Israel splits over tomorrow’s election

Israel is buzzing with talk of the coming election. I’m on the plane from London to Tel Aviv and the face of the boy beside me darkens when I ask him how he feels about it. He’s on leave from the IDF, (“It’s shit, but no, I know it’s important”) and his dad sits by his side, occasionally murmuring gentle warnings in Hebrew when he verges on disclosing details of his posting and offering English translations for words his son comes out with in Hebrew.

“I don’t like the way my country is going, what is happening in our politics.” the boy says, “Netanyahu, he has been in power for a really long time, and there is the corruption charges.”

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to be in a precarious position after being faced with a series of corruption charges, with a hearing set for shortly after the elections. However, he has remained determined to run and pledged not step down even if indicted, while his ruling party the Likud dismissed the allegations as “political persecution”.

Ahmed, a Palestinian speaking at the Education Bookshop in East Jerusalem, said that he would be “very surprised if Netanyahu didn’t win the election.

“Israel has seen prosperity in his time, by right wing government standards, and he’s got the world to go head to head with Iran and managed to get Trump to withdraw from the Iran deal. And you know, Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem and recognised the Golan Heights, all in his era.”

As for the left wing, Ahmed thinks it “has no chance, because there is this rhetoric that if you’re not right wing and you don’t have checkpoints then the Palestinians are going to destroy you.”

But the rise in popularity of ultra right-wing nationalist and religious politics has ruffled the feathers of both liberal supporters abroad and moderate supporters at home, such as the New Right Party, Hayamin Hahadash.

They recently featured their leader in a political advert where she sprays herself with a perfume marked ‘fascism’ before declaring, “smells like democracy to me.”

I meet Tomer, a member of the Israeli Communist Party and lives in Tel Aviv.

He recently returned from protest rallies for Land Day, an annual day of protest in commemoration of the expropriation of Palestinian land for state purposes. He usually works at a pizza bar down the road from his flat but he’s quit this month so he can focus on campaigning in the elections.

The Communist Party is now part of a far leftist coalition called Ha’dash (New), that includes both Marxists and Arab nationalists. He’s proud of the alliance, “Usually Islamist parties vote against gay rights issues. But now that they’re with us, they don’t. They don’t vote for it! But they just back away and don’t say anything, so we can push forward the gay agenda,” he says with a smile, “People should understand that we all have to fight against oppression together – oppression of Arabs, of gays, of women, of the poor, it’s all one thing. We’re strong together!”

Tomer is more worried about newcomer Zehut, founded in 2015 as a right wing libertarian party and proving unexpectedly popular in recent polls. “Ozma and those people have always been there, will always be there, I’m not worried about those crazy people. It’s Zehut that is scary. Zehut appeals to young people who don’t know any better,” he says shaking his head.

He’s right about Zehut appealing to young people – it’s the second most popular amongst university students according to a recent poll after the main opposition Blue and White centrist alliance, Kahol Lavan, led by Benny Ganz and Yair Lapid.

Zehut has made the legalisation of cannabis a condition for joining any coalition in government and has, among its many more liberal policies, the abolishment of marriage registration so that the couple can define themselves, in addition to the outlawing of force against non violent civil disobedience.

However, it also calls for complete Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and giving it’s population the option of financially assisted emigration, and that any attack by Hamas should be responded to by a complete reconquest and subsequent occupation of the Gaza strip.

“Get real,” Tomer’s colleague, a Zehut supporter, tuts at him, “You’re an anarchist. Grow up. We have to be realistic.”

“So Zehut come into power, they’ll tear down Alaqsa and build a third Temple. And then all the Arab nations will come and bomb us!” Tomer retorts, referencing a comment Zehut leader Feiglin made at a conference last month in which he expressed his intention to build a new temple on the Temple Mount – which is currently the site of Alaqsa mosque, the third holiest place in Islam.

Joe is a British student from SOAS studying at the Hebrew university of Jerusalem, and also considers Ha’dash to be an unrealistic party. He says that on campus “most people seem to be supporting Kahol Lavan… with smaller numbers for Labour, Zehut and Likud.”

Meretz, a left wing green party, is more popular in Tel Aviv. In Joe’s opinion the sensible strategic vote for moderates and left wingers is for the Blue and White coalition.

Aaron, 23, works at a kiosk and lives in Ramot, which is considered an illegal settlement internationally but treated as part of Jerusalem by the Israelis. It’s an area where Hasidic Jews are prevalent, though Aaron isn’t one. He says he’ll vote for Netanyahu, because both options are bad, but “Bibi is less bad.” It’s like Trump, he adds, “I don’t like him, but it’s good for Israel.”

In the West Bank there’s little interest in the Israeli elections. “This is Palestine, not Israel,” one teenager tells me sternly in Hebron. When I say that the outcome will affect the occupation, and therefore living conditions for him in divided Hebron where the practicalities of the conflict are particularly salient, he shrugs. “The Israelis will withdraw eventually. It’s written in the Quran.”

A textiles worker based in Bethlehem tells me she tries not to think about politics. “Nothing good ever comes of it. When I was young, I’m fifty five now, there were no walls. I could visit my relatives, no checkpoints. Now? They’re taking everything. The mukhabarat, (intelligence operatives) know everything, watch everything.”

Israeli political posters line the road from Jerusalem to Nablus and ever expanding settlements crowd the hills.

A 24 year old taxi driver living in Nablus said, “What’s going to happen in the elections? Someone worse will win. It’s always someone worse.

“They’re going to take Palestine, they’re going to take it all. Why won’t anyone help?”

This is how questions about the Israeli elections generally go in the West Bank – whoever wins, the assumption is that the occupation will continue.

Xy, a Dane living in Bethlehem, tells me that she heard gunfire last week when a 17 year old medic was shot by the IDF in Deheisheh refugee camp.

And last Wednesday a settler opened fire at a checkpoint on the road to Nablus, allegedly in self-defence, killing one Palestinian and wounding another and provoking subsequent clashes in Qalandia refugee camp. In this context , it’s more understandable that the Israeli elections aren’t the first topic of conversation for West Bank Palestinians.

K, a journalist living in Ramallah, tells me that the two state solution is dead and people know it. The real question is what happens next – and how the new government will deal with Gaza.

“Whatever the case,” she says, “it’s not worth any more young guys dying in the name of Palestine.” If the government does decide to retake Gaza, however, she thinks it’ll likely be a tough nut to crack. “They (the Gazans) are desperate now, they just want the border to open so they can travel and work… but Gazans have always had a history of resistance.”

Israelis go to vote tomorrow. Most polls have Kahol Lavan and the Likud tied in the lead up to election day, but the right wing bloc has a clear lead over the centre left. The outcome is certain to have an impact on the direction of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians over the coming decades and the form that the region takes as a consequence.

Featured Image: Mount of Olives, Jerusalem. Credit: Andrew Shiva

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