Edition 2: No. 113
Israeli elections 2015:
Looking beyond the numbers
Source: Afro-Middle East Centre, Briefing No. 5, 2015
On the face of it, not much has changed with the Israeli parliamentary elections held on 17 March 2015. Negotiations to form a new coalition government have begun, and will probably last a couple of weeks before the spoils are shared. There seem to be no obstacles to prevent Binyamin Netanyahu from embarking on another term as prime minister.
Yet a close comparison of the election results with the 2013 campaign shows that his victory is not all that remarkable. Netanyahu’s Likud party won thirty seats compared to thirty-one in the last election when it ran with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party. The right-wing bloc he leads (which also includes Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party), won forty-four seats, only one seat more than it did in 2013. Thus, most of the growth in Likud’s support was at the expense of Lieberman’s and Bennett’s far-right parties, as indicated by the fact that the far-right parties won fourteen seats, down from twenty-four in 2013.
The booty for the orthodox Jewish religious parties, certain to join Netanyahu’s new government, declined from eighteen seats in 2013 to thirteen. Overall, the Jewish nationalist/religious parties, Netanyahu’s natural constituency, won fifty-seven seats, compared to sixty-one in the last election. While this provides Netanyahu with a solid basis on which to incorporate other parties into a ruling coalition, it does not amount to a great victory.
Perhaps of greater interest is the failure of the opposition to gain ground. Moderate Zionist parties that support meaningful negotiations with Palestinians (Zionist Union and Meretz) won twenty-nine seats, exactly the same as in 2013. Two other centrist parties, focusing on social policy rather than ‘security’ and diplomacy (Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and new party Kulanu, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon), won twenty-one seats, two up from the nineteen Lapid had in 2013.
These figures are just minor fluctuations that reflect the lingering attachment of people to their ‘tribal’ (ethnic/religious) identities, and loyalty to parties that symbolically represent them. Whatever happened between the two most recent election campaigns – the war in Gaza, rising cost of living, international negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme, diplomatic tensions with the USA, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the rise of ISIS – seem to have left barely a mark on Israeli politics.
We can expect to see, then, another right-wing government, with the religious parties rejoining Netanyahu, replacing the weak moderate voices of Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid (whose influence did not amount to much anyway).
Against this background, a somewhat different trend is the emergence of the Joint List, the first ever unified political expression of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Forced to form an electoral front due to the threat of failing to pass the higher threshold for this election (a minimum of 3.25 per cent of the vote was required to enter parliament), three parties that derive the bulk of their votes from Palestinians ran together in a joint effort to represent their marginalized constituency.
The oldest and best established, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash/Jabha), was formed before the 1977 election after the landmark general strike and countryside protests of Land Day, 30 March 1976. It was a powerful assertion of the political rise of Palestinian citizens of Israel as an independent force; for the first time, over fifty per cent of Palestinians voted for a list with no links to the state and Zionist parties. Despite getting the bulk of its votes from Palestinians, Hadash insisted on retaining an Arab-Jewish identity and including Jewish representatives within its structures. Its focus was on broad social issues, potentially of concern to all citizens, not only Palestinians.
Other independent Palestinian parties, Balad/Tajamu’ in particular as well as the Islamic Movement with its various factions, emerged in the 1990s, pursuing a position more focused on national (Palestinian-Arab) identity. It was not easy to combine these forces, but the threat posed by the higher threshold and the desire for unity within the Palestinian population resulted in the formation of the Joint List. Almost half a million people voted for the List, making it the third largest force in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Its members will not occupy any government positions, but increased representation will ensure that the voices and concerns of Palestinian citizens will be difficult to ignore.
Beyond the numbers, which indicate little change, what are the implications of the 2015 elections? Three dimensions must be considered: the internal Israeli political scene, relations with Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the international standing of the Israeli regime.
The internal political scene
The return to power of the traditional Likud coalition of Jewish nationalist and religious parties signifies the demise of hope that meaningful change in Israeli policies could start from within. The failure of more moderate forces to gain ground, despite widespread socio-economic grievances and revulsion at the corrupt and uncaring political leadership, can be attributed to the dominance of the discourse of fear and loathing disseminated by Netanyahu and his colleagues: fear and hatred of Palestinians (both inside and outside the country), and of their supposed Jewish liberal ‘enablers’.
This campaign’s success relied on the lingering legacy of resentment by Mizrahi Jews (and to some extent traditionalist Jews of all backgrounds), towards their historical exclusion by the secular Ashkenazi Labour-aligned elites of the 1950s-60s. Politically, these elites are no longer in power, but they remain in control of the arenas of culture, academia, media, and the economy. They are seen to be resisting the rise of Mizrahi, traditionalist and religious voices into positions of social influence. When Jewish liberals talk about the human rights of Palestinians, fair treatment for African refugees, and the value of western modernity and rationality, it is seen as an ongoing campaign to entrench their superiority at the expense of traditionalist Jewish populations.
For decades, Likud and its allies were regarded as the main political vehicle for the rise of new Jewish elites, despite their policies increasing social inequalities and hurting economically vulnerable populations (including Mizrahim). Likud’s racist campaign (‘vote for us or the Arabs will take over’) spoke to a deeply-felt sense of cultural marginalization. Its ability to offer tribal Jewish solidarity as a focus for identity politics, thereby excluding both Palestinians and liberal Jewish outsiders, continues to serve as a powerful weapon in right-wing hands. No initiative internal to Israeli society seems likely to shatter this alliance any time soon, though without such a move no overall change will be possible.
If change from within is unlikely, what other avenues for progressive transformation exist?
Towards a unified struggle
The Joint List occupies a unique place within the political system. It represents the most marginal constituency of Israeli society and a link to Israel’s Arab enemy. Historical, cultural, and religious factors connect internal Palestinians to their external brethren, especially those in the 1967 occupied territory. They are simultaneously part of the system and excluded from it; even moderate Zionist parties do not contemplate forming a coalition government with them. How can this situation shape prospects of change?
The immediate goal of the Joint List was to overcome electoral barriers and present a united front of Palestinian citizens. This has been achieved. What happens next is of great interest. The List could potentially become part of a militant opposition that systematically challenges the new government and offers policy alternatives, but chances are that moderate Zionist opposition forces (the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid) will not cooperate with it. Meretz – the most progressive of the Zionist parties – may collaborate with the Joint list on specific initiatives, but is unlikely to form a parliamentary front with it. This will leave the Joint List isolated in parliament.
To make an impact, the List (as a whole or through its component parties) will have to act outside parliament, embarking on a comprehensive campaign of mass mobilization that combines legal, legislative, educational, social and political initiatives. While its core constituency is Palestinian citizens living in segregated villages and towns, and in a few mixed cities, a successful campaign will require it to extend its reach in two directions.
The first, already attempted on a small scale during the election, would attempt to reach out to marginalized Jewish communities (Mizrahim, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants) on the basis of shared material conditions and concerns. The likelihood of making meaningful inroads into these groups is low, given the legacy of right-wing dissemination of distrust and hatred which leads them to regard Arabs as enemies and competitors rather than potential partners. Still, it would be of great educational value in the long term if the List did embark on such a sustained effort.
The second, of even greater importance, would require Palestinian citizens to forge close links with Palestinian non-citizens, who have been left out of the electoral process. It is a crucial feature of the Israeli political system that it denies democratic rights to millions of Palestinians living under military rule. For every Palestinian in Israel with the right to vote, there are three others without it in the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli occupation, and two others in the Diaspora.
Only a unified Palestinian mass civil struggle, within Israel and the occupied territories, can shake the foundations of Israeli society and force a re-alignment of political forces within it. Due to their relatively privileged position, Palestinian citizens led by the Joint List bear the main responsibility in this respect. They can begin work on re-creating national unity within the boundaries of historical Palestine in collaboration with established political forces and civil society organizations, village committees, students and youth. This is a task that could be undertaken by large numbers of activists, intellectuals, educators and media people – obviously it would not be restricted to members of parliament.
In this framework, they could use their own example to encourage unity in opposition to state policies, highlight joint themes – the struggles over land and historical memory are most obvious – though without neglecting their own specific concerns, hold joint discussions over strategy, and play an educational role. This is not a call for a complete change of focus of action but rather for gradual incorporation of broader concerns into the existing political agenda. In this way, the Joint List can consolidate its electoral success within Israel as well as build on it in order to extend to other Palestinian constituencies. The final demise of the Oslo process, which Netanyahu proclaimed in the course of his campaign, would facilitate this new direction.
Finally, what are the implications of the elections in the global arena? It was obvious to many observers that the Oslo process was already all but dead. Even talks about talks – discussions how to conduct discussions that lead nowhere – had ceased long before the elections were announced. During the campaign, in order to attract votes away from his right-wing competitors, Netanyahu announced that more settlement activities could be expected were he elected, and that no Palestinian state would ever be established under his rule. This must be the end of any remaining delusions that anything positive can possibly come out of the process, and the responsibility for that clearly lies with Israel.
It is too soon to tell how the US administration and the European Union will respond to this development. They know that calls for further diplomatic efforts under the banner of a negotiated two-state solution are futile, but may find it difficult to acknowledge that formally. Having invested decades of diplomatic activity in a goal that had become unrealizable, they may not wish to give up just yet. But Netanyahu may have given them no choice. Already on the day elections results were finalized, he backtracked and declared renewed support for a two-state solution, subject to various stringent conditions. But who can seriously fall for that again?
This is a golden opportunity for activists and movements working for isolating the Israeli regime through external pressure by governments, international agencies, civil society organizations, consumers, and cultural producers. A sustained global campaign to expose the true oppressive face of the regime and force it to change its policies or pay the price for its intransigence will become easier now that the election removed the last fig leaves of moderation.
But we should not lose sight of the two crucial conditions for change outlined earlier: an internal campaign for shattering the alliance between the Israeli right wing and its marginalized Jewish constituencies, and a unified Palestinian struggle modeled on the success of the Joint List. Meaningful change can only be envisaged with these campaigns working in combination with global solidarity efforts.