Israel's two tribes: which will Netanyahu choose?

Could the Israeli prime minister be tempted to turn away from the far right and look left? Unlikely but not impossible.

In his 2004 essay Contemplations on Peace, the left-wing Israeli novelist David Grossman said this about the "flare of identity" in Israel. "It reaches as far as the Green Line," he argued, but "no farther." Beyond, "the nature of the blaze changes: it either cools and melts away indifferently, alienated from what is occurring there, or becomes an exaggerated frenzy, among the settlers and the various messianic Jews."

Two tribes

The election campaign has proven Grossman’s assessment to be acute. For at its heart has been a radical disconnect between the tribe of the frenzy and the tribe of the indifference. The fateful choice facing Binyamin Netanyahu, the likely winner, on Wednesday morning will be which tribe he turns to when he forms his governing coalition.

Netanyahu could rule with those who feel the "exaggerated frenzy" on their pulses. A new annexationism is rising on the right and the story of the election so far has been the surge of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) and its leader Naftali Bennett. He proposes annexing ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, including all the settlements and their environs. On Bennett’s List is Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, who motivated annexation on religious grounds. Likud itself is not only running a joint list with Lieberman's hard-right Israel Beytanu, but saw its own party primaries oust secular nationalists Dan Meridor and Benny Begin (who did damage control in the last Knesset when it came to anti-democratic legislative proposals) and boost Moshe Feiglin - a man who ran the violently anti-Oslo Zu Artzeinu (‘This is Our Land’) and now proposes paying Palestinians half a million dollars to leave the West Bank.

Could Netanyahu be tempted to turn away from all that and look left? Unlikely but not impossible.  

According to the Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, as "the right has become the far-right" then Netanyahu is now "a discordant relative moderate" and "the closest thing the Likud has to a political dove." Most importantly – this being the hard-headed calculation that might yet make Netanyahu look left for his partners – he is "a constrained figurehead." And if he wants to escape that constraint, he knows the stats: 82 per cent of the electorate say that the answer to the budget deficit is to defund settlements, while 43 per cent say economic issues are the most important to them, and they are mostly left-wing and centrist voters.

Unlikely may be the choice, unstable may be the resulting coalition, but Netanyahu committed himself to two states at Bar Ilan University in 2010 and he could decide that the danger of a drift to bi-nationalism is too great, the price of international isolation too costly, and his own position to hemmed in, to form a coalition with the right. He could decide to look instead, or as well, to the centre-left parties – Shelly Yachimovich’s Labour, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua are likely to win 33-36 seats. He could decide to look ‘westwards’.

A coalition with the centre or centre-left parties, some of which now include leaders of the 2011 social protest movement, would include strains, to say the least. Of course on the peace process – Netanyahu has said he would not allow Livni to negotiate with the Palestinians. However, the real fights would be on the economy itself. 

Two economies

The Israeli economy offers a mixed picture: In 2010, Israel’s GDP was calculated at $220bn and, the USA aside, Israel has the largest number of start-up companies in the world, mostly in hi-tech. From 2009 to 2012, the Israeli economy grew by 14.7 per cent – that’s more than any other developed nation. The credit ratings agency, Savings and Poor, gave Israel an A+ rating in 2012 citing "consistent growth and careful macroeconomic management." The impact of an anticipated slowdown in 2013 is being offset somewhat by the expectation that Israel’s offshore gas finds will start to come on stream.

But the centre and centre-left parties would want to focus on widening social gaps, frayed public services, and the 20 per cent of the population that lives below the poverty line. Israel’s middle class feels like ‘frayers’ (Hebrew for ‘suckers’) – squeezed and neglected, increasingly angry about both the growing welfare stipend given to the ultra-Orthodox, and revolted by the ostentatious displays of wealth enjoyed by the super-rich. While the price of food in Israel is higher than in the UK, the median annual salary in Israel is around £12,000 compared to around £21,000 in the UK.

Amongst OECD countries, Israel ranks fifth out of 27 when it comes to income inequality. For a range of social, cultural and political reasons, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews are the poorest sectors of Israeli society.

The issue which angers middle class swing voters, and which is therefore the one of most relevance to the election outcome, is the concentration of ownership of the economy in the hands of a few super-rich families, with the lack of adequate competition driving up prices, whilst wages in many sectors, including the public sector, remain low. A 2011 report found "the average wage of an Israeli worker was NIS 8,741 (some $2,300), and the minimum wage for full-time work was NIS 4,100. In contrast, the CEOs of the 100 largest companies received an average of around NIS 540,000 per month, 62 times the average wage and 132 times the minimum wage."

Doing anything about that inequality is unlikely, as the most immediate challenge for any coalition will be passing a budget as the economy slows and the outlook is for regional and global uncertainty.

Netanyahu is a fiscal conservative and is expected to try and tighten belts. The Finance Ministry announced last week that Israel’s budget deficit for 2012 was more than double the government’s target. Public debt is 74 per cent of GDP. Pay raises awarded to public-sector workers during the Netanyahu government – many of whom were previously so poorly paid as to qualify as low-income workers – amount to NIS 15-16 billion. (Most achieved by a militantly social-democratic Israeli trade union movement.) The social protest movement, since adopted by Labour, would oppose swingeing cuts and call for expanding the public purse with income tax increases for higher earners and businesses.

Another economic issue any coalition will have to agree on is a policy on so-called ‘burden-sharing’, i.e. the failure of the Haredim to contribute a fair share to the economy. This is a central campaign issue in particular for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Ultra-Orthodox men are on the whole still not being drafted to the army, despite the law under which they were exempted having been made void by Israel’s Supreme Court, and continue to receive stipends to study in Yeshivot (religious seminaries). They are also not contributing in significant numbers to the work force. There was a 57 per cent growth in ultra-Orthodox elementary school enrolment between 2000 and 2010, yet their education, focused on religious study is simply not preparing students for the workforce.

The one socio-economic issue Netanyahu has made a clear stand on is the question of housing, the issue that triggered the social protest protests in 2011, when disgruntled tenant Daphni Leef pitched her famous tent in Rothschild Boulevard. Netanyahu committed to reforming the housing market and freeing up more land for construction at the beginning of his last term but house prices still rose steeply.

Interestingly, in the last few weeks Netanyahu has stated that he will keep the housing ministry in the hands of his own party, and not allow the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to keep control of it. Shas has been criticised for skewing housing assistance to its own constituents, the Haredim. Netanyahu’s commitment to wrestle the housing ministry away from Shas has sparked a harsh war of words between the parties. Could that be a glimpse of a dynamic that might yet produce a political realignment?

The editor of the Times of Israel has issued a "storm warning". "It’s the one in which an obdurate, sometimes insensitive right-wing Israeli leadership smashes into a confident, frequently wrong-headed and far more powerful American administration." He sees a long-shot alternative: "Perhaps if Lapid and Shelly and Tzipi (or two out of three) go in, they can replace the far-right and the ultra-orthodox partners."

Perhaps. But prepare for rain.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on January 20, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood