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The myth of the right wing bloc

02/21/2009

Numerous myths have been generated about the recent Israeli elections. The first myth that is repeated very often is that the rise of the right was due to the recent Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the international reaction to it (see here). There is not much truth in this.

Almost every opinion poll over the last year or so showed approximately the same results as were obtained in the election. No less than seven polls taken in the week before Operation Cast Lead forecast victory for the Likud and the right, giving the Likud 29-36 mandates versus 23-30 for the Kadima party and 9-14 for the Israel Labor party. Not one poll showed the Kadima party getting more votes than the Likud. In the last weeks of the election, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party gained voters at the expense of the Likud and Kadima party. The parties of the so-called "right wing bloc" had the same majority of 65 mandates approximately as they got in the actual election. The only difference was that that there were a few more mandates for Lieberman and a few less for Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud.

What soured Israelis on the peace process was the collapse of the disengagement program of Kadima, and the concurrent lack of progress in the peace talks. The Hamas is openly out to destroy Israel. This was true before Operation Cast Lead and remains true today. At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have not budged a millimeter in over a year of negotiations. From time to time, they announce proudly that Israel made concessions, but that these do not meet Palestinian demands. For example, as late as November, Abbas announced that Israel had made concessions on Jerusalem, but that these had been rejected, because the Palestinians could never concede any Jewish rights in East Jerusalem whatever. These periodic announcements are in themselves an act of bad faith, since the content of the talks is supposed to be secret. The announcements undermine and embarrass the Israeli government, which pledged that it would not discuss Jerusalem to the Shas party. The Hamas campaigned for the Likud with rockets. The Palestinians campaigned for the right with its stubborn stance and leaks of concessions. Now both complain that Israel elected a right wing government.

Israeli coalition maneuvers after the elections may seem complex, especially to those who do not live under a proportional representation parliamentary system of democracy like Israel's political system. Even to the leading protagonists, the election results were confusing. Tzipi Livni's Kadima party got the most votes, so she thought she was going to form the coalition, and that is what she had announced immediately after the elections. She was disabused of this notion, when 65 MKs recommended to President Shimon Peres that Benjamin Netanyahu form the next government. This past Friday evening, Israel TV Channel 1 delighted in playing the footage of Livni announcing her "victory."

Benjamin Netanyahu, who gloated about his 65 vote "right wing bloc" on election night and elected himself Prime Minster, was also on somewhat shaky ground. The "right wing bloc" is a mythical creation of Likud and rightist propaganda. The "right wing bloc" includes 11 mandates of the ultraorthodox Shas party and 5 votes of the United Torah Judaism party. In the past, these parties have been quite happy to join coalitions of any political stripe, provided they were given sufficient funds for their religious institutions and guaranteed support of religious coercion laws and what can be called kosher "pork barrel" legislation: cheap housing for ultraorthodox, more Yeshivot and the like. They participated in Ehud Barak's last government for example, and they participated in the last Kadima government. They are not Zionist parties. One of the leaders of the United Torah Judaism party constituent Agudat Yisrael once announced in the Knesset, "Herzl should turn over in his grave." These parties support "united Jerusalem" and oppose peace concessions primarily for religious reasons. At one time, Shas was not opposed to the peace process.

It is fallacious to claim that "democracy" has spoken and dictates a right wing coalition in Israel. The real democratic nature of representative parliamentary government is that it requires a compromise coalition government that represents the views of all the constituents of the coalition. Unless one party gets a majority, it is not a "winner take all" system like the one in the USA. Each of the so-called "right wing" parties has a somewhat different program. Otherwise, there would be no need for more than one party of course. A coalition must somehow reconcile all the platforms of the different parties. A leader building a coalition starts with a large number of square pegs, all of which must be forced into a round hole using a large hammer and a lot of elbow grease. Because there is no really large party after these elections, it is especially difficult to form a coalition. Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party wants to institute civil marriages and simplify conversion procedures to help its large constituency of Russian immigrants, many of whom are not Jews according to Halachic law and not entitled to orthodox Jewish marriage. The ultraorthodox Shas party will never agree to any such laws. Its spiritual leader, the venerable Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, expressed the opinion that Mr. Lieberman is Satan. They both agree on hatred of Arabs, but Ovadia Yosef objects to Lieberman's secular program. To have a right wing coalition, Mr. Netanyahu needs to formulate a platform that allows civil marriages and conversions and at the same time rules them out. As this is the Middle East, that is not impossible.

Not surprisingly therefore, Netanyahu announced that he would try to form a unity government with Tzipi Livni's Kadima party. The square peg there is the requirement of Tzipi Livni that the government declare its support for continuing the Annapolis process. The round hole is that neither the right wing of Netanyahu's own Likud party, nor his other right wing coalition partners, would agree to such a condition. Avigdor Lieberman left the Kadima coalition for that reason. Of course, the objection to having the Annapolis process as part of the government platform is not quite rational. The Annapolis negotiations are a demand of the United States and an expectation of the European Union. It is difficult to see how any Israeli government could avoid them. But rationality and party politics do not mix.

The Likud, Kadima and the Israel Labor party could form a coalition on the basis of continuing the Annapolis process. This would also provide a secular government that could change the voting system as many demand so as to reduce coalition chaos. It could institute civil marriage and thereby rob Avigdor Lieberman of a legitimate issue. It could trim the kosher pork barrel projects. It could make conversions to Judaism easier. With Ehud Barak as Defense Minister. it would probably give Israelis the most confidence that someone competent and reasonable is there to handle the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. It would give the world hope that Israel is not abandoning the peace process and turning to right wing extremism. But as that outcome is fairly rational and probably the most representative of the actual spectrum of Israeli public opinion, that probably won't happen. Democracy or not, this is the Middle East, after all.

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/00000751.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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