Israeli elections: Who to vote for?

Who shall we vote forThe parties have been registered, and the campaigns for the 17 March elections are running full throttle. “Bottlegate”, suspicions of foreign funding, and accusations of attempts at a putsch – these are the dominant issues in the press. The polls change daily, playing havoc with the manic depression of the parties struggling for survival. Yesterday Meretz was hopping with delight to the words “I want Meretz in government”, and today it has turned against the Zionist Camp (Labor with Yizhaq (Buji) Herzog and The Movement of Tzipi Livni) with a huge paid ad, announcing, “This week he acts like Bibi, tomorrow he’ll sit with Bibi in the government.” They’re referring to Herzog, of course, and this solves part of the dilemma – we won’t be voting for the Zionist Camp.


As leftwing voters, we only have one real choice – Meretz. But the party’s main message can be seen in its recent zigzagging – joining a government led by Yizhaq Herzog is no longer an option because, they say, he’s already “talking” with current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This merely strengthens the suspicion that Herzog’s Zionist Camp has lost the elections before they’ve begun, and their trump card – “Anyone but Bibi” – has been quietly replaced with “Maybe Bibi…” Meretz are not the only ones who think Bibi is the default choice. Avigdor Lieberman, who was willing to consider anything before the campaigns kicked off, is now saying he would never partner with the Left.

And the vacillations keep growing as fear spreads. After all, every vote to Meretz weakens the Zionist Camp, and strengthens Bibi, who is aiming to form the largest bloc. And leftwing intellectuals will tell us once again that the party isn’t important, it’s the coalition that counts, and this is of course true, but this claim works to Bibi’s benefit too, especially after Lieberman said his “natural” place is with the rightwing bloc. Thus every vote for Meretz reduces Herzog’s chances even more, because not only does he have no potential coalition, he’ll also be left with a withered party. In short, the Livni-Herzog combo which promised great things cannot ensure the removal of the Right, and without this, a vote to Meretz will continue to be a vote for the opposition, as it has been for years.

However, that’s not the main reason not to vote Meretz. The problem is that Meretz supported Bibi’s government in Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s assault on Gaza which claimed the lives of some 2,000 Palestinians and left some 100,000 homeless. Indeed, the Zionist Camp is actually wider than Labor and The Movement, the parties which came together to create it: it includes all the Zionist parties, of all shapes and sizes.

The joint Arab list?

So, it would be hard for us to vote Meretz, but luckily we have the joint Arab list, which is exactly what it says on the box: a list (party) uniting all the Arabs against all the Jews. The division is clear – all Jews are Zionists, and all Arabs are Arabs, regardless of religion or worldview. In light of increasing racism, it’s important to get as many Arab MKs into the Knesset as possible, but the question must be asked: is what is good for the Jewish Left also good for the Arab Left, or for the Arab citizen in general?

It’s true that every Arab in the Knesset is a poke in the eye of the racism embodied by Bibi, Naftali Bennett and Lieberman. But it’s also a poke in the eye of every Arab liberal who opposes the Islamic Movement and its agenda of religious extremism and repression of freedom of expression, which sees women as child-bearers and not as humans in their own right – just like the Orthodox Jewish communities. Or that same Arab liberal who is shocked by the horrors perpetrated by Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, or Sisi’s dictatorship in Egypt, seeing them as an attack on the spirit and image of Arab civilization, and is equally shocked when he learns that Hadash, leading partner in the joint Arab list, supports both Assad and Sisi.

And the indecision does not end here, because the Arab parties have long since lost their link with the people they are supposed to be representing. This link has developed instead with leading families and hamulas, as we see in the local elections. The average Israeli Arab has lost any sense of citizenship, and does not see the Knesset as a forum for changing his situation. He remains poor and excluded, tends towards political apathy, and grasps religion as an anchor offering certainty in the face of his uncertain world.

There’s no alternative

These claims may seem a little purist, since our vote is valuable, and we want to have some influence, and abstaining means strengthening Bibi – and this must not happen. And indeed, perhaps our vote will at least weaken him, even if we won’t be able to bring him down or even prevent him from joining the Zionist Camp in a coalition government.

However, what really keeps Bibi in power is the lack of an alternative able to take his place. The Right reaps the benefits of the deep divide between Jews and Arabs, and voting for Meretz or the joint Arab list only deepens this divide, strengthening Bibi even more than abstention would – because the crucial issue is not civil, religious or economic legislation, but the overall policy.

In light of the fact that most (Jewish) citizens have got used to the occupation and discrimination against Arabs, little remains except to talk about legislation, since the Knesset’s role is to legislate. Thus behind the backs of social-minded legislators who are proud of their work “for the benefit of voters”, the Right continues the occupation project, continues to refuse real peace negotiations, and continues the stranglehold on Gaza and the repression in the West Bank. Thus voting is tantamount to supporting the status quo: these are the same corrupt parties, the same tired personalities who jump from one party list to another, and the same old party platforms.

Not purist – revolutionary

This week Madrid saw one of the largest political demonstrations which launched the election campaign of the Podemos party, whose name is derived from the slogan which brought Obama to power – “Yes, we can.” Podemos leaders have no party affiliation. Until not long ago, they even opposed political parties, and it’s likely they didn’t vote in past elections. They were among the leaders of the renowned social protest in the Plaza del Sol in 2011, and dreamed of setting up a direct democracy as an alternative to the rotting parliamentary system.

In Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard they tried to imitate the Spanish, raising hands in discussion circles to indicate polite agreement instead of shouts and shoves, but here the resemblance ends. While the Israeli protest movement was afraid of confronting the government, the Spanish protest movement brought down the government – even the socialist government. It seems the youth of Spain failed to differentiate between Bibi and Herzog, between the rightwing Rajoy and the leftwing Zapatero – for these youth, both leaders represented the same old system.

However, wonder of wonders, these same Spanish protesters understood that if they really want to make a difference they need to get in government, and today they are the largest opposition party. Their slogan is “Either the Right or Podemos,” trampling over the socialist party. While former Student Union leader Itzik Shmuli joined the Labor Party, Pablo Iglesias set up a new party working against corruption and for social justice. While protest leader Stav Shafir buried the protest movement in parliamentary work, the Spanish youth continued the protest in the streets until they had formed their own party ready to run for government.

Israel is not Spain: the economic crisis which hit Spain so hard largely passed by Israel; the Basques and Catalans are not like the Palestinians; the autonomous regions are not under occupation; the political situation is very different indeed. Nonetheless, Spain, which taught us a thing or two about protest, is also teaching us an important political lesson: if you want to establish an alternative and change the status quo, you must see the established Left and Right as two sides of the same coin.

Those who don’t vote because there is no party which represents their worldview in its entirety are indeed “purists,” but those who don’t vote because they want to change the system are not purists but revolutionaries. Sorry – the term “revolutionary” doesn’t exist in Israel. It belongs in Russia, Spain or Cuba, perhaps Cairo, Damascus or even Teheran. But in order to put an end to the occupation, halt fascism and fight racism, we need no less than a revolution. Revolution is for revolutionaries – purists would do better to stay at home. Revolutionaries work daily organizing workers, supporting refugees, promoting Arab women, and working for establishing a Jewish-Arab party as a real and new alternative to the existing parties.

This article was translated by Yonatan Preminger


About Yacov Ben Efrat