Israel: Likuds’ Pyrrhic victory

The final results of the Israeli elections are a clear victory for Prime Minister Sharon’s party, Likud, which won 38 seats, up from 21 in the outgoing Knesset (parliament) and double the number achieved by Labour, the traditional party of the Israeli ruling class.

The result could be seen as a guarantee for a more stable second term government led by Sharon and Likud, but this is clearly not on the agenda.

The combination of a severe and deepening economic and social crisis and a continued bloody conflict with the Palestinians creates enormous instability, and effectively rules out any government completing its four-year term.

This is clearly understood by most Israelis, as a pre-election survey shows: 29% said they expect the next government to last up to and around one year, another 34% said it would last around two years, while only 17% believed it would complete its full term. Most Israelis also see that no change (at least for the better) is forthcoming. This lack of hope, or rather widespread despair, together with a generalised crisis of confidence in political parties, can explain the poor turnout – 67.8%, the lowest result ever in elections for the Knesset and down from 79% in 1999.

While a little more than three million Israelis unenthusiastically went to the polling stations in "the only democracy in the Middle East", around the same number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were subject to a tight closure, with most cities under a complete curfew for several days. This was justified by Israeli spokespersons citing alerts for attempts to disrupt elections through armed attacks inside Israel, but the fact remains – for every Israeli exercising his or her right to vote, there was a Palestinian denied freedom of movement. The IDF also carried through large-scale land operations in the Gaza Strip, although stopping short of a full invasion of the area, which could prove costly in Israeli casualties.

Why "the Left" was defeated

The Labour party, the ruling party for the first 29 years of Israel’s existence (and historically the Israeli ruling class’s favoured party of government), suffered a severe blow, going down from 26 to 19 seats, its worst result ever. In part, this is the price Labour has paid for tail-ending Likud in the "national unity government", sharing in the responsibility for the government’s economic and other failures but without benefiting from the tendency of Israeli Jews to support "a strong leader" when threatened by frequent suicide bombings inside Israel. However, the collapse of the liberal-reformist Meretz party, tumbling from 10 to 6 seats after being in opposition, provides another reason important reason: Labour and Meretz have been the parties most strongly identified with the Oslo peace process, which is widely seen on both sides of the national divide as a complete failure. The two parties, besides not providing a real alternative on the economic issues, still offer variations on the Oslo theme as the only solutions to the national conflict. Although most Israelis do not yet understand that the Oslo process was doomed to collapse because it was a capitalist deal made at the top, with no regard for the interests of ordinary Palestinians (and Israelis), they do recognise the corpse of Oslo when they see it, and reject parties attempting to revive it.

The clear support for Sharon shown by the Bush administration also played a role. In the 1992 elections, the Bush Senior administration demanded a freeze on settlement building as a precondition to the US giving guarantees for the large loans Israel needed at the time to finance the absorption of the large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. When Shamir, Likud Prime Minister at the time, refused to accept the conditions, the administration quite openly switched its support to Labour and Rabin, and that had an effect in assisting Labour’s victory. This time round, the Bush Junior administration made public its willingness to provide similar guarantees to support Israel’s depressed economy just a few days before elections took place in a clear show of support for Sharon.

Godfather Part I

Recently, socialists explanation of the link between capital and political power have been graphically explained to Israeli citizens by many of the ’fine’ people of the Likud party leadership.

Three corruption scandals have exploded over the past weeks, leaving their mark on Israeli politics and the ongoing election campaign.

The first scandal was exposed by Ma’ariv, Israel’s second biggest daily. This exposure may perhaps be explained by Ma’ariv’s intense rivalry with Yediot, the widest selling daily, since one of Likud’s major political figures, finance minister Silvan Shalom, is married to one of Yediot’s owners. His wife Judy holds 12% of the paper’s shares, while her relatives own most of the rest.

This was the bribery scandal in Likud’s Centre (the party’s body of several thousand electors picking the candidates for parliament), featuring people from organised crime groups (two or three of them) who made a big impact on these primaries.

The first press reports, as well as information coming from a sympathiser of our organisation working at the convention, made clear that the internal election campaign involved insane sums of money. In just one day candidates operated stalls giving out free hot dogs and beer, produced huge shows calling on voters to support them, as well as matchboxes, pens, shirts etc. One candidate, a businesswoman, had her sign hanging from giant construction crane. Another paid motor-propelled parachute flyers to fly over voters’ heads with signs bearing his name.

That day, the media started talking about this "carnival" or "festival". Some journalists and commentators spoke about how nice it is to see "democracy in action" in this "party of the people", while others expressed revulsion.

When the results came, it became clear that the huge investments in pens, flying devices etc. had no real effect on the elections, acting as the decoration for an orgy of corruption. Unsuccessful candidates started telling the media and police about the demands by voters to receive bribe in return for backing a candidate or securing a group of voters. Influential and not-so-influential members of the Centre shamelessly stated the price per head of a vote. One Centre member organised for his friends a stay at a luxurious hotel, other perks included, paid for through candidates’ money (or at least one, a vice-minister).

The media took an interest in one of the fresh candidates likely to become a member of Knesset (parliament) after the elections, and found out she was backed by a crime family who owns several casinos abroad. This family has been trying for a long time to legalise casinos in Israel, and with this aim in mind had in the past set up "The Iraqi Group". This was a group of MK’s, rightwing and "leftwing", who developed close ties with the father of this new politician, spent time at his casino in Turkey, and in return acted to promote the legalisation of casino gambling in Israel. In the past, when asked about this Iraqi Group, the candidate’s father said, "and what of it? The Moroccan Jews take care of themselves, we’ll take care of ourselves", trying to explain away his ties with these MK’s by the fact that like him, they were of Iraqi origin.

This candidate’s public record before making Likud’s list is equally amazing. She had been active in Likud Youth (the youth group used by the party in election campaigns, and whose activists must be younger than 18), and then served in the army’s radio station. Since her release from the army she had not been active in Likud politics until the beginning of the election campaign.

Another mobster who played an important role in these primaries is Musa Alperon, a well-known king of the underworld with many convictions in his past.

He had been elected to the Centre from his local branch, pushing aside a group of long established Likud activists from his area of residence.

The third, also a Centre member, was formerly part of Alperon’s gang, collecting debts. This person was a member of a group of Likud activists who took over the Ramat Gan branch (the Finance Minister’s Likud branch), a group that included the finance minister.

Today, it seems, he is tied to (and perhaps owns a part of) a security firm that has won a fat contract from the state, entrusting it with guarding the country’s border checkpoints. He also has ties with one of the Prime Minister’s sons, who during and before Sharon’s term in office advised him on foreign as well as home issues.

The media raised a hew and cry over these revelations, and some outlets pushed them with a frenzy, behind which stood the "responsible" capitalists, who tend to be supporters of Likud’s direct competitors, the so-called Labour party.

In the past two years the Israeli capitalists have made clear their preference for a "National Unity" government which would balance Likud and make Sharon less dependent on the parties of the extreme-right settlers and the ultra-orthodox.

Some of them were clearly worried over the polls, which at the time had shown Likud at close to 40 seats. They tried to undermine Likud’s apparent strength, but have succeeded only to a very limited degree.

Sharon found a convenient victim/scapegoat in Naomi Blumental, a vice-minister implicated in this scandal, threatening that if she remained silent when interrogated by police, he would fire her. When this actually took place, Sharon was said to have "proven" himself to be an "honest and responsible leader".

At the same time Likud’s champions of the rule of law used the threat of war in Iraq to try and sneak corruption headlines through the back door. As Maariv headlines were shouting "Corruption", Yediot cried "War". While many talked and wrote about Likud corruption, a noted journalist claimed on the state radio that "people are trying to denigrate a glorious movement because of a few individuals".

Initially the polls put Likud a bit closer to Labour, but still without any hope of a "left" victory, and the reason becomes clear at a deeper glance: most people polled by Haaretz daily answered that Labour and Likud were equally corrupt!

Lack of trust in the political system has become generalised (with lack of trust in the media almost on the same level). This, added to the general despair in society and the atmosphere of an approaching (additional) war, put Likud almost back to where it was before this scandal was revealed, in spite of two other scandals which followed hot on the first one’s heels.

Godfather Part II

The other two scandals involving Sharon have been the Greek Island affair and the story of his dealings with South African millionaire Cyril Karen. Both, like the first scandal, involve bribery, and both show, even more clearly than the primaries issue, the link between big business and politics.

The Greek Island affair features David Appel, an Israeli millionaire implicated in several past scandals, as well as Greek politicians (including the Mayor of Athens), P.M. Sharon’s second son and Ehud Olmert, Mayor of Jerusalem (also a prominent figure in Likud).

The Karen affair concerns a donation of some 1.5 million Shekels (£200 000) to one of Sharon’s sons by the South-African tycoon, in order to cover a debt incurred during Sharon’s campaign in the previous Likud primaries (the limit on a single donation to a political party is 1,800 Shekels or £250).

Sharon has entangled himself further when his answers to these accusations included obvious half-truths and omissions, and acting on his advisers counsel he eventually held a special TV address. He gave a very nervous performance, blatantly attacking his political rivals and "persecutors" without providing real answers, and ended up being dramatically taken off the air on the orders of judge Hashin, head of the Central Electoral Committee (Israeli election law prohibits the broadcasting of "election propaganda" in the immediate period preceding elections outside designated time-slots).

This unprecedented step by judge Hashin, taken just when it seemed the heat was on Sharon, turned out to provide a miraculous salvation for Sharon and Likud. Their spin was that Hashin, a typical specimen of the "leftwing" Ashkenazi elite in the judiciary, media and establishment in general, had maliciously intervened in order to silence Sharon and weaken him politically. This proved to be very successful, as traditional rightwing voters who have been repelled by the scandals saw the interruption of Sharon’s press conference as an attack on their camp and started "coming home" to Likud.

Another reason why these scandals didn’t have a lasting effect on support for Likud was the widespread perception that "they are all corrupt", and that Labour in particular isn’t any better. The only significant change produced by these events was the rise in support for Shinui.

This party has extreme rightwing economic policies, and of its ten first candidates for Knesset there is only one who is not Ashkenazi (European Jew), and of course no Arabs. Shinui’s campaign fed on the campaign run by Shas, the ultra-orthodox Sephardi (Oriental Jew) party, and vice versa. Shinui supposedly opposes religious coercion and privileges to religious organisations, but in practice spreads communal hate of the worst kind. The party openly calls itself "the party of secular people and the middle class", and talks almost exclusively about the ultra-orthodox "leeches" who do not serve in the army and live "at our expense".

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it has almost no serious platform other than a national unity government without the religious parties, it made the big leap from 6 to 15 seats, coming third and only 4 seats behind Labour. This success also resulted from the voters being fed up with Labour and from the lack of a real alternative.

No mood for elections

Its important to understand that there was never a more anemic election campaign in Israel. Party activists were rarely seen on the streets, and very few cars had stickers on. Israel during elections used to look like a political marketplace, with stickers on almost every car, posters hanging on many balconies and leaflets handed out in any main or not-so-main street. All this was gone this time round.

The lack of enthusiasm was clear both among Likud voters and among those supporting its opponents. The overall results were obvious more than a week before election day, and the parties only kept fighting over the leftovers with their closest competitors. Likud fought the other rightwing and religious parties, Labour tried to steal votes from Meretz, and the extreme rightwing parties fought over which is the most bloodthirsty.

An influential local paper of the Tel Aviv area, known as a "left" paper and owned by a well-known capitalist family that supports this so-called left, has over a long period published articles attacking Mitzna’s opponents within Labour, and more recently articles excusing his expected defeat. When Rabin and Barak won election victories for Labour, they did everything they could to eat into Likud’s traditional electorate. Mitzna’s problem was that Barak’s legally dubious method of using non-profit organisations to channel election funds has ended in moral and actual bankruptcy, and Labour’s terms in government – including under Sharon up until three months ago – have proved to Israeli workers that it doesn’t represent a real alternative.

One People

The ’workers’ party’ dominated by the Histadrut (trade union federation) bureaucracy, One People, led a very conventional advertising campaign, focusing on its leader’s moustache and claiming the title of "the only social party". It had no reference to the Likud scandals, perhaps in order not to appear too "radical", or because the party leaders do not wish to take consciousness "too far" ahead. While Meretz used the slogan "we have the energy to separate capital from government", this ’workers’ party’ kept silent on these issues. Nevertheless, the acute social crisis and the lack of an alternative for many workers enabled the party to make some gains, going up from two to three seats.

What was missing was a party with a national profile and roots amongst the working class which could say that the system is to blame, that the scandals are not exceptions and that all capitalist parties are run this way. The gaping vacumm that exists has forced local groups of activists to attempt to put forward electoral alternatives. Two new anti-capitalist organisations were formed which ran their own lists. The unemployed activist, Avi Ovadia, set up one called Lahava. Another party, Zaam (Fury), was set up by community activists in a run-down so-called ’development town’ in the south of the country. Although these lists did not manage to win seats, the fact that they were set up in the first place shows the depth of anger amongst activists and wider layers of the population towards the established political parties and marks an important development.

In future, Ma’avak Sozialisti (CWI’s affiliate in Israel) will be part of the process of putting forward an alternative to the established capitalist political parties. Such a socialist message can have a real impact, and it is clear that in future when we have grown in membership and have more influence in the labour movement, a Ma’avak Sozialisti initiated list would find a ready audience.

Not so long ago the idea of "separating capital from government" was considered by social activists and organisations as extreme or irrelevant, but today its clearly on the public agenda. Corruption scandals have helped more see this link, and to a more limited degree the effect of the rule of capital on their own lives.

The invasion of well-known mobsters into the ruling party, which is still under police investigation, has scared some people into looking for an alternative, if only an electoral one at this stage. The Green Leaf party (a green party advocating cannabis legalisation) got more than one percent and came close to entering the Knesset. Its voters are mainly young, and tend to think "they’re all rubbish, so let’s vote for someone who will make a mess in the Knesset".

Despite decisions by the Central Electoral Commission to ban one Arab party and one Arab candidate for Knesset (decisions which were later overturned by the Supreme Court), provoking some radical protests, turnout among Israeli Palestinians was even lower than the general turnout. In the Arab towns and villages there were campaigns by Abnaa ElBalad (Sons of the Village, a left-nationalist movement) and the radical wing of the Islamic Movement calling for an election boycott. Significantly, the only Arab party which made substantial gains was Balad (National Democratic Alliance, a secular Palestinian and Arab nationalist party), which faced the most vicious attacks from establishment politicians and the Jewish media.

Forming a coalition under the shadow of war

Sharon can now form a narrow rightwing coalition, but prefers another "national unity" government with Labour that would be more acceptable both to the US and EU. This kind of government is also needed in order to push through the next round of budget cuts (estimated at 8 to 15 billion Shekels or $1.6 to 3 billion), beyond the cuts already approved in the budget for 2003. According to the finance ministry plans, the largest part of the cut will come from an unprecedented attack on the public sector, with up to 9% of the workforce (60,000 workers) made redundant, and a wage cut of up to 10% for the remaining workers. This will necessitate breaking the collective wage agreements which still defend most public sector workers, and is bound to provoke resistance even from the fossilised bureaucrats controlling the Histadrut (TUC), whose members are mostly from the public sector. With this in mind, it is clear why Sharon, as well as the Israeli ruling class, is almost desperate to patch up as wide a coalition as possible, in order to minimise opposition to these brutal austerity measures at least in parliament.

The problem is that Labour leader Mitzna seems to understand that support for his crushed party could only be rebuilt in opposition. The capitalists can easily dictate policies to Labour politicians, but forcing them to commit political suicide is a different matter. Sharon’s last ace is the planned US war on Iraq, possibly within the next few weeks, which he plans to use as a justification to drag Labour (and the Liberal/anti-religious Shinui party, with its 15 seats) to an emergency grand coalition. It is quite likely that Sharon plans to stall and use up most of the 50 days he still has, delaying the final negotiations until hostilities in Iraq begin.

Effects of war on the conflict with the Palestinians

War in Iraq would undoubtedly have an impact on the "low intensity war" in the occupied Palestinian territories. With the eyes of the world turned to Iraq, there is a possibility of Sharon’s government trying to finally crush the second Intifada. Possible scenarios include a full invasion of the Gaza Strip, one of the last strongholds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the deportation or otherwise removal of Arafat, especially as a response to a major suicide bombing; or even the forced expulsion of parts of the Palestinian population, providing a suitable pretext can be found.

All of these options are likely to provoke mass Palestinian resistance, leading to a further escalation of the conflict. Additionally, there is the prospect of Israeli counterstrike against Iraq in the event that Iraqi missiles or other weapons hit Israel. Threats have already been made that in response to a chemical or biological attack, Israel might resort to a nuclear strike, thus irrevocably setting back the chance for a future reconciliation in the region.

Sharon probably believes that in the aftermath of a short and "successful" war in Iraq conditions in the region will allow some kind of a political settlement of the Palestinian question, a settlement even more biased towards the interests of the Israeli and American ruling class then the Oslo accords were. A Palestinian mini-state might be granted to an even more servile leadership after Palestinian "regime change" has been accomplished, with most or all Israeli settlements staying in place.

But even in the highly improbable event that "all goes according to plan", such a solution will not provide even the temporary respite of the Oslo years. Either way, the coming months will see the new government fighting wars on two fronts competing for dominance: the war in Palestine and the class war against Israeli workers.

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February 2003