Seven weeks after the 22 January election, Israel has a new government. Benjamin Netanyahu continues as prime minister.
Under pressure from the ruling class with their capitalist system now more affected by crisis, the result of which has seen a slow down of growth over the course of 2012 (average 3.1%), the weak incoming government has to implement a tough austerity budget.
At the same time the possibility of “third Intifada”, a new uprising of Palestinians against the ongoing oppression, is debated in the Israeli media. And the resistance of Palestinians is growing. Protests developed again and again against the occupation including a recent wave of strikes for higher wages and against price hikes in the West Bank.
The winner of the Israeli elections – a TV show master
Netanyahu called for early elections with the aim of strengthening his position which would allow him to impose an austerity budget with more ease. But his plan backfired. His joint slate with the far right “Israel Our home” party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, lost 11 of its 42 seats. Now he has had to form a coalition with the united and now larger Settlers’ party "Jewish Home" headed by the millionaire Naftali Bennett together with the shooting star of the elections, millionaire Yair Lapid. Yair Lapid is a mainstream television host who succeeded attracting a significant vote, particularly among well-established middle class voters, portraying himself as a loyal representative of the "middle class" with his party Yesh Atid ("There is a future"). Both of these parties had promised "new politics" and sought to play on the widespread public revulsion towards the former government.
Netanyahu and Lieberman have been punished for their policies over the last four years. Especially the mass protest movement in autumn 2011 which revealed the growing anger and frustration over the issues of rising prices, housing problems, job insecurity and the social misery that exists in Israeli society. Workers’ struggle against rail privatizations, strikes of social workers and doctors and growing industrial unrest forces even the right wing Histadrut leadership, Israel’s main trade union association, to let off some steam and organise strikes and protests.
But the winner was not the traditional pro-capitalist and Zionist “Labour Party” with its new leader Shelly Yachimovich, backed by some of the leaders of the social protest movement of 2011. She tried to present Labour on the one hand as "a continuation" of the protest movement against the economic policies of Netanyahu, and on the other as a "non-left", "responsible", "centre" party. The "protest" camouflage didn’t work: Just six months before the elections, according to the polls, her party was expected to win around 20 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset; she ended up with only 15. People mistrusted all of the established forces. Kadima, the largest faction in the former parliament, was split and long before the elections was predicted to incur significant losses. In the end it fell from 28 to 2 seats.
This prompted the search was for a new political force. Meretz, a smaller left-liberal party, gained out of this to some extend. But the winner was the former journalist and TV show master Yair Lapid with the party formed around his personality called “There is a future” (Yesh Atid).
Coming from nothing they took most of the space left by Kadima and won a total of 19 seats (14.3%), winning the highest number of votes in Tel Aviv, followed by Likud/Beytenu, then Labour and Meretz. On the other hand, in poorer working class areas, Lapid was almost non-existent electorally.
Lapid, who had previously stated his opposition to the economic policies which emerged from the social protest movement, nevertheless tried to present his party as neither neo-liberal nor social-democratic – nothing of the "old politics". He would take care of the "middle class" that "works, pays taxes, goes to the military, and finds it hard to make ends meet". Part of the campaign whipped up incitement against the ultra-orthodox Jews, one of the poorest sections in society (presenting a restrained version of the venomous demagogy of his deceased father politician, Tomi Lapid). "Where is the money?" was one of the primary slogans of his campaign, and his answer wasn’t the Tycoons and the Settlements but the number of ministers in government and the ultra-orthodox Yeshiva students. He mixed a promise to build 150,000 new apartments for rent (which was adopted by the new government), with a promise to significantly raise the threshold in order to stabilize the government in Israel (the new government agreed to promote legislation to double it from 2% to 4%, which could force smaller factions to unite lists).
His hollow platform on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was launched in the Settlement Ariel amidst chauvinist promises to convince to Palestinians to give up their demand of having a capital in Eastern Jerusalem – "I don’t care what the Palestinians think, I care what the world thinks" in order to explain his support for renewed negotiations. Immediately after elections he declared arrogantly that he wouldn’t form a block against Netanyahu with the "Zo`abis" (after the racist witch-hunted Israeli-Palestinian Member of the Knesset (MK), Israel’s parliament, Hanin Zoabi of Balad), implying to all Arab-Palestinian MKs.
A major part of Lapid’s attraction was the fact that he had not yet been exposed as a politician. No one on Lapid’s slate has ever been elected to parliament before. However, they are not the innocent new nice guys that they present themselves as. A big proportion of their representatives were in the past linked to political parties as local politicians (from far-right and Meretz) and advisers or they were CEOs of different companies with high ranking positions in big business etc..
Unfortunately, their voters have been duped in their search for an alternative to the established parties.
Coming austerity budget
Ironically, Lapid is now the new finance minister. But this worries even the capitalists, that this rich person, politically untested, should oversee a plan of cuts. They might try to use him as a tool to achieve a reliable government (compared to a government just of right-wingers and settlers that the ruling class might find difficult to control). However, the effects of Lapids’s economic program of cuts coupled with his neo-liberal agenda (with a thin vein of populism) are beginning to deplete the initial hopes that many people had in him.
To give Lapid the job of finance minister was a clever move by Netanyahu to expose him. However, this can also encourage resistance against the coming cuts and increases in tax, which this rich and arrogant television host wants to impose.
The discussion on the coming austerity plans linked to the two years budget has already started as currently there has been no official budget plan for 2013. The budget law will have to be voted on in parliament around July-August. Plans were discussed in the capitalist media to implement cuts of 30 billion Shekel (8.1 billion US-$ / 5.4 billion GBP) and 10 billion Shekel (2.7 billion US-$ / 1.6 billion GBP) of tax increases. Collective bargaining agreements in the public sector are targeted, children benefits under attack and the public transport budget is being threatened with cut backs. VAT increases are planned and a rise in tuition fees is also a possibility. He already declared, "the picture is worse than I thought, we’ll cut in painful parts".
This is a recipe for battles to come with organised labour and the possibility of a renewal of the social protest movement that developed in 2011.
Minor concessions may be granted but overall, given the dire economic prospects and the gap in the budget, this capitalist government does not have much choice but to attack.
The Labour Party might try to present itself as an alternative and might gain electorally. Some other well-know figures of the social protest movement are now members of the Knesset for Labour and are attempting to resist steps to draw it into the coalition. However, the Labour leadership has no real alternative to the budget cuts and is determined to support this centre/far-right government for example in relation to the “negotiations” with the Palestinian Authorities.
New negotiations with Palestinians?
On the background of stronger waves of protests in the West Bank, the Israeli media are debating the likelihood of a “third Intifada”, a new mass uprising against the occupation and oppression. For example, protests of hundreds of Palestinians in different towns led to new clashes with the IDF, the Israeli army, in the West Bank in March after a Palestinian prisoner was tortured and died in custody. Again and again protests developed against the occupation, and a recent wave of strikes and protests for higher wages and against price hikes, raised strong calls against the economic agreements with Israel and the collaborationist role of the Palestinian Authority with the occupation.
A new mass uprising along the lines of the first Intifada with mass demonstrations, strikes and general strikes is justified. This is necessary to defend the Palestinian people against the ongoing occupation and suppression. Socialist Struggle Movement, the CWI in Israel / Palestine, is fighting to end the occupation and Settlements, and end the discrimination, expropriation and oppression of the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line and for a socialist confederation in the Middle East. Only then it would be possible to solve the questions of living conditions, housing, jobs and water, to end oppression, nationalism and racism. The struggle for such a confederation including a fully-independent socialist Palestine next to a socialist Israel, with full democratic rights for all minorities, can offer workers and the poor a strategy, respecting an equal right of self-determination, the needs of security and peace on both sides of the divide, to develop a joint struggle and collaborate with the Jewish workers against the Israeli capitalist and nationalist rule, that ultimately exploits them.
However, the two states solution the capitalist powers and a part of the Israeli ruling class are speaking of has nothing to do with such a solution. Tzipi Livni, ex-leader of Kadima who split away and the former foreign minister in Olmert’s government, is now part of the government and is asked to start negotiations with the Palestinian Authorities (PA). However, her approach is just to appease the international community, try to overcome some of Israel’s isolation and continue the oppression. There might be some token concessions in her mind – to upgrade the PA to a formal state, the release of some of the more than 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners. This would still be a “state” under the control of the Israeli regime forced to exist under intolerable economic conditions, dominated by imperialism and its forces in the region. And Livni is just one of the coalition partners, while Bennett’s party – also part of the government – is openly calling for a massive annexation of most of the West Bank.
A restart of negotiations would not see a repetition of the huge hopes within the Palestinian communities that existed around the Oslo agreements in 1993. Even then those hopes were short-lived, as the “peace process” brought a deep worsening of living conditions for most Palestinians, including strict limitations on the rights of movement and work, accelerated swelling of settlements in the West Bank. Their numbers have tripled since then (numbering over half a million including East Jerusalem). New negotiations might postpone an eruption of a wider movement of Palestinian protests in the very short term. Nevertheless, they will not offer any substantial solution and therefore are doomed to fail.
“The world around us was changing for the worse”, was Netanyahu’s view on the Arab spring – the mass uprising against dictators and for democracy. For the oppressive Israeli regime its position worsened. Its position as the only nuclear power in the Middle East and the major military force is put into question. The surrounding dictators who kept their people in check and suppressed protests and opposition including the Palestinian refugee’s demands for a fundamental change of their living conditions are gone or weakened. While the changes in the regimes for example in Egypt are not sufficient to meet the needs of working class people and mainly created new tools to maintain capitalist rule, they are significantly weaker in suppressing the anger of the masses, also the rage about the ongoing oppression of Palestinians.
The last war against Gaza, which was started by Netanyahu last year to put a break on these developments and to show Israel’s power – and to some extend to boost Netanyahu’s election campaign – ultimately lead to a strengthening of Hamas. While the Israeli capitalist commentators were – for Israeli standards – sceptical about the Gaza war because of its timing and how it was done, the regime needed to reinforce its position and try to turn back the clock against the Arab spring.
This points towards future wars and new escalations, even possibly a colossal war with Iran, unless new mass movements emerge alongside the development of stronger organised forces of the working masses in the region to stop them. This will be also part of the fight against this new government.
Preparing for battles
Confronted with the perspective of new protest in Israel and in the occupied territories, the government is also preparing further attacks on democratic rights.
One of them, as mentioned, is the plan to double the threshold to enter the Knesset to four percent, which will make it more difficult for small opposition parties and especially the Arab-Palestinian parties to get elected in parliament. However the question of a political alternative to the government and all the established parties will stay on the agenda.
Hadash, a coalition around the Communist Party of Israel (Maki) with a predominantly Arab-Palestinian electoral support, has used some socialist rhetoric in its elections campaign, and emphasized a call for nationalization of the banks. But it failed to put forward similar slogans in a bold way in the social protest movements as well as hiding behind pro-capitalist Labour Party forces and right wing elements in the Trade Union field. As a result of this it only gained an additional 1000 votes and saw its vote actually decline in the municipal areas. It maintained its four members in the Knesset (3%), but it is stagnating.
In the period ahead, the battle to form a new mass workers’ party that could attract both, Jewish and Palestinian workers can develop in a more favourable arena for socialists: New battles are developing in the social and industrial field. Workers’ Histadrut, teachers’ organizations and doctors’ organizations have already threatened strike actions if they are attacked. "The workers are not a cash-machine of Netanyahu – he cannot put his hand to their pockets and take money in order to cover the deficit" said Eini, the Histadrut leader.
The students have started to discuss the possibilities to fight against possible cuts in high education budgets or rising tuition fees. Although the student’s leaders currently count on Lapid not to proceed with those attacks, this is not at all certain, and even if such a "divide and rule" tactic were to be used by Lapid, there’s a potential for a layer of students, with adequate preparation, to combatively fight all cuts. Socialist Struggle Movement (SSM) is involved in these and other discussions and initial protests. SSM argues to link this struggle to a strategy to unite students, workers and the social protest movement to fight the plans of austerity as well as the government itself.
The deep national divide and new tensions with Iran are there and might be further used to try to push these movements back. The need to develop the understanding of the divide and rule tactics and to broaden the struggle against the occupation within the Israeli-Jewish working class are still huge tasks. However, the honeymoon period for the government will be short. New battles are inevitable.