Wednesday 18 March 2015

Israeli elections 2015: the untold story

Once again, the results of Israel’s parliamentary elections have managed to surprise foreign pundits.  From BBC’s Middle East ‘expert’ Jeremy Bowen to New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, the vast cohorts of journalists who make a living out of ‘analysing’ Israel just can’t get the story right, despite the relative transparency of the country’s political processes.  No surprise there: they suffer from the professional diseases that affect ‘modern’ journalism: laziness, stupidity and ideology-induced blindness.  But the abject failure to predict (itself the product of their brand of ‘non-investigative’ journalism) does not prevent these pundits from trying to ‘explain’ things, out of their utter cluelessness, to the rest of us.

Hence, the swing – within the space of just a few hours – from ‘Netanyahu is in trouble’ to ‘Netanyahu has scored a great victory’.  Neither story is, needless to say, more than a superficial account, lacking in depth and insight.

Let us examine, one by one, the fallacies that these inept ‘experts’ have been peddling to their unsuspecting audience.

It’s not about peace, it’s about the economy

In the run-up to the elections, many a Western media outlet opined that the issues of peace and security have become secondary, with Israelis focusing on the state of the economy, the funding of the country’s health system and the rising prices of housing.

The Telegraph opined:
“…in this campaign none of them [the main party leaders] has said much about peace with the Palestinians. The supreme question about Israel’s future is largely absent. Why so? Many Israelis see “peace” as a nebulous and unrealistic goal, hardly worth the time of their politicians, compared with pressing domestic issues that many countries would find familiar, including a desperate shortage of affordable housing.”
But, as the results unequivocally showed, the economic situation (hardly a bad one, anyway) did not cause Israelis to vote for the parties that promised to ‘close the social gaps’.  Issues of security remained at the forefront, as did the conflict with the Palestinians.  It’s just that Israelis have grown increasingly skeptical about negotiations with an organisation that, while ostensibly interested in ‘peace’, is also planning to ‘take Israel to court’, ruin her economically, subject its citizens to terrorist attacks and flood her with ‘returned refugees’.

Israel’s ‘shift to the right’

Western media has, for years now, pushed the idea that the Israeli electorate is inexorably sliding to the right.  This is usually postulated as self-evident, thus releasing the proponents of that theory from the exhausting duty of providing evidence.

Before the previous elections -- whose results it also got wrong by a loooong mile – The Guardian was threatening:
“Israel's shift to the right will alienate those it needs most”
Across the pond, The Wall Street Journal has just entitled its infographic on the recent elections
“Shift to the Right”.
Both papers talk out of their arses.  Not only is there no ‘shift to the right’ – the facts may be interpreted as showing the exact opposite.  As one can understand quite easily by examining Figure 1, which shows the results of parliamentary elections held in the past 20 years.

Figure 1: Shift to the right??

What has actually happened is not a ‘shift to the right’, but a disintegration of the ‘sane left’, which found itself increasingly disconnected from the mainstream (see Figure 2), losing its appeal to the centre, swing voters.

Figure 2

‘Apathetic’: Arab Israelis

Another myth often pushed by Western pundits is the image of Arab Israelis who ‘feel marginalised’, ‘struggle to belong’ and hence utterly lack interest in Israeli politics.

In an article published in 2013, New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren complained about
“Arab apathy […] raising new concerns here over the health of Israeli democracy”
Other pundits referred to a decrease in electoral turnout among Israel’s Arab sector, claiming it as evidence of indifference and disconnect.  But a longer-term analysis easily disproves such theories (see Figure 3).  Whatever the percentage turnout (and despite pressure to organise boycotts), Arab Israelis have voted in increasing numbers, thus manifesting unequivocal interest and confidence in the country’s democratic processes.  True, they have voted primarily along ethnic lines – for Arab ethnic parties whose leaders tended to represent the PLO, rather than their own constituency.  But there are signs that that, too, is beginning to change.

Figure 3
In passing, let me remark that there was at least one Arab Israeli who certainly could not afford to be apathetic: Justice Salim Jubran, a judge who sits on the Supreme Court of Israel, chaired the Central Elections Committee, the body overseeing the elections…

The ‘Ultra-Orthodox’ danger

Yet another fallacy propagated by international media is the image of almost occult power exercised by the improperly named ‘Ultra-Orthodox’ (Haredi) parties.  True, Israel’s Haredi population is growing – it currently comprises more than 10% of the total population.  But some 80% of Egypt’s population is just as religiously observant – and arguably more politically active.  Yet I have never heard a pundit referring to that sector of Egypt’s population as ‘Ultra-Sunnis’!

Like Arab Israelis, Haredi Jews tend to vote for ‘their own parties’.  Unlike Arab parties, however, Shas and Yahadut HaTorah (‘Torah Judaism’) strive for the interests of their constituency; even when, as is the case with the latter party, they decline to actually serve in the government.

In its primer on Israel’s elections, the Washington Post refers to
“…the growing electoral influence of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community on the country’s politics”.
Mail Online calls these parties
“…long-time kingmakers in Israeli coalition politics”.
A factual analysis, however, (see Figure 4) reveals that the Haredi influence is not ‘growing’ and that they are hardly the only ‘kingmakers’.  In fact, their influence is more than balanced by militant secularist parties such as Israel Betenu (Israel Our Home), Yesh Atid (There’s a Future) and Meretz.  

In fact, the Haredi parties were left in the opposition after the previous (2013) elections.  And while they are likely to join the next governing coalition, they will have to cohabit there with avowed secularists.

Figure 4

No Palestinian State

In the tense run-up to the elections, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to promise that, if elected, he will not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian State in the West Bank.  The statement – which seemed to mark a reverse of his previous position, was eagerly seized upon by every Western media outlet – especially by those that strongly disliked Netanyahu.  But what most of those outlets failed to report was the background to that statement.

Documents disclosed prior to it by the Israeli media showed that one of Netanyahu’s ‘special envoys’ (lawyer Yitzhak Molcho) had conducted intense secret negotiations with an emissary of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.  An Israeli secret document entitled ‘Draft Proposal for Statement of Principles Towards a Permanent Arrangement’ appeared to show that Netanyahu’s envoy had agreed to the establishment of an “independent, sovereign and viable” Palestinian State with “borders with Jordan […] Egypt” and Israel, based on the pre-1967 armistice lines, with equal land swaps.  The document laid out the framework for uprooting a large number of West Bank settlements and even stipulated leaving some settlers in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control. Molcho even appeared to lean towards concessions in Jerusalem, stating that
“Any solution to the issue of Jerusalem must correspond to the deep historic, religious, cultural and emotional ties of both peoples to the city…”
Published in full in one of Israel’s main newspapers, just a few days before the elections, the document was said to
“stand in stark contradiction of his [Netanyahu’s] hawkish views”
No wonder, then, that he felt the need to deny making such concessions and ‘shore-up’ his position with a hawkish statement.  Those willing to read between the lines (very few Western journalists are, when it comes to Israel, though they can perform genuine acts of linguistic contorsionism when it comes to whitewashing immoderate Arab statements) will notice that Netanyahu’s ‘no Palestinian state’ statement was rather carefully crafted.  Among other things, it talked about the situation “today” (as opposed to ‘tomorrow’).  That’s more than enough wriggling room for your run-of-the-mill used car dealer, let alone a crafty and intelligent politician…

Western pundits will, of course, continue to find fault with Israel, obstinately applying the ‘glass half empty’ approach to the Jewish State.  Ironically however, the most interesting and revealing commentary on the recent elections came from a Palestinian Arab journalist:
"We say all these bad things about Israel, but at least the people there have the right to vote and enjoy democracy.  We really envy the Israelis. Our leaders don't want elections. They want to remain in office forever."

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