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How Israel’s right wing is maintaining its grip on the country

A number of factors, including a Palestinian economy dependent on Israel, keep Likud and the right in charge

In these waning days of summer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed his certainty that in the approaching but not yet scheduled elections the Likud party he heads will score a dramatic achievement: at least 35 to 40 Knesset seats

He is not exaggerating by much. The situation for Likud, like that of Israeli right-wing parties in general, looks as good as it ever has since the founding of Israel 70 years ago. Political competition in the country today is not between right and left, but among the right-wing parties themselves. 

Likud, which has become an established party for the masses, is contending against the religious right wing and the ultra-Orthodox right wing. Alongside these, barely afloat, is the nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, founded by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. 

Failure on the Palestinian issue

Overall, nearly every political movement in Israel today is headed by former Likud politicians or Likud supporters. Consider the party headed by former finance minister Moshe Kahlon, a Likud stalwart who distanced himself from Netanyahu but not from the right-wing worldview. Even among the opposition, the right-wing's imprint is conspicuous. 

Though it strains credulity, today's Labor party, now the home of the Zionist camp, is headed by people who not that long ago were leading Likudniks: Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni. And let us not forget Yair Lapid, another stalwart of the opposition, whose stance is well known and aligns with the nationalist right wing.

Arab nations are partners in this failure, thanks to long years of shrugging off any substantive concern for their Palestinian brothers and sisters

The conspicuous factor behind the success of the Israeli right is the failure, however painful to acknowledge, of the previous governments of Israel to reach an understanding with Palestinians. Responsibility for this failure has several facets. 

There are the longstanding Israeli policies that led to the disintegration of Palestinian society into five groups, each with a different legal status: Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and Palestinians in the diaspora. 

Then, there are the Arab nations that are partners in this failure, thanks to long years of shrugging off any substantive concern for their Palestinian brothers and sisters. And let us not forget the United States and, to some extent, the European Union, as well as the Palestinians themselves, who have been unable to forge unity and solidarity in their own ranks.

Distorted reality

The success of the Israeli right has created, in the land between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, a reality that is distorted in every sense - politically, socially and economically. The rights enjoyed by Jewish citizens of Israel are not enjoyed by the fragmented Palestinian communities; there are different laws for different peoples. 

The policies being played out here are clearly apartheid in nature, despite certain dissimilarities to the situation that once held sway in South Africa. Moreover, there are enormous disparities in incomes and standards of living between Israelis and Palestinians: in Israel, the average per capita income is approaching $40,000 a year, while in the West Bank it is about $4,000 and in Gaza $2,000.

Such a reality is obviously replete with tension and is unsustainable for very long. It is fragile and it is temporary. Meanwhile, what holds it together is, first and foremost, the weakness of the Arab world. 

The West Bank Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim is pictured on 26 October 2017 (AFP)
Egypt, the largest and strongest of the Arab countries, barely manages to enable its hundred million residents to earn a living. Its military regime faces an opposition of Muslim zealots who have acquired support and established terrorist bases in the Sinai Peninsula.

In this context, Egypt has pursued a policy of cooperation, mainly military, with Israeli intelligence forces. Israelis in the know say that never before has there been such far-reaching and successful cooperation between the security services and military commanders of the two countries.

Israel's relations with Jordan are fairly similar. The disintegrating Arab states in Syria and Iraq have long since stopped posing any threat to Israel, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, grappling with the Iranian menace, also maintain various contacts with Israel. Yossi Zaira, an economist who has analysed the defence budgets of Israel and the Arab countries, concluded years ago that no state of war exists any more between Israel and the Arab states.

PA-Hamas rivalry

And what of the Palestinians? Only recently it has become clear - despite American pronouncements on cutbacks or even an end to US financial support of the Palestinian Authority (PA) - that there will nonetheless be an exception: the transfer of millions of dollars to the security services of the PA. This funding is intended to preserve security coordination between Israel and the PA in Ramallah. 

More bluntly, today's Palestinian security services resemble the South Lebanon Army (SLA) of the 1980s and 1990s, the militia in southern Lebanon that helped buttress Israel's security. The SLA protected Israel against Hezbollah - and now, the Palestinian forces in Ramallah are protecting Israel from Hamas. Functionally, that's the only difference.

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From a political standpoint, the PA-Hamas rivalry is a wonderful gift to the Israeli right. Israel is excused from negotiating with PA President Mahmoud Abbas because he is weak and does not represent all Palestinians. Israel is likewise excused from negotiating with Hamas, defined by most nations of the world as a terrorist organisation. In other words, the Israeli mantra that "there is no one to talk to" is accepted abroad now, as well as in Israel. 

Other supporters of the Israeli right include, of course, US President Donald Trump and the nationalist regimes in Europe. The latter enjoy increasing popular backing driven by Islamophobia. For decades, Islamic terror and the problems of Muslim immigration, mainly to Europe, have enabled Israeli politicians to portray Israel as a Western democratic outpost protecting the world against the wild Muslim East.

The colonial-like economic relationship that Israel has constructed with Palestinians is beneficial for all Israelis. The Israeli economy is strong, thanks to technological and organisational advantages - and it uses the Palestinian territories as a captive consumer market. 

Economic impacts

Between 70 and 80 percent of import-export activity in the West Bank and Gaza is with Israel. Israel's traditional industries, which employ significant numbers of workers (textiles, shoe manufacturing, furniture making, plastics, food, metal and wood products, etc) are gradually leaving Israel proper and moving to the West Bank, and a few to Gaza. 

About 1,200 Israeli factories have relocated to industrial zones in the West Bank or shifted to using Arab subcontractors. Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from the West Bank earn their living in Israel or by working for contractors who produce for Israel. One may thus reliably conclude that the Palestinian economy is absolutely dependent on Israel - indeed, is indentured to the Israeli economy. 

Forces in the world can exert pressure or offer assistance, but the operative change will come only from the involved parties themselves

So long as this twisted reality continues, with its serious legislative, social, political and economic distortions, Likud and the right wing will continue to rule Israel. The ones who can effect a change - who can create a more normal and more just reality - are, first of all, Israelis and Palestinians. Forces in the world can exert pressure or offer assistance, but the operative change will come only from the involved parties themselves. 

Meanwhile, mainly in Israel, a number of entities continue the struggle to bring into being a model of coexistence that is right and just. They remain very weak, so far, compared with right-wing forces whose success today is more obvious than ever.

- Danny Rubinstein is an Israeli journalist and author. He previously worked for Haaretz, where he was an Arab affairs analyst and a member of the editorial board.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are pictured at a gathering of Likud party members and activists in Tel Aviv on 9 August 2017 (AFP)

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