Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog on election campaign, 2014.Demotix/ Amir Levy. All rights reserved.Three factors define next Tuesday’s Israeli elections. First, unlike in previous elections, there is an intense discussion about economic and social issues over internal security matters. Second, the Palestinians have no expectation that a change in Israeli policy would mean a change of the official policy towards them. Third, the polls have become a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Likud, Netayanhu´s party, could lose the election for failing to deal with social issues such as high house prices, the quality of public services, unemployment, reducing poverty and increasing inequality. At the same time, the center-left has criticized the reduction of freedoms, the blocking of attempts by Barack Obama´s Administration to negotiate with the Palestinians, the two wars in Gaza without a clear objective, and Likud’s deteriorating ties with the United States and Europe.
But Netanyahu could also stay in power if the list of the center-left Zionist Unit led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni fails to raise enough votes to build an alliance to form a government. The coalition could be set up with the help of centrist parties and the small leftist Meretz, finding an important potential new ally in the Joint List that for the first time gathers together the three Israeli-Arab parties (Arab Israelis number around 1,700,000 people, constituting 20% of the Israeli population).
According to recent surveys, up to 72% of respondents prefer any candidate to win rather than Netanyahu, and 51% reject the idea of a coalition government between the Zionist Unit and Likud. These data show a desire for change which Netanyahu seems to have failed to react against in a timely fashion. But he still has substantive support from sectors on the right and the mainstream “silent majority”.
This support should be contextualized in the shift to the right that Israeli society has undergone in recent decades. “Israel moved to the right after Operation Protective Edge last summer – it moved to the right even before that, after the 2013 election. A few years ago, 12 to 15 percent of Israelis defined themselves as being on the left; now less than 10 percent do. Israel is one of the few countries where the Right is larger than the center and Left combined,” Tel Aviv University statistics professor, Camil Fuchs, told Larry Derfner in +972, an interesting Israeli dissident digital media outlet.
During his career, moving pragmatically between the center and the far right, Netanyahu has embodied the safety and survival of the state of Israel against the Palestinians in general, Iran and now Hamas and now against the so-called Islamic state (ISIS) and the political turbulence that has affected the region in recent years. In these elections he accused Herzog and Livni not only of being “leftists”, something mainstream Israelis associate with the violent second Intifada years, but even “anti-Zionist”.
Standing up to the US
Netanyahu has blocked all negotiations and ongoing colonization of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. A new development has him playing the national pride card as a leader willing to stop the US president in his tracks by himself if necessary. Although Israel continues deeply dependant on the United States in military, diplomatic and financial support, Netanyahu has captured the lack of legitimacy Washington has in the region for his own purposes, together with the domestic frictions between Obama and the Republicans, using both factors to his benefit by struggling openly with the US President about any negotiation with the Palestinians. Intelligently, he has linked this cynical move to the embedded narrative and mythology of Zionism about the creation of the State of Israel: small, isolated, surrounded by enemies but ever-willing to resist.
In his last interview with Jerusalem Post, the Prime Minister painted Herzog and Livni as willing to "bow down" to President Obama, which is hardly the case. Nevertheless he insisted, “we should do whatever we can to maintain our relations with the US, but we should also know how to draw the line when things that could endanger us are on the table – like the nuclear deal with Iran, like the insistence that we return to pre-1967 lines and build another “Hamastan,” like the demand we divide Jerusalem. We have to stand up against these things; that’s what the prime minister of Israel is elected for”.
But a leader resisting in this way the most powerful country in the world also has the implicit legitimacy of having been an “aggressive builder” of illegal settlements in the West Bank for the last two decades according to a front-page report based on facts and figures published by The International New York Times on March 13.
The Zionist Unit has been unforthcoming and not very precise about opening negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and more so when it comes to dealing with Gaza. They might be willing to recommence on another phase of the never-ending ‘peace process’ and provide a more friendly face to the world than that of Netanyahu’s Israel, but their backgrounds offer little hope.
Tzipi Livni, for example, who supported the last two Gaza wars, was part of Netanyahu’s cabinet as Justice Minister and in charge of the last negotiations with the Palestinians, has tried to gain favour in the ranks of the right by indicating in an infamous article by Roger Cohen, “that dealing with Netanyahu on the (peace) talks had always been difficult, but from her perspective the Palestinians caused their failure at a critical moment”.
About Iran most of the candidates, but particularly Herzog, align themselves with the idea of a nuclear threat, while criticizing Netanyahu for undermining the political bond with the US and isolating Israel.
Indifference and dying hope
For the Palestinians, who wins the election makes no difference. In the West Bank and Gaza the mood moves between indifference and the sense that all the parties are hostile towards them in one way or another. The exceptions are individuals and some organizations with no political power in the parties, or only in small parties such as Meretz. This was recently confirmed by Ben-Menachem, CEO of Radio-Kol Israel, who wrote that the Palestinians consider all the political forces ranged against them racist Zionists who are willing to continue expanding the state at the expense of the occupied territories and to deny them their rights. The only hope some of them have is that the Joint List comes third in the voting and as such can play a role in the formation of a new coalition government. Right wing sectors, meanwhile, have already sounded the alarm concerning the “dangerous” possibility that a member of the Joint List would have an impact on the Defense and Foreign Policy of parliament.
The entry onto the political scene of the alliance could be an important development, not least because not all the Palestinian-Israelis can vote. 350,000 Palestinians (or people of other Arab origins) with Israeli identity cards but without citizenship are not entitled to vote in the general election. They can vote in the municipal elections and have access to Israeli social security, they pay taxes, and are subject to Israeli law. At the same time, the Palestinians living in the remainder of the occupied territories, in the West Bank and Gaza, are not allowed to vote. Meanwhile, settlers in the occupied territories can vote.
Palestinian popular resistance leader Abdullah Abu Rahme, one of the organizers of the city of Bi’lin that has been struggling for the last decade against the separation barrier (the Wall) that has separated its citizens from most of their land, declared recently: “We hope that the Joint List succeeds, and that it will be the third largest party in the Knesset. It is simply wonderful that the Arab factions are running together. I also hope that Meretz succeeds, despite the fact that they are losing their strength. I hope that the Palestinians on the ‘inside’ go out and vote, because anyone who does not vote only strengthens the right.”
Even if Herzog and Livni managed to form a government, there are plans in Palestinian circles to continue in pursuit of the “international venue”, which refers to the lawsuit taken against Israel in the International Criminal Court for the colonization of the West Bank – an attempt to gain recognition for the Palestinian State. At the same time, they are exploring the possibility of terminating all cooperation between the police of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli defense forces in the occupied territories, a recourse recently recommended to the Palestinian Authority by the PLO. They denounce the Economic Relations Protocol (part of the Oslo accords), and vocally support the boycott of Israeli goods produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Political analyst and former member of Mossad, Yossi Alpher, told me last week: “a Herzog-led government or even a unity government in which he is the junior partner will definitely seek to renew the peace process with the PLO. This is Herzog's mandate and will also reflect US and moderate Arab pressure. But it will be constrained by the inevitable right-center component needed to complete the coalition, by militant Islamist pressures or even attacks on most borders and by (president of the Palestinian Authority) Abu Mazen's weakness. Accordingly, in the best case scenario we'll see limited progress or cautious unilateral withdrawal”.
Concurring with this perspective, about 60% of those interviewed by the Israeli Democracy Institute believe that, “No matter which party forms the next government, the peace process with the Palestinians will not advance because there is no solution to the disagreements between the sides.”
The prospects for the future of Palestine continue for the foreseeable future to consist in the colonisation of the Occupied Territories, and the imposition of a regime increasingly similar to that of South Africa’s Apartheid.
A short version of this article was published in El Mundo (Madrid).