The Israeli Election Making Netanyahu Look Moderate
By Irris MaklerJanuary 18, 2013
Will the West Bank issue never be settled? Ordinary Israelis despair as the political hardliners tighten their grip on the reins in the lead-up to Israel’s January 22 elections.
Numbers, numbers, numbers, that’s all Israeli politicians are focused on ahead of the election on January 22. How will 34 parties divide up the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament? What new parties are in? What old parties are out? Who will be in the next coalition government? Israel has just posted a $10 billion budget deficit, double its projection for 2012, and the country is increasingly isolated internationally, but no issues have really gained traction to dominate this election – not Iran, nor the conflict with the Palestinians, nor the social protests that had hundreds of thousands of Israelis out on the streets 18 months ago. Israel at times feels as if it is sleep-walking into its next government.
Each day voters are bombarded with electoral ads, played in half-hour loops on TV and radio. Some are in Arabic, others in Russian, as well of course as in Hebrew, and there’s a little English thrown in. Yet for most of this election period, polls showed that more than a third of Israelis hadn’t made up their minds who to vote for.
At a café in the upscale Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hakerem, on a winter’s morning as warm and sunny as spring, retired engineer Eli Ben Harush says he hasn’t decided who to vote for because he’s disillusioned with politicians.
“I don’t like any of them. I’m a perfectionist. I used to run a business building kitchen cabinets, where you have to do things properly, and none of these politicians are good enough.”
His complaints have a universal ring.
“They took politics here and turned it into something ugly, and people no longer believe in politicians,” Ben Harush says. “We see them only looking out for themselves, and we’ve lost faith in this structure called politics and ‘people’s representatives’. And that’s why we aren’t running to vote because, in any case, what was will be, and it won’t make any difference.”
Polls suggest that while there will be changes in seat numbers, the right-wing Likud party will retain its majority. A feeling of inevitability has also muffled debate about key issues in this election campaign.
The current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has been in office just short of four years. A right-winger, he sells himself as tough on security and the economy. It appears he will be re-elected despite not only the newly revealed budget deficit, but also the increasing international isolation of Israel under his watch. To that point, President Barack Obama last week told an American journalist that Israel doesn’t understand its own best interests. He was referring to the increasing pace of construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In Obama’s view, with each announcement of a new settlement, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation.
Netanyahu has responded by saying, “I think everyone understands that only Israeli citizens will be the ones who determine who faithfully represents the vital interests of Israel”.
Criticism from Obama may, perversely, have helped Netanyahu within the religious and right-wing electorates, where he is appealing for votes. Even before that, Netanyahu’s Likud party had just got a whole lot more right-wing; in the party’s primaries two months ago, radicals, ultra-nationalists and Jewish settlers prevailed. The party booted out most of its old timers, including the son of party founder Menachem Begin. They removed Benny Begin, who has the reputation of being the most honest politician in Israel, not because he was not right-wing enough, but because he had also demonstrated respect for Israel’s democratic institutions, such as the Supreme Court, when it ordered the removal of Jewish settlers from illegal West Bank outposts. One Israeli analyst has likened the hardline influx into the Likud to the Tea Party taking over the US Republican party. In this new Likud, Netanyahu is a moderate.
Three months ago, in October 2012, the Likud announced it would present a joint ticket with its coalition partner, the hard-line, right-wing party Israel Is Our Home, which was then the third-largest party in Israel. Netanyahu had hoped that bringing his main competitor into his camp would boost his results on polling day. Strategists promised the joint ticket 45 seats, though party sceptics feared it would have the opposite effect and erode support for the Likud. Israel Is Our Home is headed by the controversial Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. Shortly after the two parties joined their tickets, police charged Lieberman with fraud and breach of trust, and he now cannot stand in these elections. Netanyahu nevertheless has vowed to bring Lieberman back as a minister, just as soon as he’s cleared.
However it turns out, the Likud sceptics are being proved right. Instead of the projected 45 seats the strategist promised, polls show the new combined ticket is losing seats (from 42 seats in the present parliament to 32 seats in the next). At Likud central office, the recriminations have already begun.
Where have those seats gone? Not to the Centre Left Opposition, but further right, to Jewish Home, an old religious party re-branded under the leadership of Naftali Bennett. A bald dotcom millionaire and former military commando, Bennett used to work as a staffer for Netanyahu, before falling out with Netanyahu’s wife. (This is a recurring theme in Netanyahu’s life, and although the falling out has been widely publicised, Bennett will not provide details on its cause. He says he has patched things up with Netanyahu and will be able to work with him in his government.)
Bennett’s campaign ads are warm and fuzzy: secular people talk about what a Jewish home means to them – Friday night dinners, soccer with dad. Then Bennett himself provides the patriotic punchline:
"I love the land of Israel, I love the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces. I love our soldiers. If you feel like me, you have a home."
The campaign seems to be working, giving his party appeal across a broad spectrum of voters, although its membership is in fact dominated by extremists and Jewish settlers, committed to “Greater Israel”. This means it would offer a big no to the two-state solution with the Palestinians, and yes to Israel retaining control of the West Bank; indeed, Bennett has already proposed that Israel should annexe portions of the West Bank. They totally ignore the United Nations’ granting Observer Status to the State of Palestine late last year.
Current polls indicate Jewish Home will win 14 seats in the next election, which would make it Israel’s third-largest party. If it joins Netanyahu’s coalition, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties who describe themselves as the Likud’s “natural partners”, the next Israeli government will be dominated by the Jewish settler agenda. It has been reported that the murderer of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the right-wing nationalist Yigal Amir, is endorsing Naftali Bennett.
RACHEL DORON WAS BORN IN JERUSALEM in the 1930s. A life-long Labour voter, she describes herself as part of the generation that built the state of Israel. She says people like her are fearful of the rise of the right wing.
“We want change and we know change will come and we are helpless. I am frightened of Bennett, very frightened. And every day I look in the newspaper, and he has gone up again in the polls. How can any new government with these extremists in it bring what we need most, which is shalom – peace?”
The slide to the right in Israeli politics has occurred gradually over the past 10 years, according to Dr Yaron Ezrahi, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “For an Israeli political party, it is much more politically effective to frighten people, and to assert that what is around the corner is an existential threat rather than the possibility of peace or a two-state solution. And Netanyahu himself has been hugely successful over the years as a manipulator of Israeli fears — the holocaust, Iran, Syria.”
Ezrahi argues that this has affected the Opposition Labour party, which spearheaded negotiations with Palestinians in the 1980s and 1990s, but which has fallen silent on these issues now, and has chosen to emphasise only domestic and economic issues in the lead-up to this election. He says that adopting the politics of fear has been a strategic mistake. The polls bear him out. Labour numbers are now peaking at around 17 seats, consdierably lower than the 25 seats Labour leader Shelly Yechimovich had said she was aiming for.
One reason it is easy to play on Israeli fears, Dr Ezrahi concedes, is that the country does have real security concerns.
“Israel has conceded territory twice — in Gaza, and after the retreat from Lebanon — and both times that territory was used to attack Israel. Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in Gaza have both fired rockets into Israel.
The iconic slogan of the 1980s promised ‘Land for Peace’ but the reality turned instead into ‘Missiles for Peace’. This had a devastating effect on the Israeli electorate.”
The fact that the Centre camp is split makes a clear choice of party even harder. It consists of the Labour Party, one new party headed by a handsome former TV news anchor, Yair Lapid, and a second new party headed by former foreign minister Tsipi Livni (a late runner). While it would take a microscope to identify the difference in positions among them, and while some members have simply migrated there from other established parties (including two former Labour leaders), these three parties have found it impossible to unite in order to defeat the Likud.
One news channel has created an online quiz designed to help voters prioritise issues, and to realise which party best represents their views. Most of the older Israelis drinking their morning coffee in Beit Hakerem in Jerusalem have no need of online quizzes. They have made up their minds and are depressed by the undecided voters.
Michael Peled, a retired Israeli diplomat, says,“People are much more concerned with daily life, with the economic situation and the cost of living. They say: Iran? The government will deal with it. The Palestinians? No way of solving it. And the parties know it and that’s why if you look at their political programs there is almost no mention of Palestinians, peace process, law of return, whether or not to divide Jerusalem. People don’t know, or they feel it’s hopeless. It’s a very sad situation.”