Israel’s elections: Decline of secular Zionism

Tony Greenstein

Israel’s third general election in a year has shown a decisive shift to the Zionist right, but whether it will be sufficient to enable Binyamin Netanyahu to cobble together a coalition is doubtful. According to the latest count, Netanyahu’s Likud is predicted to gain 37 seats. However, the bloc with the religious parties – United Torah Judaism, Shas and the religious settler party, Yamina – will fall two short of an overall majority.

These results are, however, provisional, until the final tally is announced on March 10 and a Likud-led bloc may – to a large extent thanks to the votes of soldiers – increase its seats by one, whilst still falling tantalisingly short. If exit polls are correct, then Netanyahu – even if he does not get his ‘get out of jail free’ card in the form of immunity from prosecution – has faced down the challenge of the ‘generals’ party’, Blue and White (Kahol Lavan), led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz.

This election not only marks the final death of ‘two states’, as both Likud and Blue and White are committed to annexing the settlement blocs, but both parties campaigned on the basis of who was most hostile to the Arabs. From the perspective of the Palestinians, there is virtually nothing to separate Gantz and Netanyahu.

Unless Likud and Blue and White form a grand alliance, then Israel is stuck in a political quagmire. However, appearances can be deceptive. What is clear is that the political wind is blowing towards Zionist religious orthodoxy and against secularism – which is what Blue and White represents.

Historically Zionism saw itself as a secular movement and indeed it was a political reaction to anti-Semitism, albeit of a special kind. The early Zionist leaders were atheists, but secular Zionism, with its focus on Palestine as the land of colonisation (although Theodor Herzl had suggested Argentina as an alternative), had its Achilles heel. These atheistic Zionists – Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Sharett, etc – all justified their claim to Palestine through using the biblical declaration that god had given the land to the Jews. In other words, they based their right to colonise Palestine on the god whose existence they denied!

It is a contradiction that has woven a thread through all the lies and dissimulations of Zionism’s propagandists about the Jewish ‘right of return’ to Palestine. To them the Old Testament was not so much a religious tract as a historical document. The myth of the Jewish ‘return’ to Palestinian served as Zionism’s land deeds. To the religious, however, the Bible was much more than mere myth: it was a guide to how a Jewish state might be constructed.

Secularists v theocrats

Labour Zionism from its very beginning had struck up a Faustian pact with its religious counterparts. Israel today is paying the price in the growth of Jewish messianism, the ideology that underpins settlement on the West Bank. With the capture of the occupied territories, Jewish messianism became a major political factor in Israeli and Zionist politics – the ideology of the settler right together with the movement to rebuild the third temple, animal sacrifices and all. Zionism contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. To Zionists of all parties, right or left, the Palestinians are a problem to be overcome, preferably by their ‘transfer’ out of the ‘Jewish’ state.

Ben Gurion was fond of quoting the Bible as providing a mandate for his desire to conquer the whole of Palestine. He was fond of referring to places by their biblical names. In 1967 it was the militarist wing of labour Zionism which gave support to Gush Emunim, the Bloc of the Faithful, which pressed the case for settling the occupied territories and creating a Greater Israel. Yitzhak Tabenkin, Yisrael Galili and Labor deputy prime minister Yigal Allon all supported the settlement of the occupied territories.

Today we are seeing the unfolding of this historic tendency. There is no difference worthy of the name between Blue and White and Likud in terms of their attitude to the Palestinians. Gantz, who was responsible, as chief of staff, for the bombing of Gaza in 2014, is a major war criminal in his own right. Moshe Ya’alon, one of its leaders, is a former Likud defence minister. He threatened to bomb Lebanon out of existence and spoke of the Palestinians as a “cancerous manifestation”. Gabi Ashkenazi was the chief of staff before Gantz, while the fourth leader is former TV presenter Yair Lapid, leader of the ‘centrist’ (in Israeli terms) Yesh Atid.

During the April 2019 election campaign, Gantz distributed a video which boasted that “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age” – a reference to “Black Friday” in 2014, when the Israel Defense Forces implemented the ‘Hannibal protocol’, in which it simply razed to the ground whole districts.

What Blue and White represents is that section of Israeli Jews which considers itself secular: ie, they do not want to be told that they cannot shop or travel by public transport on Saturday or that women should sit separately from men on a bus. They have no problem with the occupation or discrimination against Israel’s own Palestinians, but resent religious interference in their own lives. To secular Israelis being Jewish is a national/racial affiliation, not a question of religion.

The problem for Israel’s secular racists is that, if a ‘Jewish state’ is to mean anything, then someone has to define who is part of the settler population, the Herrenvolk, and who is part of the colonised, the Untermenschen. For this purpose you need a rabbinical caste to give their hechsher, their kosher stamp of approval. To have a Jewish state you have to be sure of who is a Jew, and only the rabbis can guarantee that the state remains racially and ethnically pure. Historically this has meant that all ‘personal’ matters – ie, who is Jewish – has been left to the Israeli rabbinate.

The question of who constitutes the Herrenvolk is a problem for all racially supremacist societies. Nazi Germany agonised over who is a Jew. It had a ‘mixed-race’ category of Mischlinge (half- and quarter-Jews), which caused it all sorts of agonies. To the end it could not decide what to do with them (as a result most survived). South Africa also had similar problems in deciding who was and was not white.

The rule of the rabbis has presented a dilemma for Yisrael Beiteinu – the party that represents the one million Russian Jews who came to Israel in the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of them are of dubious Jewish origin. They did not practise Judaism in Russia and many of them married non-Jews. Although they qualified as Jewish when it came to immigration, where the definition of being a Jew includes the partner of a Jew or their siblings, the criteria set by the rabbis is much stricter. Your mother has to be Jewish. Converts other than those who become orthodox are not recognised as Jews, which is why Israel has a large ‘mixed race’ category of half-Jews. Without the approval of the rabbis you cannot get married or be buried in consecrated ground. For most of the time these things do not matter, but, when it comes to getting married or whether one’s children are considered Jewish, then the question of who is a Jew surfaces and causes much agony.

This is what lies behind the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman – a far-right settler thug and former defence minister, who is leader of Yisrael Beiteinu – to form an alliance with Netanyahu and the religious parties. While this is portrayed as a conflict of personalities, what is really at stake is a secular Jewish population which does not wish to see Israel turned into a theocracy. They are at one with the religious Zionists in seeing the Arabs as the enemy, however. Lieberman is an ardent racist who has spoken of drowning thousands of Palestinians in the Dead Sea and who considers Israel’s Arab population to be a “fifth column”.

Winners and losers

A coalition that made major gains is the Joint List, consisting of the Communist Party, Hadash, the nationalist Balad and Ta’al parties and the United Arab List. In April 2019 they split into two, but before the latest elections they reunited and today they have gone from 13 to 15 projected seats – possibly even 16. The Joint List will be the third largest bloc in the Knesset. However, the number of seats they pick up is immaterial. Both major Zionist parties have made it clear that they will not form an alliance with the Joint List or Arab parties of any type.

It has been an unwritten rule of Zionist politics since Israel’s foundations that no government should rest on Arab support. Indeed it was the fatal mistake of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, the last time that the Israeli Labor Party came near to an outright victory, to rely on the votes of Arab parties to form an administration.

There are those who proclaim that Israel is a democratic state based on the fact that it has nominally free and fair elections. This is an illusion. Leave aside Likud and Netanyahu’s attempts at Arab voter suppression. In 2019 Likud joined the fascist NGO, Im Tirtzu, in obtaining an injunction preventing the campaign group, Zazim, from bussing 15,000 Arabs from the Negev to polling stations. Half the Arab villages in the Negev are ‘unrecognised’, which means there are no polling stations in them, even though their residents are Israeli citizens (theoretically anyway).

Any half-democratic state would say that polling stations are situated where people live, regardless of the ‘legality’ of their abode. But judge Hanan Melcer was happy to issue an injunction preventing the Arabs of the Negev from being able to vote. The ostensible reason for the injunction is a 2017 law preventing foreign interference in an election. Because Zazim is heavily funded by the US-based New Jewish Agenda, this counted as ‘interference’. Thus the racism of Zionism permeates its election system in keeping Arab votes as low as possible. The idea that all Arab voters should be able to vote was probably considered a heresy by Melcer.

Israel is an ethno-nationalist state and therefore most Jews vote for Jewish/Zionist parties, although an increasing number are now voting for the Joint List. But in general voting is based on ethnic, not class, lines. Class politics plays little or no part in Israeli elections. Netanyahu’s main card was to portray his opponents as needing to rely on Arab votes to form a government – the unsubtle message being, of course, that Gantz could not be trusted not to sell the Jews out to the Arabs.

The major loser in the election is labour Zionism. Prior to April 2019 the Israeli Labor Party, in alliance with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, had 24 seats in the Knesset. Within the space of a year this has gone down to seven (possibly six, depending on the final returns). From 1949 to 1977 the ILP formed every government in Israel. In 1949, together with the leftwing Mapam, it won 65 out of the 120 seats, though David Ben-Gurion preferred the religious Zionists as partners in government rather than a party that had illusions in the Soviet Union.

The last time that the ILP came close to an outright majority was in 1992, when it picked up 44 seats, together with the 12 of the social democratic Meretz party. In 2017 the ILP elected Avi Gabbay who had been a minister from 2015 to 2016 under Netanyahu. His previous job had been CEO of Israel’s Bezeq telecommunications monopoly. Gabbay declared that the settlement blocks would not be moved under a Labor government. He also supported Netanyahu’s attempt to forcibly deport all black African refugees from Israel for the ‘crime’ of not being Jewish.

Gabbay rejected any idea of joining a coalition with the Joint List: “We have nothing in common with them.” As Israel’s +972 Magazine reported, this “absolute rejection of partnering with Arab parties ruffled feathers even within his own party”. When Labor’s only Arab MK, Zuheir Bahlul, announced he would not attend the Knesset’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Gabbay threatened that Bahlul “won’t sit in the next Knesset session.” He kept his promise, but lost 18 seats in the process!

As Ha’aretz declared regarding his hostility to African refugees, “Avi Gabbay’s odious attempts to include non-traditional Labor voters alienate him from the values that justify a legitimate opposition in the first place.” This was to prove prophetic. Gabbay then proceeded to break up the alliance with Tzipi Livni, leader of the Hatnuah faction of the Zionist Union, who was sitting besides him, on prime-time television. He had not even bothered to tell her beforehand.

Come the elections in April 2019, the ILP crashed to just six seats. To prove that this was no fluke, the same result was achieved last September. Gabbay had stripped away any reason for progressive Israelis to vote Labor. If all you wanted to do was remove Netanyahu then you may as well have voted for Blue and White.

Meretz was also going through its own travails. Formed in 1992 out of Mapam, Ratz (a civil rights party) and the centrist Shinui, it declined from 12 seats at its peak to just four in the April 2019 elections. Even worse: but for the votes of some 40,000 Arabs, Meretz would have failed to enter the Knesset. In September last year, the Democratic Union – into which Meretz had merged – obtained 26%.

In order to keep the Arab parties out of the Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman had proposed raising the threshold for representation from 2% to 3.25%. Meretz barely made it. For the September 2019 elections Meretz formed a wholly opportunistic alliance, the Democratic Front, with Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, in the hope of gaining more rightwing Jewish votes and not having to rely on Arabs. But it ended up with just five seats. For this election, to be on the safe side, Meretz merged again, this time with the ILP and the centrist Gesher. The result is that it appears to have gained just seven seats (possibly six, when all results are in).

As Anshel Pffefer caustically observes in Ha’aretz, the last time the Labor Party (previously called Mapai) united with Mapam, it was in January 1969 to form the Israeli Labor Alignment. For the only time in Israeli history one party had an absolute majority in the Knesset (63 seats). In the October 1969 election under Golda Meir it fell back to 56 seats – more than enough to form a coalition government. Compare that to today’s pitiful seven (six?). Quite simply, labour Zionism has no role today other than acting as propagandists for Netanyahu abroad.

Labour Zionism today is an anachronism. Once the companies owned by ‘trade union’, Histadrut, were the second largest employers after the state itself. Today there is no labour Zionist economy, as Histadrut’s companies were privatised in the early 1990s. The health service, Kupat Cholim, was taken out of its hands and Israel is now one of the most unequal societies in the world. The lip-service paid to social equality has long been dispensed with and the term ‘leftist’ is an insult in Israel. As the ILP has moved further and further to the right, it has all but ensured its own extinction. This election marks one more stage in the decline and disappearance of labour Zionism.

The orthodox Jewish parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have retained the same number of seats (16) and the far-right settler party, Yamina, has declined from seven to a probable six. What is, however, most noticeable about this election is those who did not vote. Five million Palestinians under occupation have no say whatsoever about who governs them, whilst the all-Jewish settlements, established on stolen Palestinian land, and which sit cheek by jowl with them, take part in the elections. The practice of separating the indigenous population from the settlers and only according political rights to the latter was what was called apartheid in South Africa. However, to racist Labour politicians such as Emily Thornberry, this is classed as ‘Jewish self-determination’.

But then you can hardly have a Jewish state if the majority of its citizens are not even Jews. Just as an Aryan state was difficult to achieve with the presence of non-Aryans!






Posted on Weekly Worker March 6, 2020

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