Israeli aggression and 3D politics

The elections to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) held on February 10 are said to have resulted in a substantial shift to the right; and the government sworn in on March 31 has been described as the most rightwing in Israel's history. This is true only in part, write Ehud Ein-Gil and Mosh� Machover

Before we discuss the new government, we must make a few general comments about the structure of Israeli politics.

Israel, like a few other countries, such as the Netherlands, has a consistent form of proportional representation. The whole country is a single constituency. A vote is cast not for an individual politician, but for a list of candidates presented by a party. The 120 Knesset seats are allocated to each party - in the order in which they appear on its list - in proportion to the number of votes cast for it. The only deviation from strict proportionality is that a list obtaining less than 2% of the total vote is not allocated any seats, and the votes cast for it are disregarded.

The arguments often voiced against consistent PR are for the most part specious, if not outright reactionary. Among the latter is the allegation that PR leads to government instability. Even supposing this were true, seeking government stability betrays a hankering after a strong state - not a particularly democratic sentiment. Actually, over the 61 years of Israel’s existence, the average lifetime of a government has been very nearly two years; and the lifetime a Knesset (elected for a maximal term of four years) has been about 3.3 years.

Note that we are not saying that Israel is a highly democratic country. Our remarks so far refer to one narrow aspect: the electoral system. Israel ‘compensates’ for its democratic electoral system by having a racist citizenship law, which discriminates against non-Jews and denies the vote to many non-Jewish residents (not to mention all long-stay migrant workers). Also, the only significant group of Israelis living outside its borders who are allowed to vote are the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Syrian Golan Heights. The Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories are denied the most elementary civil and human rights. Moreover, a party whose platform is too explicitly anti-Zionist may be forbidden to stand for elections.

However, the PR electoral system encourages sincere (as opposed to strategic or tactical) voting, and results in a Knesset whose composition is a pretty faithful reflection of the active (ie, non-abstaining) electorate.

A feature of the system is the proliferation of relatively small parties. No party has ever won a majority of the 120 seats. In the present Knesset there are 12 parties, the largest of which, Kadima, has 28 seats, having won less that a quarter of the vote. (There were 21 additional parties who ran, but failed to obtain or even approach the 2% threshold.)

This proliferation is both a consequence of the PR system and a cause of its persistence. At a deeper level, it reflects the exceptional complexity of Israeli society and politics.

In many capitalist countries, most significant blocs of political opinions and programmatic positions can be ranged, very schematically, in a one-dimensional spectrum from left to right, regarding socio-economic class issues. To broadly characterise the politics of a party or a group it is sufficient to locate them on this single axis. In many other capitalist countries, the political landscape is two-dimensional: there is a second spectrum (say, the attitude to religion) that is not strongly correlated with the socio-economic one; so that in order to broadly characterise the politics of a party or group, you need to locate them on each of the two axes. (For example, in some countries if you know that a group is on the radical left, you cannot infer its attitude to religion: Marxists are on the secularist radical left, whereas supporters of liberation theology are on the religious radical left.)

But in Israel, having retained its colonialist nature alongside its developed capitalist economy, politics is three-dimensional: a threefold classification is needed to characterise, again very schematically, the programmes of parties and groups. First, there is the attitude to Zionism and militarism. Along this axis, positions range from anti-Zionism and dovish anti-militarism to aggressive Zionist expansionism. (All Zionist parties would like Israel to have as much territory with as few Arabs as possible; but even Zionists differ as to what is realistically achievable in this respect.) Second, there is the socio-economic axis, on which positions are ranged from left to right. Third, there is the religious axis, on which positions range from secularism to religious fundamentalism.

Readers must be warned that Israeli political discourse uses the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ quite differently from common usage elsewhere: rather than referring to the socio-economic dimension, it denotes attitude to Zionism, expansionism and militarism. According to this confusing usage - which is followed by foreign mainstream media when discussing Israel - the Israeli parliamentary ‘left’ consists of anti-Zionists (the so-called ‘Arab parties’, notwithstanding the fact that one of their 11 MKs is a Jewish CP member) and dovish soft Zionists, whether they are socialists, social democratic reformists or ardent admirers of the capitalist market.

In what follows we shall avoid this confusion, and use ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the normal socio-economic sense.

Arguably, the most rightwing ruling coalition in Israel’s history, as well as the most hawkish, was the third Yitzhak Shamir government (June 1990 to July 1992).

More aggressive expansionism

In this sense, the new Knesset and government coalition do not represent a really significant shift to the right. In the present coalition, as in the previous one, the party with the most leftwing economic positions - on paper, if not in its actual practice - is undoubtedly Shas, the orthodox religious party that draws almost all its support from the ranks of the Mizrahi (oriental) Jewish working class and lower middle class, and insists on describing its economic policy as ‘social democratic’.1 The ‘Labour’ Party may be described as socio-economically centrist.

The major difference between the present coalition and its predecessor is the substitution of the previous dominant party, Kadima, by the Likud; but, as these two parties are virtually indistinguishable in socio-economic terms, this substitution does not represent a rightward shift.

One of the most noticeable changes is the meltdown of the Zionist so-called ‘left’: ‘Labour’ - led by Ehud Barak, who remains defence minister in the new coalition - is down from 19 to 13 seats, while Meretz lost two of its five seats. This is due to the fact that many previous voters in the ‘Labour’ and Meretz camp, who were for a kind of ‘peace process’ and some sort of mild secular and liberal domestic policy, felt that they could now vote for Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, without compromising their principles. At the same time, Kadima (down from 29 to 28 seats) has lost many of its previous voters to Likud (up from 14 to 27).

It is too early to assess the economic policy of the new government, but it seems that even PM Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu has second thoughts about his previous faith in the ‘free market’ and is ready for more government intervention in the economy - to save Israeli capitalism (if not all capitalists) and avoid social unrest.

There is, however, a noticeable shift towards more aggressive Zionist expansionism and anti-Arab racism - although arguably even this shift is mainly at the level of style rather than substance. The new government is more blatant and pugnaciously outspoken, where its predecessor was tactically more devious in working towards essentially the same goals.

Yisrael Beytenu (Israel [is] our Home), led by the thuggish former nightclub bouncer, Avigdor Lieberman, increased its Knesset representation from 11 to 15 seats, and is now the third largest party, pushing ‘Labour’ to fourth place. It is the second largest party in the coalition, and Lieberman is foreign minister as well as deputy prime minister.

Lieberman was born in 1958, in the then Soviet Republic of Moldova, and migrated to Israel in 1978. He soon made his mark as an ultra-Zionist activist, especially among fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom hold extreme chauvinist and racist views (‘What are all these Arabs doing in our country?’ they ask soon after arriving in Israel).

From 1993 to 1996 he was director-general of the Likud party. In 1996 he got his first job in government as director-general of the prime minister’s office in Netanyahu’s first government. In 1999 he made a shrewd move, founding his own party, Yisrael Beytenu, appealing mainly to the million fellow ex-Soviet immigrants. In the elections of that year his party got four seats in the 120-member Knesset. He served in the Sharon cabinet, first as minister of infrastructures, later as minister of transportation. Sharon dismissed him in 2004 for opposing the plan for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But Yisrael Beytenu continued to swell in the noisome swamp of Israel’s extremist chauvinist politics: in the 2006 elections it won 11 seats, making it the Knesset’s fifth largest party (the Likud rump under Netanyahu came fourth, with 12 seats). In the 2006 government coalition, led by Kadima and ‘Labour’, Lieberman was minister of strategic affairs (with special reference to the alleged ‘threat’ posed by Iran to Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly) and deputy prime minister, until he resigned in January 2008 in protest against the government’s negotiation with the Palestinian Authority.

He advocates revoking the Israeli citizenship of Israel’s Palestinian minority (about 20% of the population), and ceding some localities, in which they form a majority, to the Palestinian Authority - in exchange for much larger areas of the West Bank colonised by Israeli Jews. This is proposed as a solution to the ‘demographic threat’ of a growing Arab minority within Israel. These localities, which are now part of Israel, would join disconnected enclaves of the West Bank, similar to Indian reservations, administered by a compliant Palestinian Authority as a so-called Palestinian ‘state’. Israel would ensure its ethnic purity and formally disclaiming all responsibility as an occupying power of the West Bank, while retaining actual control over it.2

While Yisrael Beytenu is an extremist Zionist, it is a secular party: most immigrants from the former Soviet Union are non-believers, and prefer pork to kosher meat; many have non-Jewish spouses. Lieberman lives in a West Bank settlement, Noqdim, and has gathered support beyond his original ex-USSR followers - from among the non-religious but extremist Zionist part of the electorate.

On the other hand, the smallest party in the new coalition government, Habbayit Hayyehudi (The Jewish Home), led by Rabbi Daniel Hershkovitz, a reserve officer in military intelligence, embodies a fanatic combination of Zionist expansionism and religious messianism. This party, which did not participate in the previous government, is the rump of the defunct National Religious Party, with a significant support of West Bank settlers who are religious zealots.

New provocations?

However, the main danger is posed neither by the loutish racist demagoguery of Lieberman nor by the messianic settlers, but by the Bibi-Barak axis. All of them agree on one important assumption: there is no Palestinian partner for a ‘peace’ that would satisfy their minimum fundamentalist Zionist demands.

Here there is a difference - in tactics though not in ultimate goals - between them and Kadima. The latter played along with the so-called ‘two-state solution’, negotiating endlessly with the Palestinian Authority, making sure that the ‘peace process’ is interminable, while Israeli land theft and colonisation proceed and escalate.

The Bibi-Barak strategy is to sabotage the peace-process show itself. (In the past, Barak went along with ‘peace process’ negotiations, but his aim was not to prolong them endlessly: rather to torpedo them.) Part of this strategy is to present the Palestinian leaders with demands that amount to ever more abject capitulation.

Recently, Bibi demanded, as a prior condition to any negotiation, that the Palestinians recognise Israel as the “state of the Jewish people” (rather than merely as a “Jewish state”). This amounts to acceptance of Zionism lock, stock and barrel, and legitimising Zionist colonisation past, present and future. If the PLO leadership balks at jumping through this hoop, that will prove that “there is no Palestinian partner for peace”.

However, there is a danger that the PLO will bow to this humiliating demand: its Fatah leadership has reached such a low point that it may have forgotten how to say ‘no’. (This ultimate capitulation may well have been achieved had Israel succeeded in crushing Hamas.) In such an eventuality, Barak may need to apply another well tried method for preventing negotiations: provocation.

For example, he can authorise sufficiently many ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian military and political leaders. This would hardly register in the western media, as it would be presented and justified as a routine measure against ‘terrorism’. But with sufficient persistence it can eventually outrage some Palestinian militants and provoke - as it has often done in the past - some blind, bloody outrage in revenge. This in turn can be used to ‘prove’ that “there is no Palestinian partner for peace”.

This is only one of several types of provocation he may use. In the present government Barak would not have to do this on his own, against the intentions of the cabinet majority, but would find many supporters.

It is as yet impossible to say whether this kind of provocation will operate, or whether Bibi-Barak will, like Menachem Begin’s 1977 government, achieve a breakthrough in the ‘peace process’ contrary to expectations.

Israel is not an entirely free agent, but an American client, albeit a much indulged one. A great deal therefore depends on whether there is going to be a real turn in US policy. So far, there has been much American empty talk about ‘two states’, but no significant actual change. Obama has yet to show in practice whether he has given up the Middle East policy of his predecessors.


1. See Hebrew Wikipedia entry: tinyurl.co m/dxfj5f The self-definition of Shas as ‘social democratic’ is not mentioned in the English Wikipedia entry (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shas).
2. This scenario forms the background to a 2004 Hebrew novel by the Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua. Translated into English as Let it be morning (2006). Highly recommended.