News from Israel: Israeli elections: Be afraid. Be very afraid
- Israeli elections: Be afraid. Be very afraid
Donald Macintyre reports from Jerusalem on an election campaign that is still too close to call, but one with ominous portents
Sunday, 8 February 2009
Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, last night launched a concerted final effort to become her nation's first woman leader since Golda Meir, despite the rightwards shift in public opinion that has threatened to propel Benjamin Netanyahu back into the premiership.
The leader of the centrist Kadima party, who began the closing stages of her campaign with a rally for Druze Arab voters in Galilee last night, issued a direct personal challenge to Mr Netanyahu to agree to the television debate which he has consistently refused.
As polls showing the lead of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party has narrowed to only two seats ahead of Kadima, Ms Livni's campaign team believes she can overtake her rival by the time Israel goes to the polls on Tuesday.
Mr Netanyahu has emphasised the threats from Hamas and a nuclear Iran in his campaign.
Ms Livni, who strongly supported the recent invasion of Gaza, but has pledged to continue talks on a two-state solution with the moderate West Bank Palestinian leadership, said there was a public demand from potential leaders "to specify with which policies they plan to cope with the threats, and lead [Israel] to a better future of peace and quiet". Meanwhile the outgoing Kadima premier, Ehud Olmert, was making what the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said were "supreme efforts" to leave a positive legacy by securing the release of Gilad Shalit, the army corporal seized by Gaza militants in 2006, before polling day.
Turkish TV reported on Friday that Turkish officials were holding talks in Damascus with exiled leaders of Hamas, which has been seeking a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners in return.
At the same time Mr Barak, Labour's prime ministerial candidate, told Channel 1 TV that Cpl Shalit was known to be "well, alive, breathing and OK".
He added: "You know that I am a fierce critic of the Prime Minister, but in these matters, in these days, he is making a great effort, as am I ... in order to expedite the process." Whether the formidable obstacles to securing the release can be overcome remains to be seen, however.
A Hamas official, Osama al-Muzaini, said talks on the issue had so far made little progress because Israel "remained unwilling to pay the price".
While Mr Barak warned the release of Cpl Shalit would require "painful decisions" – presumably on a prisoner exchange – the electoral effect, if it happened, would probably be to help Labour and Kadima at the expense of Likud and the increasingly popular Yisrael Beiteinu, led by the hard-right Avigdor Lieberman.
According to the polls, the main features of a relatively lacklustre election so far have been the Likud comeback under Mr Netanyahu from its three-decade low of just 12 Knesset seats in the 2006 election, and the seemingly relentless rise of Mr Lieberman, who could yet prove the kingmaker in forming a coalition after Tuesday.
Polls published on Friday – the last allowed before election day – showed Likud with 25 to 27 seats, just ahead of Kadima, with 23 to 25. Mr Lieberman's party with 18 or 19, which, if fulfilled in actual voting, would push the once-dominant Labour Party into fourth place.
Most analysts think the rightward shift has resulted from a combination of two factors. One is Hamas's continued control of Gaza. The other is the stillbirth of the centrist programme under Mr Olmert of withdrawing from settlements and negotiating a peace deal with the moderate Palestinian leadership. This was envisaged at the international Annapolis summit sponsored by President George Bush at the end of 2007.
The change also reflects the widespread popularity among mainstream Israelis – despite the Palestinian death toll of more than 1,200 – of the three-week onslaught on Gaza. This had long been urged by Mr Netanyahu.
Mr Lieberman, a harshly right-wing West Bank settler who wants Israeli Arabs to forfeit their citizenship rights if they fail to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state, was characterised on Friday by a leading Israeli columnist, Nahum Barnea, as "the scarecrow that panic-stricken Israelis want to place in the political cornfield in the hope that the Arabs are crows... and take fright".
At least in theory, Ms Livni could be asked by President Shimon Peres to try to form a coalition even if Kadima does not emerge as the biggest single party, especially if Ms Livni secures the support of Mr Lieberman as a potential coalition partner. Like Ms Livni, Mr Lieberman is secular, and could baulk at a Netanyahu-led government which included ultra-orthodox parties such as Shas.
Nevertheless such a move by President Peres – while constitutional – would be unprecedented. It would provoke furious charges from Likud, if it is the single biggest party, of being undemocratic. For now Ms Livni will go all out to persuade the still-undecided fifth of the Israeli electorate that she is the only candidate to stop the polarising Mr Netanyahu.
Over coffee in one of the few downtown Jerusalem cafes open on the Jewish sabbath, Maya Ayvo, 35, and her husband Ezer, 38, described yesterday how 15 of their mainstream middle-class family members had discussed their "confusion" over how to vote at the traditional Friday night meal the previous evening.
While most did not want to vote for Mr Netanyahu or Mr Lieberman, said Mrs Ayvo, "they like Tzipi Livni, but are not sure about her party; others like the Labour Party, but are not sure about Barak".
Mrs Ayvo said she had been toying with voting Green, as she did in 2006, or the left-wing Zionist party Meretz, but that she had now come down in favour of Ms Livni. This was partly because she was a woman, but "I feel that this time I have to be responsible and not vote for a smaller party, because this election is so important". She said that she would be very disappointed if Ms Livni included Mr Lieberman in a coalition.
Her husband, who voted for the small Pensioners' Party in the last election because he was fed up with the larger parties, said he had not yet made up his mind, but might vote for Ms Livni. Like his wife, he supported the war in Gaza. "I wasn't happy about it, but I think it was very necessary," he said.
Meanwhile, over bacon, beer and coffee at another cafe, in the city's German Colony district, what was for Jerusalem an unusually leftist and secular group was debating the respective merits of the left-of-centre parties. Most were Jewish, but the group included a Christian Palestinian lawyer, Daoud Khoury. He and a Jewish friend, Moshe Simchovich, supported the communist Arab-Jewish party Hadash.
But Rachel, a 58-year-old teacher who asked for her family name not to be used because of her public servant status, said she would be voting for the newly combined Greens and Meimad party, led by the liberal and popular Knesset education committee chairman, Rabbi Michael Melchior. "The reason that Lieberman is doing so well is because of the one-sided media coverage of the war in Gaza,"she said.
Israel's four contenders for power
Tzipi Livni, 50
Foreign Minister and Kadima leader. Protégée of Ariel Sharon who was briefly a Mossad agent in her youth. Has staked her appeal on a cleaner politics and talks with the moderate West Bank Palestinian leadership over a two-state solution. Like Barak, has not ruled out military option on Iran. A hawk on Gaza, publicly opposed to idea of a negotiated end to the Gaza war, saying Israel's role is to "fight terror" not to talk to its perpetrators.
Ehud Barak, 66
Defence Minister and Labour leader. Prime Minister 1999-2001 and a much-decorated ex-military chief of staff. He went further than predecessors towards a two-state solution but blamed Yasser Arafat for the collapse of the Camp David talks. Favours an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas if possible and was quicker than PM Ehud Olmert and Livni in seeking halt to Gaza operation. More sceptical than either about negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Benjamin Netanyahu, 59
Leader of main right- wing opposition, Likud. Prime Minister 1996-99. Strong opponent of Oslo accords and 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, over which he resigned from Sharon government. Says Gaza military operation not complete and that Hamas regime must be ended. Against territorial concessions to Palestinians and says Iran must "not be armed with a nuclear weapon". Says options "include everything that is necessary to make this statement come true".
Avigdor Lieberman, 50
Leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, secular hard-right party. Moldovan-born immigrant who wants Israeli Arabs to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state or lose the vote. Wants borders redrawn – unacceptable even to moderate Palestinians – to put more than 100,000 Israeli Arabs in future Palestinian state. Has faced corruption allegations. Israel may have to act militarily alone in Iran "in worst-case scenario". Has suggested treating Gaza as Russia did Chechnya.
Johann Hari: The nightmare of Netanyahu returns
This is the man calling for the re-occupation of Gaza to 'liquidate' its elected government
Friday, 6 February 2009
Israel is about to make a misjudgement as disastrous – and deadly – as the attack on Gaza. In a few days, it looks as if it could elect Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister once again.
This is a man calling for the violent re-occupation of Gaza to "liquidate" its elected government. This is a man who says he will "naturally grow" the West Bank settlements. This is a man who says he will "never" negotiate over Jerusalem, or the Golan Heights, or control of the West Bank water supply.
This is a man who says establishing a Palestinian state would leave Israel with, "an existential threat and a public relations nightmare reminiscent of 1938 Czechoslovakia". This is a man who Yitzhak Rabin's widow said helped create a climate of hate that led to his murder.
The political beneficiaries of Operation Cast Lead have been Israel's hard-right. The opinion poll numbers have surged for Netanyahu's Likud and for the even more extreme Avigdor Lieberman. They say the only problem with the 23-day bombing of Gaza – killing 410 children, and hugely strengthening support for Hamas – is that it did not go far enough. The world urgently needs to look at these individuals – and ask how this came to pass.
The key to understanding Netanyahu lies with his father, Benzion. He is a distinguished scholar of medieval history who believes the world is eternally and ineradicably riddled with genocidal anti-Semitism. When he arrived in British Mandate Palestine, he declared that the majority of Jews there were naïve and idealistic. They had to immediately seize the entire Biblical land of Israel – taking all of the West Bank and stretching right into present-day Jordan. There could be no compromise, ever, with the Arabs, who only understand force. The man he calls his mentor, Abba Ahimeir, described himself proudly as "a fascist".
Today, Benzion's son routinely compares dealing with the Palestinians to dealing with the Nazis. He can only understand their anger as a resurfacing of Europe's irrational, murderous hate. He insists they have no right to a share of the land because they "stole" it – in 636AD. Accordingly, Netanyahu rubbishes every peace initiative offered by Israel. His reaction to Yitzhak Rabin's decision to sign the mild and moderate Oslo accords with Yasser Arafat reveals the depth of his opposition to compromise. He warmly addressed crowds that chanted "Rabin is a Nazi" and "through blood and fire, Rabin shall expire". He called the former prime minister "a traitor", shortly before Rabin was murdered by a Jewish fundamentalist who agreed.
The other person who has surged ahead in the polls – and looks likely to be Netanyahu's coalition partner – is Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian ex-nightclub bouncer who says the model for dealing with the Palestinians should be Vladimir Putin's 1990s bombardment of Chechnya, which caused the death of a third of the entire population. He wants the political parties elected by Israeli Arabs to be criminalised, snapping that they should be dealt with "like Hamas".
Perhaps even more depressing than their rise is the flat and flat-lining response form the other parties. Both Kadima and Labour militantly defend the blockade and bombing of Gaza, not least because their leaders – Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak – led the charge in Cabinet. Even Barak has picked up the comparison to Putin and started approvingly quoting the new Tsar of Russia. The brave pro-peace parties like Meeretz are shunted far to the margins of the debate.
How did this happen? It is essential to remember that the Israelis didn't end up in the Middle East out of a wicked desire to colonise and kill, as some people now gleefully claim. They are there because they were fleeing genocidal Jew-hatred. That doesn't justify a single crime against a single Palestinian – but if we forget this, and the unimaginably vast trauma that lies behind it, we cannot understand what is happening now.
Over the past few months, I keep returning to an extraordinary essay written by the great Israel novelist Amos Oz in 1982. The Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin had compared the Palestinian leadership to Adolf Hitler, so Oz wrote: "You display an urge to resurrect Hitler from the dead so you may kill him over and over again each day... Like many Jews, I feel sorry I didn't kill Hitler with my bare hands. But there is not, and there never will be, any healing for the open wound. Tens of thousands of dead Arabs will not heal that wound. Because, Mr Begin, Adolf Hitler is dead. He is not hiding in Nabatiyah, in Sidon, or in Beirut. He is dead and burned to ashes."
Israeli society consists, Oz says, of "a bunch of half-hysterical refugees and survivors". The 2,000-year trauma of the blood libel, the Inquisition, the pogroms, Auschwitz and Chelmno and the Gulag Archipelago, have produced a distorted vision, where every shriek of pain directed at Israel can sound like the rumble beginning in the massed crowds at Nuremberg.
This means that Israel is missing opportunities for peace. Even much of Hamas – an Islamist party I passionately oppose – is amenable to a long ceasefire along the 1967 borders. That isn't my opinion; it is the view of Yuval Diskin, the current head of the Israeli security service Shin Bet. He told the Israeli Cabinet before the bombing of Gaza that Hamas would restore the ceasefire if Israel would only end the blockade of the Strip and declare a ceasefire on the West Bank. Instead, they bombed, and the offer died.
The former head of Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, says that Hamas, "will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals" if only Israel will begin the path of compromise. This would drain support for rejectionists such as Osama Bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and make it easier to build international coalitions.
Instead, too many Israelis – imprisoned by their history – seem determined to choose the opposite path: of Netanyahu and Lieberman and ramming an endless alienating boot on to the throat of the Palestinians. It doesn't have to be like this. We can only say to them with Amos Oz, as urgently as we can: Adolf Hitler is not hiding in Gaza City, or Beit Hanoun, or Hebron. Adolf Hitler is dead.
Netanyahu pressured in Israel polls
Benjamin Netanyahu, the favourite to become Israel's next prime minister, is losing ground before the country's national elections, according to leading opinion polls.
Netanyahu's Likud party is forecast to win between 25 and 27 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but is losing popular support, the polls show.
The centrist Kadima party led by Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, is running a close second with an expected 23 to 25 seats.
Surveys of public opinion show the Israeli electorate has moved to the right with Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right leader, seeing a sudden rise in support in opinion polls published on Friday.
Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party is now ranked third and is predicted to get between 18 and 19 seats.
Growing 'right' support
Support for Lieberman is believed to have come on the back of Israel's war in Gaza, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians died, and his rejection of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
He has based his campaign platform on denying citizenship to Arabs deemed to be considered "disloyal" to the state of Israel.
The Labour party of Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, is trailing the other major parties.
If the election results match the opinion polls, it would mark the first time in Israel's history that Labour is the fourth of the main parties in the Knesset.
More than five million voters are eligible to cast ballots in Tuesday's elections.
No party is expected to win a complete parliamentary majority of 61 seats, which would mean that whichever gains the most votes will have to turn to other factions to form a coalition, giving smaller parties like Lieberman's greater influence.
The political shift to the right in Israel could put Tel Aviv at odds with Washington, observers say.
Netanyahu has said he would allow existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank to expand.
He also told a security conference earlier in the week that peace efforts should focus on bolstering the Palestinian economy, rather than establishing an independent state.
His positions are certain to be rejected by the Palestinians and much of the international community.
Barack Obama, the US president, has made promises of a fresh approach to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, including "vigorously" pushing forward with the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Obama has appointed George Mitchell, a former senator who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland in 1998, as his Middle East envoy.
Mitchell is expected to pressure Israel into making concessions with the Palestinians.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Palestinian Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), said Mitchell could be "the sole window of hope" after the election.
"Everything will depend on what he will be able to accomplish, whatever government may be in power in Israel," she said.
Hard man of the right is Israel's kingmaker in waiting
The settler politician dubbed 'Le Pen of the West Bank' wants Israeli Arabs to swear loyalty to the state – or lose their vote
By Donald Macintyre in Umm el Fahm
Friday, 6 February 2009
Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right politician campaigning on a platform that Israeli Arabs should pledge loyalty to the state or lose their right to vote, has become the pivotal figure in next week's election after two polls showing his party has overtaken Labour.
The Yisrael Beiteinu party headed by the Moldovan-born Mr Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank Jewish settlement and has been depicted by his critics as an Israeli version of Jean-Marie Le Pen or Jorg Haider, is in third place with a projected 19 or 17 seats in two newspaper polls yesterday.
If the party did take that number of seats, it would mean it has performed well beyond its original base among immigrants from the former Soviet Union and is in pole position to emerge as the kingmaker determining whether Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu or Kadima's Tzipi Livni can best form the next coalition government
The leaders of all three main parties have left open the possibility of joining a coalition with Yisrael Beitenu, including Labour's Ehud Barak, who has provoked sharp internal dissent by refusing to rule out the possibility.
The poll results underline the growing appeal of Mr Lieberman's hardline nationalist policies, which beside his "no loyalty, no citizenship" demand also includes a plan to redraw the country's borders to make more than 100,000 other Israeli Arabs citizens of the West Bank as part of a land "swap" in which Israel would annex the territory occupied by most West Bank settlements.
Nowhere do Mr Lieberman's bitterly controversial proposals touch a rawer nerve than in the northern Arab hill city of Umm el Fahm, at the heart of the Wadi Ara triangle. At a stroke, residents would lose their status – and voting rights – as Israeli citizens.
Said Abu Shakra, director of the town's well-known art gallery, and a long time promoter of co-existence between Jews and Arabs, said he now felt "depressed and frustrated" in the face of the ascendancy of Mr Lieberman, who once proposed the bombing of Egypt's Aswan Dam and suggested that Arab Knesset members who had talks with Hamas representatives should be executed.
Mr Abu Shakra, who is proud that a Jewish Israeli architect, Amnon Bar On, has won an open competition to design the gallery's new premises, recalled that in 1998 Yoko Ono staged a successful exhibition in the town entitled Open Window – dedicated to the idea of inter-community dialogue.
This spirit had been broken once by the outbreak of the second intifada, he said. "It took us eight years' work to build dialogue again and now it is being destroyed, this time by Lieberman." Seeing similarities in Mr Lieberman's rise to that of Hitler in pre-war Germany, Mr Abu Shakra added: "I have many Jewish friends who know that Lieberman is very destructive for all people, Jews as well as Arabs."
Umm el Fahm's sense of becoming a target for the extreme right has been compounded by the provocative plans of Baruch Marzel, an extremist Hebron settler who has criticised Mr Lieberman for not being right wing enough. Mr Marzel intends to spend election day here as a teller at a polling station. Mr Abu Shakra warned: "My own view is that the best thing to do with [Mr Marzel] is to ignore him, but not everybody here thinks like me."
Afo Agbaria, a local surgeon who is a candidate for the Communist joint Arab-Jewish Democratic Front – or Hadash – said that Mr Lieberman's success was a "danger not for Arabs only but for democracy in Israel", adding that history showed that "those fascists that got to the leadership got there by election". But Dr Agbaria insisted that the impact of Mr Lieberman would be to increase voting for the Arab parties – including his own, which he predicted would add a fourth seat in the Knesset. He said a campaign by the Islamic Party to boycott the election would be largely ignored.
Evidence to support this was mixed in the town yesterday. Coffee shop owner Mohammed Jabarin, 50, said that while he would be voting for the Democratic Front and thought Knesset representation was important, public "depression and frustration" because of the war in Gaza and Mr Lieberman's rise would reduce the turnout. He said of the "loyalty" demand: "Arabs in Israel will be loyal when we get our rights." Repeating widespread complaints of anti-Arab discrimination, he added: "This means better job opportunities and rights to own land."
Meanwhile, Farid Juma Agbaria, 63, was – unusually – more sanguine about Mr Lieberman. "He is shouting slogans now but he will stop when he gets to power," he said.
Amal Mahajne, 38, said that, although she was not an Islamic Party member, she would boycott the poll. She said this was not really because of Mr Lieberman: "He may kill us but we are not afraid. We will not get out of our land", but because of Israel's invasion of Gaza. If Labour – led by Defence Minister Barak – "can do this when it pretends to believe in peace, what will the other parties do?" She said that whether she would vote in any subsequent election depended on how the Arab parties performed.
Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, has along with the former Likud MP Uzi Landau helped to lend Mr Lieberman an air of establishment respectability by joining his campaign. Mr Ayalon stopped short this week of saying that the "loyalty test" for Israeli Arabs – under which they would pledge allegiance to the Jewish state and agree to take part in civilian national service – was a precondition for joining other parties in a coalition. He said that it would be "very important" in any talks with potential partners after Tuesday's poll.
He said the loyalty test was a "response" to the fundamental criticisms of Israel levelled over the past 20 to 25 years by "some in the Arab community, basically its leaders, who are the ones inciting the population".
Avigdor Lieberman: In his own words
"If it were up to me I would notify the Palestinian Authority that tomorrow at 10 in the morning we would bomb all their places of business in Ramallah."
"World War Two ended with the Nuremberg trials. The heads of the Nazi regime, along with their collaborators, were executed. I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators in [the Knesset]."
"We'll move the border. We won't have to pay for their unemployment, or health, or education. We won't have to subsidise them any longer."
"When there is a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values, the Jewish and Zionist values are more important."
"A real victory can be achieved only by breaking the will and motivation of Hamas to fight us, as was done to the Japanese in the last days of World War Two."