Israel’s elections: The three political dimensions

Moshé Machover

I would like to deal with two aspects of Israeli politics: the attitude to Iran and the internal situation. Common to both parts is the intertwining of the personal and the political, and in both prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been thwarted recently. Things have been changing in the Middle East – both in relation to Iran and internally in Israel.

Moshe Machover

What has been reported in the press is the quirkiness of the Trump policy towards Iran, which is alleged to be completely unpredictable and whimsical, and that is to some extent true. But behind this there are objective reasons for the changing policies – and there are definite signs of a change in American short-term policy towards Iran, including very interesting reports in the Israeli press, some of which reflect the thinking of the Israeli general staff. The sacking of John Bolton – and other less senior people in the Trump administration, who were associated with the hard line against Iran – is an indication of this change.

In reality, the conflict between the American-Saudi-Israeli camp and the Iranian regime has had very little to do with the nuclear issue – which is an excuse, a pretext, but not really the bone of contention. The bone of contention is the place of Iran in the hegemonic structure of imperialism in the region. But, because of the US change of line, Netanyahu has suffered a huge defeat and a blow to his prestige, in that the policy he has been pushing since the Obama years for an aggressive and – hopefully from his point of view – military strike against Iran has for now been put aside.

The US policy change may have something to do with Trump’s personal quirkiness, but it is also connected, I think, with what has been revealed as his reluctance to use military force and his preference for economic warfare. In many cases he has revealed this preference, to the chagrin of Netanyahu.

But beyond this there is something I have been saying for years. As I have noted in several articles, including in the Weekly Worker, Israeli and American policy towards Iran have run in parallel, in the same direction – but they have not been identical. There is a difference between what Netanyahu represented – the objective Israeli interest as a local colonial power – and US interests. To put it simply, the United States would be ready to accommodate Iran as part of the hegemonic structure in the Middle East, in a way which would respect its size and importance. It would hold a subservient position, of course, but one that at least part of the Iranian ruling elite would be willing to accept.

But for Israel nothing but the complete downgrading of Iran to the lowest possible rank in the Middle East pecking order would be acceptable. This is because Israel fears Iran as a serious competitor in the region. From the point of view of the United States, that does not matter, as long as both Israel and Iran are compliant junior partners. But from the point of view of Israel it will only coexist happily with Iran if the latter is way down the pecking order, completely broken and subservient.

However, recently the Iranian regime has actually scored some relative successes – both directly and through its allies in the Middle East. The situation has changed to the extent that there are quite good prospects for some kind of accommodation between Washington and Tehran – on what conditions remains to be seen, and whether that accommodation will come about is another matter.

Internal failure

That brings me to the failure of Netanyahu on the internal front. Let me start with the personal aspects, before looking beyond them.

This year Netanyahu has called two Israeli general elections within a few months, both of them earlier than required. According to the normal term of the Israeli knesset, the elections were supposed to take place in 2020, but first he called an election in April 2019. Why? Well, his personal motive is so transparent that there is very little debate about it. He wants to keep out of jail. He is being investigated on charges of corruption involving the selling of influence – selling business prerogatives to the people he prefers.

And there is yet another case for which he may also be personally indicted: ordering more nuclear submarines from Germany than the navy itself wanted, as part of a massive graft scheme. It is not irrelevant that people mediating in this deal are his personal friends and associates. And what has been revealed more recently is that his billionaire cousin, Nathan Milikowsky – who subsidises him with a monthly subvention, has helped his daughter to buy a flat and paid for her mortgage – was involved in a firm that produces components used in these submarines.

Faced with all this, Netanyahu was seeking immunity from prosecution (he claims he is being witch-hunted, of course). Under the 20th knesset elected in 2015 he was unable to remain long enough beyond the arm of the law, so he called an election for April this year. But it turned out that he still was not able to form a coalition. (Israeli governments are always coalitions, because no party under the proportional representation system gets an absolute majority of the seats.)

So he called another election for September, but he did even worse than in April, when he ended up with 35 seats in the knesset. But now he has only 32. This is worse than it looks. Why? Because a small party called Kulanu (‘All of Us’), which held four seats after the April election, had joined forces then with Likud, giving Netanyahu 39 seats, meaning that now the total has gone down from 39 to 32. The final outcome of this election may not be known until December, and the situation is very unclear. There is even talk of a third election being called soon.

Someone who sabotaged things was Avigdor Lieberman, who is an essential element in the coalition that Netanyahu wanted to form and still wants to form. But he has a personal grudge against Netanyahu. He started his political career as an assistant to Netanyahu, and Mrs Netanyahu treated him as an errand boy. When he rose in the political hierarchy, Netanyahu did not give him what he actually wanted – a free hand when he was defence minister – which is why he holds a grudge, and actually prevented the coalition being formed.

I want to explain the politics behind this, because it is obviously not just about personalities and very few people know how to read Israeli politics. Most normal countries have a one-dimensional political spectrum – the map is a straight line from left to right. In the ‘west’, as it were, there is the extreme left and in the far ‘east’ we have the extreme right wing of bourgeois politics. In other words, there is one dominant dimension.

This is how we on the left like to view politics – in terms of class; the interests of the working class against the interests of the bourgeoisie. This is how England (and I stress England) used to be until recently. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but a useful one: English politics was dominated by this single dimension. However, now there is another dimension – from north to south, if you like – of remainers versus Brexiteers. It is more difficult to locate the position of English individuals or groups, because we now have a two-dimensional political map – north-south as well as east-west.

However, the Israeli map is – and has been for a very long time – three-dimensional. Even two dimensions complicates things enormously, making the whole scene very turbulent, and the political map becomes very difficult to orientate in. But with three dimensions you can imagine how confusing it is, even for Israelis, who do not actually work through the distinction between two of the three dimensions. But you can locate most of the parties in different places in these three dimensions on the map.


First of all, like most countries, Israel does have a left and a right, or west to east dimension, except that in Israel it is not called left and right: the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have been hijacked by another dimension altogether. So when people – even those who should know better – talk about left and right with respect to Israel, they are referring to a different dimension: extreme Zionism, which is the ‘north’, as opposed to anti-Zionism at the ‘southern’ extreme. Aggressive, racist Zionism is called rightwing, except that it isn’t: it is chauvinism, it is Zionism, but it is not a question of class-based right versus left. Even a very well informed observer like Jonathan Cook, an English journalist based in Nazareth, refers to left and right in this misleading sense, but in Israel the whole issue is confused, because there is no terminology to discuss what is normally understood by those terms. Matters can be discussed in terms of equality, underprivilege and so on, but not in the classical terms of left and right.

To give you an example, in recent times, using those false Israeli terms, the Labor Party has moved to the right, it is generally argued. But actually, if you use ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the classical way, it has moved slightly to the left – in terms of workers’ rights and so on. At the same time, however, it has taken up a more hard-line Zionist position.

The third dimension in Israeli politics is religion versus secularity.

Zionism used to be an apparently secular movement. However, it was even then a movement with a secular ego, but a religious id, to use Freudian terms. In recent years the open influence of religion has been growing, but now there has been a slight resurgence – a fightback if you like – of the secularists. This shift is what is preventing Netanyahu from forming a coalition. The main opposition party, Blue and White, which actually won one more seat than Likud in September, does not differ from Netanyahu’s party in terms of Zionist chauvinism – or left and right in the proper sense. However, its attitude is more secular. Netanyahu has built his career in recent years on a coalition with parties and groups which are more religious (but not necessarily more hard-line Zionist), as well as those that are more extreme Zionist.

One of his potential partners in order to get a majority in the knesset is Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), which won eight seats in the last election, up from five. Now, Lieberman is second to none in his extreme colonialism and settler Zionism. He is certainly not more leftwing in normal terms than Likud, but, apart from his personal grudge against Netanyahu, he does represent a constituency which is more interested in preventing the domination of religion.

Lieberman is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and many of his voters are also immigrants from the USSR. Many of them are fiercely chauvinistic, extreme Zionists – but secular. They are pork-eaters, they are not happy with the lack of public transport on Saturdays and food shops not being open. In addition, many of them or their spouses are not Jews. According to the Israeli law of return, former Soviet Jews were allowed to bring with them family members who are not Jewish. Their children serve in the army, but if they are killed they are not buried in the normal military cemetery, which is reserved for Jews. This is highly insulting, so Lieberman’s voters are on the secular dimension in Israeli politics.

When Netanyahu came to Lieberman and said, “Join my coalition”, Lieberman put forward his demands that implied the exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties in any coalition he joined, which was why Netanyahu was unable to form one. For this reason he called another election, but now he is back where he started – only worse, with fewer cards and no get-out-of-jail card.

The strategy behind Lieberman’s demands is that he would like to form a coalition between himself as kingmaker, the generals’ Blue and Whites, and Likud – only without Netanyahu. So he is counting on the prime minister being indicted and either Likud splitting, with enough members willing to form such a coalition, or Netanyahu being suspended as Likud leader and being replaced by someone else. This is a highly questionable proposition, because the Likud knesset members seem to be afraid to rebel against Netanyahu.

Whether this will work out is open to question, but it would represent a comeback – an attempt by the secularists to reverse the trend towards religion. As I say, nobody knows what will happen, but watch this space.

Featured image: Israelis voters

Talk given to the October 6 aggregate meeting of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists.

Moshé Machover is a mathematician, philosopher, and socialist activist. He was a founder of Matzpen, the Israeli Socialist Organisation, in 1962. Since 1995, he has been Professor of Philosophy at the University of London

Posted on Weekly Worker October 10, 2019.

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