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Can Palestinians save Israel from its march into apartheid?

This posting has 4 items:
1) Jonathan Cook: Palestinian citizens wearily eye Israeli elections;
2) Washington Post: Israel’s center-left parties fail to unite;
3) Uri Avnery: Who to vote for?;
4) Associated Press: Palestinians: Apartheid state if Netanyahu wins;


“Who are you leaving it to?” Posters showing the anti-Palestinian party leaders, paid for by Palestinian parties.


Palestinian citizens wearily eye Israeli elections

By Jonathan Cook, Electronic Intifada
January 19 , 2013

As Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s Palestinian minority, gears up for the country’s general election [on Tuesday 22nd], the most common poster in the city features three far-right leaders noted for their virulently anti-Arab views.

The posters, paid for by one of the largest Palestinian parties, are intended to mobilize the country’s Palestinian citizens to vote.

The most prominent of the faces staring down from billboards is that of Avigdor Lieberman, the recently departed foreign minister who is under police investigation for fraud but still heads Yisrael Beiteinu. His party wants to strip some of Israel’s 1.4 million Palestinians of their citizenship by redrawing the boundary with the West Bank, while the rest would be forced to take a loyalty test.

Alongside him, wearing his trademark grin, is Michael Ben Ari, a former leader of the outlawed Kach movement, which demands the expulsion of Palestinians from both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel. He won a parliamentary seat at the last election for the similarly racist Strong Israel party (Otzma LeYisrael).

Between them is the bearded Baruch Marzel, also a former Kach official who leads the extremist settlers occupying the center of the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. He has repeatedly made headlines by organizing provocative far-right marches through Palestinian towns inside Israel. (He staged a special election one this week in the village of Musmus, close to Umm al-Fahm.) Marzel is expected to enter Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, for the first time, joining Ben Ari in Strong Israel.

The posters around Nazareth pose a blunt question in Arabic: “Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?”

Dilemma
Polls suggest that on 22 January, Israel’s Jewish majority will elect the most right-wing Knesset in Israel’s history, returning prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power in a coalition packed with ultra-nationalists. For Israel’s Palestinian citizens, comprising nearly a fifth of the total population, the dilemma has been how to respond to this all-but-inevitable outcome.

Lieberman, Ben Ari and Marzel are part of ever-widening circle of right-wing politicians who want an “Arab-free” Knesset.

The share of the Palestinian electorate prepared to cast a ballot for one of the Zionist parties has shrunk dramatically over the past 15 years. In 1999, 31 percent still voted for a Zionist party; by 2009 the figure had fallen to 17 percent, with more than half that number accounted for by Druze and Bedouin communities that serve in the army.

Instead, the overwhelming majority vote for one of three Arab or Arab-dominated parties (two other Arab parties are not expected to pass the threshold). Over the past 15 years these Palestinian parties, though without influence in the political system, have grown increasingly noisy in demanding equal rights for their constituents. They may not be able to effect change, but they have shown a talent for embarrassing their Jewish colleagues by using the Knesset — and platforms outside it — to express truths Israeli Jews would prefer remained unspoken.

The continuing presence of Palestinian representatives in the Knesset is threatened by two related developments: a consensus among the dominant right-wing parties that the Arab factions are a “fifth column”; and an internal debate among the Palestinian electorate about the value of taking part in national politics given the current climate.

Silencing
The Zionist parties, especially on the right, have been formulating ways to silence the Arab parties, along with human rights groups and what is seen as the too-liberal Israeli high court. On the issue of the Arab parties, they have found support from Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, which has warned that the Palestinian minority’s demands for equal rights — encapsulated in its program for a “state of all its citizens” — constitutes subversion and that Israel should act in accordance with the principle of a “democracy defending itself” (“Democracy for Jews only,” Haaretz, 30 May 2007).

The three main parties vying for Palestinian votes can be described as loosely representing the communist, nationalist and Islamist streams, with each party historically winning three or four seats in the 120-member Knesset.

All have faced attacks from the Zionist parties and more widely from the media for what is seen as their “treasonous” behavior in supporting the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But even in pursuing their domestic agenda — the campaign for equal rights — they have found themselves accused of acting as a “Trojan horse”: that is, seeking to undermine Israel as a Jewish state on behalf of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. It has been this paranoid perception by the security establishment that has increasingly fueled demands from the Israeli government that the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks.

In the increasingly hostile climate in Israel, the Communist Front has fared best, even though its leader Mohammed Barakeh has been subjected to a series of dubious legal actions by the state and is currently on trial for allegedly assaulting a soldier during a West Bank demonstration.

The Communists have gained some protection from their status as a joint Jewish-Arab party, one that includes a Jew among its current four Knesset members. However, in line with the long-term collapse of the Israeli Jewish left, the overwhelming majority of the Front’s members are Palestinian; the rump Jewish caucus almost operates as a party within the party.

The Islamist stream, known as the United Arab List, includes, in practice, not only the southern wing of the Islamic Movement but socially conservative factions and the one-man Taal party of Ahmed Tibi, long vilified by Israel for his close connections to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the focus of Israeli politicians’ outrage has been the National Democratic Assembly party, which was established in 1995, in the wake of the signing of the Oslo accords. Its original leader, Azmi Bishara, who popularized the slogan of a “state of all its citizens,” treated the Knesset principally as “an arena of confrontation,” using it to expose the limits of Israel’s democracy.

Bishara has been living in exile since 2007, when the Shin Bet accused him, improbably, of having helped Hizballah target sites in Israel with its rockets during the Israeli attack on Lebanon a year earlier.

His place as Zionism’s public enemy number one has been usurped unexpectedly by Haneen Zoabi, who was elected to the Knesset on the NDA ticket at the last election, in 2009. She is the first Palestinian woman to sit in the Knesset for a Palestinian party.

Her main crime in the eyes of the Jewish parties was her participation in the aid flotilla that tried to break the siege of Gaza in May 2010. The lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, on which Zoabi sailed, was attacked by the Israeli navy in international waters, and nine humanitarian activists were killed.

Zoabi returned to Israel with an eye-witness account of Israeli brutality aboard the ship that gave the lie to Israel’s account of what took place and helped stoke international criticism of Israel’s action. As a result, she has been relentlessly hounded in the Knesset chamber; demonized by politicians and the media; and subjected to a wave of death threats from the Israeli public.

Banning
Questioning the right of the Palestinian parties, especially the NDA, to contest national elections has become an established feature of each campaign of the past decade. But the Zionist parties have been able to move beyond mere threats into concerted efforts to disqualify the parties and individual candidates.

This has been possible because a highly partisan body called the Central Elections Committee is charged with overseeing how the campaign is conducted. The committee, dominated by representatives from the main Zionist parties, is given a facade of legitimacy by having a high court judge sit as chairman.

In the 2003 and 2009 elections, the committee tried to ban the NDA, both times with the open support of the Shin Bet, and also targeted elements of the United Arab List. The committee’s decisions have always been overturned on appeal to the high court. But it is widely assumed that, were one of the Arab parties to be disqualified, the others would pull out of the running too.

It looked as though this election would run according to the same script. But while several motions from the right were proposed to ban the NDA and the United Arab List, they were ultimately rejected by the committee, narrowly in the case of the NDA.

Instead, the committee singled out the NDA’s Haneen Zoabi, barring her from running again for the Knesset. The decision was reached despite an advisory opinion from the attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, that there was “no sufficient, exceptional critical mass of evidence” to disqualify her.

The Basic Law on the Knesset makes disqualification of a party or individual candidate possible if they have: incited racism; denied Israel’s Jewish and democratic character; or supported armed struggle or terrorism against Israel.

The committee pointed both to Zoabi’s participation in the 2010 aid flotilla to Gaza, declaring it “support for terrorism,” and to her rejection of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The case against Zoabi was so insubstantial that few observers doubted it would be overturned by the high court.

NDA officials pointed out that she had not personally chosen to take part on the Mavi Marmara. The High Follow-Up Committee, a body representing the whole community, had decided that the Palestinian minority should be represented, and her party had selected her. Similarly, her ideological positions about Israel’s character simply reflected the NDA platform.

The party vowed to boycott the election should she be banned.

There were other obvious problems with the case. The attorney-general had closed the investigation into her participation on the Mavi Marmara in 2011, having found no evidence she broke any law. Furthermore, Israel had not declared the IHH, the Turkish group behind the Mavi Marmara, a “terrorist” organization at the time of the flotilla. In fact, one of her lawyers, Hassan Jabareen of the human rights group Adalah, surprised the court by revealing that the IHH had not been designated as such until a few weeks before the court hearing.

But as a Haaretz editorial noted, evidence was beside the point: “what we’re dealing with is a political crusade against all the Arab political parties” (“The Zuabi test,” 30 December 2012). An opinion poll in December showed 55 percent of Israeli Jews thought a ban on Zoabi would be justified.

The high court overturned Zoabi’s disqualification and did so unanimously. Following the decision, Zoabi observed that “this ruling does little to erase the threats, delegitimization and physical and verbal abuse that I have endured – in and outside the Knesset – over the past three years” (“Supreme Court: MK Zoabi can run for Knesset,” Ynet, 30 December 2012).

For dramatic effect, she had hoped to make her statement to the waiting media as she left the courtroom. But instead she had to be ushered out of a back door to safety as more than two dozen right-wing extremists, led by Michael Ben Ari, blocked her path and started shoving and threatening her escorts. Ben Ari and his Strong Israel party activists were left in charge of the courtroom to denounce the judges’ decision.

Legislators from other right-wing parties criticised the decision too. Yariv Levine of Netanyahu’s Likud party said: “Unless MK Zoabi blows herself up in the Knesset, the high court justices won’t understand that she has no place there” (“Right lambasts court after Israeli Arab MK cleared to run,” Israel Hayom, 30 December 2012).

The joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party issued a statement saying it would introduce yet more legislation to restrict the rights of the country’s Palestinian citizens and their representatives: “any expression of support for terror should be grounds for disqualification for running for election in the Israeli Knesset. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu will immediately act during the next Knesset to fix the existing laws” (“Supreme Court allows MK Zoabi to run for election,” +972, 30 December 2012).

Center-left’s flip
The Central Elections Committee’s decision not to ban the whole NDA list came as a surprise to observers, especially given the dominance of the right. Tel Aviv law professor Aeyal Gross suggested that committee members realized from their previous efforts that they were doomed to failure (“The Supreme Court has again rescued the shards of Israeli democracy,” Haaretz, 30 December 2012).

However, it is fairly difficult to believe that most of the committee members were capable of thinking so dispassionately. In any case, disqualifying Arab parties, whether ultimately futile, has other benefits for the right: it reinforces the message to Jewish voters that the Palestinian public is a fifth column, and it reminds them that the high court needs to be radically overhauled to make it more accountable to public opinion.

Awad Abdel Fattah, secretary-general of the NDA, offered a different reading of the committee’s behavior. He noted that the right-wing parties voted as feverishly for a ban of his party as ever. It was saved by a switch of positions among what has been termed the “center-left” bloc.

The so-called “center-left” — a term the bloc has embraced to signify its ability to become a genuine alternative to Netanyahu and the right — might in countries other than Israel be described as the “center-right.” Its three principal parties – Shelley Yacimovich’s Labor, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, and former TV anchorman Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – are still heavily influenced by neoliberal economic doctrine; they have not challenged the ballooning defense budget or proposed a way to plug the resulting record deficit; and they have kept the Israeli-Palestinian conflict well in the background of their platforms.

In this case, the parties’ claim to left-wing or centrist credentials derive from their emphasis on reducing the tensions that Netanyahu has allowed to escalate between Israel and its sponsors, the US and the European Union. The center-left is concerned about Israel’s image abroad and making the necessary concessions — including reviving an endless peace process with the Palestinians — to prevent a further deterioration in Israel’s strategic position.

According to Abdel Fattah, the “center-left” is starting to panic, fearing that the momentum of the shift rightwards may soon prove unstoppable. Without concerted action to shore up a credible opposition to Netanyahu, Israel is hurtling towards full-blown fascism at home and pariah status abroad.

Far-right coup
The lurch to the right is discernible in two key developments during the election campaign.

The first was an effective coup by the far-right in the Likud’s recent primaries. The party’s last few “moderates” have now been replaced by ultra-nationalists, including religious settlers. Moshe Feiglin, this latter group’s controversial figurehead, won the 23rd slot on the joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, ensuring his place in the parliament for the first time.

The second is the rapid rise during the campaign of the Jewish Home party, under its new leader Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff. Bennett has reinvented the faction, shedding its image as simply a settlers’ party. A hi-tech entrepreneur, Bennett has injected political glamour and won converts from the center by emphasising a “return to Jewish values.”

According to recent polls, Jewish Home, which has been plundering votes from Likud, could become the second or third largest party, after Likud-Beiteinu. Unlike the deceitful equivocation of Netanyahu on Palestinian statehood, Bennett is plain-speaking: “I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That’s the equation.” He demands that Israel immediately annex most of the West Bank. (“Naftali Bennett interview: ‘There won’t be a Palestinian state within Israel’,” Guardian, 7 January 2013).

Faced with these trends, the so-called “center-left bloc” appears to have wavered. In the 2003 and 2009 elections, it voted with the right in the Central Elections Committee to ban the NDA. This time it switched to opposing disqualification. Rather than wanting a Knesset empty of Palestinian representatives, the “center-left” appears to have decided that a Palestinian presence may be in their interests.

This possibly explains the unorthodox, and patronizing, editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper this week that urged Palestinian citizens to participate in the election – and did so in Arabic. Its headline ordered them to: “Get out and vote!” (“Get out and vote!”, 15 January 2013).

Boycott calls
The cause for the concern expressed by Haaretz has been a steady decline in the Palestinian minority’s turnout at each election over the past decade. In 1999, amid the greater optimism of the Oslo period, three-quarters of the Palestinian electorate voted; 10 years later, in 2009, that figure had fallen to 53 percent, the lowest in the community’s history.

Surveys taken by Asad Ghanem of Haifa University indicate a likely scenario in which, for the first time, less than half the Palestinian electorate vote in a Knesset election (“What’s the point?” The Economist, 12 January 2013).

The falling interest in voting reflects various developments within the Palestinian minority.

Some of it can be attributed to a formal boycott movement initiated in 2006 by the small secular Palestinian nationalist movement the Sons of the Village (Abna al-Balad). The Popular Committee for Boycotting Knesset Elections has attracted backing from academics and intellectuals.

This weekend boycott activists were due to lead a day-long motorcade spreading their message through dozens of Palestinian villages and towns, starting in the central Galilee, passing through Nazareth and then ending in the Triangle area south of Umm al-Fahm.

A boycott has also been the default position of the northern Islamic Movement, led by the popular figure of Sheikh Raed Salah, since the movement split in 1996. The southern wing contested the election in the belief that an Oslo-inspired two-state solution was at hand. Salah has been the chief beneficiary of the gradual discrediting of the Oslo process.

But according to Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth, more significant than the boycott movement has been the much wider assumption in popular discourse that voting is a pointless activity and that the Arab parties are ineffective.

The alienation of Palestinian citizens from the political system was highlighted in a survey presented at Haifa University in December. It showed 79 percent had little or no faith in state institutions, including the Knesset, and 67 percent lacked confidence in the Arab parties (“On my mind: Arab voters,” The Jerusalem Post, 24 December 2012).

Zeidan pointed to a lack of campaigning in Palestinian communities, apart from the billboards. “It’s almost as if the [Palestinian] parties themselves are too embarrassed to show their faces by electioneering.”

He also noted a frankness among people stating that they would not be voting. “Among the youth this trend is especially strong. They are clear that the Knesset and the [Palestinian] parties do not represent them.”

This is an assessment even the parties themselves are prepared to concede. Jamal Zahalka, head of the NDA’s Knesset faction, said: “We’re trying to encourage Arabs to vote because it’s important, but you can’t blame them when they see how little power we have in parliament” (“Israeli Arabs unenthusiastic about Jan 22 vote,” The Huffington Post, 19 December 2012).

Mostly out of view, the parties have been deliberating how to deal with the rapid decline in turnout. The posters featuring Lieberman, Ben Ari and Marzel – part of the NDA’s campaign – were intended to play on the community’s fears of the far-right.

But according to surveys, the most likely way to increase voting would be for the parties to present a joint list for the Knesset. Back in October, when the election was announced, a campaign on social media was launched urging the parties to cooperate more closely so that they could win a larger number of seats and have a greater influence.

However, the Communist Front is reported to have vetoed the move, apparently worried that a union with the two other Arab parties would drive away Jewish support and end its tradition of being a Arab-Jewish party.

A more radical solution, again opposed by the Communist Front, would be to abandon the Knesset and set up an Arab parliament with direct elections. One of its first acts would be to demand cultural and educational autonomy.

The idea of a separate parliament has been under discussion, so far fruitlessly, for more than a decade. But a very low turnout this time may push it higher up the Palestinian parties’ agenda.

Center-left’s anxiety
It is not only the Arab parties that are anxious about the expected low rate of participation. The Jewish “center-left” appears to have realised that it may harm them too, even though few Palestinian citizens now vote for Zionist parties. The damage is possible in two ways — one strategic, the other pragmatic — according to Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University.

The first is that, if the Knesset no longer represents Palestinian citizens, either through a successful boycott or because of a ban by the right, Israel’s rule over its Palestinian minority will look increasingly illegitimate, and more like a variety of apartheid. In such circumstances, the center-left’s role in defending Israel’s standing abroad — its chief selling-point to its shrinking constituency at home — is in danger of becoming irrelevant. The center-left could quickly find itself in vicious spiral of political and diplomatic marginalization.

The second, deeper concern for the center-left is one of “cold political calculation,” says Jamal. A low turnout by Palestinian voters will be reflected in a low number of seats. And that in turn will make the chances of building a credible Knesset bloc to challenge Netanyahu and the right even more hopeless.

Without a strong showing by the Palestinian parties, the center-left has no hope of tasting power. Instead they are more likely to end up squabbling with each other to be allowed to sit meekly on the margins of his coalition.

Jamal said: “Plenty of the members of the center-left parties have no real love of the Arab parties but still they understand that they need these parties strong to reduce Netanyahu’s power.”

Two weeks before polling day, the center-left parties made what looked suspiciously like a desperate, last-minute gesture towards Palestinian citizens to encourage them to vote. They signed a covenant committing to end inequality between Jews and Arabs within 10 years. Of the Arab parties, only the Communist Front attended.

The meeting received little coverage in the local Arab media. Of the few in the minority who were aware of it, most expected the covenant would become another quickly forgotten promise.

Ramez Jeraisi, Nazareth’s mayor and a member of the Communist Front that signed the document, summed up the mood: “We have experienced talk and declarations that were never implemented, and I don’t expect a change in reality.”



Israel’s center-left parties fail to unite

By Washington Post
January 18, 2013

JERUSALEM — Less than a week before Israel’s parliamentary elections, a fractured array of centrist parties has failed to join forces and offer a coherent alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Divided by personal rivalries and the lack of a shared agenda, Netanyahu’s centrist challengers remain at odds, and two have even signaled more readiness to join a future coalition under his leadership than unite with each other.

While Netanyahu has focused on what he portrays as his ability to defend Israel militarily and diplomatically, his centrist opponents are trying to steer the campaign to other issues, targeting potential voters with ideas such as social and economic change and diplomatic initiatives toward the Palestinians.

Yet public opinion polls indicate that the parties appealing to ­center-left voters — who make up 38 percent of the Jewish Israeli electorate, according to a recent survey — have not succeeded in altering the balance of political power.

“One of the mysteries of Israeli politics is a very robust center that doesn’t manage to get together,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “They have different agendas.”

The result, polls suggest, is that the next parliament will look much like the outgoing one, with right-wing parties and their ultra-Orthodox allies enjoying a solid majority and a collection of center-left factions not having enough seats to form a governing coalition. That is likely to produce another hawkish Israeli government wary of concessions to the Palestinians and focused on what it sees as broader regional threats, such as the Iranian nuclear program.

Turnout a ‘major factor’
Polls show a stable trend in which the right-religious bloc, headed by Netanyahu’s ticket, will control more than half the seats in the 120-member parliament. About 20 percent of voters say they are still undecided, but pollsters say they are mostly debating choices within the right or the center-left and not choosing between them.

“Turnout is going to be a major factor,” said Camille Fuchs, a statistics expert at Tel Aviv University who has been conducting surveys ahead of the Tuesday vote.

A high turnout is expected to help the center-left parties. Surveys have shown that right-wing Israelis, particularly Jewish settlers, vote in greater percentages than center-left supporters, who show less fervent commitment to making their voices heard. The momentum of a wave of social justice protests in 2011 — when that indifference seemed to have shattered — has largely petered out.

But though turnout could affect seat distribution inside each bloc, it is not expected to tip the scales in the overall count in the legislature.

Centrist candidates
Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, which polls suggest would emerge as the second-largest faction with 16 to 18 seats, has made socioeconomic issues the centerpiece of her campaign. She has avoided foreign-policy questions such as the stalled peace efforts with the Palestinians or with Iran.

Trying to attract voters who are more preoccupied with financial security, education and health care, Yachimovich has attacked Netanyahu for free-market economic policies that she says have increased the burden on the Israeli middle class. Her party ticket includes young former leaders of the social justice movement, which protested the high cost of living.

Yachimovich seized on the revelation this week that Israel’s national deficit for 2012 swelled to double the government target, saying it belied Netanyahu’s assertion that he had shielded Israel from the global economic downturn. She warned that tax increases and cuts in government services would follow.

“They talked to us about ‘an island of stability,’ when they knew that the situation was getting worse,” Yachimovich said in televised comments. “It turns out that Netanyahu is no macroeconomic genius.”

While Yachimovich steers clear of foreign-policy issues, Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who has formed a new party, Hatnua, or the Movement, has based her campaign on negotiating a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Livni formerly led the centrist Kadima party, which emerged as the largest faction in parliament after the last legislative elections, in 2009. She was unable to form a coalition and was unseated as
party chief after a lackluster performance at the head of the opposition.

Livni argues that Israel’s social and economic problems can be resolved only when it has settled the conflict with the Palestinians.

At a recent meeting with voters, Livni said Israel faced a stark choice: “Either we will have two states, or one state between the Jordan River and the sea which will be an apartheid state . . . and the whole Zionist vision will be in danger.”

While Yachimovich has ruled out joining a coalition with Netanyahu, Livni has not, saying that she would join a future government with one aim.

“I’ve returned to promote a diplomatic process,” she said in a recent interview with the Israeli news Web site Walla. “If I won’t be able to do it, I’ll fight for it from the opposition.”

A centrist who has more strongly suggested that he might join a Netanyahu-led government is Yair Lapid, a former television anchorman who leads a new party called Yesh Atid, or There is a Future. Polls show that it could emerge as the fourth-largest faction in parliament.

Lapid’s party has gained a substantial following with its campaign against preferential treatment for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have used their political influence to win exemptions from compulsory military service for tens of thousands of men who instead pursue religious studies while receiving government stipends.

Drawing on the resentment of secular Israelis who serve in the military and pay high taxes, Lapid says the ultra-Orthodox should join the workforce and do a stint of national service, either in the military or in a civilian capacity, such as working in hospitals or helping the aged.

With polls showing Yesh Atid winning as many as 12 parliamentary seats, Lapid could become a key player in coalition talks. He says he could use that leverage, with other centrist partners, to push Netanyahu into a more moderate coalition.

“We have to do everything we can to prevent a rightist, ultra-Orthodox government,” he said in a recent television appearance. “It’s not good for Israel.”

Who to vote for?

By Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
January 19, 2013

THE ELECTIONS will take place in three days, and they are boring, boring, boring.

So boring, indeed, that even to think about their boringness (if there is such a word) is boring. For lack of any debate about the issues, media pundits are reduced to discussing the election broadcasts. Some are good, some indifferent, some atrocious. As if this were a contest between spin doctors, copywriters, “strategists” and such, with the public just a bystander.

WHEREVER I meet people, I am told with real worry: “I don’t know whom to vote for! There is no party I really like!” and then the question I dread: “Whom do you advise me to vote for?”

I have closely followed all the past 18 Knesset elections, except the first, when I was still a soldier. In several of them I was a candidate myself. I have always written about my preferences, but I have never told my readers how to vote.
I shall follow the same rule now.

FIRST OF ALL, there is an absolute imperative to vote, more than ever. It is not about the “feast of democracy”, “civic duty” and bla-bla-bla. This time it is a vital necessity. A non-vote is a vote for Binyamin Netanyahu and his allies, pure and simple. As it looks now, more than half the members of the 19th Knesset will belong to the extreme right and beyond, at least a dozen of them honest to goodness fascists.
Not to vote means to strengthen them even more.

This is especially true for Arab citizens. The polls predict that almost half of them will not vote at all. The reasons are many: a general protest against the “Jewish” state, protest against discrimination, despair of any change, disapproval of the “Arab” parties and more. All good reasons.

But abstention means that the Arab citizens are shooting themselves in the foot. If their situation is bad now, it can still become much, much worse: The Supreme court, which generally protects them, cowed into impotence. Discriminatory laws proliferating. Some on the far right want to deprive them of the right to vote altogether. Why grant them their wish voluntarily?

LET’S PROCEED to the actual choice. My method is to write down all the competing election lists in a random order. Then I strike out all those I would not vote for if my life depended on it. That’s the easy part.

First of all, there is Likud-Beitenu. Likud alone was bad enough. The addition of Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu makes it even more destructive.

I agree with President Barack Obama that Netanyahu is leading us to certain disaster. XXXXHis total rejection of peace, the obsession with the settlements, the deepening of the occupation – all these are turning Israel (Israel proper, not just the occupied territories) inexorably into an apartheid state. Already in the outgoing Knesset, abominable anti-democratic laws have been passed. Now that all the moderate Likud members have been purged, this process will be accelerated.

With Lieberman and his acolytes joining the Likud, things look even more dangerous. Netanyahu will have to posture and act even more extremely, for fear of losing the leadership to Lieberman, who is now No. 2. It is quite probable that Lieberman will still succeed in replacing him somewhere along the road.

The emergence of Naftali Bennett as the star of the elections makes matters even more desperate. It seems to be a rule on the Israeli right that nobody is so extreme that another cannot be found who is even extremer.

THE NEXT group to be struck off the list is the religious one. It consists mainly of two parties: the Ashkenazi “Torah Jewry” and the Sephardi Shas. Both used to be quite moderate in matters of peace and war. But those days are long gone. Generations of a narrowly ethnocentric, xenophobic education have spawned a leadership of rabid nationalist rightists. Bennett, too, was brought up in this camp.

As if this was not enough, these parties want to impose on us the Jewish Halacha, much as their Muslim counterparts want to impose the Sharia. They oppose almost automatically all progressive ideas, such as a written constitution, separation between synagogue and state, civil marriage, same sex marriage, abortion and what not. Off the list.
OF A different caliber are the self-styled “Center” parties.

The largest is the Labor Party under Shelly Yachimovich, which now stands at about 15%. I must confess that I have never liked Shelly very much, but that should not influence my vote. She can (and sure does) boast of several achievements. She has taken a moribund party and turned it into a live force again. She has found new and attractive candidates.

The trouble is that she has helped to eradicate peace from the national agenda. She has made overtures to the settlers and their allies. Although she has paid the obligatory lip service to the “two-state solution”, she has done absolutely nothing to further it. Her sole concern is with what she calls “social justice”. She has promised not to join a Netanyahu-Lieberman government. Experience has taught us not to take such pre-election promises too seriously – there is always a “national emergency” lurking round the corner – but even as head of the opposition, a peace-denier can do a lot of damage. Sorry, not for me.

Shelly’s main competitor is Tzipi. On the face of it, Livni is the exact opposite. Her main and almost sole election plank is the resumption of negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas.

Fine, but Tzipi and her former boss, Ehud Olmert, were in power for almost four years, during which they started two wars (Lebanon II and Cast Lead) and did not come even close to peace. Why believe her now? I have never heard Tzipi utter a single word of sympathy or compassion for the Palestinian people. My suspicion is that she is really interested in a an endless Peace Process, not in peace itself.

AN INTERESTING character in these elections is Ya’ir Lapid. What does he stand for? Well, he looks great . A former TV personality, he is good on TV, the only battleground in these elections. His program equates to the American “motherhood and apple pie”.

He reminds me of Groucho Marx: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others, too.”
For me he is “Lapid Lite”, compared to his late father, “Tommy” Lapid, who also moved from TV into politics. Father Lapid was a much more complicated character: very likeable in personal contact, very offensive on TV, an extreme rightist in national affairs and an extreme enemy of the religious camp. His son just pleads: Vote for me because I am a nice guy.
He makes no secret of his yearning to become a minister under Netanyahu. Sorry, not for me.

IGNORING THE Arab national lists, which are not interested in Jewish votes, and those which cannot be expected to make the 2% hurdle, there remain only two candidates on the list: Hadash and Meretz. Both are close to what I believe in: they are actively engaged in the struggle for peace with the Palestinian people and for social justice.
How to choose?

Hadash is basically the public face of the Communist party. Should that deter me?

I have never been a Communist, or even a Marxist. I would define myself as a social-democrat. I have many memories concerning the Communist party, some positive, many negative. It is not easy for me to forget their orthodox Stalinist past. But that is not the point. We are not voting for the past, but for the future. Hadash, to its credit, defines itself as a joint Arab-Jewish party – the only one (since the party I helped to found in 1984 lost momentum after eight years and disappeared.) However, for the vast majority of Israelis it is an “Arab party”, since more than 95% of its voters are Arabs. It does have a Jewish Knesset member, the very active and commendable Dov Hanin. If he had headed a list of his own, he could have attracted many young voters and conceivably changed the election landscape.

ON THE whole, I prefer Meretz, though without much enthusiasm. There is something old and dreary about this party, which was founded in 1973. It says all the right things about peace and social justice, democracy and human rights. But it says them in a weary voice. There are no new faces, no new ideas, no new slogans.

A large number of leading intellectuals, writers and artists have come out for Meretz. (The party took great pains not to list leftists without clear “Zionist” credentials.) But, as a Labor minister said long ago about the intellectuals: “They don’t fill half a refugee camp.” All in all, it is still the best choice in the circumstances. A significant increase of their presence in the Knesset would at least encourage hopes for the future.

AND IT is the future that counts. The day after these disastrous elections, the effort to create a different landscape must begin. Never again should we be faced with such a dilemma.

Let’s hope that next time – which may be quite soon – we shall have the chance to vote with enthusiasm for a dynamic party that embodies our convictions and hopes.



Palestinians: Apartheid state if Netanyahu wins

By Mohammed Daragmeh, Associated Press
January 18, 2013

RAMALLAH, West Bank—The Palestinians have long complained that Israel’s right-wing government is killing peace prospects by settling the West Bank with Jews, but now there is something new. The Palestinian president is warning that Benjamin Netanyahu’s expected victory in next week’s election could lead to an Arab-majority country in the Holy Land that will eventually replace what is now Israel—unless he pursues a more moderate path of a two state solution to the conflict.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been careful not to intervene in Tuesday’s Israeli election, but it is no secret that the Palestinians hope that Netanyahu will either be ousted or at least soften his position in a new term. He has shown no sign of doing so, and opinion polls showing hard-line, pro-settlement parties well ahead days ahead of the vote have led to a sense of despair among the Palestinians.

During Netanyahu’s current term, the Israeli leader has pressed forward with construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which along with the Gaza Strip were captured by Israel in the 1967 war from Jordan. Abbas says he wants to set up a state in the territories that would exist peacefully next to Israel.

The international community considers settlement construction illegal or illegitimate. And the Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Netanyahu while he continues to allow settlements to be built, saying it is a sign of bad faith.

Israeli backers of creation of a Palestinian state say relinquishing control of the Palestinian territories and its residents is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a democracy with a Jewish majority.

Mohammed Ishtayeh, a top aide to Abbas, told The Associated Press on Friday that his boss has been warning that won’t be possible if settlement building continues and Israel could end up with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority.

He warned Israel could end up with “an apartheid style state, similar to the one of former South Africa.”

“In the long run it will be against the Israeli interests because … we Palestinians will be the majority and will struggle for equality,” he said, adding that Abbas had met repeated this message in meetings with several Israeli leaders in the past year.

Abbas “told them frankly there are Palestinians who are now calling for the one-state solution, because they no longer see the two-state solution viable,” Ishtayeh said.

Abbas’s office said the Palestinian president spoke with multiple leaders in 2012 from Israel’s centrist opposition, including lawmakers from the Labor, Kadima and Meretz parties, along with mayors, university professors and social activists. He said a mayor from Netanyahu’s Likud Party was among them.

Labor parliamentarian Daniel Ben-Simon told the AP he met with Abbas in Ramallah recently and was warned that time is running out for a two-state solution.

“Abbas said the two state solution benefits both nations but he warned that if there is no two state solution within the next two or three years then it won’t be practical anymore,” Ben-Simon said. “Abbas told me explicitly … the idea of a one state solution is escalating among Palestinians.”

Palestinian officials have been closely following the Israeli election campaign, fearing Netanyahu’s ambitious plans for settlement construction over the next four years could prove lethal to their dreams of a state, Ishtayeh said. More than 500,000 Israelis already live in settlements that dot the West Bank and ring east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.

Some in Abbas’ circle are holding out hope that President Barack Obama will re-engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, freed from domestic electoral considerations in his second term, get tougher with Netanyahu on settlements. Another aide, Nabil Shaath, suggested Europe is ready to jump in with its own peace plan if Washington is not.

But short of trying to rally international opinion, it seems Abbas can do little if Netanyahu wins Tuesday.

Israeli polls indicate that a majority of seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament will go to right-wing, pro-settler or Jewish ultra-Orthodox religious parties. Likud is the largest among them. Netanyahu could comfortably form a coalition government with these parties, seen as his natural ideological allies. Likud’s new slate of candidates is headed by hard-line lawmakers who oppose territorial concessions to the Palestinians, and a likely coalition partner, the pro-settler Jewish Home, even advocates annexing large chunks of the West Bank. Even if Netanyahu adds a centrist party to the mix, he’s unlikely to shift course from the pro-settler policies of his current government

Under Netanyahu, construction reportedly began on nearly 6,900 settlement homes in the West Bank.

That’s a bit less than what was started by Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert, but many of the new homes are deeper in the West Bank, the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said this week. Thousands more apartments are in various stages of planning, Peace Now said, predicting an “explosion” of settlement construction in coming years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his position on settlements Friday in an interview with Channel 1 TV.

“I don’t believe that settlements are the root of the conflict, I don’t believe that territorial dimensions are the root of the conflict, the root of the conflict was and remains the refusal to recognize the Jewish state within any border, Netanyahu said. “I am not in favor of a binational state. We need to reach a solution. I don’t want to rule the Palestinians and I don’t want them to rule us and threaten our existence.”

“We believe the two-state solution is still possible, but Netanyahu and his current and upcoming coalition are killing this solution, they…will be intensifying the buildings in the settlements, and they have no peace platform,” Ishtayeh said.

The conflict with the Palestinians has largely been missing from Israeli political discourse this campaign season in Israel. The centrist Labor Party, which led peace talks with the Palestinians in the past, has shifted almost exclusively to domestic concerns, such as growing income gaps.

Just one party, The Movement led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has focused on peace talks. Livni has warned that Israel’s existence could be threatened without a peace accord, yet her message has not gained much traction.

Palestinians believe hopes for their state are slipping further away with each new settlement home, and that partition of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River may soon no longer be possible.

Settlements are at the core of the paralysis in peace efforts talks since late 2008. Netanyahu refuses to freeze construction, rebuffing Abbas who says there is no point in negotiating while settlements steadily gobble up more of the occupied lands.

The standoff is likely to continue, though the Palestinians believe their diplomatic leverage has improved.

In November, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The vote, while largely symbolic, affirmed the 1967 frontier which the Palestinians want to be the base line for future border talks. Netanyahu, while willing to negotiate, won’t accept the 1967 lines as a point of reference and wants to keep all of Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

Some Palestinian officials hope Obama will now be tougher with Netanyahu after what they considered a disappointing first term.

The Americans “keep talking about negotiations and the need to restart the negotiations,” Shaath said. “But what is needed is for the U.S. to pressure Israel to stop settlement activities and to go to real negotiations, to reach an agreement within six months.”

Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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