Israel’s recent election was a clarifying moment. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appeal to Israelis’ worst racist instincts worked. Between Netanyahu’s declarations during the last week on the campaign trail that he has no interest in a peace agreement with Palestinians, and his horror at the act of Palestinian citizens of Israel voting, his political platform could not be more clear: It is anti-peace and based on Jewish nationalism at the expense of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Despite Netanyahu’s attempt to walk back his comments after he won, there is little doubt that Israel’s policies of expanding settlements, an ongoing siege of Gaza, periodic warfare and systematic discrimination will continue.
For many people, especially American Jews who express support for democratic ideals and are seriously committed to peace with Palestinians, the racist rhetoric and extreme positions Netanyahu was willing to deploy in the last days of the campaign uncomfortably highlighted ongoing Likud party policies. The Zionist Union was defined as an alternative “center left” that could offer a superficially new direction for Israelis tired of Netanyahu’s belligerence toward anyone around the world who doesn’t agree with him. But in substance, the Zionist Union did not actually offer policy positions that were much different in terms of the treatment of Palestinians both within and outside of the Green Line.
As openly offensive as Netanyahu is, he is not the only problem. Underlying his leadership is a systemic and society-wide problem of increasing support among Israelis for anti-democratic policies, including second-class citizenship for Palestinian citizens of Israel and complete control of the approximately 4.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, who do not have any input over the government that has ultimate control over their territory.
For decades, Israel has delayed or obstructed constructive peace talks by claiming it had no partner for peace while continuing to expand settlement building and strengthening the infrastructure of occupation. Now, as Palestinian Authority senior officials noted, the world can’t help but see that there is no partner for peace on the Israeli side.
Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf put it like this immediately after the election: “For years we have been hearing that Israel will either end the occupation or cease to be a democracy. Could it be that the Jewish public has made its choice?”
The question now for American Jews who express support for peace and democratic values is how to relate to an Israeli government which has openly declared itself against both. While major Jewish institutions, including the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), congratulated Netanyahu for his win, others, like the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and American Jewish Committee, congratulated Israel for its fair election process. None of these pillars of the Jewish-American community showed even a moment’s pause at the twisted values that won the election (though the ADL did praise Netanyahu’s insincere apology to Palestinian citizens after the election).
So where does that leave the rest of us, who are dismayed by Israel’s unequal treatment of its citizens and subjects? Jewish Voice for Peace has long held a theory of change that given the last 20 years of a fruitless peace process, external pressure from governments and civil society will be necessary for Israel to stop acting with impunity. That is why we endorse the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a system of accountability for Israel’s blatant disregard for human rights.
The Obama administration is growing less willing to blindly protect Israel’s every action. The administration is considering allowing measures to pressure Israel at the U.N. and other international bodies, where the U.S. has traditionally acted as a body block whenever Israel was faced with challenges to its actions. It is not yet clear if this is a serious threat, but that it is even surfacing shows that U.S. policies toward Israel may be significantly shifting.
For too long, the majority of the voices in the Jewish community have urged the treating of Israel with kid gloves, giving it the space and time to make its own decision to do the right thing. But that has only allowed Israel to entrench its system of occupation and control while its population becomes ever more right-wing and comfortable with the status quo. Whether for love of Israel, or simply love of universal human rights, we can no longer claim not to see Israel’s positions as unacceptable, and therefore can’t absolve ourselves of the necessity to support concrete steps to change its stance. Whether it is BDS, the International Criminal Court, U.S. economic military or economic aid, or other forms of non-violent pressure, it is time for consequences.