This is the latest from our friend, Hillel Schenker, a veteran Meretz activist and co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal:
“Vote early and vote often” was the advice I received from a friend in far-off Maine on the morning of the Israeli elections. Well, I voted early, but unlike some ultra-Orthodox Jews who brought ID cards from Brooklyn belonging to their late relatives, only voted once.
Soon afterwards I headed out to be an observer at a polling booth in the heart of Tel Aviv, to make sure the elections were kosher. We even received an official visit from a representative of the State Comptroller’s office, who interviewed the secretary, chair and observers, to make sure that democracy and the rule of law were being maintained.
Well, the system is still functioning, and all 33 parties representing the broad spectrum of the Israeli electoral system, from the extreme right to the extreme left, plus esoteric parties like men’s rights, down with the banks and the weird combination Graduates of the Green Leaf (legalize pot) and Holocaust Survivors Party all had piles of notes with their party’s letters behind the voting booth. But the foundation of Israeli democracy is eroding in the face of a rise in support for fundamentally anti-democratic right-wing parties.
“We’re on the Road to Nowhere” sang David Byrne and the Talking Heads on the radio in the background, an accurate sound-track for my feelings, as a cross-section of Tel Avivians came in to vote. I only knew a few of the hundreds who came in to cast their ballots. One was senior Haaretz commentator Yoel Marcus. When I challenged him about the strange, contradictory positions expressed by the paper’s lead editorial writers, criticizing the Zionist left for not being unequivocally against the Gaza War in the beginning yet later advocating support for Tzipi Livni against Netanyahu, despite being one of the trio that initiated the war, he smiled and responded that “a variety of opinions was healthy for democracy.”
That evening I went to the Tzavta Club for Progressive Culture in Tel Aviv, to watch the results together with the leaders and campaign activists of the left-Zionist Meretz Party. At exactly 10 p.m., when the first exit polls were announced on three parallel screens showing Channels 1, 2 and 10 simultaneously, a cheer went up from the audience when it became clear that Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima Party was ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud. However, that moment of mini-euphoria was quickly replaced by a general sense of depression, when the overall picture became clear.
The center-left suffered a resounding defeat, with the right bloc having 65 seats to the center-left’s 55 seats, and Avigdor Lieberman’s anti-democratic Yisrael Beitenu Party was now the 3rd largest party, with 15 seats, with Labor, the historic social democratic party which established and led the country during the first decades, coming in only 4th with 13 seats.
We now have pupils of the avowed anti-democratic racist Rabbi Meir Kahane sitting in the Knesset. During the campaign, it was revealed that Lieberman was actually a member of Kahane’s Kach Party in his youth, while new MK Dr. Michael Ben-Ari of the far right National Union Party says that Kahane was his mentor, and he would like to employ two of the worst settler right-wing agitators, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir as his parliamentary assistants.
Yisrael Beitenu’s anti-Arab campaign slogan “Without loyalty there is no citizenship”, coined with the aid of American neo-con political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, recalls the worst of the McCarthy period in the United States. We’ve come a long way from the original vision of the founders as enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which said that the state would “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
In retrospect, it’s actually surprising that we didn’t reach this point earlier. Perhaps it was only natural that a society living in a constant state of conflict, with periodic wars, would generate anti-democratic tendencies and the desire for “strong leaders” to cope with the challenges. The key to maintaining and preserving Israel’s increasingly fragile democracy remains a comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict.
So where do we go from here? First of all, it’s still not clear whether Netanyahu or Livni will be the next prime minister. On election eve we were all treated to the surrealistic spectacle of two victory speeches, since both leaders claimed that they were winners. I listened carefully to Netanyahu’s speech, who, despite his Revisionist right-wing views, was modeling himself on Barack Obama’s inclusive inaugural speech, trying to speak both for those who elected him and those who did not (despite the protests in his home audience). It’s clear that he is very wary of the only glimmer of hope on the Middle Eastern horizon, the election of Obama as the 44th President of the United States, who has resolved to “aggressively pursue” Israeli-Arab peace.
Will there be Israeli and Palestinian leaderships capable of responding to such an American initiative? And if there aren’t, will the international community, led by Obama, together with international civil society, be capable of finding realistic ways of facilitating the progress towards peace which is so much in the interest of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples?
Today my tendency is to say: if the Israeli people voted for the right, let Netanyahu and the far-right form the government, and then let’s see if their prescriptions can offer realistic answers to the country’s political and economic challenges. And meanwhile, let the left recoup, reevaluate, and prepare for the next round. The alternative option was expressed by Yoel Marcus in today’s Haaretz (13.2.09), what he calls “a government of national salvation” based upon Kadima, Likud and Labor, leaving Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party out in the cold.