Whoever wins the Israeli election (and like the proverbial Bulgarian beauty contest, that might be “no-one”), the likely third place victory of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitanu (“Israel, strap yourself in”, I’m sorry “Israel Home”), pushing the Labour party into fourth place, indicates a decisive historical change in the country — and one would presume, the beginning of the end of it, in its current form.
Three hours after polls closed, Kadimah and Likud are running neck-and-neck. The former has a possible one or two-seat lead, 30-29, based on exit polls, but these do not measure the votes of serving soldiers — and in any case, such a result going either way, would effectively be a draw.
Since part of Kadimah arose from Likud, and since Lieberman is on the other side of both, the result can only be seen as a decisive victory for the right. Though Lieberman’s group appears to have won around 15 seats (about three to five less than initially forecast) Labour looks likely to drop to 13 seats from around 19.
The result above all, is a mess. Labour is now no longer of sufficient size for Kadimah to put together a coalition with it, the two parties having about 50 votes, and a couple of smaller parties making up the oher 10 needed to get to the magic 61 majority. Kadimah would now need Labour plus three or four other parties to make up the 18 seat gap, giving it an Italian-style ricketiness, which is exactly what the electorate doesn’t want.
Alternatively, President Shimon Peres may go to Likud’s Bibi Netenyahu — he may be obliged to, as the President has to, act on the advice of factional leaders within the Knesset when choosing a potential PM to form a government — who would have the possibility of going either to the left, and creating a Likud-Kadimah-Labour coalition based on a shared rejection of the hard right, or going to the right and forming a government with Beitenu, the orthodox Shas (to get to about 55 seats) and one or two others.
Or, on the basis of groupings around reform of the electoral system there could be a Labour-Kadimah-Beitenu grouping, presuming Labour and Beitenu’s members could stomach each other which is doubtful.
Should Beitenu enter a government at the same moment as Labour falls to minor party status, an era will close in Israeli politics. From 1945 to 1977 Labour was in continuous power, and there was an implicit feeling that the ostensibly universal spirit of Zionism — that its claims on the land could be made without a cost to the Palestinians — could only be represented by Labour, even when the country was in an occupation.
Menachim Begin’s 1977 victory put that illusion on notice, and began, or accelerated, the process by which liberal-minded people in general and diaspora Jews in particular had to start to make some hard moral choices. The degree to which a US global media has reconstructed or obscured the early history of Israel has essentially given us two Begins — the “doughty, gritty” PM of the 70s and 80s on the one hand, and the former terrorist leader of the 40s, whose was a figure of hatred and loathing in Britain, and Australia for that matter. Indeed, just before his first visit to the UK, a small crisis was averted when it was realised that there was still an outstanding warrant for Begin’s arrest on capital murder charges.
Likud and Begin represented what could not be acknowledged in the fake consensual version of Israel’s founding — that it was founded with great violence, much if it the conscious direction of terror towards civilians, principally Arabs, but also British, and others. In the wake of the holocaust, and the post WWII revival of anti-semitism in Europe, one can understand the ruthlessness of the Zionists, but understanding is not the same as justification.
Since then effectively, the character of Israel has been in suspension. The mainstream version represented by Labour had always based itself on the pious hope that Arabs would accept them (as pre WW2 a number indeed did — but the reality of the state’s creation had been that of Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism the movement from which Likud ultimately sprang. Zabotinsky — the first in a long line of Zionists to be called a Jewish Hitler, by, erm, David Ben-Gurion — argued that Arabs would have to be expelled or turned into a permanent minority within a Jewish state, which would need to be established on both sides of the Jordan, turning towards the Arab world an “iron wall” until it was accpeted they were here to say.
Though the “both sides of the Jordan” strategy has been abandoned, the settlement-building in the West Bank that was accelerated wildly under Yitzhak Shamir — a man the British had arrested in 1943 for collaborating with the Nazis* — was effectively the continuation of this. The crazy logic of settlement building, its remorseless expansion, as anything that might form a contiguous Palestinian territory was sliced and diced into unfeasible statelessness. The bizarre defence of continued building — that it was acceptable even though it breached the peace terms because Palestinian terror attacks continued — has been a fundamental expression of the deep unseriousness of the Israeli right-wing elite’s purported desire for peace.
Yet having finally ditched the illusion that the country and the movement is developing along the optimistic consensualist lines laid down by Herzl and Weizmann in the bucolic pre-WW1 days, and thus ditching the Labour party, all but the most unashamedly chauvinist Israeli Jews are left with a dilemma regarding the country’s paradoxical citizens, the Israeli Arabs to say nothing of how the country will relate to the wider region. Once you have acknowledged that implicitly with your votes what direction are you taken in?
Surely it is only one that has been trod before — by white South Africans, Ulster protestants, and anyone else who draws themselves into a pure and embattled identity, ignoring the great shifts of history? How else can one explain the bizarre and self-defeating attempts by the right to push Israeli Arabs so far out of full citizenship — by excluding their parties, and now by Lieberman’s idea of loyalty tests and the transfer of border Israeli Arab villages to the West Bank. What population, subject to the soft apartheid of Israel and the killing of their brothers and sisters, what minority population has been less violent than Israeli Arabs? You could count the terrorist incidents on one hand. Compare Northern Ireland or the Basque country, and it should be seen that they’ve been the most long-suffering of minorities.
The mad attempt to push them to the point where armed resistance becomes a rational and legitimised choice is occurring because paranoia, once off the leash, quickly takes control. Once the official story is that every backyard rocket constitutes an existential threat, how could hitherto unvoiced suspicions not become overpowering? Given current birth rates, Israeli Arabs — without the territories Palestinians — will constitute a majority in Israel by 2040.
What happens then, or before? Jewish emigration is running out of sources — East Europeans who want free land, and fundamentalist Americans fleeing pogroms in Milwaukee. Will Israel contemplate mass transfer of Israeli Arabs, as the electoral success of Lieberman (unthinkable a generation ago) suggests is possible? Will it make a unilateral strike against Iran? Or one with the support of a President Obama?
These days the UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism is seen as symbolic of the mad excesses of the 70s. But the mainstream of Zionism could not exist without, at its mildest, a chauvinism towards Arabs that does not see them as reciprocal. How else could a movement that caims land based on an occupation of it 2,000 years ago, believe that its current inhabitants would simply slink off after a few decades? Only by thinking that deep down, they were simply not as human, as capable of attachment to place, or culture, or sense of right. Ashkelon and Ashdod, the “Israeli” cities occasionally being shelled by their former residents, were Arab cities for 1500 years before 1948. Why would their recovery not be thought of in a similar time frame?
And as the world shifts eastward, how will the Zionist narrative play to a world whose continued support Israel needs, whatever myths of self-sufficiency are deployed. Will China and India really look with much sympathy on a colonial project? Or, deep down, a black American president.
The decline of Israeli Labour has at least stripped some of the mythmaking from Israeli self-maintenance. But whether this remnant of WW1 — facing a similar trajectory to other such entities, like the USSR, northern Ireland or Yugoslavia — will move forward to a sustainable future in a changed form cannot yet be seen. It will certainly go backward into something else, before facing the unavoidable truth.
*Shamir’s group the Lehi (called by the British The Stern Gang, to depoliticise them as gangsters) had tried to do a deal with the Nazis to supply them with guns for an uprising against the British mandate, a startegy even Begin baulked at. Though the Germans and the Lehi met in Beirut in 1943, the deal came to naught. The full story is in Avi Shlaim’s book The Iron Wall.