Israel reverses gravity

Menachem Kellner
29 March 2006

After the success of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, it might have been expected that the Israeli electorate would react by electing a rightwing, hardline government opposed to further withdrawals from territories occupied during the 1967 war. Instead, after Israel's own poll on 28 March, the centrist Kadima party – whose aim is to establish the borders of Israel by 2010 (unilaterally if necessary) and withdraw those settlers living outside (forcibly if necessary) – is the largest one in the Knesset with twenty-eight out of 120 seats. Kadima is followed by Labour, which favours a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, with twenty seats. The Likud bloc, which advocates retaining control of the territories and still dreams of expansion throughout Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), received only eleven seats in a bitter defeat.

Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Kadima's founder Ariel Sharon as acting prime minister and party head, is a former hawk turned pragmatist. Amir Peretz, who won the Labour leadership in a contest with the veteran Shimon Peres, is a trade-union activist turned politician; under his leadership the party has gone back to its social-democratic roots. Both parties are committed to a policy of withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and citizens from almost all of the disputed territories on the West Bank of the River Jordan.

Menachem Kellner is professor of Jewish religious thought at Haifa University, Israel

Also on Israeli politics and the election in openDemocracy:

Eric Silver, "Israel’s political map is redrawn" (November 2005)

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel’s unique democracy" (January 2006)

Thomas O’Dwyer, "Slouching towards Kadima" (March 2006)

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But the major message of this election is that this very issue – of the territories and the settlers (far less of the Palestinians) – does not interest most Israeli voters. Thus, on what is usually called the right here in Israel (in other words, hawkish on the Palestinian issue), the two parties which made holding on to as much territory as possible a central plank in their platforms won just a sixth of the vote – with a religious-nationalist coalition nine seats joining Likud's eleven.

True, a third hardline party, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), won twelve seats; but that party represents the huge population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union (roughly 20% of the Jewish population of Israel), many of whom supported it because it represents their interests and not particularly because of its hawkish approach to the Palestinians. Indeed, most commentators expect Lieberman's party to join an Olmert-led coalition, since its hardline approach to negotiations is driven by security considerations, not Eretz Yisrael ideology.

On what is called the left, the three Arab parties together, representing roughly 20% of the electorate, managed ten seats while the dovish and aggressively secular Meretz won just four seats.

Two clerical parties performed with variable success. Shas, representing what are usually called "ultra-Orthodox" Jews of middle-eastern background, won thirteen seats; and Yahadut ha-Torah, representing those of European background, won six seats. These parties may be clericalist in orientation, but they are also very largely driven by the needs of their usually poor and disadvantaged voters. Their ideological opponent, the secularist and small-business-oriented Shinui (Change) party simply disappeared from the political map. The biggest surprise of the election was the success of the Gil (retirees' or pensioners' party), led by Rafi Eitan, which took seven seats. This party's raison d'etre is to guarantee pensions and improve services to the elderly.

There are thus at least fifty-six seats in the Knesset held by parties (Labour, Shas, Arab parties, retirees, Yahadut ha-Torah) whose main concern is in rebuilding the social-welfare infrastructure largely gutted over the past few years by former finance minister (now head of the much-diminished Likud), Binyamin Netanyahu.

What does all this mean? Why, for the first time in memory, did the Israeli electorate basically ignore military-security issues in favour of social-security issues? Here the Hamas victory may have indeed played a crucial role. Given a Palestinian Authority in the hands of an organisation committed to the destruction of Israel, one which sees the purposeful murder of civilians as a legitimate means to accomplish that end, most Israelis feel that there is "no one to talk to there" and that, in consequence, the least of all evils is "them there, us here."

Thus the almost blanket support here for the barrier being erected between "them and us" (the logic of which is the creation of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of most Israeli towns and villages in the West Bank) and a focus on internal matters: social welfare, social justice, the nature of Israel's public sphere.

Another way of putting this is to say that ideologically-driven politics seems to be on the wane in Israel. The parties motivated primarily by ideology on both sides of the political spectrum appear for the moment to be largely irrelevant to the future of the country. The ideal is often the worst enemy of the best; the Israeli electorate seems to have realised that and appears willing to settle for making the best of a bad situation, rather than striving for some sort of "messianic" fulfilment. The history of (secular) messianisms of the right and left in the 20th century makes this a distinctly encouraging development.

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