Israel had the highest turnout since 1999. A divided Right made gains, as did the non-Zionist left Joint List. With Netanyahu as PM, the Palestinian struggle is sure to intensify.
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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.
Israel just held its third election in less than a year. Votes are almost all in, and it seems that Netanyahu’s Likud Party and their ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and UTJ appear to have 59 votes, two short of a Knesset majority. Two extremely interesting results, among others, emerged out of this election. The first is the size of the turnout. It was extremely high, the highest since 1999, despite attempts to sow panic over coronavirus and other issues that affected this election and the lethargy.
The second is that the Joint List, a joint Arab-Jewish party representing the non-Zionist left and Palestinian citizens of Israel, gathered more votes than ever before–despite or because of Netanyahu’s attempt to dehumanize the party and its voters–and it appears to have picked up more Jewish votes. In the days before the election, Netanyahu toured the occupied West Bank with US Ambassador David Freedman and promised that, if elected, he’ll annex large parts of the occupied territory.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The mapping is on its way in order to allow the imposing of the Israeli law on these territories and later getting American recognition.
MARC STEINER: We are now joined by Haggai Matar, who is an Israeli journalist and political activist. He’s executive director of 972 Advancement for Citizen Journalism and publishes 972 Magazine. Before that, he was co-editor of the Local Call, which was a Hebrew language news site co-published with Just Vision in 972. Haggai, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
HAGGAI MATAR: Thank you very much. Good to be here, Marc.
MARC STEINER: First question is this election has a number of parts to it that are fascinating. After three elections in about a year and people seem to be weary of politics, they thought it was going to be a low turnout, they didn’t spend as much money on this election as they usually do, but it spiked. So what just happened here and why?
HAGGAI MATAR: I think we still don’t know all the reasons and we still don’t have the final matrix of who exactly are the communities in which the spike occurred. What we do know is that we’re sure Palestinian citizens of Israel have come out in greater numbers than ever before giving the Joint List, as you mentioned, a bigger advantage than ever before. That might be one of the reasons why you’ve seen kind of an overall rise in attendance and participation in the elections. We still don’t know who the other communities are who came out to vote kind of in masses. That remains to be seen in the coming few days.
MARC STEINER: So let’s talk about the Joint List for a moment. It looks like they picked up a seat. Israeli citizens are about 22% of the population, but they only hold now 15 seats as opposed to 20 or 21 that might fit that demographic. So things have shifted here. I mean it’s becoming a party that’s also gathered more Jewish votes in this last election, and it seems that their participation rate that had been low, as you were saying, is now higher. So what about this political dynamic? One of the things I read in the Economist magazine was that the Joint List was now also advertising in Hebrew, appealing to the ultra-Orthodox, appealing to Ethiopian Jews and others. You saw the Israeli left/Zionist left losing votes. Did some of those go to the Joint List? I mean, what did we just witness?
HAGGAI MATAR: So yes, very much so. Not only in Hebrew, but also in Russian, and Yiddish to reach different communities within the Jewish population–immigrant communities within the Jewish population. So there’s definitely this attempt that’s fascinating on the side of the Joint List that has been generally marked as the Arab List. And sometimes commentators on television will call it the Arab List, even though Arab is not in its name and it’s Joint List of Arabs and Jews. But there’s been this attempt to reach out to Jewish communities more than ever before. People hold political gatherings in Jewish cities and towns more than ever before. I think this is sort of an assertion on the side of the Joint List saying, “We are the leaders of the left. There’s no Jewish massive left that we are kind of the appendix to. We are the leaders of the left. We invite Jewish leftists to join us.”
That is a statement of serenity, of agency on the side of the Palestinian leaders of the Joint List. I think it’s been working very well definitely with kind of the shrinking, almost collapse of the Zionist left. We see people that are saying, “Actually this is kind of the new game in town. These are the people that are making the difference.” It’s been having this beautiful effect wherein Jews are buying into this project the more Palestinians are joining in and vice versa. When Palestinians see these campaigns happening in Hebrew and they see Jewish Israelis joining, they’re also saying, “Wait a second. Jewish Israelis are now seeing us as part of the political game. We’re interested to kind of go deeper in.” That’s why we see more both Jews and Palestinians vote for the Joint List.
MARC STEINER: I have a two-part question. Let me just start with one. So when you look at parties like Meretz which was the Zionist left and they lost in their coalition with Labor Party, they lost a lot of seats. They’re down to seven, it appears. So they once were the powerhouse inside of Israel. They founded the state of Israel, the Labor Party. So where do those votes go? Do they stay home? Did they go to Benny Gantz and the Occupation Light? Do they go to the Joint List? I mean, what do you think is happening here? I’m very curious from the inside what that means. Did the Joint List have really any effect in the Ethiopian Jewish community and other parts of the Jewish world in Israel? What can you gather this early in the results? What do they tell you?
HAGGAI MATAR: So first of all, for the Zionist left, what I think has happened is really long process of about 20 years. It started, you can say, with Ehud Barak coming back from Camp David in 2000 saying, “There is no Palestinian partner. The whole vision of peace, of Israeli peace movement, that’s dead. That’s no longer relevant.” That basically killed Zionist left and it just took it a long time to just shrink over 20 years to the point where, as you mentioned, Labor, the founding party of the state now has three seats in the common Knesset, which is really nothing out of 120.
And where did people go? You rightly asked. Some have gone to the Joint List. People that are more dovish or committed to resisting the occupation, more committed to joint Palestinian-Jewish partnership, they have gone to the Joint List. Others whose kind of sole interest is just to topple Netanyahu have joined Blue and White, the general’s party, which is basically a party that’s only mandate is to topple Netanyahu. That’s their only common denominator. Everything else you can see huge differences of opinion. Within that party, the only thing they agree on is that we should end Netanyahu’s rule. So you saw people going there. Yeah, Labor and Meretz apparently did not have enough of an appeal to get people out to vote for them.
MARC STEINER: So let’s turn to Likud and what this means. I mean they campaigned in part as… I remember seeing one thing in the election calling Netanyahu a friend of God and playing… So this huge support for him despite his perhaps facing trial. And that could be another thing we can talk about at some point, but he’s almost been pushed like a demigod in some ways by his supporters. What is that dynamic about? Who are those people? Then when you look at the larger scheme in terms of this election, the right wing parties along with the ultra-Orthodox parties really won a vast majority of the Israeli vote. I mean extreme right wing parties as well. While people kind of say, “Oh, look. The Joint List is growing. They’re the voice of the left,” it seems like the right really has hold of the consciousness of Israeli citizens.
HAGGAI MATAR: Definitely. I mean we’ve been talking about Joint List. That’s kind of an important, yet small segment of what just happened here. The bigger story is definitely the fact that the right in Israel is winning. The vast majority of Jewish Israelis have voted right, either the right such as Blue and White or more extreme forms of right like Likud and further to the right. But that’s kind of a spectrum of parties that all basically agree that the occupation needs to continue, that the seize on Gaza needs to continue, the annexation of the Jordan Valley and parts of the West Bank is legitimate, that the way that Israel has been leading itself vis-a-vis Iran and other countries in the Middle East is exactly the way to go, and that the economy is just run exactly the way that it should be.
So all those things are very, very essential in my mind to the questions what it means to be Israeli, what is the future of Israel and Palestine, are basically not point of argument. That is a huge victory for the right. It’s a huge victory for Netanyahu, who for over a decade has been successful in kind of convincing Israelis that his policy is–and this is true–leading to growing financial prosperity, economic prosperity, more security for Israelis than ever before. The past decade has been one of the more peaceful ones for Israelis with the least casualties on the Israeli side that Israelis can remember for a very, very long time. So all these things basically kind of reaffirm that Netanyahu’s policy is right. Then the only arguments that you have within the right is should Netanyahu be the one to continue leading those policies or should it be someone else. Then you go into kind of more detail of should the country be more religious or slightly more secular, but kind of the big questions, the right has won the discussion.
MARC STEINER: So let’s close with this. I’m curious to take this one more step. So when you look at the Trump plan that was just an absurd plan around Israel, Palestine, hardly even mentioning the Palestinians, and Netanyahu making very clear that annexation may step up and continue and then he campaigned talking about Arabs want to destroy us all, where does this leave the future? I mean you’ve written in the past, Haggai, some things that were kind of not [Pollyanne-ish 00:10:45] at all, but optimistic, saying things can change. Where does this leave the next year, two years, three years with annexation going into the West Bank, taking not just settlements, but making them part of Israel proper? I mean what do you think is about to happen? What do you think we’re about to see, where the struggle will go next?
HAGGAI MATAR: Well first of all, it’s hard to say because as you mentioned, we still don’t know who’s going to form a government. The possibility of a fourth round of elections is still out there. We don’t know what kind of a government we’ll have. So it’s very hard to predict exactly what things will look like. What we do is that annexation has been happening on the ground anyway. My colleague [Marin Rappaport 00:11:24] has written very precisely that one of the reasons that Netanyahu has not been able to really kind of get people behind him specifically around the deal of the century, he came back saying, “This is an historic event. We finally got recognition. We finally got acceptance for annexation,” and generally Israelis were like, “Okay. That’s fine.” Nobody was excited. Nobody was celebrating. The reason is because that annexation has become a fact on the ground already, that the kind of stamp, legal stamp on it probably doesn’t mean that much to people.
So we might see more of that legal stamp, but the reality on the ground has been happening for a very long time. You asked about kind of optimism. I think one of the things that real annexation, legal annexation and the US support for such annexation might cause, would be for progressives and for countries around the world to really need to rethink their policy of Israel. For 25 years, almost 30 years of the complete demise of any sort of peace process, you’ve had the world basically saying, “This place is going to two-state solution. It’s about to happen. We just need to keep it on life support for the time being.” I think that reality is just no longer there. Israel is very clearly not interested. Israelis are very not interested in ending the occupation. The White House is supporting Israel in maintaining the occupation. Now, we need people to decide.
I think one of the things that’s happening and it’s probably very relevant today on Super Tuesday looking at candidates, seeing how are they responding, how are they thinking about holding Israel to account with all these actions of occupation, human rights abuse, annexation, and so on. So I think what gives me hope is seeing the shifts in the progressive discourse in different places, most in the US, about Israel. I think that might be something that would lead to change here.
MARC STEINER: I mean it might even be that, if you look at some of the polling among Palestinian Israelis, the idea of being part of the government, A, and B, for a singular democratic state of all Palestinians and Israelis in one place could pick up steam the more the occupation continues and gains strength. That could be the political opposition. That would be an interesting dynamic to watch over the next coming years if we have that much time.
HAGGAI MATAR: I don’t think that that will work. I don’t see Jewish Israelis binding to such an idea. They would more likely kind of backtrack to, “Okay. Okay. Let’s go back to two states. That will make more sense.” We could see that. I think it’s more likely, but definitely. I mean this is polarizing. This is a time for change. We’ve seen kind of the status quo sustain itself for a very long time. I think it’s kind of running out of options in terms of how to keep up things exactly as they are.
MARC STEINER: Well, Haggai Matar, thank you so much for joining us here today on The Real News. We look forward to many more conversations and look forward to more of your work and writing at 972. Thanks for your work and thanks for being part of our discussion.
HAGGAI MATAR: Thank you very much for having me.
MARC STEINER: My pleasure. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.