The Unlikely Winners of Israel’s Election

No one can confidently predict the outcome of tomorrow’s Israeli election. It will undoubtedly be a close contest between Likud and the Zionist Camp for the most seats in the Knesset. In any case, which of the two will lead the next government and who will be the next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu or Yitzhak Herzog, will not be determined at the polls, but in the inevitable inter-party negotiations and deal-making that follows it.

Netanyahu, a seasoned expert in such coalition building, is still the most likely candidate to form the next government and become prime minister. Despite a lack of popular support and a widespread desire for change at the top, Netanyahu is a savvy politician who has often been able to outmaneuver his rivals. More importantly, it will probably be much easier for him to put together a governing coalition than it will be for Herzog. Not only is the right-wing bloc—composed of Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party—likely to have more Knesset seats than the center-left bloc of the Zionist Camp and Meretz, but also the ultra-Orthodox parties (United Torah Judaism, Shas, and its new offshoot Yahad) are more inclined to sit in a rightwing government than a center-left one, partly because many of their voters hold rightwing, hawkish views on the Palestinian issue. A narrow coalition of rightwing and religious parties, probably joined by the new center-right Kulanu party led by the former Likud member Moshe Kahlon, is therefore a more likely outcome than a left-of-center government. Many analysts, however, believe that a broad national unity government, including both Likud and the Zionist Camp, is the most likely outcome of the election, even though most Israelis are decidedly unenthusiastic about this.

Sadly, this does not bode well for the already dim prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Those people, both inside and outside Israel, desperately hoping (with more desperation than hope) that the next Israeli government will be more serious and determined about pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians, are likely to be disappointed, yet again. Even if the Zionist Camp wins the most seats and Herzog is somehow able to cobble together a coalition, he will have to rely upon the support of parties whose leaders are much less willing to make major concessions to the Palestinians, particularly concerning the future of Jerusalem.

But although the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace is unlikely to be significantly advanced by the results of this election, another cause—no less important to Israel’s future—could well receive a major boost. This is the cause of Jewish-Arab coexistence and cooperation in Israel. Since the late 1990s, and especially since the notorious events of October 2000 when Israeli police killed 12 Arab citizens of Israel during large-scale, and sometimes violent, protests, Arab-Jewish relations in Israel have been dangerously deteriorating. The Palestinian-Arab minority, 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, has become increasingly alienated from the Israeli state and from Israeli Jews. After suffering from decades of discrimination and government neglect, and after having recently endured racist attacks (both verbal and physical), rightwing Zionist agitation against them (led by Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu colleagues), and parliamentary legislation targeting them, many, if not most, of Israel’s Arab citizens now firmly believe that they will always be ‘second-class’ citizens in a Jewish state.

This election could challenge that demoralizing and pernicious belief and help convince Arabs that they can in fact be fully equal citizens, and that Israel can really be a Jewish and democratic state. If the Joint List, a union of three Arab parties and the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, succeeds in winning thirteen or fourteen seats (as the polls suggest it might) it could be the third largest party in the next Knesset. While it is unlikely to join the government—there is an informal rule against including Arab parties in Israeli government coalitions—the Joint List could become Israel’s main opposition party, a status that confers many practical and symbolic benefits. For example, its leader, Ayman Odeh, would meet with visiting foreign dignitaries, receive official government briefings, and get to address the Knesset after every speech by the prime minister.

The potential electoral success of the Joint List, and the political influence and prestige it would enjoy as a result of this, could turn out to be a game changer in Israeli politics. It could emerge not only as the unified and representative voice of the Arab minority, one that Israeli and foreign leaders and the Israeli-Jewish public would have to pay attention to, but also as a future government coalition partner. Above all, its success would send a powerful and much–needed message to the Arab minority that voting in Israeli elections is not a sham or a waste of time, as many Arab citizens have come to believe it is (which is why Arab voter turnout has declined in previous elections). This would encourage future Arab political participation and strengthen Israeli democracy.

Whether the Zionist Camp or Likud lead the next Israeli government, therefore, perhaps the biggest winner of the election will be the Joint List, and its most significant outcome may be in the often ignored, but deeply troubled, relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

Open Hillel and the potential for change to US Jewish life

I was able to spend half a day at the Open Hillel conference, including speaking on a panel on “Potential Solutions.” One thought: I’d be worried if I were part of the “pro-Israel” American Jewish establishment. These leaders of tomorrow are not going to quietly accept stale dogma.

The students I met and heard talk at the conference are smart, attend elite universities, and are thinking hard about these issues. They are exposed to a range of organizations that not only includes AIPAC/JCRC/Federation/CAMERA etc but also groups with alternate views such as J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The Jewish tradition was long one of deep intellectual curiosity. In addition, college is one time when many students get to explore ideas. This combination of being party to the Jewish tradition and in college makes for a double dose of curiosity. That’s crucial if one is asking these students to blindly accept narratives or avoid peeking outside the existing opinion tent; they’ll push back, as they did by even establishing Open Hillel and organizing this first conference.

I’m not an expert on American Jewish institutional life. Moreover, there was a selection effect – the kind of student who would be at an Open Hillel conference lends herself/himself to my claims. Students who are outsiders and questioners now certainly might be co-opted later. Fair points.

So rather than an airtight argument, take this as impressionistic…but plausible. Let’s revisit in 20 years and see where things stand.

(I’ll write more about the conference tomorrow @BeaconReader).

Carter and Camp David

A quick thought. I have not read Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. (Can I claim to be Camp David-ed out?) But in reading a review by Jordan Chandler Hirsch, I was struck by one of the reviewer’s phrasings.

Hirsch does not want us to over-emphasize the US role in bringing about Egyptian-Israeli peace: “Washington, in short, played the role of consolidator, not catalyst.”

In the hopes of not over-emphasizing the US role, the risk is that Hirsch minimizes the US role. In the end, I think two things are true about the diplomacy of 1978-1979:

There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had not Egyptian and Israeli interest been moving in the same direction.
There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had the US/Carter not mediated (especially in September 1978 and March 1979).

Hirsch’s line does not fully capture my sentiments.

That Genocide Post

I hate to waste the space here, but since that Times of Israel blog post arguing that genocide against the Palestinian is permissible because Hamas just won’t give up (I won’t link to it here; it’s been taken down anyway, though others have captured images of it) is making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and online media, it’s important to make a few points clear.

Having been a blogger at ToI, I know how blogging works there.

  • The blog post is just that: a blog post. It appeared in an open, largely un-moderated blog, written by what is for all intents and purposes a random blogger.
  • It was not vetted by ToI editors. Once you are approved as a blogger there, you get a password and you can post whenever and whatever you want. Sometimes an editor will see the post and make some minor changes; mostly, given the high quantity of pieces submitted, it simply gets passed through.
  • The post doesn’t represent the paper’s editorial line.
  • Even less does it represent either Israeli public opinion or elite opinion.

Given all this, if you are promoting the piece as a sign of Israeli opinion in any way, you are not a serious person.

This isn’t the first silly, offensive, or dangerous piece to be posted there. Obviously, then, it behooves ToI to immediately change its moderation policy. Immediately.

Update: The ToI editors explain their decision to remove the blog (and the blogger) from their website.

How to stop the Israeli occupation: An answer to Corey Robin

Corey Robin asked the following about the ASA’s recent pro-BDS resolution:

For the last month I’ve been responding to critiques and challenges of BDS. Now I have a question for its opponents and critics. What do you propose as an alternative strategy?

I am not sure I am entitled to answer since I have not written any critique of the ASA resolution, but I think you have to ask a prior question. If you are an American academic association and you want the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank to end, what tactics are most likely to work? (No guarantees; history obviously shows coercion can work for a very long time.)

In others words, what is more effective, the ASA endorsing “a boycott of Israeli academic institutions” or the ASA doing something else? I pick something else.

If I were counseling the ASA, I would suggest the following:

1. You are, I imagine, mostly* residents of the United States. If that is the case, the best thing you can do is lobby the US government to change its policy toward Israel-Palestine. However limited, you have access to US halls of power that a Palestinian in Nablus does not. Change your own government. So pass a resolution condemning current US policy. Write. Call. Visit. Donate. Form a PAC. Organize. Vote.

2. Focus on the denial of academic freedom to Palestinian academics and universities. Work to break it down. Hold conferences and workshops with Palestinian professors. Engage in joint projects. Given the difficult travel policies they face, allocate funds to bring them for scholarly exchanges. I do not know what the MLA will ultimately do, but a draft text I saw went more in this direction. A related variant: formally support Israeli academics who oppose the occupation.

3. Publicize and support on-the-ground Palestinian efforts based on non-violent change. People should know about movements in Bil’in and Budrus and Nabi Salih and Sheik Jarrakh and the like.

Make that list the operative part of the resolution, and the ASA will still get a lot of pushback. But the ASA will also have a better chance of effecting meaningful change.

(For the sake of discussion, I set aside the Middlebury objection. That’s a prior issue the ASA has to address.)

* Please correct me if “mostly” is inaccurate.