The Israeli electorate gave the country’s political strongman, Benjamin Netanyahu, a measured victory earlier this week, ensuring his Likud Party 30 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament), and opening up the possibility for him to become Prime Minister for a fourth term.
He snatched victory out of what pollsters predicted as a looming defeat by ending his campaign with the rejection of a two-state solution to the 67 year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the promise to continue building settlements in annexed East Jerusalem in defiance of international law.
He defeated the challenge from the center-left Zionist Union headed by Isaac Herzog, who pledged to re-launch peace negotiations with the Palestinians and mend relations with the Obama administration. The Zionist Union gained 24 seats, and its leader ruled out participation in a national-unity government with Netanyahu.
The Joint List which gathered under one umbrella the main Arab parties gained 13 seats and became the third largest bloc in the Knesset, while the left-wing Meretz party won 5 seats. The center-left and the Arab bloc together have 53 seats in the parliament.
Netanyahu will need 61 votes to form a government. He has that possibility because the rightwing and religious parties, including the center-right Kulanu, gained a total of 67 seats.
To understand the significance of this week’s election result and what it could mean for this conflict-ridden land, I contacted the well-known Israeli Jesuit, Father David Neuhaus, who is an astute observer of the political and social situation here. He was born into a Jewish family in South Africa, and became an Israel citizen at age 17. After obtaining his PhD in political science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he became a Catholic. He now lives in the Holy City where he is the Latin Patriarch’s vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.
How do you read the results of the Israeli elections? How did Netanyahu win?
I do not think that we should be surprised by the election results. Many Israelis voted for Netanyahu not because they trust him but because they felt that there was no choice. Mr. Herzog is perceived as without experience and without charisma. This was less a vote of support for Netanyahu than an expression of despair. It is important to note that yet again 21 seats, a large percentage of the vote, went to two parties that are largely without a political vision regarding the central issues that face the country (the parties of Mr. Lapid and Mr. Kahlon). The election campaign of Mr. Herzog’s party focused not on the real issues (the Occupation and relations with the Palestinians, the economy, etc) but on petty attacks on Mr. Netanyahu, his wife and the Likud party. The election results express the sense of frustration that many feel.
Do you see anything positive in these election results?
What might be the positive in these election results? Firstly, for those who hoped that the dynamic for change would come from within, this is not what happened. Yet, one might hope that the opposition within can now unite with those in the Jewish Diaspora who are concerned about the rise of extremism and racism in Israel and more importantly with the international community to show the Israeli government the consequences of possible disastrous choices. Mr. Netanyahu, within the rhetoric of an election campaign, expressed his disdain for the two state solution, upheld by the international community and the majority of American Jews. He also spoke with contempt about the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, thus revealing tendencies that are anti-democratic. For those who believe that the only way to change the reality in Israel/Palestine is through international pressure, the election results are certainly a clear indication that the time has come to exert this pressure.
Another positive consequence might be that the opposition be a strong one inside the Israeli parliament. One hopes that Mr. Herzog will remain true to his word and not enter a national unity government but rather make a strategic alliance with the parties that are strongly opposed to Mr. Netanyahu’s vision and that together they formulate a vision of the future based upon the values that they assumedly share regarding justice, peace and development. The third largest party is the United Arab List, an interesting coalition of Communists, Arab nationalists and Islamists that has forged a collaboration based upon a very mature approach to the issues at stake. Despite enormous differences among the various members of this coalition, they have identified the major problems facing the country (peace, justice and the struggle for democracy) and have led the way in showing how other partisan issues must be put aside.
What could the United States and the European Union do if Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister again and goes ahead with building more settlements and rejecting the two-state solution?
I would hope that within the next year or two the international community, led by the United States and the European Union, would be a lot more forceful in their active support of the two-state solution. Up until now, Israel has been able to oppose the two-state solution, build settlements, and restrict the Palestinians on every level without any real consequences. Israel must not be allowed to hurtle along this road to suicide with the international community remaining silent. The road ahead is not facilitated by the elections but they do help clarify where we stand right now and at least this clarity should help those interested in promoting justice and peace move ahead. At least some of the illusions and false hopes have been dissolved in the aftermath of the election results.
How do Christians in the state of Israel view the election results? And what can the Church do in this situation?
As for the Christians, we need to look at two distinct groups of Christians. Those who are Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel have shown that their being Christian does not make them less Palestinian Arab. Attempts by the authorities to divide them have not succeeded and the united Arab list has two Christians in its ranks. The future of the Christian Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel is alongside their Muslim and Druze brothers and sisters in the fight for peace, justice and equality. Much more worrying is the fate of the migrants, many Christians among them, who are threatened by a government that might be even more heartless, racist and discriminatory against them in the future. There are elements in the Likud of Mr. Netanyahu, who have formulated a strong discourse of contempt and hostility against the migrant workers and asylum seekers in Israel and this does not bode well for the future. Of course, their voices are completely unheard in the election campaign as they have no representation.
As a Catholic Israeli, I come back finally to the vision, discourse and teaching that has been developed in the Church, especially after the papal visits by Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and most recently Francis. The alternatives offered there are even more crystal clear today. Here there is a real treasure in order to promote a vision of this region that is in sharp contrast with the discourse of those who have succeeded in winning these recent elections. It is even more urgent that this treasure be shared with one and all in the years to come.
Could you explain the vision the Catholic Church has to offer this land, especially after the visits of four popes over the past fifty years, and that of Francis last year?
The Church, when it speaks about this land, speaks with profound respect for all who live here and call this land home. Recognizing that this land has a special vocation, the Church engages Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians, challenging one and all to look again and instead of seeing walls and obstacles, to see bridges and stretched out hands of collaboration. The Church’s language, developed most particularly during the visits of the four Popes who have come on pilgrimage as well as by the Local Church, insists on the word “brother” and “sister” rather than on the word “enemy”, trying to convince one and all that our loving Father is deeply pained by the ongoing, violence, discrimination and contempt that reign supreme.
During their visits, the Popes have brought down the walls by walking freely everywhere, not only going to the shrines we hold sacred, but also to pay their respects to all the political, religious leaders and most importantly to the symbolic high places that commemorate the pains and joys of both Israelis and Palestinians. This dance to bring down the walls, the words that reject walls and propose bridges reached a new peak when Pope Francis opened his home in the Vatican to the two heads of state to come and place themselves before God.
Pope Francis really defined the alternative discourse, vision and method when he said during that event: “We know and we believe that we need the help of God. We do not renounce our responsibilities, but we do call upon God in an act of supreme responsibility before our consciences and before our peoples. We have heard a summons, and we must respond. It is the summons to break the spiral of hatred and violence, and to break it by one word alone: the word ‘brother’. But to be able to utter this word we have to lift our eyes to heaven and acknowledge one another as children of one Father.”