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  January 24, 2013

Israeli Elections: The Center Cannot Hold

Max Blumenthal says "centrist" parties will likely join Netanyahu's coalition and push even harsher measures against Palestinians and isolate Orthodox Jews
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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His most recent book is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. His other book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller. Max is co-host of the podcast Moderate Rebels.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore. And now joining us from Ramallah and the occupied West Bank is Max Blumenthal.

Max is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author of the book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party.

Thanks for joining us again, Max.


JAY: So what's your take on the Israeli election results?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, the election results did surprise me a little. I confess to having followed some of the conventional wisdom that the far-right was going to move into at least an influential position, be in the front seat with Netanyahu. I saw Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and his coalition with Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beiteinu not doing very well. I wasn't surprised that they underperformed. They had expected to get over 40 seats in the Knesset and wound up with about 31.

But the party that I was following, along with a lot of journalists out here, was called Jewish Home, HaBayit HaYehudi. This is a party led by the former director of the official lobby of the settlement movement, the Yesha Council. His name is Naftali Bennett. He's a 40-year-old high-tech entrepreneur, very politically savvy, sort of attractive, kind of like the Paul Ryan of Israel--very extreme, though. And his platform included openly bringing the right-wing agenda into the open, which means blocking formation of a Palestinian state anywhere in the West Bank, bringing Gaza into a confederation with Egypt, annexing 60 percent of the West Bank, which is already under Israeli control, and bringing all the settlements into what is considered Israel proper, putting the West Bank under a full Israeli security umbrella. And I was sort of fascinated that someone who was projected to get 14 to 16 seats, which would have made him maybe the second-largest party in Israel, third-largest party, was challenging the status quo in such a direct way and was so popular.

But what wound up happening was that Bennett's Jewish Home party performed very well. They got 12 seats. I mean, the last Knesset, they were, like, this marginal party that had three seats. So they're going to have an influence.

But the big winner was someone named Yair Lapid from the Yesh Atid party. He's being portrayed in the U.S. as a centrist, and he is in the center of the Israeli political spectrum, whatever that means.

But who is Yair Lapid and what role will he play in the next coalition government, which is almost certain to be led by Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister? He is now the second-largest party in Israel, this newly formed party. Who is he? No one really knows who he is. He spent a lot of the '90s in Hollywood. He's actually spent way more time in Hollywood than in Washington. He was the head of some mid-level studio in Hollywood. There's a lot of Israelis in Hollywood, and this is sort of a story no one's done. And he's a broadcast TV celebrity in Israel. He's very attractive. He's sort of a blank screen for Israelis to project their ambitions on.

And what he wound up becoming was a cipher for people's rejection of Netanyahu. Netanyahu's just not an attractive character to a lot of Israelis, but he's the de facto choice, because they always vote for security, and Netanyahu campaigns on security. But here comes Lapid. Now he's the second-largest party.

What does that mean, especially for the issue that we talk about the most on this outlet, the issue of the Palestinians, the occupation? Does this mean, as The Washington Post said, that Israel has more flexibility in negotiations? I would say no.

What it means is with Lapid as possibly his foreign minister or one of his top ministerial positions, Netanyahu has more flexibility to solidify the status quo. And by the status quo, I mean continuing to pay lip service to a two-state solution that will never happen and to a peace process that is dead, which Israel killed, and building thousands of settlement units. And that's what Israel's been doing since the dawn of the peace process. It's a clear strategy they have.

And with Lapid, Israel has more flexibility, because he's not Avigdor Lieberman. Avigdor Lieberman is Israel's current foreign minister. He's the top diplomat. And he is--you know, the person that he--Netanyahu actually can't send him to Washington, because every time Lieberman speaks, he seems to verge on belligerent incitement against Arabs.

But Lapid understands the U.S. environment. He understands the language that Washington wants to hear. Especially, he understands American pop culture. And this makes him the perfect person for Netanyahu to send to Washington to sweet-talk about the two-state solution while the occupation deepens. And I think that's a terrible scenario for people who care about the rights of Palestinians.

JAY: Now, so he keeps up the perpetual negotiations. And that's what he talked about. He doesn't talk about finding a solution, Lapid, with the Palestinians. He finds--he talks about decreasing Israel's isolation, so keep up the appearance of negotiations.

But if Israelis had a chance to express this being fed up with Netanyahu--and we're also told that there's this building resentment of non-religious Jews against the ultra-Orthodox--and they had two ways to express this, through the far-right, which are also anti-Orthodox, or Lapid--and more chose Lapid, a somewhat more moderate version of all this, given the Israeli political spectrum--does that say anything about Israeli public opinion?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, the opinion of--the secular Israeli opinion, you know, the opinion of Israeli Jews who are secular and the opinion of Israeli Jews who are religious nationalists (and the religious nationalist camp is ascendant; it is the most dynamic force in Israeli society today, and it's dictating the future) are both very resentful of the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox, who are basically given free benefits and given a free ride and spend their days in yeshivas studying Torah and don't perform army service, because they've been given kind of this bargain because Israel needs to project itself as a Jewish state, and here are the true Torah Jews--they would reject this state openly if they weren't given this bargain. So a confrontation is definitely looming with the ultra-Orthodox.

I think the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel's becoming politicized. These are people who embrace a insular, cloistered, and even medieval lifestyle, but who really have no interest in dominating the Palestinians. They just want to be left alone. And so I personally really reject the resentment towards the ultra-Orthodox that we hear so much in liberal circles in the U.S. and in Israel.

But the only clear position of Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party that I can discern is forcing the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian citizens of Israel to perform either national service or join the army. And this is also the position of Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home Party.

So if Netanyahu wants to keep the ultra-Orthodox out of his governing coalition, which means keeping the Shas party and one other ultra-Orthodox party out of the coalition, then he has to go with a combination of Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, which gives Jewish Home a very important role, sort of the third partner. They also, I think, are going to be more influential than Yesh Atid because they have a clear ideology, a clear plan, and a clear blueprint for what they want to see happen. So definitely the ultra-Orthodox issue is going to influence the composition of the next governing coalition.

JAY: So you could actually have a situation where there's supposedly return or a call for return to negotiations, but in substance even being more obstinate about any concessions to the Palestinians.

BLUMENTHAL: Well, Netanyahu's been doing that as a strategy since 2009. In 2009, at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, which is sort of like the university that's the home of the religious nationalists [unintel.] Netanyahu called for two states, and, you know, recently just authorized thousands of settlement units in the E1 sector, which would permanently sever occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem from the West Bank. So you see there's this clear strategy. And then he attacks Abbas for not returning to the negotiation table, which, you know, no Palestinian leader, no matter how much of a puppet they are, could do.

And so you have Yair Lapid. Where does he stand on these issues? What does Yair Lapid believe? He's given some signs that he has almost no difference in policy with Netanyahu in terms of the Palestinians. He has said in--first of all, he opened his campaign at Ariel, which is an illegal megasettlement that cuts deep into the West Bank. That was a symbolic move. And when he opened his campaign there, he said, let's get rid of the Palestinians. Lapid didn't mean, let's eliminate them. He didn't mean, let's transfer them. He meant, let's completely surround them with fences and checkpoints and separate from them entirely, which is also Netanyahu's strategy, while they carry out kind of a slow-motion program of unofficial annexation in the parts of the West Bank that are dominated by settlers.

In 2007, Lapid wrote a really striking editorial in which he said, you know, the occupation is bad, but if we end it, I will die and my whole family will die because Palestinians are endemically violent. He invoked the image of his family being killed with an axe on a street by a Palestinian. So he said, we need to maintain those checkpoints and those walls, as bad as they are. He rejects the idea of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem outright.

And on the issue of African asylum seekers, which has become a major issue in Israeli society, Yair Lapid favors--and this is almost a direct quote--rounding them up, placing them in detention camps, and deporting them all. He campaigned on that.

So I see no difference between him and Netanyahu on the issue of Palestinians or non-Jews living inside Israel. He also, it's worth mentioning, rejected a coalition, rejected including Arab parties in the coalition, which would have allowed them to keep the far-right Jewish Home Party out of the coalition.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Max.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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