The Israeli Election Campaign Avoids the Issues

by Joel Beinin | published January 14, 2003

In the early stages of the campaign for the Israeli Knesset elections due to be held on January 28, there were no armed attacks by Palestinians on Israelis. During the same six weeks, Israeli forces shot dead some 75 Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This is what passes for a period of "calm" in Israeli parlance.

However, any Israeli illusions that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies had succeeded in bringing about an end to armed Palestinian resistance to occupation were shattered on December 28 when gunmen belonging to Islamic Jihad killed four people at the yeshiva (religious seminary) of Otniel as they awaited a Sabbath dinner. Otniel, located in the Hebron hills in the southern West Bank, is home to some of the more ideologically extremist settlers and has been encroaching on the land of neighboring Palestinian villages over the last two years. A week later, two suicide bombers of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade killed 23 and wounded about 120 people—a high proportion of them foreign migrant workers—in attacks near Tel Aviv's old central bus station.

Another marker of the election campaign was the Bank of Israel's announcement that 2002 was the worst year for the Israeli economy since 1953. Projections for 2003 are no better. The national unemployment rate is now running at over ten percent. In some "development towns"—largely populated by Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) and more recently Russian Jews—and in Palestinian-Israeli municipalities the rate is closer to 20 percent. The local factors causing the collapse of the Israeli economy are the sharply increased cost of defending the settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of foreign investment following the breakdown of the Oslo process at the end of 2000. The global context is the bursting of Silicon Valley dot-com bubble, to which many Israeli high-tech firms were linked.

Neither security nor the economy—the two most vital issues for the future of the country—has been a major topic of discussion in the Knesset election campaign. Instead, the Israeli media and the buzz on the street have been almost entirely devoted to the growing number of scandals involving Sharon's Likud Party.

Vote-Buying Imbroglio

The first reported wrongdoing concerned the selection of the Likud's Knesset list. Israel has returned to its original electoral system, whereby each party presents a list of 120 members as candidates for the Knesset. Voters select a party in a single-constituency election; each party whose votes exceed a minimum threshold of 1.5 percent of the total electorate is awarded a number of parliamentary seats proportional to its percentage of the vote. If a party gets ten percent of the vote, for example, then the top 12 members of its list enter the Knesset. Hence the order of candidate placement on the list is crucial. If a party expects to win about 40 seats, as the Likud did at the start of the campaign, a candidate who is number 50 on its list does not have a "realistic" chance of being elected.

The Likud's Knesset list is selected by a series of votes of the 2,940 members of its Central Committee. In the weeks before the committee met on December 8, influential members, known as "vote contractors," offered to deliver the votes of dozens of other Central Committee members to secure "realistic" places on the Knesset list for candidates, in exchange for sums reported to be between $200 and $300. On the day of the Central Committee meeting, "vote contractors" working for various aspirants to the Knesset were seen distributing wads of cash to Central Committee members to guarantee the selection of their candidates to the desired place on the Knesset list.

Michael Elnekaveh, a newly elected member of the Central Committee and an associate of Sharon's son, Omri, rented 15 rooms for Likud activists at the posh Sheraton City Tower Hotel in Ramat Gan on the eve of the Central Committee meeting. Elnekaveh's guests apparently worked out an arrangement concerning which Knesset aspirants to back. One of them was Omri Sharon, who won the twenty-seventh place on the Likud's list. His opponent for this slot, designated for a resident of the Negev in southern Israel, was Nahman Shechter. Shechter told the police that Likud activists approached him for bribes as high as $12,500 to secure a place on the list, but he declined to pay up. Among those caught up in this scandal is the former Deputy Minister of Infrastructure, Naomi Blumenthal. Sharon dismissed Blumenthal after she invoked her right to remain silent during a police investigation of the matter.

Such activity might be considered normal, Chicago-style, political corruption. The Likud—and, to a certain extent, most other Israeli political parties—have engaged in such vices for many years. The innovation in the 2003 campaign is that elements linked to Israeli organized crime were able to buy a "realistic" place on the Likud Knesset list and to influence the Central Committee's selection process. Number 28 on the Likud list is Inbal Gavrieli, 27, who was working as a waitress until weeks before the Central Committee meeting. She has no political experience or higher education. Gavrieli's Likud-activist family has been questioned frequently by police in connection with its gambling interests. Press reports quoted her father as saying "let the girl run" as a family representative.

As a result of these machinations, well-known Likud figures like Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert (no. 33) and Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin (no. 37) received places below relative neophytes on the Knesset list. Public disgust over the vote-buying imbroglio hurt the Likud in opinion polls, reducing the number of Knesset seats the party could expect to win from 41 to 31. During this wave of revelations, Ariel Sharon himself, despite suspicions about the involvement of his son Omri, remained relatively untouched. His dismissal of Naomi Blumenthal preserved his image of propriety. Several of Blumenthal's supporters described her as a scapegoat, however, whetting journalists' appetite for investigating additional scandals.

Sharon, Persecuted Outsider

The prime minister's position deteriorated dramatically after January 7, when the liberal daily Ha'aretz published charges that Sharon had received $1.5 million in illegal campaign contributions, from an American company called Annex Research, during his race for the party leadership in 1999. The paper's inquiry further identified Cyril Kern, a South African businessman and long-time family friend, as the source of a $1.5 million loan used by Sharon to repay the contribution. Israeli law prohibits foreign donations to politicians. Sharon declared that he was unaware of the source of the money and that he thought that it came from a mortgage on his ranch arranged by his two sons. Reverting to the Likud's traditional self-image as persecuted outsider, on January 9 Sharon called a press conference to denounce the Labor Party, the media and other "enemies" of the Likud. About ten minutes into the broadcast, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Judge Mishael Cheshin, ordered the broadcast halted on grounds that it violated the rules for election campaigning.

Sharon and the Likud are apparently recovering from the severe blow to their standing inflicted by the latest incident. Polls published in the Hebrew press on January 13, which should be taken with a grain of salt, suggest that the Likud will win 32 or 33 Knesset seats, up from 27 to 30 in the immediate aftermath of the campaign donation allegations. The same polls, however, show that less than a third of Israelis believe Sharon's story about the mortgage on the ranch.

The Labor Party, Likud's main traditional rival, has benefited only marginally, increasing its projected strength from 21 to 24 seats. So far the main beneficiary of the Likud's woes is the Shinui Party, led by the demagogic and racist former journalist, Tommy Lapid. Shinui is now projected to win 17 seats. Lapid's campaign has focused on eliminating the Jewish ultra-Orthodox influence from Israeli political life. Polls indicate that the size of the ultra-Orthodox bloc in the next Knesset will shrink from 27 to 20 members. Lapid is also adamantly anti-Mizrahi and anti-Arab, while his economic positions are drawn from hard-core neo-liberalism. The attraction of Shinui, aside from its militant secularism, is that it is an anti-party. Refusing to identify with the either of the major Israeli political traditions, it represents the hope of elements of the Ashkenazi (European Jewish) middle class for something "different" without defining clearly what that might be.

Circumscribed Debate

The scandals surrounding the Likud are but one aspect of the general degeneration of Israeli political culture on display in the 2003 electoral season. Public and media preoccupation with political corruption during a critical election for the future of Israel and the Palestinians reflects the incapacity of most Israeli Jews to come to grips with the real problem facing them: the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and its economic and social costs. Amid the ongoing uproar over Cyril Kern, the fact that one Likud member likely to enter the Knesset is a former senior Security Service officer who killed a handcuffed Palestinian prisoner by bashing his head in with a rock has aroused little comment or protest. According to recent polls, most Israelis believe that neither Ariel Sharon nor Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna have solutions to the political or economic problems facing Israel. Focusing on corruption and scandal effectively avoids the main issues and keeps political debate within the boundaries of the Israeli Jewish community. Palestinian Israeli citizens are marginal to the discussion, as only a small number of them would consider voting for the Likud under any circumstances.

The Central Election Commission explicitly tried to exclude Palestinian citizens from the political process by disqualifying Azmi Bishara and his National Democratic Alliance from running for the Knesset. Bishara, whose party advocates for cultural autonomy and civil rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, is a vocal critic of Israel's self-definition as a "Jewish and democratic" state. He advocates the position that Israel should be a "state of all its citizens." In January 2002, Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein filed still unresolved charges of endangering national security against Bishara, because of visits to Syria during which he allegedly incited Arabs to violence against Israel.

The commission similarly voted to disqualify Ahmad Tibi, who is known for his close ties to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. Tibi is number three on the list of the left-wing, Arab-Jewish Hadash list—a coalition led by the Communist Party. The Israeli Supreme Court overturned these decisions. But the prevailing winds of Israeli politics send a clear signal: Arab citizens who ask whether a "Jewish state" can be democratic are not a legitimate part of the Israeli political process.

Viable Solutions Not On Offer

Exclusion of Palestinian non-citizens, or "separation" as it is politely termed, is the basis of Amram Mitzna's political orientation. The Haifa mayor has made bold statements about a unilateral Israeli evacuation from Gaza and the more remote settlements in the West Bank. These statements may actually have cost Mitzna some votes among traditional Labor Party supporters who favor a more hard-line approach to the Palestinians. But he has popular support for his position in favor of constructing a gigantic wall-and-fence complex separating Israel from the West Bank. Mitzna and much of what passes for dovish sentiment in Israel (aside from a small number of Jews and Arabs with an internationalist outlook) hold that the solution to the conflict with the Palestinians is, as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak used to say, "Us here, them there."

Such a vision is based on racist premises and is, in any case, not viable. Even if a Palestinian state were to be established on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a stable peace with even a modicum of justice would require cooperative economic and social relations with Israel, including access by citizens of the Palestinian state to the Israeli labor market and to their families living in Israel. Whatever the political arrangements may be, the futures of both Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably linked—for better or for worse. Whoever does not recognize this has no solution to the conflict.

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