Israel after the Knesset elections: What hasn’t changed

Bill Crane analyses the results of the Israeli Knesset elections 


In a result to the 2015 Israeli Knesset elections that has surprised very few, Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently announced there would be no Palestinian state on his watch and spat in the face of Barack Obama, his country’s chief patron, will remain Prime Minister of Israel.

Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud Party pulled ahead of the Labor-led Zionist Union coalition to score 30 seats in the Knesset against 24, confounding exit polls that predicted an equal 27 seats for both. Netanyahu has begun soliciting the leaders of other right and far-right parties to join a renewed coalition, among them Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beteinu and Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home, as well as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.

The victory for the right in Israel is clearly a victory for the forces driving further settlements and dispossession of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, increased discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, and an increasingly aggressive posture toward Israel’s rivals in the region, especially Iran. Just a few highlights: Netanyahu declared he would ramp up construction of settlements after his victory, while Lieberman, his likely coalition partner and current foreign minister, called for ‘disloyal’ Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state to be beheaded.

The new government, then, likely will see an intensification of policies designed to consolidate exclusive Jewish control of the West Bank and Gaza, all in the service of eventually eliminating their native Palestinian population.

The election was marked however, not only by this: we have also seen the impotence of left-wing Zionism in the form of the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog, and the emergence of a united, though deeply contradictory, political opposition to Zionism by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the form of the United Arab List.

The Jewish State of Israel in the Levant (#JSIL)

What prompted so many Israeli voters to turn out for deeply racist, religious and even genocidal parties? In some respects the answer is very basic. The rise of popular right-wing politics in Israel has taken increasingly extreme forms since the First Intifada of 1989, as exhaustively detailed by anti-Zionist American Jewish journalist Max Blumenthal in his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

These forms have included everyday violence against Palestinians by settlers and ordinary citizens in Israel proper, harassment and intimidation of Palestinian and left-wing Jewish activists by the state, and a system of mass incarceration that for Israel’s small size, competes with the racist brutality of its patron, the United States.

Fundamentally the rise of genocidal mania in Israeli politics is a condition of the continued survival of the Jewish state. While Israeli society, like any other, is riven by the division between workers and capitalists, a settler society imposes a racist logic on its underclass. For Marxists, it should come as no surprise that Jewish Israeli workers, who live on land seized from Palestinians since 1948, and have built their lives on this fact, should rush to vote for political forces who promise that they will continue to be able to settle on more expropriated Palestinian land, and to deal forcefully with those who might try to take their seized ‘birthright’ away from them.

This explains why working-class struggles by Israeli Jews have always tended toward collaboration with the state and exclusion of Palestinians. It also explains why Israeli Jews from Middle Eastern countries, themselves the subjects of dispossession and racism from the country’s dominant European Jewish population, have overwhelmingly channeled their political energies into the Orthodox right-wing Shas party.

An article by the liberal Zionist publication +972 Magazine confirms this. One Likud voter, a biotechnology student named Reuven Gershovitz, says: ‘God forbid Zionist Union wins… They live in a different world. They’re nice people, they’re good people, but their way of looking at things is just not suitable to where we live.’ Gershovitz is not a settler, nor a street-fighting fascist of the Jewish Defense League. But ‘where he lives’ is the common place of overwhelming numbers of Israeli Jewish voters, the land of racism, terror and dispossession.

‘Left-Wing’ Zionism: A False Alternative

Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, leaders of the centre-left Zionist Union, were Netanyahu’s foremost critics during the election cycle and seemed to present an alternative to him in many ways. Most significantly, Herzog and Livni ran on a platform that committed to a Palestinian state and promised a ‘freeze’ in the construction of settlements.

But as Ali Abunimah points out, their campaign was a triumph of style over substance. Both Herzog and Livni, along with their parties, are deeply implicated in the Israeli state’s genocidal policies over the years – Livni, who has held many posts in rightwing Israeli governments (most recently as Netanyahu’s minister of justice), was the architect of the 2008 invasion of Gaza for which some have called for her to be charged with war crimes. Even their style slipped away towards the end of the campaign, as Herzog told settlers that voting for his party and the two-state peace plan was the only way to preserve the settlements.

What animates Herzog and the ‘Zionist Union’? At the bottom, it is a vision of Israel shared in common with the right – but not one of Israel it is today, but as it used to be.

Israeli governments, supported by the Jewish population, have since 1948 launched wars of dispossession against the Palestinians. But this was once done in the friendlier language of ‘Labor Zionism,’ which emphasised the democratic rights of all Israel’s population, peace for the Palestinians if they would have it, and even socialism. From David Ben-Gurion until the late 1970s, Labor led all Israeli governments.

The Labor Zionist period is the golden age to which the Labor Party and Zionist Union seek to return. It is clear, however, that not only does this not represent an alternative, especially for the Palestinian subjects of Israeli violence, but also that in contemporary Israel it offers not a sliver of difference, except perhaps in rhetoric, from the right.

Labor Zionism in the world Zionist movement, in the British Mandate and then in Israel after 1948, was based on a unique conjuncture of social forces that has since ceased to exist. The yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish settlements in Mandate Palestine, had no indigenous capitalist class to drive the economy and unify society. Instead, it was the Jewish labor movement, in the union federation of the Histadrut (Ben Gurion was an early leader) who had to secure the basis of the colonial enterprise by divorcing the Jewish settlements from Palestinian workers, as it was called: ‘the conquest of labor.’

After 1948, a broadly social-democratic vision continued to sustain the Jewish state. The Histadrut unions occupied the commanding heights of the economy on a state-capitalist basis, many trade-union leaders taking on the positions of capitalist managers and eventually politicians. The economy was fueled by German reparations for the Holocaust as well as remittances from the global Jewish diaspora, especially in the US. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of Labor Zionism in this period was that of the kibbutzim, utopian projects that were run on a communitarian socialist basis, with the unfortunate exception that like the rest of Israel, they excluded Palestinians.

After the 1970s, a number of changes in Israeli society affected its overarching political settlement. From its initial orientation towards social-democratic Britain and France, the US took their place as Israel’s patron and the financier of its wars after ’68. Bilateral trade treaties with the EC and the US undermined the basis of its state- and union-run economy. Most importantly, an indigenous Israeli capitalist class began to emerge with the explosion of the high-tech industry and, closely connected to it, military technology.

The Israel of today, while it continues the policy of ‘conquest of labour,’ meaning dispossession and eventually elimination of the native Palestinian population embarked on by Labor Zionism, has no place for its rosy socialist justifications of this process.

This is why the fundamental difference between Netanyahu on the one hand and Livni and Herzog is ultimately one of rhetoric. Since its fundamental material basis in early Israeli society has been destroyed, in the current climate the more liberal or left-wing Zionists merely represent those who would like to continue dispossession under a slightly more humanitarian form than the right: promises of a Palestinian state, to be achieved at some indefinable point in the future, and layers upon layers of false promises to the international community to respect the human rights of the occupied. In this they are the true successors of Ben Gurion and the Labor Zionist project.

As Ali Abunimah writes, while we certainly do not celebrate Netanyahu’s victory, for Palestinian solidarity activists it has the advantage of at least not masking Israeli terror.

The ’48 Palestinians: Contradictory Unity

What of the Palestinian citizens of Israel? Subject to systematic discrimination from the state and their Jewish neighbors, traditionally most of them have displayed apathy towards Knesset elections. Yet an overwhelming majority of them – estimated at 68% – voted this time for the new united front of Palestinian parties, the United Arab List, electing fourteen MKs, three more than the parties forming it combined had in the last Knesset.

Their participation was scary enough to Netanyahu that late on election night, he made a special message to get out the vote to the right, stoking racist fears that Arab parties would be in a position to dominate the Knesset.

In fact it was Netanyahu and his allies who produced this unity. In a continuation of the campaign to harass and exclude anti-Zionist Palestinian MKs like Haneen Zoabi from the political sphere, the elections commission raised the proportion of the vote for parties to enter the Knesset from 2% to 3.25%. This was an obvious attempt to completely exclude Palestinians from ‘democratic’ Israeli politics. But it backfired when the Arab parties formed a united list for the Knesset for the first time in twenty years.

The United Arab List is formed out of four parties: Hadash, the united front of which Maki, the Israeli Communist Party is the largest component, Balad, the Arab nationalist party formerly headed by Azmi Bishara, Ta’al, led by Ahmed Tibi, and the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

The United Arab List, in one respect, is a great step forward for the Palestinians in Israel proper. Their unity is in stark contrast to the experience of Palestinians in the occupied territories, who remain divided along the faultline of the secular and collaborationist Fatah versus the Islamist Hamas, with very little independent initiative displayed outside of these two parties and the old Stalinist left the cheerleaders of one or another of the parties of the duopoly.

In another respect, however, this united front is deeply contradictory. Many who follow Palestinian events were wondering on the eve of the elections how a party whose candidates included left-wing feminists from Hadash and practicing polygamists from the Islamic Movement could have much of a future.

As Palestinian journalist Linah Alsaafin has pointed out, this contradiction is just one of the question marks hovering over the United Arab List. Any Palestine solidarity activist must question party leader Ayman Odeh, who late in the election cycle deliberately equivocated over whether the UAL would enter a government with the Zionist Union and vowed to keep out Netanyahu when Herzog and Livni were the only other realistic options. In any case, his optimism (or opportunism) seems misplaced when there has never been an Arab party in government, and there never will be as long as Israel remains a Jewish state.

Furthermore, the fundamental vision of the UAL leaders itself has to be questioned. Odeh has supported the two-state solution, saying in an interview with Newsweek: ‘I want two nations here by choice. I want two cultures here. It adds something important for me. We are all richer because there are two nations and two cultures here. Let’s focus on the positive things that unite us.’ This certainly matches the view of the leadership of Hadash, which, although it has come to represent left-wing ’48 Palestinians, has not broken with the optimistic Zionist-Stalinist position of two nations that it has held since Israeli independence.

If civil-rights consciousness that seeks equality for Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state, while accepting separate solution in some future Bantustan for Palestinians in the occupied territories, triumphs in the policy of the United Arab List over solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in the hope of destroying Zionism and creating one state for all the people currently living in Palestine, this will set definitive limits on the extent to which it can act as an anti-Zionist, anti-racist force to challenge the dominant Israeli culture.

What Hasn’t Changed 

The result of the Knesset elections, it is clear, will be more of the same. Israeli Jewish voters in their masses have given Netanyahu and the far right a decisive mandate to continue settlements and making the lives of Palestinians worse every day. Yet this would have been the same even if the ‘centre-left’ Zionist Union had got in, which would have merely added more peaceful rhetoric to what is fundamentally the ongoing Zionist mission to secure itself by dispossessing and eliminating the Palestinians.

For the Palestinians in ’48 as well as the occupied territories, matters look increasingly grim. It is incumbent on solidarity activists to step up their efforts to expose and isolate the Jewish state through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS recently won a major victory in the UK when students, faculty and staff at SOAS in London voted to call on the school to divest from Israel.

Palestinians by themselves do not have the social force necessary to defeat the Israeli military Goliath. Their liberation is in no small part a question of the liberation of the larger region of the Middle East. While the Arab revolutions seem to be at the impasse of bureaucratic reform from above, military dictatorship, and civil war, the politicisation of the Arab masses since 2011, and the natural solidarity they feel with Palestine, should not be underestimated.

Practical solidarity with Palestinian resistance and the Arab revolutions is important now more than ever. It is the dreams of Palestinian resistors and the Arab revolutionaries of today who can put an end to the nightmares of Netanyahu’s Israel tomorrow.


  1. RDS, a full section of my article (nearly 1/3 of the word count) is devoted to the discussion of the Joint/United (not sure which one is the proper translation) Arab list. There has been plenty of articles about it all around the elections and I try to engage with it from a supportive but critical perspective.
    – Bill Crane

  2. I think you are missing the widespread Palestinian comment that this is good news for Palestine. (Eg in Electronic intifada, and an op-ed in today’s NY times, and obamas response. the arithmetic of the elections is largely irrelevant aside form the strong, united Palestinain turnout. of course, yes, BDS is vital – lets get on wit it!


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