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
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism