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2009 Israeli election moving to the right... or the far right

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Marcus Halaby looks at the results of the Israeli elections, which will only create a right wing, conservative government.

Israeli elections have a habit of bringing out into the open those unsavoury aspects of Israel’s politics that its apologists in the West generally wish could be kept hidden from view. This election has been no different. It should, of course, hardly come as a surprise that an election campaign that involved the bombardment of Gaza and the destruction of much of its social and economic infrastructure should have seen a huge swing to the right.

However, it is definitely a sign of the times that Israel’s Labor party, traditionally seen as the founder of the state and the party of the Zionist establishment, and which the Israeli “peace camp” have consistently promoted illusions in, should have finished in fourth place, behind the ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of anti-Arab racist Avigdor Lieberman, and only just ahead of Shas, a religious party supported by the marginalised “Oriental” Jewish community. Another irony is that all three main parties now belong to the same right-wing Revisionist Zionist political tradition, and are led by people who made their political careers in the Likud or its predecessors.

The provisional results of the elections leave no clear victor, and the next two or three weeks may see a complicated game being played as Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud, and Tzipi Livni, currently foreign minister and leader of Kadima, each try to construct a viable ruling coalition. Kadima, with 28 seats in the Knesset has claimed a victory over Likud with only 27; Netanyahu, on the other hand, argues that the overall increase in the vote for “right-wing” parties (giving them 70 seats out of 120, compared to 55 after the last elections in 2006) entitles him, as the leader of the main right-wing party, to become prime minister.

It is theoretically possible that there could be a Kadima-led government excluding both Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu; a coalition with Labor, Shas, Meretz (a Zionist party to the left of Labor and its perennial partner in coalition governments), and one or another of the small religious parties could just about hold a majority.

A factor in favour of this outcome is the strong enmity between Shas and Lieberman’s party, which draws most of its vote from recent immigrants from the former Soviet republics. Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef even said that voting for Lieberman would be “helping Satan”, on account of Yisrael Beiteinu’s support for civil marriage, a measure supported by the largely secular (and often only tenuously Jewish) “Russians”. However, this coalition would be subject to the same centrifugal forces as similar Labor-led coalitions in the past, like that of Labor leader Ehud Barak when he was prime minister between 1999 and 2001.

In any case, both Kadima and Likud are courting Lieberman and other parties to their right. This therefore leaves three likely outcomes: a Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition, a Livni-Lieberman coalition, or a Kadima-Likud government of national unity designed to keep Yisrael Beiteinu out.

For those for whom Kadima, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu equate simply to the “centre”, “right” and “extreme right”, the first of these three outcomes might seem the most likely. However, Lieberman, who advocates “loyalty tests” as a condition for citizenship for Israel’s Palestinian minority, and who warns that this Arab one-fifth of Israel’s citizens pose a danger to Israel’s existence, also advocates handing over some Arab-majority districts in pre-1967 Israel to Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in return for annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in order to reduce this existential threat.

He has therefore gone further than Kadima has on the principal issue that separates it from Likud: namely, the idea that some form of “disengagement” from the Palestinians, unilateral or otherwise, will be necessary to preserve Israel’s Zionist and majority-Jewish character. It was, after all, then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza that led him to split Likud and found Kadima in the first place.

Netanyahu, by contrast, is likely to suspend all negotiations and try to put off any future cosmetic withdrawals in the West Bank for as long as possible. For his supporters, the rise of Hamas and the war on Gaza are signs that Sharon’s disengagement plan was a mistake, one that they do not intend to repeat. He has also pledged to “finish the job” in Gaza and hinted at a military strike on Iran.

It goes without saying that, whoever forms the next Israeli government, the outcome will be a negative one for the Palestinians and for the region, especially as the United States becomes more strategically dependent on Israel’s unique position as its enforcer in the region following President Obama’s planned troop withdrawal from Iraq. Israel’s “unfinished business” with Hezbollah may well lead it to a new aggression on Lebanon, as part of a proxy war against the “Syrian-Iranian axis” that Israeli politicians hold responsible for Hamas’ continued defiance.

What is new, however, is the specific threat posed to the future of Israel’s Arab citizens. Persecuted and discriminated against since the founding of the state in 1948, and subjected to military rule until 1966, they have of late become much more vocal in their support of their Palestinian co-nationals in the territories occupied in 1967. The attempt to ban their two most prominent parties – Balad and the United Arab List – from standing in these elections, and the hysteria raised about the threat posed by their “disloyalty”, in which racists like Lieberman merely vocalise obsessions held by the whole of Israel’s political class, should be seen as a foretaste of things to come.

Notably, while the “’48 Palestinians” (as they prefer to be called) have supported the demand for an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state in the 1967 territories, they have never demanded their own inclusion in it, preferring to fight for the idea that Israel should become a state “of its citizens”, and not an ethnic-Jewish state. This in itself is a back-handed admission that a two-state solution, even one based on the 1967 borders, would merely create a ghetto for the Palestinians. And while they can sympathise with the demand of Palestinians under occupation that, if they are to live in a ghetto it should at least be self-governing, but they have no intention of joining them there.