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Israel’s 2013 Elections

Part I: Prelude

In Early October 2012 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would hold national elections for a new Knesset early in 2013.  The vote would come some 10 months before it was required by law.  Netanyahu explained the move by claiming that, as it stood, his coalition government could not agree on the 2013 austerity budget he felt the country needed.    Observers also noted that Netanyahu and his Likud-Beitenu Party (which was the result of a merger of Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu) were riding high in the polls, while his “centrist” opponents, Kadima (Forward) and the Labor Party were in sad shape.

No doubt Netanyahu planned for a definitive win in the new elections which would confirm his leadership and clear the way for continued belligerency toward Iran (a key issue in his election campaign) and indefinite postponement of any renewal of Palestinian negotiations. The sadistic economic strangulation of 1.6 million Gazans would also continue.  Netanyahu understood that there were no major objections among the majority of Israel’s  Jewish public when it came to Palestinians, and that a certain amount of fear could always be adjusted up or down by focusing on Iran.  There were domestic concerns that would prove more difficult, but the political moment appeared propitious to Netanyahu, and so he called the early election.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a wily politician, but he is not a man of broad vision.  As with most of his country’s politicians, he thinks within a rigid Zionist box.  That means, having called for new elections, he followed certain formulae in his effort to achieve political success.  One of the strategies usually pursued by the government in power in the run up to national elections, is beating up on the Palestinians.  Thus, the same month that the Prime Minister announced new elections, the general calm that existed on the Israeli-Gaza border was broken by the Israeli army.  According to the formula, this should have led to a strengthening of Netanyahu’s image as a defender of the Israeli nation.

When it comes to breaking cease fires, there is also a general Israeli modus operandi.  They start by using snipers to kill Palestinians walking near the border “buffer zones.”  By the end of October 2012 this was happening on the Gaza frontier. The Palestinians replied with rocket fire into southern Israel.  Here a word should be said about the Palestinian rockets.  The vast majority of them are small missiles, they have no warheads and they have no guidance systems.  They are the motorized version of sling-shots and rock throwing.  Can they damage property and, on rare occasion, people too?  Yes.  But, no serious comparison can be made between these rockets and the Israeli fire power used against the Palestinians.

After a flair up at the end of October things went quiet again, but only briefly. On the 8th of November Israeli ground forces came into Gaza and started indiscriminately shooting up an area northeast of Khan Yunis.  Children seemed to be the particular targets for this operation.  On the next day, the 9th, Palestinian forces attacked an Israeli jeep, injuring 4 soldiers.   Following this, Israeli fighter aircraft began attacking Gaza neighborhoods in earnest and, in retaliation, the rocket fire into Israel increased.   This tete a tete would go on for the next month.

In the second week of November,  Gershom Baskin, founder of the Israeli/PalestinianCenter for Research and Information, and a man with contacts both in the Israeli government and Hamas (he had helped negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011) put forth a plan for a long-term cease fire (see Huffington Post, November, 17, 2012).  This document was given to both Israeli personnel, Egyptian intermediaries, and the Hamas military commander, Ahmed Jabari.  According to Baskin, there is reason to believe that Jabari, acting for the Hamas side, reacted favorably to this approach.  Yet, before anything could be settled, the Israeli government, seemingly acting on the advice of Yisrael Katz, the Transportation Minister, to “cut off the head of the snake” took the decision to assassinate Jabari.  This was done on the 14th of  November.

Hamas’s response was predictable.  There was an explosion of rocket attacks, now involving missiles of greater range, reaching the area of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Netanyahu responded by calling up 75,000 reservists and the possibility of yet another land invasion of Gaza now loomed (the last invasion was Israel’s 2008-2009 operation “Cast Lead”).  It was at this point that Egyptian intermediaries, representing the new Islamic oriented government of Mohammad Morsi, stepped up their efforts to head off such an invasion.  Soon, Hamas let it be known that it was open to a cease fire (as they had been before the assassination of Jabari).  But, apparently, the price for a cessation of the rocket attacks had gone up.  They wanted an end to the Israeli blockade and no more Israeli raids into Gaza.

The Israeli reply was to move its troops into position for an invasion. Clearly, the Israelis were not going to respond to Egyptian overtures alone. When this became clear a period of intense negotiations commenced involving United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, who flew into Cairo for consultations on the 19th of November, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who showed up in Israel the next day.

It is perhaps the case that these more intense negotiations alone would have held the Israelis off.  However, something else now happened that may be seen as the “clincher.”  On the 21st of November a bomb went off on a Tel Aviv bus.  The Israelis had long assumed that they had created a secure defense against such attacks. They were obviously wrong. The message of the bombing was:  Netanyahu could go ahead and invade the Gaza Strip, but the consequences would be politically fatal for him.  There would not only be missiles raining down throughout the country, but a renewal of bombs going off on busses, outside of nightclubs, at malls, and who knew where else.  This was hardly the environment that would encourage the Prime Minister’s triumphal reelection.

Netanyahu had badly overplayed his hand. What had begun as a pre-election demonstration that he was a tough leader who could protect Israelis, now had devolved into a crisis which called his judgment into serious question.  He had created a line in the sand, so to speak, from which someone would have to retreat.  Who that someone was became clear with the cease fire conditions released soon after the Tel Aviv bombing.

While Hamas agreed to stop firing the rockets, it was only on the condition that Israel cease its targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders and all incursions into the Gaza Strip.   The Israelis were also obligated to “open the crossings and facilitate the movements of people and transfer of goods and refrain from restricting residents free movements and targeting residents in border areas….”  (Details of the agreement given at Huffington Post November 21, 2012.)

Whether the Israelis would fully follow through on their obligations under the agreement was uncertain.  Their historical record in this regard is poor.  However, the reaction of theGazans, who poured into the streets in celebration, clearly indicated that the appearance of victory was on the side of the Palestinians.  And, on the Israeli side there was a feeling that they had indeed come up short.  Soon after the cease fire went into effect sixteen Israeli soldiers  “arranged their uniformed bodies on the sand, to spell out the Hebrew words, ‘Bibi [Netanyahu] loser.’” The picture of this circulated widely on the Web. This sentiment was to have an impact on the approaching election.  (Times of Israel,November 22, 2012)
Part II: The Election

Before the Gaza fiasco Netanyahu’s party, Likud-Beitenu, seemed poised for victory.  In the run-up to the election, the party was  polling between 37 and 42 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.  If this projection held true that would allow Netanyahu to replicate the rightist coalition he led when new elections were called.  Perspective coalition partners were, as usual, the conservative religious parties: Shas (“Sepharic Guardians of the Torah), Ha’ichud Ha’leumi (National Union) and Yahadut HaTorah Hameulhedet (United Torah Judaism).  Collectively they would end up with 30 seats in the new Knesset.

However, this party configuration did not persist.  Three new parties quickly appeared to shake things up: HaBayit HaYehudit (Jewish Home) led by Neftali Bennett, who once was Natanyahu’s Chief of Staff and is, if possible, more right-wing than his former boss.  This is the party that proved most attractive to the supporters of an expansionist “greater Israel.”  A new centrist party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future) led by ex-TV personality Yair Lapid who, it is said, “is the first [Israeli] politician to fully grasp the power of social media….” (Haaretz, January 22, 2013),  proved to be the party of those voters demanding “more good government and less religious messianic politics.” And, finally, HaTnuah (The Movement) led by Tzipi Livni who once was a member of Kadima and was Foreign Minister in the former government of Ehud Olmert.  HaTnuah was the only party to make resumption of talks with the Palestinians a central campaign issue.  However, it managed to win only 6 seats in the new Knesset.

When the elections finally came on the 22nd of January the results were bad, but not fatal, for Netanyahu.  His gamble in Gaza had pushed some of his potential supporters (including, perhaps, many of the army reservists called up for the aborted Gaza invasion) away from Likud-Beitenu (which ended up with only 31 seats) and into the arms of the hard-liner Bennett, whose Bayit Yehudit ended up with 12 seats in the new Knesset. The center parties Meretz (Energy) and Labor would gain 21 seats between them.  However, the real new force in politics proved to be Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid which garnered 19 seats.  In the elections Lipid had taken positions against the economic austerity that was hurting the Israeli middle class, and against the traditional exemption of Orthodox youth from military service.  These positions resonated with a lot of secular Israeli Jews.  The Arab parties and Balad (an anti-Zionist party of both Arabs and Jews) held the remaining 11 seats.

When it comes to Yair Lapid, there are those who question the sincerity of his campaign stands.  One political observer has called him “the Tofu man” because he “takes on the flavor of whatever is around him” (see Yair Lapid: The rise of the tofu man” by Dimi Reider, +972 blog, January 22, 2013).  He has repeatedly stated that he is willing to enter into a coalition with Netanyahu, a position that would require big compromises on his part.

It should be noted that neither of Lapid’s chief causes,  economic relief and draft equity, are priorities for Netanyahu.  Israel faces a deficit of some 40 billion NIS (new Israeli shekels) and what a fiscal conservative like Netanyahu has his heart set on is an austerity budget.  It was important enough to him to trigger the early elections in the first place.  Lapid might well be offered the Finance portfolio by Netanyahu.  This would be a prestigious position for the ambitious and vain celebrity, but it would require Lapid to renounce most of his economic campaign promises.  Therefore, the Finance ministry is a “poisoned chalice.” If Lapid accepted such an offer, it would probably end his political career.

Solving the issue of military exemptions for ultra-orthodox Jews is just as hard a nut to crack.  Most secular Israeli Jews are deeply resentful over the fact that ultra-orthodox youth escape army service.  The religious political parties that support these exemptions are not only strong enough to sustain them, but also to drain the treasury of large sums of money to subsidize the schools and other institutions of their constituencies.

If Lapid holds firm in his opposition to religious military exemptions, Netanyahu is in a bind.  Given their present positions there cannot be a coalition government with both the ultra-orthodox parties and Yesh Atid.  The ultra-orthodox parties, which are sure God is on their side, are not going to make any important compromises and so the ball is in Lapid’s court.  Rumor has it that, if he compromises, he can become Foreign Minister.

Part III:  Missing Palestine

During the campaign, the issue of Palestine was missing for most Israeli Jewish voters.  It was as if the one problem which really could be an “existentialist threat” to the Zionist nation was assumed settled.  Settled in the sense that there would be no viable Palestinian state.  If the public wanted a foreign policy issue to get upset about, Netanyahu suggested Iran’s alleged passion for nuclear weapons.

This disregard for the future of the Palestinians is a product of Israeli power.  For instance, during the election campaign no one doubted that the Israeli military could, as Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai seriously suggested, “blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water” (Human Rights Investigations.org, November 18, 2012).  And, the Netanyahu government might have been tempted to do just that if the UN, the Egyptians, and Hillary Clinton had not gotten in the way.  Like the hare in a race with the turtle, the power differential is so great that, with the exception of those pesky rockets (the only Palestine related issue to impact the election), the majority of voters have grown quite complacent on the subject of occupation.

This is fine with the rightist parties who find that this complacency opens the door for their neo-fascist activities and ambitions in the Occupied Territories.  This includes Likud–Beitenu which has orchestrated the present purposely stalemated status of “peace” negotiations.  It also suits Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudit which actively supports the settlers.  As for the religious parties, for them the entire issue had been settled at the time of the biblical Abraham.

Israel’s political center also has marginalized the Palestinian issue.  To demonstrate this we need only go to what Yair Lapid says about a subject.  Keep in mind that Lapid is, at the moment, the politician most representative of the Israeli Jewish middle class.  And, we can assume, that his position on the fate of the Palestinians is also representative of that constituency.  Here are some of Lapid’s views taken both from recent post-election pronouncements and also his party platform:

On the issue of governing in coalition with Arab-Israeli Parties, which now hold 11 seats in the Knesset:  Lapid has said that he would never form such a government, (Haaretz February 11, 2013).   This attitude puts him right in the Israeli Jewish mainstream.  An October 2012 poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 64% of the Jewish public favored such an exclusion.

On the possibility of conducting negotiations with the Palestinians: Lapid is willing to talk to the West Bank Palestinians but it should be understood up front that “I don’t believe a word they [the Palestinians] say….I think that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is a fraud, and I think this is the way we should negotiate with him…out of total mistrust” (+972 blog, Lapid’s Platform, January 26, 2013).

On an equitable solution that brings an end to the occupation: To quote Lapid, “While it might be the humane thing to do…to stop the occupation immediately, to enable the Palestinians freedom of movement in the territories, to tear down the bloody inhumane wall, to promise them the basic rights ensured to every individual.  It is just that I will end up paying for this with my life.  Petty of me perhaps to dwell on this point….But still…call me thickheaded – I don’t want to die.”  (Permission to Narrate, January 24, 2013).  Lapid’s inordinate fear may well be shared by most Israeli Jews.  They have been indoctrinated to believe that the Palestinians want to “kick them into the sea” and now they are afraid to make peace with them lest they try to act out this Israeli fantasy.  This is a totally unreal scenario and, in fact, is a projection onto the Palestinians of the desires and actions of the Israelis themselves.

The following points are from Lapid’s party  platform:

If there are any peace talks, “settlement blocs are to remain in Israel’s hands.   “If necessary, there will be negotiations over land swaps.”

“Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty.”

No negotiations with Hamas until it recognizes the Israel state.

“The war on terror will continue at all time, without any regards to the negotiations.”

None of Lapid’s positions are substantially different than those taken by Netanyahu.

It is against this background that we can judge the news of the February 19, that Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah Party (6 seats) will be joining any future coalition government cobbled together by Netanyahu.  Livni has been promised the Justice Ministry portfolio and also will lead any new negotiations with the Palestinians.  Though an advocate of talks with Mahmud Abbas, she too is not willing to give him anything substantive.  Actually, her position falls into line with that of Lapid.

Part IV: Conclusion

The parameters of thought of most Israeli Jews literally proscribes a just peace with the Palestinians.  This is because Zionist Jews have brought up their children to view the Palestinians (and more generally the Arabs)  as mortal enemies.  They have done this never admitting that it is they, the Zionists, who have created the historical conditions for Palestinian animosity.   For generation after generation, the Zionists have armed themselves to attack this enemy and have done so repeatedly with genocidal intensity even after they, the Palestinians, have ceased to be any mortal threat.  As part of this process, the Zionists have trained themselves to confuse their own acts of terror with self-defense and Palestinian efforts at resistance with terrorism.  This prolonged practice has locked the Zionists into a “thought collective” from which escape is extremely difficult.  So it should come as no surprise that, with but few exceptions, those Israeli Jews who are most concerned with the Palestinian issue are those who want, one way or another, to destroy them as a people.

Interestingly, one of the ways to abet this destruction is to marginalize the Palestinians as a serious political subject even as you maintain them as an unrelenting enemy.  Thus, while the rest of the world might take notice of settler pogroms on the West Bank and military action against Gaza warranting war crimes prosecution, most Israeli Jews see such behavior as acts of self-defense and, therefore, do not consider them as subjects for political debate.  And, no one but a minuscule number of Israeli humanitarians, notice how deplorable this is.

In the end, the elections of 2013 will change nothing in the one area of Israeli political life where change is most needed.  Whatever new coalition government is put together will busy itself with debates over economic and social reforms; it will spend a lot of time agonizing over equity when it comes to the military draft; but it will remain on a straight path toward the destruction of the Palestinian people.

The simple truth is that, as Israeli politics now stand, there is no coalition that any Israeli politician can put together that would survive the negotiated formation of a viable Palestinian state.  President Obama, who has scheduled a visit to Israel in the Spring of 2013, cannot magically change this situation.  He hasn’t the leverage with either Israeli politicians or his own Congress.

This scenario, staying on a straight path to the destruction of the Palestinian people, will continue until outside circumstances grow powerful enough to shake the Israeli Jews out of their thought collective.  These circumstances will not come from the Arab or Muslim world.  The “Arab Spring” has done nothing but fortify Israel’s military mentality. If such powerful circumstances evolve, they will have to come from the Western world of which Israelis see themselves a part. When, some day sooner rather than later,  Israelis wake up and find that their behavior toward the Palestinians has made them and their economic, intellectual, artistic, and other activities unwelcome in the West; when they wake up one day and find the corruptive machinations of their supportive Zionist lobbies no longer protect them from the consequences of their criminal behavior; then, and probably only then, will the Zionist system crack and an Israeli election of import take place.

 

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