The victory of Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel’s general election on 17 March, on an overtly racist and uncompromising platform, has dismayed western leaders, and forced many “liberal Zionists” to reassess their attitude towards Israel writes Roland Rance. For Palestinians, however (whether citizens of Israel, subjects of Israel military occupation, or exiled refugees), the difference between the major parties was little more than a choice between cholera and the plague, and the outcome promises the continuation of the past 70 years of dispossession and oppression.
It was a huge personal victory for prime minister Netanyahu, and for his Likud party, with 30 seats. His closest rival, the Zionist Camp (an alliance between the Labour Party and the remains of Ariel Sharon’s Kadima) had just 24 seats. These results confirm the continuing move to the right within Israeli Jewish society. Meanwhile, half of the people living under direct Israeli rule were not eligible to vote; nor were the millions of Palestinian refugees living in exile.
Final opinion polls, published before the moratorium on 13 March, had suggested that the Zionist Camp would defeat Likud by 25 seats to 21. This was turned round by a concerted campaign of racist incitement by Netanyahu in the final days. This appears to have won him votes from the far and ultra-far right Zionist parties, which lost a total of eleven seats, while Likud gained twelve.
As well as his trip to Washington, where his bellicose speech to Congress was boycotted by dozens of Democrat senators and representatives. Netanyahu turned up the incitement with a speech in a settlement on the eve of the election pledging the building and expansion of new settlements, and promising unequivocally that there would never be a Palestinian state while he was prime minister. On election day itself, Netanyahu used Facebook to post a video (banned for broadcast by the electoral commission) in which he claimed that left-wing NGOs were bussing Arab citizens to polling stations, where they were “voting in droves”, and voters received automated phone calls from Likud headquarters, urging them to vote for Netanyahu and against “Hussein Obama”.
Despite the ferocity of the election campaign, and the personal attacks by each party on its rivals and their leaders, there was actually very little change in the voting figures for the Zionist right bloc, and the misnamed “Zionist left”, both of which saw a redistribution between their constituent parts rather than a swing from one to the other. This, however, should not obscure the fact that both blocs shifted significantly to the right, reflecting the shift in Israeli opinion.
Netanyahu’s sharp turn to the right meant that many voters from Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Israel Beitenu, Naftali Bennett’s further-right Bayit Yehudi, and the still further-right Yachad party, switched to Likud as Netanyahu adopted their policies; Yachad, which had been projected to win five seats, failed to meet the electoral threshold. Meanwhile, in the misnamed “Zionist left”, the Zionist camp attracted many votes from the Peace Now-aligned Meretz party without adopting any of its positions, and Meretz itself barely crossed the threshold.
Attacking Netanyahu from the right
There is in fact remarkably little difference in substance between the major parties. The Zionist Camp, like its predecessors, focussed on questions of process rather than content, promising a full five years of “negotiations” with the Palestine Authority without offering any commitment on even the minimal concessions that the most collaborative Palestinian leadership might be able to accept and attempt to sell. The deputy leader of the party is war criminal Tzipi Livni, responsible for the 2008-9 massacre in Gaza, while party leader Isaac Herzog attacked Netanyahu from the right, accusing him of being “soft on Hamas”.
(Incidentally, Herzog, Livni, Netanyahu and centre-right Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid are all middle-class secular Ashkenazi children of leading Israeli politicians from an earlier generation. Sociologically they certainly do not represent Israel’s Jewish population, overwhelmingly poor, increasingly orthodox, and originating largely from North Africa or the former Soviet bloc).
The convergence between the two main parties led some observers on Israel’s non-Zionist left to the conclusion that a victory for the Zionist “left” would be worse than a victory for the Zionist “right”. Journalist Gideon Levy, for instance, noting in Haaretz that the Labour party was “the founding mother of the settlement enterprise” with a greater responsibility than Likud for the occupation, and that a victory for them with the promise of more negotiations might “intoxicate the world”, came to the conclusion that “Another term for Netanyahu would be a disaster, but a victory for Zionist Camp could be a worse disaster”.
The one positive feature of the election was the creation, and modest success, of the Joint List, bringing together four small parties which had previously competed for the votes of Palestinians, who constitute some 20% of Israeli citizens, but have never had equivalent representation in the Knesset. Some months before the election, the Knesset had passed a bill, proposed by the far-right Bayit Yehudi party, to raise the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% of votes cast. Since Israeli elections are based on a national list system, this would require a party to gain about 150,000 votes in order to win any representation. The intention was clearly to exclude the “Arab parties”, which generally poll less than that figure, from the Knesset.
Racist Zionist policy
This led to intensive negotiations between the main Arab parties: the radical nationalist Balad, the bourgeois nationalist Ra’am and Ta’al parties, and the communist-led Hadash, for the formation of a combined list, which would easily pass the threshold and ensure representation for all of its constituents. Although Hadash initially strongly opposed the proposal, it was eventually persuaded that, for this election at least, the need was overwhelming. The list was also supported by the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel; it was opposed by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, and by the progressive nationalist Abna’a al-Balad group. In a statement published on the PFLP English-language site, Abna’a al-Balad reiterated its position of principled refusal to recognise or participate in Knesset elections, while recognising that the creation of the list might increase the electoral turnout of Palestinians. They concluded that “After March 17, we will be in the same trench with all Arab parties, all the voters and the boycotters, to confront the racist Zionist policy directed against all of us”.
The existence of the list did indeed contribute to an increase in the Palestinian turnout, from 54% in 2013 to 67%. Reports suggested over 80% turnout in the Arab towns and villages of Galilee, with 95% supporting the Joint List. The List ended up with 13 seats, a modest increase over the 11 previously held by its components, making it the third-largest party. If the participants in the List manage to transcend their initial mutual suspicions, and to respond to the apparent opening from Abna’a al-Balad, this election could mark the start of a new, and much strengthened, political movement for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
A breakdown of voting figures shows that a few thousand Israeli Jews voted for the Joint List; not only long-standing activists, but many younger voters frustrated at the abnormality of life in Israel. One notable supporter was Avraham Burg. Burg, the son of National Religious Party founder and long-term Interior Minister Yosef Burg, is himself an observant Jew, a former leading member Labour Party, and has served both as speaker of the Knesset and chair of the World Zionist Organisation; he has since renounced Zionism, and in January announced that he had joined Hadash.
The results of the election mean that Netanyahu should have little difficulty in constructing a stable coalition, with either parties to his right or ultra-orthodox religious parties (or both). The likelihood, supported significantly by President Reuven Rivlin, of a National Unity coalition between Likud and the Zionist Camp, is slim; not least because that would leave Joint List leader Iman Odeh, an Arab Communist, as leader of the opposition, with a statutory right to security briefings and to consultation by the prime minister in the event of war.
Another war looms
And a further war is one of the almost inevitable outcomes of this election. Netanyahu’s uncompromising rhetoric and racist incitement offer little room for meaningful negotiations with an understandably sceptical Palestine Authority, while communal tension, particularly in Jerusalem, is growing daily. The clear alliance between the Likud and the US Republican Party suggests that a war (in reality, a further massacre of civilians) is likely during the US presidential election campaign in autumn next year.
Despite ritual congratulations to Netanyahu, Western leaders are increasingly expressing their deep frustration with his sabotage of the so-called “peace process”. Barrack Obama, criticising Netanyahu’s pre-election comments, warned that the US was “reassessing” its Middle East policy, leading to fears in Israel that the US might withhold its usually automatic UN Security Council veto next time a motion critical of Israel is discussed.
The response among Palestinians to Netanyahu’s victory has been a combination of disgust at the naked racist incitement, dismay at the prospect of another five years of uncompromising oppression, and some measure of relief and satisfaction that the Zionist Camp had not been elected to continue the same policies in a form slightly more palatable to western leaders. Writing in the Electronic Intifada, journalist and activist Ali Abunimah comments “I am not happy that Netanyahu won. Netanyahu is a blood-soaked killer. He should be put on trial for his many crimes, from the relentless theft of Palestinian land to last summer’s massacre in Gaza – and I yearn to see that day… Had the Zionist Camp won, there was a very grave danger that the Palestinians would have been dragged back a decade into fruitless Oslo-style “negotiations” that would have served as a cover for continued subjugation and colonization”.
In the words of Gaza-based academic and activist Haidar Eid, “Whether run by Herzog or Netanyahu, or any other Zionist leader, in order to break Israel’s demographically motivated cycle of ethnic cleansing and genocidal policies, Israel must be held accountable for its actions… The following measures must be seriously and urgently considered by us, Palestinians, in response to the outcome of the Israeli elections: declaring the end of the Oslo Accords, dismantling the Palestinian authority, strengthening the BDS campaign and making it the official policy of the PLO, declaring the death of the racist, two-state solution, and adopting a new strategy that endorses ‘one person, one vote’ à la South Africa, and a rearrangement of priorities by making right of return the centre of the liberation project, rather than the facade of ‘independence’.”
Jewish liberals, meanwhile, are in despair at the destruction of their illusion in “another Israel”. One professor at the University of Chicago wrote “The election on Tuesday marks the end of liberal Zionism… It breaks my heart to say this, but today I don’t feel I can call myself a Zionist any longer”, while a veteran Jewish journalist wrote in Haaretz “[Netanyahu]’s re-election makes it clear that Israeli voters, more clearly aware of Netanyahu’s intent than ever, have chosen the apartheid path, and will now have to live with the consequences… apartheid is apartheid, and that’s exactly what Israeli voters chose this week as a course for their nation”. Many similar comments have been published, in the press, in blogs and on Facebook. The self-delusion that it was possible to be a “liberal Zionist”, and that it was possible for Israel to be both a “Jewish state” and a “democratic state”, has been belatedly confronted by reality, and anti-racist Jews are abandoning support for “the Jewish state” in greater numbers than ever before.
In these circumstances, there is both an opportunity and a responsibility for the solidarity movement: either to continue supporting the discredited Oslo plan, to demand further negotiations and to promote the chimera of “two states for two peoples”, or to adopt the position of the BDS movement, and campaign for an end to the occupation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and return of the Palestinian refugees.
As Jews Against Genocide posted on their Facebook page, “Israel voted for BDS. Let’s all help!”