After six weeks of frantic horse-trading, and with hours to go before a constitutional deadline, the Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu has cobbled together a new coalition in Israel. It means that Netanyahu will cling to power with a bare majority of 61 seats in a Knesset of 120 members. The coalition includes all the disparate parties of the right, including the extreme right wing Jewish Home Party, representing the West Bank settlers’ movement. This party will have the ministry of justice and deputy defence minister, among other positions, all of which will be manipulated to enhance and promote Jewish rights and freedoms at the expense of Arabs.
A new coalition may have been born, but not a single one of the social and political issues that split Israel has been resolved by the election on March 17. The new coalition will be a Government of Crisis from day one. Israel was and remains a deeply divided country, beset by Greek-style austerity and racked by institutionalised racism and discrimination.
Above all, it is its policy in relation to Palestine which is a hopeless dead-end, amounting to no more than weekly or even daily crisis-management – and that is how it will be for the foreseeable future. Taking the total population of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, more than half of the overall population controlled by the state of Israel is subject to military-police dictatorship, with economic, national and political rights at best severely limited and at worst non-existent.
Gaza remains an open prison eighteen miles by four, completely strangled by the Israeli state machine. Nothing gets in or out of Gaza – water supplies, electricity and gas, telephone services, food and building materials, medicine and educational supplies, even money for cash machines and, of course, people – without the say-so of the Israeli authorities. Little wonder the population of Gaza seethes with rage at their Israeli prison-warders.
The one sided war of last summer, during which more than 2100 Palestinians were killed, changed nothing, either for Hamas, which runs Gaza, or for the Israelis. Recent UN reports and the witness testimony of dissident Israeli soldiers are now coming out, which are vindicating the claims made at that time that Palestinian civilians were deliberately targeted and that the prevailing view of the army was that any Palestinian was a terrorist and therefore a legitimate target.
During an interview with French Le Monde newspaper in Jerusalem yesterday, a soldier who identified himself as Arieh, 20, reported that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) “bombed civilian targets for entertainment." He added that "one day at about 8am we went to the Al-Bureij, a highly dense residential area in central Gaza, and the commander told us to select a random target and shoot it. At the time we did not see any Hamas fighters, no one shot at us, but the commander told us jokingly: 'We have to send Bureij a morning greeting from the Israeli army'."
Increasingly, such reports are having an effect on Israelis, the youth in particular, who are seeing the ‘heroic’ image of the IDF changed to one of just another army of occupation: racist, brutal and careful to gloss over its own atrocities.
On the West Bank, too, the Palestinian economy is strangled, its population suffering from extreme unemployment, poverty and increasingly from homelessness. The Arab population of the West Bank are daily humiliated and abused, not only by the hundreds of IDF check-points and raids, but also by an increasingly confident population of Jewish settlers. Many of these settlers, subsidised and pampered by the Israeli state, armed and protected by the Israeli army, are now resorting to hooligan attacks on Arab villages and mosques in their localities.
Since 1967, a Palestinian expert has revealed, Israel has invested nearly $80 billion in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, housing something like 550,000 Israelis. Of these, nearly 70 per cent work inside Israel ‘proper’ and simply commute to the settlements, while the remainder work in agricultural and industrial projects on the West Bank. So high is the unemployment among Palestinian Arabs that, in the absence of any alternative means of gaining a livelihood, 20,000 Palestinians work in these enterprises.
While Israel exploits all the natural resources in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including the agricultural land, water, quarries, trees and minerals found in the Dead Sea areas such as phosphate, the Palestinian economy is effectively strangled. Palestinians are forbidden from using or constructing in the area designated by Israel as ‘Area C’ which represents over 61 per cent of the West Bank's total area. There are around 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C, alongside approximately 341,000 Israelis in settlements and settlement outposts.
Whereas Israel frequently announces the building of hundreds of new homes for Jewish settlers – and this will accelerate, given the composition of the new coalition – the IDF oversees the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes.
In a recent report by a UN body on the West Bank, it was reported that between 1988 and 2014 the Israeli authorities issued 14,087 demolition orders in 'Area C' on the pretext that the homes lacked the required ‘permit’. According to the same agency, there are more than 11,000 currently outstanding demolition orders issued by Israeli authorities against Palestinian-owned properties in the Occupied West Bank
Although the new Israeli-built roads on the West Bank are ‘officially’ open to anyone, the harassment by the IDF and settlers means, in effect, that the roads are settler-only roads and Palestinian traffic has to go the long way around to make journey – often adding tens of miles to a trip. Then there are the daily arrests of political activists and protesters, including little children. According to the NGO which advocates for Palestinians in Israeli custody, in a typical month, hundreds of Palestinians are arrested and many face weeks or months in jail without trial.
The so-called Palestinian Authority has nominal control over parts of the West Bank, but this means in reality only the main cities and population centres. Despite its frequent protestations about Israeli ‘excesses’, the Fatah organisation that controls the Palestinian Authority actively collaborates with the occupiers. The PA police force is armed and trained by the United States and its political structures and institutions are riven by intimidation and corruption. As it was with Hamas in Gaza, the spontaneous demonstrations of students in support of the Arab Spring four years ago was met by Fatah’s rifle butts and police clubs.
It is not surprising that there have been no elections in the Palestinian areas for eight years. If there were, there would be a very real danger that the anger, bitterness and frustration of the people would boil over and sweep its geriatric ‘president’, Abu Mazen, from power. What is even worse that their collaborating with the occupation and exploitation of Palestine is the fact that Palestinian organisations like Fatah and the PLO have no appeal whatsoever to Israeli workers. On the contrary, such rotten and corrupt Palestinian organisations are held up by Netanyahu to Israeli workers as the ‘bogey-men’ and the reason to avoid an independent Palestinian state.
In the long run, it is clear that the situation in regards to Palestine is not sustainable. Last year John Kerry, US Secretary of State, warned that the present state of affairs cannot go on as it has done indefinitely. Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank is fast undermining the diplomatic support of European powers and even, to a degree, of the United States, its biggest military and economic backer. The diplomatic and economic interests of American and European imperialism are best served by stability in the Middle East and increasingly Israel is seen as part of the problem in that part of the world rather than the solution.
Last November, in the largest-ever protest by Israeli top military brass, at least 105 retired generals and intelligence chiefs wrote a letter to Netanyahu, urging him to “initiate a diplomatic process” for peace with Palestine.
The officers wrote, "We, the undersigned, reserve IDF commanders and retired police officers, who have fought in Israel’s military campaigns, know first-hand of the heavy and painful price exacted by wars…. Here we are again sending our children out onto the battlefield, watching them don their uniforms and combat vests and go out to fight in Operation Protective Edge,”.
A few of those who signed the letter told the state Mako-Channel 2 News that in their opinion Israel had the strength and means to come to a two-state roadmap to get out of the current crisis. We are on a steep slope, a reserve major general told the channel, “…toward an increasingly polarized society and moral decline, due to the need to keep millions of people under occupation on claims that are presented as security-related,” The idea of writing the letter came from another reserve major general, who said in an interview that he was “sick and tired of a reality of rounds of fighting every few years.
Just prior to the general election in March, there was a massive anti-Netanyahu rally in the Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, estimated to be anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 strong. There were even signs at the rally calling for “Revolution Now”, as well as posters for the Meretz (a left Zionist party) and Zionist Union slates (including the Labour Party), but like almost every other election in the western world, it was organised under the vague banner of “change”, in this case, “Israel wants change”. The event was headlined by a former Mossad chief Meir Dagan but what was significant was that both he and a former Israeli general who spoke used the word “apartheid” to describe the direction Israel is now headed.
In the event, Netanyahu almost lost the election and only won by a whisker. At the last minute, he resorted to the most blatantly-racist scare-mongering – suggesting that Arabs being “bussed in” to vote in large numbers. To bolster the right-wing vote around Likud, he also declared plainly – and much to the consternation of his European and US allies – that “on his watch” there would be no independent Palestinian state. He won no new votes by this tactic, but managed to draw some votes to Likud from other right-wing parties.
Immediately after the election, this statement was quickly withdrawn and at the same time he apologised for his comments about bus-loads of Arabs, but the cat was out of the bag – Netanyahu had shown the real face and the real policies of his Likud Party.
What is likely to happen now in Israel? That fact is that nothing fundamental has been changed by the election. The economic and political crisis goes on. For ordinary Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, their economic nightmare continues. Living standards continue to decline. Leaving aside the appalling cost in lives, Operation Protective Edge cost billions of dollars – and workers will pay for it.
Official Israeli Government statistics show the extent of the crisis facing workers. According to the central bureau of statistics, 41 per cent of Israelis are in a constant state of overdraft with more than a third owing at least 10,000 shekels (£1,650). Not surprisingly, most blame the high cost of living. As a hard-hitting report by the state comptroller revealed a few months ago, house prices have rocketed in the last six years by almost 55 per cent and rents in the same period rose 30 per cent as wages have remained largely stagnant. The biggest demonstrations in the history of Israel were those four years ago revolving around the issue of affordable housing. These monster demonstrations will be nothing compared to the battles in the future as Israelis fight for their living standards.
Israeli society is split with dozens of fracture lines. Most recently there have been violent demonstrations of Israeli Jews of Ethiopian descent, protesting against discrimination and racism among Israeli police and even in the IDF.
In these circumstances, there has never been a better opportunity for joint activity and a political programme to appeal to all groups of workers, principally Arab workers – who make up a fifth of Israeli workers – and Jewish workers. The election participation by Israeli Arabs was far greater this year than it has been in the past and after the election there is now a large opposition block of 14 left and Arab MPs.
It has been the increasing political activity of Arabs that has provoked extreme right-wing Israelis like the former Foreign Minister, Lieberman, to suggest the transfer Israeli-Arab citizens en masse out of Israel into a new Palestinian state – although the PLO/Fatah regime has no more appeal to Israeli Arabs than it does to Israeli Jews.
Netanyahu’s response and political message is one-track. His entire political career has been built on the alleged “existential threat” to Israel – whether from the PLO or from Iran. He has nothing else to say in politics. “When we talk about housing prices and about the cost of living,” he responded to the official report, ”I do not for a second forget about life itself. The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Taken together, Israel and Palestine are like a giant tinder-box, a ticking time-bomb. Any number of issues can provoke a new round of protests among Israelis over austerity and cuts in living standards. Any number of issues can provoke a new intifada of Palestinians in the occupied areas. A hard-hitting EU report on Jerusalem in March warned that the city was reaching a “boiling point”. The leaked report talked about a vicious cycle of violence…increasingly threatening the viability of the two-state solution.” The cause of this tension, the report notes, has been “systematic” settlement-building in “sensitive” areas of East Jerusalem, including the eviction and demolition of Arab houses and frequent incursions of Jewish worshippers in the Haram-Al-Sharif mosque, the third most important holy site for Moslems.
What is lacking in this whole situation is a movement across the whole of Israel/Palestine that can appeal to the interests of all Israeli and Palestinian workers, offering national rights and emancipation to the one without threatening the existence of the other; offering better living standards, peace and security to both. The organisation in Israel of the unified Arab/left bloc to fight the election in March was a step forward, but should not remain a purely electoral or parliamentary bloc. It could open up the possibility of a genuinely unified political organisation and programme. Such an organisation could build workers’ unity on the basis of the day-to-day struggles for jobs, wages, working conditions, health, education and housing. It could also reach out to Palestinian workers in the occupied areas, disgusted and disenchanted by the corruption and mismanagement of the Palestinian Authority. But what is needed, above all, is a programme of boldness and clarity, based on the fundamental ideas of workers’ internationalism, public ownership and democratic management of the main levers of the economy and for socialist a Socialist Federation of Israel/Palestine.