With a few exceptions, almost every political faction in Israel can claim some sort of victory in the last elections, but the truth is, that almost everyone was defeated. The greatest defeat of all is not discussed. It was the defeat suffered by political pundits and pollsters. The media will be depending on the pollsters and pundits to generate interest in the next elections, so they are hardly likely to discredit them now. Not one expert predicted the rise of the Pensioners party. Not one pollster predicted more than 2 mandates for the pensioners before the elections, and no poll gave the Kadima party less than 31 mandates. Opinion polls were not too helpful in predicting the results of Palestinian elections or US elections either. Perhaps the public has developed an immunity to polls. Certainly, the total failure of just about everyone to predict the Israeli election outcome should recommend caution to commentators. Let's face it, however, nobody will listen to an analyst who says, "Well I think perhaps that maybe..." Analysts have to be decisive. Not surprisingly, the analysts are still charging full speed ahead.
Uri Avnery titled his article about the Israeli elections "What the Hell happened?
" He tried to tell us what happened, but he didn't quite succeed. The truth is that it may be too early to know exactly what the hell happened. The long term Israeli political situation is in flux, and in the short term, there are surprises every day. For example, Amir Peretz's supposedly "Leftist" Labor party has since lost a mandate in the final (?) count, and Peretz is now trying to block the formation of a government by the centrist Kadima party and form a right-wing coalition
It is too early to know whether Peretz's bid, which has infuriated some Labor party members, is serious or whether it is just coalition maneuvers. It is too early to know if the Pensioners party, which got 7 mandates, will prove to be a serious political force or whether they are a group of political novices who will be sold out by the pros in the smoke-filled rooms, and break apart in the next few years. It is too early to know if Kadima's phantasmagorical plan to set Israel's international borders unilaterally can have any reality.
The main result of these elections is that the hold of the nationalistic-religious bloc, which has dominated Israel for more than a generation, has been broken. All those who announced that the Left is dead and that Israel is condemned to right-wing rule for a long, long time have been proved wrong.
All the right-wing parties together won 32 seats, the religious parties 19. With 51 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the rightist-religious wing cannot block all moves towards peace any more.
This is a turning point. The dream of a Greater Israel, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, is dead.
Most of what Avnery wrote is true as individual statements, but on the whole it is probably untrue. The rightist-religious wing cannot block moves toward peace, but it is doubtful if Kadima is going to make any moves toward peace, and even more doubtful that there could be any moves toward peace with the Hamas in power in the Palestinian Authority. Israel is not condemned to right-wing rule, but it won't get leftist rule either. The dream of Greater Israel was never a real option. It has not been seriously considered in the policies of either the Likud or the Labor party since the Oslo agreement. However, those who dream it have just postponed their dreams to a later date.
There is still a large grouping of political parties who have no use for Arabs and no real interest in an Arab-Palestinian state: Likud - 12 mandates; Yisrael Beiteinu - 11 mandates; National Union/NRP - 9 mandates; Shas - 13 mandates. That's 45 mandates, without considering that the Pensioners' party has not expressed any opinion whatever on the issue, and that the Kadima party's platform is not really a peace platform and certainly not a social-democratic platform. There is no cause for rejoicing over these results in any camp.
To my mind, the following messages at least are clear from the Israeli election results:
* No ideology has a monopoly. The largest party, which has no ideology in any case, garnered only 29 mandates out of 120.
* The old ideologies were made irrelevant by events. The traditional parties are riding horses that have been dead for several years, but they failed to notice this problem.
* Israeli voters did notice the dead horses, and also noticed which parties had consistently failed to deliver on any of their promises, and which parties made good on threats to rob poor people.
* The traditional right suffered a defeat, but the traditional left suffered an equal and opposite defeat.
* New trends are expressed in new parties. These are unstable and the situation will only clarify itself in the following years, when these parties either become permanent forces or fade from public life like the Shinui party.
* Domestic issues, more than security or peace, had a decisive role in these elections.
The old "Left" is not quite dead yet, but we should not underwrite any insurance policies for it. The election results probably saved Peretz from demotion as head of the Labor party, but that was not his doing. Kadima got only 29 mandates, requiring Peretz as a coalition partner. That saved Peretz. If the Labor party enters a coalition, it is not likely that the leader will get the boot. However, the fact is that Labor under Peretz lost three mandates relative to the last Knesset, and Meretz under Yossi Beilin lost a seat as well. It is therefore absurd to talk about Peretz founding a new Social Democratic movement. All he did was lose some votes and alienate people. He did not attract masses of voters from development towns as he envisaged.
The old ideologies are becoming irrelevant. The performance of the Labor party is all the more dismal if we consider that the Pensioners built on a single social issue and managed to get more mandates than Meretz. The story becomes even more interesting if we consider what did not happen. The two largest parties that failed to pass the threshold of 3% of the votes were the Greens (environment) and the Green Leaf party (legalization of marijuana and progressive social platform). Together they got about 88,000 votes-- over three mandates -- that should probably have gone to Meretz or Labor. Even more telling, about 37% of the voters did not bother to vote, the highest percentage of abstainers in any Israeli election. Either the political parties are becoming irrelevant, or the whole political system is deemed to be irrelevant.
The traditional left has to ask itself why it was unable to exploit the tremendous potential of socially-conscious voters represented by the Pensioners, the Green party and the Green Leaf party vote. All factions have to ask themselves how it is possible, that in these elections, deemed to be a critical referendum on the future borders of Israel, so many Israelis did not bother to vote. The answers are fairly dismally clear.
To many Israelis it seems that the parties always promise the same things anyhow, and then they do whatever pleases them or whatever is expedient once elected. Issues of war and peace, in the perception of most Israelis, do not depend on what Israel does, and are decided in Washington, in Brussels, in Moscow and in the Palestinian areas. There is no point in voting on what sort of peace proposal Israel would make if there was a government on the other side that was interested in peace, because there is no such government, and if there was, it would be incapable of keeping the agreements anyhow.There is no point in voting on deciding to keep settlements in Ariel or Hebron or some other place, because Condoleezza Rice is going to tell us where we can put our settlements in any case. There is no point in voting on security issues either. If Israel is attacked, it will respond about the same way whether Bibi Netanyahu or Yossi Sarid leads the government.
As for economic, social and constitutional issues, the record of all the parties is clear. In practice, the "right-wing" parties ensure that man exploits man, while the "left-wing" parties do the opposite. It amounts to the same thing, but the rhetoric of the left is much more moralistic. Nobody is going to trust the Labor party or Meretz to enact a national pension plan, because they did not enact such a plan in all the years they were in power, though their platforms had lots of verbiage about social issues. They did not do anything much for handicapped people either. Nobody is going to trust any of the existing parties to fight religious coercion and the gravy train funding of religious institutions, because all of the parties without exception conspired together to create the current sorry situation. No Arabs can trust Labor or Meretz to stand up for Arab rights, because after over half a century of broken promises, nobody is listening any more. All of the major parties have been in power, and all have repeatedly reneged on all their promises for social legislation and defense of constitutional issues. At each election, they return to the voters like crack cocaine addicts who relapsed after rehabilitation and say "Please, just give us one more chance. It will be different this time." The only parties that never disappoint their voters on social economic and rights issues are the ultra-orthodox parties, and they grow steadily. They invest in organization and get practically 100% voter turnout. They deliver on the promises they made to their constituents, to get subsidies for religious institutions and to promote religious laws. Not everyone will agree with this program, but the formula for success should be carefully noted by other parties.
People who live outside Israel are not so interested in these internal Israeli issues, or in the vagaries of coalition politics, but it is essential to understand them in order to follow what is happening here, which is mostly unrelated to issues of war and peace. The fight between Kadima's Ehud Olmert and Labor's Peretz is not about any disagreement over foreign policy. It is partly a conflict between Kadima's Reaganomics approach to social legislation, which would probably make Barbara Bush proud, and Peretz's approach, which is a cross between Scandinavia and US populism. Mostly however, it may be a personal conflict. Olmert and Kadima don't want Peretz as finance minister, while Peretz has his heart set on the job.
Perhaps both sides are displaying political inexperience and letting personal issues interfere with good judgement. Anyone who thinks that the Finance Ministry is the key to building Peretz's future career as a Prime Minister should think again. Until now at least, the Finance Ministry has been a place to bury politicians. Israel has had some remarkable finance ministers, who generated economic growth where none seemed possible, including Dov Yosef and Pinhas Sapir. They are all universally hated. The most egregious and latest example is before us. It is very likely that Ariel Sharon, the master strategist, understood exactly what he was doing when he gave the finance ministry to Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon knew that Netanyahu was challenging his leadership. He also knew that belt-tightening was needed, and he knew that Netanyahu would do it by robbing the poor to feed the rich. Sharon gave Netanyahu his "full backing" for an economic program that was political suicide, executed under Netanyahu's name. The result was that Netanyahu earned the loathing of virtually the entire Israeli electorate including his own party, and could not undo the damage by apologizing for his economic program. That is the real reason for the magnitude of the defeat of the Likud, which may not reflect its true potential to attract voters.
When the antics of political clowns are concluded, we can expect (though we might be surprised) a coalition of Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Pensioners and Shas, or something similar. This coalition will most likely continue business as usual, perhaps with some rhetorical window-dressing. The religious institutions and Yeshiva students will get a hefty boost, but this will be called "social legislation." The settlements will get funds for development at the expense of the development towns, but this will be called "consolidation" and a "peace plan." Pensioners will get a bit of a raise, but there will not be a meaningful national pension plan, and the minimum age of retirement will not be lowered after Netanyahu raised it. The workers will get a raise in minimum wage, but most occupations where it is meaningful will be excluded from it and it will not be enforced. The minimum wage laws will cover all the occupations that don't need minimum wage protection anyhow, and will not cover all the unskilled and semi-skilled occupations that do need such protection. Nothing will be done to alleviate religious coercion, because Shinui, the only party that raised the issue, self-destructed. The rich will get richer and the poor will get babies. As for Peretz, he will get a car and a driver, and perhaps free mustache wax.
As for peace, there are two minor obstacles: the Israelis and the Palestinians. Palestinians won't stop fighting and accept a state until they believe they have a "good deal" or "justice." No Israeli coalition one can envision at present is going to give the Palestinians anything they could consider a "good deal." That is reasonable from the Israeli point of view, because no Palestinian government, and certainly no Hamas government, is ever going to consider any offer by an Israeli government to be a "good deal," unless all the Jews offer to "go back" to Poland. Moreover, Israelis are not about to agree to the Arab Palestinian version of "justice," which apparently requires the destruction of the Jewish state. That is the reason why Israeli voters are no longer interested in the politics of foreign policy. As, additionally there was no prospect of getting any progress on social issues from the existing parties, a large number of Israelis said "What the Hell!" and either didn't vote, or voted for one issue parties that do not have strong foreign policy positions. That is why we have "What the Hell?" results: the electorate told the political system where to go.
At least, that is what it looks like at the start of this week.
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