SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 187 April 2015

Netanyahu’s racist election

"The rule of the right-wing is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations en masse. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses". This bluntly racist statement on polling day by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was the culmination of the ultra-nationalist incitement campaign launched by his Likud party before the 17 March general election. Likud, against a background of growing discontent and revulsion with its rule, secured victory by mobilising the most reactionary elements in society.

And it came at the expense of the far-right parties. When the election was called, Naftali Bennett’s colonialist-messianic Jewish Home-Tkuma was widely anticipated to win 15-17 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu, led by racist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was predicted to win around ten, and Likud 22-24 seats. But the final result saw Likud win 30 seats, Jewish Home eight, and Yisrael Beiteinu only six. The far-right Kahanist Yachad did not win any.

This was the third general election in Israel to be launched after a bloody onslaught on Gaza. Last year’s 50-day war, which resulted in the slaughter of more than 2,200 Gazans, saw a much more severe nationalist-chauvinist mood in Israeli society. When this is taken into account, the victory of the right is quite limited. The right-wing bloc’s total of 44 seats is only one more than in the 2013 election. The Zionist Camp – an electoral bloc of the Labour party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party – and the left-leaning, liberal Zionist Meretz party got 29 seats, an increase of two. However, their increase in votes was smaller than that for the pro-Netanyahu bloc.

The Joint List – an electoral alliance of the Arab-Jewish Hadash, the Palestinian nationalist-liberal Balad and Ta`al, and the Palestinian Islamist ‘United Arab List’ – won 13 seats, compared to the eleven these four achieved in 2013. The turnout among Arab-Palestinians rose from 58% to 64%, in response to the rise of the election threshold (from 2% to 3.25%) – an attempt to force Arab-Palestinian representatives out of the Knesset (Israeli parliament). The Joint List became the third-largest alliance in the Knesset.

A few days before the election, Netanyahu told settlers’ leaders: "They want to oust me, but not because of me – because of you. It’s not my head they’re after – the foreign governments, the American and Mexican billionaires, Azmi Bishara [former Arab MP] in Qatar and the Palestinian Authority. They want your homes, our patrimony".

This appeal not only transferred votes from the settlers’ party to Likud but also mobilised a layer of activists. On polling day, 1,500 settlers left their homes in the occupied West Bank and headed to polling stations in Arab areas in Israel to intimidate voters, under the racist pretext of ‘fraud prevention among the Arabs’. Their provocative presence – some were armed with tear gas and live ammunition – was organised by Likud in collaboration with Jewish Home and Yisrael Beitenu. Another group of 700 settlers went to Ashdod, a working-class port in the south of Israel, to get Likud voters to the polling station.

Ashdod was a traditional base of support for Likud. But three days before polling day, Likud cancelled an election rally there out of fear that few people would turn up. One of the reasons was Netanyahu’s attack on Ashdod dockers. An election campaign video cynically mocked those ‘defeated’ by his government, including an Ashdod dock worker opposing privatisation, a worker from the national broadcast company closed by the government, and a Hamas fighter. This video caused outrage among big layers in society.

Just a couple of months after the end of the war, the dominant, blind reactionary mood in Israeli society began to shift, relatively, despite deepening national tensions, with the re-emergence of social discontent around inflation and the cost of living. Hope grew that Netanyahu could be ousted when, ten days before the election, tens of thousands took part in a rally against Likud rule.

The platform, however, was a mixture of two opposite camps – and excluded Arab-Palestinian speakers. There were women speakers involved in the 2011 social movement and the struggle against evictions from public housing. Another speaker was a female resident from the working-class town of Sderot, on the border with Gaza, who said she could no longer vote for Likud because the right cannot provide security.

On the other hand, the platform was dominated by establishment representatives. The main speakers were an ex-chief and ex-deputy chief of the Mossad intelligence agency. They are an indication of the disagreements within the ruling elite, against the background of growing international isolation, the geopolitical crisis in the region and the intensification of the national conflict.

The Zionist Camp differs with Likud’s approach to foreign policy and on some of the tactics used by the regime against the Palestinian struggle. Not, however, on the fundamentals: the continuation of national oppression and expropriation of the Palestinian masses. During last year’s war, Livni was to some extent Netanyahu’s closest coalition partner. Labour party leader, Isaac Herzog, supported Netanyahu’s course.

The Zionist Camp got a higher vote than Likud and the other right-wing parties in Haifa and Tel Aviv, two of the three biggest cities. Yet there were no strong illusions in it, just a desperate hope by some that it could beat Likud. This lack of enthusiasm, along with the crisis in the Middle East with the rise of Islamic State and other jihadists, including in Sinai, assisted Likud. It took advantage of the Israeli public’s security concerns, especially among right-wing voters.

Netanyahu is in the process of putting together a coalition with the far-right and religious Haredim parties, and with Moshe Kahlon, who split from Likud last year. This coalition may appear more stable than the previous one but, in reality, it will form a weak and unpopular government.

Before the election, the Socialist Struggle Movement stated that such a government would be "a sure recipe for burning bridges at the international level, an escalating Palestinian struggle and a social explosion in Israel". Of course, it is impossible to predict the exact speed of developments. Moreover, the sense of disappointment and demoralisation affecting broad layers after Netanyahu’s victory should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, a prolonged honeymoon for the new government is very unlikely.

Internationally, Netanyahu starts his fourth term in a much more isolated position, especially after his statement that no Palestinian state will be established on his watch. Western powers fear that Netanyahu’s regular refusal to contemplate any significant concessions is preparing the way for future conflicts. Immediately after the election, Netanyahu tried to blur his position, but without much success. Even Barack Obama was pushed to reject his attempts.

For the Palestinian masses in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza, the outcome of the election diminished support for negotiations with the Israeli regime even further. Netanyahu’s racist scaremongering, and his demand that Israel is recognised as a Jewish state – where its 20% Palestinian population is, at best, merely tolerated – means that Palestinians expect nothing but the worst from his rule. This can pave the way for a new mass uprising against the occupation and national oppression. In addition, the government is likely to launch new attacks on living standards and organised labour which can also push workers and youth into struggle.

The increased vote for the Joint List in the Arab-Palestinian communities indicates a thirst for change and for an effective struggle against racism and discrimination. Despite the limitations of this bloc, which encompassed both left-wing and conservative elements, there are high expectations among its voters and activists for steps in this direction.

Two days after the election, the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, called for a march from the Bedouin villages in the Negev, which the government does not recognise as legal, to the Knesset. He also called for a march of Jews and Arabs for equality. This kind of action can be a good starting point for building the movement in Israel that is needed to stop Netanyahu’s government in its tracks, particularly if organised around demands for both democratic rights for all and the wider social issues. Socialists will strive to build such a movement, while arguing for a socialist way out of the horrors of national oppression and class exploitation which are nourished by Israeli capitalism.

Yasha Marmer

Socialist Struggle Movement, Israel-Palestine

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