Much of Israeli politics is myth-making – the creation of narratives based on illusions – and the country’s election last week was no exception. Commentators have been quick to characterize the result as a dramatic upset, with the right-wing led by Benjamin Netanyahu locked in a dead-heat with the left.
In this narrative, Yair Lapid, a TV personality whose Yesh Atid party constitutes part of what Israelis describe as the “center-left bloc,” came from nowhere to win 19 seats, making his the second largest party. He took many votes, it seems, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, which won 31 seats in an electoral pact with the far-right party of Yisrael Beiteinu. In the outgoing parliament, they had 42 seats between them.
Lapid is now the expected kingmaker. According to the mythical narrative, it lies in his hands to either join a right-wing coalition government under Benjamin Netanyahu and moderate it, or refuse the invitation and remain in a center-left opposition that will harry Netanyahu at every turn.
This was the interpretation promoted, for example, by Ari Shavit, a leading commentator with the Haaretz newspaper: “Netanyahu, it seems, will win a third term as prime minister, but he will not rule the country. His life will not be easy, not politically and not in terms of policy…This week the idiotic march of the right to the right wing of the right came to an end, and the renewed march of the right toward the center began.”
Blow to Netanyahu
The reality is rather different. This election has been a personal blow to Netanyahu, no doubt, but not to the right. Netanyahu misread the public mood, but not on the central issues that should define the left-right divide in Israel: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decades of belligerent Israeli occupation.
His mistake was to believe he had sidelined the so-called “social justice protests” that swept Israel in the summer of 2011 but failed to reignite significantly last year. He had not. The white middle class in Israel, comprising Ashkenazi Jews, has remained disgruntled at what it sees as the rapid decline in its privileges and standard of living as Netanyahu’s neoliberal policies have accreted ever more power and wealth to a small business elite, many of them benefactors to his party.
By contrast, Lapid captured the self-pitying mood of the protests with his demand that all Israelis “share the burden” – a dig at the rapidly growing community of Jewish religious fundamentalists known as the Haredim, and the large minority of Israel’s 1.4 million Palestinian citizens. The burden, in this case, refers chiefly to serving in the army, or doing equivalent national service.
Far from a collapse of the right, the election demonstrated that the right is continuing to push the center of political gravity – particularly on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – ever further rightwards.
This has been most apparent in changes to the composition of the Likud party itself. Primaries held shortly before the election to select the party’s list of candidates for the Knesset were effectively hijacked by the settlers and the extreme right. The Likud’s shrinking liberal wing was removed in a putsch, to be replaced by ultra-nationalists. They include Moshe Feiglin, who has been leading efforts to take over the Likud party on behalf of the settlers for more than a decade. He will now occupy a Likud seat in the Knesset for the first time.
Likud’s move to the far-right has been achieved while maintaining the impression that it is still the party that represents the traditional Israeli right. It has joined two other parties on the far-right – Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) and Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) – that have maneuvered themselves into the political mainstream, even while holding on to their extremist platforms.
From margins to mainstream
A decade ago Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, was a fringe far-right party catering to recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And the National Union, the forerunner of the Jewish Home, was a small party with limited appeal outside the hardcore settlements. Lieberman and the new leader of the Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, both former acolytes of Netanyahu, have rapidly reinvented their parties, drawing much wider support. It was precisely the alignment in the platforms of Lieberman and Netanyahu’s parties that allowed them to create a joint electoral list.
These three extreme-right parties – Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Jewish Home – now hold 43 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or more than a third. The most likely scenario is that together they will form the basis of the next coalition government.
The extent of the popular shift to the right is apparent when one considers the views that these parties, or leading members of them, openly espouse.
Lieberman’s party talks of the Palestinian minority as a “fifth column,” one that should be stripped of its citizenship rights through a combination of redrawn boundaries and the imposition of loyalty tests. The Jewish Home, meanwhile, has declared that Israel should immediately annex Area C, the 62 percent of the West Bank temporarily placed under full Israeli rule by the Oslo accords but now riddled with settlements. Like Likud, neither party considers a Palestinian state – even one limited to slivers of the West Bank – an acceptable prospect.
The virulent anti-Arab positions, directed against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, are reminiscent of the Kach party, led by Rabbi Meir Kahane and outlawed in the late 1980s for racist incitement.
Michael Ben Ari, a former Kach leader who narrowly avoided winning a place in the Knesset for the Otzma Leysirael (Strong Israel) party, made precisely this point: “I’m not the only one who represents Rabbi Kahane; he is represented by a great many people everywhere, inside and outside the Knesset.”
The move rightwards over the past decade has been replicated in the two Jewish religious fundamentalist parties, Shas and the United Torah Judaism – and not just in terms of their social policies, but also in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, were once clearly anti-Zionist, believing that the establishment of a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah was a blasphemy.
But Israel’s Zionist parties slowly and insidiously co-opted the Haredim. They did it by building exclusive ultra-Orthodox communities just over the Green Line, in the West Bank. The Haredim, with large families of up to ten children each, are always desperate for new, cheap housing in segregated communities where they will not have to mix with secular Israelis.
The Haredi towns over the Green Line are now the biggest, and fastest-growing, settlements in the West Bank. As a result, the ultra-Orthodox have become largely ambivalent about Zionism, but ever more committed to investment in the settlements and the displacement of the Palestinians. Their parties, particularly Shas, have responded with increasing anti-Arab rhetoric and opposition to a peace process.
Following this election, the far-right bloc and the religious parties have 61 seats, or a fraction over half the Knesset.
No counterweight on the left
Contrary to the current orthodoxy, the so-called oppositional bloc of the “center-left” is not a real counterweight to the rightward shift of these parties. This bloc – including Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, the now barely functioning Kadima party established by Ariel Sharon seven years ago as a breakaway from Likud, and a new faction called Hatnuah set up by former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni – espouses positions that would once have comfortably positioned them on Israel’s traditional right wing. The Israeli center-left has simply filled the political vacuum left by Likud’s departure to the extreme right.
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Similarly, the Labor party – never the peace party it claimed to be – has, under its new leader Shelly Yachimovich, shied away even from the pretense of advocating a solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Instead Yachimovich rode the social justice bandwagon like Lapid, arguing for a return to an old-style Zionism that looked after its own, in this case the Israeli Jewish middle class.
That middle class includes many of the non-ideological settlers who were bribed by successive governments to move to the fortress-like larger settlements of the West Bank. This is one of the reasons why the center-left mostly avoided talking about either Palestinian statehood or the corollary of dismantling the main settlements. Instead it focused during the campaign on the much easier target of the failure of the Haredim and the “Arabs” – Palestinians with Israeli citizenship – to meet their obligations .
Lapid exemplified this strategy. When he mentioned the Palestinians it was chiefly to iterate to his audience that they would have to forgo their capital in East Jerusalem, which he believes must remain in Israeli hands in a final agreement. When he talked about the settlers, it was to commit to “settlement construction to meet natural growth.”
Aside from questions about social justice, the substantive difference between the center-left and the far-right does not pertain principally to the Palestinians or the peace process. It concerns the importance attached by each side of the divide to Israel’s international standing and especially its relations with the White House.
The far-right, including Netanyahu, are so wedded to their ideological intransigence on the Palestinian issue that they are prepared to risk isolation and pariah status rather than make concessions, even meaningless ones. The center-left, meanwhile, openly worries about the damage the appearance of intractability will do to Israel’s long-term strategic interests. They do not intend to offer much more to the Palestinians than Netanyahu and the right; but they do believe in the importance of perpetuating a futile peace process as a way to avoid alienating Israel’s patrons and exposing the leadership’s bad faith.
In this political feud, the Palestinians constitute little more than a shadow play.
The real Knesset opposition
The real political division, at least in terms of the peace process, is between the Zionist and non-Zionist parties in the Knesset – or, more specifically, between the Jewish parties and the three Palestinian or Palestinian-dominated parties.
These Palestinian parties, approximately representing the socialist, Islamic, and nationalist camps among Palestinian citizens, hold approximately a tenth of the seats in the Knesset. They have been struggling in recent elections to persuade their constituencies to vote. At the last election, just 53 percent of Palestinian citizens turned out, the lowest number in the minority’s history.
There have been several factors responsible for this gradual decline in the investment by Israel’s Palestinian minority in national politics. In part, it derives from a realization that the struggle for civic equality is doomed because of Israel’s status as a Jewish state; in part, from the marginalization of the Palestinian parties to the point where they can do little more than hector from the Knesset’s sidelines; and in part, from a fear that the more the Palestinian parties turn the Knesset into an arena of confrontation, the more certain it is that Israeli politics will swing more anti-Arab.
But the power of the mythical narrative has spread far and wide. That was why, shortly before polling day, the Arab League urged Palestinian voters inside Israel to cast a ballot to ensure the Palestinian parties were well represented in the Knesset. That call, and the Palestinian parties’ warnings of the danger posed by the rise of the far-right, appeared to be responsible for a small increase in turnout, to 56 percent.
The Arab League’s assumption was that Israel’s left and right camps would fight for control of the government and that a few extra seats for the Palestinian parties could have a decisive impact in aiding the center-left – and with it hopes of reviving the peace process.
In reality, however, all the Zionist parties, including the center-left, are agreed on core principles: that Israel should be a Jewish state, or ethnocracy, that represents worldwide Jewry, not its own ethnically mixed citizenry; that a viable Palestinian state would be a strategic threat to Israel and its emergence must be prevented; and that Israel’s Palestinian parties should never be allowed to wield influence on either of the two previous issues.
Only one Israeli government dared to break this last principle. Yitzhak Rabin allowed the Palestinian parties to support his minority government from outside the coalition so that he could force through the Oslo process. Even though he kept the Palestinian parties at arm’s length, the arrangement outraged the right, which saw it as an act of treachery. The inflammatory rhetoric against Rabin, including from Netanyahu, created a political climate that motivated his assassin to act.
Rabin’s killing did not revive the Zionist left, as might have been expected; it brought Netanyahu to power a short time later, for his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s. A consensus was cemented then that the Palestinian parties were not legitimate partners in government.
‘No bloc with the Haneen Zoabi’
This lesson has been absorbed by Lapid and the center-left. As pundits wondered what Lapid might do as kingmaker, he hastily reassured Israeli Jews that he would not ally himself with the Palestinian parties. “I will not try to form an opposition bloc to Netanyahu with the Haneen Zoabi [a reference to a Palestinian legislator reviled by most Israeli Jews over her participation in a 2010 aid flotilla to Gaza]. It’s not gonna happen.” Instead, Lapid immediately began negotiations with Netanyahu to build a coalition.
This is the ideal scenario for Netanyahu, who would prefer not to lead a government seen by the US and Europe as provocatively extremist. In the last government, Netanyahu moderated his image, but not his policies, by recruiting former Labor leader Ehud Barak as defense minister. Barak is now gone. Lapid could serve a similar function, helping Netanyahu to construct a false image of his government as a coalition of the center and the right.
This is a view already being promoted by the US and Europe. In the immediate wake of the election, they were reported to be using Lapid’s success as leverage on the Palestinian leadership, demanding that it come back to the negotiating table with Israel.
The Palestinians are not fooled. They have rejected the characterization of Yesh Atid as centrist. A PLO official told Haaretz: “It’s enough that Yair Lapid refused in advance to be part of a bloc with the Arab parties.” In the view of Ghassan Khatib, the former head of the Palestinian Authority’s information center, “The election results prove that as far as the Palestinians are concerned, nothing will change.”