Israel: Old wine in new Zionist bottles
Tony Greenstein comments on the 2013 Israeli general election
In an article I wrote four years ago after the 2009 Israeli elections, I stated that the two-state solution was as dead as a doormouse.1 Today membership of the Flat Earth Society is a more rational choice than support for two states.
Anyone who thinks that the latest Israeli elections will give a boost to the ‘peace process’ has substituted hope for reality. In fact what was remarkable about the election was the absence of any discussion about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Shelly Yachimovich, leader of Israel’s Labour Party, steadfastly refused to discuss the issue, preferring instead to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues. Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, the new ‘centrist’ secular party, was equally reluctant to talk about the occupied territories. The right, of course, did not need to discuss the occupation - although it did (and the new far-right party, Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, appears to have gained 12 seats).
At the time of writing, the election results are still changing, but the trends are clear.
- In the Arab sector, the three Arab parties - United Arab List, Balad and Hadash (communist) are set to win 10 seats again. Although there are reports of a last-minute increase, Israeli Arabs were expected to abstain in record numbers.
- The Zionist ‘left’, which plumbed the depths of unpopularity in the 2009 elections, winning just 16 seats (compared to 65 in 1949 and 56 as late as 1992), has recovered to a minor extent. Meretz (formerly Mapam and Ratz) and the Labour Alignment, according to exit polls, are expected to obtain 22 seats, two less than they held in 2006. Meretz in particular has doubled its seats from three to six - the same number as a decade ago, but still half the number it had in 1992.
- The big talking point is, however, the rise from nowhere of Yesh Atid, which is estimated to have won 18 seats. Unfortunately people have short memories. When Menachem Begin was elected to government in 1977, he formed a coalition with Yigal Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change, which got 15 seats. In 2003 Shinui, a secular, free-market party, which later merged into Meretz, also gained 15 seats. By the 2006 elections it had disappeared. It was even led by Yair’s father, Tommy Lapid!
In case people have forgotten, there was another ‘centrist’ party, Kadima, formed in November 2005 by Ariel Sharon and former members of Likud (though the former Labour leader and current president Shimon Peres also joined it), which won 26 seats in 2006. In 2009 under Tsipi Livni, the former foreign minister, it became the largest party in the 2009 elections with 28 seats. Described by Wikipedia as a “centrist and liberal” party,2 Kadima, now under the leadership of Shaul Mofaz, will not secure any seats, according to projections at the time of writing!
Israel’s many ‘centrist’ parties were and are, in any normal western democracy, election lists led by a personality - in the case of Tyesh Atid, Lapid is a prominent former journalist. Such formations have no real membership or internal life. They represent the hope of Israeli electors who wish to enjoy the spoils of colonisation without paying the price and hope to square the circle between a ‘Jewish state’ and a democratic state. In reality, as Kadima demonstrated, they consistently choose the former. Livni, as Clayton Swisher’s The Palestine papers (part of the series of leaks of state department files)3 proved, consistently advocated the transfer of Israel’s Palestinian population into a separate Palestinian state during negotiations with Saeb Erekat of the Palestine Authority.
Almost without exception these ‘centrist’ parties, whose only distinguishing feature is a watered-down secularism, but who consistently lose out to the orthodox parties over questions such as civil marriage and the role of the rabbis in personal affairs, have split into fragments, which disappear by the time of the next election. If there is one prediction that I can confidently make, it is that Yesh Atid will fragment and barely exist (if at all) by 2017.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu, a merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s party (Lieberman himself is currently expected to be charged with corruption), will be on current projections gain 33 seats, a loss of 10. But the elections have also seen the rise of Jewish Home, which may gain five seats. Shas, the religious party supported by Sephardic/Misrahi Jews, is also expected to gain one seat, so the right in the Israeli elections have suffered at most a loss of about five seats.
But the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are almost meaningless. Kadima supported most of the racist legislation of the current Netanyahu government - boycott, loyalty oaths, outlawing the commemoration of the nakba (forced Palestinian exodus in 1948), legalisation of the practice of only leasing housing to Jewish citizens ... The fact that Tsipi Livni’s new Hatnuah party, with a likely seven seats, is termed part of the Israeli ‘left’ shows just how far Israeli politics have moved to the right.
Labour leader Yachimovich was once seen as a radical. Today, however, she goes out of her way to emphasise that the settlers are not her enemy. In 2011 she argued that the tent protests against the high cost of housing and the decline of Israel’s welfare state, even for Jews, should not take a position on the settlements or the position of Arabs in Israeli society or campaign around ending money for new settlements and using it to build housing in pre-1967 Israel.
But Yachimovich is only living up to the tradition of the Israeli Labour Party, which first pioneered the settlements and historically was the party that expelled the Palestinians in 1948. It was the party of Jewish (ie, not Arab) labour, in line with Israel’s equivalent of the colour bar. Labour merged the apartheid structures of pre-1948 Zionism, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency, into the operations of the government, in order to provide the cover for state discrimination. Even Meretz, the left-Zionist party, is based on Mapam, which historically talked left, whilst being part of the Kibbutz Artzi Federation that was established on confiscated and razed Arab villages. Its members eagerly took part in the activities of Palmach, the Zionist shock troops, who carried out many of the expulsions and massacres.
Those who believe that the current Israeli elections herald any sort of change will be sadly disappointed. It is a rule of Zionist politics that no government coalition should depend on the votes of the Arab parties. In reality this means that the Zionist ‘right’ will continue to dominate the knesset and it is likely, despite their promises to the contrary, that both Labour and Yesh Atid will be attracted by the possibility of office, given that the United States will want the fig leaf of ‘two states’ to continue for another four years.