The Scary Truth About Israel’s Election: Nothing Happened

by Shir Hever, Jamie Stern-Weiner

Increasingly fearful of international isolation but unwilling to abandon the occupation, Israel is caught in a colonial trap.

First published: 01 April, 2013 | Category: Europe, Foreign policy, International

Israel's recent election was widely expected to yield another triumph for the Israeli right. In the event, what impressed commentators most was the resurgence of the centre. After more than a decade of right-wing dominance, did the vote mark a fundamental realignment of Israeli politics? New Left Project spoke to Shir Hever, economist with Israel's Alternative Information Center and author of The Political Economy of Israel's Occupation.

Many interpreted Israel's recent election results, in particular the strong showing of new party Yesh Atid, as a shift from the right to the centre in Israeli politics. Is there anything to that?

Nothing happened in the elections. The platforms of Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu), Naftali Bennett (HaBayit HaYehudi) and Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud) are pretty much the same. All the Zionist parties in Israel agree on the principles: Israel shouldn't have anything to do with the Gaza Strip except continue the siege; Palestinian refugees' right to return to Israel should not be discussed; Israel should continue to grant extra rights to Jews at the expense of its non-Jewish citizens; and while there should be some kind of division of land in the West Bank, there is no rush to end the occupation. They are prepared to engage in discussions with the Palestinian Authority, which might even eventually produce a Palestinian semi-state, but none are willing to consider the Green Line [i.e. Israel's internationally-recognised legal border] as a basis for negotiations. The Meretz party—the ' Zionist left'—differs on only one point, in that it agrees with the rest of the world that Israel should withdraw from occupied East Jerusalem.

But even as people voted for the same ideology, they voted for different people: nearly half of the Knesset's members were voted out. One of Lapid's main advantages, besides being good looking and well-known, is that he was not a politician before the election campaign. People were sick of politicians, but had no alternative in mind to the consensus ideology they represent. It's a dysfunctional political system, in which elections are becoming an empty ritual.

The elections were fought mainly on socioeconomic issues rather than the occupation and the Palestinians, a significant fact in itself. On the economy, what is the new government's agenda?

There was greater difference between the parties on economic issues than on the Palestinians. All members of the new governing coalition shared pretty much the same view, that of the Likud. 'Centrist' Lapid didn't differentiate himself at all from Netanyahu's economic platform, and unsurprisingly, in his new role as Finance Minister is saying the same things that every other Israeli Finance Minister says on their first week in the job.

The Labour party dared to do something a little different, advocating a soft-Keynesian approach of slightly increasing the deficit and public spending to partially restore Israel's welfare state. It was attacked by most other parties for being unrealistic. That's interesting because we saw massive economic protests in Israel over the last couple of summers, driven by growing inequality and declining standards of living. Almost all the parties tried to ride that wave into the election. Lapid was probably the most successful, even though he was not part of the demonstrations and made no suggestions for solving the housing problem.

It's interesting to consider why the elections were held in January in the first place. Prime Minster Netanyahu pushed to hold them as early as possible, so that they would precede the presentation of the annual budget—and, with it, the publication of government data on the state's finances to parliament and the press. In the end he was unable to do this, because of laws requiring that new parties be given a notice period before holding elections, to give them time to prepare. So just over a week before the elections, the budget information was made public, and it became clear why Netanyahu had wanted to keep it private until after the elections. Netanyahu, so-called 'Mr. Economy' who prides himself on sound economics and responsible belt-tightening, had run up a huge deficit of NIS 39bn [approximately £7bn]. This was mainly because he hadn't wanted to cut certain government programmes before the elections, there were too many important projects that the government wanted to promote, and the government had refused to acknowledge that people's standard of living—and tax revenues—had declined. What I find fascinating is that despite this information being published just over a week before the election, political and media discussion continued to focus on such empty topics as what the election might mean for a renewed 'peace process' with the Palestinians. So Netanyahu succeeded in getting the budget bombshell out of the way.

The unprecedented J14 movement in Israel was driven by opposition to growing economic inequality. It seems as though, with the election of Lapid, this has been transferred onto the issue of inequality of 'service' (i.e. state subsidies to and army exemption for religious Jewish communities).

All social movements and protests in Israel prior to J14 were crushed in the same way: by pitting one minority against the other, and shifting the discussion to security and external threats.

J14 tried hard to overcome these obstacles, which is probably why it was the most successful movement to date. It insisted, 'everybody's invited', 'everybody's welcome, 'we're a movement of everyone'. So when some activists tried to raise the issue of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, others said, 'no, this is a movement of everyone, so we won't bring up any divisive topics: the occupation is off the table'. Then extreme right activists entered the movement and began saying, 'well you know, there's a housing shortage in Israel, why not come and move to the colonies?', 'there's a housing shortage in Israel, so why not kick out the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees so we have more room?' The presence of that kind of extreme right argument was accepted, even though many activists found it abhorrent, because of the idea that 'everyone is welcome'. Of course, inclusive slogans aside, such deep political rifts cannot be papered over for long, and they were eventually exploited by the political parties.

Lapid realised that Israel's ultra-Orthodox community didn't really participate in the protests, despite being the second poorest social group in Israel, after Palestinians. By claiming that 'we all share the benefits and the burdens of the economy, but the ultra-Orthodox only reap economic benefits without sharing the burden of army service', he was able to divert widespread popular frustration and dissatisfaction into hatred. He wasn't the first to do this. His father, Tommy Lapid, created a political party in the 1990s with pretty much the same message (Shinui) and he won a lot of seats. Shinui deteriorated over time and became sort of a joke. In the 2006 election, some of its campaign videos portrayed the ultra-Orthodox so hatefully that they were disqualified by the High Court for being antisemitic.

More interesting is what happened with Bennett and the ultra-Orthodox. Bennett represents national-religious Jews—who combine religious Orthodoxy (but not ultra-Orthodoxy) with Zionism—and many Jewish settlers. The Zionist leadership's initial plans for the political structure of the State of Israel involved allowing non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews a degree of autonomy in exchange for their support for the Zionist project. But national-religious Jews took a much more active role in Zionism, and since 1967 have become increasingly dominant in the Zionist movement, the army and the settlements. Bennett's position in this election reflected that: he effectively advocated that national-religious Jews work with secular Zionists in an alliance that marginalises the ultra-Orthodox. In my opinion this was a strategic error. The ultra-Orthodox are hurt and insulted, and if they decide to turn their back on the Zionist movement because they no longer receive the benefits and autonomy they've received so far, it would create a very strong upheaval in Israeli society, one which Israel cannot really afford.

The big news in Israel last week was President Obama's visit. The extent of the media coverage in Israel illustrated how important the U.S. connection is, on a popular as well as political level. Israeli liberals were in ecstasy over Obama's speech—relieved, I suppose, to receive external support for their embattled position within Israeli politics. What was your take on his visit?

Obama is very good at giving speeches. He managed to win a Nobel Prize for giving one. His speech was well-written, but as with most of Obama's policies, the gap between rhetoric and action was vast. Descending from on high as representative of the international power of the United States to help resolve a local dispute between two squabbling neighbours, Obama didn't address the fact that his country is somewhat involved in this conflict. For the past forty years Palestinians have been killed by American-made weapons that were given to Israel for free by the United States. I think that confers some responsibility.

Obama did help broker a truce between Israel and Turkey, which was a great benefit for Israel. Turkey is a major market for Israeli weapons, a member of NATO and is very important for the Israeli Air Force (a refuelling stop on the way to Iran).

And does Netanyahu's apology to Turkey for the killing by Israeli forces of nine Turkish activists on the Free Gaza flotilla in 2010 open the way to a broader rapprochement?

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan made that very clear from the beginning: he demanded an Israeli apology, which would then open the way to reconciliation. But the Israeli government and media were presenting the dead activists as terrorists, so Netanyahu couldn't apologise for deaths without appearing out of touch with reality to the Israeli public. I wouldn't be surprised if Netanyahu asked Obama to make it look as though he was forced to call Erdogan, or if he just decided to call Erdogan while Obama was there to give the impression that he was forced, because that gives him an alibi.

Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, mocked the rapturous reception of Obama's speech, showing clips of previous U.S. presidents making similar remarks, before exclaiming in exasperation, "We are f*cking powerless!" Similarly, Fareed Zakaria praised Obama's speech for "appeal[ing] to Israel's conscience", on the grounds that every other approach (pressuring Israel, warning it of the dangers of occupation) has failed. Do you agree that U.S. influence over Israel is too limited to pressure it to end the occupation?

U.S. influence over Israel is immense. But it is convenient for a lot of people—for instance, right-wing extremists in the U.S. who speak of their Zionist Occupied Government— to cultivate an image of Israel manipulating the U.S. from behind the scenes.

In the recent Congressional political battle over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as U.S. Secretary of Defense, the Republican senators played the part very well, as if the most important thing if you want to be vetted for high office in the U.S. is to demonstrate your support Israel. But 'Israel' in this sense actually serves as a symbol, a proxy. The U.S. transfers to Israel billions of dollars a year, but it doesn't give Israel any money. It gives Israel vouchers, which Israel can only redeem by purchasing weapons from American companies. What's called 'U.S. aid to Israel' is in fact an annual state subsidy for the American arms industry. Israel lobby groups like AIPAC have a lot of money at their disposal. But the lobby of Lockheed Martin, which produces the fighter planes that Israel is buying with its U.S. vouchers, is many times larger. Every election campaign you see presidential candidates ritually pledging support for Israel before AIPAC. You don't see them going to Lockheed Martin to promise, 'we will keep having wars in the Middle East so your sales will not go down'. They can't do that. But when they go to AIPAC and pledge to support Israel, the most belligerent state in the Middle East whose occupation is a significant cause of continued conflict in the region, they're doing the same thing.

Jon Stewart played soundbites from previous U.S. presidents criticising, in various degrees, Israel's occupation. But none of them backed those statements with any real pressure. They all maintained full support for Israel, none of which was conditioned on Israel's compliance with international law. So it's not that the U.S. is powerless: the U.S. is very powerful, and it cynically uses that power to stoke conflict in the Middle East. A couple of years ago, the U.S. signed the biggest arms deal in history with Saudi Arabia, worth about $60bn, because Saudi Arabia wanted to buy the latest airplanes that Israel already has. For American military corporations, it's not a bad deal.

If there's no sign of increased U.S. pressure on Israel, the EU at least seems increasingly impatient with Israel's settlements.

The EU is riddled with contradictions on this issue. Its legal framework is clear that trade relations must be based on respect for human rights and international law, so the EU violates its own laws by granting Israel trade benefits. But EU decisions are mostly taken by the European Council, which operates by unanimity. That gives any one country a veto. Proposals to sanction Israel have always been vetoed, usually by Germany. Israel has other allies in the EU, too, especially right-wing governments: the Czech Republic and Poland, both of which are major importers of Israeli weapons; the former government of the Netherlands, which saw in Israel a model for the treatment of Muslim minorities and wanted to import Israeli military and surveillance technology; the former Berlusconi government in Italy, not because Berlusconi is a Zionist but because he wants to be able to throw asylum seekers in jail for three years, like Israel does.

There are other contradictions too. On the one hand, the European Right supports Israeli policies. But on the other hand, large European corporations have a strong economic interest in ending the occupation. They want to open up markets in the Middle East, and constant regional conflict is losing them money, so they exert pressure in the other direction. Another contradiction in Europe is the gap between public opinion and government policy. You could see this clearly with Israel's 2008-09 invasion of Gaza, which provoked massive demonstrations in the big European cities even as European governments did nothing to stop the massacre.

The increased focus in Europe on proper labeling of products from the settlements is an attempt by EU states to shift the discussion into a legal framework, to avoid the more controversial political issue of EU responsibilities in the region.

Influential sectors of Israel's political elite seem to be desperate for negotiations with the Palestinians to resume, even though, as you've already said, they reject a peace settlement of the kind any Palestinian leader could accept. What's behind this desire to revive the peace process?

In 2011 Idan Ofer, one of Israel's richest capitalists, assembled a conference of 80 of Israel's biggest capitalists to discuss what should be done regarding the political situation. They concluded that unless Israel somehow restarts the peace process and demonstrates to the world that it is interested in peace, its fate will be similar to that of South Africa under apartheid, i.e. economic, political and cultural isolation. These are their words: we will become like South Africa. They have already seen how increased isolation is starting to affect Israel's economy, although they are afraid to talk about it openly. A friend of mine working in an IT company told me, 'we just lost a $9m contract because of the Gaza flotilla killings—but don't tell anyone'. These companies don't ask the government for compensation for the damage caused by government policies, because that would seem unpatriotic.

Israel's business elite is desperate for at least the illusion of a peace process, because it can feel an international boycott campaign building against it. But it won't be able to change the course of the government on this. Israel is locked in a self-destructive trap common to all colonial powers, holding on to its empire even when it's clear that it's a doomed project, because anyone who objects is immediately branded a traitor.

You mentioned Fareed Zakaria's article earlier, praising Obama's appeal to 'Israel's conscience'. The idea that the Israeli public can change from within—that it will one day wake up and declare 'occupation is bad, we should stop it'—is unrealistic. It's not how these things work. This is a Palestinian struggle for freedom, not an Israeli struggle for redemption. Once Palestinians achieve their freedom and rights, Israelis who were involved in occupation and apartheid will begin the process of seeking redemption, asking themselves how they can make up for what they did. But you cannot expect the Israeli government to free the Palestinians. It doesn't work that way.

Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project.

Further reading

Shir Hever, 'The Tent Protest Movement: Can Israeli Society Change from Within?' New Left Project

Shir Hever, 'Why Does Israel Still Occupy the Palestinians?' New Left Project

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