Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, January 13, 2003
John Derbyshire thinks that Israeli politics is a hopeless tangle, and that I'm not doing enough to dis-entangle it. He suggests laying all the parties out on a left-center-right line. One problem with doing this is that there are at least 3 axes on which to divide Israeli politics: security and the territories; economics; and religion. Moreover, parties can officially have a platform at one end but policies that are more equivocal or even opposite. This is particularly true for economic policy; the Likud, for example, is supposed to be a Liberal (in European terms) party, but its policies are rarely so, and are frequently indistinguishable for more left-wing parties. Ha'aretz has tried to lay the parties out on such a line, and do a decent job, but necessarily run over many of the important nuances. Here as well is their guide to how the system works. Bear in mind that Ha'aretz, in terms of relative quality, relative political positioning, and relative influence is the rough equivalent to The New York Times in America.

For what it's worth, here's my rough guide to the Israeli political scene:


Labor: The old establishment, center-left party. Center-left used to mean "tough on security but not extremist about the sanctity of the Land of Israel, and Socialist on the British Labor party model in domestic policy." Sharon used to be a member of a Labor faction before he entered politics, and when he first entered politics in the 1970s it was as the head of his own splinter party, not as a member of Likud. (His economic views are still decidedly statist.) Since 1967, the major political divide between left- and right- has been over the status of the territories rather than economics. Nonetheless, this divide was to the right of contemporary politics; Labor used to be opposed to a Palestinian State, opposed to recognizing the PLO, and to favor a vigorous response to terrorism while favoring negotiations with neighboring Arab States on the basis of land-for-normalization. The Right, back then, believed that negotiations with the Arabs were futile and that the entirety of the Land of Israel belonged to the Jewish people. Nowadays, Labor continues to support the welfare state but has moved to the right on economic matters (as Clinton and Blair did) and to the left on cultural matters (ditto), while becoming decidedly more dovish. Labor favors a Palestinian State and a withdrawal from the territories, but is divided over whether unilateral withdrawal is a good or a bad idea and whether negotiations under fire are a good or a bad idea. "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer is at the right edge of Labor, favoring an ultimate settlement along the lines of what Barak offered, but no resumption of negotiations under fire. Chaim Ramon is an advocate of unilateral withdrawal. The winner of the Labor primary, Amram Mitzna, favors negotiations with Arafat while terrorism continues and, if nothing useful transpires as a result of this, a unilateral withdrawal to more defensible borders (the latter not being the same as the pre-1967 borders; Israel would retain the Jordan Valley, the Etzion bloc, etc.). He's therefore pretty much on the left-wing edge of Labor. Demographically, Labor is identified with the old Ashkenazi elite, the Jews who came before the founding of the State and who built it.

Likud ("Union"): A coalition of right-wing factions that united under Menachem Begin, Likud is a center-right party in transition. Historically, it stood for the old politics of Jabotinsky - no concessions to the Arabs, Jewish rights to the entirety of the Land of Israel - while domestically they behaved as both a Liberal (in the European sense) and Populist party. They advocated greater democracy, freeing up the economy, and the interests of the "out" groups in Israeli society - particularly Jews from Arab lands and religious Jews. More recently, the Likud has abandoned classic Jabotinsky-style Revisionist Zionism - specifically, Likud has clearly signed on to the notion of surrendering land if that is in Israel's national interest. The change began when Begin gave up the Sinai, but accelerated when Shamir agreed to peace talks in Madrid after the Gulf War and Netanyahu accepted the Wye River Accords in 1996. The result has been the rise of more extreme parties to Likud's right as well as an ongoing civil war within Likud between ultras and moderates. Likud has also lost most of its Liberal credentials and has become more purely a Populist party, though Netanyahu seems more interested in salvaging this part of the Likud legacy. More generally, the party has had a problem coming to grips with the idea of being a majority party, and has remained troubled by criminality, abuses of power, and other classic defects of populist parties. (The Labor party has also been plagued by corruption, of the classic kind associated with establishment parties like Japan's LDP, as well as more serious abuses per the Ginossar affair.)

MAJOR MINOR PARTIES (roughly from right to left):

National Union: The merger of a handful of far-right parties, including the immigrant-oriented Yisrael Beiteinu, National Union favors the renunciation of the Oslo Accords, the expulsion of Arafat, the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, and the rejection of any Palestinian State west of the Jordan. They are iffy on their commitment to democracy, in particular with respect to the status of Arab citizens of Israel. Put simply, they are very "Russian" in their outlook on the world. They are a serious factor because they have been known to bring down right-wing governments viewed as being insufficiently faithful to right-wing positions (e.g. Netanyahu's government).

Shas (an acronym related to the completion of a cycle of Talmud study): A religious party identified with Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews from Arab lands. Shas was the big electoral story of the 1990s in Israel, going from 4 seats to 17 (out of 120 in the Knesset). Shas is pretty similar to Islamic-oriented parties in Muslim countries except that it has no association with violence or terrorism (admittedly a very big difference). They run a vast social-welfare and educational apparatus that, in many cases, is more responsive than the government-run welfare state. This, plus the continued feelings of alienation from mainstream Israel on the part of Sephardi Jews, has led them to electoral success far beyond their core demographic (a majority of their voters are not strictly Orthodox). Shas "takes care of their own" as a primary strategy, and as such has been willing to join pretty much any government. Their ultimate aim, officially, is to establish Jewish religious law as the law of the land in Israel. They were once known to be "pragmatic" on security matters, but have taken a decided turn to the right in the late 1990s, and particularly in this election campaign.

Shinui ("Change"): If Shas was the big story of the last 10 years, Shinui, the secular reaction to Shas, is the big story of the moment. Shinui used to be a faction of Meretz, the left-wing Social Democratic party, and was associated with civil liberties issues. Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and popular radio talk-show host, took over the party a few years ago, removed it from Meretz, and turned it into a single-issue party focused on breaking the back of the religious parties. More broadly, Shinui has positioned itself as the voice of the put-upon Ashkenazi population - the most productive citizens who feel they are carrying religious shirkers and Sephardi welfare-cases on their backs. Lapid is comparable in different ways to Pym Fortuyn, Ross Perot and George Wallace. The party has very little in the way of a platform. And one of the funny things about them is that a major source of credibility comes from their refusal to serve in various governments. Their status as perpetual opposition supposedly shows that they are truly principled. (Of course, what it really shows is that they still think of theselves as a protest movement, and don't want the responsibilities of governing.) Their policy positions, apart from opposition to the religious parties, is center-center: tough on security but flexible on giving up territory, in favor of economic relief for the middle class and less spending on welfare but not reliably Liberal (again, in the European sense).

Meretz (I believe the name is an acronym derived from the constituent factions): This is the major far-left-wing party in Israel, dedicated to secularism and the cultural-left, to the expansion of the welfare state, and to a very dovish line with respect to the Palestinians, including unilaterally ending settlement construction and negotiations continuing from where Barak left off. It is, however, a Zionist party (barely). Meretz voters serve in the armed forces and would not accept an Arab "right to return" to Israel proper. They are also equivocal on the utility of negotiating directly with Arafat, though they would probably embrace him enthusiastically if he gave them a fig leaf of cover. (Meretz propaganda tends to lump Arafat and Sharon together as comparably evil - that's a big step better from how European media portray them, but still pretty darned generous to Arafat.) Mitzna, the Labor candidate for Prime Minister, is sometimes described as to the Left of Meretz in his clear willingness to negotiate with Arafat, but I'm not sure that's fair. The major distinction on security matters between Labor and Meretz is that Meretz has articulated a moral case for withdrawal from the territories, whereas Labor has classically put its positions in terms of Israeli national interest, and Mitzna has been consistent with Labor tradition in this regard.

OTHER MINOR PARTIES OF NOTE (also roughly from right to left):

Moledet ("Homeland"): An extreme far-right party, the only one to openly advocate "transfer" of the Palestinian population out of the territories; they typically get one or two seats, and have failed to unite with larger far-right parties. The existence of Moledet, like Kach before it (the defunct party of Meir Kahane) is a major boon for fundraising for left-wing parties.

National Religious Party: The NRP's mission has changed over the decades. Originally, the party represented the Orthodox Jewish population. Later, they represented the "Modern Orthodox" as opposed to the "ultra-Orthodox" as the latter migrated to Haredi parties specifically oriented in their direction (and as the latter increased in number dramatically). The basis for the split was twofold: that the Haredim do not, ultimately, recognize the legitimacy of secular authority, while other Orthodox Jews do (the Haredim do pragmatically recognize the power of secular authority, but that's different) and that the Religious Zionists attributed religious significance to the sovereign Jewish state where the ultra-Orthodox considered it purely instrumental. After 1967, the NRP and Religious Zionism began to change further, and became increasingly identified with the settler movement in the territories - that is to say, with those who believe that the founding of Israel has messianic significance, and that therefore parts of the Land of Israel can never be traded away for fear of frustrating the Divine Will. The NRP has also gotten progressively less "modern" in the sense that rabbis have increasing influence over party policy, a cultural characteristic more common among the Haredim. A splinter party - Meimad - broke away from the NRP in the 1990s in protest of these developments, and took a decidedly more pragmatic line on both secular-religious matters and territorial issues. Meimad is now strongly identified with the Labor party, though it has not been absorbed into it and at one time was flirting with the now-defunct Center Party. The NRP is now led by a very right-wing former general, Effie Eitam, and is undergoing something of an identity crisis, not knowing whether to join a larger far-right bloc (as Eitam favors) or try to woo Meimad voters back by being more moderate (the preferred strategy of long-time party activists).

United Torah Judaism: The merger of two ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi parties. UTJ is less influential than Shas, and draws more exclusively from its core demographic. It is also arguably both more and less flexible, taking a hard line on religious questions but caring less about non-religious questions. UTJ's representation has grown with that sector of the population, and has not been as volatile as Shas. The two Haredi parties tend to move in and out of government together.

Yisrael B'Aliyah ("Israel on the Ascent" or "Israel in Immigration"): This is Natan Sharansky's party, originally organized in the early 1990s to appeal to Russian immigrants and now trying to broaden its appeal to other immigrants, especially those from English- and Spanish-speaking countries. The party is generally identified as Centrist, but I think this is a mis-characterization, and that YBA's political orientation is quite similar to Likud, sometimes to its Right and sometimes to its Left, and particularly so since YBA's two most prominent leftists jumped ship to form their own party, which has now merged with Meretz. They take a fairly hard line on security matters, but they do not take an inflexible position on Jewish rights to the entirety of the Land of Israel the way National Union does. YBA has a flexible attitude on religious-secular issues; while they have clashed with Shas in the past, they are in no way a radical secular party, though they do favor adjustments to the religious status quo. Sharansky also appears genuinely to agree with the Bush Administration's official position that a Palestinian State is feasible and ultimately a good thing, but can only be established after democratic habits and structures are put in place. YBA has a better claim to being a Liberal party than any other Israeli party. YBA is also something of a right-wing goo-goo party, with serious platform positions on things like electoral reform. In many ways, YBA suffers from being a minor party with a major-party outlook; they are insufficiently sectarian to get the full-throated support of a single narrow segment, but too small to make a bid to be a major-minor party, much less a major party. I think Sharansky has what it takes to be Prime Minister some day, but only if he merges YBA into Likud or Shinui, neither of which is likely. Which I think is a pity, because Sharansky is my favorite political leader on the Israeli scene today.

Gesher ("Bridge"): A nearly defunct Sephardi ethnic party that predates Shas and is basically the creature of David Levy, Gesher was once strongly identified with Likud, jumped from Netanyahu's ship to join Barak's government, and has now jumped back. They have no definable platform and will probably vanish after this election.

One Nation: A splinter party affiliated with the major Israeli labor union federation, they favor tough but pragmatic security policies and are therefore considered a "centrist" party, but basically they are a party of the reactionary Left, as you would expect from a labor union-controlled party.

Democratic Choice: A splinter party of left-wingers that broke away from Yisrael B'Aliyah and is now part of Meretz.

Hadash ("New"): Israel's Communist party, Hadash has historically been Jewish-led but got the vast majority of its votes from Arabs. Typically gets 2 to 5 seats and is classed as part of the Arab bloc. Hadash is an explicitly anti-Zionist party, as you would expect of a Communist party. The rest of the Arab bloc - the United Arab List, Balad, Taal, and so forth - is either Arab Nationalist or Islamist in orientation. Goals of the Arab parties (not every party includes each goal) include recognition of Arab autonomy within Israel, anti-discrimination law, ending land seizures, ending the status of Israel as a Jewish state, increasing state funding to the Arab sector, and unilateral withdrawal to the pre-1967 boundary and recognition of an Arab state with its capital in Jerusalem. The Islamist parties also ultimately envision establishing an Islamic static in place of Israel. Several Arab party leaders have been accused of collaborating with Israel's enemies in the P.A. and in Syria, and there have been recent attempts to bar some individuals and parties from running for election on those grounds. (To my knowledge, the only party banned by Israel to date was Kahane's Kach ("Thus") party, which advocated the forcible removal of the ARabs from both Israel and the territories, and which was banned for being racist.) Together, the bloc typically gets 8 to 10 seats. They have never been part of a government but both Rabin's and Barak's government depended on the Arab parties to survive (the Arab parties have historically voted with no-confidence motions against right-wing governments and against no-confidence motions aimed at left-wing governments). This dependence on "disloyal" parties was a major factor in radicalizing public opposition to these left-wing governments.

It's also worth pointing out that small parties in Israel come and go with great frequency. The 1990s saw the rise and fall of Tsomet (very right-wing on security matters but very anti-religious), the Third Way (a party of former generals who favored concessions to the Palestinians but a hard-line on Syria), Herut (a breakaway faction of Likud run by Menachem Begin's son Benny, who folded the party after winning only one seat), Center (a pary of disgruntled centrist politicos from both Labor and Likud who looked like they might take the Premiership in 1999 and then collapsed to only 6 seats); and so forth. When Israel went to direct election of the Prime Minister in 1996, this process accelerated, as the system now structurally encouraged voters to vote for a major-party candidate for PM and a sectarian party for the Knesset. Israeli politics is very fractious but no party has yet replaced Likud or Labor or has seriously presented a third-party alternative to lead the nation. In practice, therefore, to prognosticate on Israeli elections you have to ask first, whether Likud or Labor will pick the Prime Minister, and second, what kind of crazy coalition will they need to build to form a reasonably stable government.

Proportional rep is such a *wonderful* system . . .