Category Archives: Knesset

War Versus Peace: Israel Has Decided and So Should We

So, what have we learned from the Israeli legislative elections on April 9?

A whole lot.

To start with, don’t let such references as the “tight race” between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his main rival, Benny Gantz, fool you.

Yes, Israelis are divided on some issues that are particular to their social and economic makeup. But they are also resolutely unified around the issue that should concern us most: the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people.

Indeed, ‘tight race’, or not, Israel has voted to cement Apartheid, support the ongoing annexation of the Occupied West Bank, and carry on with the Gaza siege.

In the aftermath of the elections, Netanyahu emerged even more powerful; his Likud party has won the elections with 36 seats, followed by Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) with 35 seats.

Gantz, the rising star in Israeli politics was branded throughout the campaign as a centrist politician, a designation that tossed a lifeline to the vanquished Israeli ‘left’ – of which not much is left anyway.

This branding helped sustain a short-lived illusion that there is an Israeli alternative to Netanyahu’s extremist right-wing camp.

But there was never any evidence to suggest that Gantz would have been any better as far as ending the Israeli occupation, dismantling the Apartheid regime and parting ways with the country’s predominantly racist discourse.

In fact, the opposite is true.

Gantz has repeatedly criticized Netanyahu for supposedly being too soft on Gaza, promising to rain yet more death and destruction on an a region that, according to the United Nations, will be unlivable by 2020.

A series of videos, dubbed “Only the Strong Survives”, were issued by the Gantz campaign in the run up to the elections. In the footage, Gantz was portrayed as the national savior, who had killed many Palestinians while serving as the army’s chief of staff between 2011 and 2015.

Gantz is particularly proud of being partly responsible for bombing Gaza “back to the stone age.”

It apparently mattered little to Israeli centrists and the remnants of the left that in the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, dubbed Operation “Protective Edge”, over 2,200 Palestinians were killed and over 11,000 were injured. In that most tragic war, over 500 Palestinian children were killed, and much of Gaza’s already ailing infrastructure was destroyed.

But then again, why vote for Gantz when Netanyahu and his right-wing extremist camp are getting the job done?

Sadly, Netanyahu’s future coalition is likely to be even more extreme than the previous one.

Moreover, thanks to new possible alliances, Netanyahu will most likely free himself of burdensome allies, the likes of former Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

One significant change in the likely makeup of the Israeli right is the absence of such domineering figures, who, aside from Lieberman also include former Education Minister, Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

All the grandstanding from Bennett and Shaked, who had recently established a new party called “The New Right”, didn’t even garner them enough votes to reach the threshold required to win a single seat in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. They needed 3.25 percent of the vote, but only achieved 3.22 percent. They are both out.

The defeat of the infamous duo is quite revealing: the symbols of Israel’s extreme right no longer meet the expectations of Israel’s extremist constituencies.

Now the stage is wide open for the ultra-orthodox parties, Shas, which now has eight seats, and United Torah Judaism, with seven seats to help define the new normal in Israel.

The Israeli left – if it was ever deserving of the name – received a final blow; the once prominent Labor Party, won merely six seats.

On the other hand, Arab parties that ran in the 2015 elections under the united banner of the “Joint List”, fragmented once more, to collectively achieve only 10 seats.

Their loss of three seats, compared to the previous elections, can be partly blamed on factional and personal agendas. But, that is hardly enough to explain the massive drop in Arab voter participation in the elections: 48 percent compared to 68 percent in 2015.

This record low participation can only be explained through the racist ‘Nation State Law”, which was passed by the right wing-dominated Knesset on July 19, 2018. The new Basic Law, declared Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people” everywhere, relegating the rights of the Palestinian people, their history, culture and language, while elevating everything Jewish, making self-determination in the state an exclusive right for Jews only.

This trend is likely to continue, as Israel’s political institutions no longer offer even a symbolic margin for true democracy and fair representation.

But perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn in the aftermath of these elections is that in today’s Israel, military occupation and apartheid have been internalized and normalized as uncontested realities, unworthy of national debate. This in particular should summon our immediate attention.

During election campaigns, no major party spoke about peace, let alone provided a comprehensive vision for achieving it. No leading politician called for the dismantling of the illegal Jewish settlements that have been erected on Palestinian land in violation of international law.

More importantly and tellingly, no one spoke of a two-state solution.

As far as Israelis are concerned, the two-state solution is dead. While this is also true for many Palestinians, the Israeli alternative is hardly co-existence in one democratic secular state. The Israeli alternative is Apartheid.

Netanyahu and his future government coalition of like-minded extremists are now armed with an unmistakably popular mandate to fulfill all of their electoral promises, including the annexation of the West Bank.

Moreover, with an emboldened and empowered right-wing coalition, we are also likely to witness a major escalation in violence against Gaza this coming summer.

Considering all of this, we must understand that Israel’s illegal policies in Palestine cannot and will not be challenged from within Israeli society.

Challenging and ending the Israeli occupation and dismantling Apartheid can only happen through internal Palestinian resistance and external pressure that is centered around the strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

It is now incumbent on the international community to break this vicious Israeli cycle and support the Palestinian people in their ongoing struggle against Israeli occupation, racism and apartheid.

Netanyahu Reigns Supreme, and all Opposition has been Crushed

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged from Tuesday’s Israeli election tied with the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz and other high-powered generals. Although each party has 35 seats in the 120-seat parliament, Netanyahu is now firmly in the driving seat.

The small far-right and religious extremist parties that are needed to make up a parliamentary majority lost no time in declaring their support for Netanyahu. That will allow him to establish his fourth consecutive government.

Netanyahu now enjoys the luxury of choosing between a narrow government of these far-right parties, and a right-wing national unity government embracing Gantz. The latter option would potentially command four-fifths of the seats in the Israeli Knesset.

Whatever his decision, Netanyahu is now set this summer to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, beating the record set by Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.

Demand for “immunity” law

The only obstacle on the horizon – a set of corruption indictments against Netanyahu, announced by the attorney-general during the campaign – is certain to be swept away once Netanyahu has been formally installed as head of the next government by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners are already insisting on the passing of special “immunity” legislation – which would make it impossible to indict a sitting prime minister – as a condition for their support.

Bezalel Smotrich, of the far-right Union of Rightwing Parties, said such a law would “build trust among coalition members that the next government can rule for a full term”.

They understand that Netanyahu, given his track record, is their best meal ticket to a long-term place in government.

And Netanyahu’s own voters have demonstrated that they care not a whit whether he is corrupt, as long as he continues to promote a Jewish supremacist agenda.

Extolling Gaza rampage

Gantz’s success in matching Netanyahu’s tally of seats is impressive, given that he presided over a brand new party whose only policy seemed to be: “It’s time to get rid of Netanyahu.”

That showed there is a significant section of Israeli society fatigued by a decade of Netanyahu rule and the political and personal corruption he embodies.

But it also emphasised the continuing veneration by Israeli Jews of the army and their desire to find exclusively military solutions to political problems – not least, how to reach an accommodation with Palestinians and their claim to statehood.

It certainly does not, as some observers have claimed, signify an appetite among Israeli Jews for left-wing politics. Gantz and his fellow generals are not doves of any kind.

After all, the Blue and White party’s main selling point was Gantz’s pulverisation of Gaza in 2014, when he was army chief of staff overseeing a military operation that killed more than 500 Palestinian children.

Collapse of opposition

Netanyahu’s victory is underscored by the two most dramatic trends of the election. Those relate to the collapse of the opposition to the right – both among the Jewish electorate, and among voters belonging to the Palestinian minority, a fifth of Israel’s population.

In many ways, the most shocking result is the diminishment of the Labor Party, which founded Israel and ruled it for decades, to just six seats. That turns it into a marginal, special-interest party.

Combined with the four seats of the dovish Meretz party, that reduces what is commonly referred to in Israel as the “centre-left” to just 10 seats. According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, only about 12 percent of Israeli Jews are still prepared to describe themselves as left-wing.

It is hard to see Labor ever recovering. If the trend continues, Labor and Meretz may need to merge in future elections to ensure they pass the polling threshold.

The ‘leftwing threat’

The mistaken description of Labor as belonging to the left is a legacy of its early connections to European socialist parties and its development of a centrally planned economy in Israel’s first decades.

Labor’s emphasis on ethnic politics and communal segregation – the idea that Jewish and Palestinian citizens should live and learn apart – would have earned it a classification as an ultra-nationalist party anywhere but Israel.

Nonetheless, Labor has in the past signalled that it wants to separate from parts of the occupied Palestinian territories, chiefly as a way to ensure that an expanded Israel – one that includes some of the larger, illegal settlements – remains overwhelmingly Jewish. Its policies have also been constrained, relative to the right, by concerns about Israel’s image abroad.

By shifting the political centre of gravity ever further rightwards, however, Netanyahu has clearly established the idea in most Israeli voters’ minds that Labor is an extremist left-wing party that threatens to bring about the end of a Jewish state.

‘Eliminating the Israeli state’

That was highlighted in the previous election, when Netanyahu not only fearmongered among Jewish voters that Palestinian citizens were coming out to vote “in droves”, but falsely blamed the left for “bussing” them to polling stations.

This process reached new levels of absurdity – and danger – in the current election campaign.

Netanyahu repeatedly warned that Gantz’s party – dominated by generals and extolling its security record in crushing Palestinians – was part of the centre-left.

Netanyahu argued that a vote for Gantz would result in Israeli-Palestinian parties acting as kingmakers in the next government and thereby help to “eliminate” the state of Israel.

Historic low turnout

The four Palestinian parties in the election race, running this time on two slates rather than as a single Joint List, have also struggled. They looked set to scrape through with between six and 10 seats, down from 13 in the last Knesset.

That is because turnout among Israel’s Palestinian citizens hit a historic low in this election, hovering around the  50 percent mark. This was the most lacklustre campaign ever seen in Palestinian communities in Israel.

The polling figures contrast sharply with voting rates among the minority of close to 90 percent back in the 1960s, and of 75 percent just two decades ago, as well as a turnout of 85 percent in local authority elections just a few months back.

The collapse of the vote marks the minority’s near-complete disillusionment with Israeli national politics, and their conclusion that a fundamental and irreversible rift has taken place with the Jewish majority.

Hidden cameras spy on voters

That was made clear last summer, when Israel passed the nation-state law, which made explicit that Israel was a state belonging exclusively to Jews, rather than to all Israeli citizens – thereby cementing the minority’s status as unwelcome spectators in a “Jewish democracy”.

As one Palestinian analyst noted to the daily Haaretz newspaper, Israeli politics is now like a perverse football game, in which there are two Jewish teams and Palestinian citizens serve as the ball. “Everybody’s kicking us and neither team wants us,” he said.

Netanyahu underscored that point on election day itself, when he pulled another of his incitement stunts against the Palestinian minority. He sent more than 1,000 activists armed with hidden video cameras to monitor polling stations in Palestinian communities.

It was a gross violation of Israel’s election laws. But publicity over the cameras’ confiscation by police was another coup for Netanyahu’s fear-based politics. He defended the move as ensuring the election’s conduct was “kosher”, the term used to denote food that accords with strict Jewish dietary laws.

Like his earlier “droves” comment, it sent a clear message that the very presence of Palestinian voters subverts a democratic process intended for Jews only, and that the extreme right he represents is uniquely prepared to take the necessary action to defend a Jewish state.

Palestinian parties ostracised

Netanyahu, however, cannot be solely blamed for this state of affairs. Previously the Labor Party, and now Gantz’s party of generals, actively conspired in Netanyahu’s carefully crafted narrative, presenting Palestinian citizens as a fifth column.

Gantz repeatedly distanced himself from the Palestinian parties in response to Netanyahu’s incitement, vowing to sit only with “Jewish and Zionist” parties.

Effectively, with that promise, he not only shot the Palestinian minority in the head, but himself in the foot. It meant he never stood a hope of having enough seats to provide an alternative government to Netanyahu.

Now, it seems, Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens have fully absorbed the lesson: that all the Jewish parties, bar the four-seat Meretz party, have stripped them of a legitimate claim to political rights inside a Jewish state.

Haggling over annexation

There are a few other significant take-homes from the results.

Religious extremist parties are now the kingmakers on the right. Between them, they won more than a sixth of the parliament. Netanyahu will almost certainly need them in the government, and they will demand socially influential ministries, further accelerating the shift to religious fundamentalism in Israel.

In the run-up to the coalition-building negotiations, one such party representing religious settlers has already demanded that it be given the education and justice ministries.

Netanyahu is also in a weak position to resist – assuming he wished to – the demands of the far-right parties to begin the process of formally annexing significant parts of the West Bank.

Media reports are already suggesting that post-election haggling will focus on demands from these far-right parties for some form of annexation, in return for their agreeing to pass immunity legislation to shield Netanyahu from corruption indictments.

That explains his comments in the last days of the campaign, in which he promised to annex swaths of the West Bank where the settlements are located.

As Netanyahu’s hold on power became clear on Tuesday, he made a speech encapsulating his style of speaking with a forked tongue. He told the crowds: “I intend to be the prime minister of all the citizens of Israel, right and left, Jews and non-Jews.”

To outsiders, it may have sounded conciliatory. To those in Israel who know Netanyahu, it sounded more like a threat from a man who understands that there is no one in Israel – right or left, Jew or non-Jew – in a position to resist his dictates.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Palestinians in Israel face Uncertain Political Future Amid Joint List Split

A political coalition representing Israel’s Palestinian minority – currently the third biggest faction in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset – has been plunged into crisis by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to call for a surprise general election for April.

Long-simmering ideological and personal tensions within the Joint List, comprising Israel’s four main Palestinian parties, have erupted into a split over who should dominate the faction.

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi announced this month that he would run on a separate ticket with his small Taal party, after polls showed he was more popular than the List’s current head, Ayman Odeh.

The move is yet another blow to the coalition, which has been beset by acrimony since its establishment four years ago.

The latest divisions threaten to further alienate Palestinian voters in Israel, potentially weakening their representation in the Israeli parliament and strengthening the right-wing bloc under Netanyahu.

Falling voter turnouts

The 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel are the remnants of the Palestinian population that was mostly expelled from its homeland in 1948 to create the state of Israel. Today, these Palestinians make up a fifth of the population, but face systemic discrimination.

Voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel has been in steady decline for decades, reaching a low at the 2013 election, when just over half cast a ballot.

No Palestinian party has ever been invited to participate in any of the complex coalitions that are the basis of Israeli governments.

In addition, the Palestinian parties’ use of the Knesset as a platform to call for an end to the Israeli occupation and for equal rights for Palestinian citizens regularly attracts the ire of Jewish Israeli politicians.

Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan recently wrote a letter to the Knesset’s ethics committee describing Odeh, the head of the Joint List, as “a criminal and a supporter of terrorism”.

While launching his election campaign this week, former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman accused the Joint List of “treason” and called it “total lunacy” to let its representatives participate in the Knesset.

Acrimony in the Joint List

The creation of the Joint List in time for the 2015 legislative elections briefly boosted turnout, as Palestinian voters in Israel hoped it would give a stronger voice to their interests on the national stage.

The List won 13 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset, but a recent poll showed that only 44 percent of Palestinian voters thought it represented their interests, with 52 percent disagreeing.

Tibi’s departure threatens to lead to further splintering of the coalition, with the southern Islamic Movement also reportedly considering breaking away or demanding leadership of the surviving List.

Relations between the two other parties – Hadash, a block of communist and socialist groups headed by Odeh, and national-democratic party Balad – are fractious, as they compete for a similar pool of secular Palestinian voters.

Call for reform

According to Tibi, the fact that his party, Taal, only holds a single seat in the Knesset is “clearly unjust”.

“The composition of the List should be decided by the people, not decreed by the parties,” he told Middle East Eye.

According to polls, a separate Tibi ticket would be likely to receive six seats, level-pegging with the remnants of the Joint List.

He said an overhaul of the List would make it more democratic and accountable, and revive flagging support from Palestinian voters in Israel.

“The competition between two big lists will actually encourage people to come out and vote,” Tibi said. “Surveys show that we can get 12 seats when we run apart, but together we will drop to 10 or 11 seats.

“The other parties don’t want change because they are afraid of the outcome.”

Tibi said he would consider returning to the List only if it introduced more democratic procedures allotting seats to the parties on the basis of their popularity – either assessed through opinion polls or primaries.

Split could backfire

On social media, Odeh harshly criticised Tibi for the breakup, accusing him of prioritising his “personal interests”.

“Netanyahu wants to see the Joint List break up more than anyone else. The extreme right wants to divide and conquer the Arabs,” he tweeted.

According to analysts, the split could indeed backfire, fuelling disenchantment.

“Surveys show that people support the idea of the Joint List but want more, not less, unity from its parties. They want it better organised and more effective,” Asad Ghanem, a political scientist at Haifa University, told MEE.

“If that trend doesn’t continue, a significant proportion are likely to stay home – or vote for Jewish parties on the basis that at least those parties have some influence within the Israeli political system.”

‘Coming out in droves’

Ghanem also noted that Tibi, a former adviser to late Palestinian national leader Yasser Arafat, had until now been a largely one-man outfit. In the past, he has always allied with another party at election time.

“On paper, Tibi enjoys a lot of support, but that ignores the difficulty he faces widening his party’s appeal,” he said. “He needs to create a convincing list of candidates and establish a party machine capable of bringing out his voters to the polls.”

A combination of low turnout and separate parties could mean one or more fail to pass an electoral threshold, dramatically reducing Palestinian representation in the Knesset.

That would likely delight the Israeli right, including Netanyahu, who raised the electoral threshold before the 2015 vote in an undisguised bid to prevent Palestinian parties from winning seats.

When the Palestinian parties responded by forming the Joint List, Netanyahu used scaremongering on polling day to rally his supporters. He warned Jewish voters that the Palestinian minority was “coming out to vote in droves”.

Aida Touma-Suleiman, a legislator for the Hadash party, said those who preferred the Joint List to splinter were “gambling” that they would manage to pass the threshold. “That’s a very dangerous position to adopt,” she told MEE.

Need for common platform

Ghanem criticised the Joint List for failing to make an impact on the most pressing socio-economic issues faced by the Palestinian minority. Half of Palestinian families in Israel live under the poverty line, nearly four times the rate among Israeli Jews.

He also accused the List of failing to effectively counter recent legislative moves by the Netanyahu government that have targeted the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority.

In 2016, the government passed an Expulsion Law empowering a three-quarters majority of the parliament to ban a legislator for holding unpopular political views. It was widely seen as a measure to silence Palestinian Knesset members.

And last summer, Israel voted through the Nation-State Basic Law, which explicitly gives the Jewish people alone a right to self-determination in Israel.

Ghanem said the Joint List’s failure to offer a clear position on the last law, or mobilise Palestinian opinion against it, was especially glaring.

“The problem is that the List has failed to develop a common political programme. It is not enough to have a Joint List, it must have a joint voice too.”

Touma-Suleiman, however, called much of the criticism of the Joint List unfair.

“The Nation State Law showed exactly what the Netanyahu government thinks of our rights. Anything we achieve is like pulling teeth from the lion’s mouth,” she said. “We are operating in a very hostile political environment.”

Crisis of legitimacy

Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for Israel’s Palestinian citizens and rumoured to be a future candidate for the Hadash party, agreed with Tibi that the Joint List was suffering from a crisis of legitimacy.

“Who speaks for our community when we address the Israeli public or speak to the Palestinian Authority or attend discussions in Europe?” he told MEE. “That person needs to be able to say credibly that they represent the community.”

Farah, however, noted that the reality of Palestinians in Israel was “more complicated” than that for most other national minorities. Israeli officials have strenuously objected to any efforts by the Palestinian minority to create its own internal parliament or seek self-determination.

Nonetheless, he said, the Palestinian parties were making themselves irrelevant by focusing on a two-state solution in an era when Netanyahu and the right had imposed on the region their agenda of permanent occupation in the context of a single state.

“We can’t just accept the rules of a political game in which we operate in the margins of a Jewish democracy. It is not enough just to have a leader, we need to offer a new political vision. We have to be creative and bring a new agenda.

“The Jewish majority won’t come to our aid. We have to lead the struggle and be ready to pay the price.”

End of ideological politics

Ghanem said the Joint List’s failures, combined with the collapse of any peace-making efforts to end the occupation, had encouraged a move away from ideological politics among many Palestinian voters in Israel.

“People are instead increasingly focusing on their own personal concerns,” he said.

He pointed to recent local elections in Nazareth, the largest Palestinian-majority city in Israel, where the main political parties bowed out and left the mayoral race to two independent candidates.

The trend away from ideological politics was being reinforced, as elsewhere, by new media that offered people a wider set of perspectives.

“Generally, people feel more confused, and want clear, strong figures like a Netanyahu or a Trump,” Ghanem said. “Tibi can exploit that trend.”

Gaining more influence

Tibi said it was vital for the parties to find a way to make alliances with centre and centre-left Jewish parties in the current climate.

“It is not just about getting more Arab legislators into the Knesset,” he said. “It is about having more legislators who can have an influence, who can help shape the choice of the prime minister. That is imperative if we are going to bring down Netanyahu and the right.”

Tibi said he hoped that, by rebuilding the credibility of the Palestinian parties, they would be in a position to form a “blocking majority” in the Knesset, similar to the situation in the early 1990s.

Then, a newly elected centre-left coalition headed by Yitzhak Rabin needed the support of the Palestinian parties to push through the Oslo Accords, against fierce opposition from the right, led by Netanyahu.

Rabin did so through an arrangement with Palestinian legislators that they would back the coalition from outside the government.

“We helped Rabin achieve his goals and in return the situation of our community improved, with more rights and higher budgets,” said Tibi. “We can be in that position again but only if we can regain the confidence of our community.”

Calls for boycott

Tibi and others believe that, if the turnout among Palestinian citizens returns to the levels of the 1980s, the minority could elect several more legislators, potentially tipping the balance towards a centre-left government.

But for that to happen, the Palestinian parties will need to overturn growing apathy and frustration from their voters, warned Ghanem.

Salman Masalha, a Palestinian columnist for Haaretz newspaper, called the Palestinian members of the Knesset “a fig leaf” whose participation served only to “beautify the state to the world, making it look like a vibrant democracy”.

He argued for a boycott of the election, playing on Netanyahu’s 2015 election incitement: “Arab citizens must respond, ‘the Arabs are boycotting in droves’ the scam of Israeli democracy.”

A boycott of the national elections is the official platform of two factions: the small, staunchly secular Abnaa al-Balad (Sons of the Land) party and the popular northern wing of the Islamic Movement, under Sheikh Raed Salah, which the Netanyahu government outlawed four years ago.

Ghanem observed that Netanyahu’s fate, as he faces indictment on several corruption charges in the midst of the election campaign, could play a decisive role in the turnout of Palestinian voters.

“If Netanyahu looks vulnerable, more [Palestinian voters] will come out in the hope that their parties will be able to support the centre-left in challenging the right.

“But if he looks likely to win, as seems the case at the moment, then many will conclude that the situation is hopeless and stay home.”

• First published in Middle East Eye