As Israel moves further and further to the openly racist far right, there is no longer any room for a hypocritical Zionist left that talks equality and practises ethnic cleansing, writes Tony Greenstein.
September 17 saw Israel’s second general election of 2019. In April Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and his Blue and White opponents won 35 seats each - well short of the 61 needed for a majority. Well, why did Netanyahu bother? This time around, with just a handful of votes still to be counted, Blue and White has 33 seats and Likud 32.
The April elections saw the Israeli Labor Party nosedive, going from 24 to six seats and the left Zionist Meretz, cling on with four. This time, however, the ILP, as part of a joint list known as Labor-Gesher, picked up six seats and Meretz, which is now part of the Democratic Union, five.
When you think that the ILP - or Mapai, as it was before 1968 - gained 46 seats in the 1949 elections, with Mapam to its left gaining 19, then you can see the scale of decline. As late as 1969 the Israeli Labor Alignment, which included Mapam, gained 56 seats. From 1949 to 1977 the ILP/Mapai formed every single coalition government. The last time the ILP was in this position was in the 1992 elections under Yitzhak Rabin, when it gained 44 seats, while Meretz won 12. Even then the government rested on the support of the Arab parties. But Labor has not formed a government since 1999.
Meretz, which is all that remains of Mapam, has only managed to cling on to representation in the knesset (for which a minimum of 3.25% is necessary) thanks to thousands of Israeli Palestinian votes. However, for a Zionist party that is untenable, so Meretz cooked up a deal with former prime minister Ehud Barak.
Barak is a war criminal having been responsible for the saturation bombing of Lebanon and for coining the phrase - adopted by Likud - that Israel “has no partner for peace”. He also oversaw the murder of 13 Israeli Palestinians on Land Day in October 2000, which sparked the start of the second Intifada.
The alliance with Barak and Labour defector Stav Shaffir - the Democratic Union - represents the last desperate throw of the dice of the Zionist left. Lacking any social programme worthy of the name and having little or nothing to say about the occupied territories and the expansion of the settlements, they can only resort to rearranging the deckchairs.
Labour Zionism founded and built the Israeli state through organisations and institutions such as the kibbutzim and the Histadrut trade union federation. But collective colonialism, which was essential to building the state, is now an anachronism. There is no longer any need to pay lip service to social democracy - still less socialism. Israel is now an openly racist society with a prime minister whose Facebook page bore the message that the “Arabs want to annihilate us all - women, children and men”.1 I am, of course, referring to Netanyahu, although it is far from certain that he will retain that post.
For over half a century the ILP has practised ethnic cleansing at home - building Israel’s apartheid state - whilst preaching the brotherhood of man abroad. It presided over a large state-run economy with the ‘trade union’, Histadrut, being Israel’s second largest employer. Today the Histadrut enterprises have all been privatised - there is no longer a ‘labour economy’. Netanyahu’s Stabilisation Pact saw to that and now Israel is the apostle of free-market capitalism.
But Israel no longer has a need for labour-Zionist hypocrisy. Zionism no longer needs to be Janus-faced, one (Zionist) side turned inwards towards Israeli Jews and the other (social democratic) side turned outwards to western public opinion. Labour Zionism no longer has a role to play.
Israel is aligned with Trump and the far right internationally - there is no longer a need for any pretence. Labour Zionism’s formulation of a ‘Jewish democratic state’ was always an oxymoron. If the state was democratic, then how could it be based on just one section of the population? By definition a Jewish state meant one which privileged Jews over non-Jews.
The reason that a second 2019 election became necessary was because Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beteinu, refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition after the April elections unless the Orthodox parties agreed that their supporters would serve in the Israeli army. Lieberman represents mainly Russian immigrants and is on the far right of Israeli politics - for example, supporting the “transfer” of Israeli Arabs, whom he considers a fifth column, if they failed to swear a loyalty oath to Israel.
Nonetheless Lieberman represents ‘secular’ racism in a state where racism is legitimised by a rabbinical caste. Much of Lieberman’s Russian base is either half-Jewish or non-Jewish. Many Russian Jews are the equivalent of the Mishlinge (mixed race Jews) in Nazi Germany.
The cleavage between orthodox and secular Jews represents a fundamental division within Israel’s Herrenvolk. It represents a division between Zionism’s secular origins and today’s messianic settler movement. However it is a battle that the Orthodox will win, because the whole ideological justification for Zionism is that it represents the ‘return’ of Jews to the ‘Promised Land’. Without the rabbis’ blessing, Israel’s claims to dispossess the Palestinians lack all moral justification. In fact if it was not for the Palestinians Israel could be consumed by civil war. Hatred of the Palestinians provides the glue for Zionist unity - as much as anti-Semitism provided the ideological glue for the Nazi party.
Yet, despite Lieberman’s virulent racism, many in the labour Zionist parties consider that because he is anti-Netanyahu then he is somehow of the left. There is an almost total failure by the Zionist ‘left’ parties to recognise that the problem is not Netanyahu, but Zionism itself - the Jewish nature of the Israeli state is the real problem.
However, the party known as Otzma Yehudit, which is the inheritor of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach, despite being tipped to enter the knesset with perhaps as many as four seats, actually failed to pass the minimum threshold. Netanyahu had been torn between mounting a campaign to convince electors that a vote for Otzma Yehudit was a ‘wasted vote’ - ie, they would fail to surmount the 3.25% hurdle (which turned out to be correct) - and accepting that they would be part of the next coalition he forms. Netanyahu does not attack them because of their racist policies, which include the forcible transfer of Israel’s Palestinian citizens to the Arab countries. Netanyahu himself is, of course, desperately trying to avoid corruption charges - if necessary by a statutory provision that exempts the prime minister whilst in office from criminal charges. This is part of what his election calculations were based around.
Otzma Yehudit includes within its leadership Benzi Gopstein, leader of the fascist Lehava group, which campaigns against mixed Jewish-Arab relationships and employs groups of thugs to physically attack Arab men suspected of seeking relations with Jewish women. Back in April Netanyahu successfully pressurised the United Right party to include Otzma Yehudit on its ticket and, this time around, Likud also hoped Otzma Yehudit would cross the electoral threshold.
Despite Otzma Yehudit’s failure, the far right - which had coalesced in the Yamina list, headed by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked - picked up seven seats. Yamina consists of three parties - the New Right and the Union of Rightwing parties (itself a combination of Jewish Home and Tekuma).
But Netanyahu excelled himself with the racist nature of his campaign. Even Facebook suspended his talking bot after a message appeared on his official page saying that all Arabs wanted to annihilate the Israelis. The message of Likud’s campaign was that the ‘leftist’ Blue and White Party will form a coalition government with ‘the Arabs’.
Blue and White is headed by former war criminal and chief of staff Benny Gantz - responsible for Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which murdered 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza, including 550 children. There is no real difference between Netanyahu and Gantz in their attitude towards the Palestinians or Arabs.
Netanyahu accused Blue and White of intending to form a ‘leftist’ government, which includes the Arabs. Gantz denied that he would have anything to do with the Joint List, which is made up of the Communist Hadash, United Arab List, Ta’al and Balad parties and actually won 12 seats.
However, Netanyahu’s accusation typified the level of political debate in Israel today. Instead of Gantz saying, ‘What does it matter if I form a government with the Arab parties?’, he immediately denies any such intention as an outrage - God forbid that Arab parties be included in a governing coalition.
Whoever is included in the next government, Israel is in for a period of instability - it is clear that there will be a continued period of political paralysis. In this situation there is talk of another attack on Gaza - if Netanyahu heads the next government, he will be looking for ways to divert attention from corruption charges.