that the liberals are under any danger for another reason: If you look at the right and the religious bloc you will see that they have different visions. Therefore, if they get full control of the Knesset they will still not agree on a common agenda.
CC: Why is the left so fragmented?
CS: Let’s differentiate between the current center-left formation and the general branding that the left per se has in Israel. The left per se has a very negative branding because Israelis say that instead of peace we got terror and rockets. And there seems no longer to be any trust in the left to run the affairs of the State because the Israelis feel that they paid a very heavy price with the failure of the second Camp David Summit in 2000, the ensuing second Intifada and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. How the current center-left bloc is seen now is not very different from how it is perceived in any other country in the world, where often politicians have the wrong agenda. My fear is that Netanyahu will be able to split the center-left bloc by taking into his coalition one or two moderate parties. This is really against Israel’s interests.
CC: You recently wrote that “Israelis are willing to curtail democracy when it comes to Arabs and the leftwing criticism of Israel.” What could be done to guarantee a better future for the Arabs residing in Israel?
CS: All I can tell you is that all the center-left parties have signed a common declaration in which they state that they share a strategic goal establishing complete equality for Israeli Arabs. I must say, though, that the Arab parties in Israel have been extremely ineffective in addressing the very specific and concrete needs of the Israeli Arabs. The percentage of people who vote in the Arab sectors is very low, and perhaps that is because the Arab parties do not do much for them. I think that in the long run it will be important that Arab and Jewish parties share a common agenda.
CC: According to polls, two thirds of the electorate is favorable to the two-state solution and to the partition of Jerusalem. Surprisingly, as you mentioned, another recent poll revealed that 57 percent of Likud-Beitenu voters are for the two-state formula which means, as you say, that they vote for rightwing parties out of fear and not out of ideology. Are Israelis going through an existential crisis?
CS: Absolutely. This is the profound paradox of the Israeli politics, and it has been for a long time. Most Israelis believe that there is no other solution except the two-state solution. But they are deeply afraid. They don’t trust Palestinians. And this poll was formulated in a very specific way. They asked the question assuming that the Palestinians meet their obligations on the level of security and assuming that Israel security needs are taken care of.
CC: Since the Labor Party leader, Shelli Yacimovich, said she does not want to be in a coalition with Netanyahu, would a coalition with Naftali Bennett, the leader of rightwing Jewish Home party, mean the end of the two-state solution?
CS: Netanyahu believes that the failure of the two-state solution is a side effect of the non-acceptance of Israel by the Arab world. And that’s why he thinks he cannot take any risks by signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. For the premier this conflict will continue for many decades to come. This pessimistic view has to do with Israel’s place in the Middle East, and so Netanyahu keeps on playing for time. I think that the premier’s is a very harmful policy, but that’s the reason. Having said that, I think people only see the manipulative side of Netanyahu. And he is, in fact, a really manipulative politician. But what most people do not realize is that he has a really strong core belief that drives all his actions. And that is, by the way, what makes the political scenario very problematic.
CC: How do you explain Bennett’s popularity in the polls?
CS: He is a very charismatic man. People who are rightwing but who are not necessarily fundamentalist in their religious approach are saying, “Okay, now we have somebody to vote for.” But one should be under no illusions: he has extreme rightwing views and wants Israel to control 60 percent of the West Bank.
CC: You say that the divisions between different communities in Israel are not necessarily along ethnic lines. But was not the recent spat between the former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beinenu (rightwing secular party), and Shas (the ultra-orthodox party) also about ethnicity?
CS: The ethnic issue is very strong in Israel. I wrote that it is not “only” along ethnic lines. It is not true, for instance, that all liberals are Ashkenazi. There are a lot of liberal Jews who are Slavic.
CC: But is there racism among different ethnic communities, as is the case in most societies?
CS: I think we have to be careful about what we call racism. But there definitely are very strong divisions between the various ethnic groups, and in some cases there are some racist tones as well, just as in the United States, Europe and everywhere. What people tend to forget is that Israel is a very young democracy. It has to work the relationships among ethnic and religious and secular groups. The problem is that Israel does not have the space and the time to carry out this debate because people have to deal with existential problems about the country’s future.
CC: Recently Netanyahu said the Iranian threat is as dangerous as was Nazi Germany. Is he using Iran as a scapegoat or is Iran really an existential threat?
CS: The Iranian situation is very complicated and it involves danger. Incidentally, the Arab countries in the Middle East are more scared of nuclear Iran than Israel is. If Iran goes nuclear there will be an arms race in the region. Saudi Arabia will want to get nuclear arms, and so will Egypt. But Netanyahu talks about the Iranian danger to divert our attention from the Palestinian issue. This has been his strategy for the last four years.
CC: What is the impact of the Arab Spring on the elections?
CS: One reason that Israelis think that there is no potential for a peace process is because the Middle East is so unstable that they don’t want to take any risks. We don’t know which way Egypt is going to turn with the Muslim Brotherhood. We don’t know who is going to be in charge in Syria. In fact, the reason that no political party is putting forward the peace process on their agenda is because it would not be popular with the Israelis.
CC: How do you, a liberal academic who writes for a leftwing newspaper, feel about the current political scenario and how it is interpreted abroad?
CS: I believe that Israel deals with the dangers it has to face the wrong way. But Europeans often talk and speak about Israel as if we were located in the middle of Western Europe. But Israel is located in a very dangerous corner, and consequently all the problems that the rightwing parties talk about are not invented. They are real, even if the rightwing parties deal with them in the wrong way. Here in Israel there is no social gathering in which the question does not come up whether this country will exist in thirty years. I grew up in Switzerland, which is not a big country. But there you can cross any border. Here, if I start driving from Tel Aviv after thirty kilometers I get to a border I cannot cross. So it is an existential experience that is sometimes very difficult to understand from outside. People do not understand what it is like to live in a country that is so small and surrounded by belligerent neighbors.