Israel: Instability, polarisation, protest and centre-left government

Kadima, the new party founded by Sharon, has emerged as the first party in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, but it will have to govern in a coalition. No party has an outright majority. Now the new Labour leadership has indicated it would serve in such a coalition. This means accepting anti-working class policies. In these conditions the Labour Party will come under immense pressure from the bosses and the workers, pulling in opposite directions.

For the past three months the TV screens in Israel were filled with election material that was below the contempt of a 10-year-old educated child. Then on March 28, 31 parties competed for the votes of some 5,104,622 Israelis who had the right to vote in Tuesday’s elections, according to data published on Monday by the Central Elections Commission. Only 14 of these parties will enter the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

The issue according to some of the main parties running in these elections was the very future of the West Bank and the borders of Israel and, according to some experts in the production of empty phrases – a very popular industry in this country – “the very existence of Israel.”

Yet the real issue that hangs over the heads of the bourgeois politicians is the growing crisis of the system which is causing misery, instability and thus provoking rapid shifts to both the left and the right.

The fact that Labour actually did better than had even been expected on the eve of the elections and that the Pensioners secured seven seats shows that the real issues in the minds of most citizens of Israel are the socio-economic and not the so called security issue (i.e. oppressing the Palestinians).

Ehud Olmert, the “interim” leader of Sharon’s new Kadima party, the party that has emerged as the biggest in this new parliament, has promised to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but with Abu Mazen of Fatah, a party that is in the opposition, or to implement a so-called profound unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank by the end of his four-year term. By that time – at least this is what he says – he will be moving tens of thousands of settlers into settlement blocs along the Green Line, thus unilaterally fixing what he has declared will be the permanent borders of the state of Israel.

Ehud Olmert, the “interim” leader of Sharon’s new Kadima party, the party that has emerged as the biggest in this new parliament, has promised to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but with Abu Mazen of Fatah, a party that is in the opposition, not with the Hamas government or, faling this, to implement a so-called profound unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank by the end of his four-year term.

You do not have to be too clever to understand that a bourgeois politician who promises something that will be carried out by the end of his term in office is most likely lying. And even if this were not a conscious lie, and they tried to carry it out, how could it solve the complicated national question in this country? Two nations are struggling along nationalist lines for the same land and after so many years in which the capitalist class has shown that it is incapable of solving the question, we are told that by unilateral withdrawal from parts of the 1967 occupation, everything will be changed for the best.

There is in fact an elected Palestinian government of Hamas. Presently it is still a popular government as it came to power as result of a protest vote against the Israeli occupation and the corruption that had become rampant in the Palestinian Authority under Fatah and it is not perceived as a corrupted government yet. Any attempt to ignore it, bring it down by a military coup, as Kadima and the Labour leadership dream of, is not going to lead anywhere. However, although Kadima and Hamas are both reactionary and cannot solve the national question, in the future they will negotiate contrary to the childish approach of Kadima and the Labour leadership today. A real solution requires the social transformation of the capitalist system, a system that both parties are arch defenders of.

Kadima-Labour-Meretz-Pensioners, a centre-left government

For weeks, day after day we were told what would happen on election day. The opinion polls had predicted a much higher turnout for Kadima. They were allocating 35-40 seats to Kadima and to the parties to the right of it. But in light of the actual outcome one can ask the question whether these polls were an actual reflection of the public opinion or an attempt to shape public opinion? Even if there was not a conscious attempt to manipulate the electorate we have to understand that we live in a period characterized by instability and fast changes in public opinion and the polls are not an instrument to measure the volatile opinion of the public.

Thus, when questioned by pollsters the voters said who they intended to vote for at a particular moment, but then the voters had to experience a mass of empty words. Year in and year out, they have had wars, brutalisation, the erosion of all traditional social and moral norms, and they knew that they were being fed nothing but empty words, lies, more lies and bigger lies.

This determined the shift from the centre-right to the left. This shift means that most Israelis do not want the settlements and want the money to be invested in social programmes. Kadima, the main capitalist party won but only with 28 seats, which means it will have to form a government with the left.

The Left

The main left party is the “new” Labour party based on the trade union federation, the Histadruth, and is a social democratic party similar to the British Labour Party. Its programme on the national question is similar to Kadima’s, i.e. unilateral withdrawals from parts of the West Bank.

In the first weeks of the campaign Labour, under its new leader Amir Peretz, focused more on economic issues. At first Peretz was perceived by many Jews and Arabs as a new hope. But very fast he was pushed to the right on the national question while playing down the socio-economic issues, precisely those issues which were of greater interest to the majority of the people of Israel.

The further to the right the party was pushed, the more it produced demoralisation among its traditional supporters, which explains the high vote for the party of the Pensioners. In the first two weeks of the election campaign the public opinion polls were predicting 27-28 seats for Peretz's Labour party. Had the party defended a different programme, one that reflected the interests of the workers and the poor, the Labour Party could now have been the largest party in the country.

There is also Meretz, which is considered to be a left-wing party as it is in favour of negotiations with the Palestinians as well as some liberal causes such as same-sex marriages. However, since it hardly raised social questions it won only 4-5 seats.

In Israel the parties of the Arab-Palestinian minority citizens of Israel are considered to be on the left. Maybe that is because they tend to give a security net to any government that is not a right wing coalition. Although Arabs make up a fifth of Israel's 6.8 million people, the Israeli-Arab parties were battling against the same apathy and in addition faced the attraction of the mainstream parties.

The main Arab parties are Hadash, Balad and a United Arab List-led bloc. Hadash is a front of the Communist Party. However, the Communist Party has lost the control it had and its programme is basically a democratic programme aimed principally at the Arab voters. Balad is a left Liberal party whose leaders historically split from the Communist Party. The United Arab List is a conservative bourgeois party.

While Hadash and Balad won 3 seats each, the United Arab List won 4 seats. Altogether the Arab parties secured 10 seats. As the Arabs in Israel constitute 20% of the population and 10 seats is only 15% it is clear that many Arabs in Israel either did not vote at all or voted for non-Arab parties. A Centre-Left coalition is not likely to include Arab MKs [MPs] but it will have the support of these parties.

Labour chair Amir Peretz told Haaretz on Monday that "under no circumstances" would he form a government with the Likud and the right-wing parties, even if he is offered the post of prime minister, and even if he is promised support in passing the socio-economic laws. This is understood to mean “Likud no, but a government with Kadima yes”.

As soon as the election results were known Peretz told his supporters. "I want you to know I love you… Despite the fact that others tried to take the wind from the sails out of the social revolution, it lives and breathes... we are the only party that will make sure the next government will march toward peace and social justice." But making nice statements is one thing, the reality of a coalition government with the main capitalist party is another.

A centre-left government will close the circle that began three months ago when Peretz ordered Labour's Ministers to quit the capitalist government. Now he is likely to return to the same kind of government Labour had entered during Peres's leadership.

Lowest turnout ever

The piles of lies also influenced the turnout – it was the lowest turnout in Israeli election history, around 5 percent lower than in the 2003 elections. It was 68 percent in 2003 and now it has fallen to 63 percent. Tuesday was a nice day and many people spent the day in the parks where the smell of barbecued meat filled the air.

They understood that the real issues that the majority of people are facing, such as decent salaries, safety in the workplace, pensions, social programmes, a life free from early death, have been buried once again under a mountain of empty words.

This clear indication of the growing alienation of a significant layer of the population, – so much so that it did not see the point in voting – of course scares the ruling class in Israel. They know that this growing “cold apathy” will turn at some point into very hot class hatred against those who promise pie in the sky every four years only to cheat the voters between the elections. For this reason the large parties and even the President of Israel had been hysterically shouting “Vote oh people of Israel” – vote so the corrupted politicians will cheat you with your mandate.

Not even the show trial of Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which began on the day of the general elections, changed this apathy. Saadat was captured on March 14, two weeks before Israel's general election. At that time the raid on the Jericho prison boosted the image of Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister, as one of a tough-minded leader. Today very few voters paid attention to the fact that Ahmed Saadat was denied bail in the Israeli military court. Manacled hand and foot, Saadat raised his hands in a gesture of defiance and shouted in Arabic, "I am fighting the occupation!" before he was silenced by guards and led into the closed courtroom.

Contrary to those who argue that it is a sacred duty to vote, we Marxists raise different questions. The first one is: what is the level of political consciousness of the majority of the working class and the oppressed? Marxists do not generally call for a boycott of the election of a bourgeois Parliament. It is a different story, of course, when the masses turn their backs on the capitalist system, seeking a revolutionary road to power. In such situations the Marxists would struggle to organize the working class and its allies in genuine democratic workers’ organs of power, workers’ councils, in opposition to the bourgeois institutions. The second question we would ask is: is there a party the working class and the poor can vote for? Our answer to this is vote only for the workers’ parties, but it is not enough to vote! The workers and youth should struggle to win the unions and the workers’ parties to a genuine programme of socialist transformation. We cannot wait for someone to do this for us. We must do it!

The right wing

While the Centre-Left overall won 62 seats, the block of the right wing was defeated winning only 51 seats out of the 120 member Knesset.

"The right is apparently stupid, and the right will therefore apparently pay," said Benjamin Netanyahu’s protégé Yuval Steinitz after the exit polls were announced. Yossi Sarid, the former head of Meretz, protested at this characterisation of the right. The truth is that the right does tend to be stupid today, but the reason it was defeated has to do with the general trend everywhere that is pushing back the right.

The leading bourgeois right-wing Likud until last December, lost its control over the government when Sharon quit the party to form Kadima due to opposition from Likud "rebels" over his Gaza pull-out. It is opposed to any withdrawals from the 1967 occupied land. Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the election is nothing less than "a national referendum on the Olmert-Kadima plan to give away land to Hamas for nothing in return."

If this was a referendum it has given Netanyahu the kiss of death. On the eve of the elections this party expected to win 14-15 seats yet it won only 11. This merely confirms the fact that the right wing movement cannot unite and form a unified block.

Most Israelis have simply had enough with the settlements. It shows that the Centre-right has collapsed as part of the process of polarization and the growing instability of the Israeli society.

To the right of the conservative Likud stand a few parties that Mussolini would have been proud to be a member of. Among them are Yisrael Beitenu, an ultra-nationalist party calling for the “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union support this party. On the eve of the elections it was expected to win 9-10 seats yet it won 13-14 seats. The reason why Israel Beitenu won more seats than expected and the Likud lost seats is because Netanyahu is associated in the mind of many people, among them the Russian new immigrants, with economic policies that hurt them.

In this context it is interesting to read an article by a leading figure in the Likud, Moshe Arens, who wrote:

"Has anyone noticed that one of the main issues facing Israel has been missing from this campaign? Some might even say that it is the most important issue, which if not dealt with could create insurmountable problems and overshadow everything being so hotly debated.

“It is Israel's Arab minority. There are more than a million Arab citizens of Israel - Palestinians, if one is to be politically correct. Many of them are far from integrated into the fabric of Israeli society, and some feel a sense of alienation from the state, a feeling that can easily develop into hostility.

“Recent opinion polls among Jewish citizens seem to indicate that many do not want to have anything to do with the Israeli Palestinians. According to a poll conducted by Kadima, placing an Israeli Arab on its list of candidates would significantly reduce the number of votes the party would receive. Is all this the result of the disengagement syndrome, or is disengagement based on the innate feelings of many Jewish citizens toward Palestinians? In any case, there must be a considerable connection between the two phenomena.

“But there may be much worse to come. Avigdor Lieberman has been aiming at the lowest instincts of some Jewish citizens by advocating for an Arab-free Israel - by placing Arab towns and villages outside the national borders and stripping the residents of their citizenship. His program, although clearly somewhere in fantasy land, seems to have been an effective political ploy: His party's popularity has been increasing weekly in the polls. As if that were not crazy enough, other political nuts have tried to draw attention to their hair brained schemes and fringe parties by provocatively entering Arab neighborhoods and villages, and urging the residents to leave Israel. Hatred of Arabs seems to have become a hot political commodity in this election. All this can only lead to disaster if it is not stopped in time.” (Haaretz 28.3.06)

Fascist tendencies

The growth of Israel Beitenu reflects the increasing polarization of Israeli society and the danger of fascist tendencies in the coming years. Such a movement will come from among the supporters of other already existing parties. There is the National Religious Party (NRP)/National Union, an ultra-nationalist fundamentalist party that opposes any withdrawals from the West Bank. There is Herut, headed by Michael Kleiner, who advocates legislation that would offer Palestinians and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel "financial inducements" to emigrate to the Arab world and elsewhere. The party also views nearly all of Jordan as part of Israel which "one day" could be "re-incorporated into Israel"

The National Union (Haichud Haleumi), comprised of the Settler Party, the Mifdal, and other Jewish groups, also calls for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries and elsewhere The party is headed by Benjamin Elon, a former Israeli cabinet minister, who also opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Jewish Front, headed by Baruch Marzel, is an offshoot of the Kach group, whose principles Israel's Supreme Court said incited racism. Kach was outlawed by both the Israeli and US governments in 1994, however, today the party advocates the forced expulsion of Arabs from "the land of Israel.” A party that now calls for cleansing the region extending from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean of “goyim” (non-Jews) and thus guaranteeing a Jewish majority of no less than 90% throughout the land of Israel is considered a legitimate party. This reflects the growing crisis of the Israeli state that now consider Kach's program as an option for the future.

Marzel has called parties willing to negotiate with the Palestinians "traitors" and "criminals" and says the Israeli military should assassinate Uri Avnery, leader of the Gush Shalom peace activist movement!

It is ironical that Israeli law states that no one can stand for elections to the Knesset if his goal or actions "expressly or by implication", includes "incitement to racism". Clearly none of the parties on the right – and may be not only on the right – would be eligible to run if this law had any meaning.

Why then do the rulers of Israel, who for years claimed that Israel was founded as the antithesis to fascism, allow fascist parties to run? The reason cannot be found in the realm of abstract logic but the logic of class society. Like all fascist parties the aim of these parties is not simply to spread nationalist hatred but also the destruction of the Labour movement and in these times of crisis we are going through, the bourgeoisie considers these fascist parties as forces they can lean on for help. They may not like it but they will allow the fascists to operate if this helps in preventing a workers’ revolution.

However, the strengthening of these fascist groups is not an inevitability; it depends on the working class and its leadership. If the Left had class-based policies many people who support the far right today could be won over.

What to do?

The crisis of the world capitalist system is felt acutely in Israel. It is only a question of time before the working class will begin to struggle here like in France. This will raise the question of socialist transformation or terrible defeat at the hands of the right. For a socialist revolution a revolutionary party is required and yet there is no revolutionary party in Israel. The contradiction is that the masses of the working people are already seeking the road forward and are in practice to the left of all existing parties.

When the working class will go on the offensive – and this will happen during the life of the new government – they will turn to the Labour party and demand genuine reforms. The Labour Party will come under immense pressure in such circumstances. Its leaders have promised an improvement for the workers and the workers will demand that the Labour leadership stick to their promises. Such a process will transform the Labour Party and this is the party we Marxists will give critical support to support as Lenin explained back in 1920 (see Lenin’s Left-wing Communism: an infantile disorder).

The masses will demand from Peretz to fulfil his promises and the leaders of the party will "explain" that it is more important to keep a Centre-left government and that any real measures serving the workers and the poor will endanger the coalition and will pose the danger of the right coming back to power. This is the classic trick in the book of the right wing leadership of the reformist parties. In reality the Labour Ministers will serve the capitalist class and will be in charge of attacking the workers and poor.

However, the speeches of the Labour party leadership promising reforms will push the working class to demand more and struggle for it. This will set the stage for a major confrontation between the working class and the government. It will set the stage for the demand for a workers’ government, rather than a coalition with the capitalists. This struggle will lead to a growth of a left opposition within the Labour party, which in turn will reflect the masses of workers in Israel that are already to the left of all existing parties. The revolutionary leadership that the working class so much deserves will come out of this process.

Thus, the Marxists in Israel called for a vote for the Labour party, not because of its existing leadership but because it is the largest working class party that can be turned under the impact of the working class struggle into a party fighting for the interests of the workers and poor – a party that will fight for a workers’ government instead of a party that will sit in a capitalist government that serves the rich bosses.

In the past people in Israel differentiated between the political left (those who are ready to support the idea of two capitalist states) and the social left (those who raise socio-economic issues). But as the crisis of the system is growing more people are beginning to realize that the political issues are the other side of the socio-economic issues. This realization will make it easier for them to understand that there is no solution within the decaying capitalist system to the socio-economic or the political issues. Only a workers’ party fighting for the interests of the workers, Jews and Arabs, will give us the solution – a workers’ government based on a real socialist programme.


See also: