Israel’s rightward shift leaves Palestinian citizens out in the cold

14 February 2013

Middle East Report – 13 February 2013

Shortly before polling day in Israel’s January general election, the Arab League issued a statement urging Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the country’s population, to turn out en masse to vote. The League’s unprecedented intervention — reportedly at the instigation of the League’s Palestinian delegation — was motivated by two concerns.

The first was the appearance of polls indicating that, for the first time in an Israeli general election, more than half of the country’s 1.4 million Palestinian citizens might fail to vote. There has been a gradual decline in turnout among the community since optimism about the Oslo “peace process” peaked in the late 1990s. Voting then stood at 75 percent; a decade later, in 2009, turnout had fallen to a historic low of 53 percent.

The second anxiety was that another low turnout would further erode the influence of what Israelis term the “center-left bloc,” the electoral opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing and religious parties that had joined him in government. In the view of the Arab League, the only hope the opposition bloc had of stopping the formation of another right-wing coalition — and thus an ongoing impasse in negotiations with the Palestinians — was that Israel’s three Palestinian or Palestinian-dominated parties would bring out the minority’s voters and win a large number of seats to bolster the center-left bloc.

In fact, the Arab League’s call revealed a profound, if by now well-established, misunderstanding of Israeli politics, one shared, it seems, even by Mahmoud ‘Abbas and other officials of the Ramallah wing of the Palestinian Authority. It assumed that the Israeli polity can be divided neatly into left and right wings, and that the differences between the two correspond primarily to relative willingness to make concessions to advance the cause of peace. This misperception is one that the Israeli political parties of the right and left have been only too willing to conspire in promoting.

The Mythical Dead Heat

Once the election results were announced, Neve Gordon, a political science professor at Israel’s Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, offered a number of diagrams, graphically breaking down the new Israeli parliament, or Knesset, into different binary combinations. The one that had grabbed the international media’s attention was a mythic one in which the two sides — Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and the center-left — were presented as almost evenly divided, with Netanyahu enjoying a wafer-thin majority of 61 seats to 59.

By this reading of the results, all the predictions of a right-wing surge were upended. It looked as though Israelis were more ready for peace and compromise than had been widely assumed.

This view served everyone well. It helped Netanyahu intimate to the international community that his new coalition would be different from his loathed previous government; it offered the United States and the European Union an opening to revive the moribund peace process; and, presumably, it allowed Ramallah fresh justification for ‘Abbas’ focus on the diplomatic track with Israel, as opposed to the “resistance” tack taken by Hamas, his chief political rival.

This nexus of mutual benefit may explain why few observers, other than Gordon, bothered to consider different ways of assessing the election result.

The professor noted that, in terms of core ideology, 90 percent of the legislators in the new 120-seat Knesset identified as Zionists. The only anti-Zionist Knesset members were drawn from the three “Arab parties,” representing the Islamist, nationalist and communist-coexistence streams among the Palestinian minority. Possibly spurred by the Arab League’s unexpected interest in their franchise, the turnout among Palestinian citizens rose marginally, rather than falling as expected, to 56 percent, though the three parties’ representation — at 11 seats — remained unchanged.

But, more usefully, Gordon offered a breakdown of the Knesset, based on the parties’ platforms, into those legislators willing and those unwilling to make the serious concessions required to move the peace process forward. On that basis, the size of the “peace bloc” grew only fractionally larger on the anti-Zionist one: The three Palestinian parties plus the small left-Zionist Meretz party make up 15 percent of the new Knesset.

No Deal with “Hanin Zu‘bis”

Gordon’s point was quickly illuminated by Yair Lapid, a former TV anchorman and the leader of the new and supposedly centrist Yesh Atid party. In the surprise success of the election, Yesh Atid won 19 seats, putting it only one behind the 20 secured by Netanyahu’s Likud party. Netanyahu had run on a joint list with the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman. Between them, they won 31 seats.

Lapid’s triumph — and his presumed role as kingmaker — was the main reason most observers concluded that the election had proved Israelis were turning away from the right. And yet one of his first declarations confounded the pundits who had been wondering whether he might form an alliance with the other center-left parties, in order either to create a formidable opposition or to wrest the premiership from Netanyahu.

Rejecting those options, and thereby implicitly declaring his intention to join a Netanyahu-led government, Lapid said: “I’ve heard the talk about a blocking majority. I want to take this off the table. We will not do that with the Hanin Zu‘bis. It is not going to happen.” The reference to Hanin Zu‘bi — the Palestinian member of the last Knesset most reviled by Israeli Jews — was revealing of Lapid’s understanding of Israel’s national political exigencies.

Zu‘bi entered the Knesset in 2009 as the first Palestinian woman elected on behalf of a Palestinian party, the National Democratic Assembly (NDA). She was reelected in January. In her first term, she was quickly thrust into the role of public enemy number one. Her crime was to participate in the international aid flotilla that tried to break the siege of Gaza in May 2010. The lead ship on which she sailed, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, was attacked by the Israeli navy in international waters. Nine humanitarian activists were killed.

Because of her status as an MK, Zu‘bi was the first of the activists released. She returned with an eyewitness account of Israeli brutality aboard the Mavi Marmara that gave the lie to Israel’s account of what took place and helped to stoke international criticism of Israel’s action. As a result, she was hounded in the Knesset chamber; demonized by politicians and the media; and subjected to a wave of death threats from the Israeli public. She had confirmed to most Israeli Jews their suspicion that Palestinian MKs and the Palestinian minority they represented were a fifth column.

Lapid’s choice to single out Zu‘bi — coupled with his use of her name in the plural — suggested that he shared precisely this view. His words reflected an assumption among Israel’s Jewish public that all the Palestinian parties had demonstrated their “treachery” in supporting the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, Lapid avoided having a Palestinian candidate on his slate, even in a low-ranking slot where the candidate was unlikely to win. (Apart from Meretz, the other center-left parties also failed either to include Palestinian candidates on their lists or to put them in an electable position.)

In fact, the taint on the Palestinian parties in Israeli Jewish opinion runs deeper still. In pursuing their main domestic agenda — a campaign for equal rights, encapsulated in the demand for Israel’s transformation from a Jewish state into “a state of all its citizens” — the parties have found themselves accused of acting as a “Trojan horse.” That is, they are charged with seeking to undermine Israel as a Jewish state on behalf of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. It is this paranoid perception on the part of Israel’s political and security establishments that has increasingly fueled demands from the Israeli government that ‘Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks.

Lapid was simply following an established precept in Israeli politics that the duty of Israeli Jewish parties is to uphold and defend the Zionist consensus. That consensus consists of several core principles: that Israel should be a Jewish state, or ethnocracy, that represents worldwide Jewry, not its own ethnically mixed citizenry; that a viable Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories would be a strategic threat to Israel and so its emergence must be prevented; and that Israel’s Palestinian parties should never be allowed to exercise influence over policies drawn from either of the first two precepts.

Only one Israeli government has ever dared to violate this last principle. Yitzhak Rabin allowed the Palestinian parties to support his minority government from outside the coalition, a pact that enabled him to advance the Oslo process in the early 1990s. Even though he kept the Palestinian parties at arm’s length, the arrangement outraged the right, which saw it as an act of unconscionable betrayal. The inflammatory rhetoric against Rabin, including from Netanyahu, heated up the political climate that motivated Rabin’s assassin to pull the trigger in 1995.

Rabin’s killing did not entrench support for the Zionist left, as might have been expected; instead, it brought Netanyahu to power for his first term as prime minister starting in 1996. Any doubts that the Palestinian parties were illegitimate partners in government were erased once and for all. In the same speech in which he distanced himself from the “Zu‘bis,” Lapid noted that the vote had been a demand from the electorate for “normality” — a normality, it seemed, that required the continuing exclusion of the Palestinian parties from political power.

Hostility in the Knesset

The Palestinians MKs are only too aware of the increasingly active hostility to their presence in the Knesset chamber. As Ja‘far Farah of the Mossawa advocacy center told the International Crisis Group in 2012: “For our community, there has been a dramatic change, as racist rhetoric eats its way into the mainstream public debate. In the 1980s, Likud participated actively in marginalizing overtly racist politicians, like Meir Kahane. Today, Likud politicians sit next to racists in the governing coalition.”

That antipathy toward the Palestinian parties has also extended to their electoral base, the Palestinian minority. A series of bills introduced in the last Knesset sought to limit the rights of Palestinian citizens based on the premise that they were not fulfilling their obligations. The ideological inspiration for much of this legislation was the 2009 electoral campaign of Avigdor Lieberman, later to become Netanyahu’s foreign minister, under the slogan, “No loyalty, no citizenship.”

The main Zionist parties wield clout during election campaigns through a highly partisan body known as the Central Elections Committee, overseen by a High Court judge. Over the past decade the Committee has become an instrument for efforts to delegitimize the Palestinian parties and question their right to participate in Knesset elections.

These efforts have focused chiefly on the NDA, a nationalist party founded by former philosophy professor Azmi Bishara in 1995, soon after the signing of the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO. Bishara made two main changes to the political profile of the Palestinian minority. First, he brought to center stage the contradiction between the demand for equal rights and the Jewishness of the state, popularized in his campaign for “a state of all its citizens.” And second, fully aware that Israeli officials would not willingly accede to the refashioning of a Jewish state, he treated the Knesset principally as what one of his officials termed “an arena of confrontation,” using it to highlight the limits of Israeli democracy.

Bishara’s success can be measured by the degree to which he changed the discourse of his main political rivals, both that of the Islamist-dominated United Arab List (which includes the Ta‘al party of Ahmad Tibi) and, more grudgingly, that of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a joint Jewish-Arab party, known in Hebrew as Hadash, with a communist lineage. The new consensus was cemented with the Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, a document jointly published in 2006 by the main political organizations that incorporated much of Bishara’s thinking.

Behind the scenes, these developments were viewed with concern by Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shinbet. Months after the Future Vision’s publication, it emerged that the Shinbet had warned the government that the Palestinian minority’s demands for equal rights constituted “subversion” and that Israel should act in accordance with the principle of a “democracy defending itself.”

A short time later Bishara was forced into exile, after he was accused, improbably, of having helped Hizballah target sites in Israel with its rockets during the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. A former Shinbet official explained the rationale behind Bishara’s expulsion to the International Crisis Group:

Israel has two ways of dealing with Israeli Arab politicians who are perceived as a threat to the system: domestication or expulsion. Either you subdue these people or you force them to abandon the stage altogether. When Azmi Bishara declared his support for a binational state, it was seen as a great threat, almost a declaration of war. After he was ostracized, his relevance quickly was reduced. He still writes for a few Arab newspapers and occasionally gives interviews on Al Jazeera, but the Jewish majority of Israel does not have to relate to him anymore. For the Israeli security establishment, the Bishara case was successfully solved.

This thinking has seeped into the political arena, too. Just as the Shinbet decided that the threat posed by Bishara could best be ended by removing him from Israel, many politicians concluded that the threat contained in the political agenda of the Palestinian parties could best be resolved by removing them from the stage offered by the Knesset.

The Disqualification Merry-Go-Round

Questioning the right of Palestinian parties, especially the NDA, to contest national elections has become an established feature of each campaign of the past decade. But the main Zionist parties have been able to move beyond mere threats into concerted efforts to disqualify the parties and individual candidates through the Central Elections Committee.

In the 2003 and 2009 elections, the Committee disqualified the NDA, both times with the open support of the Shinbet, and also targeted elements of the United Arab List. In each case, the Committee’s decision was overturned on appeal to the High Court.

Because of its joint Jewish-Arab membership, the Democratic Front has so far avoided this fate, even though some of its Palestinian members have been individually harassed. The party’s leader, Muhammad Baraka, for example, has been subjected to a series of dubious legal actions by the state and is currently on trial for allegedly assaulting a soldier during a West Bank demonstration.

Israel’s right-wing parties appear to be aware that they would not need to bar all the Palestinian parties to end Palestinian representation in the Knesset. It is generally assumed that, were one of the Palestinian parties to be disqualified, the others would feel compelled to pull out of the running, too, in solidarity.

The 2013 election was expected to run according to the script of previous elections. But while the right floated several motions to ban the NDA and the United Arab List, the Committee ultimately rejected them, albeit narrowly in the case of the NDA (for reasons considered below).

Instead, the Committee zeroed in on the NDA’s Hanin Zu‘bi, the easiest possible target. The decision was reached despite an advisory opinion from the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, that there was “no sufficient, exceptional critical mass of evidence” that would support her ouster.

The Basic Law on the Knesset makes disqualification of a party or individual candidate possible if they have incited racism; denied Israel’s Jewish and democratic character; or supported armed struggle or terrorism against Israel. The committee pointed both to Zu‘bi’s participation in the 2010 aid flotilla, declaring it “support for terrorism,” and to her rejection of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. But the case against Zu‘bi was so insubstantial that few observers doubted it would be overturned by the court.

NDA officials pointed out that she had not personally chosen to embark on the Mavi Marmara. The High Follow-Up Committee, a body representing the Palestinian minority as a whole, had decided that the community should be represented, and her party had then selected her. Similarly, her ideological positions about Israel’s character simply reflected the NDA platform. Party officials vowed to boycott the election should she be banned.

There were other obvious problems with the case. In 2011, the attorney general had closed the investigation into Zu‘bi’s participation in the flotilla, having found no evidence she broke any law. Furthermore, Israel had not declared the Turkish charity behind the Mavi Marmara to be a “terrorist” organization at the time of the flotilla’s launch. In fact, one of Zu‘bi’s lawyers, Hassan Jabareen of the human rights group Adalah, surprised the court by revealing that the group had not been designated as such until a few weeks before the case’s initial hearing.

But, as a Haaretz editorial noted, evidence was beside the point: “What we’re dealing with is a political crusade against all the Arab political parties.” An opinion poll in December 2012 showed that 55 percent of Israeli Jews thought a ban on Zu‘bi would be justified.

As expected, the High Court overturned Zu‘bi’s disqualification and did so unanimously. Following the decision, Zu‘bi observed that “this ruling does little to erase the threats, delegitimization, and physical and verbal abuse that I have endured — in and outside the Knesset — over the past three years.” For dramatic effect, she had intended to make her statement to the waiting media as she left the courtroom. But instead she had to be ushered out a back door to safety, as more than two dozen right-wing extremists blocked her path to the front door. They had started shoving and threatening her escorts.

Legislators from the right-wing parties hurried to criticize the decision. Yariv Levine of Likud observed: “Unless MK Zu‘bi blows herself up in the Knesset, the High Court justices won’t understand that she has no place there.” The joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list also issued a statement saying it would introduce yet more legislation to restrict the rights of the country’s Palestinian citizens and their representatives: “Any expression of support for terror should be grounds for disqualification for running for election in the Israeli Knesset. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu will immediately act during the next Knesset to fix the existing laws.”

Declining Turnout

In the aftermath of the vote, despite the modest increase in Palestinian turnout, the Palestinian parties berated their constituents for not voting in even greater numbers. Tibi grumbled that, if voting by the Palestinian minority had exceeded 60 percent, an alliance of the center-left and Palestinian parties would have secured a victory. “We could have ousted Netanyahu,” he declared to Haaretz. Baraka, leader of the Democratic Front, called on all those who failed to vote to “take a close look at yourselves in the mirror.”

Lapid’s almost instantaneous dismissal of the scenario of cooperation made such comments sound foolish. Tibi and Baraka, however, were exploiting illusory hopes about a real revival of the center-left for their own ends.

Two trends in voting among Palestinians in Israel have been noticeable since the eruption of the second intifada in 2000. The first is the gradual decline in voter participation. According to a view spread by the Israeli media, the drop reflects a failure by the Palestinian parties themselves: They are said to have failed to represent their voters’ real concerns, grandstanding about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than concentrating on bread-and-butter issues. Analysts point to the marked contrast between Palestinian turnout in Israeli municipal elections — in 2008 some 80 percent voted — and that in the national poll a year later, when barely half the electorate cast a ballot.

But this assessment ignores a second, equally important trend. In 1999, 31 percent of Palestinian voters backed Zionist parties, mainly, though not exclusively, Labor and Meretz. A decade later, the figure had fallen to 18 percent. Many of those who continued to vote for Zionist parties belonged to the Druze and the Bedouin of the Galilee, two communities that have a long record of serving in the Israeli army and later in the security services (usually as low-ranking Border Police officers or prison guards).

Given this second trend, a significant part of the decline in turnout can be attributed to the growing disenchantment of those Palestinian citizens of Israel who traditionally identified with the Zionist left and the peace process it supposedly champions. This interpretation helps to explain why, despite the overall decline in the Palestinian vote over the past decade, the Palestinian parties have continued to win the same share of Knesset seats — a tenth of the places in the chamber. Jamal Zahalka, leader of the NDA, made this point shortly after the election results were announced: “I am against the claim that there is a lack of faith in the Arab parties, because at the end of the day, most of the Arab community does in fact vote for the parties that represent it.”

Nonetheless, there are signs of a growing alienation from national politics among the Palestinian minority, reflected in the lackluster response to the election campaign in Palestinian communities; the emergence of a formal boycott campaign, led by the small secular Palestinian nationalist movement, Sons of the Village (Abna’ al-Balad), and backed by the northern Islamic Movement of Ra’id Salah; and a tangible unease at election time among the three Palestinian parties themselves. Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University, observed that Palestinian citizens were “undecided on the merits of their political participation and, given the current facts, whether their votes make a difference. The majority are thinking: ‘What’s the point?’”

No single factor can explain the Palestinian minority’s diminishing investment in national politics. It derives, in part, from a realization that the struggle for civic equality is doomed because of Israel’s self-identification as a Jewish state; in part, from the marginalization of the Palestinian parties to the point where they can do little more than hector from the Knesset’s sidelines; and in part, from a fear that the more the Palestinian parties turn the Knesset into an arena of confrontation, the more certain the Zionist parties are to seek retribution with anti-Arab measures.

The alienation of Palestinian citizens from the political system was highlighted in a survey presented at Haifa University in December. It showed that 79 percent had little or no faith in state institutions, including the Knesset, and that 67 percent lacked confidence in the Arab parties.

In the January election, the Palestinian parties adopted three tactics in order to reverse this loss of interest and trust. The first was to highlight the threat to the minority’s future posed by the rise of the right wing and its anti-democratic agenda.

The stars of the NDA’s electoral campaign, for example, were the leaders of the far-right parties, especially Avigdor Lieberman and former Kach leaders Michael Ben Ari and Baruch Marzel, who were running for the Otzma LeYisrael (Strong Israel) party. (In the end, Strong Israel narrowly failed to make it across the electoral threshold and did not enter the Knesset.) Or as Zahalka phrased it: “We are trying to convince those who are indifferent to go out and vote, because each vote counts and whoever doesn’t vote is essentially serving the right wing.”

From billboards in Palestinian towns and villages, the face of Lieberman stared down alongside a question in Arabic: “Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?” One of the NDA’s television ads featured a cartoon version of Lieberman singing the lyrics of the Israeli national anthem as he gyrated to the sound of Arabic wedding music. The ad was soon banned by the Central Elections Committee for insulting a national symbol (the anthem, not Lieberman), but was later reinstated by the High Court.

A second change made by the parties was to tie their national campaigns to the forthcoming municipal elections, emphasizing their connections to popular local leaders in the hope of mobilizing additional voters. This was particularly evident in the large town of Shafa ‘Amr, where the Democratic Front mayor, Nahid Khazim, and the leader of the NDA opposition, Amin Anabtawi, were recruited to the campaigns of their respective parties.

The third measure was an undeclared agreement among the parties not to campaign aggressively against each other, leading to what Mossawa described as a largely “dormant” campaign. In this spirit, the United Arab List agreed under pressure from the other parties to remove posters with the slogan: “If you’re not voting for the United Arab List, you’re voting for Zionism.”

This final tactic, of easing up on political opponents, was chiefly a last-minute response to mounting criticism of the Palestinian parties that they have failed to overcome their ideological and often petty personal differences to present a united list at election time. Whatever the limitations on the parties’ effectiveness in the Knesset, the argument goes, greater unity would strengthen the Palestinian bloc and make the Palestinian voice harder to ignore. Hanin Zu‘bi set out that thinking: “We know that we lose at least five seats when we run as three separate parties than one unified party. We can be 16 seats according to polls and public opinion.” Shortly after the elections were announced in 2012, a social media campaign urged the parties to cooperate more closely.

Sensitive to the criticism, the NDA and the United Arab List have tried at each of the last two elections to foster an agreement with the Democratic Front on an electoral pact. The Front has refused, however, apparently worried that a union with the two other parties would drive away many of its reported 8,000 Jewish supporters and end its tradition of being a Arab-Jewish party.

At this election, the NDA sought for the first time to embarrass the Front, highlighting the fact that the latter’s reticence was the only obstacle to an agreement. In an interview Zu‘bi stated: “The communist party — which doesn’t define itself as an Arab party but rather as a Jewish-Arab party, even though 87 percent of its voters are Arabs — says, ‘Yes, I can give up five seats. I can give up 150,000 voters, because this is part of my ideology to be a Jewish and Arab party.’”

Voting vs. Going It Alone

As the Knesset has become an ever less appealing venue for the Palestinian minority, its leaders have started considering various ideas for separate representation.

The most established proposals have been for a directly elected Palestinian parliament or a major overhaul of the High Follow-Up Committee, the minority’s main national political institution. The Follow-Up Committee, which Israeli governments have always refused to recognize, has provided weak leadership, not least because it is dominated by village mayors, many of whom are primarily loyal to a local clan rather than a national political program.

Although Israel can be relied on to greet any hint of separatism with extreme hostility, such ideas have gained greater traction in the wake of the Arab revolts. As‘ad Ghanim, a politics professor at Haifa University, has proposed, for example, an elected “democratic national forum” and a leadership serving in a new institution known as the Supreme National Council. The NDA, meanwhile, has been growing more vocal about a Palestinian parliament in Israel, particularly as it squares neatly with the party’s program for cultural and educational autonomy for the minority. Again, the main obstacle to progress has been the Democratic Front, worried about the impact on Arab-Jewish partnership.

The decline in Palestinian participation in national elections — and proposals to consider alternative forms of representation — have not gone unnoticed by the center-left in Israel. Belatedly, it appears to have realized that, if Palestinians turn their back on national politics, it will ultimately be harmed, too, even though few Palestinian citizens now vote for Zionist parties.

In part, this concern is pragmatic. A low turnout by Palestinian voters is reflected in a low number of seats, and that result in turn makes it much harder to challenge the dominance of the right. Most of the center-left parties are not keen to sit with the Palestinian parties, but at the same time they recognize that without a strong Palestinian presence in the Knesset they will be a weaker force.

A strong showing by the Palestinian parties also helps to strengthen the hand of center-left parties as they haggle with the right wing to be allowed into government. The smaller the right’s majority, the more concessions can be demanded by parties such as Lapid’s as the price for joining the coalition.

Further, it seems the center-left may be growing fearful of the long-term consequences of the right’s entrenchment. In addition to attacks on the Palestinian parties, the right has been waging a battle against human rights groups, the media and the Supreme Court, all of which the right regards as being bastions of liberalism.

‘Awad ‘Abd al-Fattah, secretary-general of the NDA, believes these concerns explained the Central Elections Committee’s narrow majority in favor of allowing his party as a whole to compete. He noted that the right-wing parties worked as feverishly for a ban as ever; the NDA was saved by a switch of positions on the part of center-left representatives on the Committee. According to ‘Abd al-Fattah, the center-left started to panic during the election campaign, fearing that the momentum of the rightward shift might soon prove unstoppable. Without concerted action to shore up a credible opposition to Netanyahu, Israel risked hurtling toward “full-blown fascism” at home and pariah status abroad.

This disquiet has fed into the strategic interest the center-left has both in strengthening its own standing against the right wing and in maintaining a parliament that at least symbolically represents the fifth of the population who are Palestinian. In this respect, there is an identifiable and substantive policy difference between the right and the center-left. Contrary to popular perception, this difference does not pertain principally to the Palestinians or the peace process. It concerns the importance attached by each side of the divide to Israel’s international standing and, particularly, its relations with the White House.

The center-left is worried about the damage the right is doing to Israel’s long-term interests by flaunting its intractability on the peace process. In reality, the center-left would be unlikely to offer much more to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories than the right, but it places vital importance on perpetuating a “peace process,” however futile, as a way to avoid alienating Israel’s patrons.

Additionally, unlike the right wing, the center-left fears that were the Knesset no longer to represent Palestinian citizens, due either to boycott or a right-wing ban, Israel’s rule over its Palestinian minority would look increasingly illegitimate and more like a variety of apartheid. In such circumstances, the center-left’s role in defending Israel’s standing abroad — its chief selling point to its constituency at home — would be in danger of becoming redundant. The center-left could quickly find itself in a vicious spiral of political and diplomatic marginalization.

It was precisely this apprehensiveness that elicited a last-minute injunction from Haaretz, the house paper of the center-left, for the Palestinian minority to “Get out and vote!” Unusually, and not a little patronizingly, the editorial was written in Arabic. Similarly, Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Labor Party, who had almost entirely avoided the issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the campaign, denied that her party was ever “left-wing” and celebrated Labor’s role in establishing the settlements, launched a last-minute campaign on Arab websites and Arabic-language social media networks to urge the minority to vote.

And two weeks before polling day, the center-left parties signed a covenant implausibly committing to end inequality between Jews and Arabs within ten years. Of the main Palestinian parties, only the Democratic Front attended. The text agreed upon at the Non-Partisan Convention for Equality Between Jews and Arabs, initiated by the Jewish-Arab Center for Economic Development, received little coverage in the local Arabic or Hebrew media. Of the few in the Palestinian minority who were aware of it, most expected the covenant would become another quickly forgotten promise. Ramiz Jaraysi, Nazareth’s mayor and a member of the Democratic Front that signed the document, summed up the mood: “We have experienced talk and declarations that were never implemented, and I don’t expect a change in reality.”

Netanyahu in New Wrapping

Far from marking a revival by the center-left, as most media presented the results, the election results signaled a further rightward shift in the center of political gravity in Israel. Hana Suwayd of the Democratic Front, the least outspoken of all the Palestinian legislators, observed: “I believe that what happened in Israeli politics is a kind of transformation: The extreme right became the mainstream, and the most extreme people are sitting at the center of Israeli politics.”

Beyond crunching the Knesset numbers, observers tended to overlook larger developments in the Israeli political scene.

Netanyahu’s electoral failure was largely a personal one. He misread the public mood toward the “social justice protests” that swept Israel in the summer of 2011. The white middle class in Israel, comprised of Ashkenazi Jews, remains disgruntled at what it sees as the rapid decline in its privileges and living standards as Netanyahu’s neoliberal policies have allotted ever more power and wealth to a small business elite, many of them benefactors of his party.

By contrast, Lapid captured the mood of the protests with his demand that all Israelis “share the burden” — an insinuation that middle-class Jews have been paying the price for the supposed indolence of both the rapidly growing community of ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Palestinian minority. (Discriminatory policies mean the joblessness rate among Palestinian citizens has reached 30 percent, five times that of the Jewish population, according to a Tel Aviv study.)

Lapid’s proposed solution of “sharing the burden” referred chiefly to requiring military or alternative national service from the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian citizens. There were at least echoes in this proposal of Lieberman’s notorious loyalty campaign directed at the Palestinian minority in the 2009 election. As Salah Muhsin of Adalah observed, Lapid, like Lieberman, implied that Palestinian citizens could not expect full rights and an end to discrimination until they fulfilled their obligations.

In fact, an examination of the composition and platforms of the largest parties, not least the Likud, illustrated the degree to which the right and even the far right dominated the new Knesset.

The Likud primaries were effectively hijacked by settlers and the extreme right. The party’s shrinking liberal wing was dislodged and replaced by ultra-nationalists. These include Moshe Feiglin, who has been leading efforts to take over Likud on behalf of the settlers for more than a decade. He will now occupy a Likud seat in the Knesset for the first time.

Likud’s move to the far right has been achieved while maintaining the impression that it is still the party that represents the traditional Israeli right. It has joined two other parties on the far right — Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) — that have maneuvered themselves into the political mainstream, even while holding on to their extremist platforms.

A decade ago Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Lieberman, was a fringe far-right party catering to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And the National Union, the forerunner of the Jewish Home, was a small party with limited appeal outside the most ideological settlements. Lieberman and the new leader of the Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, both former acolytes of Netanyahu, have rapidly reinvented their parties, drawing much wider support. It was precisely the alignment in the platforms of Lieberman and Netanyahu’s parties that allowed them to create a joint electoral list.

Even the “centrist” parties provided no real counterweight to the rightward shift of these parties. This bloc — including Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the now barely functioning Kadima Party established by Ariel Sharon seven years ago as a breakaway from Likud, and a new faction called Hatnuah set up by former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni — espoused positions that would once have comfortably positioned them on Israel’s traditional right wing. The Israeli center has simply filled the political vacuum left by Likud’s departure to the extreme right.

Lapid’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were barely considered during the campaign. In fact, Lapid launched his party’s program in Ariel, the most controversial of the large settlement blocks because of its location deep in the West Bank, near Nablus. His program on “peace issues” was largely one Netanyahu could have subscribed to. In fact, according to Israeli polls, half of Lapid’s supporters classified themselves as right-wing, some of them former Likud voters put off by the party’s relentless march to the far right.

In his program, Lapid calls the settlers “true Zionists,” adding that “with a broken heart we ask some of them to sacrifice their lives’ undertaking for peace and the state’s continued existence.” Yesh Atid considers Jerusalem “the eternal capital of Israel.… Jerusalem will remain united and under Israeli sovereignty.” On security issues, the party states: “Israel reserves the right to operate in the territory of a future Palestinian state as much as is needed to ensure its own national security.” With respect to Hamas, “Israel will not negotiate with the group until it changes its charter and recognizes the right of the Jewish people to exist in their own land.” And more generally, the party accuses the Palestinians of having “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. They have rejected again and again Israel’s outstretched hand of peace. This is how it was during the first intifada and during the second.”

As Haaretz columnist Zvi Barel noted, “If there’s no partner, if a united Jerusalem will remain Israel’s forever, if some of the true Zionist settlers will only be asked, not forced, to leave their homes, and if Israel can choose at any moment to act in the territory of a Palestinian state, what exactly is there left to talk about with the Palestinians?” Barel concluded: “Yesh Atid’s platform has wrapped Netanyahu’s policy in colorful paper, tied it up with a bow and put it on sale as if it were an original idea that inspires hope.”

At the time of writing, Netanyahu’s coalition talks are still underway. But reports in the Israeli media are that Lapid, who was so loath to ally himself with “Hanin Zu‘bis,” has made an early pact with Habayit Hayehudi requiring the two parties to enter the coalition together, apparently to prevent Netanyahu from playing them off against each other in the negotiations. Both parties want to promote ideas of “sharing the burden” and reduce the chance of Netanyahu including the ultra-Orthodox in his coalition.

There are benefits for Netanyahu in drawing in the center-left, as a Likud official cynically noted to a Haaretz journalist in relaying Netanyahu’s intention to entice Livni, too. “Netanyahu is seriously considering making Livni the ‘acting foreign minister,’ in charge of the diplomatic process. Livni would ‘whitewash’ the Netanyahu government in the world’s eyes, just as the Labor Party and, later, [Ehud Barak’s breakaway party] Atzmaut ‘whitewashed’ the previous Netanyahu government.”

Barack Obama’s White House, keen to restore its discredited status as honest broker in the stalled peace process, has lost no time in exploiting the center-left’s supposed revived fortunes. A visit to Israel by Obama due in March, his first since becoming president in 2009, was scheduled despite what Netanyahu officials called its obvious “interference” in the Israeli coalition-building process. Lapid, Likud officials suspect, will be able to extract greater concessions from Netanyahu in the talks because the Likud leader will not want to greet the US president as head of an exclusively hard-right and religious government.

The gossip emanating from Washington is that Obama and his new secretary of state, John Kerry, will use the visit to pressure Netanyahu and ‘Abbas into renewing peace talks. The danger of the myth of the center-left’s resurgence is precisely that it will serve to afford Obama and Netanyahu room to reanimate a peace process that, though walking, will be good as dead.

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