Beware: A Long Diary
This diary is long even by my standards. If you have an unshakeable preconceived notion about Israelis being fascists or Arabs being at fault, then we don’t need each other anyway and you are free to go off on a 200-comment flame war elsewhere. To all the rest, even though the dynamics (as usual) are simple and universal, the details are a bit convoluted. Moreover, people with some of the facts and a lot of prejudice have been promoting analyses which take even more detail to debunk. I am trying to make the IP101 texts focused, but given that the price of text in kilobytes is so cheap, I’d rather aim for clear, comprehensive and interesting writing, than for soundbites and punchlines. So thanks in advance for bearing with me.
Right Wing Nation?
The bare electoral facts are dismal. Israel’s outright rejectionist bloc – that is, all parties that oppose Palestinian independence in any meaningful form – has won 65 seats out of 120. On this point, Israeli election pollsters (notoriously "a bit off") have been correct. Among these 65 MK’s you will find a range of charming ideas – from kicking Palestinians out of the country, to stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship, to intense studies of how to build the Third Jewish Temple (on the ruins of the mosque sitting there, I presume) - to just believing Arabs are not quite as human as us (a belief currently held among many shades of Israel’s Orthodox spectrum).
But this is not all. Kadima – still the largest party, just barely, with 28 seats to Likud’s 27 – is quite wrongly described as "center" or even "center-left" by the media, and is not counted among these 65. Let us refresh our memories about Kadima: when the 2006 election campaign was launched, Kadima was formed out of thin air by then-PM and Likud leader Ariel Sharon. It would be a wild stretch of the truth to claim that this Likud split was ideological. The contingent of Likud politicians following Sharon to Kadima is hardly distinguishable from the lot that stayed behind with Netanyahu. The Kadima crowd was joined by a far smaller number of chameleon-like Labor politicians, who have remained in the Likudnik’s shadow ever since.
Moreover, one can hardly describe the actual policies of the outgoing Kadima-led government from 2006 to the present, as anything but right-wing. Let us put these policies in perspective: from Israel’s first elected government in 1949 until 2006, Israel had launched three wars. Now, during Olmert’s tenure, Israel has launched two wars of choice in two-and-a-half years. Anyone who argues that "the present days are more difficult" and therefore these wars do not indicate a policy tendency, can be answered with an Obama-style reminder of just how difficult Israel’s challenges were, how formidable its adversaries, back in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. And no, the fact that Labor was junior partner to these wars still does not make embarking upon military adventures at every junction, a "moderate" policy.
So Israel’s parliament now has 28 right-of-center and 65 hard-right seats, out of 120. Of the remaining 27, a few Arab seats (about 5-6 of the 11 "Arab-party" seats) are not really progressive by any measure, but rather Palestinian-nationalist or Islamic. True liberals and progressives seem to be a nearly-extinct minority in Israeli politics right now.
Where Did All these Votes Come from? And Where are They Going?
How does all this happen? How does Labor – which seemed unable to shrink any further below the 19 seats it got in 2003 and 2006 – fall to 13? (actually, 12 and a bit; they got the 13th courtesy of Meretz, its junior partner; but leave aside this geeky numbers point) And does Likud’s jump from 12 to 27 indicate a widespread "born-again" embrace of its nationalist ideology? If so, how come Kadima stayed at practically the same strength with all this vote movement? Let’s do a little basic electoral math.
First, lest I be accused of "explaining away" the results: the elections took place in the aftermath of war, a war characterized by unprecedented displays of bloodthirst in the Israeli public sphere. The inevitable ceasefire deal that will calm hearts and minds a bit, still awaits somewhere in the near future. So the electorate remained emotionally charged on election day, doubtlessly causing a certain rightward "jigger" whose exact amount is hard to quantify. To make this more tangible, imagine that Paulson-Barnanke et al. would have managed to drag the financial world a few more months without collapsing, so that the collapse would have happened after the American elections. Arguably, the presidential race would have been much closer then.
In any case, the war’s short-term effect has not been the major mover and shaker of votes – as I will now explain. To see why, we need to go back to the previous elections of 2006, which terms of voting patterns were an anomaly:
- Taken against a relative calm (thanks to a year-long Hamas ceasefire), 2006 elections were dominated by domestic issues of corruption, economics and social justice.
- Labor, traditionally relying upon secular, well-to-do Ashkenazi (East-European-origin Jews) votes, narrowly elected as its head Morocco-born Amir Peretz. It was the first time ever that a Mizrahi (Middle-East-origin Jew) led a major party to the general elections. This attracted many Mizrahis, who generally support Likud or the fundamentalist Shas, to Labor. About 5-6 seats’ worth of that constituency switched to Peretz-led Labor in 2006. As a result, the party came in first place in localities it hadn’t done so in an entire generation.
[Anyone who doesn’t believe me, I challenge you to look at raw local data: it is available - in Hebrew, of course - from the Knesset website.]
Why didn’t Labor rise, then, in 2006? Because many of its traditional voters – especially the over-50 Ashkenazi crowd – didn’t feel like voting for a party "stolen" by a primitive Moroccan. Others from that constituency simply continued a long-term exodus from the crumbling Labor brand (to be discussed below). And so, for example, in posh localities north of Tel Aviv, Labor was nearly wiped out in 2006 – its voters flocking to Kadima and to the retirees’ party (a hoax that came out of nowhere to grab seven seats, and has disappeared back into the void this time around).
Now, in 2009 without Peretz at Labor’s helm, Mizrahis went back home to the Right. Meanwhile, Ashkenazis who left Labor in 2006 (and 2003) had no tangible reason to come back home. Labor is a tired and aging brand that has failed to renew itself (again, see below), and it has been junior partner to Likud-Kadima policies throughout the period. If there is no daylight between Kadima and Labor, and if Kadima is ostensibly more powerful and dynamic, then why go back and wear those smelly old socks?
This has left Labor hovering around 15 seats at best for these elections. Then, at the last moment, Labor and Meretz voters flocked to Kadima in a purely strategic attempt to block Netanyahu. So there you have it: Labor’s slide during this decade has been continuous rather than sudden, but it was masked in 2006 by the anomalous Peretz candidacty.
Back to Likud now. So, about a third of its 15-seat rise came from the aforementioned Mizrahis returning home. Another third was poached off of smaller wingnut and Orthodox parties – who lost a combined 4 seats in spite of their high-birth-rate electorate increasing demographically from one election to the next. The final third are probably 5-7 seats’ worth of 2006 Kadima-voting Likudniks who didn’t like the experience – whether from ideology, from Kadima’s corruption and ineptitude, from being "jiggered" back towards Likud due to the war - or just from not wanting a woman prime minister. Thus, in spite of probably losing a couple of seats to Lieberman, Likud still managed an impressive increase without any massive, ideological sea change in the Israeli public.
If you are still with me, you should realize by now that most Israelis don’t vote policy or ideology. Rather, they vote identity. Jewish Israeli society is still not far removed from an amalgam of immigrant tribes, separated along ethnic/religious/cultural lines. The 1980’s, ostensibly a period of polarization between "Left" and "Right", were really a battle between the two largest tribes: Ashkenazi and Mizrahi. Mizrahis got tired of this fight first, fed up with Likud siphoning off their votes to pursue wingnut policies and leave their concerns and priorities to rot. Some Mizrahis went to Shas – a fundamentalist Middle Eastern party not unlike the Islamic parties that can be found anywhere from Turkey to Iran. Shas has been giving back enough tangible "product" to Mizrahis, to become Israel’s most stable political force in these tumultuous times.
Other Mizrahis decided in 1992 to experiment with Rabin’s Labor or even with liberal Meretz – enough of them did so, to tip the scales and end the decade-long "Right vs. Left" standoff. Mizrahis also largely stayed on the fence during the Oslo years. In their place, wingnut Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox took to the streets to carry and eventually dominate the Right’s agenda, and so during the 1990’s the Right vs. Left war was mapped onto, and confounded with, the secular vs. Orthodox culture war.
[Aside: with all this domestic drama, who has time to pay attention to what’s really going on in the Occupied Territories? Or to what should be the best policy to resolve the Occupation quagmire? Or even to notice that there is an Occupation? Rhetorical questions.]
Anyway, most Israelis still vote their identity. Ashkenazis and other Labor voters culturally affiliated with them (i.e., supporting a Western-oriented cosmopolitan lifestyle), the bulk of whom were never "peaceniks" or "Leftists" in any meaningful sense of these words, have found new electoral homes with parties that symbolize more closely this tribe’s ideal self-image: Westernized, techie, pragmatic, up-to-date and culturally superior to the surrounding Middle Eastern and religious environment. The first such attempt – the anti-Orthodox Shinui which mushroomed in 1999 and 2003 – was too devoid of anything but image to survive for long. Kadima (as Sharon and his inner circle shrewdly knew) is an "improved" version of the Shinui experiment. Traditional Labor voters, who wouldn’t be caught dead voting Likud, now have absolutely no problem voting for a bunch of Likudniks pursuing Likud (or, to be generous, Likud-lite) policies – once they bear the socially "clean" Kadima label. I have first-hand knowledge of this: longtime Labor voters in my family - my dad, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, to name a few - have gone to Kadima in 2006 and 2009. Their actual political world-view has remained the same regardless of whom they voted for. They were never peaceniks, nor right-wingers.
In the same vein, it maybe somewhat of a relief to know that fascist, overtly racist Lieberman has not expanded his electoral realm far beyond the Russian public (whose electoral potential is over 20 seats). Lieberman went from 11+ seats (rounded down to 11) to 14+ (rounded up to 15; who said election math always makes sense?). These 3-seats-worth vote gains came mostly from yet more Russians flocking to him from Likud, Kadima and retirees’ voters. In spite of catering to the entire wingnut base and stacking his list with non-Russians, he got from the latter mostly sympathy. When push came to shove, they went to their own identity parties (Orthodox or wingnut), or to Likud which also catered heavily to the same base, was free of the unappealing "Russian" label, and had the trump card of "we must be the largest party to win." How do I know? Simple: look at the electoral maps. For example, Jerusalem – by far the most right-wing among major Israeli cities – gave Lieberman, who claimed to be the far Right’s new standard-bearer, only about 6%. It is also known that Jerusalem has absorbed a far smaller share of Russian immigration than other parts of the country. Meanwhile, Haifa, a traditionally moderate Labor bastion now having a large Russian population, gave Lieberman 16%.
So, do each tribe’s representatives really speak their voters’ minds when they all pull to the right – or do they think it is politically safer to keep well to the right of their base’s presumed center-of-mass? I tend to conclude the latter, but this is an open question.
But why have Ashkenazis deserted the Left?
As said above, the head-to-head Ashkenazi-Mizrahi political wars ended in 1992 with many on the Mizrahi side becoming tired of them (well, not all; Shas certainly continues them with gusto; but the ethnic overtones have become somewhat secondary since Shas fights with everyone). Moreover, the bulk of the generation of secular and mildly-religious Israelis – whether Ashkenazi, Mizrahi or mixed – who are now about 45 years old or younger, do not feel the same ethnic antagonism and are in fact turned off by it. For years this increasing younger bloc has been seeking new electoral homes, and shunning Likud and Labor which symbolize the politics of the past.
So during the 1990’s both major parties experienced brand fatigue and organizational rot, and were also hammered by the electoral reform mandating a dual vote – one for party, one directly for PM – which was in effect in 1996 and 1999 (and also a special PM-only vote in 2001). From 1992 to 1999, Labor went 44, 34, 26 – while Likud got 32, 32 and 19. Both declining; neither having much to brag about. In fact, if anything the pendulum was swinging to the Left: the younger post-ethnic public was embracing a Western multicultural self-image, definitely more at ease with left-of-center leaders than with right-wing ones.
So what happened?
Unfortunately, as usual, there is a right-wing explanation for Labor’s slide as well. And as usual it relies upon carefully selective memory. [Did you know that the economic crisis was caused by Liberals forcing the banks to lend too much money to poor brown people?] The 1990’s part of Labor’s slide, so goes the story, was brought about when the Israeli public saw its peace efforts leading to terror waves. Granted, three deadly attacks in 1996 which have killed 50 Israelis and 10 others (in revenge to the assassination of a Hamas terror mastermind), were instrumental in Netanyahu’s election victory that year. But three years later, in spite of loudly claiming for himself the credit for "defeating terror" (with very little justification; that’s another story however), Netanyahu was soundly booted out of office. Moreover, in 2001-2002, Sharon’s policies of escalation, military incursions, the de facto dismemberment of the Palestinian Authority, burial of the Oslo process, and avoiding negotiations at all costs – have led to several terror waves of the same size as the 1996 one, an unprecedented carnage totaling many hundreds of dead Israeli civilians. If Israelis were indeed voting mostly according to "the terror factor", then in 2003 Sharon should have been sent to the garbage heap of history, and Labor moderate Mitzna elected in his place. But Sharon won in a landslide.
No, the "terror" explanation is way off mark. As we saw, both Labor and Likud, Right and Left were vulnerable during Israel’s volatile 1990’s. Rather, it’s the second explanation – of what happened since 2000 – that is correct. And on that part there is an almost-universal agreement.
The explanation boils down to one short speech by Labor prime minister Barak, televised live to the nation. It was in early fall 2000, a few weeks after the Camp David summit had failed, and a few days into the riots opening the Second Intifada. Barak said there (quoting freely here):
I have turned every stone on my quest for peace...
...There is no [Palestinian] partner.
For the Right, this is factual proof that they have been correct all along in their analysis of the situation. After all, the previous year Barak had forcefully campaigned (and won in a landslide) on the promise to revive the murdered Rabin’s commitment to negotiate peace. Leaving aside the murky "was the Right right then?" debate, let us instead look at what Barak did, from a cold domestic-politics perspective. And make it more tangible using an imaginary American scenario.
Imagine that sometime next year, when economic indicators fail to stabilize, Barack Obama faces the nation and says
I have turned every stone on my quest for economic recovery...
...Big government and taxing the rich is not a solution. It is the problem.
Or (perhaps a closer analogy)
I have turned every stone on my quest for peace and reconciliation with the Muslim world...
...There has been no counterpart to my quest. This is indeed a clash of civilizations.
Now close your eyes and imagine what this would to the Democratic party, or to Obama’s re-election chances.
Indeed, in the special elections he himself called a few months later (the genius!), Barak lost in a landslide. To make matters worse, no politician to the left of Barak spoke out against him, and except for a brief two-year stretch Labor has been a fifth-wheel tagalong to Sharon and Kadima governments ever since.
There are more details to be added, of course, but I feel I can I rest my case.
Now What (or: Clusterf**k Revisited)
By contrast to Labor’s self-destruction, Likud approached its 1990’s brand weakness in typical right-wing fashion, and saw it instinctively (and, on a superficial level, correctly) as a marketing problem. Thus, in 1999 senior Likud operative Lieberman branched off to cater to the Russian vote, and in 2005 Sharon split off to gather the Laborite vote – with Netanyahu still catering to Likud’s original bloc and trying to expand it in other directions. This electoral strategy (though not coordinated in advance), perfectly tailored to Israel’s tribal voting patterns, has culminated this year - yielding 70 seats for Likud’s three heads combined! Thus, the most stable and "natural" government right now would be a Likud-Kadima-Lieberman reunion of old Likud. Lieberman’s participation can be easily explained away in America – where a Jewish-American PR troop is already busy applying industrial quantities of lipstick to that pig (and the MSM picks up the shpil, calling Lieberman "controversial" and "accused of racism", rather than correctly describe his campaign and agenda as overtly racist). But outside the US this won’t go down well.
This is still a picnic compared with a hard-right narrow Netanyahu government. Besides needing all 6 components of the 65-seat bloc (the two smallest – and most extreme – parties, will probably watch each other’s back and act in concert), it will be impossible to market to the outside world as anything better than what Hamas has to offer, as far as extremism is concerned. The remaining option – combining most of the 93 right-wing seats (perhaps leaving the most extreme 7 outside for PR sake) – will be more of a seating arrangement than a functioning government. As to Labor, at present it seems that some signs of self-preservation have finally awoken there, the catastrophic Barak is weakened, and most members are adamant against joining any government. (they might still crawl in though, with them it's always a possibility)
Looking back at the public, the rejectionist majority bloc is mostly supported by three tribes: the Mizrahi, the Orthodox and the Russians. Mizrahis are arguably the most flexible and open to compromise with the Arabs – even more so than the formerly "leftist" Ashkenazi-affiliated voting bloc (here’s a dirty little secret: ethnically speaking, Most Mizrahis – Israel’s largest voting bloc - are really Arabs. Shhh: don’t say that to wingnuts, their heads might explode). Russians – a new and million-strong contingent – have vacillated between Right and Left in the 1990’s, which were for most of them their first decade in the country. Since 2000 they have landed solidly in the Right, swayed not only by Barak’s capitulation, but by the constant racist barrage of Russian-language Israeli media – compared to which, Rush Limbaugh would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet Russians are far from hopeless: I can easily envision them ditching Lieberman for something better, or even for non-bloc voting, sooner rather than later when the right circumstances arrive. The toughest nuts to crack are the various Orthodox sub-tribes, where unfortunately a rather racist and nationalist brand of Judaism (eerily resembling America’s Christian Right) has taken strong roots. But they too will come around, or at the very least can be neutralized.
Zoom onto the Ashkenazi-affiliated tribe, to which I belong. For the first time, it has now joined the three others in placing its bulk vote to the right of center. For years, Ashkenazis – who still dominate the country’s economy, media, academia and even most of its politics - have blamed the lack of progress towards peace upon the other three Jewish tribes. I have always found this rhetoric to be cowardly, even anti-democratic. Now the masks have finally fallen. All along, this has not been the fault of one tribe or another, but rather a general lack of political will across the board.
From what I hear back home, Israel’s predominantly Ashkenazi upper-middle-class is now falling into an inevitable time out for some soul-searching. I hope enough people within this bloc will understand that they cannot continue trying to be Western, enlightened, connected to the world, prosperous – and support what their governments have been doing in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon. Once they realize that, they may discover that removal of their support is possible, and that – given their social role - such a removal can be highly effective and empowering, even without a need to wait for the next elections.
They will need outside help to realize this.
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