Russian-Israelis: identity and trauma

Israel was formed by immigration, and Jews from Eastern Europe were an important part of the Jewish immigration to Palestine ever since the days of the First Aliyah of 1882. Many Russian-speaking Jews arrived in Palestine fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and would form the backbone of Ha-Yishuv (the settlement). After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union’s tightening border controls meant that few if any Soviets were allowed to leave the country, generating a sharp disconnect between the Soviet Jews and their Jewish brethren abroad. After almost half a century of suspended Jewish migration, many Soviet-Jews arrived in Israel in the 1970s and even more in the 1990s, in the periods of Soviet openness towards Jewish emigration. These were much larger waves of immigration, and they had a significant impact on Israel – the Jews were also deeply altered by half a century of socialism. Today, Russian-speaking Jews are an important part of Israel’s demographic, and key right-wing voters in Israel’s politics. 

A migrant’s culture could be defined as a compromise between his origin society’s values and the ones of his host society. Israel’s immigration story is closely linked to Israel’s Law of Return, that stipulated that any Jew has the right to come to Israel. The law reflects a vision of Israel as a safe haven for all the Jews in the world and is one of the cornerstones of modern Israel’s identity. Many have claimed the law promotes a proactive and effective integration policy towards new migrants, who are immediately given Israeli citizenship and allowed to vote.

Israel is a very diverse society, and the simplified distinction between the Jews and the Palestinians often does not account for the complexities of the cultural landscape on the ground. Even when looking at Israel’s Jews, the standard separation between the Ashkenazim (European Jews) and Sephardim or Mizrachim (Middle Eastern Jews) is often insufficient to understand the different origins of modern Israelis.

Ashkenazim in Israel are composed of European and American Jews, but also Jews from the Soviet bloc. The cultural and social divergences between Western and Soviet Jews reflect the Cold War divisions of Europe. In the Soviet Union, emigration was strictly prohibited, and only a few openings were available to Jews who wanted to emigrate. In this closed country, Soviet Jews developed a distinct mindset and integrated into Soviet society against the backdrop of rabid antisemitism, often preserving their sense of Jewish identity in a concealed and heavily secularised form.

Periods of brief Soviet openings toward Jewish emigration led to waves of Russian Jews immigrating to Israel in the 1970s (150,000) and especially in the years 1989 to 1991 (400,000). Another 300,000 to 400,000 arrived during the 1990s. The immigrants on average had a higher level of education than most of the native Israeli population, which was partly because education was one of the only tools of social mobility available to Soviet Jews. Russian-speaking Jews were also overwhelmingly urban and had smaller families on average. While in many ways they have integrated into Israeli society, some have perceived that their Jewishness, which they preserved despite widespread anti-Semitism in their societies of origin, was suddenly under question from the Israeli society itself. The religious establishment in Israel is strongly connected to the state – the Rabbinate’s authority extends to determining someone’s Jewishness on the basis of their mothers’ religious persuasions, according to the halakha law that stipulates that Jewishness is passed on by the mother.

Many Jewish immigrants from socialist and former-socialist countries defined their Jewishness differently, in ethnic and cultural terms, reflecting the way in which socialist states classified someone as a Jew. Several of the new immigrants were sons and daughters of Jewish fathers, and having experienced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, they perceived themselves to be no less Jewish than those born to a Jewish mother. Yet Israel’s society limits the rights of patrilineal Jews, who are for example unable to have an official marriage unless they ‘correct’ themselves by subscribing to a full-blown conversion. This includes extensive and sometimes humiliating monitoring by the religious establishment to ensure regular religious activity from the new converts. Adding to this, Russian Jews sometimes brought to Israel spouses or family members who were not Jews, creating a situation where the authenticity of the Russian-speaking immigrants’ Jewishness was increasingly questioned by the Israeli society.

While the Russian Jewish immigration wave of the 90s has significantly contributed to Israel’s economic development, some problems were also apparent. The sheer size of the wave made it hard for Russian Israelis to fully meld into the native society, leading to unfavourable comparisons with the smaller wave of Soviet Jews from the 70s. Those were portrayed as ‘model immigrants’ who, unlike their rowdy counterparts from the 90s, were said to have integrated into Israeli society without much trouble.

There were issues of language, culture, beliefs and economic status. In terms of integration, the Russian-speaking immigration wave was also arguably the only one in Israel’s history to openly preserve the language and culture of their society of origin. Larissa Remennick, a sociology professor, wrote that in the case of Soviet Jews ‘their deities were Pushkin, Chekhov, Pasternak and Bulgakov’, and that the immigrants retained a visceral connection to Russian culture. Russian-language news outlets are still incredibly popular. In a clash of cultures, Russian grocery stores even sometimes sell pork, a deep gastronomic taboo in Judaism and consequently in Israeli society, and an important staple of Slavic and Soviet cuisine. Russian-speaking Jews are mostly secular, with only around 30% reporting religious beliefs. They tend to associate secularism with modernity and use their voting power in favour of a more secular Israel. The immigrants of the 90s often reported high levels of distrust towards politics, with some also noting their disappointment at the economic prospects in their new homeland. In many cases, and despite the harsh Soviet quotas on Jewish students in universities, Soviet Jews were overrepresented in the Soviet intelligentsia, and were expecting to find in Israel comfortable working conditions that matched their professional skills.

Waves of Soviet immigrants have often sparked the ire of the religious establishment which doubted the new arrivals’ Jewishness and worried about the dilution of religiousness in Israel. Undoubtedly, the Rabbinate also feared a loss of political control, which was expected to be precipitated by the arrival of secular migrants. The suspicions have never quite gone away: in 2020, Israel’s chief rabbi called the immigrants from the former Soviet Union ‘religion-hating gentiles’ drawing condemnations from across Israel’s political spectrum. His remarks did however resonate with a portion of Israelis that view the Russian-speaking immigrants with distrust.

Some observers have noted that the Russian-speaking community tends to be attracted to strong leader figures and has embraced Israel’s right-wing parties. There are many reasons for the Russian-speakers’ alliance with Israel’s right.

Some have argued that the Russian Jews’ often hawkish stance on Palestinian issues reflects their perception of Israel as an ethnocentric state. This echoes back to their own experiences in the Soviet Union, where Jews were systematically stigmatised, and markers of Jewish identity had to be concealed and suppressed. In the view of some Russian Jews, Israel was finally a place where Jews had the majority status. Therefore, judging from their Soviet experience, they expected their Jewish status to reflect all the privileges that such a position should entail. Some Russian Jews also associated the Arabs with the upsurge of Soviet anti-Semitism. While obviously not taking part in the Arab-Israel conflicts, Soviet Jews became indirect victims of those conflicts within the USSR, where Israel’s victories caused a steady rise of Soviet anti-Semitism, starting with the Six Day War and continuing throughout the 70s.

Russian Jews also have much more uncompromising stances on Israel’s security. This might be due to the fact that after their immigration to Israel, many have ended up in border towns or settlements, on the frontlines of a conflict they barely understood. The FSU (former Soviet Union) immigrants also figured disproportionately among Palestinian terror victims due to their proximity to the conflict areas. Many sociological studies, for example those by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague attest to the radicalizing effects that manifestations of violence have on immigrants in their adoptive homelands. Their outrage was also amplified by the Russian-language media, which often focused on themes of unjust martyrdom of long-suffering Russian Jews at the hands of Arab terrorists, especially during the Intifadas [Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s control]. Yelenevskaya quotes an article piece:

Once, at the very beginning of Intifada, an old woman, a colonel of the Red Army and a war veteran, was in a car driving along a road in Samaria. The car was shot by terrorists. She had survived the war against the Nazis but was killed by those who continue on their road. Only here in Israel the veterans find themselves on the frontline again. And so do their grandchildren.

She notes that Soviet Jews often viewed Israel’s politicians and Israel’s society as much too lax and were sceptical about the possibilities of a compromise with the Arabs. They also decried an overall lack of order along with what they perceived to be the chronic insecurities of their communities in the face of terrorism, poverty, high housing prices and the two Intifadas. When sometimes a sense of patronising superiority over local Jews emerged, it could be explained by the pervasive socialist-era propaganda of the Soviet man’s superiority, and of the Soviet civilisation as an epitome of Utopian thinking. Aside from this type of thinking, they often carried with them emotional baggage from their home country, which some sociologists eventually qualified as a form of psychological trauma due to the collapse of an entire system of beliefs and meanings with the fall of the USSR. Many Soviet Jews were ambiguous in their relationship to the USSR, both resenting a country that stigmatised and persecuted them as Jews, while often expressing a profound nostalgia for an idealised country of their youth.

Others, such as Larissa Remmenick, have sought to highlight the Russian Jews’ insecurities about their identity, which were reflected by the Russian-speaking immigrants ‘constant need for adjustment and mimicry’. It could be suggested that many Russian Jews opted to imitate and ‘outdo’ the locals by doubling down on radical views such as Israeli nationalism and Jewish ethnocentrism. Many Russian speakers’ rejection of the establishment as too lax and moderate eventually led to them voting for the right-wing parties.

Soviet Jewish votes led to the rise of parties catering to Soviet Jewish interests, starting with Yisrael BaAliyah [Israel on the rise]. The party’s gradual drift to the right of the political spectrum reflected that of the majority of Russian Jews. Eventually came the rise of another party, Yisrael Beitenu [Israel, our home], which sought to capitalise on right-wing secular nationalist votes, predominantly from the Russian community. The party was formed by a group of statesmen led by Avigdor Lieberman, who left the government coalition to protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Today, competition over Soviet Jewish votes is prevalent in Israeli politics and has gotten more spotlight during the repeated election runs of 2019, when Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to peel Russian-speaking votes from Avigor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Israel Beitenu. Streets in Russian-Jewish neighbourhoods often featured signs in Cyrillic proclaiming ‘Only Netanyahu – only Likud’. Some Russian Jews were finally promised pensions which were previously repeatedly denied to them. Election posters featured pictures of Netanyahu holding the hand of president Putin. Many Russian-speaking Jews in Israel originate from Ukraine – and Netanyahu also made a prompt state visit to the country, and its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It can be argued that Likud’s attempts to draw in Russian Jewish votes were not very successful: fundamental distrust towards the religious parties in coalition with Netanyahu’s government prevented many Russian Jews from voting for Likud.

Change is on the horizon. The younger Russian Jewish electorate is more integrated, speaks much better Hebrew, is more moderate, and is slowly shedding some ambiguous aspects of their complicated identity, identifying more strongly with Israel than with an idealised country of their parents’ memories. They retain a strong connection to the Russian language and culture but are often more comfortable with a hybrid or predominantly Israeli identity fusing both Jewish and Russian cultural symbols and practices. They often remain relatively antagonistic towards the Rabbinate’s authority but are less likely to vote for the Russian-speaker parties such as Yisrael Beitenu, instead opting for a wider spectrum of parties reflecting individual preferences and beliefs. Russian speakers will continue to play an influential role in Israel’s politics, and it remains interesting to see how their demographic evolution will affect the Russian Jews’ political affiliation. Perhaps the new Russian Jewish generation will not carry in them their parents’ Soviet traumas and insecurities, will finally be able to lay the questions of identity aside and be full members of Israeli society. But some change in Israeli society’s capacity to accommodate them will also be needed: perhaps a concession on behalf of the uncompromising religious establishment. As of today, there are reasons to remain pessimistic about such prospects.

 

Thinking again about Israel and Palestine

Annexation does what?

Next Century Foundation Secretary General William Morris writes:

I was not so happy with my last podcast on Israel and Palestine. It was not respectful enough of the Mid East Peace Process issue – and though it covers all the bases in detail – it misses the point when it comes to the heart of the matter. This is perhaps more honest to the actual situation these two great nations living cheek by jowl now find themselves in:

To listen to William’s thoughts on the subject click here.

Analysis: Netanyahu and Gantz form unity government

The extraordinary developments in Israel continue. Some of us at the NCF have been astonished from the outset almost four weeks ago when the latest developments had their genesis. For those of you who are not up to speed the following has just come in from the Conservative Friends of Israel:

In an unexpected development on Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Gantz signed an agreement to form an emergency unity government, bringing to an apparent end a nearly year-and-a-half-long political stalemate.

A joint statement from Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud party said the agreement was to form a “national emergency government” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The coalition agreement will include a rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz as Prime Minister in 18 month periods, with the other as a deputy. Under the terms of the deal, Netanyahu will assume the position of Prime Minister first and later be replaced by Gantz in October 2021. Benny Gantz will initially serve as Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. It is the first time in 36 years that Israel will have a rotating Prime Minister.

The deal is expected to be signed formally after Israel’s Independence Day Yom Ha’atzmaut next week, after which the other right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc would sign on to it.

Gantz posted on Twitter shortly after the announcement: “We prevented fourth elections. We’ll safeguard democracy… We’ll fight the coronavirus and look out for all Israeli citizens. We have a national emergency government”.

Snap opinion polls suggest most of the Israeli public is pleased by the prospect of finally having a fully functioning government, but does not widely believe Netanyahu will actually go through with handing over the Prime Minister’s post to Gantz after 18 months of the coalition’s scheduled three-year lifespan.

The government will initially have 32 ministers, divided equally between the Netanyahu-led and Gantz-led blocs, and then increase to 36 ministers as soon as the coronavirus crisis is deemed to have ended, in what will be the largest cabinet by far in Israel’s history.

The Likud and its right-wing partners will receive the Finance, Health, Internal Security, Construction, Transportation and Education portfolios. Blue and White will receive the Defence, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Economy, Communications and Culture portfolios.

A major bone of contention has been the makeup and mechanics of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which installs judges. Netanyahu, who has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption, including bribery, demanded veto power over nominations. Under the agreement reached on Monday night, Likud ensured de facto right-wing veto power on the panel, with the appointment of Blue and White’s MK Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu. This was immediately condemned by Yesh Atid leader and former Gantz ally Yair Lapid.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn is expected to be the next Justice Minister, a decision welcomed by top officials in the justice system.

The Knesset speaker will be a member of the Likud for the whole duration of the government. Blue and White member Gabi Ashkenazi will serve as Foreign Minister for the first 18 months before being replaced by someone from Likud.

The final agreement conforms with most of Netanyahu’s demands, including on the annexation of parts of the West Bank, a process that it says can begin in July 2020. According to the agreement, the adoption of the Trump plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace will be carried out in coordination with the US.

Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (9 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats) have provisionally been given the ministries they requested, however they have not yet formally endorsed the new government and could yet prove to be an obstacle. Gantz has previously vowed to not concede to the Ultra-Orthodox and his previous association with Yair Lapid (an avowed secularist) is a cause for concern for the parties.

Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid and former ally of Benny Gantz, on Tuesday accused the Blue and White leader of perpetrating “the worst act of fraud in the history of this country” by joining forces with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lapid claimed that by abandoning his three-time election pledge to not sit in government with Netanayahu so long as he is under indictment, Gantz’s alliance would enable Netanyahu to evade investigation in several other potential scandals.

On Sunday, some 5,000 Israelis took part in a socially distanced protest in Tel Aviv over their condemnation of Netanyahu’s continuing rule.

 

 

 

Fourth elections loom as Israel’s coalition talks stall again

This comes in today from the Conservative Friends of Israel as Israel faces the worst political crisis in its history:

Negotiations between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chair Benny Gantz to build a governing coalition stalled again in recent days over reported differences on judicial appointments and legal guarantees for Netanyahu. Gantz’s mandate to form a government expired on Wednesday night after a two-day extension granted by President Reuven Rivlin. On Thursday, Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid proposed a six-month “political freeze” to prevent fourth elections as Israel battles the coronavirus pandemic. Gantz’s shock move to enter into talks with Netanyahu caused the centrist Blue and White party to split from former allies Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon. As of yesterday, the task of forming a government moved to the Knesset, where any MK can gain 61 signatures in a bid to seat a government. If after 21 days no parliamentarian is able to form a government then the Knesset will automatically dissolve ahead of the country’s fourth election in less than 18 months. Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams continued talks yesterday and today, with the goal, as a joint statement read, to reach an “agreement toward the establishment of a national unity government”. Israel has been led by a caretaker government since December 2018, when the 20th Knesset dissolved. Since then, three consecutive elections have so-far failed to yield a new government, marking Israel’s worst political crisis since its foundation.

 

Israel doesn’t really want Netanyahu?

The excellent “Peace Index” has just been sent to us from Israel. After a lot on the grip that the covid-19 plague is having on the country, there are two key and interesting other observations:

  1. Most of the general Israeli public support the proposed law to prevent those accused of criminal activity from serving as prime minister, and the proposal to limit the number of terms that a prime minister can serve to two.
  2. The possibility of a national unity government is the one preferred by most of the public, and that was before Ganz expressed willingness to join a unity government with Netanyahu.

For the full peace index report click on this link

 

Did Gantz turncoat to support Netanyahu?

Netanyahu rides again – with Benny’s help

The word is that Netanyahu of Israel has suspected coronavirus. But nothing stops Netanyahu. Such extraordinary news from Israel: In an astonishing betrayal of everything he once stood for, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is set to partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government, serving initially as Foreign Minister but then taking over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021. Gantz’s unexpected decision to join forces with Netanyahu obviously and immediately led to the collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s second in command Yair Lapid rejecting the move and at heading into opposition with others from his Yesh Atid component of Blue and White. Gantz says he’s doing it for the sake of the nation because of the coronavirus crisis. Who knows. Perhaps he is. For NCF Secretary General, William Morris’ take on the latest developments see the podcast on this link.

Blue and Whites Collapse as Gantz backs Netanyahu

The Conservative Friends of Israel have just sent us this extraordinary statement:

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is set to partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government, serving initially as Foreign Minister but then taking over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021, according to a reported deal taking shape this afternoon.

Reports say that Gantz’s unexpected decision to join forces with Netanyahu immediately led to the collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s second in command Yair Lapid rejecting the move and at heading into opposition with others from his Yesh Atid component of Blue and White.

Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections rather than see Blue and White partner Netanyahu in power.

The coalition is said likely to constitute 78-79 Knesset Members — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Labor, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — according to Channel 12. That would leave Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Ya’alon’s Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in opposition.

The unity deal was taking shape as the Knesset met to vote for a new speaker, following Likud speaker Yuli Edelstein’s resignation on Wednesday. Gantz offered himself as the sole candidate for the Knesset speaker’s job, which he is set to hold only for a brief period while the terms of the unity coalition are finalised.

He will then serve as Foreign Minister for the first 18 months of the emergency unity government, under the terms of the reported deal, before succeeding Netanyahu as Prime Minister.

Gantz was tasked by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin on 16th March with forming a government after 61 lawmakers backed him as prime minister, and given 28 days to do so.

 

Political crisis in Israel: COVID-19 and democracy

Israel’s third elections in a row have brought little fundamental political change, despite a slightly reinvigorated Likud: a Knesset majority for the right wing block, which seemed so close on election day, is now decisively out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reach. In the recent elections Israeli Arab voter turnout has increased significantly: the Joint List has obtained 15 seats in the Knesset. An interesting dynamic was the upsurge of the left-wing Jewish vote in favour of the Joint List, some deserting the Jewish left in a likely bid to protest anti-Arab demagoguery in Israel’s politics. Despite their increased turnout, the Arab Israelis are still, just like Russian-Israelis, ‘punching below their weight’ in proportion to their demographics. 

One of the main focuses of the repeated elections has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictments on the basis of breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud. Israel’s society remains largely split between the ‘only Bibi’ and ‘anyone but Bibi’ camps in a struggle around Prime Ministerial immunity. 

Just like the United Kingdom, Israel doesn’t have a Constitution: it relies on an ‘Uncodified Constitution’, made of a patchwork of Basic Laws and rights, not devoid of paradoxes. One of the most glaring ones is the fact that unlike a government minister, an indicted Prime Minister can remain in office until the verdict becomes final. Unless Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party manages to sideline Netanyahu, potentially by pushing a law through the Knesset that would prevent an indicted Knesset member from forming a government, Netanyahu will likely remain a strong and divisive presence in Israel’s politics. Benny Gantz was nominated by the President to form a government after getting the backing of a majority of Knesset members, yet as things stand today it is more unclear than ever who will come out on top. Various rumours during the week have insinuated that Gantz would be willing to join a unity government with Netanyahu, which Benny Gantz has actively denied. In a characteristic exchange of blows, Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu have accused each other of undermining democracy.

The situation was further complicated by the onset of the COVID-19 preventive measures. The rise in COVID-19 infections is allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to cast himself as a strong leader that the country needs in times of struggle. It would seem that the pandemic couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Prime Minister, since Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial was finally postponed until May, buying him more time. A government plan to use big data and digital surveillance to control the spread of COVID-19 has also raised concerns on the grounds of invasion of privacy. The High Court has however demanded that any such operation would have to take place under Knesset oversight, defusing some of the anxiety. 

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was also for now able to prevent the opposition from replacing the current Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who intended to block any opposition efforts to weaken Netanyahu’s hold on power. By resorting to ‘health concern’ measures, the speaker managed to shut down the Knesset until Monday the 23rd of March, which has sparked heated discussions on Israel’s social media. The influential liberal newspaper Haaretz has dubbed the crisis ‘Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup’ and deplored a situation where a minority is keeping a hold on power in spite of a majority that wants it to go.

If somehow Netanyahu manages to escape prosecution and cling on to power, his actions could potentially undermine Israel’s democracy.  This would likely materialise in Netanyahu’s ‘vendetta’ against the Supreme Court, which he accuses of a ‘leftist conspiracy’ despite having appointed the Attorney General himself.  

The crisis seems to have underlined multiple problems in Israel’s democracy, such as a crisis of government illustrated by repeated elections, a constitutional crisis allowing an indicted Prime Minister to stay in power, and significant strain on the system of checks and balances. One could argue that the situation was compounded by a gradual accumulation of power within the executive branch, and by the subservience of Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the legislative branch, to the Prime Minister’s will. 

Elections in Israel leave things as muddled as ever

To quote Peace Now, “Another election in Israel, another round of inconclusive results. While the parties struggle to form a coalition for a third time in a year”. The Conservative Friends of Israel have just sent us this statement:

As the results are now almost all in from Monday’s election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as having won the most Knesset seats, but his right-wing bloc fell short of an overall majority, leaving no clear winner and raising the prospect of a fourth election.

This week’s election was the country’s third in less than a year – unprecedented in Israeli history.

With over 99% of the votes counted, Likud won 36, Blue and White 33 seats, Joint (Arab) List 15 seats, Shas 9 seats, United Torah Judaism 7 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu 7 seats, Labour-Gesher-Meretz 7 seats, Yamina 6 seats.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties has a total of 58 seats, three short of the 61 majority needed to form a government. In a late night speech, Netanyahu called the results “a huge victory” and “massive achievement against all the odds”.

Defying coronavirus fears, turnout was an impressive 71%, the highest in 21 years.

A look at the breakdown of the total votes shows strong divisions between geographical areas, with some parts of the country giving a big lead to Likud and others strongly backing Blue and White. This polarisation can be clearly seen in the results for Tel Aviv (predominantly backing Blue and White) compared to Jerusalem, where Likud came first.

Significantly, the Joint (Arab) List won an historic 15 seats, due to a marked increase in support based on higher turnout in Arab communities and a possible surge in support from left wing Jewish Israelis. Leader Ayman Odeh hailed the “crazy achievement” and thanked Arab and Jewish voters.

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White have maintained they will not serve in a government led by Netanyahu due to his impending corruption trial commencing on 17th March. The Joint List and Labour-Gesher-Meretz also confirmed they would not join a Netanyahu government. Secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman continues to insist he will also not serve in a government with what he calls the “ultra-Orthodox-messianic bloc”. However, he also underlined he would do all he could to prevent a fourth election.

At this moment, the top priority of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is to find enough defectors from political parties outside the bloc to build a majority of 61 Knesset Members. For now, all suspected candidates appear to be staying loyal to their parties.

Among those considered to potentially defect include MKs Tzvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel of the centrist Blue and White, who have both worked for Netanyahu and are considered on the right of the party. Likud are thought to be targeting Blue and White’s Omer Yankelevich, as she has allegedly criticised Benny Gantz’s leadership. The leader of Gesher, Orly Levy-Abekasis is also seen as a prime target, but she dismissed the speculation today as “absurd”. Blue and White MK Meirav Cohen confirmed yesterday that she had been approached by Likud with an offer of the pensioners or welfare portfolio, and turned down the offer.

Meanwhile, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said that his party would seek legislation to bar Benjamin Netanyahu from serving as Prime Minister due to the upcoming corruption trial. Netanyahu accused his rival of seeking to undermine democracy: “Gantz lost and now he’s trying to steal the election… The people’s will is clear. The national Zionist camp includes 58 seats. The leftist Zionist camp includes 47 seats”. Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman said today that his party will back legislation barring Netanyahu from being Prime Minister.

Netanyahu, who will go on trial in two weeks for bribery, fraud and breach of trust is thought to be seeking support for a legislative mechanism to grant him immunity.

What happens next?

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has confirmed that he will begin consultations with party leaders next week to determine which candidate he will task with forming the next coalition government.

The candidate has 28 days to form a coalition but is able to request a 14-day extension from the President if negotiations are proving lengthy and challenging. If the candidate fails to win the support of at least 61/120 MKs in that time, the President can task another candidate with forming a coalition. The second candidate has 28 days to form a coalition, with no possibility of extension.

The next few days are set to be some of the most dramatic in Israel’s political history. Make sure to follow along with CFI on social media to keep up to date with the latest drama.

Who’s Who?

Among the main parties who will be in Israel’s next Knesset are:

Likud – Headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud stands for national and economic liberalism and has been the traditional home of the mainstream right-wing since the 1970s when it was founded by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. Likud have merged with the economically focused Kulanu Party post the April 2019 election.
March 2020: 36 seats September 2019: 31 seats April 2019: 35 seats Kulanu 4

Blue and White – Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz joined forces with Yair Lapid in February under a new centrist ticket named Blue & White. The centrist alliance has emerged as the principle challenger to Likud. Having previously decided on a rotation deal for Prime Minister should they win, Blue and White have dropped this policy in order to gain greater party support. Gantz will take the position of Prime Minister for a full 5-year term, should Blue and White succeed, and Lapid will serve as Foreign Minister.
March 2020: 33 seats September 2019: 33 seats  April 2019: 35 seats

Yamina (The Right Bloc) – A bloc of pro-settler and far-right parties running on a joint ticket; Jewish Home, The New Right and The National Union. Ayelet Shaked, former Justice Minister and popular among the secular-right who has taken over the leadership of the bloc. Voters were disappointed that 2 hours following September 2019’s final results were announced, the parties decided to split from their bloc. They have vowed this will not happen again.
March 2020: 6 seats September 2019: 7 seats April 2019: United Right 5 New Right 0

Labor-Meretz-Gesher (The Left Bloc) – Having varied success in different pairings in previous elections, the left bloc have decided to run on a joint ticket led by Labor leader Amir Peretz. Labor support pragmatic foreign affairs policies, social democratic economic policies and a two-state solution. Meretz led by Nitzan Horowitz is seen as the leftist party emphasising social justice, human rights, religious freedom, environmentalism. Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher Party is considerably smaller and less known primarily focusing on economic and  cost-of-living issues and aiming to reduce inequality.
March 2020: 7 seats September 2019: Labor Gesher 6 Meretz 5 seats April 2019: Labour 6 Gesher 0 Meretz 4

Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) – Led by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular nationalist party traditionally held a base for secular, Russian-speaking Israelis. Having been branded election seasons kingmaker, Lieberman’s unwillingness to sit with the Ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs or an indicted Prime Minister have labelled him the reason for Israel’s multitude of elections.
March 2020: 7 seats September 2019: 8 seats  April 2019: 5 seats

The Joint (Arab) List – Four-strong Arab alliance comprising of: Ta’al (Arab Renewal), Hadash (Jewish/Arab Communist), Ra’am (Islamist) and Balad (Arab-Palestinian nationalists). The Joint List ran together in 2015 but dissolved into Ta’al-Hadash and Ra’am-Balad pairings for the April elections receiving six and four seats respectively. To prevent falling below the threshold, the parties have reformed The Joint List led by Ayman Odeh and have been soaring in recent elections due to higher Arab-Israeli turnout.
March 2020: 15 seats September 2019: 13 seats  April 2019: 4/6seats

Shas – Led by Aryeh Deri, an ultra-Orthodox party which primarily represents the interests of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews. Since its founding 1984, Shas has always formed part of the governing coalition regardless of who the ruling party is.
March 2020: 9 seats September 2019: 9 seats  April 2019: 8 seats

United Torah Judaism – An alliance of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, two small Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties. The two parties have not always agreed with each other about policy matters; however, they have cooperated in order to win the maximum number of seats since 1992.
March 2020: 7 seats September 2019: 8 seats April 2019: 8 seats

 

 

 

What do Israelis Think of President Trump’s “Deal of the Century”?

The excellent “Peace Index” is back again but its name has now changed to the “Israeli Voice Index” which is perhaps of itself a sign of the times. In this incarnation it is now published by the Israel Democracy Institute rather than Tel Aviv University. The original can be accessed on this link.  Below, edited slightly for clarity, are their conclusions about the view of Israelis on the Trump Plan:

A Palestinian state – yes or no? Just before the full plan was published the Israeli Voice Index asked: “The peace plan that President Trump will soon present will apparently include recognition of a Palestinian state. In your opinion, should Israel agree to any plan that includes such recognition?” The rates who approve of such recognition in the context of the Trump plan among the Jews and the Arabs were very similar (45.5% and 44% respectively). The finding about the Jewish sample conforms to previous studies about support for the two-state idea. However, the rate of support among Arabs is much lower than in previous surveys. The reason is apparently the mention of President Trump in the body of the question, given the widespread perception that the U.S. president is not a fair arbitrator on the issue of the conflict and is biased toward the Israeli side.

Does the publication of the “deal of the century” constitute American interference in the Israeli elections?

Among the Arabs a clear majority (68%) sees the publication of the “deal of the century” as interference in the Israeli electoral process, while among the Jews slightly less than half (46%) view it that way. Israel is to have yet another general election in April.

Who would better manage negotiations with the Palestinians? If negotiations with the Palestinians were to begin, who, in the Israeli public’s opinion, would manage them better – Netanyahu? Gantz? Both equally well? In Israel’s public as a whole, the largest proportion (44.5%) think Netanyahu would be a better negotiator.

 

Is everything about Netanyahu?

The assassination of General Qassim Soleimani may or may not have been a risky strategy on the part of the US President intended to boost his chances in forthcoming US elections; however, it certainly distracted Iraqis from the anger they were feeling against Tehran’s perceived culpability for encouraging the shooting of young Shiite demonstrators in Iraq. And it also helps Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu strengthen his position in Israel. 

Regardless of Trump’s eloquent claim that Iran “was looking to blow up our [US] embassy”, there is no evidence to prove that was the case. Nor was the killing of Soleimani motivated by the need to retaliate for events directly preceding the strike – the demonstrations at the US embassy in Baghdad and the death of Iraq born American contractor Nawres Hamid in a rocket attack on 27 December 2019. Information shared with the Next Century Foundation makes it clear that the assassination was actually planned prior to 24th December.

Whether or not the US had any long-term interest in killing Soleimani, the Quds Force leader was certainly previously targeted for assassination by Israel’s forces at least once, in 2015. Prior to that Soleimani barely escaped an Israeli air-strike while in Lebanon in 2006. In any case Netanyahu considered him responsible for many of the actions of Iranian proxies taken against Israel in recent years. As leader of the Quds Force (the Iranian military presence outside Iran) Soleimani was said to be in charge of the missile strikes on Israel fired from Iranian positions in Syria in 2018. Even more importantly, Soleimani had enormous influence over Hezbollah (whose salaries are subsidised by Tehran) and was a powerful figure in Beirut. He is now publicly mourned by many Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon.

Netanyahu was one of a small number of Mid East political leaders informed in advance by the US about the plan for Soleimani’s assassination. Claims that Israel provided intelligence necessary to carry out the strike are less credible, and if they did so they have much to answer for since the US had such flawed intelligence that it knew nothing of the presence of key Iraq Militia Leader Mohandis in the kill zone. In any case, Israel had one of its arch-enemies effortlessly eliminated. Had Soleimani been assassinated by Israeli forces, it would have been dangerous for Israel, with direct retaliation from Hezbollah likely to take place. While Israel, as an American ally, might theoretically be targeted by Iran in revenge, the risk involved is now much lower. 

Even though, Iran has “concluded” its retaliation, the airstrikes on American bases in Iraq hardly seem to be an adequate response. Regardless of which, it is still possible that elements in Iraq have not finished their retaliation for the killing of Mohandis. But any such retaliation will be directed against the USA and will not target Israel.

There are those in Hezbollah who  – given the current economic and political crisis in Lebanon – would like the distraction of being engaged in a conflict with Israel or even a full-scale war. After all, in 2008 after the punishingly harsh (for both countries) 2006 Israel / Lebanon war, Hezbollah had just 2,000 rockets left – whereas currently Hezbollah has amassed a stockpile of some 40,000 missiles. However the humiliation Iran suffered in the international arena after mistakenly downing a Ukrainian civilian airplane, means that de-escalation is more likely to follow. 

All the recent developments shift the focus in Israel away from the indictments filed against Netanyahu. The assassination of Soleimani seems to be a confirmation that the PM was effective in forming an even more robust alliance with the US. A growing military threat at the hands of Tehran only strengthens the position of Netanyahu before the upcoming election. 

Trump’s assassination of Soleimani did not make the Middle East a safer place, but at least it allowed Bibi to change the topic of the public debate from an unfortunate one – his corruption charges – to what the PM deals with best: a potential war.