Forget what you think you knew about Israel

Guardian- 29/03/2006

Welcome to the new Israeli politics. You will need to forget a large amount of what you thought you knew about Israel. The clash between Gush Emunim and Peace Now, between Labour and Likud, between the Whole Land of Israel and the New Middle East – is over. Neither side won. Impatience with the old ideas, with the old parties, and with the political system as a whole has meant that one of the most boring election campaigns in Israeli history has brought forth a fascinating, new, strangely unfamiliar political map.

Some old parties have ridden the storm by transforming themselves. Others, locked in old definitions, have fallen to the sidelines. The external policy debate will now be dominated by two relatively recent creations (Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu – I’ll explain in a moment). The internal debate, meanwhile, has finally started to matter again after a 40 year hiatus.

Let’s look at some of the details. The Kadima Party, the vehicle of Ariel Sharon for the pursuit of strategic unilateralism, is the clear winner of the elections. Without its charismatic founder to lead it, the party’s victory is much narrower than expected. But the idea on which the party ran – the ‘Convergence Plan’ for additional, Gaza style withdrawals from much of the West Bank – is now the only serious contender on the Israeli policy menu of proposals for how to deal with the conflict with the Palestinians.

The Likud Party, which stood for staying, at least for the moment, in all territories and fighting Hamas, has been decimated in the elections. The Labour Party – which was once the party of the Oslo Accords and Geneva – appears to have largely abandoned any focus on external issues in favour of a stress on socio-economic affairs. This means that they will join Olmert’s coalition, and the policy haggling will be on social and economic issues, not on approaches to the conflict. Meretz – the only party still committed to Geneva and the 1990s peace process idea – received 4 seats.

It is interesting to note that the other original policy approach to the conflict to have received significant endorsement by the electorate is also a strange new creature, hard to place according to the definitions we’ve grown familiar to since 1967.

This is the idea of Avigdor Lieberman – for two states, but a moving of the border, placing certain towns inhabited by Palestinian Israelis in the Palestinian state, in return for annexing settlement blocs to Israel. Lieberman is opposed to unilateral withdrawals, which he regards as dangerous, because unreciprocated.

Yet his idea, too, is a creature of the new post-peace process, post-settlement movement period. He too shares the key notions of a wish to retain a Jewish, democratic state, concern at demographics, and an estimation that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. (It is by the way superficial to regard Lieberman’s party as a ‘Russian immigrant’ party. Senior figures on its list and, reportedly, a significant section of its support, come from outside of the Russian immigrant population.)

The range of options between Kadima’s ‘Convergence Plan and Lieberman’s idea is the look of the new Israeli politics regarding the conflict. Both ideas share the three elements mentioned above, to which a huge majority of Israeli Jews subscribe. The representatives of other ideas are on the sidelines.

But yesterday’s elections may signal other deep movements and shifts in Israeli politics. The very low turnout – at 63% the lowest in the history of the country – and the general absence of public rancour in the campaign indicate that a second disengagement has already taken place: namely, the disengagement of a large part of the Israeli public from the political process.

The other surprise winner in the elections apart from Lieberman was the Pensioners Party, led by the only-superficially-cuddly former senior Mossad official Rafi Eitan. This party’s success was partially due to the fact that it became a means for some younger voters to register their cynicism toward the larger parties (and their affection for their grandparents) by voting for it.

Such phenomena reinforce the sense in which Israeli politics has entered a post-heroic phase. Gimmicks, legitimate internal differences, cynical detachment and playfulness may all find their place here. Yet perhaps to a greater extent than other democracies, Israel still faces existential policy issues of grave import. The rise of radical Islamism among the Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear threat, the issue of territorial re-arrangements in the face of these threats – have not gone away.

The Convergence and unilateralist ideas are themselves enormously problematic, with many cardinal questions on them remaining unanswered. But Israelis have shown this time around that they prefer to elect a contractor to bring his team to focus on the technical aspects of dealing with such issues. For their part, they would mainly like politics to leave them alone. And if it must be dealt with – then it is to be a politics on a human level, dealing also with daily issues. The politics of a mature and sophisticated population – accustomed to, rather than thrilled by its own sovereignty.

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