Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin will decide whether Benjamin Netanyahu (r) gets to form a new Likud government, or if that privilege will go to Benny Ganz (l), Netanyahu’s former top general and leader of the “Blue and White” party. The election revealed some interesting paradoxes about Israel. Read more.
To most Canadians, Israel is a very unusual state. Consider for example:
- It was created in 1948 as a result of a UN decision to carve up what had been Palestine under a British mandate.
- It still has never defined its own borders (which keep expanding).
- It has been holding 4 million people under an indefinite occupation for more than 50 years.
- It has been more criticized by the United Nations General assembly than any other nation.
- It has been the largest recipient of US military aid every year for many years.
- It is not legally the “State of its citizens” (as is the case in most countries), but the “state of the Jewish people”, over half of whom live in America, Canada or elsewhere.
What have the recent elections revealed?
In addition to these peculiarities, the recent hard-fought (some would say even vicious) Israeli election has shown some other unusual paradoxes in this unusual country.
Israel is BOTH a democracy AND not a democracy
Israel IS a vibrant democracy. There is universal suffrage for a 120 seat Knesset (parliament). Turnout was high both among Jews (70%) and Arabs (60%). Campaigning was vigorous. Over 20 parties competed. There is no evidence of election fraud. (Netanyahu claims of fraud and threat to put cameras in the polling stations, seen as a way to intimidate Palestinian Citizens of Israel was opposed and dropped.) The prime minister might well be defeated (something that is only possible in very few of the other states in the Middle East.)
Israel IS NOT a democracy. The State of Israel rules over 12 million people “from the river to the sea”. (See the map from Ynet’s electoral coverage. It shows ALL of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River as “Israel”.)
But 4 million of the people under its rule are disenfranchised. They do not have the right to vote.
Only 8 million people, (its 6.5 million Jewish citizens, plus 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel) have that right.
Ironically, Jewish settlers living illegally in the West Bank can vote, while Palestinians living a few metres away do not have the right to vote for the government which controls their lives.
Israel is BOTH divided AND united
Israel is divided. The 20 parties running covered a very wide political spectrum. There was no clear winner. The two biggest parties, “Likud”, headed by Netanyahu, and “Blue and White” headed by Benny Ganz each won about 30 seats. There is no love lost between them. Netanyahu accused Ganz (his former head of the Army) of being “unstable” mentally. Ganz accused Netanyahu of acting like a “dictator”. Now one or the other needs to cobble together a fractious “coalition” of many much smaller parties in order to have a majority in the Knesset. That will mean horsetrading, making promises (e.g. “if your 3 seats will support us, you can be head of the ministry of housing, or we will give more subsidies to settlers, etc.” Coalitions are by necessity unstable.
But Israel is also united. Of the 120 members of the new Knesset, 107 are firmly united in their support of Zionism, the idea that Israel belongs to Jews. (Only the 13 non-Jewish Palestinian Israeli members oppose this idea.) Nor was there any debate during the election over the recently passed “Jewish Nation State Law”, which enshrines the primacy of Jewish rights over those of other Israeli citizens.
Its also hard to see any differences between Likud and “Blue and White” in terms of policies towards the Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza.
Many Canadians (including many Jewish Canadians) were hoping that a Netanyahu defeat would signal a roll-back from Israel’s drift towards right-wing, ethno-nationalist, expansionist policies? But as the National Post observed, “There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns. (…) An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran, or the Palestinian conflict,”.
- One example: Netanyahu promised to “annex” the Jordan Valley. Ganz said simply that “Israel will stay in the Jordan Valley”.
- Another example: Netanyahu said he “might be forced to attack Gaza”, the Ganz campaign emphasised how he was willing to “bomb Gaza back to the stone age”.
- A third example: In the new Knesset, only 5 Jewish members belong to parties that support a “2 state solution”. On that Israel is very united.
Some Palestinians were “INDIFFERENT” to the Israeli election, BUT others were very ENGAGED.
Many Palestinians said it wouldn’t matter who won. To the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, (who did not have the right to vote anyway) there did not appear to be much difference between Netanyahu and Ganz. Both candidates declared opposition to a 2 state solution. Both support the settlements. Both oppose the right of return for the refugees. Both seem warlike.
But 60% of Palestinian voters inside Israel did care and hurried to the polls. To many of the Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCI), Netanyahu’s campaign was explicitly racist, based on raising fears among Jewish Israelis, claiming the “Arabs want to annihilate us”. They responded by voting in record numbers against Netanyahu. The “Joint list” of Arab parties (with 13 seats) is now the 3rd largest political formation in the new Knesset (after Likud and “Blue and White”).
That will make a difference, though exactly how is not clear yet. If the two big parties join to make a government of national union (their differences are more about personalities than policies), the Joint List will become the Official opposition.
Alternatively, the Joint List might support Ganz to defeat Netanyahu. Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List said he would support a Ganz government on certain conditions. It remains to be seen whether Ganz will take up the offer and whether it will in fact, make much difference for Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Israel is BOTH a “Jewish State” AND a mostly secular country
Israel proudly declares itself a “Jewish State’. Every citizen must carry an ID card which immediately identifies the holder as Jewish (or not). Jews have preferential rights in education, housing, employment, while many obstacles face non Jews. Discrimination against non Jews (i.e.”Arabs”) is both widespread and legally in Israel.
But most Israelis are “secular”. As Jonathan Cook explains in this short video, the 3 parties that got the most votes from Jewish Israelis (Likud and “Blue and White”, as well as the “Jewish Home” party) tend to support mostly secular policies – in favour of civil marriage (currently not allowed in Israel), equality for women, against gender segregation, etc. The religious parties, did not do particularly well.
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