Israeli elections hold silver lining for Palestinian human rights

Mideast Israel Election

Many Canadians were disappointed by the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu. His hard line stance on many issues, including the possibility of a two state solution, seemed to indicate that a just peace was not for the near future. But there are some consequences of the election that bode very well for Palestinians. (And I’m not referring to the silly “worse is better” theory.) Read more.

While much of the post-election commentary focused on the surprising success of Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party, and the immediate consequences for negotiations toward the “two state solution”, some thoughtful observers have reflected on the longer-term consequences of the election. Three trends appear to be especially positive from the perspective of those who are working toward a just solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

  • 1.    Congressional unanimity on Israel is finished

Netanyahu’s highly contested speech in the US Congress marked the end of an era. For the last 40 years, the influential Israel lobby has successfully argued that US interests and Israeli interests are identical.  As a result, it has been political suicide to make any public criticism of Israel. That has now changed.

Netanyahu not only succeeded in infuriating the White House by his speech, but his subsequent comments  warning Israeli Jews about the dangers of Arab Israelis “flooding to the polls”, have also drawn US public attention to Israel’s flagrant racism. According to liberal Zionist Peter Beinart, this will have negative consequences for Israeli support in the USA.

The election has also revealed a difference that goes much further than a simple Bibi-Obama spat. As geostrategist George Friedman of Stratfor has argued, US and Israeli interests in the region are starting to diverge. Many US strategic thinkers now believe that US interests lie in making arrangements with several of the region’s powers, and not only Israel. Whether Republicans or Democrats take the White House next year, this will not change. As a result, it will now become possible to criticize Israel in public, and there will be congressmen and women who will do it. Israel will no longer be able to count on automatic US support for whatever it does. Last year, during the Gaza war, the US senate voted unanimously to send more arms to Israel. Will that happen next time Israel attacks Gaza? We will see.

  • 2.  Diminished support for Israel among America’s Jews

A second consequence of this election is a further alienation of American Jews from Israel. American Jews tend to be liberal in their politics. Netanyahu most definitely is not, and few of the Israeli parties running in the election hold to what Americans would see as “liberal” values. That realization has started to sink in, especially to younger American Jews.

“The biggest losers in all of this, (…) are American Jews and non-Jews who support Israel”, argued Thomas Friedman in the International New York Times. Netanyahu’s election will mean increased scrutiny of Israel on campuses and a probable growth in movements for Palestinian human rights, including the movement to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel.

In many university campuses in the USA and Canada there are Hillel societies which actively portray Israel as a liberal democracy fighting for its life against the Arab/Palestinian masses. That is going to become more difficult case to make as a result of this election.

  • 3.  The creation of an Arab common electoral front

A third positive outcome of this election was the creation of a “Joint Arab List” of the 4 tiny Palestinian parties in Israel each of whom had barely secured 1 or 2 % of the electoral vote in previous elections. (Palestinians make up about 20% of the Israeli population, and because of the Israeli proportional representation system, could theoretically win 20% of the 120 seats in the Knesset. In fact, they usually have only half that.)

ayman odeh

The Joint Arab List, headed by Ayman Odeh, with 14 seats, is now the 3rd largest party in the Knesset

In an attempt to eliminate the Palestinian parties altogether, last year the Knesset raised the minimum for election to 3% of the vote. However, instead of eliminating the 4 tiny Palestinian parties, the opposite happened. The 4 parties presented a common “Joint Arab Unity’ list, which won 14 seats and is now the 3rd largest party in the Knesset.

It remains to be seen what the effect of the Arab list will be, but a step toward clarifying and unifying the demands for equality by the Palestinian citizens of Israel (also called Arab Israelis) must be a  positive development.

The election of the hard line Mr. Netanyahu was the most spectacular outcome of the election. However the election also set in motion a number of processes which are likely to reduce the level of US support for Israel and strengthen the hand of the Palestinians. This will have longterm positive implications for Palestinian human rights.


  1. I’m firmly opposed to the “worse is better” argument (or “fanning the flames of discontent” or “heightening the contractions,” as we used to call it), but in Netanyahu’s case I’m happy to make an exception.

  2. Agreed. I have seen this “worse is better theory” attributed variously to Lenin or Mao but don’t actually believe it, and have never seen a citation to indicate they did either.

  3. Netanyahu is not the problem. He is only a symptom of the problem. Were Netanyahu to disappear tomorrow, little would change. In fact, it is possible that things would be worse. Netanyahu’s desire for power and international acceptance seems to moderate his actions slightly.

    The election results seem to indicate that Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians have not changed. Until Israelis recognize that the Arabs among them and around them are as human as they are, and that they have the same rights, things won’t change.

    Those who want to help Palestinians need to look for ways to influence Israeli awareness.

    1. I think Israelis will start looking once their automatic support from the US starts to waver. Until then, most see little reason to do so. But I do think that “automatic support” is starting to crack. At that point, I hope an Israeli “de Klerk” will emerge saying we have to change. 🙂

      1. Most Israelis have been convinced that there will be a second holocaust if they lose the “protection” of their Jewish State. If they sense that US and EU support is wavering, they will try to compensate by expanding their arms industry and seeking to play other potential supporters against each other. Like Americans when they felt that they were being attacked by Indians, they will “form a circle with their wagons” and fight on. A “de Klerk” will be needed but first we must find a “Mandella”. I don’t see either.

  4. I don’t see it as big of a deal as you do but I think it’s a hope for those that say ” things will never change ” Things will change but will take time and maybe this is the beginning.

  5. Mandela was there from the beginning, finding De Klerk is biggest issue here. We can not look equally at the occupier and the occupied, Mandella stopped resisting when De Klerk changed his policy, Palestinians are NOT supposed to give up everything awaiting an Israeli prime minister to feel bad for them and give them their rights. Having turmoil region as per Netanyahu is NOT an excuse to prevent Palestinians from their basic rights. It is their right to get independence while it is Israeli’s right their after to protect their own borders. I do believe that on the short term electing Netanyahu will add to the difficulties of the Palestinians but on the long run it will just expose more the real intentions of Israel.

  6. While the signs are encouraging, I think it’s too early to celebrate change both in Israel and in the US. Netanyahu’s spat is not with Congress, it’s with the White House and he knows this very well. His move to make that speech was both calculated and deliberate. The criticism of him is not coming from Congress. It’s only coming from the White House and, to some extent, the State Department. US foreign policy has never been and will likely never be based on justice or human rights. It just happened this time that American foreign policy sees benefit in a deal with Iran, a view that Netanyahu does not share, hence the current spat. Israel will always be the most reliable ally of the US in the Middle East. They had a close call with Egypt with Morsi, and you never know what might happen in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and other ‘allies’ in the future in a volatile and strategically important region. As an Arab Israeli, I can’t speak to the support of American Jewry to Israel. However, I agree that the creation of the united arab list might give a clue of what a true Israeli democracy could look like, but more importantly what the one state solution that we seem to be hurtling towards might look like – if the one state is to be democratic. Netanyahu’s recent comments about Arabs voting in large numbers is not encouraging though. They show the true face of Israeli ‘democracy’. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is alive and well in Israeli society and is reflected very well in Israeli politics.

    1. A comment for Mohamed and “anonymous”,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I can easily understand why Palestinians – who have been let down so often – will wonder if things will ever change. But I worry that your cynicism might prevent you from seeing change when it does begin to happen – and immobilize you when things can be done to encourage that change.

      I think George Friedman (in the article I hyperlinked to) is convincing in arguing that something fundamental is changing. Netanyahu is not just fighting Obama. He is fighting 16 US national security agencies which are telling Obama that Iran is not a nuclear threat in the near future. Even if the Republicans get in in 2016, they will have to take the advice of their security agencies into consideration. And there will still be a lot of Democrats, and blacks, in the Congress who won’t like Netanyahu or Israel.

      Change is coming slowly, right. But I think it is coming, and I want to hurry it along…

      1. Peter, this is not about cynicism, inability to see change or being immobilized. Not at all. Over the past 20-25 years, tremendous change has taken place. Many of us have been part in bringing in that change. I just think that it is a bit premature to start celebrating what some are portraying as a tidal wave of change. This might be no more than a ripple. A significant one mind you. Real change will be when the US does not throw its weight behind israel at the security council or with the ICC or in the very least when the US demands that Israel releases the hundreds of millions of tax dollars it has stolen from the Palestinian authority in what seems to be a futile effort to subdue the Palestinians.

  7. I believe in the short term, things will get worse for Palestinians living under Israeli military rule as well a those living inside the Green Line. l see this election as exposing Netanyahu for who he really is. Netanyahu or Rabin or any other Israeli leader have never wanted a Palestinian state alongside Israel but the truth has never been articulated. Now it has and that is a welcome change in itself. Now Palestinians can work with the reality instead of chasing the wind.

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