Friday, January 25, 2013

Israel: Could have been worse, but yet to get better

ISRAELI elections on Tuesday have produced little change and few surprises, but they could have gone a darn sight worse. Mercifully the parties of the meshugge Right that had competed to offer the most belligerent and racist policies did not do well.

Nor did Binyamin Netanyahu do as well as expected.

Likud Beitenu 31; Jewish Home 12, Shas 12; United Torah Judaism 7; Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) 19, Kadima 2, Hatnuah (Livni) 6; Labor 15; Meretz 6. Hadash 4; United Arab List 4; Balad 3

'Bibi'  had united his Likud list with that of coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman, adjusting it accordingly. The two parties, Likud and Yisrael Beitanu had 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset, and the experts said this time it would rise to 45.

Netanyahu had campaigned on the ominous slogan "A strong leader. A strong Israel". Hardly had the polls closed, with almost 67 per cent of Israelis voting, than he was making his victory speech on the strength of the exit polls. But he ended up with a mere 31 seats – losing a quarter of his strength. If Lieberman's crew are taken away,-and he still faces fraud charges that might lead to a bar from office - Likud is left with just 20 seats, only one more than its nearest rival.

 That is not Labour, which formed Israeli governments for the first two decades and was in and out of government later, but a surprise newcomer to the fray, Yesh Atid ('There is a Future') led by Yair Lapid, a former TV anchorman. Only formed last year, and now Knesset's second largest faction, Yesh Atid appeals, as its name suggests, to younger Israelis who want some change, even if they are a bit vague about what kind of change they want.

In some ways Lapid's party recalls that of his father "Tommy" Lapid, Shinui, which meant "Change", and was formed by professionals and military men appealing to the middle class by  promising clean, effective and secular government. But whereas that could propose overdue changes such as instituting civil marriage, the best that Yair Lapid could come up with in these more critical times was a demand that all Israelis be liable for military service. (Yeshiva students are exempt, as well as Arab citizens).
Lapid campaigned on vague platitudes, but was definte about one thing:"I do not think that the Arabs want peace, I want to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them, to maintain a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel." 

Lapid has been just as definite about keeping a barrier against Arabs who are inside Israel, and in the Knesset. He said there was no way he would head or take part in a government that included Haneen Zouabi. Haneen, who took part in the Mavi Marmara convoy to Gaza has been reviled as a "traitor"(!) by Israelis, and violently attacked in the Knesset, but she beat off attempts to ban her from standing in this election, and her Balad party has three seats.

Those who are grateful for small mercies (including veteran peace campaigner Uri Avnery) are glad that at least Lapid and his "centre" party gained more votes and therefore knesset seats than the other newcomer, the unashamedly far Right Naftali Bennett. Though both campaigned for the young, and secular vote, with visits to clubs and photo opportunities, Bennett was clearly and outspokenly on Netanyahu's right, supporting the settler fanatics, demanding that Israel reconquer the entire West Bank and finish talk of two-states, and denouncing the Supreme Court for upholding rights within Israel. Lapid got 19 seats, Bennett just 12, though that is 12 too many.    

Don't mention the war

And Labour, under its new leader Shelly Yachimovich? "She was absolutely certain that her rejuvenated Labor Party would become the second largest faction in the Knesset. She even presented herself as a possible replacement for Netanyahu, " says Uri Avnery. "Both she and Lapid profited from the huge social protest of the summer of 2011, which pushed war and the occupation off the agenda. Even Netanyahu did not dare to bring up the attack on Iran and the extension of the settlements. But in the end, Lapid profited more than Shelly".

Older voters might have remembered that Labour once purported to stand for the working people and social welfare, but being the Establishment, let them down. Within more recent times Amir Peretz, coming from the Histadrut unions and a development town (Sderot!) fooled a lot of people (including this blogger) that he was going to change Labour for the better, but instead high office changed him, and he became Defence Minister in time for the Lebanon war, only to lose out afterwards to Ehud Barak, This time, having lost the Labour Party to onetime protege Yachimovich, Peretz surprised supporters by switching to HaTnua (The Movement), a list formed by Tzipi Livni, arguing that Yachimovich was avoiding the peace issue. 

Former Foreign Minister Livni only entered the election two months ago, after a lot of hesitation, and according to Avnery "Her concentration on the “political arrangement” with the Palestinians – not “peace”, God forbid – ran against the trend".  

"People who really want peace voted (like me) for Meretz, who can boast a resounding achievement, doubling their strength from 3 to 6. That is also a striking feature of this election.It appears also that quite a number of Jews gave their vote to the mainly-Arab communist Hadash party, which was also strengthened".

To the left of Hadash, Da'am the Workers Party, fairly new on the scene, and led by Asma Aghbarieh, increased its vote but not enough it seems to gain any knesset seats. Not this time. 

On the far Right, the Kahanists did not do so well, either. But then electoral politics are only a sideline for them.

Meretz, originally formed by the Left Zionist United Workers Party merging with Shulamit Aloni's Civil Rights list and part of Shinui, has roughly approximated to the "Peace Now" position in politics, wavering between a genuine commitment to a just peace, and Zionist respectability and consensus in times of war. This position has become harder to maintain as the Zionist state has veered to the Right, with less room for either belief in two states or democratic dissent. That Meretz has made something of a comeback, doing relatively better than Labour, and gaining as many seats as Tzipi, does suggest a small awakening against the Right.   

One commentator observed that President Obama has had more influence on the Israeli Jewish voters than Netanyahu succeeded in having on American Jewish voters.

Leaving that in passing here is Avnery's take: 
The right-religious bloc lost the election, but the “center-left” did not win it,  because they could not put forward a credible candidate for prime minister, nor a credible alternative governing party with a solid, comprehensive blueprint for the solution of Israel’s basic problems.

To create such a new force, it is absolutely vital to integrate the Arab citizens in the political process as full-fledged partners. By keeping the Arabs out, the Left is castrating itself. A new Jewish-Arab left, a community of outlook, political language and interests, must be created – and this act of creation must start right now.

The battle for Israel is not lost. Israel’s “move to the right” has been blocked and is far from inevitable. We Israelis are not as crazy as we look. This battle has ended in a draw. The next round can be won. It depends on us.
With his 90th birthday coming up this year, Uri can be excused a bit of optimism. Netanyahu may not have mentioned Iran in his campaign but now he says it will be his priority in government. All the same we can share Uri's satisfaction that the march of the Right has had to pause at the lights.



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