14 Feb 2009

The Israeli Elections: What's the verdict?

If the political categories of Left and Right have lost their meaning in the West, in Israel they have become absolutely erroneous and misleading. Yet, it is quite astounding how commentators everywhere are oblivious to this fact. The so-called lurch to the right has been accepted universally, by the Israeli media, Western and Arab journalists, even Islamic Jihad leader Nafez Azzam saw it as a sign of Israeli society becoming more extremist. Yet, in reality, the four main parties that between them got 70% of the vote are much more similar than they appear. Their differences lie in very subtle shades of grey.
In the build-up to the elections, the candidates themselves and the media were desperate to exaggerate their differences. Netanyahu proclaimed that he will never give up the Golan heights, Livni and Barak claimed commitment to peace but played it tough on Hamas and Iran, and finally, the one that everybody is talking about, Lieberman wants Israel to be for the Jews and has declared that the Arab citizens of Israel are not loyal to the Jewish state. In the heat of the electoral battle, these might sound like radical differences between the different parties. With a bit more historic perspective and through the prism of where Israel is today and the fate of Zionism, the four parties are equally at loss to know what they actually stand for and how that would shape their policies.
Looking at the common denominator, all of those parties, and the other smaller ones as well, continue to see Israel as 'work-in-progress.' Israel's main problem so far has been that it has no recognizable borders, partially as a result of the 1967 war and the acquisition of territory that had been hitherto in the realm of fantasy. Decades on, that particular problem persists, compounded by the notion of land-for-peace which Israeli elites accepted, and the public at large do support. With the Oslo agreement and the peace process, the notion that the borders of Israel are open to negotiation has intensified. Today, this frames the actions and utterances of Israeli politicians across the board, whether they are in power or in opposition.
For those that have forgotten Netanyahu's term in power, it might be a moment to remind them that in fact his actions fell very short of his rhetoric. In fact, the catastrophic actions of Barak and later Sharon, actions that the Lebanese and the Palestinians suffered terribly from, were far more destructive than Netanyahu's. This is by no means a defense of the man, he was no dove, but to point out that in reality he is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. It is also useful to remember that Netanyahu signed two agreements with the Palestinian Authority during his term, and although he did his best to slow down the 'peace process', he did not effectively over turn the agreements or put an end to the process.
That same pragmatism is what characterizes the other men and women at the top of Israeli politics today, even Ariel Sharon himself had abandoned his ideological stance on his comeback, Kadima is the proof of that. A motley crew of characters assembled from all sides of Israeli politics, not for any great political purpose but because the re-definition of the boundaries of Israel had acquired an urgency that they intended to solve with physical measures on the ground rather than by answering the political questions that were raised by the decline of the Zionist project and attempting to fill the void in Israeli politics. Cue the withdrawal from Gaza and The Wall.
Barak, Livni and Netanyahu will invariably continue that line of thinking and action, and attempting to illustrate their differences through meaningless gestures. To give up the Golan or not give up the Golan is not a priority that any of them will have long term, it is easy to say that now when there is no real prospect for peace with Syria, but once the opportunity presents itself, no doubt that even Netanyahu will not hesitate from handing it back if the 'mood was right.'
What of Lieberman? How could he be likened to those other politicians with his tough stance and radicalism? This another case of rhetoric passing for a real political agenda, but a closer examination of Lieberman reveals that he is only louder than his colleagues, if not substantially different. In fact, Lieberman's particular stance might represent an even bigger challenge to the boundaries of Israel as it stands today. The quartet of parties at the top of Israeli politics are all reacting to demographics, attempting to re-draw the line that separates from the Palestinians where they think it will guarantee them a longer period of Jewish statehood. Lieberman is taking that to its logical conclusion.
Calling Lieberman an ultra-nationalist is a bit misleading, this is not a man that will take Israel onto new conquests to acquire more territory or fulfill any historical promise between 'the river and the sea'. On the contrary, he exemplifies the lack of confidence in any political projects that is characteristic of politics today. He is driven by fear of demographics and the fragility of the Israeli state. And this the paradox that Israel is experiencing today: a mighty military machine and advanced economy that are still not capable of inspiring any confidence of the ability to defend that state.
Why? The response can ultimately be traced back to the decline of Zionism. Or call it the end of Zionism as a historic project, in the sense that it has fulfilled its aim of establishing a Jewish state, although it has failed in its task of providing security for Jews everywhere. The question for Israel today is how to move beyond Zionism. The absence of any political project that can guide this process will mean that the pragmatism of Israeli politicians will continue, fuelled by fear and particularly fear of demographics. The results of that are catastrophic, as we have seen recently in Gaza, with thousands killed and devastation wreaked for no obvious reason.
For the time being, the politicians will continue their horse-trading and political games, oblivious to the historic task that demands their attention. But don't fool yourselves in thinking that there is any significant difference between them. Ultimately, I wonder if there is any secure future other than one brought about by a secular and democratic state. What that will represent for the Jewish character for Israel is up Israelis to determine, but the numbers game will not bring about security or stability. As long as Israel continues to be a malleable state, one with elusive boarders, its troubles and those of the Palestinians will persist.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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