by: Richard Silverstein on October 24th, 2012 | 14 Comments »
There’s hardly a better, more cynical analysis of political power relationships than The Who lyric, Won’t Get Fooled Again, which closes with the words: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Earlier this month, Prime Minister Netanyahu called new elections to be held on January 22, 2013. Ostensibly, the reason was that none of his coalition partners could agree on a budget. The current government is composed of so many factions, each with its own set of patronage and budgetary fiefs, that they simply could not agree how much each would get.
Besides the budget, Netanyahu always has his reasons for doing things that aren’t apparent to the naked eye. An important consideration for him is that there is no real leader of the Opposition, thereby no politicalthreat. That makes this as good a time as any.
Given the weakness of the Opposition, Ehud Olmert is jockeying for a political comeback. However, he is beset by a ruling in one legal case that gave him a suspended sentence (which didn’t preclude his return to politics). He faces another trial in the Holyland real estate scandal. So any return to politics could be stymied by a conviction in that case.
In many other democracies, Olmert’s legal baggage would preclude him being a credible candidate. But Israel’s center-left political wing is so fragmented and dysfunctional that for many he is an appealing alternative. Not to mention that Israelis have become accustomed to their political leaders being caught up in corruption scandals. The fact that Olmert faces two doesn’t impress a jaded Israeli electorate as a disqualifying factor.
Israeli journalists speculate that Netanyahu chose to go to elections now precisely because he knew the Holyland case could not be concluded and would still hover over Olmert like a cloud. The former hoped that the short campaign would preclude the former Kadima prime minister from gaining any momentum with the electorate.
Aside from Netanyahu himself, another big gainer in the upcoming election is likely to be Shelly Yachimovitch’s Labor Party, whose representation should rise dramatically. She represents a fresh, uncorrupted face on the political scene. She has embraced the social justice agenda of the J14 movement which commandeered the streets of Tel Aviv two summers ago. Two of its three main leaders have announced that they will join the Labor list. The only problem is that even an exponential improvement for Labor won’t put a dent in the far right domination of Israeli electoral politics.
Even if Olmert returns to politics and Labor improves, the math does not bode well for a center-left coalition. Yes, it would poll better than the Likud. But altogether, Likud has more natural partners than the Opposition and could easily put together a new ruling coalition.
According to a Haaretz poll, a coalition featuring Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and newcomer television journalist, Yair Lapid would win 25 seats as opposed to Likud’s 24. But together the rightist parties would win 65 seats, while the center-left would only have 55.
The poll also finds that Ehud Barak’s Independence Party might not even meet the threshold for entering Knesset, causing an end to the political career of this former prime minister and current defense minister. Though one has to concede that Israeli politicians tend to recycle themselves regularly and a shameful exit from the political scene doesn’t sentence anyone to permanent oblivion. Barak, who was Netanyahu’s political partner for the past four years, has rapidly faded from political relevance. He will likely return to the lucrative career as a defense consultant, which turned him into a multi-millionaire during the period between his loss of the prime ministership in 2000, and his return to politics several years later.
A Globes poll conducted two weeks ago (and hence not quite as up to date as the Haaretz poll) says Kadima, Olmert’s former party, now led by Shaul Mofaz, will fall from 28 in today’s Knesset to 4. Its seats will move to Labor, rising from 9 to 18.
Ironically, Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party has no long-term future, as all such celebrity-driven parties have evaporated after one election cycle. It should be said that Israeli election polls are notoriously fickle and changeable. Results on election night could look different. But the overall calculus will not change. A far-right firmly in control of Israel will become even more entrenched. This is a phenomenon I call the permanent far-right majority.
For those of us who grew up as liberal Zionists, hope sprang eternal whenever a new Israeli election beckoned. We scanned the horizon for a new liberal champion who might finally summon the Right Stuff to reach a peace agreement with the Arab enemy. We cycled through so many over the decades–including Amir Peretz, Amram Mitzna, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak. Each of them carried our hopes and dreams for a better future – only to find them dashed when they lost an election or refused to carry out a peace mandate.
It may finally be time to stop wringing our hands with every defeat and instead to concede that salvation will not come from electoral politics. Especially since the likelihood of any liberal, pro-peace candidate triumphing in the foreseeable future is nil.
It leaves Israel with a right-wing majority that refuses a Palestinian state (despite one quickly buried Netanyahu speech that endorsed a two-state solution), refuses a return to 1967 borders, refuses sharing Jerusalem. Until now, no Israeli leader has even been willing to negotiate with a willing Syria about returning the Golan in return for peace.
Israeli party politics are a sham. They offer corrupt parties based on sectarian allegiances and wheeling and dealing like Shas; conniving opportunists like Barak, who abandon party and principle more often than Donald Trump does wives; and flash in the pan celebrities like Lapid whose party will pass its Sell By date the day after the election. The Knesset is a showcase for the extremists of the ultra-nationalist camp, who outdo themselves to propose and pass ever more draconian, anti-democratic legislation: criminalizing African refugees, and weakening the press and free speech. They have little sympathy for the poor and offer no safety net to protect them from the rampages of Israel’s free market economy. This permanent rightist majority represents the ultimate triumph of the settler movement, its absorption into the mainstream, and dominance of the political agenda.
Those in the center or on the left are at best like Lear’s Fool whose asides comment knowingly and ironically on the action. The business of state is transacted behind closed and not so closed doors, and involve Bibi and a few senior ministers. They make the most critical economic, domestic and foreign policy decisions, which are then dutifully ratified by the Knesset automatons. The far-right has its hands on all the major levers of power. There is no party or person who can gainsay them.
Unlike in this country, there is no separation of powers, so the Supreme Court cannot apply a meaningful brake to the most extreme policies adopted by the legislature.
If you read the lyrics of that Who song again you’ll see that they apply remarkably well to Israel’s predicament. All of us had such high hopes for a democratic Israel, just as the narrator of the song celebrates his “revolution” and “new constitution.” But we’ve all been fooled one too many times by the Great Liberal Hope. Which leaves anyone who cares about Israel in the direst of straits facing another four years of Bibi at the helm.
Personally, as hopes fade for finding a solution within the current Israeli political system, it strengthens the hand of those who’ve abandoned the two-state solution. Surprisingly, this includes a number of prominent centrist Israelis like its most popular columnist, Nahum Barnea. They foresee that the only way to save Israel–the sort of tolerant, democratic, secular Israel that many of us have envisioned for decades–is to jettison the belief that an exclusively Jewish state, at least as presently constituted, can provide the answer.
It may be that a state that offers Jews, Muslims and Christians guarantees of freedom of worship and respect for their religions, is the only way to ensure a satisfactory solution. Such a state could also offer guarantees of political rights to majority and minority ethnic groups through a constitution.
I understand that there will be some, perhaps most who read this, who find such a solution disappointing or depressing. It is a lot to swallow. Losing one’s dreams is not easy. I’m certain that Avrum Burg, Nahum Barnea and others would far prefer a two state solution if it was practicable. But they are too realistic to believe that under current political conditions this is possible. That leaves only one likely alternative: a unitary state embracing Palestinians and Israeli Jews. As Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst form of government…except for all the others.
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, exploring Israel as national security state and promoting Israeli democracy.