Israel’s general elections are right around the corner, which can only mean one thing. Before Israelis head to the polls on September 17 to decide whether Benjamin Netanyahu will continue his reign as the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history, candidates from both major parties will up their antics in hopes of appealing to the increasingly right-wing Israeli voter base.
Depending on how you look at it, the election is really between Netanyahu and himself. Over the past year, the Prime Minister’s party, Likud, has found itself embroiled in internal turmoil. Moreover, Netanyahu’s corruption cases continue, and the proceedings are revealing a rift between the Netanyahus and their biggest financial backers, the Adelsons. And at the same time, there is now a new player in town who is threatening Netanyahu’s tenure.
The opposition party, Blue and White (in reference to the colors of the Israeli flag) came into being specifically to challenge Netanyahu. While the nascent political party posits itself as a big tent and centrist alternative, the reality is quite different. The party is headed up by former chief of staff of the Israeli military Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid. While Blue and White is offering a more liberal approach to domestic Israeli politics, its positions toward the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land, the siege of Gaza, and its apartheid system throughout the region is nearly identical to those of Netanyahu.
In a campaign video Gantz released earlier this year, he boasted that his leadership during the highly destructive 2014 military campaign in Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge, sent Gaza back to the “Stone Age.” He also touted the murder of 1,364 Palestinians during the operation, whom he refers to as terrorists. UN estimates show that around 650 Palestinian combatants were killed during the campaign along with at least 1,400 Palestinian civilians, nearly 500 of whom were children. On the Israeli side, 66 combatants and six civilians were killed during the operation.
The third-in-command of the Blue and White party is Moshe Ya’alon, former Defense Minister under Netanyahu. Ya’alon’s position in the political alliance is telling given his record of racist, anti-Palestinian, and hawkish statements and policy positions. For instance, in 2002, Ya’alon referred to Palestinians as a “cancer” that can only be treated with “chemotherapy.” He is also a major proponent of war with Iran and Israeli settlement expansion. More recently, he backed a 2014 proposal that reinforces Israeli apartheid by imposing segregation on buses that run through the West Bank.
In the days leading up to the election against this ideologically similar foe, Netanyahu has become all the more aggressive. This is not out of character for the Prime Minister who makes a habit out of ramping up his bigotry and aggression before elections to appeal to his right-wing voter base.
On September 9th, Netanyahu unveiled a plan to annex the Jordan Valley region of the West Bank–nearly one-third of the West Bank’s territory and home to 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 illegal settlers. The map below shows the area Netanyahu has proposed for annexation in blue with Jordan off to the right in yellow. Situated in the center of the Jordan Valley in orange is Jericho, a Palestinian city that is home to around 20,000 people. Under the plan, Jericho would ostensibly remain under Palestinian control but would likely devolve into an effective quarantine similar to Gaza.
It is important to note, however, that annexation would not drastically alter conditions on the ground. Israel maintains total control of large swaths of the West Bank while Palestinians are subjected to a legal apartheid regime that subjects them to Israeli military law while their settler neighbors are governed by Israeli civil law. In practice, this means that the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank do not have a say in the government that controls their lives while the settlers down the road do.
With such a bold plan rolled out right before the election, you would expect the opposition party to push back strong and work to separate themselves from their opponent. You would also be wrong. Instead of pushing back even in the slightest, the Blue and White party’s response boiled down to accusing Netanyahu of mimicking them. It is their position that they intended to annex the Jordan Valley from the start and that Netanyahu is a copycat.
However, literally minutes after Netanyahu had his big reveal, President Trump announced the firing of the now-former National Security Advisor John Bolton. This came as a considerable blow to Netanyahu, especially with the election just a week away. Bolton, a known war-hawk, was Netanyahu’s biggest ally in the White House when it came to Iran. While Trump has stated that he does not want to go to war with Iran, Bolton has been agitating for intervention since 2002. His position in Trump’s administration was well-received by Netanyahu’s government eager to intervene with economic warfare as well. But his dismissal signals to Netanyahu and Israeli voters that Trump is taking a more moderate position on Iran and may not fully support Israel in any future moves it may make toward war. Now, much to the chagrin of Netanyahu, Trump has hinted at a possible meeting with Iranian President Rouhani.
On top of this setback, Netanyahu was also recently rushed off stage during a campaign event in Ashdod after rockets were reportedly fired at Ashkelon, a neighboring city that borders Gaza. This was a humiliating moment for Netanyahu, who always tries to portray himself as a formidable leader in the face of so-called aggression.
In retaliation for the two missiles that were fired from Gaza that disrupted his campaign event, Netanyahu ordered airstrikes against 15 “Hamas targets” in Gaza. It is crucial to note first that Hamas targets can refer to just about anything in Gaza and secondly that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, meaning that any strike is likely also to harm civilians.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is also escalating is his racist rhetoric. Much in the fashion of his 2015 call to voters that “Arabic voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” Netanyahu is again trying to scare voters to the polls. He recently sent out a message on Facebook about “Arabs who want to destroy us all— women, children, and men.” Facebook responded to this post by sanctioning Netanyahu’s official page for violating its hate speech policy.
What will become of this Israeli election cycle remains to be seen. But what is clear is this: Israelis will not be voting out the Occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza, or its apartheid system anytime soon. This election has come down to a race between two parties that are fighting over who proposed an illegal annexation of Palestinian land first. The reality is that whether or not Netanyahu continues to serve as Prime Minister, matters are going to stay the same. And by that I mean, continue to get worse.