Thursday, March 19, 2015

An Evening With the Joint List and a Breakdown of the Israeli Elections

During the election night, in place of being affixed on my television at home, I made my way up to the Joint List headquarters in Nazareth. Arriving just minutes before the closing of the ballot boxes and the live broadcast of the Exit Polls, the room was packed with activists and members, together with the Israeli and international media, covering one of the big stories of this election. For the first time in Israeli history, the Arab parties joined forces together with the Jewish-Arab Hadash party, in order to ensure that no Arab party would fall under the recently raised parliamentary threshold (see the pre-election guide and my article on the Joint List).  

Celebrating the Joint List Victory
As all eyes were affixed on the three screens (one for each of the main Israeli channels), the countdown began: Five, four, three, two, one. The Likud 27, the Zionist Union 27, the Joint List 13; the crowds cheered. History had been made. The List had secured the third place. And, just as they changed the dynamics of the election campaign season, with the head of its party, Ayman Odeh, becoming somewhat of a star, their voice in the Knesset will be stronger than ever. 

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh being interviewed 

Of course, this is despite the many challenges it faces such as keeping the List intact, which is made up of four different parties with contradicting ideologies; not to mention, the challenge of meeting the high expectations it has raised among its supporters. One reporter asked MP Haneen Zoabi, who is known for her controversial outbursts in the Knesset, about the future of the List and she seemed upbeat that they had found a formula that allowed all the parties to act in unison while continuing to retain their own agenda.  

MP Haneen Zoabi mixing with supporters and media
It was an exhilarating evening, which marked an important step in the direction of reassessing the essence of citizenship in Israel, and the small vibrant Jewish supporters present (who were the minority in the room) cheered together, showing their solidarity with the Palestinian minority in Israel (who were the majority in the room), with a strong sense of unity among all. However, the evening was dampened by what would become the big story of the evening, the Exit Poll had predicted that Netanyahu had succeeded in maintaining his support base, despite the numerous polls that just days before had predicted a decline in support.

The disdain for Netanyhu at the headquarters cannot be underestimated; just that day the Israeli Prime Minister had called on Jews to come out to vote to counter the large participation of Arabs voting, who were “flowing to the ballot boxes in droves.” Yes, the leader of the Jewish state revealed his racist ways in a desperate call to get more votes; inciting citizen against citizen. In fact, the new found power of Palestinians in Israel, ignited one of the most racist campaigns I remember, with Israel Foreign Minister even calling to chop off the heads of Arabs disloyal to the state (yes, you heard right). In the future, I will dedicate a blog to this topic.      

Breaking Down the Elections Results

Now to the elections, what happened? All credible polls in Israel had placed Netanyahu’s Likud trailing behind the Herzog’s Zionist Union. This was not only the consensus of the Israeli Center-Left but also among Likud supporters as well. In fact a look at the final results will show how far the polls were actually off (keep in mind that most polls had placed the Zionist Union at 24 seats with the Likud at 20), with the Likud receiving six seats more than the Zionist Union. Just this morning the final results were declared, after the soldiers votes were counted.

The Final Results:  

Likud 30, Zionist Union 24, Joint List 13, Yesh Aitd 11, Kulanu 10, Bayit Yehudi 8, Shas 7, Y. Torah 6, Yisrael B. 6, Meretz 5.

So what happened? Did the pollsters err?

While it is clear that both the pre-election polls and the Exit polls also were way off, a scientific study would need to be completed to understand the full extent of vote. Regardless, it is apparent that there was a last minute switch among many voters, which went to the Likud. Most likely caused by Netanyahu’s continued hammering in that a vote for Yesh Atid or Kulanu was a vote for a Herzog. Netanyahu also secured votes from the far-right, by convincing people to switch from the mostly settler based Bayit HaYahudi, in order to strengthen his “mandate” against the Left.

Also, as one commentator mentioned on twitter, in the last three days of the campaign Netanyahu provided more interviews than he had in the last two years. In other words, it seems he saw his boat was quickly sinking and he successfully was able to lead it out of rough waters; unfortunately, as mentioned above, also using racist scare tactics. There is no doubt that he pulled through, proving that he is one ace of a politician.   
Does a Victory for the Likud equal a defeat for the Zionist Union?

Not necessarily. The Zionist Union (essentially the Labor party) seriously improved its standing and had it received the extra six mandates in place of the Likud, it is safe to say that Herzog would have had the ability to form a government. Thus, perhaps, the real winner of these elections were the two major parties, the Likud and Labor, returning as the main choice of most Israelis. Together they got 54 seats (up from about 37 in the last elections). This trend is a positive one that will hopefully break the immense amount of political maneuvering of the last two decades.

Is the Labor doomed to remain always second to Likud?

Let’s face it. Since Rabin’s election in 1992, and the major shift to Likud in 1977, the Labor has been trailing the Likud, or the Right block. Further, the crisis in the Israeli left should be seen within the context of the decline of leftist movements in neo-liberal capitalist societies. There is no doubt however that the continued occupation of Palestine (a United Nations non-member state), and how the conflict plays out for the average Israeli, also influences greatly the Israeli political scene. On both fronts, the Labor has failed to convince the Israeli electorate that it offers a better alternative. And, within this failure, parties such as Yesh Atid are able to sweep up 11 seats (down from 19). This party, the neo-liberal capitalist dream, is one defunct of any real ideology other than serving the middle and upper classes needs, who are key swing voters between the two parties. 

So what happened with Meretz?

The leftist liberal party has failed on both fronts as well, this time barely crossing the newly raised parliamentary threshold. Meretz's historical contribution to legislation promoting equality and economic justice is undeniable. However, the party remains a “closed club” for many in the Israeli society, unable to attract societies their legislation aims to protect. Yes, they have feminists, but so does the Labor party. Yes, they promote a LGBT agenda; twenty years ago this was pioneering, today it isn’t. Yes, they have an Arab MP, but its Zionist agenda cuts them off from most of Israel’s twenty percent Palestinian minority. Meretz has become status-quo and it seems that is actually is blocking new Jewish left voices from emerging rather than promoting a dynamic leftist agenda.      

And, the peace process?

What peace process? The only hope on this front now seems to be on the international front where European countries, and recently the United States, are becoming increasingly impatient with Netanyahu; i.e., the only way Israel will enter serious negotiations is via international pressure. The United States will have to take a stand and adopt a clear change in policy. The fact that the Obama and Netanyahu are locked into a round of butting heads makes this switch a bit easier. However, I am not really hopeful Obama has the will or the ability to make real changes. So, for now, most likely it will be more of the same. No doubt that a center-left government would have produced a glimmer of hope. However, we have learned long ago that all past glimmers of hope have only produced more settlements and continued colonization.

 So, the final verdict.....

The sky has not fallen, and the Right wing in Israel is not much stronger than it was before the elections. The Zionist Union with 24 seats has a golden opportunity to strengthen their weaknesses, and unite behind Herzog. However, they need to offer the Israeli people an alternative and not dish out a campaign only based on anti-Netanyahu rhetoric.

Most likely, within the next few weeks, Netanyahu will be able to form a narrow-right government, together with Bayit HaYahudi, Kulanu, and the religious parties. During the upcoming term, however, it will be come clear that they are living on borrowed time. Without, a peace process they will not be able to offer the country's youth a real future. Rather, continued conflict, which will weigh hard on Palestinians living under occupation, and Gaza, which is years under blockade.  

The parties in the opposition, the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, Meretz, and the Joint List need to unite on common struggles, challenging the government on the Knesset floor and in its committees. A real opposition can only work however if it is a united one, which looks beyond on short-term gains. Starting a joint campaign against the racism and delegitimization of the state's Arab citizens could be a place to start. Let us hope that all parties involved will show the responsibility needed for this to work. For now, I remain skeptical. Let's see. 

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