What’s new in Israeli politics? "Nothing, really", seems to be the most agreed-upon analysis of the current political or ideological trends. Seventy years in the life of a nation is nothing, especially when many seem to agree that the nation-state as we know it today is a failing entity with little to no future. While most countries are attempting to cope with the new challenge and/or understand the significance of globalisation, Israel is still searching for its identity and this very difficult quest is what, above all, explains the internal political clashes and alliances. As an example, the conflict between secular and religious, so evident in the daily political discourse, is not just about dietary rules or days of rest or dividing young men from women in uniform. It is part and parcel of the Zionist need to define the borders of the country and, above all, its character.
The centre-left movement was in power for 30 years and for many in Israel and abroad the centre-right is considered an aberration of the original ideals of Zionism. This historical misconception makes it difficult for many to understand that Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud, represents one of the truest and most active parts of the movement that fought for and created the State of Israel. The 1967 war, with the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, changed the shape of Israel and also brought to the forefront of the political and social debate the Likud Zionist dream of a Jewish state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. The project was clearly defined in the charter of the Likud party which was only modified (by eliminating this final goal) for political-diplomatic reasons in the years in which the Labour Party leadership – Rabin and Peres – was pushing for a peace treaty with Jordan and found it necessary to leave space for the creation of a Palestinian entity of some sort.
The forces of Jewish nationalism that created Netanyahu existed in the Zionist movement from its inception. The components of the right-wing religious coalition, which has served as Bibi’s base, were there since 1948. It was Begin who first brought them together in his government in 1977 and Netanyahu continues to promote this objective as he fights accusations of corruption that could lead to his incrimination. The Prime Minister has clearly indicated that he has no intention to resign but is still considering early elections – possibly in September – in an attempt to consolidate his control on a coalition that is wrought by constant infighting. He is seen as giving into some of the more rightist and religious pressures but, in practical terms, the legislation that has put Israel on an apparent path to what some local critic has defined as fascism, can be revoked with a simple order of the Prime Minister. The mass protests along the border with Gaza might extend to the West Bank in the coming days and weeks but, as the threat of a wider conflict with Teheran, only consolidates Netanyahu’s power. He is considered by the majority of Israelis – even those that do not like him – as the best man to protect them from outside threats. He is perceived as strong but cautious and justly frightened of a war that could bring devastation to his country.
As Israel moves towards elections (next year or possibly in September), the Left is, as in Europe, a brand without a clear political direction even concerning the future of the occupation of the Territories conquered in 1967. The Right, populist at times, is divided into at least two camps, one more secular, the other national-religious, fighting to obtain the control of the state institutions and for the future of the Nation. According to Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum, “Ultimately, the Israeli voter’s priorities were guided by security and the economy – fields where Netanyahu has a marked edge over current challengers – with regional and international involvements. This condition allows Netanyahu to strongly influence poll results”.
The extreme right-wing in the coalition, determined by Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman, is hoping that the incrimination of Netanyahu will bring about his demise and open the door for a clearer, but not necessarily different, policy. On the other side, the Labour Party is in perpetual turmoil – a phenomenon in style with that of the Left in most western countries. Since 1994 it has gone through eleven leaders whereas the Likud has had just two. One of the perpetual historical weaknesses of the Left is the fact that the Labour Party – for fear of being considered a traitor – cannot form a coalition with the Arab parties that hold 13 seats in this Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). Israel has always had coalition governments and, as the old political movements position themselves for possible early elections or those slated for 2019, new ones emerge with the intent to determine future governments. Most polls predict a strengthening of Likud under Netanyahu. And few voters believe that the Prime Minister will be stopped by the corruption charges. As strange as it might seem, he is considered unifying and respectable. One of the most recent polls predicts that a new party, headed by Orly Levi-Abekasis, would win eight Knesset seats and would be able, should she want to, to work with the centre-left to block the establishment of a right-wing government. It is not clear what her political program is. This independent parliamentarian, daughter of a past leader of the Likud, was until recently a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, the right-wing party of Defence Minister Lieberman.
What appears clearly (and not only from the polls) is that no new leader, especially on the left where the Labour Party’s leader Avraham “Avi” Gabbay remains ambiguous vis-à-vis the Palestinian question, has emerged with sufficient charismatic appeal and/or a platform that could change the course of Israeli politics.