Jewish nationalism and the new Palestinian politics in Israel

Although the occupation has been absent in these elections, nationalism has permeated the campaigns. The violence of 2014 and the Gaza war were a transformative moment for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the realization of their political power.

It seems somehow difficult to remember now, but the Israeli general elections were announced on the crest of a tidal wave of nationalist hostilities — unusually pronounced even by the standards of Israel-Palestine. This past summer, rogue Palestinian militants abducted and killed three Israeli teenagers from a hitchhiking post outside a West Bank settlement. When they were found, a clique of young Israelis kidnapped a Palestinian boy, beat him, and burned him alive.

The weeks that followed were replete with incidents of Jews and Arabs coming to blows in cafes, on public transport and on the street; a longstanding neighborly dispute between Palestinian families and ultra-Right Israeli Jews in Jaffa nearly bubbled over into a full scale riot and was only quelled by a timely intervention of imams from the neighborhood mosque and the police.

A memory that seems to stick to many Israelis from that summer, is that of the very ground slipping under their feet; for a few moments the country seemed on the brink of an unprecedented collapse into grassroots violence along the lines of Kenya in 2007, underlining how intermingled Jews and Palestinians have become in recent years — perhaps more so that at any time since the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 — and yet how alien and threatening they were to each other all the same.

The tension eventually found release in the devastation of the Gaza war, with the more traditional purveyors of violence — the Israeli government and Hamas — reasserting their respective monopolies. The prospect of ethnic strife within Israel proper receded somewhat, but was soon supplanted by political violence, with right-wing demonstrators repeatedly attacking left-wing protesters against the war, both at the protests and afterwards, away from the police, on the streets.

The wave of nationalism did not stop on street level. One of the last pieces of the legislation slated for vote before the Knesset broke up for early elections was the Jewish Nation-State Law. The bill, drafted by the Institute for Zionist Studies and originally sponsored by center-right Kadima before being adopted in its latest incarnation by the Likud-led government, aimed to constitutionally ground Israel’s Jewish character.

Among other things, the law would spell out the exclusivity of national self-determination within Israel as belonging exclusively to the Jews; would entrench the Law of Return, which effectively allows only Jews to immigrate to Israel, but which has not enjoyed the status of a Basic Law until now; would designate Hebrew as the only official language of the state (today Hebrew shares that status with Arabic); would formalize religious law as a legitimate source for resolving judicial conflicts (albeit as a last resort, after legislation, precedent and deduction).

The Nation State Law was a reaction to the political and national awakening of Palestinians of ’48. Hassan Jabareen

The bill is particularly notable for what it omits; in particular, it abandons the long-standing formula of “Jewish and democratic state,” in favor of a more ambiguous “state whose regime is democratic.”

The bill was enthusiastically cheered by the right-wing parties, but opposed by the center and center-left — most of whom argued that sidelining democracy was dangerous, and the underscoring of Jewish preeminence in Israel was an overstatement of the obvious — a defense that did little to quell contribute to the alarm of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The rift that opened up between the more nationalist and the more centrist elements in Netanyahu’s government contributed to his assessment that the coalition was no longer governable, which he cited as the reason for calling new general elections just two years into a four-year term.

Right-wing nationalists attacking left-wing activists during a protest in central Tel Aviv against the Israeli attack on Gaza, July 12, 2014. The protest ended with the nationalists attacking a small group of left-wing activists, with little police interference. Three activists were injured and one right-wing person was arrested. (Oren Ziv/
Right-wing nationalists attacking left-wing activists during a protest in central Tel Aviv against the Israeli attack on Gaza, July 12, 2014. The protest ended with the nationalists attacking a small group of left-wing activists, with little police interference. Three activists were injured and one right-wing person was arrested. (Oren Ziv/

Yet despite all this — the murders, the war, the street clashes and the nationalist legislation — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occupied curiously little space in the three months of electioneering now coming to a close. Polls have shown repeatedly that Israelis are more than twice as concerned about the economy as they are about the conflict (48 percent and 19 percent in a mid-February Times of Israel poll). Benjamin Netanyahu, who has little to show on either topic, filibustered most of the way through election season by talking endlessly the one issue on which he has a complete monopoly — the Iranian nuclear threat. Netanyahu’s main challengers from the left, the Zionist Union, focused on the economy, and on making their candidate, Isaac Herzog, look prime-ministerial — which in the Israeli political vocabulary, means talking tough about Arabs. But even Herzog’s tough talk was generic, without touching directly on the Israeli Palestinian conflict; you would need to dig very deep indeed to find direct references to the occupation, or to the peace process. The received wisdom was that conflict is simply not what these elections are about.

Nevertheless, once you stop looking for this particular articulation of nationalism — the question of Palestinian self-determination and Israel’s denial of it — it soon becomes clear that nationalism, even if not the question of the occupation, permeates the campaign system as thoroughly as it did this past summer. Rather than being a wedge issue in the campaigns, it seems to have defined them.

“Social issues came up more than before, but the nationalist agenda, which was completely dormant in the 2013 elections, definitely took center stage again,” says geographer Oren Yiftachel, a professor at Ben-Gurion University and author of the book (and of the term) “Ethnocracy.” You had the Herzog-Livni alliance choosing to name themselves ‘The Zionist Camp.’ Then you had the Joint List, which is expressing a Palestinian national identity — something that doesn’t bother the Right at all. If anything it makes them happy. It is the Left that needs the Palestinians to take power but can’t bring itself to strike up an alliance with them.

“You had very pronounced nationalism further on the right, of course, from Eli Yishai to Liberman, with his extremely blatant language — calling for capital punishment for terrorists, dubbing Haneen Zoabi a traitor, calling all Arabs in Israel a ‘fifth column,’ and so on. Even the Mizrahi emphasis in the Shas campaign signals nationalist thinking,” adds Yiftachel.

Avigdor Liberman speaks at the campaign launch for the 2015 elections. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)
Avigdor Liberman speaks at the campaign launch for the 2015 elections. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)

What truly appears to be missing from these elections is not so much the conflict, but rather any substantive advocacy for a two-state solution. That Netanyahu is not championing partition is self-explanatory — especially as he formally buried it hours before the polls opened, saying in an interview that if he is reelected there will be no Palestinian state. For those still championing partition, however, it was the Left’s silence on the matter that was particularly disconcerting.

“The two-state solution was absent from these elections for two reasons, explains settler leader Dani Dayan, a former Yesha Council chairman and briefly a contender in the current elections. “One, the parties that set the tone in these elections, the Zionist Camp especially, realized that this is a weak spot for them and so they preferred to talk about other issues. But secondly, it’s clear to just about everyone that it’s not going to happen. Whoever is elected as prime minister will be faced with extremely limited diplomatic options. The differences between Netanyahu, parties to his left and parties to his right are small to non-existent.”

As things stand, the chances for a U-turn toward the two-state solution in any recognizable form really do appear very slim. Despite a last minute surge in the polls for Herzog, the consensus on the eve of the elections was that Netanyahu was still the likeliest candidate to compose the next government. Even if Herzog succeeds Netanyahu, however, he will only have done so thanks to a center-right campaign that avoided the Palestinian issue like the plague. More importantly still, he will only be able to compose a coalition by relying on parties to his own right, especially if Meretz falls short of the electoral threshold. He will not have the popular or political mandate to take any dramatic steps, especially with a Palestinian Authority on the brink of a legitimacy crisis and a Middle East spinning increasingly out of balance, making Israelis even more distrustful than they normally are, and making the relatively stagnant and low-intensity conflict with the Palestinians appear a lot less urgent.

Which brings us back to the Jewish Nation-State Law. The cultural and political revival among Palestinian citizens of Israel — or Palestinians of ’48, as many prefer to be called — could not be in sharper contrast to the increasingly catatonic Palestinian Authority. The most triumphant stand-off between Palestinians and the Israeli state in recent years wasn’t in the West Bank or even in Gaza — where dogged resistance by Hamas has only achieved a return to the antebellum, at the price of enormous devastation still exacting a toll from Gazans. It was near the town of Hura in the Negev. Young Palestinians of ’48 — middle-class students from the Galilee and the big cities, locked arms with Bedouin community leaders and organizers, as well as several dozens of Jewish leftist activists, and clashed with police, protesting the Prawer plan to forcibly urbanize the Negev Bedouin, the largest displacement campaign initiated in Israel since 1948. To the surprise of everyone, not least the organizers, the protest worked — dealing a blow to the Prawer from which it has yet to recover. It increasingly seems the contestation between Israel and the Palestinians is no longer contained by the Green Line, which is swiftly becoming irrelevant geopolitically.

Youth protest against the Prawer Plan in the Negev city of Hura, November 30, 2013. (
Youth protest against the Prawer Plan in the Negev city of Hura, November 30, 2013. (

This process goes both ways — if anything, Israel’s rightist governments can claim much of the credit and the initiative. “The Nation State Law was a reaction to the political and national awakening of Palestinians of ’48 who began demanding their civil and collective rights, including through detailed Vision Documents,” says Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, the preeminent civil rights organization of the Palestinian minority in Israel. “Kadima, and later Likud, began passing laws meant to reinforce the ethnic Jewish character of Israel. Most of these laws were directed specifically against the Arab citizens, and were meant not so much to be enforced as to send a message.”

There is recognition that the struggle for Palestine is not just about ‘67 but also ’48.Dianna Buttu

In 2011, the Knesset passed the so-called Nakba Law, which sanctions state-sponsored schools and institutions for commemorating Israel’s systematic expulsion and displacement of Palestinians that began in 1948. “The law has never been enforced. So why pass it? To send a message of superiority. To remind us who is it that really sets the agenda, and how easy it is to infringe on constitutional rights, like the right to free speech, in the name of preserving Jewish hegemony in the state.” The same is true, Jabareen says, about the Admission Committees Law, which permits small communities inside Israel proper to refuse to admit non-Jewish residents. “The Nation-State Law is a continuation of that. Its purpose is declarative, not operative. All the values it sanctions are already there, in practice and in law.”

A Palestinian photographer standing during a minute of silence commemorating the Nakba, as part of a ceremony that was held by Palestinian and Israeli students in the entrance to the Tel Aviv University, May 13, 2013. A right wing demonstration was held against the ceremony, as the protesters were shouting slogans against the participants, under police surveillance. (Photo by: Yotam Ronen/
A Palestinian photographer standing during a minute of silence commemorating the Nakba at Tel Aviv University, May 13, 2013. A right wing demonstration was held against the ceremony. (Photo by: Yotam Ronen/

“The Liberman-Netanyahu government didn’t have much else to do in the West Bank,” he concludes. Now is the time of a shift of the conflict from the spaces and paradigms of ’67 — Gaza, West Bank, the two-state solution — to the spaces and paradigms of ’48, the entirety of Israel-Palestine and the question of the relationship between Palestinians and Jews across the entire space.

“There was a lull that began in 1948 and lasted up until the 1990s,” says Jabareen. “But the successive right-wing governments since then all seem keen to communicate that the problem is what happened in 1948, not what happened in 1967. And the same shift is happening among Palestinians, although it depends where and how. As far as one and two states are concerned — there is still not a single serious party in Israel that raises this demand, for a single state. The single state does not yet have a credible, powerful agent, like Balad, or Hadash, or the Islamic Movement. But at the same time, the Palestinian connection is growing stronger. People go to Ramallah to work. There are economic relationships, cultural ties. Ramallah never seemed as close to Haifa as it is now.”

“I think that there has been a recognition that the struggle for Palestine is not just about ‘67 but is also about ’48,” says Diana Buttu, herself a ’48 Palestinian and a former negotiator, legal advisor and spokesperson for the PLO. “I hear this often: the only scope for movement is in ’48 and not in ’67.”

The Arabs are still in the process of discovering that they do, in fact, have power.Hassan Jabareen

Dayan, who is seen by many as a member of the annexationist one-state camp, has recently published a “non-reconciliation” plan that offers to postpone the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of focusing on incremental, short-term improvements to the quality of life and freedom of movement of Palestinians, coupled with direct involvement into low-level Israeli decision making, but falling short of actual enfranchisement. He is equally circumspect about how the conversation around and about nationalism is going to play out in the next few years.

“I think the discourse will increasingly expand to include various alternative ideas for how to manage and/or resolve the conflict,” Dayan says. “I think the conventional, simplistic visions of one state or two states will fade away.” At the same time, he is wary of giving credence to a rights-based discourse. “I don’t think we’re heading to a conversation of collective rights and how different ethnic groups can divide the country. This kind of discourse will fade as surely as the two-state [discourse] is fading now. With a bit of wishful thinking, I personally hope that the conversation will be more constructive — about how the lives of the two major communities living here can be managed in the best way possible without a conclusive solution to the conflict.”

Palestinians in Bethlehem commemorate the Nakba, May 14, 2013. (
Palestinians in Bethlehem commemorate the Nakba, May 14, 2013. (

Both Jabareen and Dayan, each in his own way, are wary to prophesize as to how the emergence of the Joint List — a broad Palestinian unity project that champions Palestinian identity, individual and collective rights, an end to the occupation — can do that within the framework of Israel’s limited parliamentary democracy. Dayan confesses that he is more interested than alarmed to see how Joint List leader Ayman Odeh will fare as the leader of the Knesset’s third largest party and possibly leader of the opposition, but has a good hunch the differences within the Joint List will pull it apart — perhaps even immediately after the elections.

“The Joint List was a reaction to the anti-Arab racism during the war in Gaza and to the elevation of the electoral threshold,” says Jabareen. “People started wondering why we need to invest so much in differences between Islamists and communists when racism doesn’t bother with these distinctions anyway. It’s hard to tell how this will evolve and just what role the List is going to play after the elections. It’s the first time Arabs have run together since 1949. But I think the Arabs are still in the process of discovering that they do, in fact, have power, and that there is, in fact, a political option. Most Palestinians, I think, are in various states of exasperation with politics. An electoral success for the Joint List can revive their faith in political activism and bring back some hope.”

“Inside ’48, Palestinians tend to be a lot more critical about the List and the efficacy of using the Israeli system to challenge Israel,” Buttu says. “Palestinians in the Diaspora seem to think that change is possible and that as the leaders of the opposition, they will be able to effect change.” Alternatively, she adds, “they may be pleased that there is unity inside ’48 where, across the rest of the Palestinian landscape, there seems to be hopeless disunity.”

On the larger scale, rumblings about yet another diplomatic push on behalf of the United States notwithstanding, conclusive solutions certainly never seemed further than they do today.

“Where are we going from here?” wonders Yiftachel. “Ethnocracies like Israel only really change with the aid of external pressure. Even if Herzog is the next prime minister, what can he really do? Create a Palestinian statelet in the West Bank, that will give neither a solution nor even stability, and might trigger a limited civil strife within the Jewish majority itself?

Herzog will not likely make any drastic moves, maintaining the momentum toward a slow descent into official apartheid, Yiftachel continues, adding that there is maybe a chance of progress “if Israel is faced with sanctions, and the Palestinians keep up a non-violent struggle.” But that will take time.