On 9 April, a new parliament will be elected in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister from the nationalist Likud party, has to face corruption charges. In order to hold on to power, Netanyahu is trying to lean on the support of several far-right parties. At the same time, Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, a more moderate and liberal, but still nationalist alliance is leading the polls.
Benjamin Netanyahu served as the prime minister of Israel for 14 years in total. After becoming prime minister in 1996, his first major project was to brutally cut the Israeli welfare state and introduce neoliberal austerity measures. This helped the Israeli capitalists to make extra profits, but at the same time created social tensions beneath the surface. Today, 24 percent of the Israeli population lives below the poverty line. Food prices and rents are high, while wages are low for the vast majority of the workforce. While Israel tries to convey the image of a thriving start-up and high-tech economy, it is one of the most socially unequal OECD countries.
These social tensions led to an outburst of anger amongst the Israeli working class in 2011 when, inspired by the Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem to protest against the high costs of living and corruption. But the protests ended in “government commissions”, which were supposed to “consider” the people‘s demands and “find solutions”. Nothing was solved.
Every time the question of social injustice threatens political stability in Israel, the Israeli ruling class and their political representatives try to divert attention away from this issue, by appealing to Israeli nationalism. Zionism and the siege-scenario of Israel being threatened by all neighbouring powers, especially by Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinians. This serves the purpose of blurring class lines and rallying the whole of the Jewish-Israeli population behind the banner of Zionism. What we know as “Burgfriedenpolitik” from Germany in the first World War is the permanent state of affairs in Israel. Nationalism, racism and the oppression and occupation of the Palestinians is therefore essential to stabilise Israeli capitalism. The fight against racism and the oppression of the Palestinian people is therefore key to the social question in Israel.
The fear-mongering over the “evil Arabs”, Iran and the Palestinians was really the propagandist basis of Netanyahu's power and fame as a politician. “I don’t like Netanyahu, but he is the only one who can keep us safe”, is a sentence I often hear from Israelis. Netanyahu also showed that Zionism is not about combating anti-semitism or learning the lessons from the industrial mass murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. In order to strengthen Israel’s position in international relations, he signed agreements with Poland and Hungary, assuring them that both countries were not whatsoever involved in the Holocaust as perpetrators. This is not only historically wrong, but comes at a time when tens of thousands have marched in Poland and Hungary in anti-semitic, ultra-nationalist demonstrations. For Netanyahu, the Holocaust is nothing more than political capital, as was proven when he claimed in a speech to the World Zionist Congress in 2015 that it was not Hitler, but the Grand-Mufti of Jerusalem, who came up with the idea to mass murder all European Jews.
Netanyahu and the far right
In order to hold on to power, Netanyahu has leaned more and more on the far right. In recent years, he did not only grant concessions to the far-right settler’s movement in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, but actively supported it. He let right-wingers like the former defence minister Lieberman join his government and escalated his rhetoric against the Palestinians and Iran. Last year, Netanyahu's majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, passed the racist Nation State Law, declaring Israel a “Jewish state” and making all non-Jewish citizens now officially second-class citizens. All these measures gathered support from the right, but also provoked tensions within the Arab population and the left in Israel.
While the elections are approaching, Netanyahu is facing corruption charges. In the polls, his Likud party is second after Gantz’s Kahol Lavan. In response, Netanyahu forged an alliance with parties of the far right, among them the right-wing nationalist Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, the successor of the extreme right and fascist Kach party, which was banned in 1994 for supporting terrorist attacks against the Arab population. Last year, Michael Ben-Ari, the leader of Otzma Yehudit, warned the Arab population living in Israel:
“If you speak against a Jew, you’re not going to be alive… You’re not going to be deported or have your citizenship revoked. You’re not going to be alive! You’ll be put in front of a firing squad, taken down – this is what Arabs understand.”
In exchange for these parties supporting Netanyahu as PM, he promised them ministerial posts in his future government.
Trump and Netanyahu
Netanyahu’s shift to the right has been firmly supported by the US government since the start of Trump’s presidency. In the last few years, the position of US imperialism has become more fragile in the Middle East. The US could no rule any longer over the region as they did before. A deal with Iran was needed in order to allow the US to reduce its exposure in Iraq. Former US president Obama pursued that line at the cost of jeopardising the relations with the traditional US allies in the region. Following a similar pattern to that applied to North Korea and the trade war with China, when Trump came to power, he turned the tables on the Iranians and scrapped the deal. He then leaned in with all the political, economic, diplomatic and military power of the USA to consolidate the alliance with Israel and the Saudis.
With the annulation of the Iran deal, Trump cleared the biggest obstacle between the US and its natural allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel. He hopes now that, with their help, he can contain growing Iranian and Russian influence. Trump is clearly willing to impose even more suffering on the Palestinian population in order to compensate Netanyahu. He hopes to weaken the Palestinian leadership to such a degree that they are forced to make further concessions to the Israeli state.
The US cut all financial support to UNWRA, the UN agency established in 1949 that is responsible for providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. They moved their embassy to Jerusalem and are giving full support to the colonialist settlement policy of Netanyahu.
However, the most likely result is that this will backfire. In February, Netanyahu announced that Israel will withhold part of the revenue Israel is collecting on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, provoking a rift with the Authority’s president Abbas, whose collaboration Israel needs to enforce security controls on the Palestinian population in the West Bank. This is a dangerous game played by Netanyahu for his electoral calculations. The situation of the Palestinian masses is worsening and the Palestinian youth has shown an impressive determination to fight back. Not only do they protest against the Israeli occupation, but more and more Palestinians realise the reactionary role their leadership plays. Just a few days ago, there were protests in the Gaza strip against the Hamas government because of worsening living conditions. While protesters called for a general strike, the Hamas regime cracked down on them with massive police violence.
A split in the ruling class
An important part of the Israeli ruling class is observing this with great concern. They know how potentially explosive the social tensions in Israel/Palestine are, resulting out of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians and the impoverishment of the Jewish working class. These parts of the bourgeoisie fear that Netanyahu is pushing it too far, leading to a social explosion that would shake the Israeli regime to its core.
That is why the corruption charges against Netanyahu were conveyed to the public and Gantz’s party found a lot of sympathy and support among the Israeli bourgeoisie. Gantz, a former General and chief of staff of the Israel Defence Force, presents himself as the more reasonable and moderate alternative to Netanyahu. Gantz is not the only former General in his list, Kahol Lavan. Two other candidates were also Generals of the IDF. This is no coincidence. While there can be no doubt that the leading members of the army are standing on the core policies of defence and the ideology of Zionism, they were the ones who stopped hot-headed politicians in the past from unnecessarily escalating the conflict with the Palestinians or Iran. For example, the army leaders stopped Netanyahu at least twice in the last 10 years from attacking Iran, the Haaretz newspaper pointed out.
Benny Gantz is the favourite candidate of the “centrist” bourgeoisie, but at the same time he is also gathering support from the “middle class”. Liberal petty-bourgeois and well-paid white-collar workers are growing uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s right-wing politics.
HaAvoda and Meretz
In recent years, the former Labour Party HaAvoda has lost all credibility in the eyes of the working class. It refused to seriously fight against the worsening social conditions of the Israeli working class. Moreover, it has always been the “left” leg of the Zionist ruling class since the birth of Israel, completely embedded in the Zionist state. Virtually all prime ministers up until the late 1970s were from the LP. People like Rabin, who gave the order to break Palestinian children's arms during the Intifada, and Barak were Labour prime ministers. In fact, HaAvoda has had Zionism and the colonialist settlement policy embedded in its own foundations since its inception. Labour’s support dwindled and the nationalist radicalisation of Jewish Israelis grew as illusions in the two-states “solution” collapsed. HaAvoda has nothing to offer the working class. The differences between HaAvoda and Kahol Lavan are practically non-existent, so people are sticking to the bigger of the two.
Meretz, a party that can be best compared today to the Green parties in most European countries, managed to gather the support of liberal petty-bourgeois and well-off white-collar workers by criticising Netanyahu for corruption and right-wing policies, as well as emphasising the importance of combating climate change and supporting the rights of minorities. But while doing so, it doesn’t address the problems the working-class face every day and is not able to offer a road for them to escape from poverty.
Hadash and the Arab parties
In the last elections, the leftist Hadash coalition ran joint lists with three other Arab parties (liberal, nationalist and Islamist) as the United Arab List. This alliance was broken up recently. Now Hadash, an alliance mainly around the Communist Party, runs together with the liberal Arab party in a joint list. The other two Arab parties made a list of their own.
Over the years, Hadash was the only party that did not only have a clear position against the occupation, but also put social injustice at the centre of its policies. Its list is third in the polls.
Public opinion and the Israeli establishment try to slander Hadash as terrorist-friendly and traitors. Just a week ago, the electoral committee excluded Hadash and the other Arab parties from the election, after a petition started by the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit. The supreme court now has to take the final decision. This is a completely undemocratic move, aimed at stripping the Arab population of political representation and the Israeli population in general of any left-wing alternative.
Tensions building up
A few months ago, no one would have seriously doubted that Netanyahu would win the coming elections. Now things look a little different. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Gantz will be the next prime minister. Although Gantz is neither the “lesser evil” and nor will he change anything about the oppression of the Palestinians, or growing social injustice, this would nevertheless mark a political change. The last year was an exceptional one politically. A number of big protest movements swept Israel, beginning with a large march for LGBT rights, the mass protests against the Nation State Law, a large protest movement for refugee rights and a number of protests, including a large demonstration in Tel Aviv, against women’s oppression.
All this shows that Israel is heading towards a different scenario of social instability and crisis. The laws of dialectics and class struggle do not stop at Israel’s borders. The social tensions beneath the surface are building up and will erupt sooner or later in a protest movement of the working class, like the one in 2011, but on a higher level.