How Israel's left is missing the point

A discriminatory law which bans Palestinians from joining spouses within Israel was extended without

While Israeli PM Netanyahu's coalition seems steady, recent events like the response to the new anti-boycott law, the march for Palestinian independence, and the housing protests have some claiming a resurgent "peace camp". Yet the rhetoric by Israel's "left" has merely highlighted how much remains to be done to realise equality and basic Palestinian rights.

When the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law earlier this month, there was a huge outcry. Long-time activist Uri Avnery declared that the anti-boycott law "crosses the boundary between a democratic and a non- democratic society". The New York Times published an editorial saying that the legislation "seriously tarnished" Israel's "reputation as a vibrant democracy".

Days later, Israel's cabinet voted to extend another piece of legislation. The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law bans Palestinians from the Occupied Territories from living with their spouses in Israel (for West Bank residents it depends on the individual's age). First passed as a "temporary" measure in 2003, it has been periodically renewed ever since. In 2006, the ('liberal') Israeli Supreme Court ruled against a legal challenge to the law.

As B'Tselem puts it, "the statute severely impairs the family life of tens of thousands of persons". To put it simply, this law prevents Palestinian families living together. That's why the EU Ambassador to Israel has previously slammed the legislation as "establishing a discriminatory regime to the detriment of Palestinians in the highly sensitive area of family rights".

Officially, the Israeli government justifies the law on the grounds of security, pointing to terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinians who had entered Israel through family unification. But as a rationale for such a general prohibition this is inadequate: Israel's security services, after all, are able to approve entry for thousands of Palestinian workers.

In reality, says B'Tselem, the security argument is "baseless" and intended to "cover-up the real reason" for the law: trying to stop "the further increase of the Arab population in Israel in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state". In the words of then-minister without portfolio Gideon Ezra: "the state of Israel is not prepared to accept a creeping right of return; no one wants our state to cease to be a Jewish state". In 2005, the then-PM Ariel Sharon admitted: "There is no need to hide behind security arguments. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state".

Where is the outrage over a law that was greeted by the right-wing news site Israel National News with the headline: "Cabinet Extends Measure Preventing 'Invasion by Marriage'"? Why, for Avnery and others, is the anti-boycott law -- and not the legally-sanctioned separation of Palestinian spouses -- the final straw? The key difference seems to be that the former will affect Jewish Israelis.

The ban on family unification is just one example, of course -- Israel's "vibrant democracy'"has long meant something rather different for Palestinians. But its renewal at the same time as the anti-boycott law dominated the headlines highlights the problematic politics of a mainstream Israeli left that seems more invigorated by a perceived urgency to "save Zionism" (i.e. through two-state ethnic separation) than by a fight against colonial occupation.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Israel/Palestine.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.