Israel: Election results indicate the deepening political crisis

Another unstable government guaranteed

Less than a month after the end of the last bloody onslaught on the residents of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank was put under a military closure, as the gloomy election for Israel’s 120 seat Knesset (assembly) began. Many went to vote reluctantly and many refrained. The results are not only an expected nightmare for the working-class, but also a headache for the Israeli elite.

The Gaza Strip massacre was conducted on purpose during the run-up to the election. The results, however, show that the ruling parties did not manage to gain from it. The ruling party Kadima (“Forward”) kept its position as the biggest party, but only because a certain ‘lesser of evils’ vote allowed it to grab votes from other establishment parties. This even caused a slight increase in the turnout, from 63.5% in 2006 to 64.7% this time (although the turnout among Israeli-Palestinians and youth seems to be relatively low; no official figures are available yet). Kadima nevertheless dropped from 29 to 28 seats, a bad share for the biggest party, second only to the 26 seats achieved by former prime minister Ehud Barak’s coalition list “One Israel” (extended ‘Labour’ party) in 1999 – the result then was also assisted by a temporarily different voting method.

The secondary ruling party, Avoda (“Labour”) suffered its worst ever electoral blow, down from 19 seats to 13. Its little cousin party, Meretz (“Vigour”), has plunged to its own all-time low of three seats, after it attempted reshaping itself as a more mainstream party.

This is a further crumbling in the support base of the Israeli ruling class’s old traditional parties, which are wrongly called ‘left-wing’.

The more right-wing, conservative Likud (“Solidification”), which in 2006 achieved its worst ever electoral result – a mere 12 seats – has now got 27 seats, nearly tying with Kadima. Likud’s support plummetted in the 2006 elections, hit by a response to its hated neo-liberal agenda, combined with the consequence of establishing Kadima, which was meant to be a more stable governing tool for the ruling elite. It failed, and Likud has managed to win many of Kadima’s former voters, after spending some time out of the ruling coalition.

Liberman’s nationalist populism

Another party strengthened is the autocratic, racist, right-wing party of Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel Our Home”), which waged a vicious anti-Arab campaign with the slogans: “Only Liberman understands Arabic [language]” and “No loyalty, no citizenship”. The party increased from 11 to 15 seats, becoming the third party. This is less than predicted before the elections by the different polls, and is not comparable to its major jump in the 2006 elections, before which it had only three seats and was considered a right-wing Israeli-Russian party.

Liberman’s party currently manages to exploit the political cracks and the growing popular rejection of the traditional establishment parties. It has won votes from some highly despairing and disgusted sections of Jewish workers and poor. It has a core of support among Israeli-Russians, but generally speaking, the rise of such a party is not a phenomenon unique to Israeli politics, it has been evident in recent years, in different forms, in some European countries as well.

Liberman and his party tend to say loudly what the main establishment parties only imply, and this is partly why Liberman is not well liked among the ruling elite. He is presenting the real face of the brutal Israeli capitalist regime, as a self-titled “Thatcherist” with an autocratic, racist agenda.

Like many other leading politicians, Liberman has been involved in infamous corruption scandals (under ongoing investigation) and thuggery, including a reported past short activity in the outlawed fascist-Kahanist group Kakh. But at root, this is also a party of chair-chasers, it has been a member of each of the last three governments, going in and out of them over various nationalist pretexts. In the outgoing government Liberman served as deputy prime minister and the minister for “strategic matters”, until his party quit the government in 2008.

With the help of God, yes we can

The establishment parties ran desperate election campaigns, with not a few imitations of Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign. The right-wing populist religious party Shas even had the slogan: “With the help of G-d, yes we can”, and declared they were aiming for 20 seats. They dropped from 12 to 11. This was despite them trying to use populist demands, for instance they called for a "pension for every worker" and an increased minimum wage.

So ignorant are the capitalist politicians and their ‘professional’ advisors, that they interpreted Obama’s victory as a mere demagogic trick, thinking that they can ignore the real reasons behind the historical crumbling of the establishment parties in Israel. Dreaming of the degenerating US political system, Kadima leaderTzipi Livni dared to say during her campaign that people shouldn’t look for a political party agenda, but for the personality they prefer.

As the macro-crisis in the Israeli political establishment worsened over the years, particularly as a result of growing alienation of the Israeli working-class from the elitist-capitalist establishment, the ruling parties have tried new tricks to bypass the fact that they simply cannot convince enough voters. Every now and then the ruling parties, under general pressure from the ruling elite, implement new means intended to truncate democratic features of the political system even further, in order to stabilise their ability to govern.

At the time of writing, it is still unclear who the next prime minister will be, but all the main politicians and institutionalised media commentators speak about an urgent need to strengthen the ruling parties via even more barriers to small parties, and a change in the governing and voting model. Some, like Liberman, speak again of a “presidential system”, meaning increased centralised power in the hands of the prime minister.

Another unstable government

Since the Israeli state was established, only two governments out of 31 have managed to survive a four-year term, and they did so under exceptional circumstances. The first case was due to an extreme wave of reaction following the 1967 war, which resulted in the biggest ever electoral support for a ruling party in Israel. Then the pendulum turned, and the second case was following the ‘change-over’ of 1977, when the gigantic ruling elite parties were taken down after three decades in power, via a ballot-box revolt, that was exploited by Likud. It is highly unlikely that the new government will manage to be the third one to last so long.

Speaking of historic records, December 2008 saw an all-time record in the scale of redundancies in the Israeli economy. The Israeli central bank has set its interest rate to a record low of 1%. The bank also had to update its prognosis for economic growth in 2009 to a negative figure of -0.2%. The price index has been negative since November. While still not yet formal, economic recession is already here and it is going to impact on politics.

The next government, whether it is headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu or by Kadima’s Livni, will be faced not only with an unstable division in parliament, but more importantly with growing social unrest, especially as Jewish and Arab workers engage in inevitable struggles.

There have already been many workers’ disputes and struggles in Israel in recent years, including slowdowns, strikes, protests, and blockading of factories.

The recession will have a particularly devastating effect on the occupied Palestinian territories, and this can be expected to be paralleled with increased military oppression.

Whether Obama’s US administration gets more or less collaboration from the coming Israeli government, and even if another short term ceasefire is signed, eventually the Israeli ruling class, with the backing of US imperialism, will continue its agenda of national oppression by any means it finds necessary, including against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The present constellation of parties in parliament also means that the Golan Heights can’t currently be de-annexed. New bloody military adventures are possible for the sake of rehabilitating the prestige of the Israeli army and deflecting attention from the political and economic crises. An attack on Iran is not immediately on the agenda of the Israeli elite, but can’t be completely ruled out, particularly if Obama’s diplomatic efforts prove to carry no results.

Political vacuum

Hadash (the Communist Party front) has achieved its best relative electoral result in 20 years, increasing from three seats to four. Resting mainly on a core base of Israeli-Palestinian workers supplemented with a few thousand Jewish votes, mostly middle-class, it nevertheless is a testimony to the fact that the current economic and political crisis could potentially lead people towards genuine left-wing and socialist organisations that have a working-class orientation. Hadash’s historic policies on various questions have prevented it from becoming a more important point of reference for Jewish workers.

Now Hadash is calling for “building a new left”, and is looking to win voters from former liberal nationalist ‘left’ parties, and particularly young layers. These efforts, along with Hadash’s new self-labelling as a “socialist movement”, are welcome, but in order to achieve a real social change, Hadash must seriously put socialism on its agenda, and make a clear class appeal, instead of speaking with contradictory messages to the different sides of the national divide. While progressing the building of their organisation, the question must be posed: what should they aim to do, apart from parliamentary legislation efforts? How is that going to build a mass struggle to change society? Hadash has a history of three decades of disastrous policies that unfortunately can’t be expected to change dramatically in the short term; but otherwise it could play a positive role in pushing forward a serious organised opposition inside the General Histadrut (main trade union federation), and in working to push forward the idea of the setting up of a broader genuine workers’ party.

The tragic disaster brought by the current global crisis, and the threats posed by right-wing capitalist parties, could emphasise in the eyes of many workers the urgent need for independent organising of the working-class.

There has never been in Israel’s history a genuine major workers’ party or a big political left camp. The so-called ‘left’ parties were the most loyal guardians of the development of Israeli capitalism, with its nationalism and militarism, right from their inception as middle class nationalist parties with some Stalinist rhetoric. They were never built by a workers’ movement through struggle, nor for the sake of workers’ struggle. Today’s Israeli working-class will have to start to take up this task.

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February 2009