Israel is about to make a misjudgment as disastrous -- and deadly -- as the attack on Gaza. In a few days, it looks likely to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister once again.
This is a man calling for the violent re-occupation of Gaza to "liquidate" its elected government. This is a man who says he will "naturally grow" the West Bank settlements. This is a man who says he will "never" negotiate over Jerusalem, or the Golan Heights, or control of the West Bank water supply. This is a man who says establishing a Palestinian state would leave Israel with "an existential threat and a public relations nightmare reminiscent of 1938 Czechoslovakia." This is a man who Yitzhak Rabin's widow says helped to incite his murder.
The political beneficiaries of Operation Cast Lead have been Israel's hard-right. The opinion poll numbers have surged for Netanyahu's Likud and for the even more extreme Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian immigrant was openly advocates the ethnic cleansing of Arabs. They say the only problem with the 23-day bombing of Gaza -- killing 410 children, and hugely strengthening Hamas -- is that it didn't go far enough.
The world needs to urgently look at these individuals and ask how this came to pass.
Everybody agrees that the key to understanding Netanyahu lies with his father, Benzion. He is a distinguished scholar of medieval history who believes the world is eternally and ineradicably riddled with genocidal anti-Semitism. When he arrived in British Mandate Palestine, he declared that the majority of Jews there were naïve and idealistic. They had to immediately seize the entire Biblical land of Israel -- taking all of the West Bank and stretching right into present-day Jordan. There could be no compromise, ever, with the Arabs, who only understand force. The man he calls his mentor, Abba Ahimeir, described himself proudly as "a fascist."
Today, Benzion's son routinely compares dealing with the Palestinians to dealing with Nazis. He can only understand their anger as a resurfacing of Europe's irrational, genocidal hate. He insists they have no right to a share of the land because they "stole" it -- in the year 636 AD. He writes: "It was not the Jews who usurped the land from the Arabs, but the Arabs who usurped the land from the Jews... twelve hundred years ago."
Accordingly, Netanyahu rubbishes every peace initiative offered by Israel. His reaction to Yitzhak Rabin's decision to sign the mild and moderate Oslo accords with Yassir Arafat reveals the depth of his opposition to compromise. He warmly addressed crowds which chanted "Rabin is a Nazi" and "through blood and fire, Rabin shall expire." He called the Prime Minister "a traitor", shortly before Rabin was murdered by a Jewish fundamentalist who agreed.
In order to justify his opposition to all compromise to the Obama administration, Netanyahu has adopted a neat distraction-idea. He says he wants "economic peace" with the Palestinians, developing their economy, rather the political process. But how can anything develop amidst the rubble, blockade and roadblocks he has in mind? This is a piece of spin to sugar-coat the on-going occupation.
The other person who has surged ahead in the polls -- and looks likely to be Netanyahu's coalition partner -- is Avigdor Liberman, a Russian ex-nightclub bouncer who was once arrested for attacking a boy who he suspected of insulting his son. Lieberman grew up in the Soviet system -- and he retains a Soviet mindset. His party, Yisrael Beytenu (Israel, Our Home) has campaigned claiming that Israel's two million Arab citizens are "a danger to the country", to be dispensed with, in part, by ethnic cleansing. Lieberman wanted to bus thousands of released Palestinian prisoners to the Dead Sea and drown them.
Today, he has moderated his stance and merely wants to "transfer" many hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs -- inevitably by force -- to the scraps of remaining land that will be labeled Palestine after Israel has annexed the major illegal settlement blocks. If your name's not on the list, you're not staying in.
At times, he says his model for how to deal with the Palestinians is Cyprus in the 1970s, where the mixed Turkish and Greek populations were separated out at gunpoint. "The final result was better," he sighs. "Minorities are the biggest problem in the world." He would like to begin these racist expulsions with a simple, swift move: executing Israeli Arab members of the Knesset. Since they have spoken to the democratically elected Palestinian leadership, they are "traitors", Lieberman argues. They should be dealt with "like Hamas."
At other times, Lieberman shifts analogy, and says the correct model for dealing with Gaza and the West Bank should be to copy Vladimir Putin's approach to Chechnya in the 1990s. One third of the civilian population died.
Perhaps even more depressing than the rise of these political thugs is the flat and flat-lining response from the other parties. Both Kadima and Labour militantly defend the blockade and bombing of Gaza, not least because their leaders -- Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak -- led the charge in cabinet. Even Barak has picked up the comparison to Putin and started approvingly quoting the new Russia Tsar. The brave pro-peace parties like Meeretz are shunted far to the margins of the debate.
How did this happen? It is essential to remember that Israelis didn't end up in the Middle East out of a wicked desire to colonise and kill, as some people now gleefully claim. They are there because they were fleeing genocidal Jew-hatred. That doesn't justify a single crime against a single Palestinian -- but if we forget this, and the unimaginably vast trauma that lies behind it, we cannot understand what is happening now.
Over the past few months, I keep returning to an extraordinary essay written by the great Israel novellist Amos Oz in 1982. The Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin had compared the Palestinian leadership to Adolf Hitler, so Oz wrote: "You display an urge to resurrect Hitler from the dead so you may kill him over and over again each day... Like many Jews, I feel sorry I feel sorry I didn't kill Hitler with my bare hands. But there is not, and there never will be, any healing for the open wound. Tens of thousands of dead Arabs will not heal that wound. Because, Mr Begin, Adolf Hitler is dead. He is not hiding in Nabatiyah, in Sidon, or in Beirut. He is dead and burned to ashes."
Israeli society consists, Oz says, of "a bunch of half-hysterical refugees and survivors". The two thousand year trauma of the blood libel, the Inquisition, the pogroms, Auschwitz and Chelmno and the Gulag Archipelago, have produced a distorted vision, where every shriek of pain directed at Israel can sound like the rumble beginning in the massed crowds at Nuremberg.
This means that Israel is missing opportunities for peace. Even much of Hamas -- an Islamist party I passionately oppose -- is amenable to a long-term ceasefire along the 1967 borders. That isn't my opinion; it is the view of Yuval Diskin, the current head of the Israeli security service Shin Bet. He told the Israeli cabinet before the bombing of Gaza that Hamas would restore the ceasefire if Israel would only end the blockade of the Strip and declare a ceasefire on the West Bank. Instead, they bombed, and the offer died.
The former head of Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, says that Hamas "will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals" if only Israel will begin the path of compromise. This would drain support for the really implacable rejectionists like Osama Bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh, and make it easier to build the international coalitions needed to hold them back.
Instead, too many Israelis -- imprisoned by their history -- seem determined to choose the opposite path: of Netanyahu and Lieberman and ramming an endless alienating boot onto the throat of the Palestinians. It doesn't have to be like this. We can only say to them with Amos Oz, as urgently as we can: Adolf Hitler is not hiding in Gaza City, or Beit Hanoun, or Hebron. Adolf Hitler is dead.