by Hillel Schenker
A record number of 33 parties representing the broad spectrum of Israeli society participated in the elections for the 18th Knesset, so the formal democratic system is still functioning. But the foundation of Israeli democracy is eroding in the face of a rise in support for fundamentally anti-democratic right-wing parties.
The center-left suffered a resounding defeat, with the right bloc winning 65 seats in the Knesset to the center-left’s 55, and Avigdor Lieberman’s anti-democratic Yisrael Beitenu party is now the third-largest party, with 15 seats; while Labor, the historic social democratic party, which established and led the country during the first decades, came in only fourth, with 13 seats.
Yisrael Beitenu’s anti-Arab campaign slogan, “Without loyalty there is no citizenship,” coined with the aid of American neocon political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, recalls the worst of the McCarthy era in the United States. We have come a long way from the original vision 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,” would be “based on freedom, justice and peace” and would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex….”
In retrospect, it is actually surprising that we did not 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.
Are there any signs of hope in the current situation?
First of all, Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima party, whose campaign was based on a commitment to a two-state solution and the continuation of the negotiating process, came out ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, whose campaign was based on no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no withdrawal from the Jordan Valley, no partition of Jerusalem and no declared readiness for a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s proposal for “economic peace” rather than political negotiations is a non-starter, since movement towards a solution requires a clear political horizon.
The second sign of hope is that the Palestinian-Israeli citizens ignored calls to boycott the elections and fought back against Lieberman’s racist slogans, increasing the representation of the predominantly Arab parties Hadash, the United Arab Party and Balad from 10 to 11 members.
A right-wing government in Israel is the last thing that the region needs for peace and stability. And it is clear that Netanyahu is very wary of the only glimmer of hope on the Middle Eastern horizon — the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, who has resolved to give primacy to diplomatic rather than military solutions, based on multilateral rather than unilateral actions, and to “aggressively pursue” Israeli-Arab peace.
Given the outcome of the Israeli elections, and the weaknesses and divisions among the Palestinians, it is incumbent upon the international community, led by President Obama, together with international civil society, to meet the challenge of achieving a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in all its aspects — including the refugee problem, the theme of this issue of the PIJ
— which is so much in the interest of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.