Cost of living focal point in Israeli polls - GulfToday

Cost of living focal point in Israeli polls

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Israel’s former prime minister and leader of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to students during a campaign rally in the Ariel university, in the central West Bank settlement of Ariel, ahead of the November general elections. File/Agence France-Presse

Opinion polls conducted in Israel late last week revealed that former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners will gain 60 seats in the 120 member Knesset, just one short of a majority. The “centrist and leftist parties in the current government are set to secure 56 seats while the parties representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens will receive four seats. If this prediction is borne out, Israel could remain deadlocked following Tuesday’s vote in the fifth general election in three and a half years. Israel is polarised between Netanyahu loyalists boosted by fellow travellers and “never-Netanyahu” opponents.

The main issue in this election is the cost of living. Rents are soaring and food prices are surging. While the war in Ukraine has driven up food and fuel prices across the world during 2022, the costs of food imports in Israel’s have risen for years. Working class Israelis with large families are forced to ration food and middle class Israelis are compelled to shop at discount outlets favoured by the Orthodox. The Palestine conflict has not featured prominently although rising tensions have prompted clashes in the West Bank on a daily basis. The “two-state solution” involving the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is not on Israel’s agenda although it remains the fictional solution supported by the international community which does nothing to halt Israeli colonisation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, needed along with Gaza for a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s rightist Likud is likely to emerge the largest party with 30-31 seats but will have to depend on far-right religious and secular factions to secure half of the Knesset seats while incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s secular “centrist” party will come second with 24-27 seats and will have to recruit no-longer-centrist Labour and tiny leftist Meretz and other small factions to attain the projected 56. Once again the two Palestinian parties could be kingmakers. Netanyahu has not ruled out either as a potential coalition partner although they would be highly reluctant to join a government in which far right extremists are certain to play an outsized role.

Israel has shifted gradually to the right since the Likud won a sweeping victory in 1977.

This was dubbed a “revolution” by commentators as the Likud’s rise deprived Labour, the party of Israel’s founding fathers, of the right-to-rule. The Likud’s rise was accompanied by the emergence of religious and radical nationalist Zionist factions which overtook the moderate National Religious Party and liberal factions.

The shift to the Likud was driven by three demographic developments. The initial alienation from Labour of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries who believed their interests were ignored by Labour. The influx of Soviet bloc Jews who abhored the leftists and backed the Likud and other right- ist factions. In recent years, the right was expanded and strengthened by the growing Israeli colonist population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank who now number more than 750,000.

The rightwards shift has involved all of Israel’s political parties and factions. Israel no longer has a political centre. Instead, with the exception of Meretz, Israel’s parties are either secular-right or religious right.

The current secular government has, since spring, conducted a ruthless campaign of repression in the West Bank following Palestinian attacks on Israelis which killed 19 people. At least 125 Palestinians have been slain during nightly Israeli military operations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and hundreds arrested. Extremist Israeli colonists have staged strikes on Palestinian villages, boosting hatred in the occupied areas and attracting revenge strikes by Palestinian youths who believe they have no future due to the never-ending occupation.

Israel has always bred pyromaniacs but they were not accepted as reasonable members of the political elite. This has changed. For example, extreme rightist Itamar Ben-Gvir, 46, is a devotee of US rabbi Meir Kahane whose Kach movement was banned in Israel after US-born colonist Baruch Gold- stein gunned down 29 worshippers at the mosque in al-Khalil (Hebron). Like Goldstein, Ben-Gvir lives in a radical colony in al-Khalil and routinely visits the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem with the aim of claiming the mosque compound for Israel. Criticised for chanting, “Death to Arabs,” he has shifted to, “Death to terrorists.” He does not recognise Palestinians as a people but brands them with the “terrorist” label.

He and another radical rightist, Bezalel Smotrich, 42, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, could together secure 13 seats in the next Knesset, the third highest number. Smotrich was born in a religious colony in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, grew up in the Beit El colony in the West Bank, and lives in the West Bank Kedumim colony. He has said that all Palestinians should have been thrown out of Palestine during Israel’s war of establishment in 1948 and holds that revenge attacks for Palestininan stone-throwing and other strikes on Israelis are justified.

If recruited by Netanyanu into his cabinet Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, both lawyers, want the jus- tice portfolio in order to revamp the legal system to serve their extremist, anti-Palestinian objectives. Smotrich wants Israel to be governed by Jewish law and the Torah, the Jewish holy book.

Netanyahu, 73, is determined to return to office. He thrives on exercising power and needs to re-establish his prime ministerial immunity from prosecution in several cases involving corruption, fraud and breach of trust which have lingered in the courts since 2019. He also wants to re-write Israeli laws in order to escape prosecution. For Netanyahu a return to office is a means to salvage his long career in politics and keep him out of jail rather than a fresh chance to serve the interests of his country.

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