Israel: Israeli politics fragmented by elections results

Workers need a party of their own!

The results of the Israeli elections, on 28 March, show the political instability of Israeli society. The right wing Likud party, which dominated Israeli politics since 1977, was decimated, dropping from 40 seats to 12 seats. The voter turnout, at 62.5%, is the lowest in the history of Israeli Knesset [parliament] elections, where 80% turnouts were the norm until 1999.

Shinui, the first Israeli party to openly embrace neo-liberalism, was the third largest party in the outgoing Knesset. It is now wiped off the political map, dropping from 15 seats to zero.

Labour and the class struggle

The trigger for the elections was the surprise election of Histadruth [union federation] leader Amir Peretz to the head of the Labour Party. Peretz had, a year earlier, led Am Ehad (a small ‘workers’ party’, which became a channel for the Histadruth bureaucracy) into the Labour Party. Peretz had a reputation for ably expressing the anger of the most oppressed sections of society, although he was distrusted by activists because of his track record of betraying workers’ struggles behind the scenes. Nevertheless, Peretz’s takeover of the Labour Party, the radical populist demands he put forward, and his promise to turn the Labour Party into a ‘social democratic party’, on European lines, generated a wave of enthusiasm and hope that for the first time class issues would be the focus of elections in a country where the official political arguments have always been dominated by security and foreign policy. Thirty thousand new members joined the Labour Party to work for Peretz’s victory, including the popular radio presenter, Shelly Yichimovich, who declared herself a socialist.

But most hopes in Amir Peretz were dashed by his appointment of a neo-liberal professor as his economics spokesman, and by a spin-doctor controlled advertising campaign. The election campaign watered down Peretz’s original demands, on issues such as pensions and the minimum wage, to appeal to former Labour voters who had defected to Kadima.

While the Labour election result of 19 seats is less than Peretz hoped for, and far less than could have been won for Labour if it had campaigned with a semblance of a clear class programme, Labour did well in the most downtrodden areas, such as the development towns, which traditionally voted Likud. Peretz will probably form a coalition government with Kadima. But the illusion that he represents an alternative to the brutal social and economic attacks on the working class that took place under the last government will be tested by events. This will not only weaken Peretz’s support in parliament, but also undermine his machine in the Histadruth. It will help clear the decks for the development a fighting, class alternative in the unions and for a new, genuine workers’ party.

Who is Kadima?

The elections were won by a party which was only formed this year. But, far from being a new force, its ranks are full of some of the most shameless careerists from both the main establisment parties. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon set up Kadima as a ‘Likud-lite’, i.e. a version of the Likud party, without the most crazed nationalists and without the most openly criminal elements. (Of course, Sharon was no stranger to corruption and his son has recently been sentenced to prison for accepting illegal campaigning contributions).

The new Kadima party was hyped-up by the media, and basing itself on the popularity in Israel of the Gaza withdrawal, and promising a continuation of unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank, won high approval ratings in opinion polls.

The polls continued to predict around 40 seats for Kadima after Sharon was put out of action by a debilitating stroke. But the Kadima vote won in the election (28 seats) will make the task of setting up a stable governing coalition very difficult for Ehud Olmert, who is Sharon’s successor.

No solution to the national conflict

The major factor in Kadima’s victory is the promise to continue the policy of unilateral withdrawal. This began in Gaza and it is planned to make some withdrawals from the West Bank. This reflects the position of the Israeli ruling class, which wants to dictate new borders. Olmert pledged to leave large areas of the West Bank, within four years, withdrawing to the ‘separation wall’, and removing the minority of Jewish settlements not in large settlement blocks. This has given many Israelis hope of an end to the conflict, especially as previous negotiations failed.

The withdrawal from Gaza effectively destroyed Likud. But the difficulties faced by Sharon are minuscule compared to the obstacles his successor will face in attempting to withdraw from the West Bank. Less than 5,000 Jewish settlers lived in the Gaza strip, whereas over 250,000 live in the West Bank, including a small but determined messianic hardcore of zealots, who will put up ferocious resistance to the dismantlement of their settlements. The West Bank has a long border with Israel, and the Israeli and Palestinian infrastructure is intertwined. Major Israeli cities would be within range of Kassam rockets if they were fired from the West Bank.

Even if Olmert succeeds in carrying out his separation plan, it has no hope of providing any real independence to the Palestinians or any security to the Israelis. The ‘separation wall’ represents a massive land-grab, effectively confining Palestinians to a open air prison, cut off from their jobs in Israel proper, and robbed of much of their land. There is no hope of the Palestinians having a decent existence, and, therefore, no possibility of this leading to an end of the conflict.

While Peretz offered a more conciliatory approach to the Palestinians, his propaganda was dominated by a hard-line against Hamas. He stated that the newly elected Hamas administration in Gaza was not a negotiating partner. After the election results, Peretz attempted to form a block with Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline nationalist party, which advocates maintaining control of most of the settlements but redrawing the border to effectively deport entire Israeli Arab city populations.

Collapse of Likud

The collapse of Likud, from 40 seats (including the 2 seats of Sharansky’s Russian immigrant party, which had merged with Likud) down to 12 seats, sharing 3rd and 4th place with the Sephardic religious party, Shas, represents a crushing blow to the traditional ‘Holy Grail’ of the Israeli right: the idea of a ‘Greater Israel’, which has become demonstrably unrealistic as a result of the two Intifadas.

On top of this, was the widespread anger at the current Likud leader, Netanyahu, who as finance minister in the outgoing government carried out a brutal neo-liberal policies against Israeli workers, including many life-long Likud supporters.

Pensioners’ Party gains

The surprise new force that came out of the elections was was the ‘Pensioners’ Party’, which won seven seats. The Pensioners won more votes from young people than form pensioners! Young people saw this as a protest vote, and a vote in support of their grandparents, who belong to the generation who founded the state, who sacrificed and workers all their lives, only to be left destitute by the miserable level of state pensions. Many saw a vote for the Pensioners as a vote for decent pensions and for proper provision of healthcare and services for old people. In this sense, a vote for the Pensioners’ Party was regarded as a vote against the policies of crushing the welfare state, as represented by the main parties.

However, the Pensioners Party is led by a capitalist, who made a fortune in deals with Cuba, and who used to head Mossad (the Israeli secret service). Other pensioner list MKs (MPs) are retired union leaders.

Coalition crisis

Olmert’s main programme is a unilateral withdrawal from sections of the West Bank. But the election of a Hamas government in Palestine makes an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict likely. The geographical intertwining of the West Bank and Israel proper, and the large number of Jewish settlers, will make a withdrawal from even small sections of the West Bank many times harder than the Gaza withdrawal, but with a far weaker government to carry it out.

The election creates a fragmented Knesset, with the two largest parties together holding only 40% of seats. Any coalition will require the participation of at least four parties, with the ruling party holding a minority of seats within the coalition. This builds paralysis into Olmert’s premiership, and condemns him to stagger from one crisis to the next. The new Knesset is unlikely to last its full term. And all the major parties will rapidly loose any semblance of credit they enjoy.

Many voters stayed home

The low voting figures in the election, together with the number of protest votes (including 87,000 votes for the pro-marijuana party and for the Greens – which did not pass the threshold for election, despite having enough votes for 3 seats), shows a rising hatred for the corrupt politicians in the pay of big business.

There was not much of an election campaign mood. Very few cars displayed bumper strikers. People cared little which rotten politician would be elected.

But the socialist ideas of Maavak Sozilialisti (CWI in Israel) got a good echo. Jerusalem supporters of Maavak Sozilialisti sold many of their papers at a street stall on election day. In a distorted way, the surprise success of the Pensioners’ Party shows a shadow of the support a genuine workers party, which opposed attacks on the working class, could win.

Israeli capitalism is in crisis. Even the bosses no longer have a party that is capable of stable government on their behalf. There is a gaping vacuum for a genuine workers’ party to mobilise mass resistance to the attacks of an Olemrt-Perezt government. Maavak Sozilialisti will be at the forefront of making this a reality.

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April 2006