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There’s a crisis of leadership in Israel, and it’s that no one wants to be the leader, says Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Center

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. An estimated 35,000 people gathered in protests in Tel Aviv on Saturday, March 7. They were protesting Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership before the March 17 elections, where Prime Minister Netanyahu is seeking a fourth term. According to Haaretz, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the crowd that under Netanyahu, Israel faces the most severe leadership crisis in the country’s history. Now joining me to discuss all of this, if–the protests, as well as the crisis in leadership, is Shir Hever. Joining us from Göttingen, Germany, Shir is an economic researcher at the Alternative Information Center, a Palestinian-Israeli organization active in Jerusalem and Beit Sahour. Thank you so much for joining me. SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Shir, let’s begin with what the protests were about and who was actually organizing it, for what purpose. HEVER: Yeah. This is very interesting. You have the elections coming up and you have a big–well, not that big of a protest. And its main statement is just we don’t want Netanyahu anymore. But what is really interesting is that they’re not putting forward any alternative. That makes it almost laughable, I would say. You are talking about 35,000 participants, according to some estimates. Actually, the newspapers in Israel have tried to support this protest by quoting even larger numbers. They’ve–sort of did subtle advertising for this protest by just giving dry reports about all the roads that will be presumably blocked by the demonstration, so to remind people that the demonstration’s going to take place. Then we see several tens of thousands of people coming to protest against Netanyahu’s government, call for change, use titles like we need change right now and we have to change the government, but actually not giving one specific argument what would they do different or who would they like to see in Netanyahu’s place. Some of the demonstrators from the floor were shouting Herzog’s name, the head of the Zionist Camp Party. But it seems extremely unlikely that Herzog would be next prime minister. PERIES: And why are you saying that? HEVER: The main reason is that he doesn’t seem to want to be the prime minister. And that’s very–that’s why maybe Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, was quite right when he said there is a crisis of leadership. The main crisis is that nobody wants to be a leader in this situation. There is a very clear feeling that the political crisis is only growing, the economic crisis is only growing. And I think no politician really wants to be at the navigating chair when it hits the fan. They’re all trying to find a place for themselves within the next cabinet that Netanyahu will form, most likely. And then, in order to do that, they make statements which would preclude them from any possibility of forming an alternative government. In order to form another coalition, Herzog or any other politician would have to make a coalition with what appears to be the third-largest party, according to polls, which will emerge after the election, the Arab Palestinian party, representing different political parties of Palestinians, and also Jews from the left, which had to join forces for these elections. Otherwise they would be wiped out by a bureaucratic measure. PERIES: So, Shir, Netanyahu was counting on this trip to the United States, speaking in front of AIPAC, and then going to the Congress to boost his chances and his lead in the polls, which was really trailing before the trip. Just give us a breakdown of how it’s looking now. HEVER: The difference is–there is some difference. It’s rather minor. I was a bit surprised to see that despite all the bad press, Netanyahu actually came up a bit ahead in the polls after his visit to Washington. But I think it’s because he’s trying to deliver a kind of message that he doesn’t care about anybody, he can do whatever he wants, he’s strong enough to not even worry about the deteriorating relations between Israel and the United States. So that’s a kind of message that maybe gives us a little bit of false hope to Israeli voters that say, well, maybe if we put this strong man in power, we don’t have to think about the implications of the international criticism against Israel for another couple of years. But one of the speakers at this event, a former general, Amiram Levin, who was–they only brought speakers who were very sort of strong men and former military men or intelligence men. And Amiram Levin was saying, was criticizing Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, and the main thing he had to say is that he actually doesn’t disagree with what Netanyahu said. He just thinks maybe Netanyahu should have said it in private in the Oval Office rather than speak to Congress. So I think that also sends a message: there is actually no alternative. There is no other group within Israel that can offer a different kind of platform. PERIES: So tell us more about the Arab party that you were referring to. What are their chances? And you said they’re doing fairly well in the polls. HEVER: They’re doing fairly well. The big question is how many of the Palestinian citizens of Israel are going to vote, because there are about 20 to 22 percent of the Israeli population are Palestinian Arabs with an Israeli citizenship, and they have the right to vote. But many of them are completely–have absolutely no faith in the Israeli political system, and they believe that just voting legitimizes the Zionist regime, which appropriates their lands and discriminates against them in a systematic fashion. So, many of them boycott the elections. And now there is a very strong push by United Party, United Arab Party, to try to call Palestinian citizens of Israel to give up the boycot and try to vote for them. According to the polls, they’re not getting 22 percent of the votes. They’re still getting less, which means they haven’t convinced everybody. But even if they get a few more people to vote for them, they’re likely to become quite a large party. And the only way that a coalition without Netanyahu can be envisioned is with them. They’ve already made a statement that they don’t want to be part of this coalition. So they would not like to try to help form an alternative coalition to Netanyahu. But it should be said they’ve only made that statement that they don’t want to be part of that coalition after the members of the so-called left parties in Israel, which would be the natural partners for such a coalition, like the Zionist Camp, with Chaim [Isaac (?)] Herzog, and Tzipi Livni, have made statements accusing members of that united party, the United Arab Party, of–and trying to get them disqualified from participating in the Democratic process, especially parliament member Haneen Zoabi, who is an activist, feminist Palestinian woman and who is very controversial inside Israel. But she’s a member of that party. And I think no party would like to negotiate and participate in a coalition process when their negotiating partners are trying to disqualify members of their party and treating them like traitors or terrorists. PERIES: Now, Shir, what–actually, Netanyahu came out and said this week that he would not withdraw from the West Bank. Wouldn’t this actually boost the possibility of the Arab Party at least gaining more momentum? HEVER: I would say no, because there is no surprise there. When Netanyahu made his famous Bar-Ilan speech a couple of years ago and said that he would envision a Palestinian state, although he said demilitarized state and didn’t talk about borders at all, it was absolutely clear, I think, to everyone that this is just a statement to appease the international community, to maybe appease some members of his own coalition, but that he has absolutely no intention of allowing Palestinians to have their own independent state. And now he’s making this statement just before the election. I think this is actually a sign that a lot of Israelis understand Netanyahu is sending the message that he’s actually preparing for withdrawal from the West Bank, because when Netanyahu says he will not withdraw for the West Bank, it means he will withdraw from the West Bank, because in the history of this man’s political career and his being prime minister for over nine years now, he has never uttered a sentence of truth. He always lies. So, like he said, Iran is going to get a nuclear weapon in the next year, and he’s been saying that for the past 19 years. Like he said, without international assistance, Israel will attack Iran on its own, and Israel did not bomb Iran. So when he says he’s not going to withdraw from the West Bank, it’s actually maybe an encouraging sign. PERIES: Right. And then, finally, Shir, how many terms can a prime minister in Israel have according to the Constitution? This is a fourth term that Netanyahu is campaigning for. HEVER: Israel does not have a Constitution. This is a long historical issue, but there is no Constitution for Israel, partially because the religious parties demanded that if there will be a Constitution, it has to be the Bible. And the government was afraid of that, so they decided not to have a Constitution. There was actually, for a very brief period of time, a different kind of political system in Israel in which people could vote for the prime minister directly. And under that system, there was a two-term limit like you have in the United States. But that system was canceled, and now it’s a fully party system, which means that people can only vote for their favorite party. And then the head of that party, the head of the biggest party, has the biggest chance to become prime minister, although it’s not necessarily going to happen, because if a smaller party–which actually happened with Netanyahu once when he was not–when he didn’t have the biggest party but he still managed to form a coalition–then he became prime minister. So then there are no term limits. He could be elected again and again. I think it’s not likely that he will stay prime minister for the rest of his life. The political scene in Israel is very fickle, and his party’s already in a state of collapse. So it’s just that he pushed the elections early in order to make sure that nobody will have the time to amass enough popular support to run against him. So at the moment, he’s the only likely candidate. But in the next elections, who knows? PERIES: One final question to you, Shir. Now, many people have said all this international bravado is an effort to camouflage what’s really going on economically in the country, the level of joblessness, the economic conditions. Housing has terribly deteriorated under his leadership. Give us some sense of that. HEVER: Housing–it’s not that housing deteriorated; it’s that housing prices are soaring and young Israelis have almost no chance of getting an apartment of their own in the areas where there is employment. So, many young couples either choose to move to the periphery, where there are very few jobs to be had and no universities and so on, or they end up paying a very large part of their income just for rent or stay and live with their parents. This is one of the main causes of crisis in the Israeli economy, but it also has a lot to do with the international BDS, boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, which is targeting Israel’s exports and making a lot of capital owners in Israel pull their investments out of Israel, and that’s something that affects the economy. But I think this strong-man image that Netanyahu is adopting, this kind of politics that he’s using to target so-called enemies and lash out at them, is something that’s now getting out of control completely, because he’s used his time as prime minister to make horrendous comparisons [incompr.] that Hamas are just like Nazi Germany, that Iran is the next Hitler, and things like that, which are very offensive, especially to people who are descendents of victims of the Holocaust, to Jewish communities around the world, when he makes these comparisons. But then he pushes it more and more, because that becomes the style of his political campaign. And it’s not just how he speaks in Washington, but it also becomes how he speaks inside Israel. So he recently compared the leaders of the left parties in Israel to ISIS. And in a very recent video, which maybe we can see here, he has accused leaders of unions inside Israel, unions that he has fought with and tried to reduce their privileges and their benefits, and he compared them to Hamas. So now there’s a great uproar at that. And some of these unions have actually joined the demonstration that we’re talking about to change the government because they feel like now they’re going to be treated in the same way that Netanyahu is treating Iran, treating Palestinians. So now suddenly they find themselves as the enemy. And people start to realize, when you have that kind of very aggressive political stance, nobody is immune. PERIES: Shir, do you have any last words on that before we go? HEVER: I think this is turning out to be a little bit of a comedy, the Israeli election cycle. And I think we should look at all this with a sense of humor. The various political parties, almost all of them managed to get their foot in their mouth. But I think the more interesting issues is not which party’s going to win this election. The more interesting issue is what kind of strategy will Palestinians adopt in their struggle for freedom regarding Israel, because it’s actually no longer the Israeli government who is dictating the political agenda; it’s the Palestinians who are dictating the political agenda now. Even though they are the victims, they understand Israeli society, and they can choose their way of struggle. And regardless of who is going to win more seats in the upcoming Israeli Knesset, they’re all going to face the struggle of Palestinians for their freedom, and I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of change between their reactions. PERIES: Shir, as always, thank you so much for joining us today. HEVER: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.