A week ago, to those expecting significant political change in Israel following the upcoming general elections on January 28th, I would have suggested not holding their breath. Then, there was little chance that the elections would change anything. One would ask why, considering the high degree of dissatisfaction among the Israeli public towards the political system, political parties and politicians. With such disappointment, one would expect the electorate to lash out, to actively seek change, to try and pull itself out of the political mire caused by Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon. After all, the Israeli economy is on a disaster course (10.5% unemployment, growing poverty, projected negative growth, rising inflation together with a deepening recession), over the past two years the Israeli army sunk to unprecedented levels of brutality towards the Palestinian people, radical parties on the right are gaining strength, particularly those whose platform calls for the “transfer” of Palestinians. One would expect these elections to deal with these and many other utterly crucial issues facing the Israeli public. But before the campaign has even started, it is clear that for the most part, the parties, particularly the larger ones, will try to refrain from dealing with the key issues in a clear and coherent way, seeking rather to blur their stances on these issues.
The only glimmer of hope comes from an unexpected source–the Labour party and its newly elected leader Amram Mitzna. Mitzna gained a landslide victory over Binyamin (Fouad) Ben Eliezer, former party leader and Minister of Defense under the national unity government. Mitzna presented a fairly radical position during his campaign (highlighted by the repeated promise to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinians), and gained a great deal of support for his positions. Members of the Labour party clearly signaled to its leadership that they have no interest in becoming a warmed over version of the Likud, as was the case under Ben Eliezer. An interesting trend can be found in the Likud: there is clear support among the members of the party for a Palestinian state. In a recent non partisan poll, 44.8% (7.3% undecided) of the registered party members of the Likud responded positively when asked “If Ariel Sharon is elected, would you support his intention to reach an agreement with Palestinians, including Palestinian statehood and ‘painful’ compromise?” [The intention here is to the dismantling of settlements–MD]. (Ha’aretz Daily, 21 November 2002, p. 4a.). Internal Likud polls leaked to the public note that 70% of the party members are not against Palestinian statehood (Ha’aretz Daily, 22 November 2002, p. 2b).
The patterns that are emerging from the daily polls in Israel are quite clear. Parties that address the main issues in a concrete way will be strengthened after the votes are counted. Parties like Moledet (running together with other far right parties), where the main component of its platform is the “transfer” of the Palestinians is expected to gain many seats. Why? Not because the Israeli people as such are particularly cruel, but rather because they are offering a solution that purports to solve many of the problems in Israel today, as despicable and unacceptable as it may be. The same can be said of the party Shinui whose platform is virulently anti religious. In a country where public debate has been all but choked by the power of a constructed “consensus”, it is the role of the parties to introduce clear ideas, innovations and solutions to the public. Parties that fail to do so will be considerably weakened, while those that offer viable alternatives will be strengthened.
In an attempt to appeal to the “center” and to those that are yet undecided, campaign experts will likely advise both the Likud and Labour to blur the issues, to present a centrist position. Parties on the political left are facing a challenge–to present a brave and innovative platform in the space of two months. They need to make clear, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the situation in Israel today is a direct result of the 35-year-old Occupation. These parties must convince the Israeli public that continued Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories, the continued expansion of the settlements and the brutal actions of the army and the settlers will eventually destroy the country. This is not an easy or popular message to get out, but it is the truth. It is Mitzna’s task to rise to this challenge and to provide brave and courageous leadership for the left. If he rises to this challenge, there is a chance, albeit slight, that Mitzna can become Israel’s next prime minister. Having stated that he is willing to form a coalition with the Arab parties in the Knesset if elected, Mitzna will enjoy both public and political support for courageous decisions. Of course, a series of bombings and attacks prior to the elections will play into the hands of the right, particularly Netanyahu (described as the “prince of hatred and darkness” by a senior Likud member), who has made a career dancing on the blood of innocent people.
Lately, there have been calls from the far left to boycott the elections or to cast a blank ballot. The goal of this strategy is clear–to contribute to the rise of a far right government whose radical actions will finally convince the public as a whole to support the left. Palestinian Israelis, disappointed with the Arab parties’ ability to bring about significant change of their 2nd class status as citizens, are also calling for a boycott of the elections. While one can understand the call for a boycott of the elections–a call borne out of the despair of the public on the far left–it is clearly mistaken and misguided, particularly when there is the chance of alternative leadership. It is also dangerous and irresponsible to leave the leadership of the country in the hands of the radical right.
A few short weeks ago, the results of the upcoming elections were fairly clear–Sharon as Prime Minister and a paraplegic unity government. With the election of Mitzna this has changed, or at the very least, there is a potential for change. If the parties on the left, led by Labour under Mitzna fail to rise to this challenge they will be contributing directly to the downward spiral of Israel. If they fail to present a crystal clear message and programme to the Israeli public they will be betraying their leadership role–it is the leadership that is expected to point to the path, not to blur it. It is the leadership that is expected to help shape public opinion rather than be guided blindly by it.
MICHAEL DAHAN is an Israeli American political scientist living in Jerusalem. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.