What is a UK Labour Party supporter to make of the Israeli election results? There are two issues here: an ideological question over the fate of peace and social justice, and a partisan one over the fortunes of parties which have historically been in the Socialist International, Avoda (The Israeli Labour party) and Meretz.
Let’s deal with the issues separately.
First, on the ideological question, the election’s currently provisional results seems point to a dramatic vote but a mundane outcome when it comes to the most important political question facing the country.
The Left-Arab parties and Right-religious parties have won equal number of seats in parliament (60), in Israel’s single list pure PR system.
The most successful party at the last election – Kadima, who won 28 seats in 2009,- have been reduced to only two or potentially wiped out altogether.
The Prime Minister Binyamin Natenyahu’s list won 31 seats. However, that list is jointly held between two parties, with the premier’s Likud party only being able to claim 20 seats.
The second largest party, Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) did not exist at the last election, has won 19 seats and is entirely composed of freshman parliamentarians. The only defining policy of the party and its former TV presenter leader, Yair Lapid, is to remove certain privileges from the ultra-orthodox religious community, such as the de facto exemption from national service.
However, it seems likely that the new government will revert back to the standard position of the last 40 years for Israeli administrations of avoiding the existential harsh choice that the country faces.
The Jewish state cannot both be democratic and have various levels of rule over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (Most supporters of Israel will claim that the country does not run Gaza. However, it’s a funny sort of non-rule where a Prime Minister in Jerusalem gets to decide which ships can dock in the territory. That’s not my opinion, its Max Weber’s).
It can annex the West Bank and Gaza, giving full rights to its Arab residents, which will become a majority in the resultant state in the next decade, and cease to be definitionally Jewish. It can annex the West Bank and Gaza, not give its Arab residents citizenship and cease to be a recognisable democracy.
Or it can fully withdraw to borders which give the resultant Palestinian state some sort of territorial contiguity and logic. Israel can recreate its biblical Kingdom or be a modern democracy but it can’t do both.
However, the country has avoided making this decision for decades, by typically using a formula. The government is headed by a right-wing party, whose official policy is that all land ‘between the river and the sea’ belongs to Israel, and includes other parties with similar polices.
Then, a centrist party without such an ideological commitment is invited into government, whose leader is given an outward-looking ministry, such as Foreign Secretary or Defence.
The official policy of the government is to negotiate a solution to the conflict, but it is claimed that there is no one to negotiate with because the other side is divided, or undemocratic or terrorists. As long as there is a scintilla of truth to that suggestion, and Israeli’s biggest military aid donor – the United States – is so tied up in domestic policies to exert pressure, that’s how the game continues to be played.
Negotiations are put in cold storage and Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza – that make the Jewish Democratic option increasingly tenuous – spread even further.
Lapid has announced he wants to be part of a government that includes both Left and Right. However, since other Left parties have announced a reluctance to be involved with a Natenyahu -led government, the final outcome with almost certainly be a right wing government plus Yesh Atid.
Lapid will play the role to this government that former Avoda leader Ehud Barak played in the last one, and nothing will change.
What about Labour’s sister parties? For Avoda, the glass will be half-empty rather than half-full this morning. It’s leader Shelly Yachimovitch went into the election aiming to be Prime Minister and is now head of only the third largest party with 15 seats.
However, this was a party that was being declared dead a couple of years ago. It was part of the Natenyahu government, its leader, Ehud Barak, made little pretence to being economically on the left, and declared repeatedly that there ‘was no partner for peace’ on the Palestinian side.
The question was repeatedly asked, what was the point of the party? Barak’s backbenchers decided to pull out of the government, Barak and four allies broke away, leaving it with only 8 seats.
Yachimovitch won the leadership and instigated a bold, if controversial policy. Ignore the Palestinian issue and run hard to the left on economics, on the not-idiotic premise that while West Bank and Gazan Palestinians don’t vote in Israeli elections, poor Israelis do.
In summer 2011, when one in ten Israelis came out onto the streets to protest in favour of social Justice, it looked like Yachimovitch could ride that wave to government. In the end, it has just given her party a lifeline.
It is only in the last decade that Avoda has moved to being a recognisable social-democratic party. It has traditionally been the party of the county’s statist dirigiste bureaucrats and as such has always been drawn to being a junior partner in Likud led coalitions, thereby losing its identity and purpose. To be Avoda was to be in government or to be worthless.
Yachimovitch will come under pressure to capitulate again, but if she can hold on, then in all probability she will be undisputed leader of the opposition, with the opportunity to have a full tilt at the big prize next time.
Meanwhile, Meretz – a full-blooded European style “peace and justice” Social-Democratic party – is similarly back from the dead.
It appears that secular democratic Israel has woken up to the fact that even if they don’t turn up to the polls, another Israel will. The party will double in size from three to six. Meretz similarly spoke about an existential crisis a couple of years ago, but has found a new message – the vanguard of Israel as a Hebrew republic, not a Jewish theocracy.
It can now be said with a straight face that if Avoda and Meretz did not exist they would have to be invented. That might be a low bar, but it is one that it looked at one point they were unlikely to clear.