Peace-seeking Israelis search for new direction

The rightward shift in Israel’s Feb. 10 elections shows that those seeking peace “must look in new directions,” says a leader of Israel’s left-liberal Meretz party.

The situation requires “much more intervention by the United States,” Dr. Naomi Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, told a Feb. 11 phone conference organized by the Jewish American group Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace). The U.S. must make it “very clear” to Israel what it must do to advance peace, perhaps even “imposing” solutions on Israel, she said.

With the closely divided election results indicating continued political instability in Israel, and with ongoing disunity on the Palestinian side, Chazan said there are “no prospects” for bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at this point. “Washington — that is where the decisions, if any, are going to be made,” she said. “If something is going to happen, in all probability it will have to be designed and imposed from outside.”

Chazan called for a “vigorous campaign for a peace settlement, U.S.-led,” and for interim steps including freezing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and building a Palestinian national unity government. It will require talking with Hamas and with Syria, she said.

Of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Kadima, led by current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, won 28, only one more than its right-wing opponent Likud, led by former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kadima, a split-off from Likud, is seen as more moderate and willing to pursue a two-state settlement. Likud rejects the two-state process, calling instead for some sort of “economic peace.”

The two leading parties together barely accounted for 44 percent of the vote, Chazan noted.

The far-right secular Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) emerged as the number three party, winning 15 seats — a gain of 4. Its leader Avigdor Lieberman espouses the slogan “no loyalty, no citizenship” directed at Israeli Arab citizens — an approach some compare to Nazi diatribes against Jews in Germany. He advocates forcing Israeli Arabs to become part of a Palestinian state.

Israel’s Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak who headed the Gaza offensive, “basically collapsed,” Chazan said. It won only 13 seats, 10 percent of the vote. And the left-social-democratic Meretz, which was initially divided on the war, did “disastrously,” going from 5 seats to 3.

At the same time, Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party’s Arab-Jewish electoral front, a strong opponent of the Gaza war and advocate of a negotiated two-state solution, won 4 seats, a gain of 1. Because Hadash is currently majority Arab, it is frequently though inaccurately characterized as an “Arab party.” Two actual Arab parties won a total of 7 seats.

The ultra-orthodox Shas party won 11 seats. Three other far-right religious parties won 12 seats.

A number of small parties including Green parties failed to garner the 2 percent required to win a seat.

Overall, 65 of the 120 Knesset seats will be held by clearly right-wing parties.

Under Israeli law, the president gives the job of forming a government to whichever party has a better chance of putting together a governing coalition. It appears that Likud leader Netanyahu has the upper hand. He may choose to form a right-wing government in alliance with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and other far-right parties. Or, as some predict, he may try to form a “national unity government” with Kadima and others.

It is expected to take weeks of jockeying before a government is formed. Whatever coalition emerges, said Chazan, it will find it very difficult to govern.

The rightward shift and political deadlock can be attributed to ferment over the war in Gaza, the Hamas rocket-firings into Israel, and the lack of progress on peace.

Gaza war rhetoric dominated the campaign, with the leading candidates “outvying themselves on who hit harder,” Chazan said. At the same time, voter turnout, while still high compared to U.S. patterns, was much lower than previously — 65 percent compared to 80 percent 10 years ago. The fact that more than a third of the electorate did not vote reflected the “disgust of voters who disagreed with the war or were unhappy about its results,” she said. Many are “frustrated” and “turned off.”

Chazan attributed her party’s loss to its “indeterminate” position on the Gaza war, with some initially backing the Israeli assault and then calling for a halt, while others opposed it from the start. Those Meretz supporters who opposed the war voted for Hadash, she said, while those who supported the war went to Kadima and Labor. Some also saw Kadima as the best hope to defeat the right.

Some in Meretz are talking of allying with Labor, but others are looking at building a broad coalition including “some of the Arab parties,” Chazan said. Such a formation would be a breakthrough in Israeli politics.

Building an Arab-Jewish coalition is very important because of the intense and growing racism and Arab-Jewish tension in Israel, Chazan emphasized, noting that “sheer and utter racism slowly and insidiously has become acceptable in Israeli public discourse.”

The progressive movement in Israel “is going to have to find ways to rebuild itself,” using grassroots approaches similar to the movement that elected Obama in the U.S., said Chazan. “We have to think about how one entrenches a progressive Israel.”

suewebb@pww.org