Israeli elections reveal social rifts


By Adam Hanieh

RAMALLAH — The Israeli elections on May 17 resulted in a resounding victory for Ehud Barak and the Labour Party over the incumbent Benyamin Netanyahu and Likud. In the vote for prime minister, Barak won 56% to Netanyahu's 44%. In the separate vote for the parliament, the Knesset, Labour won 27 seats and Likud 19. The remaining seats in the 121-seat Knesset were divided between 13 other parties.

The result met applause from around the world and the Middle East. US President Bill Clinton said, as he congratulated Barak, "The road map is laid out for implementing the peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians."

King Abdullah of Jordan agreed: " We're very, very optimistic. We see eye to eye on many issues, and we're very optimistic of taking the peace process forward." According to Tahseen Bashir, a former top aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, "[Barak] will create a new spirit of peace, and Israel will get closer to the Arab world".

The reality is far from this optimism. The elections confirmed three factors which have come to dominate Israeli politics: the consensus amongst Israel's elite over the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (occupied by Israel in 1967), the division within Israeli society between religious and secular life, and the role of Palestinians living within the state of Israel.

Oslo Accords

The elections took place almost two weeks after the date set for the conclusion of the Oslo Accords, May 4. The 1993 accords were meant to determine the status of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the return of refugees expelled in 1948. Oslo was essentially an agreement to negotiate the final borders between a Palestinian entity and Israel.

Oslo was signed under an Israeli Labour government which moved quickly to establish "facts on the ground". Labour launched a massive program of land confiscation and settlement construction and built a network of roads in the West Bank connecting Israeli settlements with cities inside Israel. This was continued by Likud.

The election campaign was remarkably silent on Oslo. The reason was the almost identical positions of the two major parties. Both believe in relinquishing approximately 40% of the West Bank to quasi-Palestinian control while maintaining the majority of Israeli settlements and control of Jerusalem.

Barak repeated his campaign message in his victory speech, stressing four points: no return to the 1967 borders; Jerusalem is Israel's undivided capital; the settlements will remain under the sovereignty of Israel; there will be no "foreign" army stationed west of the Jordan River.

There is no discernible difference between these positions and those of Likud — except perhaps in terminology. Labour may allow Palestinians to use the term "state" to describe the patchwork of cantons forming the Palestinian entity.

The day after the elections, Israeli bulldozers were hard at work beginning the construction of two settlements in East Jerusalem which have been the site of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops — Ras al Amud and Jabal Abu Ghneim.

Two days later, Israeli troops demolished three water reservoirs in Hebron. On the same day, three Palestinian journalists were severely beaten by Israeli troops near the northern West Bank town of Nablus as they filmed the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees by the army.

The Labour party's veneer as the party of peace, coupled with the passive support of the Palestinian Authority, Arab countries and US imperialism, provide a cover for the implementation of policies that Likud would find difficult to implement with the same degree of silence.

Religious v secular

The conflict between religious and secular Israelis dominated the entire campaign. Shas, the ultra-orthodox party, won 17 seats (up from 10 in 1996), despite the conviction of its leader, Aryeh Deri, on bribery and corruption charges. As Ehud Barak reiterated his campaign message of "unity and the end to division" at a victory speech at 3am in Tel Aviv, thousands of Labour supporters responded, "Not with Shas!".

Shas represents Jews from Ethiopia and Arab countries (Mizrachi Jews) against Jews from European countries (Ashkenazi). The Ashkenazi have dominated Israeli society since its foundation, and their traditional party has been Labour.

Several minor parties won seats on platforms opposed to Shas and religious control of society. Shinui, a new party led by Tommy Lipid, a TV talk-show host rabid in his opposition to Shas, won six seats. Meretz, the representative of the secular, Ashkenazi, Zionist left, took 10 seats. Yisrael B'Aliya, a party representing newly arrived Russian immigrants, won six. The latter focused its campaign on Shas' control over the Ministry of Interior.

Shas' rise in support was largely based on Likud's losses. In 1996, Netanyahu won support from the poor Mizrachi who had suffered under the economic program of the Labour government. Three years later, it was clear that Likud's program of privatisation and economic cutbacks differed little from Labour's.

The debate around the role of religion reflects a fundamental contradiction within Zionism.

Zionism claims that Jews form a national group, yet in reality the common feature of Jews around the world is based on religious traditions. Because of the centrality of religion to Israel's existence, religious Jews and the Orthodox branch have a lot of power. In the final analysis, the foundation of Israel and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 are based on a religious argument that the Jews are "God's chosen people".

This contradiction was highlighted by Barak's actions immediately following the elections. The avowed atheist made his first stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he prayed. According to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahrahnot, Barak said "He had strong emotional ties to the biblical Land of Israel, which includes the West Bank and Gaza ..."

Zionism has attempted to create a national group within Israel from the different national groups that settled there in 1948. This national identity is based on a mythologised form of Judaism, the Hebrew language and the appropriation of Palestinian symbols and physical space. Villages were not only destroyed but resettled and renamed. Yaffa became Jaffa. Askelan became Ashkelon, Bisan became Bet Shehan. The aim was not only to eradicate the Palestinian presence but also to manufacture a nationality.

Today, Orthodox Jews in Israel claim they are the genuine representatives of Judaism and attempt to impose their lifestyle on the rest of Israeli society.

Not only does this create tensions between different branches of Judaism, but it also means a conundrum for secular Israelis. Israel is either secular or Jewish — it can't be both. The very success of Zionism in creating an Israeli nationality (most of whom are not religious) is at odds with Zionism's inseparable link with religion.

These issues also have a class dimension. The Orthodox have a much higher birthrate than the rest of Israeli society and tend to hold a lower socio-economic status. They tend to live in overcrowded and poor conditions and are totally reliant on the state for survival.

Secular Israelis dominate the business elite and the wealthier middle classes of areas such as Tel Aviv. They tend to be overwhelmingly white, male and from a European or American background.

Shas presents an essentially religious solution to class questions. Shas tells Mizrachi Jews, "Your problems are a result of the domination of the country by the anti-religious Ashkenazi elite. The closer we follow Orthodox Judaism, the more our situation will improve."

Palestinian vote

The elections demonstrated deep divisions among Palestinians living within Israel. For the first time, a Palestinian candidate, Azmi Bishara, nominated for prime minister.

Bishara is a professor of philosophy and the head of the At-Tajamo party. At-Tajamo was formed in 1996 from the "Group of 51" notables and Ibna al Balad (Sons of the Country), a militant movement of Palestinians closely aligned with the left in the occupied territories. In the 1996 elections, At-Tajamo ran with Hadash (the Israeli Communist Party) and received five seats.

Since then, At-Tajamo has moved away from Hadash. Bishara, charismatic and eloquent, began to advocate a "bi-national state", although he gave contradictory messages on what he meant. During this time, the Group of 51 left At-Tajamo, as did a small group from Ibna Al Balad that opposed Bishara from the left.

The other main Palestinian party, the United Arab List, represents the Islamist movement. In 1996 the UAL won four seats. In 1999, the Group of 51 joined the UAL, as did a section from Hadash. Running as the Arab Democratic Party, this coalition won five seats.

Bishara's candidacy caused a huge division. Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party advocated "defeating Netanyahu at all costs", which meant calling for a vote for Barak. Others opposed Bishara on the basis that his participation gave support to Zionism.

Bishara's contradictory position was expressed in his alliance with Ahmed Tibi, a conservative adviser to PLO head Yasser Arafat and a strong supporter of the Oslo Accords.

However, At-Tajamo is broader than the leadership of Azmi Bishara. The movement has a young radical left that holds no illusions in the wheeling and dealing of Israeli politics.

The day before the election, Bishara withdrew. Although he refused to express support for Barak, Bishara was widely believed to have reached a deal with the Labour Party chief concerning Palestinian prisoners, funding levels to Palestinian villages and other issues.

At-Tajamo won two seats in the Knesset, which was viewed as a victory by activists in the movement. In the important Palestinian city of Akka, At-Tajomo increased its vote by 300% from the municipal elections held in 1998.