SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 168 May 2013

Israel-Palestine: a future of attacks and resistance

The recently elected but weak Israeli government is embarking on implementing harsh austerity measures. It will also try to maintain the occupation, possibly under a new cover of ‘negotiations’ with Palestinians. Resistance is likely on all fronts, reports the SOCIALIST STRUGGLE MOVEMENT (CWI Israel/Palestine).

Israel has a new government and Benjamin Netanyahu continues as prime minister. Under pressure from the ruling class, with the economy increasingly affected by crisis – growth slowed to 3.1% in 2012 – the weak incoming government has to implement a tough austerity budget. At the same time, the possibility of a ‘third intifada’, a new uprising of Palestinians against the ongoing oppression, is being debated in the Israeli media. The resistance of the Palestinians is growing. Protests have erupted against the occupation, and there has been a recent wave of strikes for higher wages and against price hikes in the West Bank.

Netanyahu called early elections with the aim of strengthening his position so he could impose an austerity budget more easily. But his plan backfired. His joint slate with the far-right Israel Our Home party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, lost eleven of its 42 seats. Netanyahu has had to form a coalition with the united and now larger settlers’ party, Jewish Home, headed by the millionaire, Naftali Bennett, together with the shooting star of the elections, millionaire Yair Lapid. Lapid is a mainstream television host who attracted a significant vote, particularly among well-established middle-class voters, by portraying himself and his party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), as their loyal representative. Both of these parties promised ‘new politics’ and sought to play on the widespread revulsion towards the former government.

Netanyahu and Lieberman have been punished for their policies over the last four years. The mass protest movement in autumn 2011, in particular, revealed the growing anger and frustration over rising prices, housing problems, job insecurity and the social misery that exists in Israeli society. Workers’ struggle against rail privatisation, strikes of social workers and doctors, and growing industrial unrest have forced even the right-wing leadership of Histadrut, Israel’s main trade union association, to let off some steam and organise strikes and protests.

Duping the voters

The winner, however, has not been the traditional pro-capitalist and Zionist Labour Party with its new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, and backed by some of the leaders of the social protest movement. On the one hand, she tried to present Labour as a continuation of the movement against the economic policies of Netanyahu and, on the other, as a ‘non-left, responsible, centre party’. The protest camouflage did not work. Just six months before the elections, according to the polls, her party was expected to win around 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament). Labour ended up with only 15.

People mistrusted all of the established forces. Kadima (Forward), the largest faction in the former parliament, was split. It fell from 28 to two seats. This prompted the search for a new political force. Meretz (Energy), a smaller left-liberal party, gained out of this to some extent. The big winner was Lapid, with the Yesh Atid party formed around his personality. Coming from nothing it took most of the space left by Kadima and won a total of 19 seats (14.3%). It had the highest number of votes in Tel Aviv, followed by Likud/Beiteinu, then Labour and Meretz. Yet, in poorer working-class areas, Lapid was almost non-existent electorally.

Nonetheless, Lapid, who had previously stated his opposition to the economic policies which emerged from the social protest movement, tried to present his party as neither neo-liberal nor social-democratic (nothing of the ‘old politics’). He said he would take care of the middle class which "works, pays taxes, goes to the military, and finds it hard to make ends meet". Part of his campaign whipped up incitement against ultra-orthodox Jews, one of the poorest sections in society, presenting a restrained version of the venomous demagogy of his deceased father and politician, Tomi Lapid.

‘Where is the money?’ was one of his campaign’s primary slogans. His answer was not the tycoons and the settlements but the number of ministers in government and the ultra-orthodox Yeshiva students. He mixed a promise to build 150,000 new apartments for rent (which has been adopted by the new government), with a promise to significantly raise the threshold for winning seats, to stabilise the government. The new administration has agreed to promote legislation to double it from 2% to 4%, which could force smaller factions to unite their lists.

Lapid’s hollow platform on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was launched in the Ariel settlement amid chauvinist promises to convince Palestinians to give up their demand for a capital in East Jerusalem. To explain his support for renewed negotiations, he said: "I don’t care what the Palestinians think, I care what the world thinks". Immediately after the elections, he declared arrogantly that he would not form a bloc against Netanyahu with the ‘Zoabis’ (referring to the racist witch-hunted Israeli-Palestinian Member of the Knesset [MK], Hanin Zoabi of Balad) and, by implication, all Arab-Palestinian MKs.

A major part of Lapid’s attraction was that he has not yet been exposed as a politician. No one on the Yesh Atid slate has been elected to parliament before. However, they are not the innocent new nice guys they present themselves as. A big proportion of them were linked in the past to political parties, as local politicians (from the far-right and Meretz) or advisers, or were CEOs of different companies and big business. Their voters have been duped in their search for an alternative to the established parties.

Planning budget pain

Lapid is the new finance minister. But it worries even the capitalists, that this rich, politically untested person should oversee a plan of cuts. They might try to use him as a tool to achieve a reliable government – compared to a government just of right-wingers and settlers which the ruling class might find difficult to control. However, the effects of Lapid’s cuts programme, coupled with his neo-liberal agenda (with a thin vein of populism), are beginning to deplete the hopes that many people had in him initially. To give Lapid the job of finance minister was a clever move by Netanyahu to expose him, although it could also encourage resistance against the cuts and tax increases which he wants to impose.

There is, as yet, no official budget plan for 2013, and the budget law will have to be voted on in parliament around July-August. Plans were discussed in the capitalist media to implement cuts of 30 billion shekels ($8.1bn, £5.4bn), and ten billion shekels of tax increases. Collective bargaining agreements in the public sector are being targeted, child benefits are under attack, and the public transport budget is being threatened with cut-backs. VAT increases are planned and a rise in tuition fees is also a possibility. Lapid declared: "The picture is worse than I thought, we’ll cut in painful parts".

This is a recipe for battles with organised labour and the possibility of a renewal of the social protest movement that developed in 2011. Minor concessions may be granted but, overall, given the dire economic prospects and the gap in the budget, this capitalist government does not have much choice but to attack.

The Labour Party might try to present itself as an alternative and might gain electorally. Some well-known figures of the social protest movement are now Labour MKs and are attempting to resist steps to draw it into the coalition. However, the Labour leadership has no real alternative to the budget cuts and is determined to support this centre/far-right government on certain issues: for example, in relation to the ‘negotiations’ with the Palestinian Authorities (PA).

Restarting Palestinian negotiations?

On the background of stronger waves of protests in the West Bank, the Israeli media are debating the likelihood of a third intifada, a new mass uprising against the occupation and oppression. For example, protests of hundreds of Palestinians in different towns led to new clashes with the Israel Defence Force in the West Bank in March after a Palestinian prisoner was tortured and died in custody. Again and again protests developed against the occupation. The recent strike wave and protests for higher wages and against price hikes raised strong calls against the economic agreements with Israel and the collaborationist role of the Palestinian Authority with the occupation.

A new mass uprising along the lines of the first intifada, which exploded in 1987, with mass demonstrations, strikes and general strikes is justified. This is necessary to defend the Palestinian people against the ongoing occupation and suppression. Socialist Struggle Movement (the CWI in Israel/Palestine), is fighting to end the occupation and settlements, the discrimination, expropriation and oppression of the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, and for a socialist confederation in the Middle East. Only then would it be possible to solve the questions of living conditions, housing, jobs and water, and to end oppression, nationalism and racism.

The struggle for such a confederation, including a fully independent socialist Palestine next to a socialist Israel, with full democratic rights for all minorities, can offer workers and the poor a strategy. It would respect an equal right of self-determination, and the needs of security and peace on both sides of the divide. It would develop a joint struggle and collaboration with Jewish workers against the Israeli capitalist and nationalist rule which, ultimately, exploits them.

However, the ‘two states solution’ that the capitalist powers and a section of the Israeli ruling class speak of has nothing to do with such a solution. Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister in Ehud Olmert’s government and ex-leader of Kadima who split away, is now part of the government and has been asked to restart negotiations with the PA. However, her approach is designed merely to appease the international community, to try and overcome some of Israel’s isolation, and to continue the repression.

There might be some token concessions in her mind: to upgrade the PA to a formal ‘state’, and release some of the more than 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners. This would still be a ‘state’ under the control of the Israeli regime, forced to exist under intolerable economic conditions, dominated by imperialism and its forces in the region. And Livni is just one of the coalition partners. Meanwhile, Bennett’s party, Jewish Home, also in the government, is calling openly for a massive annexation of most of the West Bank.

A restart of negotiations would not see a repetition of the huge hopes within the Palestinian communities that existed around the Oslo agreements in 1993. Even then, those hopes were short-lived, as the ‘peace process’ brought a deep worsening of living conditions for most Palestinians, including strict limitations on the rights of movement and work, and accelerated the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Their numbers have tripled since then (numbering over half-a-million, including East Jerusalem). New negotiations might postpone an eruption of a wider movement of Palestinian protests in the very short term. Nevertheless, they will not offer any substantial solution and are therefore doomed to fail.

"The world around us is changing for the worse", was Netanyahu’s view on the Arab spring, the mass uprising against dictators and for democracy. For the oppressive Israeli regime, its position as the only nuclear power and the major military force in the Middle East has been put into question. The surrounding dictators who kept their people in check and suppressed protests and opposition, including the Palestinian refugees’ demands for a fundamental change of their living conditions, have gone or been weakened. Although the changes (for example, in Egypt) have been insufficient to meet the needs of working-class people and have mainly created new tools to maintain capitalist rule, the regimes are significantly weaker in suppressing the anger of the masses, including the rage against the ongoing oppression of Palestinians.

Last year’s war against Gaza, which was started by Netanyahu to put a brake on these developments and to show Israel’s power – and, to some extent, to boost Netanyahu’s election campaign – led, ultimately, to a strengthening of Hamas. While the Israeli capitalist commentators were, by Israeli standards, sceptical about the Gaza war because of its timing and how it was done, the regime needed to reinforce its position and try to turn back the clock against the Arab spring.

This points towards future wars and new escalations – possibly, even, a colossal war with Iran – unless new mass movements emerge alongside the development of stronger organised forces of the working masses in the region to stop them. This will also be part of the fight against this new government.

Preparing for battles

Confronted with the perspective of new protests in Israel and the occupied territories, the government is preparing further attacks on democratic rights. One of them is the plan to double the threshold to enter the Knesset, making it more difficult for small opposition parties, especially Arab-Palestinian parties, to get elected. However, the question of a political alternative to the government and all the established parties will stay on the agenda.

Hadash, a coalition around the Communist Party of Israel (Maki), with a predominantly Arab-Palestinian electoral support, has used some socialist rhetoric in its elections campaign and emphasised a call for the nationalisation of the banks. But it failed to put forward similar slogans in a bold way in the social protest movements, and hides behind pro-capitalist Labour Party forces and right-wing elements in the trade unions. As a result, it only gained an additional 1,000 votes and saw its vote actually decline in municipal areas. Maki maintained its four members in the Knesset with 3%, but it is stagnating.

In the period ahead, the battle to form a new mass workers’ party that could attract both Jewish and Palestinian workers can develop in a more favourable arena for socialists. New battles are developing in the social and industrial field. Workers’ Histadrut, teachers’ and doctors’ organisations have already threatened strike action if they are attacked. "The workers are not a cash-machine of Netanyahu, he cannot put his hand into their pockets and take money in order to cover the deficit", said Ofer Eini, the Histadrut leader.

Students have started to discuss the possibilities of fighting against possible cuts in higher education budgets or rising tuition fees. Although the students’ leaders currently count on Lapid not to proceed with those attacks, this is not at all certain and, even if such a divide-and-rule tactic were to be used by Lapid, there is the potential for a layer of students, with adequate preparation, to fight all cuts. The Socialist Struggle Movement is involved in these and other discussions and initial protests, arguing for the need to link this struggle to a strategy to unite students, workers and the social protest movement against the austerity plan, as well as the government itself.

The deep national divide and new tensions with Iran are there and might be used further to try to push these movements back. The need to develop understanding of the divide-and-rule tactics, and broaden the struggle against the occupation within the Israeli-Jewish working class, is still a huge task. However, the honeymoon period for the government will be short. New battles are inevitable.

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