Has Israel shifted further to the right?

The latest election results analysed.

Billed as Israel’s decisive shift to the right, the election to the nineteenth Knesset merely represents treading-water. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises the same as before on security, the peace process and economy. But the shifting sands of Israeli electoral politics always throw up interesting, maybe significant, trends.

On the traditional right Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisreal Beiteinu ran a joint list seeking to capitalise on their close co-operation in government. However, as is often the case in electoral politics, the union proved to less than the sum of its two parts, loosing eleven seats overall to fall to 31 MKs in the 120-seat Knesset.

Part of Likud-Beiteinu’s problem may have been getting outflanked in their rhetoric by ultra-nationalist Jewish Home. Originally the most pragmatic of the religious parties, the National Religious Party, since becoming Jewish Home they have taken more strident positions, being part of the extreme-right National Union list in the 2006 election and for 2013 reversing this by incorporating most of the National Union. However, even with charismatic leader Naftali Bennett their campaign only brought three more seats, twelve in total, than their previous alliance did in 2006. Absent from Jewish Home was (now former) MK Michael Ben-Arfi, who was elected third on the National Union list in 2009 and was previously a member of the banned Kach party – a group originally founded by the racist Meir Kahane. Ben-Arfi stood with a new party, Otzma Le Yisrael, only just falling short of the two per cent threshold for entering parliament.

It was in the centre where arguably more happened. The now crowded centre-ground will see three parties represented. Most sensational is TV presenter Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or There is a Future Party. It seems that Netanyahu will need Yesh Atid’s support, but on what terms? Coming second with 19 seats Lapid’s party forcefully represents the interests and economic concerns of Israel’s secular middle-class. After widespread support for the social justice protests in 2011 this is an important constituency but is Yesh Atid a one-man band? Lapid notably eschewed joining Labour and existing centrist party Kadima, which had been founded by the still comatose Ariel Sharon as almost his final act in 2005. Or is Yesh Atid a one-hit wonder? Centrist parties such as Dash in 1977 and Shinui in 2003 have stormed into the Knesset in large-ish numbers only to disappear at the next election. Shinui even included Lapid’s father Tommy.

The fate of Kadima could also be illustrative, combining pragmatists from Likud and Labour they were the largest party in the 2006 and 2009 elections but split after failing to form a government in 2009. Former leader Tzipi Livni formed another new party Hatnuah, which gained six seats and the rump Kadima crashed down to two at this election. The centre is vibrant and has specific demands, notably on the economy and secularism, but how this will be represented in future is probably still up for grabs.

Labour were third with 15 seats, up two from 2009 – or up seven from 2011 when Ehud Barak and his supporters left the party to continue his support of Netanyahu’s government. For the party that for many encapsulates the foundation of Israel as a functioning democracy in the Middle East (note to Egypt you need to show you can protect civic and press freedoms and hold subsequent elections become you can call yourself a functioning democracy) it has been a long fall. Never below 40 seats throughout the 1950s and 1960s, they last had a plurality of seats in 1999 and last achieved over 40 in 1992. It remains to be seen whether leader and former political journalist Shelly Yachimovich can further rebuild the party. Indeed fellow social democrats Meretz arguably benefitted more from the 2011 social justice protests doubling their seats from three to six.

For the Ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism it was largely as you were, 18 seats between them, up from 16. It remains to be seen if Netanyahu can cobble together parliamentary support from both the Ultra-Orthodox and the secular centre. Similarly the Arab parties were largely unchanged – left-leaning Balad remained on three and the more Islamist United Arab List-Ta’al gained one seat to win four. And the Communists keep a toe-hold in parliament through Hadash a cross-community grouping whose unchanged representation consists of three Israeli-Arabs and one secular Jewish-Israeli.

Far from its pre-election billing, the tectonic shift to the right was actually in 1977, the first election when Likud took more seats than Labour, in 2013 it is too soon to tell whether there was a shift further right, to the centre or even the start of a rebirth on the left.

Benjamin Netanyahu heads the first weekly Cabinet meeting since the election. Photograph: Getty Images
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".