Israeli Indecision 2013 — Ultra-ultra hardliners vs ultra-hardliners

The System

First, let us start with a summation of how general elections work in Israel. The country has a proportional representation system, in which voters vote for their preferred political party rather than a particular candidate. Due to this system as well as a fairly recent promulgation of narrow interest parties (such as parties devoted to representing Russian secular Jews or ultra-observant Sephardic Jews, for example), it is incredibly difficult for one party to win a majority in the 120-seat parliament, called the Knesset.

The prime minister is the leader of the party that is able to form a stable governing coalition. Generally, this is the leader of the party with the most seats, but not always. For example, in the last general election in 2009, the centrist Kadima party won the most seats with 28 seats but could not form a working coalition. Likud, Israel’s primary right-wing party, came in second with 27 seats and was able to form an alliance with other right-wing parties, leading to a coalition government with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

All Israeli citizens over 18 years old can vote.

The Parties

There are over 30 party lists in the current election. Each party ranks its candidates by order of precedence on these lists, with leaders and other prestigious personages at the top so as to ensure the chances they will get a seat in the Knesset. Some of the most important parties running in this current election and their leaders:

Likud Yisrael Beiteinu


This is the current coalition governing Israel right now, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Going into the election, it holds 42 Knesset seats. Likud was founded in the 1970s as a union of conservative and liberal parties and became the first right-wing political institution to interrupt the Israeli Labor Party’s uninterrupted control of the government from 1968 to 1977. Likud governed Israel throughout most of the 1980s and finally merged into an actual party of its own in 1988. Netanyahu took over the party in 1996 and became Prime Minister, only to lose to Labor in 1999. The party split under the leadership of Ariel Sharon (see Kadima below) in 2005 over Sharon’s policies toward the peace process and economic reforms, with Sharon leaving to form his own party. Netanyahu won the subsequent leadership election and led the party to resurgence in the 2009 general election, following which it formed a coalition government despite coming in second place in terms of number of seats won. In October 2012, Likud merged with its main coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, and is now running on a single ballot.

Ideologically speaking, Likud under Netanyahu has meant economic reforms that have largely disabled the once ample Israeli welfare state. A staunch neoliberal, Netanyahu has presided over the privatization of state assets, the liberalization of markets and deep cuts to social spending – the latter of which leading to widespread “social justice” protests over the high cost of living. In terms of the peace process, Likud initially opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, but Netanyahu gave a speech in 2009 stating he would accept a Palestinian state if it was demilitarized, did not include Jerusalem and made no claims upon East Jerusalem. (He also rejected a Palestinian “right of return.”) In religious terms, the party remains nominally secular, although it has increased its image in religious terms in this election – which is a general trend among the major parties.

Likud’s recent merger partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, had been a fairly new arrival to Israeli politics, having been formed in 1999 by Avigdor Lieberman, a close Netanyahu ally. The party started out as an advocate for Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union but became more widely known for Lieberman’s plan to create a separate Palestinian state that would contain no Jews and would see Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories transferred into Israeli hands (in addition, the process for Palestinians to acquire Israeli citizenship would demand a loyalty pledge). Lieberman served as Israel’s Foreign Minister from April 2009 to this past December, when he resigned after being charged in a corruption investigation.

Kadima


Kadima is a centrist party and the party with the most seats in the Knesset, with 27 out of 120. Ariel Sharon and his followers, who left the Likud party over Sharon’s decision to resettle Israelis from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, created the party in 2005. Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006, after which the party advertised itself as the party of the peace process. It has performed well in its brief lifetime but now stands poised to be a major loser in this election. The party has seen a split of its own (more over personality than issues) and lacks a clear identity, as it has allied with every party on the political spectrum, from Labor to Likud.

The current leader is Shaul Mofaz, a Mizrahi Jew and former defense minister with a reputation as an opportunist. He was late to leave Likud to join Kadima and, most recently, went back on his 2012 leadership election pledge to never join a coalition with Likud. Mofaz gave Netanyahu a “super-majority” in May by agreeing to just such a partnership, but the alliance dissolved after 70 days over a failure between the two parties to reach an agreement on reforming a law that excuses ultra-Orthodox Jews from conscription.

Labor


Socialist Zionism once loomed large over Israeli politics and the party governed the country for most of its early history. Right now, however, the kibbutz movement is at a low ebb and the general rightward lurch of the electorate has meant a sharp decline for left-of-center Labor. The party has also had a host of internal problems. Ehud Barak, a former Labor Prime Minister, launched a political comeback in 2007 that saw him become the party’s leader for a second time. Barak initially aligned Labor with the ruling Kadima coalition at the time, earning him a spot as defense minister. When Likud and the right-wing parties supplanted Kadima after the 2009 elections, most Labor members wanted to stay out of the coalition, but Barak defied them, keeping his spot as defense minister. In 2011, Barak broke away from Labor, taking several of his followers with him so he could remain a part of the coalition and stay on as a minister (Barak plans to retire after this election). Pundits were writing eulogies for Labor afterwards, but the “social justice” movement brought renewed interest to the party. It will probably be the party that most sees its position in the Knesset improve after this election, but it will almost entirely do at the expense of Kadima, its main competition for center-left votes. It has just eight seats now but may become the second largest party in the Knesset.

Shelly Yachimovich filled the void after Barak’s departure, winning the subsequent leadership contest. She’s a former journalist and media personality who has emphasized social issues like employment law and Netanyahu’s economic reforms. She is generally seen as being more hawkish on national security issues than previous Labor leaders or at least less interested in the peace process. Her critics have accused her of being a populist poseur solely interested in elevating herself by playing to the Jewish poor even as Israeli Arabs and Palestinians are being exploited.

Shas


Look up “narrow interest political party” in the dictionary and you will see Eli Yishai’s face smiling back at you. Shas is basically a party that represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and uses its political standing to protect that group’s interests. As the fourth largest party in the Knesset with eleven seats, Shas doesn’t care who it enters into a coalition with as long as it gets something in return. Presently, the party has four posts in the Israeli Cabinet. Yishai, the party leader since 2000, is one of the four Deputy Prime Ministers as well as the Minister for Internal Affairs.

The party is very conservative on social issues and supports a state run according to Jewish religious law. In terms of the peace process, the party has been moderate in the past, but as the entire electorate has moved toward a more hawkish position, Shas now supports the construction of settlements in the West Bank. (Yishai said during the most recent Gaza conflict that Gaza needed to be blown “back to the Middle Ages.”) The party is also well-known for the number of its members convicted of corruption. Aryeh Deri, the leader whom Yishai replaced, was recently let out of prison and now co-leads the party along with Yishai and another Shas member and minister, Ariel Atlas.

The Jewish Home


The Jewish Home is the breakout party of this election. It is an extreme right-wing party composed of religious Zionists who believe, unlike secular Zionists, that the settlement and expansion of Israel is a religious mission to reclaim the Promised Land. The party initially started out as the much more moderate National Religious Party, but radicalized when the Orthodox movement and the settler movement became intertwined. Some polls have suggested the party could gain as many as 14 seats in this election, meaning it could be a power broker in a right-wing coalition.

The party is led by its chairman, Naftali Bennett, a former special forces commando and software tycoon. He opposes any kind of Palestinian state and has proposed the annexation of part of the West Bank (an area that has 300,000 Israeli settlers) as well as transferring control of the Gaza Strip over to Egypt. The remaining Palestinian territories would remain under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but would essentially be “managed” by the Israeli military and security services. (Bennett dismisses any possible international outcry, saying the rest of the world would just get used to it.) It is unclear how many Israelis actually favor his policies or believe them feasible, but his sudden popularity definitely indicates that many Israeli voters want a tough approach to security issues.

Hatnuah


Founded last November, Hatnuah is the party of Tzipi Livni, the former leader of Kadima who had been deputy prime minister as well as foreign minister in the 2006-2009 Kadima government. Many predicted her to emerge as the new prime minister following the 2009 elections, but her inability to form a working coalition consigned her to Opposition leader. She was once seen as a great hope for a possible two-state solution, but her support for Operation Cast Lead in the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict saw a good deal of whatever support she had erode among Palestinians. Kadima voted her out last year, and in response, Livni left with a half dozen of her supporters to form her own party.

The party has attracted a pair of former Labor leaders but generally the “party” is not all that different from Kadima: in favor of the free market but more dovish than the right-wing parties. It’s really just a Kadima faction that is loyal to Livni and a good indication of just how troubled and aimless the Israeli “left” is.

Yesh Atid


A brand new party that was surprisingly not created by a defection, Yesh Atid was founded by Yair Lapid, a former news anchor with “strong hair” and a bodybuilder’s physique. A centrist political party, the party’s interests all deal with social problems, and emerged largely from the recent “social justice” protests. The party’s platform promotes governmental and educational reforms, housing grants for young couples, increased assistance for small businesses and steps to enlarge the military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews who currently receive draft exemptions. His party will probably come in third or fourth in number of seats won. Unlike the other centrist parties, Lapid has not ruled out joining in a coalition with Netanyahu and may be given a ministry to provide cover for Netanyahu on domestic issues.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some minor but nevertheless noteworthy parties participating in the election, including all of the Arab parties:

United Torah Judaism – A union of two small ultra-Orthodox parties, UTJ holds five seats. It’s similar to Shas, except whereas Shas looks out for religious Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, UTJ serves the interests of religious Jews of European descent.

United Arab List–Ta’al – Another alliance, this joint list caters to Arab Israelis and has four seats. The alliance supports the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital. In the run-up to the 2009 election, the Israeli Central Elections Committee disqualified the alliance (along with Balad, see below) from participation on the grounds they did not recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland and because they allegedly support terrorist groups. Not long afterward, the High Court of Justice overturned the decision and the Arab parties were allowed to participate.

Hadash – Hadash is a non-Zionist socialist party with four members in the Knesset. It seeks to cut across cleavages by courting Jewish as well as Arab support. It advocates an end to all settlements, an end to the occupation and a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

Meretz – A left-wing secular party with three seats, Meretz is a Zionist party that favors a two-state solution, the end of the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Needless to say, the party is not doing so well in the current political climate.

Balad – A secular Arab party with three seats. In December, one of its members, Haneen Zoabi, was disqualified from the election because she took part in the Gaza protest flotilla, but the Supreme Court overturned this ban. Like the other Arab parties, Balad favors the creation of a Palestinian state and equal rights for Arabs in Israel.

The Issues

Social Justice – In the fall of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis participated in protests aimed at bringing awareness to the decline of the Israeli middle class and the hardships of the working class. The cause of the protests stemmed from economic reforms largely implemented by Netanyahu when he was finance minister under Ariel Sharon. Although the exact demands of the movement remain nebulous, the general themes have been a decline in the cost of living, an end to privatization, free education and increased state investment in housing and infrastructure.

The protests caused Netanyahu’s popularity to plunge and saw a resurrection of sorts for the Israeli left, with the main beneficiary being the virtually dead Labor Party. As a consequence, the Labor Party and other center-left groups have made social issues a large part of their platforms, with security issues and the peace process either taking a backseat or the parties moving to the right on those questions. The problem with all this is that, much like the Occupy movement, once the protests faded in momentum, so did the political capital. Netanyahu has since rebounded in opinion polls thanks to his opposition to UN recognition of a Palestinian state and his negotiation of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. Undoubtedly, “social justice” remains an issue that Netanyahu is vulnerable on, but it will not be the deciding factor of this election.

National Security/SettlementsRecent cross-border attacks along Israel’s southern border along with rocket attacks from Gaza have brought Israelis into a sort of “siege mentality,” leading many to be skeptical that the peace process is feasible. Many fear that a Palestinian state would be identical to Gaza, with a Hamas government hostile to Israel. In some ways, the entire electorate is adopting the attitudes of Israeli settlers, who by their very lifestyle have had a “siege mentality” where they perceive themselves as constantly being under fire in their homes. This goes some way to explain why the current Netanyahu government has approved a record number of new settlements in the West Bank. If The Jewish Home becomes the political player as the hype suggests, one can only expect that settlement construction will go on unabated, if not at an increased pace.

In the long-term, these settlements mean that a two-state solution is not feasible. The more Israeli settlements are built, the more credible claims become that lands with settlements should be absorbed into Israel. The more these lands are absorbed into Israel, the less credible claims by Palestinians become that such lands should be part of a Palestinian state. Unless there is a serious reversal on the settlement question, Israel seems to be a path toward regarding itself as an isolated fortress country. It was recently revealed that U.S. President Barack Obama said Israel “did not know what its own interests are” upon hearing news Netanyahu had approved the building of new settlements.

Tal Law – Before the election, the Supreme Court overturned the Tal law, which allowed religious students to defer military service. Secular parties like Kadima and Yisrael Beitanu oppose the law and want to keep it off the books, but the religious parties like Shas and UTJ want to bring it back. If Shas and the UTJ keep their position as kingmakers after the election, expect a coalition agreement of some kind to somehow keep religious students out of conscription.

Polling

According to the most recent poll, if the election was held today, the seat breakdown would look something like this:

Likud Beiteinu – 32
Labor – 17
Yesh Atid – 13
The Jewish Home – 12
Shas – 11
Hatnuah – 8
UTJ – 6
Meretz – 6
United Arab List–Ta’al – 4
Hadash – 4
Balad – 3
Kadima – 2

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The Falseness of the Israeli “Siege Mentality”

On January 22nd, Israelis will go to the polls in a general election that many predict will result in another victory for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. What this seemingly inexorable result belies, however, is just how dramaticallyKalpiLikud7360 Israeli politics has shifted since the country’s foundation 65 years ago. Once upon a time, secular socialists embodied by the utopian ideals of the kibbutz (collective farms whose very concept rejected hierarchy and control) dominated the government. Now, even ostensibly centrist parties are fielding an increasing number of Orthodox candidates in a system that already gives small religious parties disproportionate power when it comes to forming coalitions. The Labor Party, which governed Israel without interruption from 1968 to 1977, hopes recent protests over the dismantling of the welfare state will revive its fortunes following a split that almost plunged it into total irrelevance.

If there is a challenger to Netanyahu and his Likud party in this election, it comes not from the wounded left but from the even farther right-wing. Jewish Home, led by settler leader Naftali_Bennett_HUJI_Election_Debate_2and businessman Naftali Bennett, has seen a surge in popularity thanks to its extremely hawkish platform, which strongly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and actually advocates for the annexation of the West Bank, Palestinian territory Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War. Polls indicate many voters planning to cast their ballot for Jewish Home don’t actually share the party’s radical agenda, but if Netanyahu aligns himself with Bennett in hopes of co-opting a rival — a favored tactic of his — it would almost certainly mean a continuation of an ongoing rapid expansion of settlements in Palestinian areas. It may also mean Netanyahu finally ending his hitherto unproven support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It remains to be seen what impact the Israeli election and its effects will have on Israel’s foreign relations, specifically its somewhat strained relationship with the United States. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, President Barack Obama stated “privately and repeatedly” that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” when he heard Netanyahu had approved the construction of 3,000 new settlements in the occupied territories. Despite some unrealistic fantasies of bold steps the typically milquetoast President Obama could take to “rein in” Tel Aviv, very little actually seems to be in the pipeline for deterring Israel from pursuing policies that not only make a renewed peace process more difficult, but technically impossible. You cannot establish a Palestinian state, after all, without land belonging to Palestinians, and with each new settlement that is built and with each Palestinian family that is displaced, more and more of that land is being absorbed into Israel.

Those sympathetic to the Israeli right argue that the electorate is moving away from the peace process because it fears that, if a second Palestinian state is allowed to form, Hamas will come to power there, just as it did in the Gaza Strip, and more rockets will rain down on Israeli Jews. From this point of view, long-standing in the debate over the conflict, Palestinians are behooved to get their act together first and foremost. If Israelis have a growing siege mentality, it is claimed, it is a justified one based on Palestinian violence.

There are numerous problems with this. Firstly, while much is made in the Western media about Israel having “a right to defend itself” when Hamas militants fire Qassam rockets, very little is ever said about the regular extrajudicial assassinations Israel carries out within the Palestinian territories. Indeed, even within Israel itself, there is a discussion about whether Israel’s “surgical strikes” are worth the risk of Hamas rockets in retaliation.

Let us assume that it is worth the risk, that enough Israeli strikes will eventually deter attacks from Hamas. Rewind to 1996, when Israel assassinated Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAbomb-maker behind a series of suicide bombings. Did Palestinians recoil at the consequences of terrorism? On the contrary, Palestinian groups rallied around Ayyash’s memory and the man remains a martyr. Similarly, when Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, tried and failed spectacularly to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in 1997, the result was not to drive Mashal further underground but instead led to the release of Hamas political prisoners and a bolster to Mashal’s stature among Palestinians. It is important to note that earlier in the 1990s Hamas had been under considerable pressure to renounce violence and conform to the Oslo Accords. Israeli “deterrence” led to Hamas eventually being perceived as a party of freedom fighters and underdogs, and goes some way to explain why Palestinians have elected Hamas governments in free and fair elections in the Gaza Strip. Consequently, it seems odd to excuse Israeli voters for turning to radical right-wingers because of a “siege mentality” when it is precisely that mentality that has promoted Hamas in the minds of Palestinians — something Israeli apologists cannot countenance.

Yet there is a more fundamental problem with the “Israeli siege mentality” thesis. It ignores that there is a particular movement within Zionism that perceives expansionism not as a pragmatic national security issue but also as a religious mandate. This school of Zionism, which has existed since the 1920s, is summed up in the words of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

The declared goals of Revisionist ideology included relentless pressure on Great Britain, including petitions and mass demonstrations, for Jewish statehood on both banks of the Jordan River; a Jewish majority in Palestine; a vigorous policy toward Britain; re-establishment of the Jewish regiments; and military training for youth.

As the Web site states, the Revisionist Zionist movement later evolved into a political party that later merged into the modern Likud party, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s father, by the way, was a Revisionist Zionist historian who believed, in the words of the New York Times, that “compromising with Arabs was futile.” This is not to say that Bibi holds the exact same political beliefs as his father, but it does highlight the fact that expanding Israel’s borders and purging the land of its Palestinian majority is not a new, knee-jerk reaction to Hamas in Gaza. On the contrary, it is the realization of a strain of Zionism that has existed close to the surface of Zionism for as long as it has been around. If you think about it, it is not at all difficult to make the cognitive leap from “moderate” Zionism’s belief in settling a Jewish state in the “Promised Land” to Revisionist Zionism’s belief in expanding that settler colony throughout the whole region, whatever the cost. Media sources in the West rarely bother to examine the ideology that fueled Israel’s foundation, instead perpetuating the presentation that comes from Israeli spokesmen: “Israel has a right to exist, a right to defend herself, because Jews have been persecuted long enough.” No one really considers that Israel’s existence hinges on the continued displacement of Palestinian refugees, which began in the 1940s and continues to this day.

Those peaceniks hoping for a return of the peace process, who believe that groups like Jewish Home and Hamas are just temporary obstacles to negotiation, are fooling themselves. The present state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a logical conclusion to a colonial project that cannot reconcile the Zionist desire to create and expand a “pure” Jewish state with the Palestinian desire for sovereignty and self-determination. I believe that future generations will look back on this election as the tipping point, after which Israel could no longer be defended, even by the most cynical lobbyists and politicians, as anything other than an apartheid state.