Israeli Jesuit David Neuhaus on the country’s election turmoil and the forgotten plight of the Palestinians
Israelis will go to the polls on Nov. 1 for the fifth time in less than four years. Will the elections bring any significant change in this divided country, or offer any hope for a resolution to the more than 70-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
To answer these and other questions I interviewed Father David Neuhaus, an Israeli Jesuit who lives in Jerusalem. He is a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land and is an acute political observer.
Born into a Jewish family in South Africa in 1962, he became an Israeli citizen at the age of 17. Nine years later he was baptized in the Catholic Church and, after obtaining a doctorate in political science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he entered the Society of Jesus. Since the year 2000, he has been a member of the Jesuit community at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. A fluent Hebrew and Arabic speaker, he teaches Scripture in the Latin Patriarchate Seminary, in the Salesian Theologate and in various other Christian and Jewish institutions in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
In the first of this two-part exclusive interview, Father Neuhaus explains why the Jewish state is so divided and why it has had so many elections in recent years. He discusses the central role former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played in Israeli politics, and what the other political actors have to offer in the November elections. He identifies the issues at stake and underlines how little attention is given to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel will hold its fifth election in less than four years on Nov. 1. What is the significance of this? A myriad of parties are expected to contest it, so can we expect much to change?
These elections are a clear sign that Israeli society is deeply divided and that our political representatives not only disagree but are also unable to provide us with a vision for our society. We have entered a time of deep crisis, political stagnation and despair. Those guiding the political process repeat the same slogans that have been used for decades and yet we are treading water, going nowhere. More and more people are losing faith in the political process itself, crippled not only by a lack of imagination and creativity but also by corruption, self-interest and internal strife. This is accompanied by an increase in violence on every level: vicious rhetoric in political and social life, police and military brutality, violence within the family and the school, and an upsurge in criminality. Our society seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Why is Israeli society so divided today?
Divisions cut across society in every direction: Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, rich and poor, center and periphery, diversity of political orientations and multiplicity of ethnic origins. Israel was founded as a Jewish state. This, by definition, excludes almost a quarter of the population, most of them Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, relegated to the margins. The founding ideology, Zionism, dreamt of uniting Jews as a nation despite the diversity of cultures, languages, social classes and religious orientations. To some extent this has been a success. The state of Israel is home to a large percentage of the Jewish population in the world today and is overwhelmingly supported by Jews everywhere. The resurrection of the Hebrew language as the official idiom of Israel is a stupendous achievement, remaking an ancient language into a modern expression. Israel’s economic, military, technological and commercial successes have made the country a regional power.
However, Zionism has not succeeded in uniting Jews around a vision of what kind of society they want to live in: liberal and democratic or ethnocentric and populist, secular or religious, free economy or welfare state. In particular, Zionism has not been able to bring unanimity with regard to what kind of relations are desired with Palestinian Arabs, the Indigenous people of the area, nor what borders constitute the state, those internationally recognized or those including parts of the territories occupied in the 1967 War.
Zionism has not been able to bring unanimity with regard to what kind of relations are desired with Palestinian Arabs, the Indigenous people of the area, nor what borders constitute the state.
Since June 2021, Israel has had a coalition government made up of eight political parties from different, even opposing parts of the political spectrum that has included, for the first time, an Arab Israeli party. As I understand it, their binding glue was to prevent Netanyahu from becoming prime minister. Indeed, many observers say the past four elections were, and this one too will be, about Netanyahu and whether he should govern or not. Is that how you see it?
At ground level this seems to be true. Much attention is focused on the person of Netanyahu or the person of his opponents. The parties that defeated Netanyahu in the last elections were ideologically very close to him, their discourse hardly distinguishable when it comes to the main issues: the occupation of the Palestinian territories and Jewish ethnic domination through discrimination. However, Netanyahu needs to be understood also as a worldview and not only as an individual. What he represents for many Israelis is the conviction that eventually Israel will be victorious, that there is no need to submit to world pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians, that Israel can dominate through its economic, military and technological strength, [and] that it can use the tested tropes of fear of antisemitism, fear of Islam and fear of Iran to maintain the status quo.
What does Netanyahu stand for, apart from trying to save his own skin?
Undoubtedly Netanyahu is trying to save his own skin, assailed as he and his family are by accusations of corruption and abuse of power. However, he is also a committed political actor who represents a very important segment of the population. He, like many of his closest international allies—[Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in Hungary, [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi in India—assures Israelis that their country is not only strong but right. Playing on the convergence between fear and pride, fear of world antisemitism and nuclear Iran, pride in Jewish genius and Israeli success, Netanyahu presents a worldview that many find both consoling and attractive, assertive and defiant. In addition, many of those who feel that the dominant socioeconomic and cultural elites have excluded them see in him a savior and a spokesman.
What are the main issues and who are the main actors in this election?
Many Israelis are primarily interested in improving their economic situation and are attracted to those who vow to counter the rising cost of living. In a poll carried out by the Israeli Democracy Institute after the announcement of elections, 44 percent of those polled said that the cost of living interested them the most. One quarter focused on the personality of party heads. Fourteen percent focused on questions of religion and the state. Only 11 percent said that their voting would primarily be based on the party’s line on justice and peace.
There is a plurality of parties that are almost indistinguishable when it comes to their platforms. Yair Lapid, incumbent prime minister, Benny Gantz, incumbent defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, incumbent finance minister, Ayelet Shaked, incumbent interior minister, and Merav Michaeli, incumbent transport minister, each head political parties that underline the Jewish identity of the state and the supreme need for security in the face of the Palestinian right to self-determination. The occupation of the Palestinian territories and discrimination within the country are studiously avoided. The only Zionist party that loudly proclaims its opposition to occupation, its support for a two-state solution and its adherence to the principle of equality is [the left-wing political party] Meretz. However, it joined the ruling coalition after the last elections, sacrificing its principles on the altar of “national unity,” based on keeping Netanyahu out of power.
The [center-right-to-right-wing party] Likud, headed by Netanyahu, who has vacillated over the years between bending to international pressure on the Palestinian question and defiance of the international community, seems to have one interest above all else: to put Netanyahu back in the driver’s seat. It remains the largest party in all polls.
Meanwhile, the Jewish ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, although closer to Netanyahu than to his opponents, lobby predominantly for the parochial interests of their electorate: more funding for ultra-Orthodox institutions and safeguarding the religious Jewish character of society.
Likud, headed by Netanyahu, who has vacillated over the years between bending to international pressure on the Palestinian question and defiance of the international community, seems to have one interest above all else: to put Netanyahu back in the driver’s seat.
It is only on the margins that ideologies predominate. In these elections, three parties compete for the Arab vote. Their fragmentation reflects the power struggles among the Arab political elite despite the fact that many Arab citizens would like to see a united non-Zionist opposition. All three parties agree that among the priorities are ending occupation in the Palestinian territories and achieving civic equality in Israel.
On the other side of the political spectrum, [far-right politician] Itamar Ben-Gvir is garnering much attention. In his adherence to a Jewish ethnocentricity and non-democratic rule, Ben-Gvir represents an important segment of Israeli society that resents a democratic system which enfranchises non-Jews and maintains an independent court system. Although these two factors would characterize much of the Israeli right wing, Ben-Gvir’s discourse is unabashedly racist.
Netanyahu encouraged the merger of the extreme right, now running as one bloc under the name Religious Zionism. Netanyahu has in the past paved the way for the legitimization of Ben-Gvir in mainstream Israeli politics and continues to do so. Some analysts believe that this party will be the big winner in the elections, garnering up to 10 percent of the vote and ensuring a Netanyahu victory.
Whereas those on the margins can afford to formulate the issues clearly, those at the center need to think ahead, strategizing about what kind of government they might be able to form. Taking too clear a stand on pressing concerns will limit possibilities when it comes to building coalitions with parties who have expressed opposing positions. This is particularly true with regard to central issues like settlement building, relations with the Palestinians and civic equality.
Political analysts say the coalition government chose not to address the Palestinian question. They say that unlike earlier times in Israel’s history, this question has not been a priority issue in the last four elections. Why?
Many Israelis are tired of hearing about the Palestinians and speculating about how to resolve the conflict. This weariness convinces many that there is no real solution possible. Instead of thinking in terms of a solution to the conflict, allowing for the establishment of a Palestinian state, some are suggesting managing the conflict so that it is the least harmful possible to both sides. This would mean trying to get Palestinians invested in the status quo, with an interest in preserving it. Reasonable economic and social conditions without ensuring self-determination are seen as the best guarantees to prolonged pacification. In return for work permits, travel permits, access to Israel and its markets, and economic development, Palestinians are expected to accept occupation as a permanent state of affairs and give up both on their desire for self-determination and on achieving equality.
The present international context has also yet again relegated the Palestinians to the margins. The world is busy with the Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine (many Palestinians wonder why they have been overlooked in this insistence to punish occupation) or the specter of Iran. These “more important” crises throw up a smokescreen that makes Palestinian grievances seem distant and vague.