As Israel gears up for its fourth general election in two years, it has become increasingly clear that Israeli politics is in the process of disintegration. It’s largely due to an ever more fragmented party system based on identity politics, says Shir Hever, author of the book, The Privatization of Israeli Security.
Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. I’m your guest host, Greg Wilpert.
Israel is currently gearing up for its fourth general election in two years. Last December, the fragile governing coalition between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party collapsed after only seven months in office, and new elections were called for March 23rd of this year. The perhaps overriding issue this time around is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. To discuss the current political situation in Israel, I’m joined by Shir Hever from Heidelberg, Germany.
Shir is the author of the book The Privatization of Israeli Security, which was published by Pluto Press in 2017. Also, he is on the board of the German organization Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East.
Thanks for being here again, Shir.
Thanks for having me. Greg.
So Israel’s not only making headlines at the moment for the upcoming and unprecedented fourth general election in just two years, but also for holding two contradictory records related to the pandemic.
I mean, first, it is going through one of the worst spikes in new COVID cases, and second, it is also the country that has vaccinated a larger proportion of its population than any other country so far, with 21 percent of over 16 year-olds having already received two COVID vaccination shots.
So Shir, talk to us about what’s going on here in this regard, and why such a high vaccination rate and why the spike in new cases?
Well, first of all, just to be a little bit more accurate, Israel is not really number one in the world in terms of vaccination per capita, because it’s only number one if you count only Israeli citizens. But if you count the entire population under Israeli control, which is subject to the Israeli laws and under the responsibility of the Israeli Ministry of Health, then in fact, Israel is number two in the world and number one would be the United Arab Emirates.
And this is very important because the reason that Israel’s vaccination has been so fast, has a lot to do with the occupation of Palestinians, and with the colonial mentality and society of the Israeli society.
And what Netanyahu understood is that he has to convince the Israelis to get vaccinated faster than any other country, in order to be able to show that there is a reduction in the amount of cases and the amount of deaths prior to the election, so that he can claim victory over the corona pandemic.
In order to do so, he played a trick on the Israeli public, because if you look at other countries, especially the European Union, also in the United States, there are two limiting factors when it comes to vaccinations. One limiting factor is how many vaccines are available, and their quality. And the other limiting factor is whether people trust the vaccine and are willing to get vaccinated.
So my personal opinion, I’m not a doctor, but my personal opinion is that people should get vaccinated of course. I just wanted to say this, so it’s clear that I’m not condoning anti-vaxxers. But what we see in Israel is a kind of manipulation of the public, where Netanyahu was the first person to be vaccinated in the country, and he did it on camera.
And the second thing is that he announced that Palestinians will not receive a vaccine. Palestinians under Israeli control. So he created a very clear hierarchy, that the vaccine indicates your place in society. Whether you get vaccinated, shows if you’re on the top or on the bottom.
So the people who are on the bottom, which are the Palestinians, don’t get any. The people who are the closest to to privilege and power get it first. And because of that, a lot of Israelis rushed the vaccination centers, even if they didn’t have an appointment, even if they were too young to receive the vaccination.
The mayor of Tel Aviv, he basically stole a bunch of vaccines that were supposed to be dedicated first to people of an elderly age, and diverted it to the teachers in Tel Aviv, but only in Tel Aviv, because he wanted to show that he’s a good mayor. And when you have this sort of situation where people don’t wait for an appointment, they just go to the centers and take whatever vaccinations they can get, the number of vaccines that were available just were used up almost instantly, and that’s how Israel became number one.
Wow. Well, so turning to the election, though, why did the Likud and Blue and White coalition fall apart? And this leads me more generally to why has Israeli politics been so unstable in the past two years, that it’s been almost impossible to form a government, and as I mentioned, the fourth election coming up in two years?
The instability has a lot to do with the fact that Israeli society is disintegrating into identity politics on an unprecedented level, where you have so many different factions which don’t really present very clear agendas, very clear political or economic agendas, but rather are representing groups of people which are defined based on their religion or on their ethnicity.
The parties depend on the groups that vote for them for loyalty, and they know that if they sit in the same coalition with an opposing group, they will lose all their votes, or a very large, substantial amount of their votes. So that created further disintegration of the political system into smaller groups.
And if you have more than one access line, according to which these divides happen, it’s not just left versus right. There’s this traditional divide in Israel, left versus right, whether Palestinians should have any rights and whether Palestinians should have a state or not. And clearly, Netanyahu is on the side against Palestinian statehood and against Palestinian rights.
But there are many other divides, and a growing divide in terms of its importance is the divide between the ultra-Orthodox Jews and the so-called secular Jews. I’m saying so-called, because I think it’s a very complex thing to define secularity. But ultra-Orthodox Jews are a community that’s relatively well defined, and vilified, and hated right now in Israel.
And now it’s getting even worse because they are being blamed for the spread of the COVID virus, because they are constantly blamed for not following the lockdown and not obeying the rules and gathering in large numbers, even though that’s not allowed. And to some extent, that might be true, but certainly not to the extent in which they are vilified in the media and which in any other country, if it wasn’t Israel, people would say this is anti-Semitic and rhetoric to just vilify a group like this and blame them for spreading disease.
And the ultra-Orthodox Jews are on the defensive. They feel like they’re being attacked, and because of that they refuse to sit in the same coalition with parties that openly oppose ultra-Orthodox values, and the parties that oppose the ultra-Orthodox values, refuse to sit with the ultra-Orthodox. And a result of all of these internal divides, is that there is no majority.
And now the only way that Netanyahu is constantly able to remain in power is by corruption, and by playing the various groups against each other, and breaking up his opponents’ party.
So Blue and White, by the time they crawled to Netanyahu’s government after the last election, they’ve shed all of the principled members of their party, people who said, we don’t, we refuse to sit with Netanyahu’s government, because Netanyahu is corrupt and because we want him to stand trial.
And then suddenly you have the head of the party, Benny Gantz, saying, I don’t care. I want to be the Minister of Defense and I’m going to be in that cabinet anyway. I think that was very convenient for Netanyahu, except that there are always some technical issues. And when you have elections so frequently, you have to pass the budget, and if you can’t pass the budget by a certain time, you have to go for election.
Netanyahu tried to get a very, very short budget. He tried to get a three month budget approved instead of a yearly budget with Benny Gantz, so that he could then, after three months, when it’s time to negotiate the next budget, go to elections. But Benny Gantz and his party refused, and so instead they’re going to election anyway, and in the meantime, because there is no approved budget, the government pretty much can do whatever they want, and they make ad hoc decisions and changes to the budget. That gives Netanyahu a lot of power and a lot of freedom.So in many ways, this is actually a situation that’s very much in his favor.
You said something interesting that one of the mechanisms by which Netanyahu keeps in power is through corruption. What do you mean by that?
I mean that he receives support from billionaires. And I think we’re going to get to one of those billionaires very, very soon when we talk about the US. But there are billionaires who are investing in the Israeli economy, and were supporting his campaign, and who are supporting the media in providing positive coverage for him, and the attempts to investigate that and to prosecute Netanyahu for manipulating the media and for receiving forbidden gifts from billionaires, bribery, basically, these attempts are then manipulated by Netanyahu as a way to to present himself as the victim of a slander campaign, and he paints himself as the underdog, even though he’s been Prime Minister in Israel longer than any other Prime Minister in the history of the country.
And he talks about things like the deep state, very similar to the kind of rhetoric that we saw from Trump, and which are trying to undermine him and take him to a political trial. And he uses that to gain a lot of popularity and support from a lot of people who are also very much suspicious towards the state institutions.
Now you also said that the reason for the fragmentation of the political scene or the party system, is that it’s being based more and more on identity politics. I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that. I mean, why is that becoming so based in identity politics? I mean, what do these parties hope to gain?
I think it’s because of a deep sense of despair. When people have some kind of hope that they could change the political system and maybe achieve something, something realistic, for example, reforming the entire transportation system, or better rights for certain minority groups, then they would maybe gather an alliance towards that particular goal, and try to achieve that, and make political compromises with the other issues, in order to be able to to achieve their goal.
But if they believe there is no point, because there is no democratic process, because there is no chance for any kind of reform, because some issues are just too terrifying to raise up. The fact that the Israeli largest human rights organization, B’Tselem, has just recently announced that Israel is an apartheid state, and everybody knows that apartheid is a crime for which there will be accountability. And they know that if the largest human rights organization in Israel is saying this is an apartheid state, they cannot deny it anymore.
So what is their response to this? Are they saying are we going to fight apartheid? Are we going to acknowledge apartheid? Are we going to openly defy this organization and say there is no apartheid?
Most parties just decide to ignore it. But if you ignore the main issues, then you only deepen this feeling of despair, because the voters feel there’s no point in voting for a particular party, because I hope that this party will pass legislation that we want to have.
It’s more about, I want this party to win so I can feel like I’m part of a group that has a little bit more power, because this party represents me. So then people choose to vote for parties that are more and more similar to themselves. And when you have a split between the party that represents the generals, and the party that represents maybe the slightly younger generals, you have a level of division and fragmentation, that a lot of votes are going to go into the garbage.
This is actually one of the issues of the Israeli political system. The minimum quote that you need to reach in order to be in the parliament, in the Knesset, is 3.25 percent, which is relatively high. There are countries where it’s even higher. But in Israel, it’s relatively high.
And in the upcoming election in March, all the indicators show, all the polls show, that the largest number of votes are going to be discarded because they don’t reach that minimum, compared to any election in the past.
Personally, I find it very sad that the Joint List is falling apart as well, and will not run together as a Joint List. The Joint List is a group of four parties that represent mostly the non Jewish population of Israel, the Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel.
And of course, these four parties are very different from each other. One of them is the Islamic Party, one of them is the Nationalist Party, one of them is the Communist Party. So you don’t usually see these political parties sitting together. But they did sit together, because they said we have to fight against discrimination and for equal rights, and we can compromise on the other issues and fight those fights later. But if they are now feeling there is no point, because there’s not going to be any chance for a majority government which is not headed by Netanyahu anyway, then why bother trying to achieve more political strength when we can, in fact, focus on our identity politics and represent our niche group of voters?
That actually brings me to the next question, which you already partly addressed, but in terms of the Joint List, but what larger role do the Palestinians, especially the ones who are not Israeli citizens, in other words, can’t vote, are playing in this election this time around?
I think on the surface value, they play almost no role at all because the Israeli parties don’t talk about them and they don’t mention them. They don’t talk about the occupation. They don’t talk about Gaza. But on another level, they play a very major role.
And in fact, there is a very deep understanding among Israelis, that this is not something that can be swept under the rug, even though it is swept under the rug again and again. But this manipulation Netanyahu did with denying Palestinians the vaccine, it’s mostly media manipulation more than anything. We can talk about the policies of exactly who gets a vaccine and when, if you want. But the issue of declaring them unfit to receive medical care has actually reminded people of their existence in a way.
This human rights organization, B’Tselem, their report showing that there is an apartheid system, is something that initially the Israeli media channels tried to ignore, but eventually they couldn’t ignore it anymore, and they started talking about it. This is definitely going to be part of the discourse heading up to the election, mainly the fact that no political party has a solution.
No political party really offers any realistic course of action. The so-called Zionist left parties that used to talk about the two state solution, are becoming very vague about it and not saying what kind of borders they can envision, and what will happen with Jerusalem, and after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, are they going to then ask the United States to withdraw that recognition? Obviously, that puts them in a very difficult situation.
So there’s no discussion about this, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. And Palestinians are still around, and they are still going to be around. And I think maybe one issue that is very important which is happening now is that the Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have agreed to hold elections.
And this is something that didn’t happen for 14 years. It’s very important that they will have elections. The Palestinian public really, really wants to have a leadership that represents it and can negotiate on their behalf and can represent their interests. But so far, the Israeli government has acted with great violence to prevent Palestinians from holding elections, and invaded and made mass arrests and did everything possible to keep the Palestinians divided and weak.
But if the Israeli government is refusing to even address the existence of Palestinians and trying to ignore them, it’s going to be very difficult to convince the public that they have to go to war again, because Palestinians want to hold their own elections.
So I think there’s actually a chance that this fragmentation process that’s happening on the Israeli side, will give Palestinians a blind spot in which they can hold their own elections, and revitalize their own political process.
Now, turning to the effect that the United States is having on Israeli politics. Now, Trump, as you know, as we all know, was probably Netanyahu’s biggest supporter, and now that he left office, Netanyahu has basically lost his perhaps closest ally ever. So what does that mean for Netanyahu and the upcoming election?
So I mentioned before, that there are these billionaires who are supporting Netanyahu, and I mentioned one of them. So the one that I wanted to mention is Sheldon Adelson. I think Netanyahu is mourning the passing of Sheldon Adelson, who died of cancer very recently, even more than he’s in mourning the departure of Donald Trump from the Oval Office.
So Netanyahu actually tried to claim that he has also been on good terms with the Democratic Party, and Biden will also be on good terms with him. But I think Israelis are aware. They haven’t forgotten that Netanyahu banned two Democratic congresswoman from entering Israel, which is something that I don’t think the Democratic Party’s forgotten either.
And clearly, there’s a feeling that Biden will not be as much of a, I would say, blindly one sided, pro-Israeli, fanatic, as Trump was.
On another level, a lot of Israelis also understood that Trump’s pro-Israeli fanaticism is not really been pro-Israeli. It was just very convenient for Trump to advance his deals in the Middle East, and to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, by using Israel as a kind of proxy.
I think Biden has already shown that he’s interested in maybe a slightly different alignment of power, and he already postponed the delivery of F-35 fighters to the UAE, which very ironically caused concern in Israel, because in Israel, they are worried that this means that Biden is not going to continue cultivating this kind of anti-Iran alliance.
In fact, the head of the Israeli military, Aviv Kochavi, has made a statement which is very aggressive and arrogant, where he basically forbade Biden from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. A lot of Israelis were very embarrassed by this kind of statement, which is not going to do very good to the relationship between the two countries, between the US and Israel, I mean.
But having said all that, Netanyahu, even after losing his biggest supporter, Sheldon Adelson, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars, is still going to win the next election. And he’s still very, very much in a situation of dominance in the Israeli political scene, because all of his opponents are just so weak and divided amongst themselves. That’s how he likes it, and he keeps them that way, and nobody’s really challenging him.
But what does that mean? He’s not going to win an absolute majority, that’s pretty sure. So with whom is he going to form a coalition, and will he be able to form a more or less stable one? What do you think?
I don’t think he wants a stable coalition. A stable coalition means that there’s going to be a budget, and there’s going to be a prospect for a four year government. And then, of course, Netanyahu will have to resume his trial, and they will not be able to say that it’s a political trial. So I don’t think that’s what he wants. I think what he wants is to see what happens in the elections, and he’ll pull the strings as much as he can.
But I think he understands that he cannot decide exactly how the Knesset is going to look like after the election. Some parties are going to fall under the minimum quota and disappear. Some parties will be just above it. And then he will then probably just wait to allow his opponents, to try to form a government.
And when they fail, then the options are either to go again for another round of elections, or to form some kind of minority government, some kind of weak and unstable government. That’s exactly what Netanyahu wants. Every time a new election is declared because there is no stable government, then the former Prime Minister stays as an interim Prime Minister, and Netanyahu has been an interim Prime Minister for so long.
As an interim Prime Minister, he actually is less accountable, than if he’s a full and normally elected Prime Minister, because it’s just kind of a default position. There is much less supervision over his actions, and he can take executive decisions, which sometimes violate Israeli law, and go around the parliament. So this kind of instability really plays into his hands. So I cannot tell you which parties exactly will fall into his coalition.
What Netanyahu has done recently, which I think is very interesting, he started courting the votes of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the same group of people that he has been consistently inciting against, for years and years, and in the last election, he said, I actually have the majority, even though he didn’t, because I don’t want to count the non-Jewish voters.
Imagine what it would mean if Trump would say, well, actually among white voters, I have the majority, so I should be the President. Yeah, this sort of statement.
And now the same man who said this thing against Palestinian voters in Israel, is going to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, meeting with them, and promising them that he’s going to invest more in the economy, and work for equal rights, and so on.
But I think he’s doing that because this really shuffles all the cards and puts all of his political opponents in a state of insecurity, because now nobody knows how the next coalition will look like. What if one of these Palestinian parties will decide to join Netanyahu’s coalition? Then he has many more options.
So I think that’s a very interesting development. But in a kind of ironic roundabout way, it allows Palestinians to become political actors in Israel for the first time, legitimate political actors, and that is actually a positive thing, because even though it’s completely cynical from Netanyahu’s point of view, but it could actually create a reality in which a Palestinian could be a minister in the government, and that would be a first.
Well, one thing one can say for sure is that Israeli politics is always quite interesting, even if it’s very convoluted. But I’m going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Shir Hever, board member of the German organization Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East. Thanks again, Shir, for having joined me today.
Thank you, Greg.
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