Naftali Bennett: new face of right

Israel: Implosion and polarisation

Moshé Machover gives his impression of the Israeli elections

The results of the general election held on January 22 are tricky to summarise, mainly because of the inherent complexity of the country’s ‘three-dimensional’ political map. I will not dwell on this here, but refer the reader to the analysis in an article I co-authored with comrade Ein-Gil following the previous election. In that article we also explained Israel’s system of proportional representation.1

Let me just recall one important caveat: when you see an Israeli party described in the media as being on the ‘left’, ‘centre’ or ‘right’, take it with a large pinch of salt: in Israeli political discourse these terms do not refer to the party’s position on socio-economic class issues, but its attitude to Zionism, expansionism and militarism.

Two of the most salient changes in the composition of the 120-seat knesset are in the Zionist hard-line and fanatic part of the political landscape. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s gambit of forging an alliance with his thuggish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, ended disappointedly for the dreadful duo: their hard-line bloc dropped from 42 seats (27 held by Netanyahu’s Likud, plus 15 by Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu) to 31.

Where did the lost 11 seats go? It is hard to tell; but they seem to have moved in two opposite directions. Perhaps five of them were gained by the religious and fanatic Zionist party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), led by the capitalist, Naftali Bennett, which previously had three seats and will now have 12. Four of the nine extra seats gained by this party have come most probably from the equally obnoxious National Union, which had four seats in the outgoing knesset: the NU split and the majority of its members joined Habayit Hayehudi. The remaining votes lost by the Netanyahu-Lieberman bloc, worth up to six knesset seats, were dispersed in less hawkish directions. Some of them probably went to the new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, of which more anon.

Another major change is the implosion of Kadima (Forward/Eastward), the hard-line party with a hypocritical mask, founded by Ariel Sharon as a split from the Likud. In the outgoing knesset, Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, was the largest party, with 28 seats. But, having failed to be re-elected leader, Ms Livni now copied Sharon’s manoeuvre, split Kadima and founded a new party, Hatnu’ah (The Movement), which won six seats in the new knesset. The rump of Kadima barely squeezed in, with two seats (the least possible number, since a party that gets less than two percent of the valid votes is disqualified). So 20 seats won by the old Kadima have been lost. Where did the votes go? Mostly to less overtly hawkish parties, including the new Yesh Atid.

So, in sum, the old hard-line votes were polarised: some went to the even more fanatically Zionist end of the spectrum, but a greater number shifted in the opposite, relatively more moderate direction.

Vacuous centre

But the greatest sensation of the election was the achievement of the secular and allegedly centre-left new party, Yesh Atid, which came out of nowhere to become the second largest party, with 19 seats in the new knesset. Its leader, Yair Lapid, has been described as a man of many parts; journalist, author; TV presenter; film actor, editor and director; PhD student. In reality he is a smooth-looking and smooth-talking demagogic windbag, whose prolific writings are riddled with embarrassing factual howlers. His meteoric success is due to his cunning ploy of exploiting the frustration and disillusionment of the so-called ‘middle class’: large sections of the petty bourgeoisie and white-collar workers.

These strata are being economically squeezed by the neoliberal policies of all previous governments since the 1980s. They would like to live in Tel Aviv as if it were a prosperous European or American city, far from any colonial conflict. Lapid sold them the fantasy they crave: affordable housing and education, a higher standard of living, lower taxation and a more equal sharing of the ‘national burden’. This greater equality would be achieved by abolishing the exemption from military service of ultra-orthodox young men studying in yeshivot (religious seminaries).

About the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupied territories, the alleged threat of Iranian nukes - about these worrying topics Lapid took great care to say as little as possible. But on the rare occasions when he did venture to comment on these subjects, what came out was common Zionist racist bilge: he does not care what the Arabs want, he said: “What I want is not a new Middle East, but to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them.” The important thing, he added, is “to maintain a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel.”2

This repellent, slimy character is now the kingmaker of Israeli politics, as it would be difficult to form a stable coalition without him. But he no doubt has his price, and Netanyahu may well be able and willing to pay it.

Yesh Atid is not the only party to capitalise on the socio-economic discontent that had manifested itself spectacularly in the mass protests of summer 2011. The Israeli Labour Party is one of the most rightwing parties bearing such a name. But Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist recently elected leader, has had the nous to nudge Labour a tad to the left, at least verbally. This paid off. During the 2011 protests, political parties were shunned, as the protestors refused to identify with any existing party. But, now that the demonstrators have dispersed, some of their self-appointed and media-anointed leaders - journalists Stav Shaffir3 and Merav Michaeli4 and former student union chairman Itzik Shmuli5 - joined Labour and have been duly elected to the knesset. The party won 15 seats, two up from the previous 13.

An even greater success was scored by Meretz, a ‘soft’-Zionist, social democratic party, member of the Socialist International (in which the Israeli Labour party is a mere observer). It doubled its knesset seats from three to six. One of the three new Meretz MKs is an Arab, Issawi Farij, an accountant.6 (Apparently the Zionism of Meretz is soft enough for him not to mind too much.)

The outgoing knesset had 17 Arab members. Seven of them (of whom six were Druze) were collaborators, members of Zionist and even ultra-Zionist parties. Of these, only one has been re-elected: a Druze member of Lieberman’s faction. (Arabs of the Druze religion are officially regarded in Israel as a separate, non-Arab ethnic group. Some of them are used as collaborators, in exchange for certain limited privileges.)

The new knesset has 12 Arab members. Apart from Lieberman’s collaborator and the new Meretz MK, the (moderate Islamic) United Arab List has kept its four MKs; the secular Arab Balad also retained its three; and the reformist Communist Party has kept its four MKs, three of whom are Arabs.

What now?

Netanyahu, severely bruised but still leader of the largest knesset party, will have the very tricky task of forming a governing coalition. Whatever the outcome, we can hazard some cautious tentative predictions.

First, the shift away from the hawkish extreme of the political spectrum will make an Israeli attack on Iran (without active US encouragement) less likely.

Second, the so-called peace process with the Palestinian leadership is unlikely to be renewed and if it is it will lead nowhere, as before: the ‘two-state solution’ is no longer realistic, so there is little to negotiate about. In any case, all Zionist parties except Meretz are opposed to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state west of the river Jordan. The only difference between them is the tactics they favour for preventing it. The fanatics of Habayit Hayehudi flatly oppose any negotiation. The others diplomatically pretend to favour negotiation, but either do their utmost to torpedo any attempt to get it going (Netanyahu’s preferred ploy) or agree to negotiate, but do everything to prolong the process indefinitely (Labour’s tactics).

Third, the most immediate problem the new coalition will face is the state budget it will have to submit to the knesset in the spring. It transpires that, according to the Bank of Israel’s analysis, the state deficit is almost twice as big as originally projected, and the bank requires the government to raise taxes and apply major cuts to the budget.7 This is exactly the opposite of what kingmaker Yair Lapid promised his gullible voters. It may well drive masses of incensed Israelis back to the streets in renewed protest.


1. ‘Israeli aggression and 3D politicsWeekly Worker April 30 2009.

2. ‘Lapid: I want to be rid of the Arabs’: www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/164389#.UQGSbKWJJhp.

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stav_Shaffir.

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merav_Michaeli.

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itzik_Shmuli.

6. http://meretz.org.il/representatives/issawi-farij.

7. Yedioth Ahronoth January 23: www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4336126,00.html.