Maybe it’s because the use of social media is increasing exponentially, but the March 17 Israeli election seemed to set off a Diaspora debate whose intensity seems unmatched to that of elections past. For partisans, part of it, no doubt, is the emotional roller coaster unleashed by the misleading exit polls on Election Day and opinion polls published in the days prior. All this led Zionist Union voters and their supporters – in Israel and abroad – to feel gobsmacked after feeling giddy for days.
And part of it was the nasty aftertaste left by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s two statements in the campaign’s homestretch: one, a warning to his supporters that Arab-Israelis were coming to vote “in droves,” and the other, a video interview in which he declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.
Voter motivations are complex at the best of times. In Israel, divining voter preferences has become increasingly challenging given the evolution of what was traditionally a political spectrum defined by security policy to one defined equally, if not more so, by socioeconomic issues.
Still, given Netanyahu’s election-eve statement about quashing hopes for a Palestinian state, it’s not surprising that many, in their gut, interpreted the election as a referendum on the occupation.
Zachary Braiterman, a professor of modern Jewish thought and philosophy at Syracuse University, wrote on his blog, Jewish Philosophy Place, that “it’s us or him,” and that “by rejecting the two-state solution, he tore out the only thing standing in the way of Israel turning into bi-national state apartheid state.”
As reported in Haaretz, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told a J Street conference that “Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely” and that “an occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end.”
And philosopher Sam Fleischacker wrote, in an extended Facebook post that went viral, “We have long faced the possibility that we will have to choose between a Jewish but undemocratic Israel and a democratic Israel that is no longer a Jewish state. The choice is here now and I favour democracy. The thing to work for now is one person, one vote, from the river to the sea: voting rights for all Palestinians under Israeli rule. … It breaks my heart to say this, but today I don’t feel I can call myself a Zionist any longer.”
Sure, we could take Netanyahu’s remarks “with a grain of salt,” as Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak urged at a post-election briefing I participated in on March 19.
Netanyahu himself sought to do some damage control, telling NPR on March 20: “I said the conditions have to change. … You know, I don’t want a one-state solution. But I certainly don’t want a zero-state solution, a no-state solution, where Israel’s very existence would be jeopardized. And that’s what the people of Israel overwhelmingly elected me to do.”
But, whatever Netanyahu meant by his original statement, the fact is that, with settlements continuing apace, and an ongoing Israeli campaign to delegitimize the Palestinian leadership, and more generations of Palestinian children subject to middle-of-the-night interrogations by Israeli soldiers coming in full night-warrior gear into their bedrooms, the conditions will only get worse – not more propitious – for a Palestinian state.
So, what, in the Diaspora, is to be done? There are those who believe – like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote in a harsh essay in the Jerusalem Post addressed to liberal Zionist Peter Beinart – that criticizing the election outcome is a sign of a sore loser, and is especially out of place coming from the Diaspora. There are others, like Beinart, who believe pressure should be placed on Israel’s government. And there is the White House, which has made clear that it is reconsidering diplomatic options. While U.S. aid levels are unlikely to change, one could picture the U.S. no longer exercising its automatic veto to protect Israel in the United Nations.
As for me, I think the “ism” discussions – liberal Zionism, statist Zionism, cultural Zionism, anti-Zionism, and so on – are increasingly misplaced. Those are private ideological commitments that sometimes obscure policy discussions. Some, like Fleischacker, who were die-hard two-staters, are now calling for pressure to grant the vote to everyone under Israeli rule. To my mind, this sounds like an OK place to start, until such time that a two-state solution – the best one, from any practical, Jewish, democratic and justice-based perspective – reappears on the horizon.