Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israeli Elections Yield More Uncertainty

After trailing most of the race, the ruling Kadima Party, headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, appears to have taken a narrow plurality in the 2009 Knesset race. It is expected to win 30 seats in the 120 member parliament. The right-wing Likud Party, which had been widely expected to claim victory, is projected to take 28 seats.

But Israel is a strange place, and the drama is just beginning. While Kadima (a centrist party that nonetheless is aligned with the "left" bloc) took a plurality of the vote, overall more voters went for right-leaning parties than their leftist peers. Third place behind Likud was the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which will likely see 14-15 seats. The center-left Labor Party, long the dominant player in Israeli politics, will be the fourth largest party with 13 seats. Overall, the right-wing bloc is expected to win around 63 seats, and the left-wing bloc 57.

So if Livni wants to form a coalition, how will she do it? Assuming she holds the left together (far from certain -- particularly the Israeli Arab parties which are still justifiably furious that Kadima voted to ban them), there are three potential parties which might cross over from the right form a government. The largest, Likud, may also be the least likely, as Netanyahu has been indicating that he still expects to form a government with him at the helm comprising of the right-wing majority.

The other two candidates are the Sephardic/Mizrachi religious party Shas, and the secular far-right Yisrael Beiteinu. With these two, it's a case of choose your poison. Shas represents primarily the Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewish communities, who tend to be poorer and more traditional than their Ashkenazi citizens. They are mistrustful of European elitism, racism, and secularism. Politically, Shas is theocratic, extremely socially conservative, and corrupt. But it is relatively flexible on foreign affairs -- including negotiating a peaceful, two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Yisrael Beiteinu, by contrast, is extremely secular. It represents primarily the Russian immigrant community, which is highly educated but also likes to flirt with authoritarianism (it's been said that what they really want is an Israeli Vladimir Putin to lead them). They also came to Israel in direct response to brutal Russian anti-Semitic oppression, and they are very skeptical that non-Jews inside and outside of Israel will not treat them the same way. Many Yisrael Beiteinu voters are completely non-observant -- indeed, many of the Russian immigrants to Israel don't identify as Jewish at all. So from the perspective of reducing the theocratic side of Israeli life, YB is clearly superior to Shas -- indeed, in a lot of ways, the two parties are mortal enemies.

But this is counter-balanced by the fact that Yisrael Beiteinu is flatly racist -- demanding loyalty tests out of Israeli Arab citizens and condemning the appointment of a Muslim Arab minister as threatening "Israel's character as a Jewish state". Consequently, it is loathed by the Israeli Arab population in Israel and the Palestinians as well. Its "peace plan" involves ceding Israeli Arab areas to the future Palestinian state in exchange for settlement blocs -- a proposal highly unpopular with the Israeli Arab residents who would see their citizenship revoked.

If Livni can form a government, Shas may well be the more likely choice. I think Kadima is primed to think its first priority is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Shas fits far better in the center-left mold than does Yisrael Beiteinu. Moreover, if Yisrael Beiteinu, which led the charge to ban the Israeli Arab parties, was invited into the coalition, those parties would undoubtedly refuse to join, rendering the coalition that much more precarious. But ultimately, both come with major problems, and some groups are going to get hosed. Even still, both are clearly superior to a Likud-led coalition joining the right with the far right, where everyone gets hosed.

So, fingers crossed.


M said...

David, the two Arab parties will never join a government led by a Zionist party, and the third party in the equation - a supposedly Arab-Jewish party, but in fact another very much dominated Arab party- would also refuse to join any coalition government which is not advocating socialism (not to mention they are also, at least in the Arab version of their platform opposing the right of the Jewish people to self determination). The two Arab parties should be positioned in the centre-right (Balad) and Islamist-right (Ram-Thal) of Arabic politics, and their ideology contradicts the existence of a Jewish nation state. Hadas is opposing it from the other side of the spectrum and is also more inclusive, but yet again only to some extent.

Furthermore, Shas is far from being flexible in its current form especially when one compares it to its 1992-2000 version. The only reason Israel went to elections is Shas’ refusal to join a government that will negotiate the division of Jerusalem. All the other issues were less important, as Tzipi Livni promised to give them most of the money they have requested. In addition, Shas was hurt in the current elections, which only emphasises what happens to it every time it seats in a centre-left coalition.

I also think that categorising Yisrael Beiteinu in the far right is not a true description of its position. It is indeed a party that is possess by several racist elements and some of its suggestions cannot be accepted by any democratic regime, but it is also promoting sensible legislation when it comes to religious-secular tensions, system of governance, and have its unique solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is condemned in the far right as it allows the creation of a functioning Palestinian State. I also wonder why the party cannot ask for Loyalty Oath legislation, which is very much similar to the process in the United States (a oath of citizenship to the institutions of the state, and affirmation of a commitment to be conscripted to the army or to national service). I disagree with this approach, but do agree with a legislation that will demand members of the parliaments to pledge an oath to the state, the Declaration of Independence documents, and its basic laws so long they are not undemocratic. A similar process occurs in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United States, Austria, Italy and others.

Anyhow, unfortunately the left was clearly defeated in these elections but if the biggest centrist parties (Kadima, Likud, and Labour) wish to create a stable government that might be efficient in changing the parliamentary system, completely separate church (or synagogue and mosque rather), and continue the peace process with the support of some Likud members, Meretz and the Arab parties. By doing so the next elections may actually occur in 4 years, and the voters might understand that sectarian parties should not receive so many seats in the parliament.

David Schraub said...

I think "left/right" in Israel in general is a bit oversimplified (as Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu demonstrate -- the former being radically socially conservative, centrist on negotiations with Palestinians, and left-wing on welfare statism; the latter being socially and economically somewhat progressive, but radically right-wing on negotiations with Palestinians). The Arab parties get tagged with same brush -- often socially conservative, but certainly more "liberal" in terms of getting a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (in that at least they're committed to a solution at all).

Yisrael Beiteinu, particularly, has some issues in which it is not that right-wing, but it rather emphatically ran on its most extreme stances: absolute rejectionism of negotiations with the Palestinians, and drumming up racism against Israeli Arabs to boot. They reap what they sow.

Finally, America does not require loyalty oaths or affirmations of any particular values for natural born citizens, only naturalized ones -- Israeli Arabs, rightfully, do not like it when they are considered to be foreign and assumed to be a 5th column inside of Israel.

M said...

First, all of the Arab parties rejects a two nation states solution, which is the only realistic plan possible. Balad advocates a Palestinian nation state, clean of Jewish citizens of course, and a bi national state that should adopt pan-Arab stances. This solution is outrageous as its rejects the rights of the Jewish people to have their own nation state, and supports the right of the Palestinians - and all other nations - to have their own nation states. Rham-Thal (or the United Arab List) is not that different in that regards, but has a more islamist ideology. They also supports the creation of a Palestinian state and the right of return of all Palestinians to the State of Israel, which means a country that is dominated by the Arabs. They reject Zionism, and several of their leaders (maybe except Ahmad Tibi) never agreed to renounce violence against the State of Israel. Hence, I see no reason to assume these two parties will change their colours and start supporting a two nation state solution to the conflict.

Second, once again, you also need to remember Shas of 2001-2009 is not Shas of 1992-2000. This party rejects the idea of a divided Jerusalem and thus cannot be considered as a party that supports a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem must be divided or naturalised, and as long as it is not there is no point in negotiating with the Palestinians as they will not accept any other formula(or formulae).

Third, it is true that the United State does not require it from its natural citizens, but that is due to the fact its biggest minority does not belong to a nation that is in a constant war against it. When the US had to confront those during the First and Second World War, it dealt with them in a much harsher manner not to mention other countries in a similar state of affairs. I disagree with the demand, and as I said, think it should be used only to elected MPs but I see a just rational behind it. If the Arab citizens are unwilling to recognise the laws and the rights of this state to exist, and also commit themselves to national service (which means, basically, volunteering for two years in a place of their choice instead of joining the IDF) I see no reason why they should not be perceived as a 5th column. In order to change the current atmosphere in Israel they will have to join the process of bettering the current state rather then try to elect and support those who object its existence as the Jewish nation state.

Fourth, I also don't see how Yisrael Beiteinu is "rejectionist". I see why the Likud or all other right-wing parties might be perceived as "rejectionist", but YB is the only Right wing party that offers a viable two nation states solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recognises the right of the Palestinians to have their own nation state, but one in future Palestine (majority of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, southern Galilee, the Triangle, and east-northern Negev) and not the State of Israel.

M said...

I do agree, however, with this statement: '"left/right" in Israel in general is a bit oversimplified'. It is true, and it is mainly due to the selected parliamentary system that gives power to sectarian and non-ideological parties.

One question I forgot to ask in my last comment: Why the so-called "solution" of the Arab parties - one Palestinian nation state and one bi-national nation state - is solution, while Yisrael Beiteinu's plan, or even the radical right parties plans (similar to the Arab ones, just from the opposite spectrum: recognition of the right of the Jewish people to have their own nation state and rejection of the right of the Palestinians to have their own nation states) is not?

In fact, while Yisrael Beiteinu does recognise the Palestinian rights for self determination, the two Arab parties I mentioned reject the same rights for the Jewish people. So who is the rejectionist?

David Schraub said...

I guess I should modify -- I don't think the Arab parties would actually vote to block a negotiated settlement with Palestine (even if it is not the one they'd prefer), whereas I think YB would. I'm less concerned with either party's ideal solution than I am about the pragmatic effect of putting them in a coalition.

M said...

From that aspect, I think you are absolutely right.

Jack said...

I don't know Israeli politics very well at all- but I will point out that when a political party is outright racist arguing about its positions on OTHER issues is pretty much a waste of time.

David Schraub said...

Unfortunately, it's not. The fact that a party is outright racist is sufficient reason to reject ever voting for them, regardless of their other positions. But in terms of predicting what they'll do in a potential coalition government? When they're now the third largest party? It's not.

Anonymous said...

What do you think about this argument that it would be better for Kadima to form a government with YB because YB at least backs some version of two state and their principal constituency is Russian/secular issues, rather than let Likud partner with YB and have Bibi running the show?

David Schraub said...

I support any Kadima-led coalition, even one with YB, over a Likud-led one on the simple grounds that it is the lesser of two evils, and the horrifying elements of YB's platform are less likely to be influential with Kadima than with Likud. But the lesser of two evils is still evil, and I'm very skeptical that even a Kadima-led coalition with YB in it will be able to make any serious negotiations or concessions with the Palestinians. It's more a desire to keep things in a holding pattern in the next election without seeing too much new damage.