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Israeli Elections - What the Hell!


Uri Avnery titled his article about the Israeli elections "What the Hell happened?" He tried to tell us what happened, but he didn't quite succeed. The truth is that it may be too early to know exactly what the hell happened. The long term Israeli political situation is in flux, and in the short term, there are surprises every day. For example, Amir Peretz's supposedly "Leftist" Labor party has since lost a mandate in the final (?) count, and Peretz is now trying to block the formation of a government by the centrist Kadima party and form a right-wing coalition.

It is too early to know whether Peretz's bid, which has infuriated some Labor party members, is serious or whether it is just coalition maneuvers [update - it vanished later in the day]. It is too early to know if the pensioners party, which got 7 mandates, will prove to be a serious political force or whether they are a group of political novices who will be sold out by the pros in the smoke-filled rooms and break apart in the next few years. It is too early to know if Kadima's phantasmagorical plan to set Israel's international borders unilaterally can have any reality.

Avnery wrote:

The main result of these elections is that the hold of the nationalistic-religious bloc, which has dominated Israel for more than a generation, has been broken. All those who announced that the Left is dead and that Israel is condemned to right-wing rule for a long, long time have been proved wrong.

All the right-wing parties together won 32 seats, the religious parties 19. With 51 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the rightist-religious wing cannot block all moves towards peace any more.

This is a turning point. The dream of a Greater Israel, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, is dead.

Most of what he wrote is true, but the whole is false. The rightist-religious wing cannot block moves toward peace, but it is doubtful if Kadima is going to make any moves toward peace, and even more doubtful that there could be any moves toward peace with the Hamas in power in the Palestinian Authority. Israel is not condemned to right-wing rule, but it won't get leftist rule either. The dream of Greater Israel was never a real option. It has not been seriously considered in the policies of either the Likud or the Labor party since the Oslo agreement. However, those who dream it have just postponed their dreams to a later date. There is still a large grouping of political parties who have no use for Arabs and no real interest in an Arab-Palestinian state: Likud - 12 mandates; Yisrael Beiteinu - 11 mandates; National Union/NRP - 9 mandates; Shas - 13 mandates. That's 45 mandates, without considering that the Pensioners' party has not expressed any opinion whatever on the issue, and that the Kadima party's platform is not really a peace platform and certainly not a social-democratic platform. There is no cause for rejoicing over these results in any camp.

To my mind, the following messages at least are clear from the Israeli election results:

* No ideology has a monopoly. The largest party, which has no ideology in any case, garnered only 29 mandates out of 120.

* The traditional right suffered a defeat, but the traditional left suffered an equal and opposite defeat.

* New trends are expressed in new parties. These are unstable and the situation will only clarify itself in the following years, when these parties either become permanent forces or fade from public life like the Shinui party.

* Domestic issues, rather than security or peace, had a decisive role in these elections.

The old "Left" is not quite dead yet, but we should not underwrite any insurance policies for it. The election results probably saved Peretz from demotion as head of the Labor party, but that was not his doing. Kadima got only 29 mandates, requiring Peretz as a coalition partner. That saved Peretz. If the Labor party enters a coalition, it is not likely that the leader will get the boot. However, the fact is that Labor under Peretz lost three mandates relative to the last Knesset, and Meretz under Yossi Beilin lost a seat as well. It is therefore absurd to talk about Peretz founding a new Social Democratic movement. All he did was lose some votes and alienate people. He did not attract masses of voters from development towns as he envisaged.

The old ideologies are becoming irrelevant. The performance of the Labor party is all the more dismal if we consider that the Pensioners built on a single social issue and managed to get more mandates than Meretz. The story becomes even more interesting if we consider what did not happen. The two largest parties that failed to pass the threshold of 3% of the votes were the Greens (environment) and the Green Leaf party (legalization of marijuana and progressive social platform). Together they got about 88,000 votes-- over three mandates -- that should probably have gone to Meretz or Labor. Even more telling, about 37% of the voters did not bother to vote, the highest percentage of abstainers in any Israeli election. Either the political parties are becoming irrelevant, or the whole political system is deemed to be irrelevant.

The traditional left has to ask itself why it was unable to exploit the tremendous potential of socially-conscious voters represented by the Pensioners, the Green party and the Green Leaf party vote. All factions have to ask themselves how it is possible, that in these elections, deemed to be a critical referendum on the future borders of Israel, so many Israelis did not bother to vote. The answers are fairly dismally clear.

To many Israelis it seems that the parties always promise the same things anyhow, and then they do whatever pleases them or whatever is expedient once elected. Issues of war and peace, in the perception of most Israelis, do not depend on what Israel does, and are decided in Washington, in Brussels, in Moscow and in the Palestinian areas. There is no point in voting on what sort of peace proposal Israel would make if there was a government on the other side that was interested in peace, because there is no such government, and if there was, it would be incapable of keeping the agreements anyhow.There is no point in voting on deciding to keep settlements in Ariel or Hebron or some other place, because Condoleezza Rice is going to tell us where we can put our settlements in any case. There is no point in voting on security issues either. If Israel is attacked, it will respond about the same way whether Bibi Netanyahu or Yossi Sarid leads the government.

As for economic, social and constitutional issues, the record of all the parties is clear. In practice, the "right-wing" parties ensure that man exploits man, while the "left-wing" parties do the opposite. It amounts to the same thing, but the rhetoric of the left is much more moralistic. Nobody is going to trust the Labor party or Meretz to enact a national pension plan, because they did not enact such a plan in all the years they were in power, though their platforms had lots of verbiage about social issues. They did not do anything much for handicapped people either. Nobody is going to trust any of the existing parties to fight religious coercion and the gravy train funding of religious institutions, because all of the parties without exception conspired together to create the current sorry situation. No Arabs can trust Labor or Meretz to stand up for Arab rights, because after over half a century of broken promises, nobody is listening any more. All of the major parties have been in power, and all have repeatedly reneged on all their promises for social legislation and defense of constitutional issues. At each election, they return to the voters like crack addicts who relapsed after rehabilitation and say "Please, just give us one more chance." The only parties that never disappoint their voters on social economic and rights issues are the ultra-orthodox parties. They are elected with a mandate to bilk the Israeli public in order to support Yeshiva students, and they always deliver. They are elected with a mandate to enforce religious coercion, and they never disappoint.

People who live outside Israel are not so interested in these internal Israeli issues, or in the vagaries of coalition politics, but it is essential to understand them in order to follow what is happening here, which is mostly unrelated to issues of war and peace. The fight between Kadima's Ehud Olmert and Labor's Peretz is not about any disagreement over foreign policy. It is partly a conflict between Kadima's Reaganomics approach to social legislation, which would probably make Barbara Bush proud, and Peretz's approach, which is a cross between Scandinavia and US populism. Mostly however, it may be a personal conflict. Olmert and Kadima don't want Peretz as finance minister, while Peretz has his heart set on the job.

Perhaps both sides are displaying political inexperience and letting personal issues interfere with good judgement. Anyone who thinks that the Finance Ministry is the key to building Peretz's future career as a Prime Minister should think again. Until now at least, the Finance Ministry has been a place to bury politicians. Israel has had some remarkable finance ministers, who generated economic growth where none seemed possible, including Dov Yosef and Pinhas Sapir. They are all universally hated. The most egregious and latest example is before us. It is very likely that Ariel Sharon, the master strategist, understood exactly what he was doing when he gave the finance ministry to Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon knew that Netanyahu was challenging his leadership. He also knew that belt-tightening was needed, and he knew that Netanyahu would do it by robbing the poor to feed the rich. Sharon gave Netanyahu his "full backing" for an economic program that was political suicide, executed under Netanyahu's name. The result was that Netanyahu earned the loathing of virtually the entire Israeli electorate including his own party, and could not undo the damage by apologizing for his economic program. That is the real reason for the magnitude of the defeat of the Likud, which may not reflect its true potential to attract voters.

When the antics of political clowns are concluded, we can expect (though we might be surprised) a coalition of Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Pensioners and Shas, or something similar. This coalition will most likely continue business as usual, perhaps with some rhetorical window-dressing. The religious institutions and Yeshiva students will get a hefty boost, but this will be called "social legislation." The settlements will get funds for development at the expense of the development towns, but this will be called "consolidation" and a "peace plan." Pensioners will get a bit of a raise, but there will not be a meaningful national pension plan, and the minimum age of retirement will not be lowered after Netanyahu raised it. The workers will get a raise in minimum wage, but most occupations where it is meaningful will be excluded from it and it will not be enforced. The minimum wage laws will cover all the occupations that don't need minimum wage protection anyhow, and will not cover all the unskilled and semi-skilled occupations that do need such protection. Nothing will be done to alleviate religious coercion, because Shinui, the only party that raised the issue, self-destructed. The rich will get richer and the poor will get babies. As for Peretz, he will get a car and a driver, and perhaps free mustache wax.

Palestinians and others who are trying to assess the prospects for peace under the new government, whatever its composition, do not have much cause for optimism. Ray Hanania wrote that the Palestinians should accept whatever areas the Israeli government deigns to evacuate from the West Bank, form a state there, and get down to the business of building a nation. That is sound advice, but there are two minor obstacles: the Israelis and the Palestinians. Palestinians won't stop fighting and accept a state until they believe they have a "good deal" or "justice." No Israeli coalition one can envision at present is going to give the Palestinians anything they could consider a "good deal." That is reasonable from the Israeli point of view, because no Palestinian government, and certainly no Hamas government, is ever going to consider any offer by an Israeli government to be a "good deal," unless all the Jews offer to "go back" to Poland. Moreover, Israelis are not about to agree to the Palestinian version of "justice," which apparently requires the destruction of the Jewish state. That is the reason why Israeli voters are no longer interested in the politics of foreign policy. So lots of them said "What the Hell!" and either didn't vote, or voted for one issue parties that do not have strong foreign policy positions.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 9 comments

Ami's analysis of the election results are sound and make sense. If one follows electoral trends in Israel since its establishment, one notices that no party can ever gain an absolute majority and has to rely on coalitions consisting of strange, incompatible bed fellows. This makes it very difficult to achieve a stable government.

The last elections are a disaster and we shall be witnessing plenty of drama in the forming of a viable coalition. It is hardly surprising that much of the Israeli electorate decided to "punish" the electoral system by not bothering to vote. Voting in Israel once again has proved to be an exercise in frustration and futility. No matter how one votes, one is going to get a coalition of incompatables that one will find nauseating. As mentioned in Ami's article, Amir Peretz even showed signs of capitulating to the right wing in order to block Kadima! This was denied very soon after a great rumpus was caused by Amir Peretz's Labor party colleagues!The damage to Peretz's credibility would be irreversable if this were to occur. This proves that political leaders are prepared to go to great lengths to compromise on electoral promises in order to gain comfortable ministerial portfolios with maximum influence.

The time has come to change the proportional electoral system to one of constituencies as in countries like England. This would make members of parliament accountable to the citizens who voted for them. It would also cut down the number of irrelevent one issue parties that split the vote thus making it difficult for any party to win an absolute majority.

Posted by Shimon Z. Klein @ 04/03/2006 10:42 PM CST

what hamas wants his justice? give them that and you will have peace, i think.

Posted by scott @ 04/03/2006 10:54 PM CST

or let me put that differently. it doesn't matter what hamas wants. it matters what God wants. your claim to palestine is based on God. if it's not based on God then it's based on might makes right and your ability to ethnically cleanse palestinians in 1948.

God wants justice and repentence. give her that and she will give you peace and palestine.

Posted by scott @ 04/03/2006 11:07 PM CST

pat robertson was sort of correct. but he backed down because he cares more about money than prophecy. he's also wrong about God's motive. She took out sharon because of what he did at sabra and shatilla.

and guess what? i'm not going to back down on my prophecy like robertson did. lol.

Posted by scott @ 04/03/2006 11:10 PM CST

i'm sorry to sharon's family. i bet sharon never apologized to the loved ones of the people he killed over the years.

i personally believe in nonviolent solutions. but apparently God doesn't.

Posted by scott @ 04/03/2006 11:12 PM CST

It seems a shame that Israel seem to know it’s destiny, I mean after its forth and last exile you would think they would be head strong without fear in regaining their ancestral home land. But it seems they continue to rely on powers other then their God to manage their destiny. The powers of the world have no intension of caring about Israel unless it is in there own interest. Israel is going to realize this some day soon. And it’s either their God or misery, and as far as I know they are not to ever go into exile ever again, and no one is going to remove them, and they will try. So it’s bond to come to a head.

Posted by sindwinder @ 04/08/2006 03:24 AM CST

Correction: It seems a shame that Israel seems to NOT know it’s destiny

Posted by sindwinder @ 04/08/2006 04:02 AM CST

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Posted by CT Graphics @ 05/01/2006 12:06 AM CST

Times change retreats withdrawals expansions its still all reversible . Hell look at the U.S.S.R even had a song written about it back in the U.S.S.R. Borders change there is pliability although its alot more scary with nuclear proliferation. What is needed is a hundred year truce and one land for two mad people.

Posted by mendel @ 05/06/2006 12:41 PM CST

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