SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 73, March 2003

Likuds’s Pyrrhic victory

THE ISRAELI elections at the end of January brought a clear victory for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud party. It won 38 seats in the Knesset (parliament) – up from 21 and double the number achieved by Labour.

The result, however, does not guarantee a more stable second term in government for Likud. The combination of a severe and deepening economic and social crisis and a continued bloody conflict with the Palestinians creates enormous instability, effectively ruling out any government completing its four-year term.

This is clearly understood by most Israelis, as a pre-election survey shows: 29% said they expect the government to last up to and around one year, 34% said it would last around two years, while only 17% believed it would complete its full term. This widespread despair and a generalised lack of confidence in political parties help explain the poor turnout – at 67.8% the lowest result ever for Knesset elections and down from 79% in 1999.

While a little more than three million Israelis voted in ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were under curfew. Israeli state spokespersons cited the threat of armed attack as a justification. But the fact remains that for every Israeli voter there was a Palestinian denied freedom of movement. The Israeli Defence Force carried out large-scale land operations in the Gaza Strip, although stopped short of a full invasion, which could prove costly in Israeli casualties – and electoral collateral damage.

Labour, the ruling party for the first 29 years of Israel’s existence (and historically the Israeli ruling class’s favoured party of government), suffered a severe blow. It recorded its worst result ever, going from 26 to 19 seats. In part, this is the price Labour has paid for tail-ending Likud in the ‘national unity’ government, sharing the responsibility for its failures. The Bush administration’s statement just a few days before the election that it would support the depressed economy was a clear expression of support for Sharon and also played a role.

The collapse of the opposition liberal-reformist Meretz party, however, tumbling from ten to six seats, points to another factor: Labour and Meretz are the parties most strongly identified with the Oslo peace process, which is widely seen on both sides of the national divide as a complete failure.

The election campaign was marked by a series of corruption scandals. Bribery was exposed in the Likud Centre, a body of several thousand electors who select the Knesset candidates (usually referred to in the western media as the central committee). One family which runs an international gambling ring had set up a group of Knesset members who spent time at its casino in Turkey, in return for promoting the legalisation of casino gambling in Israel. Another mobster, Musa Alperon, who played an important role in these primaries, had been elected to the Likud Centre from his local branch, pushing aside long-established activists. A former ‘debt collector’ in Alperon’s gang is linked to a security firm that has won a fat state contract guarding the country’s border checkpoints.

Sharon, however, found a convenient scapegoat in Naomi Blumental, a minister implicated in the scandal. He threatened to fire her if she did not talk to the police. Sharon was then said to have ‘proven’ himself as a ‘honest and responsible leader’.

At the same time, Likud used the threat of war in Iraq to divert attention. The battle was played out on the front pages of the two most popular papers: as Yediot cried ‘War’, Ma’ariv shouted ‘Corruption’.

Labour was not gaining ground. And the reason was clear: most people considered that Labour and Likud were equally corrupt! Lack of trust in the political system has become generalised – with attitudes to the media almost on the same level.

News of other scandals followed, centred around real estate deals and shady party donations. Sharon entangled himself by his evasive answers. Acting on advice he held a special TV address. In the middle of a very nervous performance, he was dramatically taken off the air on the orders of judge Hashin, head of the Central Electoral Committee. (Israeli election law prohibits the broadcasting of ‘election propaganda’ immediately preceding elections outside designated time-slots.)

This unprecedented step unexpectedly turned to Sharon’s favour. Likud claimed that Hashin – denounced as a ‘typical example’ of the ‘leftwing’ Ashkenazi (European Jewish) elite in the judiciary, media and establishment – had maliciously intervened to silence Sharon and weaken him politically. Traditional right-wing voters repelled by the scandals saw the interruption of Sharon’s press conference as an attack on their camp and started ‘coming home’ to Likud.

The only significant result of these events was the rise in support for Shinui. This Ashkenazi-based party promotes extreme right-wing economic policies. It fed on the campaign run by Shas, the ultra-orthodox Sephardi (Oriental Jewish) party, and vice versa. Shinui supposedly opposes religious coercion and privileges to religious organisations. In practice, it exacerbates the racial divisions which exist between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. It calls itself the ‘party of secular people and the middle class’, and talks almost exclusively about ultra-orthodox ‘leeches’ who do not serve in the army and live ‘at our expense’. Shinui calls for a ‘national unity’ government without the religious parties, and leapt from six to 15 seats, coming third.

One People, the ‘workers’ party’ dominated by the Histadrut (trade union federation) bureaucracy, conducted an advertising campaign, focusing on its leader’s moustache and proclaiming itself the ‘only social party’. While Meretz called for the separation of big business and politics, Our People did not refer to the Likud scandals at all. Nevertheless, the lack of an alternative for many workers increased its representation from two to three seats.

The gaping political vacuum on the left forced local groups to put forward electoral alternatives. Two new anti-capitalist organisations ran their own lists: Lahava was set up by an unemployed activist, Avi Ovadia; and Zaam (Fury) was set up by community activists in a run-down so-called ‘development town’ in the south of the country. They did not win any seats but the fact that they were set up in the first place shows the depth of anger towards the established political parties and marks an important development. The Green Leaf party (which advocates cannabis legalisation) got more than one percent and came close to entering the Knesset. Its voters are mainly young, and tend to think ‘they’re all rubbish, so let’s vote for someone who will disrupt the Knesset’.

The decisions by the Central Electoral Commission to ban one Arab party and one Arab candidate (later overturned by the Supreme Court) provoked some radical protests. Turnout among Israeli Palestinians, however, was below the average. Abna’a al Balad (Sons of the Village, a left-nationalist movement) and the radical wing of the Islamic Movement, called for an election boycott. The only Arab party which made substantial gains was Balad (National Democratic Alliance, a secular Palestinian and Arab nationalist party), which faced the most vicious attacks from establishment politicians and the Jewish media.

Sharon could now form a narrow right-wing coalition, but would prefer another ‘national unity’ government with Labour, which would be more acceptable to the US and European Union. It would also help push through the next round of budget cuts (estimated at 8-15 billion shekels, $1.6-3bn) – on top of the cuts already approved for 2003. This includes an unprecedented attack on the public sector, with up to 9% of the workforce (60,000 workers) being made redundant and a wage cut of up to 10% for those remaining. This will necessitate breaking the collective wage agreements and is bound to provoke resistance, even from the fossilised bureaucrats controlling the Histadrut, whose members are mostly in the public sector.

Labour leader, Amram Mitzna, seems to understand that support for his crushed party can only be rebuilt in opposition. Sharon’s last ace is the planned US war on Iraq, which he plans to use as a justification to drag Labour (and Shinui) into an emergency coalition.

Conflict in Iraq would undoubtedly have an impact on the ‘low intensity’ war in the occupied Palestinian territories. With all eyes on Iraq, Sharon’s government could try to crush the second intifada. Possible scenarios include a full invasion of the Gaza Strip; the deportation or removal of Yasser Arafat; even the forced expulsion of parts of the Palestinian population. These options would be likely to provoke mass Palestinian resistance, leading to a further escalation of the conflict.

There is also the prospect of a counterstrike against Iraq if Saddam’s missiles start hitting Israel. Threats have already been made that, in response to a chemical or biological attack, Israel might resort to a nuclear strike, irrevocably setting back the chance for a future reconciliation in the region. Sharon probably believes that the aftermath of a short and ‘successful’ US offensive would allow some kind of political settlement of the Palestinian question – one even more biased in favour of the Israeli and American ruling classes than the Oslo accords were.

But even in the highly improbable event that all goes ‘according to plan’, such a solution will not provide even the temporary respite of the Oslo years. The coming months will see the new government fighting wars on two fronts: the war in Palestine and the class war against Israeli workers.

Extracted from the post-election analysis of Ma’avak Sozialisti, the CWI section in Israel, available in full on the CWI website: 

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