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
LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times