More than 5.6 million Israelis are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections on Jan. 22, aspects of which might seem strange to American observers who are used to a political system dominated by Democrats and Republicans, with the occasional third party garnering a small minority of votes. In fact, 34 parties are vying for seats in the 19th Knesset.
Of course, many of these parties will not attain the two percent threshold that would give them one seat in the Israeli parliament. For example, Green Leaf—the Liberal List (not to be confused with the Green Party), which is known primarily for its support of marijuana legalization, has been running candidates without success since 1999, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
Most observers say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to wield power. The premier merged his Likud Party with Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), the party of Russian-speaking Israelis led by Avigdor Lieberman, who recently resigned as foreign minister. Lieberman was indicted recently on charges of fraud and breach of trust.
The new flavor in Israeli politics is Naftali Bennett, a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur who heads the new right-wing Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party. The 40-year-old politician, who has never run before for public office, was the leader of the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council (Yesha), which represents Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Bennett, who served in an elite IDF commando unit during the Second Lebanon War, was Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008.
If you want to gain a better understanding of Bennett’s rise and the Israeli domestic political landscape, you can read David Remnick’s 9,000-word article, “The Party Faithful,” in the current issue of The New Yorker. The magazine’s editor notes that Bennett does not do nuance, when it comes to the issue of cutting a peace deal with the Palestinians: “To Bennett, there is nothing complex about the question of occupation. There is no occupation. ‘The land is ours’: that is pretty much the end of the debate. ‘I will do everything in my power, forever, to fight against a Palestinian state being founded in the Land of Israel,’ he said. ‘I don’t think there is a clear-cut solution for the Israeli-Arab conflict in this generation.’ During the recent assault on Gaza, Bennett was a proponent of a ground invasion and criticized Netanyahu when he limited the conflict to a week of air strikes.”
Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi is expected to poll well in the elections next week. “Many expect a third-place finish, behind Labor, which would be a remarkable achievement; second place is not inconceivable,” Remnick writes. “More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right.”
The subtitle of Remnick’s story is: “The settlers move to annex the West Bank — and Israeli politics.” And the author notes that right-wing pressure on the Likud Party, from the national-religious camp in Israel is roughly analogous to the “Tea Party’s radicalization of the Republican Party. Just as the Republican House leadership moved farther to the right as it accommodated its Tea Party freshmen, Netanyahu will have to form a cabinet that acknowledges the presence of an increasing number of radical right-wingers in his and other parties, including Bennett’s. This process, however, did not begin with the elections. ‘We were around before the Tea Party and we are already deep within the Likud,’ [Likud leader] Danny Danon told me. ‘This is not an episode that passes with the wind. We are here to stay.’ Danon is voluble in his contempt for Barack Obama and his admiration for Glenn Beck. In 2011, he invited the broadcaster to Jerusalem. ‘In the past three or four years,’ he said admiringly, ‘Beck was very instrumental in providing good P.R. for Israel.’”
The political agenda of most American Jews does not closely align with that of the Tea Party, so the Israeli political embrace of far-right characters like Beck will not resonate with Jews around here, who also are supportive of Israel negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
And the social justice concerns raised in the massive street protests in the summer of 2011, the so-called J14 movement in Israel (later mirrored by the Occupy Wall Street movement), are curiously absent as central elements in the upcoming elections. Ilan Manor writes on the 972 Magazine blog that “the social justice movement that so many Israelis demonstrated in favor of has lost its political sex appeal. In other words, the revolution has been trivialized. The question is why?”
Manor argues that the fault lies with the leaders of the social justice movement who “called for a reallocation of national funds and a change in national priorities,” however, “they were careful not to mention what priorities would be abandoned or how the national budget would be redistributed. Out of fear of losing their widespread support amongst Israelis from both sides of the political spectrum, the leaders of the movement refrained from explaining that the funds would have to come from the settlements whose infrastructure and security represents a substantial portion of Israel’s budget.”
Manor adds: “The fact that creating a new welfare state would also mean the end of the occupation of the West Bank was ‘an inconvenient truth.’ By labeling the protests ‘nonpolitical,’ they enabled politicians to ignore them.”
This is the “guns versus butter” argument that was popular in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. In the Israeli context, the maintenance of the occupation security regime and the subsidies for West Bank settlement infrastructure are crowding out social spending inside of the Green Line.
As this issue of the AJW was going to press, I had the opportunity to attend a press screening of The Gatekeepers. This new Israeli film by Dror Moreh — which has been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category — presents six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency (a sort of FBI and Secret Service combined), speaking about their tenures and reflecting on the current political situation. First, it is unprecedented that these Israeli security heads are speaking publicly. Moreover, they present a scathing indictment of the status quo, in terms of a feckless political establishment that has failed to find a modus vivendi with the Palestinians. This is not my view; this is the considered opinion of six individuals who committed their lives to the security of the Jewish state, and, after the Oslo agreement in 1993, worked closely with their Palestinian counterparts on a range of issues.
I have met two of the six Shabak heads: Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, and they are among the most engaging informants in the film. Gillon was in charge of Shin Bet when a Jewish extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995. It was a signal failure for the agency, and Gillon submitted his resignation after the fact.
Ayalon, who succeeded Gillon and ran Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000, remarked about the Rabin killing: “I suddenly saw another Israel,” in reference to the forces of the extreme right that hold themselves to be above the laws of the nation.
In view of the upcoming Israeli elections, which hold the promise of more of the same dysfunction, Moreh’s documentary conveys an urgent warning about the shape of things to come — it is a sobering movie-going experience.
The Gatekeepers will open in the Twin Cities on March 1 — look for a review in the Jewish World.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 1.18.13)