Moving to far right
Moshé Machover looks at the dynamics and strange deals that might be done following the indecisive general election
This is an edited version of a talk I gave at a private meeting on April 13. The provisional subtitle I had given it before the election was ‘Disaster or deadlock?’ But in the event, following the March 23 election, I amended it to ‘Disaster and deadlock’.
The situation in Israel has been underreported in the British media for some time now. Previously the opposite was the case, with every mini-crisis featuring in the news, but now it seems to be only ‘good news’ (or trivial news): eg, how Israel has been coping with Covid-19. On the BBC there is very little apart from that, except for snippets on the World Service.
So, from reading the newspapers and watching TV in the UK, you would not know that for the past two years Israel has been in the midst of a severe, ongoing crisis. For example, since July 2020, there have been continual weekly anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, sometimes involving thousands of people. While such events in other countries around the world are covered, that is not the case when it comes to Israel, despite the increasing violence used by the authorities against anti-corruption protestors. There is a stench of corruption emanating from Israeli politics.
There is also the growing violence of illegal settlers, aided by the army and police, and directed against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and against Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights. Recently, Arik Ascherman, a progressive rabbi who was trying to defend a Palestinian whose land was being invaded by illegal settlers, was badly clubbed by them. Ofer Cassif, a Jewish member of the Communist Party in the Knesset, had to be hospitalised after he was attacked by police on a peaceful demonstration in support of Palestinians, whose homes in Jerusalem were being taken over by settlers. You will find nothing about this in The Guardian or on the BBC.
Israel has just had its fourth election in two years, of course. That reminds me of the Chartists’ demands, all but one of which have been implemented in Britain - the exception being the demand for annual parliaments. But Israel has now gone one better - four parliaments in two years! All four arose due to the charges against prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was accused, then indicted and is now on trial, on several counts of bribery and corruption.
There is a law in Israel which stipulates that a minister who is indicted on a serious crime must resign. But apparently this does not apply to the prime minister! In a previous case, when Ehud Olmert was accused of corruption in 2009, he resigned the premiership and was eventually jailed for a couple of years. By contrast, Netanyahu, far from resigning, continues to stand in elections as leader of the Likud party.
All these elections have resulted from his attempt to achieve a sufficient majority to enable him to pass a law which would give him immunity - or would allow him to appoint judges and prosecutors in his own case to ensure that he would stay out of prison.
‘Right’ and ‘left’
But behind all this there is an underlying long-term shift to the extreme right. At this point I must explain that the terms, ‘left’ and ‘right’, have a different meaning in Israeli politics to everywhere else in the world. Elsewhere they signify social-economic issues - ranging from socialist/communist on the left to neoliberal and fascist on the right. But in Israeli politics they refer not to social-economic issues, but to Zionism. ‘Right’ signifies a strong commitment to aggressive Zionism: the ‘extreme right’ supports not only the colonisation of Palestinian land, but ethnic cleansing and overt Jewish supremacy. On the other hand, ‘left’ means a lack of commitment to this extreme form of Zionism; or, at the ‘far left’, outright anti-Zionism. Since 1967 there has been an ongoing, underlying process, whereby the whole of Israeli politics has shifted further and further to the ‘right’ - to ultra-Zionism.
The recent election led, for example, to the inclusion in parliament of Itamar Ben-Gvir - an acolyte of the late Meir Kahane. Those of you old enough to remember will know that Kahane was convicted on various terrorist charges in both the United States and Israel. He was an extreme Jewish supremacist and explicit advocate of Palestinian ethnic cleansing: ie, removal of Palestinians from Greater Israel. His disciple, who has been described by liberal Israelis as the local counterpart of a Ku Klux Klan leader, is now a member of the Knesset and, if Netanyahu succeeds in forming a government, could end up as a minister.
If you look at the composition of the 24th Knesset, elected last month, I would classify 72 of its 120 members as extreme right in these terms: in other words, extreme supporters of colonisation, annexation and ethnic cleansing. An additional 25 - described as ‘centre’ or ‘centre-left’ in the Israeli media - are centre-right in my opinion. So altogether there are 97 out of 120 Knesset members who are on the ‘right’ or ‘extreme right’: hard-line Zionists or ultra-Zionists.
Something else that signifies the decline of the ‘left’ was the reduction in Palestinian Arab representation, from 15 to 10. The electoral system is one of proportional representation, whereby votes are cast for a list of candidates, and seats are distributed according to the number of votes won by each list. However, there is a minimum threshold, which amounts to the equivalent of four seats - introduced as part of an attempt to prevent Arab parties and the Communist Party (most of whose voters are Arabs) getting representation in parliament.
But all such devices have unforeseen and unintended consequences. In this case, several such small parties - including the (mainly Arab) Communist Party - formed the Joint List. As usually happens in such cases, the Joint List won more votes than its components had been expected to win separately and was the third largest grouping after the previous election (March 2020).
However, Netanyahu, being a very wily (not to say ruthless) politician, managed to split apart this Joint List by making a deal with one of its components. Just before the 2015 elections Netanyahu had made a very racist call to his supporters, alleging that the Arabs were ‘streaming to the polls’ and could ‘outvote us’. This had the desired effect on Jewish opposition parties, deterring them from forming any coalition with Arab parties.
But this time Netanyahu made a deal with the most reactionary, Islamic component of the Joint List. Confusingly, this Islamic party is called the United Arab List. The four components had been the Communist Party (now, like other such parties across the world, a reformist, social democratic formation), two Palestinian nationalist parties and that one Islamic party, which shares the same family tree as Hamas: both are offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is led by another very astute politician, Mansour Abbas. He defected from the Joint List and made a deal with Netanyahu - committing his group in advance not to join the anti-Netanyahu bloc (though making no promise to support Netanyahu).
The remainder of the Joint List were reduced to just six seats, while Abbas’s United Arab List got four. Altogether that came to 10 seats, down from the 15 held by the Joint List before the split. This is something else that indicates both the direction of Israeli politics and the degree of corruption, because the Netanyahu-Abbas deal can be viewed as a form of bribery (not personal, but in relation to the UAL electorate). No political agreement was made, but concessions in terms of a bigger budget for education in Arab villages and towns, better roads and lighting, and action against the enormous level of violence inside the Palestinian Arab areas of Israel, which the police do nothing about.
This is another story that has hardly been reported in the British media. There has been a lot of Mafia-type violence inside the Arab sector, parallel to what happens inside black communities in the United States. Just as there is a great deal of black-on-black violence in the USA, there is a similar phenomenon within the Palestinian community in Israel.
Apart from the disastrous shift to the Jewish supremacist extreme, there is also a disastrous degeneration of politics, in that political differences are overshadowed by the single issue of the personal corruption of Binyamin Netanyahu.
In this context it is useful to refer to the ‘geometric model’, which represents the politics of different countries - the preferences of voters and by implication of parties - according to various dimensions. Ideally, from a socialist - especially Marxist - point of view, there is one overriding dimension of politics: the spectrum from left to right (in the usual meaning of these terms, rather than the peculiar Israeli one). Marxists uphold this left-to-right axis of politics because it is one upon which the class struggle takes place: the contradiction between the interests of the working class and those of the bourgeoisie.
With some simplification we can say that England used to be like that: ie, in the old days before Brexit came along and divided the working class, along with others, according to another intersecting dimension: for and against the European Union. It was the same in Scotland until the arrival of the Alex Salmond version of Scottish nationalism, which similarly divided the working class along the lines of pro- and anti-separatism.
Israeli politics was more complicated even before the present crisis. There was, first of all, the dimension of the conventional socio-economic left and right, which was, however, never very prominent. But then there was the second dimension I have already referred to, which cut across this one: that is, the ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Israeli terms - support for or opposition to extremist colonisation and Jewish supremacy. But there has also been a third dimension in Israeli politics, which has played a very important role: that is, secularism versus religion, which is to a great extent independent of the other two.
But all these are political differences which have now been overshadowed, and pushed aside, by a particular question: support for a prime minister on trial for corruption. This cuts across all three dimensions of Israeli politics. In my opinion, when politics is reduced from such key issues to the question of corruption, this signifies a marked debasement. People and parties who have nothing in common politically share a similar attitude and find themselves in the same bed, when it comes to the corruption of the prime minister. It overshadows normal politics, in other words.
Turning to the current deadlock, despite all his cunning manoeuvres, which would take a whole week to describe, Netanyahu has not actually been able to achieve what he wants: a stable coalition with key posts for both his own party and those of reliable allies that would deliver his own ‘Stay out of jail’ card.
The result is as follows. There are two major party lists: Likud - the party led by Netanyahu - whose Knesset seats are now down from 36 to 30 out of 120; and Yesh Atid (‘There is a Future’) - the biggest party list that is opposed to Netanyahu’s premiership, with 17 seats. In addition there are another 11 parties now represented in the Knesset, whose number of seats range from nine to four. (The party with four seats is the United Arab List led by Mansour Abbas, which I mentioned earlier - the regressive Islamist, who did not promise either support or opposition.)
There are altogether 22 seats held by smaller parties or lists which are committed to supporting Netanyahu. But that means there are only 52 MPs out of 120 he can rely on.
The Yesh Atid party, with its 17 seats, together with the smaller parties committed to oppose Netanyahu (totalling 40 seats), have 57 MPs altogether. The remaining 11 seats belong to two parties that did not commit either way. Seven of these are held by Yamina (‘Rightwards’), led by Naftali Bennett, which is part of what I describe as the ‘extreme right’ in Israeli terms. It is religious, but not extremely so; and its socio-economic policies are neoliberal.
So, to sum up, the pro-Netanyahu bloc has 52 seats, those opposed to him have 57, and there are another 11 seats (seven plus four), holding the balance. In this situation these two small parties have a very great bargaining power.
Can either side form a coalition? It does not seem very likely. In order for the anti-Netanyahu bloc to get him out of office (and hopefully into jail) and form their own coalition, they would need the support of the rightwing Yamina settler party or the Islamist party, or both. Could such a bloc work together? It is possible, but not very likely. With the four Islamist seats the anti-Netanyahu bloc would be able to form an unstable coalition of 61 out of 120. But this would require the Islamists - whose split from the Joint List was partly motivated by their social conservatism - to get into a political bed with the Labor Party, which has scored a relative electoral success by rebranding itself as the feminist party, and with Meretz, the left-Zionist party, which has similarly scored some success by rebranding itself as an LGBT-rights party. And all of these will have to collaborate with the Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, which is secular Jewish-supremacist.
With Yamina, the anti-Netanyahu bloc would have similar problems but in the opposite direction. Can the Jewish-supremacist neoliberal Bennett collaborate with the Communist Party and the rest of the Joint List, which is Palestinian nationalist?
Netanyahu will have his required majority if he can bring into his coalition both the rightwing Yamina and the Islamist UAL. In fact, some of his allies in the Orthodox Jewish religious parties do not have very great objections to the Islamists - they actually have a lot in common: for example, opposition to feminism, to same-sex marriage. Both sides admit these affinities: while they do not share the same religion, they know they can agree on many social questions. But the extreme-settler, Jewish religious, ultra-Zionist parties (described by some as the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan), or for that matter Bennett’s settlers’ party - will they agree to sit in a government alongside representatives of an Islamist party?
What are the options then? The most likely, as things stand now, is a fifth election - currently the arithmetic does not add up! There are, however, a couple of other possibilities. Netanyahu may be able, and he is cunning enough, to persuade some of those committed to oppose him to actually join with him in a coalition.
That is what happened last time round. In the elections of spring 2020, the main opposition, which won nearly as many seats as Likud, was led by former general Benny Gantz, whose main platform had been ‘Anyone but Netanyahu’. But guess what? Netanyahu persuaded Gantz to join his coalition, making promises (such as conceding the premiership to Gantz after one year) which he, an inveterate liar, had no intention of honouring.
How did he manage that? Well, it was a ‘national crisis’ in the shape of the Coronavirus, which Netanyahu compared to a third world war. Actually, the situation in Israel was not as bad as in other countries, but general Gantz saluted and joined the coalition, thus betraying his voters, to whom he promised exactly the opposite.
Now that the Covid-19 crisis is not quite as bad as before, what can Netanyahu present as an excuse for a ‘national emergency’? How about war? You may have noticed that the tension between Israel and Iran has been hotting up; hostilities have escalated. Israeli commentators have not failed to note that this is something to do with the election result. If the situation in the Middle East becomes sufficiently acute, then some of those who contested this time on an ‘Anyone but Netanyahu’ platform - including the list that picked up six seats, having split from Likud, and stood under the name, ‘New Hope’ - may be persuaded to come on board.
No-one is actually accusing Netanyahu of wanting a full-scale war with Iran - he has a reputation of being cautious on such matters. He does not have a record of rushing into international military conflict - other Israeli leaders have been far worse than him in that regard. But he is certainly very capable of making use of such tension in order to further his internal political and personal agenda.
But these things can get out of hand. People remember what happened in 1967, when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser made some aggressive noises without wanting to start a war - he actually wanted to signal a warning against an Israeli attack on Syria. In other words, things got out of hand - something that can also occur today.
Apart from yet another election and the threat of war, which could persuade some of Netanyahu’s opponents to join his coalition, there is another possibility: a consensus around the tactic to remove Netanyahu as premier by supporting his election as president (regarded as a semi-non-political position). The term of the current president, Reuven Rivlin, expires in July 2021.
In exchange for removing Netanyahu as prime minister and getting him appointed as president (as a kind of consolation prize), he would be given immunity from conviction on corruption charges - a possibility that has been commented on by Israeli satirist ‘B Michael’ (Michael Brizon), who noted that the Israeli presidency is largely symbolic. And it would be apt for Netanyahu to hold this position, since both he, the symboliser, and Israel itself, the symbolised, have the following features in common: each of them
plays the victim, is corrupt, cynical, arrogant, malicious, racist, mendacious, cunning, aggressive, greedy, susceptible to bribery, conflicted, hypocritical, self-righteous, cruel, treacherous, hedonistic and suspected of criminal actions.1
So who could be more suitable as president than Netanyahu?!