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Analyst Shir Hever: Despite Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing, neoliberal, and racist policies, his reelection thwarted a potentially more aggressive and violent regime from taking power

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is elating after his right-wing Likud Party secured a firm victory in the Israeli elections on March 17. It was a very close race against the Zionist Union Party, led by Isaac Herzog. Our next guest, Shir Hever, in an interview he did with us last month, predicted that Prime Minister Netanyahu would win in spite of many strikes against him at the time. So, defying election polls leading up to the election, Prime Minister Netanyahu has won. To get his reaction to the results, I’m joined by Shir Hever. Shir is reporting from Göttingen, Germany. He is an economic researcher at the Alternative Information Center, a Palestinian-Israeli organization active in Jerusalem and Beit Sahur. Thank you so much for joining me, Shir. SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Shir, so let’s begin with your initial reaction to the results. HEVER: I have to admit, mostly relief. Of course, Netanyahu is nowhere near my political views. He is an extreme right-wing, racist, and neoliberal leader. But within the framework of the Israeli political system, the real danger doesn’t come from a head of state who embodies such opinions, but from a coalition that is compelled, in order to maintain its stability, to be extra aggressive against Palestinians and to go to wars. In fact, the most aggressive coalitions in the history of Israel were not the ones led by Likud, by the right wing, but by the so-called center or left, like the Labour Party, which is now calling itself the Zionist Camp. These governments have a right-wing opposition which will never criticize them if they use violence against Palestinians, and therefore they can go much further with their aggressiveness and brutality. But I want to correct you in one small thing. The race between Netanyahu and the Likud and the Zionist Camp was not very close, actually. It was only close in the polls. And then, when we finally get the actual result, we see that there’s quite a significant gap between the two parties. Likud has managed to get several seats in the parliament more than the Zionist Camp. And all of that was a big surprise for the various polling companies. PERIES: So then why were the pollings so wrong? HEVER: I think many people in Israel have completely underestimated Netanyahu’s skill and his deep understanding of how the political system in Israel works. Netanyahu is the master of short-term solutions, and he doesn’t have or hasn’t expressed any desire to have a long-term strategy to make Israel a better place to live in. But whenever it comes to political crisis, to political crises, he’s the master of getting out of it. And he has engineered, very, very cleverly, the situation that allowed him to appear as an underdog until the very last moment. In fact, he was the one who called for early election. And many people in the Israeli elite, in the newspapers, have said he’s made a terrible mistake, the public will punish him for calling for an early election, the election costs a lot of money, and they would punish them by voting for the opposition. But Netanyahu understood things much better. He understood that it’s not really an election about personalities. I think a lot of Israelis, probably the majority of Israelis, dislike Netanyahu on a personal level and see him as a corrupt person, as a very vain man who doesn’t care so much about their well-being. But Netanyahu understands that, on a deeper level, the Israeli society is very racist. And this racism he decided to exploit. On the very day of the elections, when the first reporting were coming out about turnout at the voting booths, they reported a slightly lower than usual turnout rate for the morning and afternoon hours compared to previous elections. At that moment, Netanyahu sent an SMS that reached many people in Israel–maybe most people in Israel got this SMS, in which he said uthe Arabs are voting in droves, the Arabs are rallying to vote in large numbers. And that caused–and he tried to create panic. I think he succeeded and convinced people to respond to that SMS. In fact, after that, the show-up in the polls has–in the booths have increased dramatically. And now, when all the votes are counted, it shows a higher voting rate than previous elections, because people wanted to make sure that the Arab parties, the Palestinian United Joint List, will not be represented in the parliament in a way that would give it significant strength. PERIES: And in addition, he also fueled those anti-Arab sentiment or anti-Palestinian sentiments here when he days before announced that he would not support a separate Palestinian state. HEVER: Yeah, because Netanyahu has already given his famous Bar-Ilan speech in which he said that he would accept a Palestinian state, a demilitarized Palestinian state, and that was used both by his critics and by his supporters to say that actually he’s compatible with the two-state solution. And he thought that before this election it would be a good chance to make it absolutely clear that he will not allow Palestinians to have their own state. I think this statement is beautiful, actually, I think it’s very good that he made that statement, first of all because it completely exposes the fact that there is no peace process, there is no two sides negotiating. This is just a state of occupation. Israel has no intention of recognizing the rights of Palestinians to freedom and independence. And everybody should know that. When the head of state says that openly, I think there is no more room for trying to cast any kind of illusions. The second reason that I find this statement encouraging is that in the history of Netanyahu’s political career, he has never made a single statement which didn’t turn out to be a lie. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I think when reality’s ridiculous, we have no choice but to acknowledge it. Every statement Netanyahu makes turns out to be a lie. And when he says he will not allow a Palestinian state, I am becoming quite encouraged. I think that we might see some real headway–not that Netanyahu will promote it, not that he would support Palestinians’ struggle for freedom, of course, but that he’s already realizing that when the time comes that Palestinians are going to raise their struggle to the next level with a lot of international support and solidarity, he will not be up to stop them. Everyone in the political system understands that this stage is coming. And that’s one of the reasons why nobody really wanted to challenge Netanyahu so much and there was no real attempt to replace the government with a vision of a different kind of strategy, different kind of political horizon for Israel. And that made it much easier for him to win. PERIES: So let’s look at how the Arab parties did in the election. And what was the Arab voter turnout like? HEVER: Yeah. So what every Israeli knows is that Palestinians are more than 20 percent of the population. There are 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. So if all the Palestinians would vote for Palestinian parties–that is not, of course, what happens, because there are people with the political opinions, just like everybody else. But if that would happen, their representation would be 24 seats in the parliament. And yet, in reality we see that these parties only get ten to 12 seats, these Palestinian parties. And the reason for that is indeed that many Palestinians choose to vote for other parties, even for Zionist parties. But also the reason for this is that many Palestinians are very discouraged by the political system in Israel, which they see as an apartheid system in which they have no chance of influencing the political system. So they boycott the elections. They say, we are not going to legitimize the system that maybe gives us the vote, but creates various mechanisms to make sure that we will be completely marginalized and will not have a say in the political reality of Israel. Now, because there is now a new law to increase the minimum percentage for parties to enter the Knesset, the Palestinian parties had no choice but to unite, because otherwise they would all be wiped out by this minimum percentage. So they united. And they said, this is actually opportunity for us to call on the Palestinian people to change their historic tendency to boycott the elections and to vote in larger numbers. And they tried to convince people–especially Palestinian citizens of Israel, but there are also, of course, Jews that vote for this party, and they were expecting to get, to jump from 12 seats maybe as high as 15 seats. So they got 14 in the end. Fourteen is almost as high as what they expected, once seat short. However, what they did not manage to do is to get the second-largest party in the Knesset. It was not very likely that they would have succeeded. But what they thought they could do is, if there would be some kind of unity government between the Zionist Camp and Likud, then they would actually be heading the opposition. And that is a position that in Israel gives you some authority, some influence, to be the head of the opposition. That’s not going to happen, because Netanyahu has no reason now to take the Zionist Camp into his coalition. So the Zionist camp is going to head the opposition. And that puts the Joint List in a very disempowered position there. Now, they’re going to have very little impact within the upcoming Knesset. Now, they can try to have an impact anyway, they can try to use provocative measures and to show their solidarity with the Palestinians living under occupation, for example, and that would get a lot of noise in Israel, in order to try to convince their public that they didn’t make a mistake, but they shouldn’t have boycotted the elections. But if they don’t do that, then I think it’s very likely that many Palestinian voters in Israel would realize that within a Zionist political system, the participation is not going to lead to true equality. PERIES: What are the next steps, Shir, in terms of forming the government immediately and then also moving forward? What are some of the issues that Netanyahu promised his voters that he has to deliver on? HEVER: Well, according to the Israeli political system, the president, who doesn’t have a lot of authority–but in this case he has the right to choose which will be the first party that gets a chance to form the coalition. And traditionally he asks the biggest party. So he’s going to ask Likud. I think that’s quite obvious. And he tried to beg Likud and Zionist Camp to consider a joint coalition together, what is known in Israel is a unity government. I think that’s not going to happen, because the Zionist Camp are not willing to make the sacrifices to pay the price that Netanyahu will demand of them. And it will be rather easy for Netanyahu to assemble his coalition using parties that are anyway in his pocket and will not have any other options. So Netanyahu is actually going to have, probably, a very stable coalition. He’ll be able to cast aside various centrist parties that might still make demands of him and go for a very religious coalition using right-wing religious parties as the backbone of his coalition and leaving any party that could conceivably be considered a little bit lefty in the opposition. And I think that’s also not very bad, because when you have these lefties in the government, they are used as a fig leaf to try to legitimize the government, especially in the international community. It’s better not to have that. It’s better that everyone will see that the people who run the country are in fact the colonists from the West Bank, the commanders of the army who have attacked Gaza last summer. These are the people who run the country, and everyone should know this. So it’s going to probably be a relatively stable coalition. And, actually, a stable coalition has a very big advantage in terms of everybody living in that area, but it doesn’t have to prove itself. It’s not under a very strong political pressure, internal political pressure, to prove that it does something. So they can basically do nothing. And hopefully that would mean that they will have less of an incentive to start additional wars and additional attacks against Gaza, or if they will start additional attacks against Gaza (because there is a pattern every two years, more or less, Israel does invade Gaza), that they will maybe do it on a smaller scale. PERIES: Shir, I thank you so much for joining us today. HEVER: Thank you for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.