Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Israel chooses to turn inwards

The success of newcomer Beit Atid in Israel’s elections shows that while all Israeli factions agree on their stance against Arabs, internal issues will now dominate the agenda, writes Saleh Al-Naami

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Shaul Cohen, member of the Central Committee of the ruling Likud Party, was furious when he saw Yair and Avner, the sons of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, arriving with their father to the auditorium where Netanyahu would give an address celebrating the results of the elections. There was a sizeable drop in the number of seats for the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance in parliament, from 42 to 31.

Watching the two young men in disdain as they made their way under heavy security, Cohen said: “Netanyahu handled Likud as if it was a family affair, and this is the painful outcome no one expected.”

Israeli television reported many demonstrations on Tuesday evening, the night when the results of the elections were announced, which expressed what members of Likud’s Central Committee protested about Netanyahu’s performance and inability to run the country. Israeli voters punished Likud, and while angry members of Likud’s Central Committee were stabbing party leaders in the back, celebrations were underway for Beit Atid Party headed by former reporter Yair Lapid and its surprising victory.

Beit Atid came second place in the elections by winning 19 seats, despite the fact that it was only formed a few months ago and contested the elections for the first time. Meanwhile, its young leader has no experience in government, politics or the military, unlike the leaders of other parties. But economic and social factors were decisive for voters.

Beit Atid campaigned to defend the rights and demands of the middle class, which is the spine of Israeli society, and the reason for the surprise win. The middle class voted for Lapid because he combined two advantages that convinced large sectors of this class to vote for him. He adopted the middle class’s economic and social demands, but also did not depart from the position of the Israeli right regarding settling the Palestinian-Arab conflict.

The outlook of the middle class on the conflict is generally right wing. Beit Atid’s vision of ending the conflict with the Palestinians would have Israel annex all large settlements in the West Bank, and it defends the right of settlers to build to meet the demands of “natural growth”. At the same time, it rejects changing anything in the status of occupied Jerusalem since it is the “united and eternal capital of Israel”.

The party also rejects any compromise on the Jordan Valley, which comprises 25 per cent of the West Bank, and opposes the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Spotlighting his position on settlements, Lapid chose to announce the creation of his party at Ariel settlement, the second largest in the West Bank.

Ideological differences between Israeli parties conspicuously diminished regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. Even the Labour Party, which was once described as Israel’s “peace camp”, downplayed the impact of the conflict. Labour Party leader Shelly Yachimovich even tried to promote that her party as not representative of the Left. Yachimovich also adopted positions similar to the right wing, including supporting the construction of a university in Ariel settlement — which even Israel’s Universities Council opposed.

Anyone who thinks that election results could create an atmosphere conducive to achieving a political settlement for the conflict is delusional. No Palestinian, irrespective of their political affiliation, would ever agree to a settlement based on either Beit Atid’s or the Labour Party’s platform. It is clear that the coming cabinet led by Netanyahu, which will include Beit Atid, will restart talks with the Palestinian leadership but without preconditions.

Lapid, especially, knows that not resuming talks would harm Israel’s interests and further deteriorate its international standing. He opposes Netanyahu’s recent decision to build thousands of residential units in the West Bank despite US objections, and believes that ties should remain strong with Washington and not risk embarrassing President Barack Obama’s administration.

After elections, Israel will focus on holding negotiations as a “process” and not as a means to reach political settlement. The first to object to any attempt to reach a political settlement will be Likud Party cabinet members and its parliamentary bloc who are viewed as ultra-fanatics. If Netanyahu includes members of the radical Jewish Home Party that represents settlers, the government will not pass any decision to stop settlement building in the West Bank.

While Netanyahu could include ultra-religious parties that focus on special interests and are flexible on political issues, Lapid is placing very difficult conditions for these parties to join the cabinet. He is demanding that the government issues decrees for equally sharing the burden of military service. This means an end to exempting students attending religious schools from military service, which would be unacceptable to ultra-orthodox religious parties.

Thus, the next government could take some steps in public relations regarding a political settlement that may be welcomed by the US administration, which Washington could use to put pressure on the Palestinians to agree to resume talks. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot restart negotiations without conditions, because he will not sit at the negotiating table without an end to settlement building and Judaisation policies, as well as a framework for talks.

 

A FREEZE ON THE IRANIAN ISSUE: The results of the elections and rise of Beit Atid Party not only implies Israeli voters are not concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also that they no longer agree with Netanyahu’s position that Iran’s nuclear programme represents “the foremost existential threat for Israel, and Israel must take all measures to thwart it”. Election results showed the Israeli public is more concerned with addressing domestic problems, especially economic and social ones, which require large funds.

Netanyahu’s persistence to make Iran’s nuclear programme a top priority has led to austere policies by the Israeli government in the past, which primarily affected the middle class through increasing taxes, hiking prices and reducing government services. Israelis were angered by the focus on Iran’s nuclear programme when former prime minister Ehud Olmert revealed that Netanyahu “wasted” nearly $3.5 million on plans and operations to shut down the Iranian nuclear programme. Spending that kind of money resulted in a budget deficit, causing the government to reduce services to the public. At the same time, it increased taxes and prices.

Netanyahu tried to manipulate fear of Iran’s nuclear programme to frame himself as a leader born to confront Israel’s critical challenges, and often compared himself to Churchill who defeated the Nazis in the 1940s. But it has become very obvious that Israelis voted against Netanyahu and withdrew confidence in him, and through ballot boxes demonstrated that they believed Israel’s army and intelligence leaders who publicly warned against the dire consequences of an attack on Iran.

The Israeli public listened to military commanders who doubted Netanyahu’s leadership abilities and competence in facing these challenges, such as Yuval Diskin, the former commander of domestic intelligence Shin Bet, who constantly critiqued the prime minister. Thus, the entry of Lapid — who championed economic and social reform — onto the stage, will block the government’s warmongering against Iran. Lapid is likely to stop funds on this issue, and thus the Iranian matter will take a backseat and no longer be a priority, although Netanyahu will continue his media campaign on the issue.

The Arab media has blindly adopted the Israeli lexicon in categorising Israeli political parties. Along with Arab politicians and researchers, they have accepted the Israeli version that the elections are almost a tie between the right wing on the one hand, and the centre and left camp on the other. But the truth is, ideological differences between the two camps no longer exist regarding the conflict with Arabs.

Israeli elections demonstrated that Israel, for the time being, has chosen to turn inwards and try to solve its domestic problems. It is not concerned about resolving the conflict with Arabs or Iran’s nuclear programme.

 

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