The Israel We Do Not Know

Being something of an exception in the Middle East, the Israeli elections are often great fun and full of surprises. This time we saw the emergence of politician Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party that has won the admiration even of its political rivals after gaining 19 seats in the Israeli Knesset. Lapid is a TV presenter and a news anchor who decided only a few months ago to enter politics, competing with and even embarrassing senior politicians such as Tzipi Livni and Avigdor Lieberman, and forcing Benjamin Netanyahu to ride on the back of coalitions in order to remain as prime minister. Lapid, a moderate political leader who we will hear more of in the future, is primarily concerned with developing education and achieving social equality. His liberal concepts are completely alien to the Jewish clergy and a source of ridicule among the far right.

Another interesting observation from these elections is that the majority of rival parties’ platforms emphasized improving the internal situation, including living standards, health and education, as well as achieving greater social justice. Political parties were largely indifferent towards foreign policies such as the Iranian nuclear issue and the two-state solution with Palestine; they were more inclined towards internal affairs. We saw this previously with the recent US elections when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tried to portray the US as a small family home where the owner only wished to support its inhabitants and ensure that they were warm and well fed. It seems Hamas was right when it said that the results of the Israeli elections were a reflection of the recent battle in Gaza. This is true because the existing truce there has achieved a degree of safety that has enabled Israeli political parties to focus on their country’s internal situation.

It is sad to say that Israel—the invasive, oppressive, occupying state—lives amongst us but we still do not know it.

It seems that the Arab street’s awareness of Israel came to a virtual standstill in October 1973. The Arabs may only remember the Camp David agreement because it surfaced recently in Egypt after the ruling regime changed there. What I mean by the Arab street is the youth category-which makes up the backbone of any country-rather than the intellectual or political elite that is engrossed in reading books, issuing condemning statements, and making notes of Israeli aggression over the past sixty years. Young Arab generations lack awareness about Israel; a country that is now totally different to how it was in 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973. This is not because it has transformed into a friendly state, for it is still considered our bitter enemy that continues to occupy Palestinian soil. What has changed in Israel, like any other state, is that now there is an emerging generation that harbors dreams and expectations different to those cherished by a leader like Netanyahu. Young Israelis have their own vision that is detached from military life and is inclined towards civil interests, a love for life, and decent living standards.

What Arab youths do not know is that in Israel there is a strong sector that opposes the state’s supremacist policies towards the Palestinian people in particular, and the Arabs in general. These youths are not only leftists; there are also centrist civil servants and university graduates who strongly believe that Israel’s stability is conditional upon its coexistence with the Arabs.

However, it is ridiculous to read political analysis comparing these Israeli youths with the Arab youths that revolted in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, in the sense that those Israelis took to streets against Netanyahu last year to demand social justice in the same manner that the Arab Spring revolutionaries also took to streets to demonstrate. This is untrue because the youths in the Arab Spring states were rising up against ruling regimes that were light years away from their citizens. The rulers of these states stayed in their palaces and were unable to hear their people or sense their needs. Here, people became outraged because of their needs and their leader’s negligence or arrogance, and whenever they sought to make their voice heard in the elections, these same leaders would return the next day and declare their victory with an overwhelming majority. In Israel, this situation does not exist; the regime in Tel Aviv is truly democratic and the rungs on the power ladder are fixed. What the demonstrators in Israel are demanding is an improvement in living standards; they are not starting from scratch as in the Arab Spring states. In these states there was no democratic political climate prior to the revolutions, and in fact we are still waiting for such a climate to emerge amidst the security, economic, and political failures that we see every day.

In Israel, politicians are distinguished by their sincerity and devotion to the higher interests of the state, rather than their affiliation to a certain group, and this is something we have yet to see in the Arab Spring.

The Arab youths turned to poets with their cheap words, and to politicians who heap insults upon Israel from their luxurious hotel rooms. However, they are still unaware as to where, why and how these feelings of hatred towards Israel came about.

A simple means of demonstrating our ignorance of Israel can be found in the fact that its neighboring states are ignorant of the Hebrew language. In Lebanon and Syria, people prefer to study French rather than the language of a country that continues to jeopardize their own security every day. In Egypt and Jordan, people do not prioritize of publicize the study of the Hebrew language, while in Israeli educational institutions there is ample opportunity to study the Arabic language. It is for this reason that we find a considerable number of Israeli politicians and media representatives who speak Arabic fluently. I do not know many Arab foreign ministers in Israel’s neighboring states that can speak Hebrew. As for those who say that the Israelis speak Arabic because the language is more common than Hebrew, or because the Israelis have intruded on our region, this justification is irrelevant. The reason why Israel enjoys superiority over the Arabs is because it has sought to understand them through their language; it can gauge the thinking of the young and old. Israel is well aware of the Arabs’ strengths as well as their weaknesses, and it can understand them simply because it has immersed itself in their culture.

Therefore, it is no wonder that we hear youths in Tel Aviv listening to Umm Kulthum songs, eating hummus and considering the television series ‘Rafat El-Haggan’ to be a comedy. The Israelis are not only occupying our soil, but they also highly active in our culture, which is the real cause for their power.

Analysis: Israeli Election Results Opens New Horizons for Peace Process

In this Dec. 16, 2012 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office. (AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool, File)
In this Dec. 16, 2012 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office. (AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool, File)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—One thing that the Israeli election results for the 19th Knesset confirms is that the policy of a new coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be completely different than that of his previous government, including on the domestic front. This also opens the door to the peace process and negotiations with the Palestinians during Netanyahu’s second term in office, whereas this issue had been a non-starter during his first term.

The results of the general elections for the 19th Knesset were unexpected and not in the favor of Netanyahu and his allies, namely the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) alliance and his foreign and deputy prime minister and Avigdor Lieberman. The Israeli electorate expressed, although not overwhelmingly, its dissatisfaction with the policies of this government over the past 4 years. These elections saw this bloc’s power being eroded from 42 Knesset seats to just 31 seats. Despite this, it remains the largest parliamentary bloc. In addition to this, Israel’s right-wing forces were also weakened from 67 seats to 61 seats.

Although this small majority grants Netanyahu the right to form a right-wing government that opposes the peace process with the Palestinians, this would not be the government that Netanyahu and his allies-who moved up the election by 10 months-had hoped to form. They had expected to win in a landslide as indicated by opinion polls at the time, and then use this new mandate to confront any pressure from abroad, including the expected pressure from US President Barack Obama in his second and final term in office.

Netanyahu already appears to be in the process of working to form a coalition government, contacting various parties with the objective of forming a strong coalition despite the fact that he has yet to be officially tasked to do so by President Shimon Peres. A coalition of right-wing parties is unlikely; particularly as such a coalition would be weak and could be toppled at the first crisis. This would also increase Israel’s international isolation and even result in economic sanctions. It is almost certain that Netanyahu-known for his political opportunism and for being more concerned about his personal ambitions than the national interest-will completely discount this scenario. This is because everybody predicts that a government coalition such as this will not remain in power for long and the Israeli electorate will ultimately return to the ballot boxes, while the results of a subsequent election are completely unknown. Therefore Netanyahu’s first call following the announcement of the election results was to Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which came in second place winning 19 Knesset seats, surpassing the Labor party which won 15 seats.

This opens the door to the second scenario for a coalition government which is far more realistic. This would see the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance being joined by the three centrist parties, namely Yesh Atid, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (The Movement) party (6 seats), and the Kadima party led by Shaul Mofaz (2 seats), perhaps in addition to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party (11 seats). This government would rely on a stable parliamentary base of 69 Knesset members. While the three centrist parties-Yesh Atid, Hatnuah and Kadima-would place the peace process as a prerequisite to joining any government coalition. In fact, the Yesh Atid party views the peace process as one of the four red-lines for joining any government coalition. This also includes relations with the US, which have deteriorated during the previous years of Netanyahu’s government. Following the Israeli elections, the US was the first to call for Israel-following a long absence-to work to initiate the peace process and resume negotiations. This was viewed as foreign interference in Israeli politics and the government formation process.

This scenario is a possibility because Netanyahu did not just contact Lapid, but personally met with him and reportedly made him a lucrative offer. This was the same deal that Netanyahu offered Lieberman when forming the previous government, namely the position of foreign and deputy prime minister. While reports indicate that Netanyahu may also have offered Lapid the post of finance minister.

As for the third scenario, this would see a coalition base of 70 Knesset members, which is also a strong possibility.

This coalition government would make domestic issues their priority, placing the peace process on the back-burner. This would be a coalition made up of the left-wing and centrist parties, in addition to the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, known as the party of the settlers. However such a coalition would not include the ultra-religious parties such as the Shas and the United Torah Judaism party (7 seats) owing to a disagreement over the demands of Yesh Atid. The Yesh Atid party wants to enact a universal draft law, making it compulsory for Jewish and Arab Israel youth-regardless of religious affiliation-to carry out military or civil service.

There are many possibilities, however what is certain is that the situation in Israel has changed, although the decision remains in Netanyahu’s hands.