By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The leader of one party running in elections, when asked what he would do about the peace process said he had no idea. Another leader, when asked about the religion and state issue, claimed “we will decide after the elections.” This was the Israeli election of nothingness. Like Seinfeld, it was a show about nothing. When it was all over, Revital Sweid of Labor came on channel 2 and said she would continue to work on social issues. Someone watching asked “why didn’t they discuss it during the campaign?” Another replied “they were too busy promising ‘free land’ for housing.”
That was one of the election promises of the oddly chaotic and confusing Zionist Union campaign; a multi-headed partnership of Israel’s “Kennedy” Isaac Herzog and the former Likud “princess” Tzipi Livni.
It reminds us that this Israeli election may have been dull, but when it finally ended it was a nail-biter. Some around the world seemed to be holding their breath, hoping 6 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule was about to come to an end. For others they though that almost 15 years of right wing rule was about to end. The “good guys” would be back in town. Peace, despite the fact that Herzog said it would take years to negotiate, would be around the corner.
I remember that hot day in February when we drove down to cover Miri Regev’s caravan in Rosh HaAyin. She was upbeat. “Likud is the natural home of Israelis,” was her message. And she was proved right. It was the natural home of around 25% of Israelis, which in the bizarro-world of politics in the Jewish state is enough to “win” an election.
Now that the election is over and Netanyahu has won some 30 seats in the new Knesset, trouncing the Zionist Union’s 24, let’s look at the wreckage. The first thing to point out is the massive outpouring of rancor on the left and among the world’s media. Ari Shavit, a doyen of the “good Zionist Israel” and a senior writer at Haaretz penned his ode woe is us, column on Wednesday. “But the tribe known as the ‘white tribe’ is the most primitive political tribe that exists in Israel. Time after time it blindly follows false messiahs and makes incomprehensible mistakes. This happened yet again on Tuesday. The decision of hundreds of thousands of people to vote for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid split the moderate bloc.” The mumbo-jumbo about the “white tribe” is part of the imagined community of a small European-Jewish elite in Israel. They serve as the canary in the Zionist gold mine, warning that, as Shavit says, “A third intifada isn’t far off. Bibi won on Tuesday, but Israel was brought to its knees.” The real story of the elections isn’t that the “white tribe” dared to vote for Lapid, it was that the supposed “leader” of this tribe didn’t want to tell voters what they need to hear, which is the truth about the sacrifices the country must make and how it will solve its major existential economic and conflict problems.
Other commentators were more prosaic. Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine claimed that Netanyahu had finally showed his true colors when he claimed that there would be “no Palestinian state” if he was elected. He called this a vision for “post-democratic Israel.” That’s the word that’s been bandied about a lot, as if somehow Israel “committed to negotiations” forever was fine, but an Israeli government finally saying it was not committed had crossed a red line.
Why did the pollsters get it so wrong? The second face of the election is the gasp of amazement that greeted the upset. But the truth is that it should have been expected. The media in Israel turned on Netanyahu, as did groups like V15, that plastered city’s with “revolution” signs predicting the fall of Bibi. It was an Obamaesque message of change for change’s sake, but it didn’t go over well with average voters; despite anger over the housing price crises. Perhaps if the the major newspaper, Yediot had not appeared so biased and there had not been a feeling of foreign meddling and funding for anti-Netanyahu election material he might have been defeated. After all voters have a way of doing the opposite of what they are told. They message that the “international community is unhappy with Netanyahu” didn’t catch on. All of the preening about “Obama is upset with Netanyahu” might have worked in his favor, after all some people liked the idea that their prime minister was going abroad to the US Congress to, in his view, defend the country.
Although there seem some bright new spots in the Knesset, with a historically high percent of women members, the fact is that it seems Israel has elected the status quo. Not much will change after this election. Peace seems off the table. Netanyahu, infamous for his conservative approach to politics and his inability to make major decisions or set a vision for the future of Israel, will tinker along until the next election, becoming Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister.
Back to the beginning
Israel’s politics are a convoluted mess. The Economist published a brilliant graphic showing over the years how the patchwork quilt of parties have come and gone. The article that accompanied the graphic claimed “Yet the greatest cause of cleavage [in Israel] and counter-cleavage is disillusionment with the failed peacemaking process with Palestinians and the violence that has accompanied it.” That reflects a misunderstanding we see constantly regarding Israeli history. Most Israeli voters don’t care about security. This is what I argued in a piece at Al-Jazeera.
Israel’s Jewish voters have been obsessively searching for a “new politics” of centrism that has not provided them major changes in the country’s place in the world. Yet even those commentators abroad who try to focus on this economic issue in Israel get the story wrong. Paul Krugman waded in just before elections with a piece about Israel’s “Gilded Age.” He claimed “Once upon a time, Israel was a country of egalitarian ideals — the kibbutz population was always a small minority, but it had a large impact on the nation’s self-perception. And it was a fairly equal society in reality, too, right up to the early 1990s.” But this is absolute nonsense. Israel was never an “egalitarian” state or one even built on egalitarian ideals. It’s kibbutz movement narrowly mirrors the Shavitism of the “white tribe” concept; a narrow European Jewish-only “pioneering” communal society. Whatever great achievements it had were narrowly tailored to its own community. There was nothing “egalitarian” in 1950s Israel. In those days immigrants to israel were sent to “development towns” based on their country of origin. Arab citizens lived under military curfew and many of their lands were confiscated. This was when the government of Israel got itself into the land business, gobbling up 93% of the land of the country, which had the long term consequence of creating a housing crises because of a scarcity of housing and bureaucracy better suited to the Soviet Union.
The result in Israel is a heavily balkanized society, where every community votes for its own little group. Acceptance (segregation) committees decide who can live in which rural community, schools are separated by religion and ethnicity, communities are often divided on level of religious observance. It creates a geographic patchwork of voting lines and ethnic and religious differences. (a full map can be seen here). Full data also here.
Enough racism to go around
One consequence of the election upset in Israel is all the new commentary coming out of it. Ali Abunimah claimed he was happy to see Netanyahu elected again. Not happy “as such,” but “what has distinguished Netanyahu is that he strips away the opportunities for the so-called ‘international community’ to hide its complicity with Israel’s ugly crimes behind a charade of a ‘peace process.’” He claimed that now Netanyahu would show Israel’s true colors, “Israel can no longer practice apartheid at home while falsely presenting itself as a beacon of liberalism around the world.”
The New York Times was unhappy with Israel’s election as well. One article called the election campaign “shrill” and wondered if it “raised questions about his ability to heal Israel’s internal wounds or better its standing in the world.” They were amazed that Netanyahu had “pulled out all the stops” and catered to a racist underbelly by saying “Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.” The concerns over the statements were felt internationally.
As usual some people posted the most recent article by the fake “left” commentators in Israel. Gideon Levy wrote “The first conclusion that arose just minutes after the announcement of the exit polls was particularly discouraging: The nation must be replaced. Not another election for the country’s leadership, but general elections to choose a new Israeli people – immediately.” This is the same commentator who had claimed that television presenter Lucy Aharish “does not look Arab, sound Arab or dress like an Arab.” So when one thinks about the issue of the “problem” of the Israeli people, the problem is all around. The very people who claim the Israeli electorate are the problem are the one’s who spout all sorts of racially-tinged comments about what an Arab “looks” and “sounds” like.
The weird racially tinged writing continued at The Forward with an article by Lisa Goldman about the leader of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh. “Two days ago at a campaign stop, Oudeh was joined by his attractive wife, Nardine Aseli, who is a physician, and their three round-cheeked children. The photograph…posted on the Joint List’s Facebook page shows what looks exactly like an average Israeli Jewish family. It was a brilliant move on the part of the campaign manager.” What does it mean it mean to be an “average Israeli Jewish family” or to “look like an Arab”?
How did “to look Jewish” become synonymous with simply to dress in slacks and a dress shirt? When one looks at pictures of Palestinian families in the 1920s one finds that they dressed just like Europeans. So how is it in 2015 that it is normal in Israeli media to talk about how Arabs “dress”? What is it that an Arab “looks like a Jew” if he wears a suit? The Arabs are the majority in the region, with some 300 million, so perhaps when a Jewish person wears a suit he looks like a “typical Arab”?
So when people talk about how racist dogmas work in Israel and how stereotypes are cultivated let’s remember something. The racism in Israel that was stoked on election day crosses the spectrum into he heart of the left wing “Zionist” voters of the left. That’s another side to this election. The Israeli Knesset will have a historic number of Arab members after the election, but also it will have a historically strong Arab party in the Knesset.
The biggest story of the elections: The Joint List
The Abu Maher hall in Nazareth’s industrial area is a multi-story building. On the second floor dozens of media had set up shop for what they expected to be a night pregnant with high hopes. When we arrived Haneen Zoabi was making the rounds doing interviews on radio stations and various television. Everyone from Walla, to Reshet Bet, Radio Shams and famous TV host Yaron London were there. Arabic speaking reporters for BBC and SkyNews milled about. At first it was subdued and there was a great deal of smoking and waiting. Alcohol was missing, after all the Joint List was a partnership of the communist Hadash (which provided the sole Jewish member of the list, Dov Khenin), nationalists from Balad and Islamists from the Islamic movement. Signs in English, Arabic and Hebrew boasted that the party was standing against racism and the occupation.
The decision to join the three parties that most Arabs in Israel vote for was made after negotiations in late 2014. It was not an easy decision but it was forced upon them by the raising of the electoral threshold to 3.25%. There was concern that Balad, the United Arab List and Hadash might all face troubles passing the threshold if they ran apart. It reminds one of the Benjamin Franklin idiom “we must all hang together or we will be hung separately.” When the party was launched on February 20th there was a great deal of hope but also concerns that the multi-headed octopus would have difficulty setting on a message. That definitely was a problem, as videos the party made had a message of togetherness but not a clear stamp of any of the underlying ideologies. There were complaints in late February that the party was not even putting up signs. One man complained to 972 “In the past, the Arab parties paid a lot of money to advertise on our sites. This time, however, instead of money coming from the three parties, the initial assumption was that we would make far less, since there is only one list.”
There was a feeling that although the alliance seemed “normal” in the Jewish community where Arabs are seen as an “other” and a threat, it was anything but. “It is like saying Meretz should run with Shas,” explained MK Michal Rozin at a Meretz event in Jerusalem. She was right, what do Hadash communists have in common with polygamous Islamists? However the historic struggle against the dominant narrative in Israeli society, and to give Arabs a strong voice in the Knesset was one thing that they obviously do have in common. Ayman Odeh stressed this feeling when he spoke later that night to a packed and excited crowd. “We will struggle to have influence, the people have spoken and they have shown they support us.”
Yet the Israeli media for the most part ignored the Joint List. The Zionist Union even supported the banning of Haneen Zoabi and that made it difficult if not impossible for the Joint List to say it would support a left wing coalition. In addition discussions with Meretz over a voter surplus agreement fell apart; in a situation that seemed like it might harm Meretz if Meretz didn’t get enough votes to pass the threshold. Zahava Gal-On lashed out at the List on March 7 over the agreement. But it is a good question why they should agree? In the town of Rahat the only major competition for votes was between Meretz and the Joint List.
Some debates didn’t even include members of the Joint List and when Ayman Odeh did appear at the Channel 2 debate he was attacked by Avigdor Liberman as representing a party that belonged in Gaza. When he said that his voters were 20% of the country and deserved representatives, Liberman scoffed at the 20% figure “for now.” Odeh tried to reach out to Aryeh Deri’s Shas and Mizrahi voters, who he argued suffered similar discriminations and also similar problems of poverty. But none of the Jewish parties wanted to talk about commonalities. In an Israeli election that was weak on substance anyway, the emergence of a large Arab party still did not shift the waters or raise eyebrows.
The view of “the Arabs” was neatly summed up by Israel’s star author Amos Oz in an article on March13. “A great many Israelis, too many Israelis, believe – or are being brainwashed into believing – that if we only take a very big stick and beat the Arabs with it just one more time, very hard, they will take fright and once and for all let us be, and everything will be fine. For almost one hundred years the Arabs haven’t let us be, despite our big stick.” The Arabs. The Arabs. They are the ultimate other, not sharing economic concerns or any concerns, just a monolith. In Israel or beyond the Green Line, or perhaps even in Qatar and Baghdad, they are a monolith. That’s why Israeli newspapers talk about “she doesn’t dress like an Arab.” 300 million people and they are all seen as the same; from left to right (after all, Oz is a “left” wing intellectual).
So it all came down to Tuesday night March 18th. When Ayman Odeh entered the room at Abu Maher, he was greeted like a celebrity, and like a conquering here. From that moment on, through the emergence of the preliminary election results at 10pm that showed the list with between 13 and 14 mandates, there was utmost excitement. It was a night of some hope in the Arab community. Some had spent all day campaigning in the communities. In Umm Al-Fahm we had seen a lot of cars flying the Joint List flags. Arab voter turnout that had been on the decline since the 1990s, was said to have reached an unprecedented 70%. Through 2009 voting had been declining towards 50%. The feeling was that the votes didn’t matter. Some felt frustrated that “our politicians don’t do anything for us.” But they didn’t migrate to Meretz or other parties, because the lable of “Zionist” often alienated them. Whatever the reason in the past, he jump to 70% was a historic rise. But quietly some admitted, if nothing major comes of this historic evening, in which the Joint List becomes the third largest party in the Knesset, then there will be disillusionment again.
It is a fundamental problem for the Joint List. They will not be heading the opposition because Netanyahu will likely create a Center-Right coalition. Those who complain that Arab parties are not included in Israeli coalitions are only scratching the surface. It isn’t that they aren’t included (in some cases they don’t want to be included), but it is that they are not even in the “opposition”, they are the third wheel, a present absent portion of the Knesset, ignored and abused. Why they are ignored has more to do with the center left than the right. In many ways the Arab parties and Hadash bother the Left as much as they bother the right.
In the past when Hadash or the other parties discussed issues of racism or civil liberties, Palestinian rights or women’s rights, all of these issues were “Zionist left” or “liberal Zionist” issues and they were seen as getting in the way of the “good voices” on the left who are supposed to champion these issues. Hence the reason when Haneen Zoabi made similar statements about terrorism that Hebrew University professor Zeev Sternhell made she was scolded by the Supreme Court, banned from the Knesset and almost banned from running again. Sternhell had won an Israel prize, despite saying that few doubt the legitimacy of “armed struggle” over the Green Line, Zoabi had said that kidnappers were not terrorists. So when Arab politicians in Israel say the same things as radical left Jewish politicians might have once said, like Shulamit Aloni, their views are over the red line. Their interest in Palestinians is problematic, whereas those in Labor who speak out about Palestinians are legitimate.
That all hangs as a weight over Odeh’s head. Despite the claims that he has made history and inspired Jewish voters, there seems little evidence of the latter. He faces an uphill battle to convince Jewish Israelis that his views should be listened to. It is hard for his supporters and those that know him, because he is a much loved long-time Hadash insider. His boyish face, disarming charm and confidence paints him as someone who should be respected in Israel. The fact that he isn’t, holds up a mirror to Israeli society. Many in Israel claim the problem they have with Arabs is that Arabs “hate Israel” or that, in the words of Oz, they are not “ready to recognize our historic right to this land”; but when they are confronted even with Arab citizens who are secular, open-minded, and who in the US or Europe would just be another citizen; they are still viewed as suspect and problematic.
Thus the rancor and feelings expressed by Ahmed Tibi, about the fascists in the Knesset, the racism and the intractable conflict are likely to continue. It is unfortunate. This election gave a chance to get by some of the divisions in Israeli society. It isn’t a zero sum game, it isn’t only Israel or Palestine; there is a modern and secular way to work together. Not through some fake little coexistence group, like a few kids playing baseball; but through people to people rather than all of the nationalism that gets in the way. Perhaps first the media could stop talking about who “looks like an Arab” and politicians could start celebrating high Arab voter turnout rather than fear-mongering about it.
Pingback: Why Ayman Odeh’s US visit matters | Seth J. Frantzman·