The Gaza War Strengthened Israel’s Far Right

ODA Focused on Poverty and Unemployment

The results of the elections to Israel’s 18th Knesset clearly bolstered the far Right, which won 65 of the parliament’s 120 seats. This outcome is partly due to the paralysis that beset Ehud Olmert’s government. Almost three years ago he received a mandate to advance the peace process, but he squandered it on two wars. The lack of progress toward peace has had the effect of strengthening Hamas. It has also encouraged chauvinistic trends in Israel, as expressed in wall-to-wall support for the Gaza War. Israelis turned their backs on the notion that the conflict with the Palestinians must be solved by diplomacy.

Avigdor Lieberman, who heads a party called “Israel Our Home,” became the elections’ main attraction, advancing from 11 to 15 seats and shoving the venerable Labor Party back into fourth position. His campaign slogan went: “No loyalty, no citizenship!” If he weren’t Jewish, Lieberman would be an anti-Semite. Hatred for Arabs was his strongest card, pulling in thousands of the like-minded.

The Lieberman surge is largely a result of the Gaza War. His rival parties, Kadima and Labor, timed the offensive prior to elections largely in order to gain popularity, but Lieberman reaped the fruits. The intoxication of force, the abandonment of all restraint — sheer murder — well suited the party of Strong Man Lieberman, who means to teach the Arabs a lesson they won’t forget.

For Israel the election results signify a big step backward. In 2005, when PM Ariel Sharon broke from the Likud and established Kadima, it was a severe blow to the right-wing ideal of a Greater Israel. After disengaging from Gaza and dismantling the settlements there, Sharon held that the Right was stuck. He claimed to be moving toward the Center. In the 2006 elections, as a result (but also because the remaining Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, had aroused resentment by welfare cuts in his term as Finance Minister) the Likud plunged to 12 seats.

Any prospect of peace through Kadima, however, quickly lost momentum. Sharon refused to work with the Palestinian moderates, preferring unilateral withdrawal. This spared him making concessions in the West Bank, where he wanted to strengthen Israel’s hold with American approval. Then he suffered a stroke. Olmert took over. In the 2006 elections, Kadima won 29 seats, far less than the 40 projected while Sharon was at the helm. Olmert, charged with corruption, could not complete his term. Cornered, stripped of political hope, he began to say things unheard of from an Israeli chief-of-state: that the alternative to withdrawal from the West Bank would be a one-state solution where Arabs would be the majority; that the maintenance of a Jewish State would then require apartheid; that Israel under apartheid would not be able to stand up under international pressure. On the ground, however, Olmert did nothing. The Annapolis program, to which he was partner, remained ink on paper. In the end, his many talks with PA President Abu Mazen produced nothing but “shelf understandings,” stored away for a more auspicious hour.

The strengthening of the Right leaves Israel more entangled than ever. With a Knesset majority that will fade at the slightest concession, the new prime minister faces an American administration seeking regional peace. The prognosis, in short, is for an intensification of Israel’s paralysis. Amid a global economic crisis, however, paralysis will not do. The need for external funding and investment will be greater than ever. This impossible situation will likely breed another round of elections.
Party by party

If Sharon, in his day, moved the electoral map to the left, the recent elections have shifted it back. The Likud recaptured voters disappointed with Kadima, while Kadima — claiming that only a big win could block the hated Netanyahu — took voters from Labor and Meretz. At the same time, Labor and Meretz lost most of their former support in the Arab sector. The result was a major decline. From 24 seats in the 17th Knesset, Labor and Meretz dropped to 16.

This decline reflects the contradictions in which the Left has been mired during years of violence against the Palestinians, as well as in Lebanon. Compare today’s 16 seats to the 56 that Labor and Meretz won in 1992! After the collapse of the Oslo Accords and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Labor began to take part in acts of oppression and warfare: “Operation Grapes of Wrath” (which included the mass killing at Kana in Lebanon), the murderous response to the Intifada in the year 2000, “Operation Defensive Shield” (2002), the second Lebanon War (2006) and now the war in Gaza. Labor’s Ehud Barak adopted Sharon’s slogan that “there is no partner.” He supported the concept of unilateralism, which created a vacuum on the Palestinian side that Hamas easily filled.

Meretz, for its part, offered no political alternative. It has supported all the unilateral steps, and now the cruel war in Gaza. Avoiding the need to cope with the difficult political questions, Meretz focused instead on bringing media stars to its fold and building the illusion of a new movement, social-democratic and green. The gimmick flopped. Meretz lost votes to Kadima. Among the leftists who opted for Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, it didn’t much matter that she had been one of the leaders in the Gaza operation. After all, even Meretz supported the war. On the other hand, hundreds of erstwhile Meretz supporters took umbrage at the party’s war position and voted instead for Hadash, which is chiefly an Arab party. In the Jewish sector, Hadash garnered 7500 votes, compared with 3000 in 2006. Thus Meretz lost votes on both sides, rightward to Kadima and leftward to Hadash.

The elections saw a limited achievement for the Arab parties, which raised their number of seats from 10 to 11. They could do so by fully exploiting the rage felt by the Arab sector after the Gaza War. The clan heads and vote contractors, who in the past worked for the Zionist parties (which won 28% of the Arab vote in 2006) found it difficult this time to market Labor or Kadima. Instead, they divided their allegiance equally among the three Arab parties (Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al and Bal’ad).

The additional Arab seat reflected no increased faith in Arab leadership, but rather a cold calculation by the clan heads, who wanted to maintain their status with the public. These parties offer no realistic action plan for organizing the Arab sector. They shun the burning questions of poverty and unemployment. Avoiding platforms for action, they perpetuate clan-based vote patterns, which have nothing to do with raising consciousness and organizing the public. We can say, therefore, that their 11 mandates represent so many wasted votes, for they cannot influence the centers of decision-making, nor do they reflect real work in the field. The situation remains the same, which is to say that the Arab sector keeps slipping backward.

What’s more, the weakening of the Zionist Left will make it harder for the Arab parties to put through legislation. The Knesset and Israeli public opinion are today full of anti-Arab sentiment. This is fed in part by the development of an impassioned but narrow-minded intra-Arab dialogue, which seeks support by appealing to feelings of bitterness rather than by building social institutions.

The Organization for Democratic Action (ODA-DA’AM), known as the Workers’ Party, was also hurt by the shift to the Right. Nevertheless, the election campaign, headed by Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka, managed to reach new sectors of the public. The failure to cross the Knesset threshold in no way weakens the determination of the party’s members to continue building a new kind of social and political power. In an open letter that the party published after the elections, it declared that, “ODA refuses to be drawn into clanlike patterns of voting.” The ODA election broadcast, produced on a voluntary basis by top professionals, won extremely positive responses. Although these achievements did not translate into sufficient votes, there was an influx of activists into the party’s ranks. The open letter also stated that, “ODA is determined to continue systematic action toward defending and organizing workers in Israel.” The party’s social agenda, moreover, is a bridge for common work between Jews and Arabs. It undermines the dangerous attempt to isolate the Arab population and deepen the hatred between the two peoples.

In the shadow of the crisis hanging over the world, including Israel, the issues of poverty and unemployment will stand at the top of ODA’s agenda in the coming year.

Roni Ben Efrat is one of the editors of Challenge, a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context, where this article first appeared. Published in Tel Aviv by Arabs and Jews, Challenge features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. Please visit their website and consider supporting their important efforts. Read other articles by Roni, or visit Roni's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on February 25th, 2009 at 2:14pm #

    “Kadima and Labor, timed the offensive prior to elections largely in order to gain popularity, but Lieberman reaped the fruits.” Yes, but the fruit he reaped was the fruit of the offensive’s defeat and the PR disaster it entailed. That the offensive was condemned to fail from the outset and that the idea of slaughtering people as an electoral stunt would be viewed askance by the entire world doesn’t seem to dawned on anyone in Israel. The offensive itself was a panic measure and its failure, quite naturally, panicked people even more. That, I think, explains the election result. Israel is stuck in the hole it dug for itself and the more it struggles to get out, the more it gets stuck.

  2. Gideon said on February 25th, 2009 at 5:42pm #

    Palestinians adoption of Gandhi’s non-violence will prevent next war!
    Gaza first!

    Palestinians adoption of Gandhi’s total non-violence, non-violent civil disobedience, economic self-reliance and expanding women rights as a new strategy to achieving independence and should prevent the next war.

    Gaza first!

    Can they do it?

    I will allow many more Israelis to move Left.

  3. bozh said on February 25th, 2009 at 6:03pm #

    total nonviolent resistance to pal’ns way of life by israel will bring a good peace.

    it is needless to iterate, but i will anyway, that occupation; daily shooting at kids, farmers, and stealing land represents a criminal behavior.

    nevertheless, for a decade or so i have advocated that pal’ns do not resist criminal behavior by violence, because they’d lose land either way, the eoccupation wld go on as well, but ?wld lose fewer people.

  4. Barry said on February 25th, 2009 at 7:48pm #

    Gideon – Ah yes, if only the Jews had had a Gandhi, there’d have been no Holocaust.

    Now that you know full well that there is no place for you to stand, you just get sillier and sillier.

  5. Jacob said on February 26th, 2009 at 12:44am #

    “Israelis turned their backs on the notion that the conflict with the Palestinians must be solved by diplomacy.”

    I suppose that failed Land for Peace initiatives had nothing to do with this, nor did the increased violence brought on BY diplomatic measures (Oslo, Gaza withdrawl). I also suppose that history and memory doesn’t play into this either, and that a continued spit-in-your-face approach by radical militants towards honoring past DIPLOMATIC agreements has any direct play into the Israelis decision. (Hamas yet to agree to Quartet’s three demands – renounce violence, recognition of Israel, and honoring past diplomatic agreements) But I suppose just turning their shoulders because they want a good clean fight is the only conclusion!

  6. mary said on February 26th, 2009 at 1:09am #

    Here us a useful chronology of events in Gaza from June 19 2008 leading up to Cast Lead in December.

  7. Shabnam said on February 26th, 2009 at 2:13am #

    (Hamas yet to agree to Quartet’s three demands – renounce violence, recognition of Israel, and honoring past diplomatic agreements)
    Zionist propagandists are so desperate after the Gaza Holocaust that they thing must hide their true face as a mass murderers and toddler killers to survive in order to establish ‘the greater Israel’ according to a MYTH copied from a man made BIBLE using Oded Yinon’s instruction found in “A strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties.” They repeat these lies without realizing that they have already been exposed on the air over and over. The LIE that Hamas must renounce ‘violence’ and ‘recognize Israel’ without require ring the occupier recognition of an existing owner of the land before colonists arrival into the region is amazing. Thus, Norman Finklestein has exposed their lies during the GAZA Holocaust:

    {Israel’s main goal in the Gaza slaughter was to fend off the latest threat posed by Palestinian moderation. For the past three decades the international community has consistently supported a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict that calls for two states based on a full Israeli withdrawal to its June 1967 border, and a “just resolution” of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. The vote on the annual U.N. General Assembly resolution, “Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine,” supporting these terms for resolving the conflict in 2008 was 164 in favor, 7 against (Israel, United States, Australia, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau), and 3 abstentions. … For example, in March 2008 Khalid Mishal, head of Hamas’s Political Bureau, stated in an interview:
    There is an opportunity to achieve a Palestinian national consensus on a political program based on the 1967 borders, and this is an exceptional circumstance, in which most Palestinian forces, including Hamas, accept a state on the 1967 borders….There is also an Arab consensus on this demand, and this is a historic situation. …Israel is fully cognizant that the Hamas Charter is not an insurmountable obstacle to a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border.}