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Israeli elections may bring a brave new world

11/19/2008

Following the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the world is enamored of change. Change, however, is not always a good thing. It may bring to power a Franklin Roosevelt, but frequently the results are less constructive. The Islamist revolution in Iran brought change, for example, and so did the election of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. In 1977, Israelis who wanted "change" voted for the "Democratic party for change." We got change, but those who voted for the "change" party were disappointed to find the Likud of Menachem Begin in power. The era of settlements had begun in earnest. In a few months, there may soon be a another big political change in Israel too, bigger than many seem to realize. Big and BAD.

The centrist Kadima party now headed by Tzipi Livni appears to be facing defeat. Ehud Barak's Labor Party and the Israeli left seem to be set in self destruct mode. Barak and Labor are ignored by most commentators, who concentrate on Livni and on the Likud Party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, each of which might get as many as 30 mandates, while Labor, once Israel's major and "perennial" government party, may be reduced to 10 seats. The likely scenario is that the Likud will get the largest share of the vote, and with its even more right wing partners, form a government of the right.

It would probably be a mistake to view the elections as a contest between Tweedle-dee-dee and Tweedle-dee-dum or to lull everyone into believing that whoever is elected, they will form a national unity government. There is a fundamental difference between the Likud and the parties of the right, and Kadima and the parties of the left. In the now fairly distant past, the fundamental controversy that divided Zionism was whether or not to accept the British separation of Transjordan from the Palestine Mandate. The issue was settled in favor of the more pragmatic policies of the Labor Zionist movement, which created and built Israel.

Since 1967, and more especially in recent years, a new division was created, between those who will never give up the lands of the West Bank and those who would, at least in theory, be ready for a historic compromise with the Arabs of Palestine. The issue was clearly delineated within the Likud party itself, when Ariel Sharon split from the Likud and formed the Kadima party in order to carry out the disengagement. The significance of this split and its implications must be remembered: The Likud of today is composed of the die-hards who would not go along with the disengagement plan. The Likud is no longer "blue and white." It is orange.

The elections were called right now because of the obstinacy of the Shas party, which has a penchant for bringing down government, and the inexperience of Tzipi Livni. But the same problems would appear if the elections were held a half year from now, or a year from now. Israeli politics and society have been undergoing a structural change, fueled by demography, economics, external political events and the incompetence of existing political institutions.

Campaign jingles and public relations firms are going to try mightily to mask the fundamental differences between the parties with fatuous slogans and fake strategies. Absurdly, Tzipi Livni, the head of the incumbent party is being presented as a candidate of "change." The real change is offered by Benjamin Netanyahu, but he his trying to hide it.

Benjamin Netanyahu is not saying "no" to peace exactly. He is proposing instead a pie-in-the-sky "gradualistic" approach to implementing the peace through increasing economic cooperation over many years. Many many years. Maybe a thousand. Bibi is trying, with fair success, to hide the fact that the Likud is increasingly populated by fanatic Greater Israel groupies, knit skull-cap adherents of Asher Feiglin and the "hill top youth" of the far right. Feiglin's vision of Israeli governance, which he once explained in an op-ed, looks very much like that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, except that rabbis will be substituted for Mullahs. Those who ask if Bibi and the Likud have changed, should understand that yes, they have changed. Bereft of their more moderate politicians, they have gone for bad to much, much worse.

As for Labor and the Left, the days when they ran the country are long forgotten. So much so, that Ynet News (Yediot), that has a penchant for running absurd op-eds, ran one that complains that Zionism, historically right wing according to the author, is being "usurped" by the left. The present government is not sufficiently right wing for his taste. In the "narrative" of those with no memories or knowledge of history, it seems to be a "fact" that Vladimir Jabotinsky was head of the Zionist movement, Menachem Begin founded the state of Israel and Moshe Ahrens won the Six Day War single handed. This has been true for many years, since the Likud and the NRP coopted the educational system in the 80s. A small child in Ashdod was asked as part of a standard IQ test, "Who created the universe?" "Menachem Begin" was the prompt response. Now it seems the child has grown up and writes editorials for Ynet.

As Defense Minister, Ehud Barak is charged with the thankless of task of managing the impossible standoff with Hamas in Gaza. As the rockets continue to fall, he has an increasingly bright target painted on his backside. The left blames him for "warmongering" and the right pins the blame for government policy and the laws of physics on him. Of course, when Benjamin Netanyahu gets into power, he will need to do the same thing. A little calculation will so that it is insane to risk the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers in an attack on Gaza, when the rockets have resulted in hardly any deaths. That is especially true if the attack will be stopped at the most disadvantageous time by inevitable US or UN intervention - because it is bound to be even bloodier for Palestinians.

Kadima scored another coup against Barak when the government vetoed his request for funding new shelters in Sderot. Barak is "perfectly" positioned regarding settlements as well. The right can take out its wrath on Barak for removing settlers from illegal outposts, and the left can complain that he approved new housing units for settlers. Of course, the defense department doesn't initiate new housing in the West Bank. Barak had the choice of approving the housing or leaving the government. Barak, with his NIS 20 million apartment that he tried to sell for 40 million, and his usual unwinning ways, is not helping his cause. He seems to feel that as he is Barak, he doesn't owe anyone an explanation, which is not the most successful attitude for a politician. If he offers an explanation, it is unlikely to be accepted by unsympathetic media, who have become Zippy Tzipi groupies. Whatever her failings, Zippy Tzipi Livni has done a good job of painting the dunce cap on Barak, and he doesn't even seem to understand the problem.

The different parties of the right are fairly successful in focusing their attack on the "left," which ironically includes the Kadima party created by Ariel Sharon. Sharon is an unlikely candidate for the "leftist" tag. He was once considered "Mr Right Wing Israel" and portrayed by anti-Semitic journals in Europe as a devourer of Palestinian babies. Basking in its good fortune, the Likud has attracted many of the political rodents who previously deserted its sinking ship, and even causing others to resuscitate their dormant political careers. What's a right wing Israeli party without a Begin? The Likud once again can boast of Benny Begin, who left because Netanyahu was once not sufficiently right wing for him. Menachem Begin's offspring didn't shift leftward. It was the Likud that changed.

The parties of the center and left are busy focusing their attacks on each other. Unflattering polls and weak leadership are causing the political rodents to flee their sinking vessels. Kadima members are defecting to the Likud, Labor members are fleeing to a slightly revitalized Meretz party. Ami Ayalon, once the great hope of the Israeli left, provided comic relief when he quit the Labor party and then found that neither Meretz nor Meimad had any use for him. He was going to defect for spite, but he ended by spiting himself. For once, the kick didn't land on Barak's backside. Ayalon was a lot more promising as a politician before he actually got to be one.

The Palestinians, of all persuasions are doing their best to elect a right wing government. The Gaza mess can be held up by the right as a symbol of the failure of disengagement, Kadima and the left, and Hamas have chosen to heat up the border, digging a tunnel (or allowing it to be dug) into Israel for the purpose of kidnapping Israeli soldiers, and raining rockets on Ashdod as well as Sderot. Nothing could suit their masters in Tehran and Damascus more than to sabotage the vestiges of the American sponsored peace process by securing the election of a a right-wing Israeli government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the officials of the Palestinian Authority are doing their bit to elect Netanyahu as well. Abbas pinned the blame for new housing units in the West Bank on Barak, rather than on the government that decided on those units, and Abbas seems intent also on pleading the cause of the Hamas against the Israeli "siege," while at the same time Palestinian authorities admit that the "suffering" of Hamas residents - the blackouts and other manifestations, are all staged by the Hamas. Previously, Abbas insisted that there was no progress at all in negotiations with Israel. Now he changed his tune. However, instead of being optimistic about negotiations, Abbas announced a policy of complete stonewalling. Abbas told Palestinians


"We rejected Israeli proposals that stipulated making concessions including on Jerusalem and the refugees," he said.

"We either get all six points - Jerusalem, settlements, borders, refugees, water and security - or nothing at all," Abbas said.

The Palestinian leader added that he had made his position clear during a meeting Sunday with the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - in Egypt.

This announcement has two "virtues." It embarrasses the Israeli government with the right wing opposition, because it admits that Israel offered concessions in return for nothing, and it announces to the Israeli electorate that the Palestinians, even the moderate ones, are not willing or able to make any concessions themselves. There is no peace settlement to be had, Abbas is saying, so you might as well vote for Netanyahu, for Israel Eldad, or for the devil.

Of course, Israel isn't going to capitulate to Abbas's inflexible position if it can help it. A modicum of reasonableness on the part of Abbas would have put the Israeli right on the defensive, and would have put Abbas in a position to force concessions from Israel. His obduracy made it unnecessary for the Kadima party to have any unpleasant internal or coalition struggles over what part of Jerusalem to concede, but it also handed a great victory to the right. The Likud can broadcast this message over and over - "There is nobody to talk to. The fanatics are nuts and the moderates are fanatics."

The Israeli left and center long ago abandoned key issues that should have distinguished them from the right: economic and social policies, separation of church and state, Zionist pioneering values, rights for minorities. The only party which today takes cynical advantage of the gap between rich and poor is the reactionary religious Shas party. Neither left nor right are willing to touch the problems of religious coercion and religion in society except in the lightest ways. Armies of idle Yeshiva students fed by fat subsidies continue to swell each year thanks to the Tal law. Money that should go to defense, to infrastructure and to technical education is thrown away on ultraorthodox Talmudic academies where perpetual students spend their lives arguing over urgent questions, such as who is the owner of the wine that spilled on the road when a jug carried by two people broke 1,800 or 1,900 years ago on some dusty street in what is now Iraq.

Crowds of angry and frustrated Russian immigrants and others feel like second class citizens because the Rabbinate will not recognize them as Jews, won't allow them to be married and won't allow them to be buried as Jews. No party will touch these issues. Nobody will speak for people who work for minimum wage and can't pay the electric bill, for Arab Israelis who want equal rights, or for those left without a real pension at the end of their productive lives. Nobody is investing in roads, universities and other infrastructure.

Instead, the left and center invested their entire political fortune in the peace process and disengagement. First the peace process exploded into the so-called Second Intifada and propelled Ariel Sharon to power, and then the disengagement unraveled, leaving these parties with nothing to show for their efforts whatever. They have no issues other than the peace process, which is about as sound as General Motors right now. They have nothing to offer the poor, those excluded by fanatic rabbis, those who detest religious coercion and blackmail, those who fight for rights of Arab citizens or any other group that would vote on any issue other than war or peace. Therefore, the parties of left and center can only tear each other down and steal each other's personnel and voters - Meretz from Labor, Labor from Kadima and Meretz, and Kadima from Labor.

A great optimist might believe that after the elections, a unity government will be formed no matter who wins (see Israel Facing Early Elections). This is probably an illusion. It is likely that the Likud and the right will sweep the elections and have sufficient votes to form a government. All the momentum belongs to the right. Hamas can always provide a few suicide bombings to secure that result. It is unimaginable that Labor and Netanyahu could provide a united policy platform regarding the peace process. If Netanyahu agreed to Labor demands, he would face a Likud revolt. But whether or not a unity government is formed may be irrelevant to the real significance and long term consequences of these elections. If the polls are right, the Labor party, once the backbone of Israeli political life, will be close to extinction. The Kadima party was formed and existed primarily to implement one policy: Disengagement, which failed. Its popularity was due to the charisma and enormous political prestige of one man, Ariel Sharon, who died. It carried out one major enterprise, the Second Lebanon war, which was a major fiasco. Centrist parties have a short lifetime in Israel. This one is particularly bizarre. Otniel Schneller, the settler advocate, coexists in the same party with Shimon Peres and Avi Dichter. If it can win an election somehow and form a government, Kadima may live to fight another day. If not, it will disintegrate and go the way of the Dahsh party (Democratic Party for Change), the Center party and the Shinui party. The Feiglin orange colored Likud will become the Israeli center, and parties like National Union, Yisrael Beiteinu and the extreme right Hatikva party will form the right. Not only Israeli politics, but Israeli society will assume a whole new complexion.

The election campaign will focus on questions of settlements, Gaza, peace and Iran as well as image and experience. In reality, Israeli options on these policy fronts are limited by technical possibilities, and by what the Syrians or Palestinians or Americans or Iranians will do. The real issue is the face of Israeli society, economics and politics. In Israel, a government affects not only momentary policies, but long term planning and priorities and the education system. What will the next generation of Israeli Jews learn about their Arab neighbors, about the place of religion in society, about the importance of democracy and the need for peace? Will they too be taught that Begin created the universe and Jabotinsky led the Zionist movement? Will they prefer peace or settlements in Hebron?

A Likud victory that devastates the left will not only stymie the peace process for a while. It will determine Israel's whole attitude to the peace process and to the occupied territories and to its Arab neighbors, perhaps for an entire generation or more. Will Israel be a reactionary plutocratic semi-theocracy or a vital pioneering democracy? Will we have equality for women or will they have to sit in the back of the bus as the ultraorthodox demand? Will Israel keep trying earnestly for a peace settlement, or will it find ingenious schemes to foil a settlement and build settlements, even if a good deal is on offer? Unlike peace settlements with Syria or the Palestinians, or war with Iran, those issues are only dependent on us. In those fields, we Israelis are free to determine our own fate. By all indications, we are drifting consistently in the wrong direction.

There is still hope. Anything can happen in Israeli politics, and often it does. Will Kadima be saved by a peace deal with Syria? Not likely to happen in the next few months. With the Palestinian Authority? Not likely either. Will Kadima save itself by an attack on Iran? That is not going to happen without US approval, which is not going to happen.

Perhaps the vegetative Ariel Sharon will awake from his coma in his room in Haim Sheba Tel Hashomer Medical Center and emerge to save Kadima from destruction, like the hidden Imam of Shia belief, the Mahdi. Perhaps Ehud Barak will pull another rabbit out of his hat as he did when he beat Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999. Or, it is equally possible that at the eleventh and a half hour, the leaders of the left and center will quit bickering, will finally understand what these elections are really about, and explain it to the public.

Those on the Israeli left who are unhappy about continued settlement building and lack of progress in the peace talks should keep in mind the example of 1977. The only change that can happen in Israel right now is change for the worse. The enemy of the good is the better, and the best friend of the mediocre is the absolutely awful.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000730.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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