Israeli Elections: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same
Shir Hever says rising star Lapid will provide “moderate” cover for Netanyahu’s perpetual negotiations; there is really no difference between them
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Hever Report with Shir Hever, who now joins us, where he’s working on his PhD in Germany.
Shir is an economist. He’s studying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He works with the Alternative Information Center, which is a join Palestinian-Israeli organization based in Jerusalem.
Thanks for joining us again, Shir.
SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: Hi, Paul.
JAY: So the Israeli electionsâ€”some surprises. What do you make of what happened?
HEVER: Overall there hasn’t been much change and there weren’t that many surprises. One thing that’s rather surprising is that the rate of participation in the election has gone up a bit. We’ve seen over the last decade or so a constant decline in public participation in politics, mainly because of desperation and frustration of the general public.
What’s interesting is that the kind of political map that we have now, if we look at the opinions of the leading parties, is almost identical to the one that we had in the previous elections, and yet half of the members of parliament have been replaced. And I think that’s a very good indication of how the political system in Israel works, because although the public hasn’t made any choice to change the agenda, to change the leading ideology of the large partiesâ€”and also the small parties, but the Israeli public is very unforgiving towards failed leaders and quickly begins to hate its own politicians for being corrupt and ineffective. So the politicians change seats, they get replaced, but then the new ones are just carbon copies of the old ones.
JAY: So you’re saying this is more about the personalities than the policies. But the way the American media, at least, is covering this, Lapid, who wonâ€”what is it?â€”19 seats and is being described as, quote, center-left, he’s being described as the voice of the middle class, the workers, and suchâ€”well, so I guess there’s a two-part question. One is: is he perceived that way in Israel, and whether he actually is or not? And then, two, what is he really?
HEVER: Yeah. Well, Lapid is a sort of empty kind of a bag or really is aâ€”.
JAY: Vessel, as they say, yeah.
HEVER: An empty vessel, yeah. He’s a politician. He’s very new to politics. He was a journalist. And as a journalist, actually, his main job was to be the anchor for the evening news, which means that mostly he didn’t express his own opinions but just read from a teleprompter. But being handsome, well dressed, well groomed, he appealed to the public as a sort of authority figure or fatherly figure.
He’s also a son of a famous politician who also made the same move from journalism to politics, although his father was actually more of a pundit with his own opinions and Lapid was always very, very careful not to express any kind of opinion that might anger anyone, that might create enemies for him. So that means that he barely said anything, actually. The only things that he dared to say about his own opinions are pretty identical to what we hear from Netanyahu and also from the leaders of the other parties.
The media tries to create a sort of spectacle to create drama so they can get their ratings, so they try to make this into the sort of struggle between left and right. But when we go down and examine in detail what are the actual proposals, what are the actual ideologies promoted by the different parties, there’s actually no difference at all.
JAY: Give us examples of Lapid, ’cause we’re told that he’s this left-of-center, pro working class/middle class guy. So if he’s not, what is he?
HEVER: Yeah. He said that he’s pro middle class. He said that he understands what it is to be a middle-class member. He wrote a paperâ€”not a paper; he wrote a short article under the title, “We the Slaves”.
But at the same time, he’s in the top one-thousandth of the population in terms of his income. And he used to work to promote the sales of one of Israel’s biggest and richest banks. So he actually works for the topâ€”I wouldn’t say 1 percent; it’s 0.1 percent, and he belongs in that demographic.
And although he tries to make these sort of statements that he feels the pain of the general public in terms of the economic situation, he didn’t say anything concrete about what kind of reforms he wants to implement, except that he wants to privatize education or to increase privatization in the education sector. So that means he’s a complete neoliberal. He believes in using the private sector at the expense of the public sector. He believes that the Israeli school system is malfunctioning. On that point I agree with him. But he also believes that the solution would be to bring in companies with the interest to make as much profit as possible, to take over the schools and to run them as for-profit organizations.
And, of course, that kind of idea is something that I think most of his voters didn’t really take into account, didn’t really consider. They voted for him because he promised to shake things up, because he promised to make changes. He didn’t say which changes.
JAY: Okay. What about this issue that he says he wants to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians? The press here have been making an issue out of that, in other words, to distinguish him from Netanyahu.
HEVER: Well, let’s not forget Netanyahu has been repeatedly saying over his entire term that he wants to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians as well.
JAY: But is there any difference on this rhetoric of no partner for peace?
HEVER: Yeah. Well, Netanyahu is saying at the same time, there is no partner for peace, but let’s negotiate anyway, because the negotiations give Israel the image that Israel wants peace, that Israel is willing to make compromise, although the only compromise Israel is really willing to make is to continue the negotiations ad nauseam. And Lapid, I think, understands that. He didn’t say, for example, I believe that Palestinians should have the right for a state in the ’67 borders. That he didn’t say. He didn’t say anything about the right of return of Palestinian refugees. He only stresses the things that are in the consensus, that he supports Zionism, that he’s a patriotic Jew, and that he believes everything that the security authorities tell him. So whatever the army statements are, he takes them at face value.
JAY: Yeah. Even in the quotes about restarting negotiations, it’s all about international appearance of Israel, not that he wants to find some kind of actual settlement.
Now, what about the issue of secularâ€”that he represents secular forces and that there’s this, you knowâ€”. I attended a film festival in Israel in ’98. I was told a lot of Palestinian filmmakers were coming there. They wound up not coming. But one of my films was shown there. And when I was there, somebody told me that if it hadn’tâ€”if it wasn’t for the Palestinian issue, in fact, in a sense, if the Palestinian issue was resolved in some way and there really was a peace plan that worked, the next day a major fight would break out between secular and Orthodox in Israel, that this contradiction’s boiling beneath the surface. How much did that have to do with his, Lapid’s election results?
HEVER: I think that is the one point where the elections actually have any kind of significance, that there’s any kind of change in relation to the previous parliament, because Lapid’s father was a politician that was very associated with hatred of ultra-Orthodox Jews and religious Jews. He supported a sort of separation of church and state in Israel, although he still was a Zionist, believing that Israel should be a Jewish state. So his idea was a state built on an ethnic supremacy of Jews rather than a religious supremacy of Jews.
JAY: Shir, really quickly for people that don’t know, talk a little bit about how much authority the Orthodox have over social life in Israel.
HEVER: This isâ€”there is a famous status quo between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. This was something, a deal that was cooked over 65 years ago by Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, who understood that the ultra-Orthodox are very important in order to achieve the goal of having a Jewish majority in Israel, because they have more children, the rate of natural growth is fast. And he made an agreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties that Israel will not have a constitutionâ€”until today, Israel doesn’t have a constitutionâ€”so that certain things can remain vague and there will be a sort of exemption from military service for those ultra-Orthodox who choose to go to yeshivas during their recruitment years. And that included several hundred ultra-Orthodox young people back in the days of Ben-Gurion. Today we’re talking about over 60,000 ultra-Orthodox youngsters who are exempt from military service because of that same agreement.
Ben-Gurion planted the seeds to allow the ultra-Orthodox community a lot of autonomy. So even though the ultra-Orthodox originally were very suspicious of Zionism, they saw Zionism almost as a blasphemy to Jewish religion, they were tempted by the autonomy.
JAY: Let me just jump in here fast. That’s because the Orthodox believe that the state of Israel could only come into being at the return of the Messiah, and that hadn’t happened, so there shouldn’t be a state of Israel. But they seem to have come around by now.
HEVER: Yeah, because there is also another branch of Judaism, a newer branch, known frequently as the national Judaism, which believes that the coming of the Messiah is not a coming of an individual person, but actually a process of recolonizing Palestine. So, actually, through the process of building settlements, for example, they are bringing the Messiah.
The ultra-Orthodox have been very hostile to that idea from the start, but are gradually coming over to that side over the years, mainly because the state also builds colonies in the West Bank for ultra-Orthodox, where they get cheap housing and better public services. And the fastest-growing cities in the West Bank, the colonies, are actually ultra-Orthodox communities. So now the ultra-Orthodox have a stake in the occupation. And that also moves them more to the right of the Israeli political map.
JAY: Now, talk about other parts of Israeli life that the rabbis control.
HEVER: Israel has lawsâ€”for example, that it’s illegal to raise pigs in Israel because pigs are not a kosher animal. But it is possible to raise them if they’re not raised on the soil of Israel. So some people raise them on platforms. That’s a way around the law.
In most cities in Israel, there is no public transportation on Saturday, on the Shabbat.
And in Israel it is illegal for people to get married except in their religious institution. So that means that Muslims can get married only with Muslims, Christians only with Christians, Jews only with Jews and only with a rabbi. And, of course, religious marriage is entrenched in law, which means that women don’t have the same rights in Israel within the system of marriage. For example, a man can always get a divorce, but a woman cannot get a divorce without the consent of a man. Israel does recognize civil marriages of couples who got married outside of the state. But, again, if they come into Israel and they want to get a divorce, they have to do it with a rabbi.
So these are just a few examples.
There are also a lot of autonomies for the ultra-Orthodox community in education. And in neighborhoods where the ultra-Orthodox are a majority, they can sometimes just close the streets completely on the Saturday and prevent cars from going.
And all these forms of autonomy were allowed by the state because it was a sort of alliance. The ultra-Orthodox will support Zionism and will support right-wing governments, and in exchange the government will overlook or turn a blind eye to the fact that the ultra-Orthodox are developing their own society within a society in Israel, where most of the children of the ultra-Orthodox don’t study math at school, don’t study English, and the kind of education that they do receive is mainly religious education, which doesn’t really help them get jobs in the general market.
They receive some public support in the form of stipends from the government, and these stipends in a way allow this community to preserve itself. But 45 percent of ultra-Orthodox in Israel live under the poverty line.
Now, I’m not sure if we should call them poor, because this is a sort of life choice for them. You can imagine also a student who chooses to go to school all day and not work. So that student is not necessarily poor, even though their income is low.
And the ultra-Orthodox areâ€”the fact that they’re able to get these stipends from the government and have that separate sort of lifestyle has made them very prime targets for hate campaigns. And we see these hate campaigns in many of the political parties in Israel, including parties at the extreme right, like HaBayit HaYehudi of Bennett, which are saying, these people live at the expense of the state, they should go and get a job. Nobody’s really calculating the numbers. If you actually look at how much budget burden the ultra-Orthodox community is on the Israeli budget, that’s not so much, certainly not compared to what the government is giving to the Ministry of Defense. That’s where the real money is.
JAY: So this resentment against the ultra-Orthodox is not really a left-right issue, in the sense that the supposed quasi left of center, the way they describe itâ€”I guess in Israeli terms it has some meaning, but you get just as much resentment of the ultra-Orthodox on the far right, including, like, Foreign Minister Lieberman was very critical of the ultra-Orthodox as well.
HEVER: Yeah. Certainly. And the real left in Israel is, of course, very much against the idea of demonizing a whole part of the society. And theyâ€”so sometimes you see those seemingly strange alliances between ultra-Orthodox and the radical leftist parties. But, of course, the ultra-Orthodox are not proponents of human rights, gender equality, and so on. They’re a very traditional part of society. And they have become very much accustomed to this autonomy that they got from the state for so many years.
JAY: So now we’reâ€”just we’re kind of running out of time, and this is something we’re going to do many segments on to dig into more deeply. But just to bring us back to the beginning, so thisâ€”Lapid’s election results, which seem to have beenâ€”nobody really predicted as many seats as he gotâ€”this was one of the driving motivations, wasn’t it, this resentment against the ultra-Orthodox. And he gave voice to this.
HEVER: Well, I think for a lot of people in Israel, they also voted Lapid with the hope that they didn’t want to vote Netanyahu, but Lapid was everything like Netanyahu except being Netanyahu. And what’s really amazing is that when the first results were publishedâ€”later there was a certainâ€”a slight correction to the results, which kind of made this a moot point, but it seemed that Lapid had actually the ability to become the prime minister, because the Labor Party and some of those centrist-left parties were willing to support him for prime minister. He had half of the seats in parliament, and then he could become the prime minister.
And Lapid himself immediately rejected the idea, because that would mean that he would have to depend on the Palestinian parliament members in the Knesset, who were, of course, willing to prefer him over Netanyahu. But Lapid immediately said, I’m not going to sit with these people. And, of course, that’s how he exposes that the level of racism, the level of hatred towards Palestinians is so deep that he was willing to give up his chance of being prime minister and he lost his main negotiating card.
So now he’s going to sit with Netanyahu in the same coalition. It seems inevitable. And the one point where he could make a demand from Netanyahu in exchange for sitting in his coalition is probably going to be forcing ultra-Orthodox people in Israel to join the army, to enlist.
The army doesn’t really want these ultra-Orthodox people, because they’re not very motivated to join the army and they’re not very well educated by the military’s standard, so they’re not going to be the best soldiers that the army’s looking for.
But this is the sort of politic of hatred towards minorities, which they say, why should these people be exempt. And this is likely to cause a lot of strife and conflict within Israeli society over the next four years.
JAY: Right. So when it comes to Israeli elections, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thanks very much, Shir.
HEVER: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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