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No one holds Israel to account for its politics that lack morality

The work of Sigmund Freud offers one way to explain the continuing rightward shift in Israeli politics.

To understand the drift to the right widely expected to be confirmed in today's Israeli election, it is useful to turn to the work of a 19th century Viennese Jewish intellectual - not Theodore Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism, whose 1902 novel Altneueland offered a fantasy of Israel becoming an egalitarian, cosmopolitan utopia for Jews and Arabs, but rather, Sigmund Freud.

The founder of psychoanalysis was more concerned with states of the mind than those of flags and armies, but his schema for understanding the human psyche offers an interesting template for understanding Israel's political self.

Freud divided the psyche into three parts: the "id", comprising basic impulses such as hunger, greed and lust, and seeking instant gratification heedless of consequences; the "superego" - the moral component, which counsels us to do what is right because we know it is right; and the "ego", the pragmatic executive component that balances id with superego, and with an awareness of the negative consequences acting on id impulses might bring in the wider world.

Apply that schema to the Israeli body politic in this election, and it's clear that Israel's id is voiced by Naftali Bennett, the charismatic leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, which looks set to finish third in the polls and is expected to form an important part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's next government. Mr Bennett is both a dotcom millionaire and a hard-line religious-nationalist settler, openly hostile to talking peace with the Palestinians, instead advocating further settlements and the annexation of most of the West Bank.

The Israeli political superego barely exists, today. Only the fringe left of the Jewish spectrum and Israel's Arab political parties demand justice for the Palestinians on the basis of morality. The only candidate still pushing for peace talks with the Palestinians is the centrist former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who fears that Israel will suffer negative consequences for failing to talk. Even that's an argument she appears to be losing, with pre-election polls suggesting she'll win only about 7 per cent of the vote.

The role of "ego" in Israel's political psyche, today, is played by Mr Netanyahu, who is well acquainted with the impulses of the id, having served his own political apprenticeship in that role. Mr Bennett was once Mr Netanyahu's chief of staff. And Avigdor Lieberman, who played the id part in the last election, is now the PM's running mate on a joint electoral list.

Even if he sympathises with some of Mr Bennett's impulses, Mr Netanyahu's responsibility is to chart a course mindful of the pragmatic consequences for Israel of indulging its id. The PM is a product of a political movement that always believed in a "Greater Israel" and rejected the possibility of a Palestinian state anywhere west of the Jordan River. His job, however, requires adapting his movement's impulses to wider realities. Thus, the 2009 explanation to the Likud Party faithful by the prime minister's late father, Benzion Netanyahu, that his son (sitting alongside him at the time) had spoken of Palestinian statehood simply because that's what the Americans expected, but would prevent it by setting preconditions no Palestinian leader could ever accept.

Mr Netanyahu is challenged by centrists who believe his indulgence of Israel's id put the country at risk. US President Barack Obama is reported to hold a similar view. The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who has good access to both the White House and Israeli leaders, caused a stir in Israel last week by reporting that "Obama [has] said privately and repeatedly, 'Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are.'"

But those comments appear to have boosted Mr Netanyahu's electoral prospects. His near certain re-election today marks a new stability in Israeli politics. On present terms, Israel will never elect a government willing to embrace the two-state solution imagined by the international community. Israelis who have argued that favouring settlements over peace will bring dire consequences have lost the debate, for one simple reason: Israel simply hasn't suffered substantial consequences for maintaining the occupation and expanding settlements.

That's why Mr Bennett can credibly ask Israelis, why should they give up any part of "Greater Israel" and let the Palestinians have a state? Despite the warnings that the Americans would abandon it, Israel has more than doubled its settler population since Oslo began, and it is expanding its grip on East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And what has it cost? Sure, the Americans say this is "not helpful to the peace process", but they can't even so much as abstain from a UN resolution condemning it. Everyone knows, Mr Bennett maintains, there will never be a peace agreement with the Palestinians. When Israel has created new facts on the ground, Mr Bennett might argue, the Americans will eventually come around to accepting them.

Mr Netanyahu won't say these things, even if his father shared some of Mr Bennett's assumptions. The PM may even try to draw one of the centrist parties into his coalition to assuage western concerns over a settler-dominated government - just as he did last year with the now nearly extinct Kadima Party.

But Mr Bennett, and other pro-settler voices from within Mr Netanyahu's own party, will likely set the next government's operational agenda in the West Bank.

The question, then, is not so much what Israel plans to do for the next four years. "The defining fault line of the new coalition," says former Israel peace negotiator Daniel Levy, "will be less about two states or not, and more focused on the struggle between proactive annexationists and status quo merchants, meaning yet more deepening and entrenching of [the] occupation." Instead, the question is whether there will be any costs for Israel continuing the current trend. And that question can only be answered in Washington and other western capitals.

 

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron

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