The divides in Israeli civil society are still rooted in the state’s dispossession of the Palestinians, writes Kevin Ovenden
Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu was desperately manoeuvring this week to hold on as prime minister following this year’s second inconclusive election on Tuesday.
As votes were being counted on Wednesday Israeli soldiers shot dead a 28-year-old Palestinian woman, Alaa Wahdan, at a checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem on the occupied West Bank. She was from the nearby Qalandiya refugee camp.
A refugee in her own land and killed by foreign occupation forces.
The killing is a wearily familiar illustration of why Palestinians say that an Israeli general election changes nothing for them, be they under occupation, under siege in Gaza, in exile, in refugee camps or treated as barely third class citizens within the state.
It was Netanyahu who pushed the Nation-State law giving an official stamp to the apartheid-style discrimination against even those Palestinian Arabs who have Israeli citizenship.
The fundamental Palestinian reality cannot be set aside, as so much western coverage did over the Israeli election – often accompanied by banalisation and treating four-time prime minister Netanyahu as if he were a global celebrity.
That said, the election results do have significance in revealing fault lines in Israeli society and an ongoing crisis of its political system. This does matter for the Palestinian cause.
Netanyahu’s Likud party came second, with 31 seats in the 120-member parliament elected by proportional representation. The hard right bloc of parties it heads fell well short of the 61 seats needed to form a majority.
The largest party, the Blue and White coalition, got 32 seats. It was formed by a small middle-class party and by three former chiefs of staff of the military. One of them, Benny Gantz, is its principal leader.
It is misleadingly described as centre-right or centrist. But Gantz launched his election campaign threatening to bomb parts of Gaza “into the stone age”. Netanyahu’s big campaign promise was formally to annex to Israel the vast and expanding illegal Jewish settlements on the Palestinian West Bank.
That all the lists bar one contesting the election and now horse-trading to try to form a government have total contempt for even minimal Palestinian rights and interests is a reflection of the fundamental colonial-settler character of the Zionist state. It throws into shade descriptions of them on a standard left-right spectrum.
The exception is the Joint List of parties of the Arab minority within Israel. It increased its representation to 13 MPs. Netanyahu deployed a tried and tested tactic of trying to increase his own vote on election-day by conjuring up a racist panic about Arabs turning out to vote.
But Gantz has said categorically that he also will never rely on Arab MPs to form a government.
So Palestinians within Israel have the nominal right to vote, but their representatives are locked out of the political system and authority.
This time, as in the April election this year, the racist campaigning at home did not bring Netanyahu sufficient success. Nor did what Israeli military analysts call the “war between wars” – a serious escalation of drone and missile strikes in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq along with aiming to join US-led naval forces in the Persian Gulf directed against Iran.
The boost from Donald Trump moving the US embassy to Jerusalem did not cut through either.
This was not, unfortunately, due to any popular backlash of Jewish Israelis to the increasing humiliation of the Palestinians, Israeli expansionism and the state’s military operations in the wider Middle East.
The Israeli peace movement and those with a commitment to Palestinian rights remain an often courageous but isolated minority.
It is rather due to the fracturing of the bloc of forces that Netanyahu has commanded for many years: “the right” – which in this case means the hard right through to the ultra-right, secular and religious.
That points to schisms in Israeli society that are growing, even though class antagonisms are enormously suppressed in a state that is permanently both in military occupation and at war-readiness.
Netanyahu, often through dramatic coalition offers that have split away MPs of rival parties to move to support him, has managed to bundle together different bases of Israeli society to comprehensively eclipse the establishment that dominated Israel’s politics in its first four decades. It was represented by the Labour Party. It now has just six seats.
He brought together extremist settlers, recent immigrants from Russia, Jewish Israelis who felt excluded by the old European establishment of the state’s foundation (upon the expulsion of most of the Arab population), the Haredi or “ultra-orthodox” minority, anti-liberals and upstart businessmen who wanted a re-division of the spoils.
That is breaking down. A major reason for the last two snap elections (and there may be a third if no governing coalition can be formed) was the withdrawal of support from the government of Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova.
His “Israel Our Home” party built its support among the one million Russian-speaking Israelis. They have bolstered numbers against the Israeli-Arab minority, are hard-right Zionist in outlook (the extent of their Jewishness is a different matter) but also largely secular.
As non-religious colonial settlers they hold huge resentment towards the conservative religious hierarchy and the Haredi orthodox minority who have a special status that exempts them from compulsory military service and provides welfare payments for men to study at seminaries.
Plans to remove these exemptions split the hard right bloc on religious/secular lines.
The ultra-orthodox parties got 17 MPs on Tuesday. It wasn’t enough to push Netanyahu over the winning line but they have been growing in influence, an expression of the increasing weight of a community that has a birth rate about four times the Israeli average.
It has led to social tensions as well as adding to political fragmentation. There are frequent reports of religious obscurantists establishing communities in a neighbourhood and then trying to impose the strictest conservative mores on all around. So schoolgirls – Jewish schoolgirls – attacked for showing a part of their ankles despite wearing a long skirt.
A further fracturing is that the Netanyahu years, with all the bellicose bombast and destruction of even the fig leaf of a “two-state solution”, have created a radicalisation on the right – secular as well as religious.
It may be hard to imagine but his outgoing government rested upon MPs who were even more extreme in their anti-Palestinian racism than him.
The ultra-right Jewish Power party stood its own candidates but failed to reach the 3.25 percent threshold to get back into parliament on Tuesday. Netanyahu has radicalised the right, but has then lost crucial effective votes out of the resulting fragmentation.
The secular/religious divide on the extreme right has nothing to do with greater or lesser racism against the Palestinians. We are looking at two groupings that both contemplate massive state and popular terror to grab remaining Palestinian land and expel millions of people.
It’s just that one sees justification in modern colonial eliminationist-racism; the other by literalist reference to biblical texts.
Underlying the fragmentation of the political system is the inability of clientelist parties and political figures to grease the various interest groups they depend on. Despite the largesse of US state subventions, there isn’t enough to satisfy competing groups or to reconcile economically the demands of the capitalist layers – old and new – and much of the population: earlier or more recent settler.
Indeed, it is the use of the state corruptly to line the pockets of particular interest groups that now hovers like an axe over Netanyahu’s neck and why he is desperate to find a way to cling on to power – thus refusing to give up the leadership of Likud to allow a grand coalition under another prime minister.
In two weeks time he faces a hearing for three major corruption charges. By December the attorney general is to decide whether to bring charges or not – and is expected to do so.
With a cobbled together coalition he could pass a law granting him immunity. But that seems unlikely to happen.
In opposition, he faces the prospect of jail; or if a fresh election, flitting between campaign rallies and court appearances.
The battle over forming a new government, then, will be ferocious, could last many weeks and might result in another election.
What does this mean for the Palestinians and the solidarity movement?
The success of the Arab parties has strengthened some radical voices who lay great emphasis upon building the movement of Palestinians within Israel and occupied Jerusalem. It is for civil rights, against house demolitions and property seizure and against state repression. It is also for the boycott, divestment and sanctions tactic of the global solidarity movement.
But raising those things throws into question the Israeli state itself, as it actually is, and the increasingly extreme oppression of the Palestinians it rests upon. Thus, this is a front of the wider Palestinian struggle for liberation and also plays a role in further disrupting the Zionist political orthodoxy in Israel.
Second: the state of Israel is based upon the dispossession of the Palestinians and the consequences of that reach into its own dysfunctional internal arrangements.
A state born of legitimising the theft of other people’s land cannot but bring internal corruption on a scale of which the Netanyahu family are but a gaudy expression.
Further, a foundational principle of racial exclusion has, of necessity, led to the glaring obscenity in which a state claiming to represent all Jews in fact produces a society, even with Arabs pushed out, in which country of origin, forms of religious observance, first language and ethnicity become bases for reactionary political identification of one form or another.
A reactionary entity, in its own terms. It is a point made nearly half a century ago by a pioneer of Israel’s foundation, Maxim Ghilan, who discovered that his belief in a progressive Zionism was in fact a terrible delusion.
The dream was that the initial ethnic cleansing of Palestinians should by now have led to a pristine egalitarian Israeli state, able to export social democratic politics even to the benighted Arab neighbours.
The dream was false. It has turned to dust. Israel exports weapons and war, not cooperative production and communal living arrangements.
So Palestinian friends are right to remind all that nothing changes for them on the ground – at least directly – from yet another Israeli election.
But it does tell us something, and it must be hoped that it dawns upon the Israeli Jewish minority who abhor the direction their society and state are going in.
This election in Israel can only be understood through a basic truth:
Palestine is still the issue.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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