The Politics of Pragmatism in Israel? How New Alliances are Forming this Election Season

By: Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

Mainstream media coverage of the upcoming elections to the Israeli parliament has focused primarily on whether current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will retain his premiership. This was evident by coverage of the One Million Hands movement – a movement which is not affiliated with any political party but demonstrated in Rabin Square recently to demand Netanyahu’s removal.

The obvious replacement to Netanyahu’s Likud-led government is the new Zionist Camp, a joint list comprised of Labour and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua party. However, for those seeking a real change in Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians in the occupied territory, Livni and Labour leader Isaac Herzog might not offer a real alternative to Netanyahu. As Yonatan Mendel reminds us, Livni served as Netanyahu’s Justice Minister last summer during Operation Protective Edge when more than 2000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, and Herzog’s election campaign includes a video in which his friends from the military brag about his military prowess and his apparent willingness to consider ‘wiping out’ Arabs as a policy option.

While Israel’s Palestinian citizens were not identifiably present among the protestors in Rabin square, some Jewish Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent who did attend were insulted by columnist Yair Garboz‘s speech, in which he appeared to blame this ethnic group for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and for the anti-Arab animus that is rampant in the country.

Leaving aside the relatively minor distinctions between the ruling Likud-led coalition and the aspirants of the Zionist Camp, the present elections do offer genuinely new and more interesting phenomena for observers of Israeli politics – and for traditionally marginalised voters. In particular, this election has seen the rise of a Joint List primarily aimed at representing Palestinian citizens of Israel and a new direction for Shas under the leadership of Aryeh Deri. Both developments are indicative of a pragmatic turn toward unification across sectarian divides and degrees of religious observance.

(…) more than 2000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, and Herzog’s election campaign includes a video in which his friends from the military brag about his military prowess and his apparent willingness to consider ‘wiping out’ Arabs as a policy option.

The Joint List is made up of four parties which primarily represent the native national minority of Palestinian citizens of Israel: the National Democratic Assembly (at-Tajamu al-Watani ad-Dimuqrati also know by the Hebrew acronym Balad) which advocates ‘a state for all its citizens’; the Islamist United Arab List; the national secular Arab Movement for Renewal; and a Communist/socialist coalition called the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (al-Jabha al-Dimokratiya lil-Salam wa’al-Musawa also known by its Hebrew acronym Hadash).

The reason behind the newly-formed alliance is that the Knesset, following the initiative of the increasingly bluntly racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (who last week advocated the beheading of disloyal Arabs) decided to increase the threshold required for parties to gain representation in the Knesset from 2 to 3.25 percent of votes. The intention was to diminish Palestinian representation in the Knesset. However, an unintended consequence of this increased threshold has been that the small parties representing the Palestinian minority have now united. (Ironically, Lieberman’s own Yisrael Beitenu party may itself lose out under the new rules with potentially reduced parliamentary representation.)

The four parties that comprise the Joint List primarily represent the non-Jewish native minority, which constitutes approximately twenty percent of the Israeli population. These parties already shared some positions vis-a-vis the Jewish state as representatives of the Palestinian national (and Muslim and Christian religious) minority. Each of the parties promotes equal and fair treatment of Arab and non-Jewish citizens by the state and campaigns against Israel’s 48-year occupation of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). However, their opinions diverge on issues such as gender relations and the relationship between religion and politics.

According to Nohad Ali of Haifa University, the Palestinians in Israel have long wanted their political representatives to unify. Some polls have indicated that the Joint List is set to win 12-14 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and thus potentially become the third largest parliamentary bloc. This result is predicated on nearly seventy percent of the Joint List’s traditional constituency participating in elections – something polls have indicated is likely to occur. This would mean an increase in Palestinian voter turnout of at least ten percent from the previous elections, when approximately fifty-five percent of the Arab minority in Israel used their right to vote.

Shas is not a new party and Deri, the former ‘Prince of Shas’ who made a comeback in 2013 after his 1999 conviction and two years’ imprisonment for corruption, is not new to its leadership. However, this religious party which has traditionally represented MENA Jewish Israelis, so-called Mizrahim (‘Easterners’), has now rid itself of its former right-wing leader, Elie Yishai. (Yishai has now established his own party – Yahad Ha’am Itanu). Shas is reportedly also in the process of ridding itself (or its leadership) of the control of the religious leaders in the Sages of the Torah Council. Shas’ electoral campaign promotes notions of social justice and a fairer distribution of state resources while highlighting existing ethno-economic divisions. A Shas election campaign video depicts marginalised groups in Israeli society as shadows serving a complaining and largely Ashkenazi middle class. According to Deri, the message is that ‘Everyone’s talking about the middle class, but who will worry about the more than 2 million impoverished Israelis?

Some polls have indicated that the Joint List is set to win 12-14 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and thus potentially become the third largest parliamentary bloc. 

Deri’s message has certainly impressed social activist and academic Sami Shalom Chetrit who describes Shas as ‘the sole alternative to the Ashkenazi princes on the right and left’ and says that it therefore deserves the vote of democratic and socially-oriented Israelis like himself. Perhaps as an indication of the party’s intention to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional base, Shas invited Ophir Toubul, the editor of the alternative cultural magazine Café Gibraltar, to speak at a recent party conference. Touboul spoke about the ethnic dimension of class in Israel today and the need for the party to reflect Israeli society more broadly: ‘It is the Mizrahis, the Russians, the Ethiopians, the Druze, the Bedouin, the Arabs… I call on Rabbi Deri to open up the party, to make Shas belong to all the people of Israel, and you might not like what I’m about to say – women, conservatives and seculars, should all be here’.

Also supporting the more left-leaning path set by Deri are statements by Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of Shas’s former spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Bar Shalom recently declared that the only solution to Israel’s predicament is a two-state solution and that the rights of Palestinians citizens need to be assured. Her statements mark a radical departure from former Shas leader Yishai who has teamed up with settler and far-right-wing Baruch Marzel in these elections. Currently, Shas is estimated by polls to gain 7 seats in the elections. It remains to be seen how many new Shas voters will join Chetrit in supporting the party – and whether Deri will fulfil his inclusive electoral promises.

As for the Joint list, it will be interesting to see how a diverse group of politicians with such dissimilar ideologies – and whose religious beliefs range from the openly atheist to the avowedly Islamist – will work in practice after election season. Critics have warned that the unification experiment may ‘lead to the eventual disintegration of the parties that formed it if they cannot fulfil their voters’ expectations in challenging Israel’s apartheid policies towards Palestinians living in Israel and under its military occupation’ and that the List’s representatives care more about their political positions than about the minority they represent. Time will tell whether these criticisms are founded.

The existence of the Joint List, Shas’ new direction and the apparent popularity of these developments are indications that a shared ethnic identity and the related experience of marginalisation and discrimination by state institutions can serve as a basis for political unity across ideological and religious divides in Israel today. Both the MENA Jewish Zionists voting for Shas and the Palestinian citizens and their Jewish allies voting for the Joint List demonstrate that there many Israelis who seek a real alternative to the status quo – and don’t find it in the Zionist Camp.