On Sunday, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) elected a new government with a narrow majority of 60 against 59 – ending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 year-long hold on power. His rule was characterised by right-wing policies and the brutal oppression of the Palestinians, based on the personal standing of Netanyahu as Israel’s strong man. The final example of this was the recent bloody bombardment of Gaza. What will the new government bring? And why did Netanyahu lose his grip on power?
Netanyahu stands for the brutal oppression of the Palestinians, racist demagoguery and austerity politics. His rule has been punctuated by a series of corruption scandals, which he has managed to shrug off so far. However, the government that is set to replace him is by no means any more progressive. What the change really reflects is a deepening crisis at the top of the Israeli ruling class.
The deepening crisis of the Israeli state
Netanyahu’s political history is that of a cunning, reckless reactionary. He has previously shown a capacity of seizing every opportunity in unfavourably circumstances, turning the situation to his own advantage. Over the years Netanyahu managed to occupy such a central position in Israeli politics that the crisis of his rule has become inextricably interwoven with the crisis of the Israeli state.
Netanyahu now emerges defeated. Like his friend and ally, Donald Trump, he is a bad loser and is already planning his revenge. Like Trump, he has conjured reactionary forces that he cannot fully control, but which he will rally for a future comeback. He is far from relegated to a marginal role in Israeli politics. The very composition of the coalition that has ousted him is proof of the profound crisis of Israel’s political system. An important section of the Israeli ruling class seems determined to dispose of Netanyahu’s problematic premiership. But the fragility of the coalition this present attempt is based on is a testament of the depth of the crisis.
The problem for the Israeli ruling class is that institutional stability, with or without Netanyahu, is a chimera. After the inconclusive election results in March, Netanyahu failed to muster majority support for a new government. He prolonged his tenure in office by precipitating the crisis that resulted in the brutal bombing of Gaza in May. He counted on a resounding victory that would strengthen his position. The tactic backfired.
In a desperate attempt to find a way out of the impasse, President Rivlin entrusted the ‘moderate liberal’, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, with forming a new government. Lapid’s attempt stalled during the Gaza bombing, but gained momentum after the ceasefire, when it became clear that Netanyahu’s victory claims were hollow and insubstantial.
Lapid set about forging an extremely peculiar alliance. On the right, the coalition comprises the far-right Yamina party and its chairman Naftali Bennet, who has been sworn in as Prime Minister. He represents the national-religious settler movement. Then there is Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is also a right-wing, pro-settler and racist party. The coalition also included the national-conservative Gideon Sa’ar, a longtime member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who has now established his own list.
However, to achieve a parliamentary majority, Lapid needed the support of even more parties. The so-called ‘Zionist Left’ hurried to his rescue. The social democratic Avoda, and the left-liberal Meretz party were quick to offer their support. The cherry on top is the inclusion of the Arab-Islamist Ra’am party. In surreal scenes, Ra’am’s leader shook hands with the fanatical Zionist, Naftali Bennett, as a deal to join the government was struck. This absurd and extremely unstable alliance is only united by one thing: opposition to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s attempt to twist the situation in his favour was part of the reason for the escalation of violence by the Israeli state in Jerusalem and later in Gaza. Netanyahu calculated he could kill this alliance stone dead through a new war against the Palestinians, which would drive a wedge between the Zionist right and left, and would make it impossible for the Arab Ra’am party to join a coalition with right-wing settler parties. However, after two weeks of ruthless bombardment, which left over 260 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead, and tens of thousands of lives destroyed, Netanyahu discovered to his dismay that he had not only failed to prevent a coalition against him, but he had perhaps even strengthened it.
A new element in the equation
As we explained in a previous article, the most important change in the present situation is the emergence of a unified mass struggle of the Palestinians within 1948 Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Palestinian diaspora, which culminated in the Palestinian general strike of 18 May. The mass resistance of Palestinians against oppression by the Israeli state has resonated internationally. The large and growing wave of international solidarity reflects a shifting attitude towards revolutionary ideas among youth and workers across the world. This movement – which Netanyahu’s hubris helped evoke – is a threat to the stability of Israeli capitalism and to all the reactionary Arab regimes in the region. Thus it is a problem for the whole imperialist balance of forces in the Middle East.
Incidentally, this movement is also challenging the authority of the historic leadership of the Palestinian national struggle. This is certainly the case with Fatah, which has already discredited itself and is currently collaborating with Israel in suppressing the Palestinian movement in the West Bank, with a wave of arrests of young Palestinian activists. Hamas has registered a temporary boost of popularity among Palestinians because of its defiant stand against Israel during the repression of the Al Aqsa movement and the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. In the medium term, however, Hamas’s authority as the leading force in the Palestinian national liberation movement faces being undermined to the degree that the success of methods of mass struggle exposes the hollowness of Hamas’s political outlook in the eyes of thousands of Palestinian youth.
The new Israeli government is being sworn in at the same time as the Israeli state is attempting to enforce a crackdown against Palestinian activists, with more than 1,500 Palestinian having been arrested since the Gaza ceasefire. This attempt, however, is failing to prevent further mass action by Palestinians. Meanwhile, a march by Jewish ultranationalist settlers through East Jerusalem, celebrating the occupation of 1967, has been announced for this evening. The new government has chosen not to ban the march, scheduled to pass through the Damascus Gate, despite it being an open anti-Palestinian provocation. The likely clashes that will result will be the new government’s first test – one it may well not survive.
Netanyahu and the Israeli bourgeoisie
The Israeli state was founded on the ideological basis that all Jews, whether they are workers or capitalists, have the same interests as opposed to the interests of Arabs and Palestinians in particular. By claiming to be the defender of the Jews against the ‘Arab threat’, the Israeli ruling class rallies the Israeli workers and youth behind the Israeli state – that is to say, behind the defense of the fundamental interests of the capitalist class.
Of course this idea is a smokescreen hiding a different reality: Jewish workers and Jewish capitalists have fundamentally antagonistic interests. Israel is a country with very high social inequality: on the one hand, you have an extremely reactionary ruling class and some of the wealthiest companies in the world, and on the other hand, you have a working class that suffers low wages, high rents and high food prices. Israel is a society where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. According to the OECD’s own measure, Israel is the most unequal of its 38 member states. To disguise these class antagonisms, the Israeli bourgeoisie needs the myth of the ‘unity of interests’ of Jews.
To keep their system in power, the Israeli capitalist class has always rested on nationalism and the oppression of the Palestinians. The Zionist project to expand Israel as a homeland for the Jews is being carried out through constant land grabs at the expense of the Palestinian population and by waging wars against its neighbours. These policies were designed to fuel a siege mentality and anti-Arab hysteria amongst the Israeli workers and youth. Racism and scare tactics are intended to blur class differences and rally the Jewish-Israeli workers behind the Israeli state every time the danger of an existential threat to Israel is evoked.
Benjamin Netanyahu perfected this method. But to the chagrin of the Israeli bourgeoisie, Netanyahu increasingly relied on these policies not for the furtherance of the interests of Israeli capitalism as a whole, but merely to stabilise his own position of power, while shielding himself from prosecution of numerous corruption charges. Whenever Netanyahu was in trouble and was losing public support, he would beat the war drum and ratchet up his chauvinistic demagoguery.
We’ve seen the methods from his playbook deployed in the Gaza bombing and invasion in 2014; the sabotage of the US nuclear agreement with Iran, including repeated assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists; the racist Jewish Nation State Law introduced in 2018; the loudly announced (but never implemented) annexation of the West Bank in the spring of last year, and the bombing of Gaza over the last few weeks. Each of these maneuvers were partially designed in one way or another to whip up nationalist hysteria in order to shore up Netanyahu’s declining popularity.
As his popularity began to decline, he relied more and more on right-wing and far-right parties, in particular those of the settlers’ movement. This temporarily kept him in power, but at the cost of alienating a growing section of the Israeli population, in particular workers, youth and urban middle classes. Moreover, an increasing number of Israelis have been able to see that the question of war and peace is decided on the basis of Netanyahu’s personal power considerations and has nothing to do with the defence of the interests of the majority. His policies have eroded the effectiveness of a core tactic that the Israeli capitalist class uses to bolster its rule. This is a serious threat to Israeli capitalism’s long-term stability.
Netanyahu and imperialism
Netanyahu’s short-sighted and self-centered policies not only endangered the internal stability of Israeli capitalism. They also threatened to seriously jeopardise US imperialist interests across the region. Following the defeats of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the instability caused by the Arab revolutions of 2011, US imperialism has entered into crisis. This is reflected in its many somersaults pivoting between different conflicting powers such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Under President Obama, the US started to change strategy by relying on negotiations, deals, agreements and an attempt to change alliances to partially disengage from direct military involvement in the region. The nuclear deal with Iran was part of this strategy, but had the effect of further destabilising relations with key traditional US allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. All this was reflected in the Syrian war, which saw US policy crashing in unresolvable contradictions, allowing for the rise of important protagonists like Russia and Iran on one side, and other regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other. Each is pursuing its own interests behind the scenes, or else is in open conflict with US imperialism. For the first time since the Second World War, the US was relegated to a secondary role in the region.
The policies pursued by Trump were an attempt to restore the alliance with some of the disenfranchised former US allies. But it ended in an even worse mess from the point of view of the general interests of US imperialism. This was reflected also in the US position in relation to the Palestinian question. Any pretence of neutrality was abandoned, with the US openly siding with Netanyahu. It proved to be a particularly dangerous gamble, further jeopardising the stability of all the Arab regimes in the region that lent any kind of support to the normalisation or easing of relations with Israel.
The new US administration under Biden is attempting to navigate towards more familiar and quiet waters, based on the consolidated game of US-sponsored multilateral negotiations in order to bring the genie of the reactionary and revolutionary forces set in motion by the present crisis back into the bottle. Such an attempt is doomed to fail.
This strategy was undermined by Netanyahu’s war-mongering against Iran (which in some cases was too dubious and adventurous even for the IDF High Command) and by the escalation of the repression of the Palestinians, which is an extremely powerful factor undermining the stability of the Arab regimes in the region that are allied with the USA.
Since the founding of the state of Israel, the reactionary Arab regimes and despots in the region have presented themselves as protectors of the Palestinians in order to divert attention from their own oppressive and imperialist policies. While crying crocodile tears over the oppression of the Palestinians, they are not only suppressing their own people but also helping the Israeli state suppress the Palestinians. However, the increasing oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel is putting them under more and more pressure.
The deafening silence of many Arab leaders during the bombardment of Gaza in recent weeks has severely discredited them in the eyes of their people. The vast majority of these regimes are debilitated by their own deep crises, facing a potentially revolutionary mood among their own people, be it Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States.
The spectre of the Arab revolutions of 2011 or the revolutionary movements in 2019 loom over the capitalists and imperialists of the region. The massive, unified and powerful movement of the Palestinian masses, provoked by Israel in the last weeks, refreshed these memories among the masses as well as in the eyes of the ruling classes. The US imperialists know what an impact the movement for Palestinian freedom has on the oppressed masses of the entire region. Netanyahu’s incitement also undermined the alliance between Israel and the Arab states allied with the USA, which is an important pillar of US policy in the region. In every way possible Netanyahu was becoming too big a liability for US imperialism.
Splits in the ruling class
A split has consequently developed in the Israeli bourgeoisie as a growing section concluded that it had to get rid of Netanyahu to prevent the further destabilisation of the political situation. Various attempts have been made to dislodge him. The problem however from the point of view of the capitalist class is that there is no party ready to take over. While Netanyahu and his Likud party have been weakened, the rest of the bourgeois parties are in an even weaker position.
First, corruption allegations against Netanyahu were brought into the public eye. Then Netanyahu’s long-time coalition partner, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, was pushed by the big bourgeoisie into refusing to form a coalition with him after the 2019 general election. In these elections, the ruling class attempted to patch together a coalition called Kahol Lavan (the so-called ‘centre alliance’), led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. But their attempt to dislodge Netanyahu failed, after which Gantz completely discredited himself by entering a coalition with Netanyahu, the very enemy he was standing against. The political crisis has led to four elections in the last two years.
Whilst corruption allegations were piling up against Netanyahu, his allies and party protéges were increasingly turning against him. Gideon Sa’ar is one of them, as are Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from the right-wing Yamina party. All are now arrayed against Netanyahu in the new coalition. The economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 has further exacerbated social tensions and political instability.
After the latest elections in March, Netanyahu once more attempted to overcome the challenge to his rule by adopting even more aggressive oppressive anti-Palestinian measures, leading to the clashes at Sheikh Jarrah and the Al Aqsa mosque and provoking the most recent conflict with Hamas. However, this manoeuvre did not pay off as it had before. Firstly, the majority of Israelis viewed the bombing campaign and Netanyahu’s provocations at the Al Aqsa mosque with enormous distrust. Secondly, rather than showing an omnipotent zionist state, the conflict ended in a stalemate due to the mass movement of the Palestinians within the borders of the Israeli state, and a pro-Palestinian solidarity movement which erupted across the region and throughout the world.
From the point of view of the bulk of the Israeli ruling class, Netanyahu has become a liability. His actions are undermining the legitimacy of the zionist state altoghether. That is why the ruling class is now putting in all its efforts to remove Netanyahu by any means, forcing such unlikely bedfellows as Naftali Bennett and the Ra’am party into a coalition.
The new government: as bad as the last
From the point of view of the working class and the oppressed Palestinian people, this government offers nothing. Its programme can be described as, “Netanyahu’s politics without Netanyahu.” What concerned the ruling class about Netanyahu was not his corruption, his violent repression of the Palestinians, his racism or the attacks on the living standards of the working class. All of these are necessarily part of Israeli capitalism. What concerned them was that Netanyahu was exposing these tactics and polarising Israeli society to an intolerable degree, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the state and its institutions.
The fact that the so-called ‘Zionist Left’ (Avoda and Meretz) have joined the government cannot disguise the government’s right-wing agenda. The so-called Labour party (Avoda) and Meretz have shown their true colors. The supposedly “left” Zionist parties always tail the right-wing Zionist parties. While portrayed as progressive, they are always ready to support one group of right-wing and racist settler parties against another. Indeed the very notion of “left” Zionism is a contradictio in adjecto. It is impossible to both defend the interests of the working class and share the nationalist Zionist ideology of the Israeli ruling class.
A look at the personnel also makes it clear where this government stands: Naftali Bennett (Yamina) is to be Prime Minister for the first two years, following which – and assuming this coalition survives that long! – he will be replaced by Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid). Bennet is a racist and a vocal supporter of the Zionist settlers. He is in favour of Israeli annexation of the West Bank and is known for statements such as: “I have killed a lot of Arabs and I see nothing wrong with that!”
The Ministry of Interior will go to far right-winger Ayelet Shaked of Yamina, who mocked those calling her a fascist in an election ad a few years ago where she sprayed herself with a perfume labelled, ‘Fascism’, saying, “smells like democracy to me!” The Finance Minister is Avigdor Liebermann, who is himself a Zionist settler living in the West Bank and was previously Foreign Minister and Defence Minister under Netanyahu. Benny Gantz will remain as Defense Minister, a position he already held under Netanyahu during the recent bombardment of Gaza. Gantz was also the military commander of the bombing and invasion of Gaza in 2014, which killed 2,300 Palestinians, two-thirds of whom were civilians, according to the UN.
The need for a revolutionary alternative
This ‘anti-Netanyahu alliance’ is exceptionally weak, and it won’t be long before bitter infighting breaks out. If a genuine revolutionary party existed in Israel today, the splits in the ruling class and the increasingly discredited and splintered nature of its parties would present an opportunity to cleave away a layer of the Jewish-Israeli workers from the Israeli capitalist class and towards an independent class position.
However, there does not yet exist a party on the Israeli left with clear ideas capable of utilising this opportunity. Against discrimination, perpetual war, the oppression of the Palestinian people, and the corruption of the established parties, the biggest party of the Israeli left is Hadash, which is an alliance dominated by the Communist Party of Israel (Ma’Ki). Hadash raises the demand for more “democracy”. But what does that mean? Bourgeois parliamentary democracy? The corruption and the haggling for posts, through which the ruling class decides which of their representatives should “represent and trample” the masses, as Marx once wrote? The truth is that there can be no end to Israeli imperialism and the oppression of the Palestinians on a capitalist basis; nor can there be an end to corruption and exploitation. What we have in Israel is not some form of ‘unfortunate’ and accidental state of things. This is the best that capitalism can offer. There can be no Israeli capitalism without all the rot that it entails today. Thus, what is needed is not moralising or abstract demands for “democracy” or “peace”. What is needed is a struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois Israeli state.
In the past few weeks, we have seen a heroic mass movement of Palestinian youth emerge. But instead of organising them, going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, coordinating the movement for the revolutionary overthrow of the Israeli state, Hadash preached a toothless pacifism. Their slogans are: “Against the war”, “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies”, “Children in Gaza and Ber Sheva want to live”. But to whom are these moral appeals made? To the Netanyahu government? To the high command of the IDF? To the liberal Zionists?
It is correct to oppose the reactionary war but liberal pacifism cannot offer any way out of the cycle of barbarism we are witnessing. Each imperialist “peace” is based on racism, discrimination, land grabs and evictions, and the violent suppression of the protests by the Palestinian people. It is periodically cut across by imperialist war, which pursues the same aims by other means. War in turn is followed by a new imperialist “peace” in an endless cycle of oppression. The class interests behind this mechanism of oppression must be mercilessly exposed. What is necessary is a struggle to overcome the reactionary nationalism fostered by the Israeli state, by promoting class struggle, class solidarity and proletarian internationalism in the context of a revolutionary wave that is shaking capitalism and imperialism on a world scale.
What is needed in Israel-Palestine is a genuinely revolutionary Marxist organisation that can offer a concrete perspective for the revolutionary overthrow of the Israeli capitalist state and the establishment of the Socialist Federation of the Middle East, within which both the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian people could live peacefully along with all the other peoples of the region. Such an organisation has yet to be forged. Accomplishing this is the pressing task of the most progressive and radical workers and youth in the whole of historical Palestine.