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Issue 54

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Issue 54, March 2001

MANDY RABIN of Maavak Sozialisti (CWI Israel) reports:

    'Unity government' won't bring stability

THE LAST DECADE has seen massive attacks by governments and big business against the Israeli working class, leading to increasing poverty and one of the world's largest gaps between rich and poor. Five years of recession has exacerbated this process, causing an extreme economic and social crisis. The result has been that successive Israeli governments quickly become hated, leading to general elections occurring with ever-increasing frequency. So unpopular have been the last two prime ministers, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, that their time in office has led to the near-destruction of their respective parties, Likud and Labour.

In the May 1999 elections, Barak defeated Netanyahu by a landslide margin of 12%, with 80% voter turnout (which is average in Israel). Eighteen months later, Barak suffered a defeat to Netanyahu's successor, Ariel Sharon, by a record 25% margin, while voter turnout was incredibly low, at 58%. These figures reveal the intense hatred and bitterness that Israeli workers feel towards Barak, and a total lack of enthusiasm for either candidate.

Eighteen months ago, Barak was swept to power as a result of deep disappointment with Netanyahu, due to the economic recession, rising inequality and unemployment, and stalemate in the peace process. Then Barak made grandiose promises to provide jobs and free education, cure the ailing health system, and reach comprehensive peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syria. Subsequently jobs have been axed, unemployment benefit cut, poverty has rocketed, and the Oslo peace process has been cremated in the flames of a new Intifada. As the feeling of utter betrayal and anger boiled amongst Israeli workers and youth, Barak's coalition partners started jumping ship, leaving him with minority support in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), unable to pass legislation and, ultimately, forced to call new elections.


During elections in Israel, which is a very politicised society, posters and stickers are usually displayed on virtually every house and car. But in the latest campaign, posters, car stickers and grassroots activists were virtually nowhere to be seen. While Barak is overwhelmingly hated and despised, Sharon is considered an extremist and dangerous by Israeli workers across the political spectrum. Moreover, with Sharon offering no alternative to the same pro-capitalist policies and bankrupt peace process, and no solution to the Intifada, many Israeli workers felt faced with the choice between a rock and a hard place. With the feeling that neither candidate has any solution to the crisis in Israeli society, it is no wonder voter turnout was so low.

An outstanding feature in these elections was the mass boycott by Israeli Palestinians. Having borne the brunt of the economic recession, this sector of the population placed enormous hopes in Barak's promises of peace with the Palestinians. They hoped this would bring them jobs and prosperity, and an end to their plight as second-class citizens. Instead, all the problems facing Israeli Palestinians have only been exacerbated under Barak. Unemployment has increased to 40% in some towns, and 50% of Israeli Palestinian children live below the poverty line. Barak's refusal to even consider addressing the plight of Israeli Palestinians only added to their alienation from the state.

Massively oppressed, Israeli Palestinians supposedly have the rights of full Israeli citizens, and their self-proclaimed leadership upheld certain illusions in belonging to the Israeli state. But the brutal murder of 13 Israeli Palestinian citizens by Israeli police in October, during demonstrations in support of the Intifada, shattered any remaining illusions and laid bare the government's attitude to Israeli Palestinians as 'enemies within'.


These events marked a turning point in the attitude of Israeli Palestinians to the Israeli state. In the May 1999 elections, 70% of Israeli Palestinians voted, with 95% of their votes going to Barak. This time, only 16% voted, and 25% of the votes cast were blank ballots.

top     'Unity government' won't bring stability

RESPONSIBLE FOR THE massacres of thousands of Palestinians, most notoriously in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, Sharon is a hated war criminal in the eyes of the Arab masses. In response to Sharon's election, there has already been an escalation in the Intifada.

Terrified of further escalation and regional destabilisation, Israeli capitalists are pressing for the formation of a national unity government, which would include Likud and Labour. They hope that such a government, including the likes of Nobel peace prize winner, Shimon Peres, would be able to move the peace process forward, thus keeping the Intifada on a low light, and preventing a flight of foreign capital from Israel.

The capitalists also want a national unity government which includes the broadest number of parties as a united front with which to attack Israeli workers with even greater viciousness than has been seen so far. This is because the economic recession of the past five years is nothing compared to what is to come. With traditional industry in deep recession for years, the only sector keeping the Israeli economy afloat has been high-tech. But the drop on the NASDAQ stock exchange in recent months is taking its toll, with start-ups and Internet companies closing down on a daily basis with thousands of lay-offs already. The Intifada has also affected the economy, causing 30,000 lay-offs in the tourist industry since November. The impending US and world recession will worsen the situation and, as always, it will be workers who pay the price.


The formation of a national unity government, however, would be likely to split and even finish off the Labour Party, already in disarray since Barak's crushing defeat. If Sharon doesn't succeed in forming a national unity government, he will be forced to form a narrow coalition of ultra-orthodox and far-right settler parties. Such a government would rapidly escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This situation, coupled with the economic crisis, could soon force new elections.

A national unity government, while lasting longer, could also be forced into early elections due to the worsening economic crisis and lack of a solution to the problems that triggered the Intifada in the first place. With the Labour and Likud parties in crisis, the capitalists could try to establish a new party through which to rule with an unblemished leader at its head, in preparation for new elections.

The Palestinian youth are leading the Intifada and also paying the heaviest price. Israeli youth face the prospect of spending their national military duty in a bloody, protracted conflict, which will appear increasingly pointless. This is at a time when the Israeli state has nothing to offer but poverty wages and unemployment. As the conflict increases, with the death toll rising and no end in sight, we are likely to see a growing opposition movement to the conflict amongst Israeli youth.

Israeli society is entering a period of severe instability in terms of the economy, society and armed conflict. In the face of all this, workers are still taking industrial action. In the run-up to the elections, there was a general strike, and a public-sector strike has just finished. Neither strike achieved significant gains for the workers because of the rotten trade union leadership. As attacks against workers increase in the coming months, this leadership will prove incapable of defending workers, and the government will use the conflict with the Palestinians as an excuse - the need to defend the 'national interest' - to isolate and derail strikes.


It is imperative that workers defend their rights through grassroots struggle, by replacing the rotten trade union leadership with a fighting leadership, and by transforming the trade union organisation into a genuine, fighting body, under democratic workers' control. Israeli workers must also build their own party to fight against government attacks and big business, to provide an alternative to the capitalist parties who have brought the working class to ruin, and to bring down the government. Such a party must also provide a class-based alternative to the bankrupt capitalist peace process, based on the mutual interests of workers and youth on both sides of the national divide.

Unable to provide for people's most basic needs - jobs, housing, education and security - at no time in Israel's history has the bankruptcy of capitalism been so evident. The prime ministerial election is a stark testimony to this fact. The tiny forces of socialism in the Middle East are a glimmer of light, daily glowing brighter, providing the only realistic alternative to capitalism's descent into darkness.

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