Don’t look Left or Right: Palestinians and Israel’s election

Netanyahu’s Likud Party poster: “Strong security. Strong economy.”

If asked to point to one of the indications of the rather unique nature of Israeli politics, you might highlight their absence of a written constitution (a rare position they share with the UK). Alternatively, you could point to the fact that a senior cabinet minister and party leader, Avigdor Lieberman, last week declared the “need to pick up an axe” and behead disloyal citizens (even the French managed to kick the guillotine in 1977). Lieberman’s statement, during a conference in which he also suggested that Arab towns within the Israeli state need not be a part of it, is testament to the sometimes terrifyingly divisive nature of the issues of nationality, religion, and foreign policy which often dominate Israeli politics, and the extent to which the country has an unhealthy propensity towards giving positions of power to the hawkiest of hawks.

But with the upcoming elections on Tuesday, this hawkishness may yet be to the detriment of the rightwing coalitioniks, as the focus shifts away from foreign policy matters. High costs of living and unprecedented inequality might be sufficient to push Israelis towards the centre-left ‘Zionist Union’ coalition, with its promises of economic change. The ‘Zionist Union’, whose two constituent parties (Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party, and Tzipi Livni’s liberal Hatnuah) both at least claim commitment to reach a “two-state solution”, leads the polls – potential evidence that significant portions of the Israeli electorate are thinking more optimistic thoughts than the incumbent Netanyahu and Lieberman and their Likud and Yisrael Beteinu parties.

Leading Likud officials have already labelled the campaign a failure for which Netanyahu is “primarily responsible” – a significant turn of events since Bibi’s confident triggering of early elections. But the Right will do all they can to stoke up the fear. By heading to Washington to demand action on Iranian nuclear development, and releasing a campaign video depicting an ISIS takeover of an Israel left defenceless by Leftists, Bibi hopes to convince the Israeli electorate that this is more than simply a security debate, that these are essentially existential matters. The laughable campaign video is one thing, but Bibi’s outright denunciation of Tzipi Livni as “danger to the country”, and his suggestions that her coalition will create an independent Hamas-run state in the West Bank, are acts of dark incitement which Haaretz, the main left-liberal independent newspaper in Israel, compared to the dangerous statements he made in the run-up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister who died while trying to implement land-for-peace policies with the Palestinian leadership.

Netanyahu’s speech to congress was widely perceived to be a part of his election strategy.

Nonetheless, change may seem to be coming. For the Israeli middle classes. What about change on the Palestinian question?

Although the Right have made contradictory statements at various times, Netanyahu has made it quite clear that, with the perceived threat of Islamic extremism, now is not the time to give the Palestinians an independent state on their terms. In other words, the occupation of the West Bank must persist indefinitely, for the sake of Israeli security. With ‘Jewish Nation’ bills, and calls for all European Jews to come and settle in Israel, the Right is clearly dedicated to preserving the ‘Jewish’ character of the Israeli state. Meanwhile, the settlements are sporadically expanded, and Netanyahu refuses to take negotiations with the Palestinians seriously, claiming that “there is no parter for peace”.

Clearly, for Palestinians, a victory for the Israeli Right will mean things will remain unchanged, or possibly even worsened in terms of their aspirations for equal rights and/or self-determination. Eran Rolnikm writing in Haaretz, argued that the real existential threat to Israel is Israeli society’s belief that it can indefinitely rule over Palestinians: change is an urgent necessity. Is the leftist Zionist Union coalition dedicated to ending the status quo?

The Zionist Union camp’s proposed policy involves the promise of rekindled negotiations with the Palestinians, towards a two-state solution involving the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Labor Party, has stated that construction work will continue within Israel’s West Bank settlements; the settlements are, understandably, a main point of contention for the Palestinians, so this hardly proves a deep commitment to finding peace. Gideon Levy, Israel’s most controversial dissident journalist, sees the Left stance as one which will, in the end, only further entrench the occupation: Herzog is not committed to achieving genuine peace; he’s allowing negotiations to happen before the international community finally sanctions Israel. Moreover, various commentators have argued that the two-state solution is already an impossibility, given that over 500,000 Israeli citizens live in settlements throughout the West Bank. With interconnected settler roads and infrastructure, it would be hard to carve out a swathe of land worth dignifying with independence as a Palestinian state. From this perspective it is difficult to see how the Zionist Union are helping, with their pledge to continue developing the settlements, even if they say they won’t be building any new ones.

How might the Israeli election impact on the Palestinian question?

If the two-state solution is already dead, what of the other aim of Palestinian struggle, the so-called “one-state solution”, the demand for equal rights within one democratic state? There is insufficient space to go into detail about the Palestinian solidarity movement in the international sphere, or the resistance movement within the Palestinian community who do not hold Israeli citizenship. But in the context of the election on Tuesday some think that Palestinian citizens of Israel may be able to make a difference. The Zionist parties of the Left reject the “one-state solution” – “Zionist” being the key word. However, Avigdor Lieberman of all people may have (unwittingly) come to the Palestinians’ aid, as the main proponent of a recent reform which heightened the threshold at which a proportion of the national vote translates into seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). This move, aimed at further marginalising Palestinian citizens of Israel by eliminating their parties from parliament, backfired when Arab parties managed to form a Joint List, somehow uniting Communists, Islamists and secular democrats into a bloc which might now achieve third place in the election (while Lieberman’s party teeters close to the minimum threshold). The leader of this Palestinian bloc, Ayman Odeh, has suggested that, in order to oust Netanyahu, he may be willing to recommend to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that the the Zionist Union be allowed to form a government – meaning that the leftists be allowed to form a government even without the Joint List officially uniting with them in coalition. Without Netanyahu’s conservatives in government, and without being committed to a coalition, the Joint List may be able to exercise some important influence.

Notwithstanding the argument that real progress on the Palestinian question can only be triggered by outside forces, this might at least be a move in the right direction. Of course even this depends both on high turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel – and on the gamble that Jewish voters don’t fall for Netanyahu’s fearmongering.

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