Our guests analyze Israeli political paralysis, the power of the right, and what having the Arab coalition be the largest opposition party might mean
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.
Well, the Israeli elections are done. We think so, anyway. 91% or so of the votes were in, last I saw. It’s clear that no one has enough votes to form the government. But from the votes in, we can clearly see what’s going on. The center-left Blue and White party has 32 seats in the new Knesset, which is the parliament. Netanyahu’s group has thirty 31 seats. So no one can really form a government. Then you have people like Avigdor Lieberman, who is Yisrael Beiteinu party; could become the king maker even though they are also deeply in a minority. But he wants to play king maker. We’ll talk a bit about that. There’s a wild card in the Arab-led Joint List. It’s the third largest party now in the Israeli parliament. A number of things could happen with that; we don’t know, we have to see. We’re going to figure out what that means.
And we have with us, once again, Lia Tarachansky, documentary filmmaker. On the Side of the Road is her amazing documentary film that we played here as well. Former correspondent with The Real News and continues her work in Canada; around the world as well. Good to have you back, as always, Lia.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Thanks, Marc.
MARC STEINER: In studio, joining us here from Israel–in a conversation until we’re here alone with her next week–is Rachel Beitarie, who is a feminist political activist; co-founder of PC, which is an independent feminist media organization; and leader of Zochrot, which is what we’ll be talking about next week, an Israeli organization that educates Israelis about the Nakba. So. Good to have you both here.
RACHEL BEITARIE: Thanks, Marc.
MARC STEINER: We’ll see what happens with this election. It seems like no one can really form a government at this moment. But I want to talk about what this really means. You have–well I’m designating it–these two wild cards. And perhaps you all would not agree, but I am very curious what you think. You have Avigdor Lieberman and his very right-wing, nationalist, anti-religious party that has I think nine seats if I’m correct. And he could play king maker. He says he wants a coalition government with him and Blue and White, and Netanyahu’s party. Then he says he doesn’t want any part of it at all. He’s playing this game.
But then you have the Joint Arab List, whose leader Ayman Odeh has said that he’d be willing to join a left government, but they could also become the opposition. If they become the opposition–the first time in Israeli history an Arab party will be in opposition–it means they get security hearings from the Prime Minister, that he has a security detail, that he gets to speak right after the Prime Minister in the Knesset. So this is, to me, one of the most fascinating elections I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not sure what it really means. What does it mean, Lia?
LIA TARACHANSKY: Okay, you have like a question for me?
MARC STEINER: I don’t know if you both share that idea, that this is a very strange election. I mean, it shows a fragmentation I think inside of Israel, and also the inability to really form a government.
LIA TARACHANSKY: I’m not so sure that there is a fragmentation. When I was working for The Real News about ten years ago, one of the things that I was hired to do was to cover Barack Obama’s first election. And I was at the time a young research assistant for Paul Jay, and my job was to go through the platform of the Democratic and the Republican party and find the differences. And I remember staying up all night for days on end reading through the two platforms…
MARC STEINER: Lucky you.
LIA TARACHANSKY: …and being horrified. Yeah, I know, so much fun. And being horrified that besides a very big symbolic difference between Barack Obama and John McCain, there was very little difference in their actual platform. And I think that if you actually look at the nitty gritty of Kaḥol Lavan, Blue White, and the Likud party, in the actuality of it there is very little difference. The biggest difference, as far as I can tell, is that Likud has a lot of ideologues, people like Yuli-Yoel Edelstein and Gilad Erdan and Gideon Sa’ar and people who truly are believers of not just their privilege to be empowered but also particular right-wing principles. Whereas the Kaḥol Lavan, we have no idea what they believe yet because it’s clear that they will adopt whatever position will get them elected. They’re army generals, they’re not particularly …
MARC STEINER: This is the Blue and White coalition party, correct?
LIA TARACHANSKY: Yeah. So we don’t exactly know what they stand for. So as far as I’m concerned, Blue and White is no different from the Likud. So I don’t know what this means: there’s a split in the Israeli public. I don’t think so. I think that the split is really around the character of Benjamin Netanyahu.
MARC STEINER: How do you see this, Rachel?
RACHEL BEITARIE: I agree with Lia that the split was around the character of Netanyahu, and not around the real issues. And all parties, or almost all parties, were actually avoiding the real issues. We have to remember that Netanyahu is a symptom of a failed system that is avoiding tackling the real issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of the Nakba that I will be talking about, and of oppression and injustices inside Israeli society, and economic divisions. So they’re not talking about any of these issues and focusing on the charges against Netanyahu. And this is what the election was about. It was elections that even more than usual were defined by hatred, and negation of, first of all, Palestinians and any possibility of cooperation with a Palestinian-led party or with Palestinians in general, and all other kind of groups that were marked as a target of hate: Haredim, Ultra-Orthodox, and Mizrahim, Mizrahi Jews, and even …
MARC STEINER: The Jews who come from Arab and Asian countries, or African countries.
RACHEL BEITARIE: Exactly. And in a way even Netanyahu himself. So this is what defined these elections.
MARC STEINER: That’s interesting. Let’s take two parts of this and see what they might mean. So you have people like Avigdor Lieberman–nine seats–who was out of the Netanyahu government; said he would not form a coalition with Netanyahu as long as religious parties were part of it. And those religious parties lost a lot of seats, all three of them. Now it seems he’s saying he might be willing to form… And it’s unclear. He is obviously playing a game here, a political game. But one of the games he’s playing is, “Well, I’ll join a coalition if Blue and White and Netanyahu and his party can come together to form a coalition government.” How possible is that? Do you think that’s going to happen? Could that happen? What would that mean?
RACHEL BEITARIE: Lia? Do you care to guess? I have no idea.
MARC STEINER: That’s interesting. And you live there.
RACHEL BEITARIE: I really… It’s hard to tell what Avigdor Lieberman will do, or what drives him at all. It’s certainly not principles.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Avigdor Lieberman’s been in Israeli politics since ’98 and his only political achievement is quitting in protest.
MARC STEINER: You think they would form a government together, the three of them? Those three groups? Could that happen?
LIA TARACHANSKY: I think I’m going to echo Rachel’s thought. I mean, anybody who has ever tried to predict the future when it comes to Israel and Palestine has been proven wrong. I think that rather than looking at what could happen, there’s a number of very interesting things that did happen in these elections that definitely deserve discussion.
MARC STEINER: So talk about… What are those? Pull one out for the discussion.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Rachel mentioned a number of them, but I also think it’s interesting that this era of the alt-right–the explicitly genocidal, explicitly pro-ethnic cleansing right in Israel–that has been there, you can argue, since the early days of Zionism, but has had a very ugly face in the last five or so years. I find it interesting that those people didn’t get elected when it was getting clear that they are not as marginal as they used to be. People like Otzma Yehudit’s party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, people like Feiglin from Zehut. Basically, if you read their book–Moshe Feiglin’s book–he’s very explicit about supporting ethnic cleansing and genocide. It’s interesting to me that these parties did not get elected. It’s also interesting to me that Gesher did get elected.
MARC STEINER: And Gesher is? For our viewers.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Gesher is a party that formed a coalition with the Labor party because Labor was flailing, while historically, that party led the country and created the country of Israel and was the ruling party for a decade. In recent years, it really shrunk to almost nothing. Gesher has some very interesting people in it, especially Orly Levy-Abekasis and the very renowned and incredible feminist activists. Those people, who are real social justice warriors, are elected. And I think that that could potentially have a very interesting impact on the kind of government that we’re going to have.
And you of course also have your run of the mill liberals that got re-elected; labor, just those kinds of people.
MARC STEINER: But we also have… Rachel, let’s talk about this for minute. Joint List won thirteen seats, which could make them the legal opposition as the third largest block of votes in the Knesset. I keep smiling when I think about it, because it means if they were the opposition, they would have to get security briefs from the Prime Minister, they would have to speak after the Prime Minister; that Odeh himself, the head of the coalition, would have a security detail around him… Safe for him or not, but he would have a security detail. But what does this mean politically? I mean, because this could go either way. There’s talk of creating a left coalition with them, but many people don’t want that on the Israeli side. And there’s talk of them being the opposition. So what would that mean, either way?
RACHEL BEITARIE: I don’t know which way it will go, it will certainly be very interesting to have a Palestinian head of the opposition for the first time, and that might happen. I think it will reveal, in a way, Israel being already a kind of state based on segregation, which it is. It will be very interesting to see how they work around it.
But it’s also interesting to see that the Joint List had a rough patch. It fell apart in the last election, and the parties ran separately. And then they joined together again and managed to raise the percent of the voting in the Arab-Palestinian public, which wasn’t a given at all.
And it’s also very interesting to see Palestinian cities inside of Israel willing to wield their powers in the ballot. And more Israelis–a small number, but more than ever–Israelis willing to vote for the Joint List. So I think that’s interesting, and in a way an encouraging sign of some different undercurrents in Israel society. If I was talking about these elections being defined by hatred before, this is an undercurrent that is resisting this hatred. And that will be very interesting to see how it grows.
MARC STEINER: I was amazed to see the advertisement taking off before the election, with Jewish-Israeli professors at different universities saying, “Vote for the Joint List”. Which was something that… I was really shocked to see that as a very public push. Very quickly, what do you think the outcome could be? If it fails, they have to have a third election. What could happen here? Go ahead, Lia.
LIA TARACHANSKY: I think that it’s important to understand that Netanyahu has many, many enemies inside his own party. And people like Gideon Sa’ar in particular have been angling for the leadership of the Likud party for many years across many sectors of the population that vote for Likud. So I’m a big believer in Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message,” and the way that this is being mediated is very telling. So for example, Dichter is the only member of the Likud that’s been really speaking in the media today. And he’s been saying stuff like demanding that they would only join a coalition with the Likud if Netanyahu is deposed, “that will never be accepted by us.” I think that maybe Dichter truly believes that, I don’t know. Certainly Netanyahu is the one who got the vote for the Likud. But there’s also a very strong force inside the Likud that is waiting for the opportunity to jump on a Netanyahu-free future.
So that’s definitely a possibility, that the two big blocks, the Blue and White, Kaḥol Lavan, and Likud join forces. That’s very possible if Likud people manage to get Netanyahu out of the leadership. Other options are, of course, what the media has been claiming, that Blue and White will join forces with all of the center parties and also the Joint List. The Joint List has been doing non-stop interviews all day today on the media saying that it’s absolutely not a given that they will join Blue and White, that this is a party of generals, and that it would be quite questionable for a largely Palestinian party to join forces with generals, especially since we have brutal attacks on the Gaza Strip every couple of years. And it’s very possible and realistic to expect that within their tenure of such a coalition, they would be responsible for bombing other Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and of course continuing the occupation of the West Bank and the two-tiered right system inside of Israel.
So that’s another option, and of course the third option is that the whole thing falls apart again and they go to elections a third time, which is not outside the realm of possibility.
MARC STEINER: So very finally here, what would it mean–starting with Rachel… And then before we close, if the Joint List–which is an amalgam of parties that are Arab parties, communist party, and other organizations, mostly Palestinians as Lia was just saying–if they became the opposition, the official opposition in the Knesset, what would that mean?
RACHEL BEITARIE: Well, they were opposition before, just not the leaders of the opposition. I don’t think it will mean that much. It will definitely create some conflict if they have to be given a security brief as the law demands, and we’ll have to see what happens there. Because it’s very likely that there will be an attempt to prevent this, and then we will have a very interesting discussion.
MARC STEINER: Final thought, Lia, before we have to end on that?
LIA TARACHANSKY: I think the last thing I wanted to say about the message is that, unlike in previous elections where Netanyahu has been throwing little tricks right before election day to garner votes, mostly by saying really insane very racist things, this time what I noticed is that he kept saying in the media that he is the true friend of Trump, Putin, and Saudi Arabia. And that’s a very interesting turn, because the Israeli press does not really cover foreign affairs. And so, being a friend of Putin or being a friend of Saudi Arabia doesn’t mean that much to the Israeli public that knows very little about the geopolitical context inside of which Israel operates and the hegemony that it claims in the Middle East.
But what the Israeli public does hear when he says that is that he is equating himself to basically being a world leader on the class of inferior leadership such as Russia’s, the United States, and Saudi Arabia’s. So that I think really reaffirms that Netanyahu… And whether he is able to be deposed in the coming days is really going to be the determining factor in what happens with these elections.
MARC STEINER: This has been a fascinating discussion; I think very enlightening as well. Lia Tarachansky, always a pleasure to talk with you and hear your thoughts and ideas. And Rachel Beitarie, it was wonderful having you in the studio. And look for our conversation with her coming up in the next week about her organization and the work they are doing around the Nakba. And we’ll continue to cover what’s happening in these Israeli elections as they unfold, and of course what’s happening with Israel and Palestinians. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News. Take care.