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).

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“I will kill myself”: the gay Syrian refugee couple who could be deported from the UK

An EU law means the Home Office could decide to force the couple to leave Britain.

“We haven't any hope this war in Syria will finish. So now we are looking to another country. We're looking to another country to protect us. We haven't got a country anymore.”

Ahmed is a 29-year-old architecture student. In 2013, with a year left of his degree, the Syrian war intensified and he was forced to flee Damascus. He began the arduous journey across Europe with his boyfriend, Said*, hoping to claim refuge in the UK and finish his studies. When they arrived in London last December, he thought the traumatic 4,500km trek across the continent was over. Instead the UK Home Office is threatening the couple with deportation.

When Ahmed left Syria and headed for Istanbul he took nothing with him, hoping his stay would be temporary and that the war would soon end. It was there that he met his boyfriend Said, who, like Ahmed, had left everything behind and joined the city’s estimated 366,000 asylum seekers. They spent two difficult years in Istanbul; neither spoke Turkish, paying for rent and food was a struggle, work was hard to come by and poorly paid. Their relationship was kept strictly secret for fear of any repercussions from those they stayed with. All the while they prayed the situation back home would alleviate and allow for their return.

During his time in Istanbul he received a call from his mother; one of his brothers had been killed in the war. Details of his brother’s death were sparse, with his mother worried about the phone call being tapped, but Ahmed understands that he died trying to protect the district after the Assad regime’s military invaded. Along with one other brother, Ahmed’s mother is all that remains of his family in Syria, with his siblings scattered across Europe and the Middle East. Any lingering optimism of one day returning home, of the war dissipating, faded. With nothing left to keep them in Istanbul and the situation fast becoming untenable, Ahmed and Said decided to move on.

“We stayed together, we supported each other and that made life easier for us,” says Ahmed. “So we decided to not live in Istanbul. There was no chance to stay there. I made a deal with someone to go by boat. We paid money for that, about one thousand dollars. It was so scary to do it. We hadn't any other choice.”

They made their journey across the Aegean Sea with 30 other refugees. Arriving safely ashore, they spent two days in Greece before moving north on foot towards Hungary. They waited at the now closed Hungarian border for two days, uncertain of their next move, until hearing rumours that the Croatian border had been opened.

“We went to Croatia and they [Croatian officials] took us from the border and they put us in a place like a prison,” Ahmed recalls. “It was so bad. We didn't know what happened. We didn't know anything. They took us in a van. It was like a small building with a big campus and it was like there was a big wall around. And cameras everywhere.”

Ahmed estimates that around 500 other refugees were detained at the compound while he was there. During their 48 hour incarceration, they slept outside, were fed three meals a day (usually a bread roll and tuna) and kept completely ignorant about what was to happen to them and why they were there. Eventually officials forced them to register their finger prints and took them to the northern border.

“We refused to do our fingerprints but they said they would not let us go, unless we give our fingerprints,” he says. “They took us from border to border in a van. We have the worst memories there. We didn't know where we were going. We were like animals.”

Passing through Austria, Germany and France, they eventually came to Calais. After spending some time living in the infamous jungle camp, they snuck on to a lorry, crossed the channel and arrived in London. After spending a few nights at his ex-boyfriend’s place, a French-Syrian national and the only person Ahmed knew in the UK, the couple went to the Home Office to file for asylum.

But when they arrived, officials refused to see them. Despite their desperate situation, they were told that they didn’t have an appointment and had to come back in ten days. Instead, they returned two days later, this time assisted by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group (UKLGIG), who were concerned that the Home Office was illegally turning people away.

“We went to the Home Office to observe as we were very concerned that they didn't have anywhere to live,” says Paul Dillane, executive director of UKLGIG. “If you're destitute you're allowed to turn up immediately, without an appointment, because what else are you supposed to do? We said to the Home Office if they don't get accommodation today I have to pay for a hotel and we don't have the money for that.”

After arriving at 8am, Ahmed and Said were interviewed by six interrogators, as they tried to establish whether to even register their claim to asylum.  “I didn't expect anything from the Home Office, I just wanted to be legal here,” says Ahmed. “I didn't want financial support. I want to go to university. That's it. If I go to another country where they don't speak English it is difficult for me to finish and start university again.”

Eventually, at 6pm, the Home Office agreed to register them and find them accommodation, albeit temporarily. Ahmed and Said are now living in a small studio apartment in Rochdale. It’s the first time since leaving Syria they have had anything resembling a home, the first time in their lives they have felt able to live openly as a gay couple. Such respite may prove short-lived.

Because Ahmed and his boyfriend first entered Europe through Greece, according to an EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) it’s Greece that should take responsibility for their claim. But as the situation in Greece is now a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 2,000 arriving every day, the UK government no longer deports asylum seekers there. It’s of little consolation to Ahmed. Having heard nothing for weeks, he received a letter summoning him to the Home Office; according to his lawyer, the Home Office is making plans to transfer the couple back to Croatia.

“Even if legally it's possible, the question is: is it the right thing for the government to do?” asks Dillane. “600,000 refugees have gone through Croatia to Germany, and Croatia is struggling to cope. Not to mention only three gay asylum seekers have ever successfully claimed asylum there.”

If Ahmed and his boyfriend are deported back to Croatia there is no guarantee they will be granted asylum. Just three LGBT refugees have been successful in their applications to Croatia, and with more refugees entering the country every day the country’s asylum network is coming under increasing pressure.

Last September, David Cameron announced that the UK would resettle 20,000 asylum seekers by 2020 and that LGBTI refugees would be included in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme. Despite this, Ahmed and Said could still face deportation.

“David Cameron has said he's very worried about the treatment of gay men in Syria because so many of them have been killed by ISIS, by Dhaesh, and so Britain is going to take gay men from Jordan and Lebanon and bring them here,” says Dillane. “The Prime Minister used LGBT Syrians as justification for air strikes. And this week he has been saying countries need to step up, give more, do more. Yet here are two people you're offloading onto a country that can barely cope. How do those two things fit together?”

Today Ahmed will meet with the Home Office to hear the decision. As far as he and his lawyer are aware, the outcome has yet to be decided; the Home Office could concede and accept their claim to asylum, it could simply decide to postpone any decision to a later date. Ahmed’s fear though is he will be immediately detained and deported to Croatia. Having come this far, losing everything and risking more, it’s a fate he refuses to accept.

“We can't go back. I will not go back,” he says. “I’ve decided if they take me to Croatia I will do anything. I will kill myself. I lost everything. I came here and I lost everything. If they would force me to go to Croatia I don't have anything to lose. It will be the end. To stay here . . . will be a life for us. It will not just be asylum, it will be more than that. It will be a real life. We haven't a life anymore. We haven't a lot of choices. We haven't any choices.”

*name changed to protect anonymity as Said’s family do not know that he is gay.