Israel Journal - February 12, 2009
Reflections on the Elections
I was waiting for the Israeli elections to take place before writing again, hoping that the results might shed some clarity on the political situation here for my report. Well, here on the morning after the results are in, and they are murky. No party emerged with a commanding enough plurality to claim the unqualified mantle of leadership. Now the intense jockeying and horse-trading begins to try to form a coalition, with the inevitable result that whoever succeeds in forming a government will be faced with a contentious and probably fragile coalition. The absentee ballots have not yet been counted, so the final results might change, but as of now out of the 120 total Knesset seats the centrist Kadima Party headed by Tzipi Livni has 28 seats and the right wing Likud Party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu has 27. The once-dominant Labor Party headed by Ehud Barak has shrunk to 13 seats, while the big story of the election is the surging ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party headed by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, which garnered 15 seats.
Lieberman is a canny demagogue who knows how to appeal to the public’s most xenophobic impulses with carefully worded slogans. Lieberman’s base are the Russian immigrants, many of whom are accustomed to and expect their politicians to be strongmen and authoritarian, but he has skillfully extended his reach to others in the electorate who are looking for black-and-white solutions. In the wake of the recent Gaza war the mood of the general electorate is defiant and nationalism is running high. Anger against the Arab citizens of Israel is also flaring, at least partly because during the war many Israeli Arabs engaged in protests against the war. Lieberman capitalized on these protests with his party’s slogan: “No Loyalty, No Citizenship”. He demands something that is at first blush simple and appealing: in order to participate as a citizen in the Israeli democracy, you must take an oath of loyalty to the state. If Israeli Arabs are siding with Israel’s enemy, they should not be permitted to vote (and by extension do not have the rights of citizenship).
Lieberman has his foil in Ahmad Tibi. Tibi is a Palestinian Israeli (as many Israeli Arabs refer to themselves) who is an MK (Member of Knesset) representing the most extreme of the three Arab parties in the Knesset. (WAIT A MINUTE, some of you might be saying at this point, THERE ARE ARABS IN THE KNESSET? Yes, all Israeli citizens can vote, and there will be at least 11 Israeli Arab MK’s in the new Knesset.) Ahmad Tibi was an advisor to Yasser Arafat prior to serving in the Knesset. Tibi has openly visited and endorsed leaders of Middle Eastern countries that oppose and condemn Israel. Is Tibi a traitor? How far can the Israeli democratic system stretch to affirm freedom of speech? Are some Israeli Arabs a “fifth column” in Israel?
In a pre-election furor, Lieberman led the charge in the Knesset to have the Israeli-Arab parties banned from the election due to treasonous behavior. As expected, the Israeli High Court overturned the Knesset’s vote and the Israeli-Arab parties participated. But Avigdor Lieberman’s popularity surged. As a result of these skillful moves, Lieberman’s vaulted his party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is our Home) into a probable kingmaker in the new Knesset.
In my gut I understand Lieberman’s appeal – in high school I also thought Meir Kahane was cool. (Kahane created the Jewish Defense League, which promoted Jewish pride and self-defense in New York in the 60’s. He then moved to Israel and became the leader of the ultra-nationalist (and ultra-racist) Kach party. His party was eventually banned and Kahane was assassinated.) Lieberman is also extremely popular among Israeli High School students. But, and I hope I am not offending High School students, Israel and its internal and international relations cannot be reduced to black-and-white politics. It is almost all shades of grey.
Despite my revulsion at Lieberman’s classic use of democratic lingo to undermine a democratic society, and to feed on anger and resentment to gain support, the underlying question of the status of Arab citizens in Israel remains. It has been a long and strange ride for the Arab residents of Israel. After the Israeli War of Independence, when the armistice lines were set, Arab residents of the former British Mandate Palestine found themselves largely displaced, with families and clans divided on either side of the new boundaries. The fledgling and vulnerable new Israeli government faced many dangers and porous boundaries, and the Arab residents of Israel were placed under martial law for the first 18 years of the State. Slowly the Israeli Arabs were integrated into citizenship in the State, but their status was always hyphenated. Could they be trusted to support a Jewish democracy? Was May 5, 1948 Independence Day for Israeli Arabs, or was it the Naqba, the Catastrophe, as the day became known in Palestinian circles? On the one hand, Arab citizens of Israel have a higher standard of living, better healthcare and much greater access to higher education that their counterparts in surrounding Arab lands, not to mention genuine representation in government. On the other hand, they have had to endure a second-class status in this primarily Jewish country, with generally second-class services provided to their communities. This is all compounded by the Palestinian national consciousness that emerged in the wake of the creation of Israel. With some exceptions*, every Arab Israeli on some level asks themselves, am I an Israeli or a Palestinian?
*Several Arab or Moslem groups in Israel solved this dilemma by declaring loyalty to the State of Israel: The Druze, who comprise their own religious entity, the shepherding Bedouin, who feel no love for their agrarian Palestinian Arab neighbors, and the Circassians, Moslems from the Caucasus region who came to Palestine during the Ottoman times. These groups join the Israeli Army and eschew any connection to Palestinian nationalism.
This brings me back to a larger challenge that Israeli society faces. There are many powerful constituencies in Israel that do not necessarily share aligning visions of a democratic society. During the early decades of the State a reigning ideal of a Jewish state with a social-democratic society held the large center of Israeli public life. Today that is no longer true, and that is reflected in the results of yesterday’s elections. There is no clear winner. Except for the galvanizing influence of war against a common enemy, it is not clear that the center can really hold. The Israeli public voted for parties that hold dramatically divergent views of what Israel should be. The ultra-orthodox parties pursue a vision of theocracy, and avoid army service. The Israeli Arab parties question whether to sing the Israeli national anthem. The ultra-nationalist parties (Lieberman’s is not the only one) espouse a thinly veiled fascism. The West Bank settlers’ movement will block any effort at territorial compromise. Even some of the incoming MK’s on the Likud list publicly trumpet their intolerance as a virtue. Compounding this fracturing of the “civil contract” of Israeli public life is the profound disaffection and distrust (much of it well-earned) with which the Israeli public holds its political leadership. There does not appear to be any Israeli leader today who can muster the personal authority or the national support to boldly alter the current smoldering status quo with the Palestinians. Will anyone be able to put together an effective coalition in the next few weeks?
As I join the Israeli chorus of doomsayers, I need to balance the picture with some genuine positive observations, and some absurdity as well. Election day was a model of functioning democracy. The schools were closed and set up as polling places, and in the school across from our apartment all was calm and organized. Despite a day of driving rain and hail, turnout was good. The election coverage that I caught on television was freewheeling; the coverage on Israeli Channel 2 actually alternated between the real coverage and irreverent satire from the cast of Israel’s leading comedy news show. I appreciate how raucous the media are here. There was even a video of actors impersonating all the former Prime Ministers, dead and alive, as a rock band singing something like “It’s all downhill from here”. Anyway, it was both jaw-dropping bad taste and very funny.
Another bit of comic relief was provided by one of the fringe parties running for Knesset. Basically anyone can present a slate and a platform and run for Knesset, and there were 33 parties listed, most of which did not meet the minimum threshold of votes needed to gain a seat. It has been proposed that if the threshold were much higher than it is now, there would be fewer small parties in the Knesset because voters would try to apply their votes more judiciously. This might create larger and fewer parties that could form more stable coalitions. But back to the comedy. The Green Leaf Party’s platform is the legalization of marijuana. In their television spots they discussed the benefits of getting high, including that it relaxes people and would therefore promote peace. A breakaway from the Green Leaf Party was (I kid you not) the Green Leaf and Holocaust Survivors’ Party. Their ad defies description.
Even as I detail the shortcomings of Israel’s governmental system, I marvel at the high functioning infrastructure of this little nation. When I lived here in the 1980’s I dreaded going to the bank or the post office. I could literally stand in line for half an hour and just as I reached the window it would slam shut for the 3-hour afternoon siesta. In contrast, when I needed to pick up a package at the post office the other day, I scanned my slip in front of an outdoor kiosk, the machinery inside whirred and hummed and a door opened automatically revealing my parcel. I wanted to see it do it again! With frenetic energy and determination Israel has built itself into a first-world nation: roads and tunnels, cell phones and fiber optic networks, airports and light rail. Israel’s technology and transportation infrastructure to my eyes has certainly surpassed the United States’. Somehow this nation with its rather dysfunctional governance has succeeded to build itself up, and it is a wonder to behold.
I have much more to report, but it will have to wait a few days. I am off on a computer-less overnight hike with my brother. Dan is an avid hiker and is completing the several-hundred-mile long “Israel Trail” in sections during his weekends. We’ll be covering a section between Kiryat Gat and Arad, in the south. I’m glad I brought good walking shoes!
Shalom to one and all,
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler