The 20th Knesset — parliament of a splintered, tribal Israel
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The 20th Knesset — parliament of a splintered, tribal Israel

Two weeks after the elections, a searing look at the cultural discord that continues to characterize the Jewish state, motivated and mobilized voters, and has produced a new legislature of alienated, antagonistic factions

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri shakes hands with Joint Arab list head Ayman Odeh during the swearing-in ceremony for the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri shakes hands with Joint Arab list head Ayman Odeh during the swearing-in ceremony for the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Soldiers who enlist in the various IDF units collectively known as “Nahal” – which include an infantry brigade, and an educational arm of soldier-teachers who work in impoverished neighborhoods – are taught early on about the history of their unusual military framework.

“If you turn on the lights only in the towns and villages founded by Nahal soldiers, you end up with an outline of the borders of the land of Israel,” an army instructor tells the inductees each year.

Nahal, a Hebrew acronym for “pioneer fighting youth,” was a uniquely Israeli cultural phenomenon: young men and women who combine their military service with years of settlement and farming on all Israel’s borders. It was a formative experience for no small number of Israel’s left-wing elite in the early years of the state.

Today, the Nahal structure hardly makes sense. The IDF builds or decommissions infantry brigades according to military need rather than ideology. Towns are zoned and approved by bureaucrats in the ministries of interior and housing according to population growth. The basic strategic theory behind Nahal – settling bands of close-knit reservists on the borders as a first line of defense against Arab armies –is no longer applicable in an age of rockets and air strikes and guerrilla wars.

Ethnic origins, religious observance, all the painful touchstones of identity that divide Israelis, determined more than any other factor how they voted

But Nahal remains a social artifact embedded deep in the Israeli psyche. Its impulses are still evident in the army’s view of itself as a kind of national social-welfare and leadership-training organization. The army still sends young soldiers to teach in disadvantaged schools, still calls one of its infantry brigades Nahal — though the brigade no longer has any distinguishing attributes from the army’s other infantry units.

And those tiny border villages founded by Nahal teams, from Yotvata in the south to Snir in the far north, all share something in common: they voted for the left on March 17. In Snir, with a voter turnout of 75 percent, Zionist Union won 55% of the vote and Meretz 14%. In Yotvata in the southern Arava desert, Zionist Union did even better, with 68% of the vote, while Meretz took another 14%.

A Nahal Brigade beret march en route to Massada (photo credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A Nahal Brigade beret march en route to Massada (photo credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/ IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

It’s a strange sight on the voting map. The string of left-wing villages that line the nation’s borders all surround right-wing cities and sit within rock-throwing distance of some of Israel’s most bitter enemies. Indeed, some of these leftist Nahal villages are West Bank settlements, like Niran in the Jordan Valley (Zionist Union: 85%), while others bore the brunt of the most recent wars with Gaza, such as the rocket-battered kibbutz Nahal Oz (Zionist Union: 57%).

Gaza’s belligerence is a major reason so many city-dwelling Israelis vote right. The voters of Niran are quite literally voting against the future existence of their village. Yet these small hamlets seem to operate with a political logic all their own.

As, indeed, do other strange peripheries. In Tel Aviv, for example, Zionist Union won a plurality with 34% of the vote, but it was heavily concentrated in the center and north of the city. In the northern Ramat Aviv neighborhood, Zionist Union’s lead over Likud surpassed 30 points in many areas. It was in the southeastern neighborhoods, in the slums and back-roads of neighborhoods such as Hatikvah and Yad Eliyahu, where the numbers were reversed, with Likud taking a plurality of 39% and 33% respectively, and Zionist Union coming in third or even fourth place. In central Jaffa and the Ajami neighborhoods in the southwest of the city, the Arab Joint List led the pack with 40% and 59% respectively.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog accompanied by his wife Michal prepares to cast his vote in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog accompanied by his wife Michal prepares to cast his vote in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The voting patterns don’t simply follow income levels. The left-voting Ramat Aviv Gimel (Zionist Union 44%, Yesh Atid 21%, Likud 14%) is a famously wealthy area, complete with a 1990s television soap opera about its inhabitants, but Florentin (Zionist Union 33%, Meretz 27%, Likud 11%) is emphatically not. The voting patterns in the 2015 election (as, indeed, in all Israeli elections) followed more subtle patterns than simple economic interests. Ethnic origins, religious observance, all the painful touchstones of identity that divide Israelis, determined more than any other factor how they voted.

In city after city, the pattern is the same. In Herzliya, Israel’s highly-educated high-tech capital, Zionist Union won in every district except two, the easternmost neighborhoods of Yad Hatisha, settled by Jews from north Africa, and Neve Amal, with its plethora of synagogues and diverse immigrant population.

An Israeli soldier walks in the temporarily abandoned Kibbutz Nahal Oz, southern Israel, as Hamas militants in Gaza continue to fire rockets into Israel on the 34rd day of Operation Protective Edge, August 10, 2014. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier walks in the temporarily abandoned Kibbutz Nahal Oz, southern Israel, as Hamas terrorists in Gaza continue to fire rockets into Israel on the 34rd day of Operation Protective Edge, August 10, 2014. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

In working-class Beersheba, Likud won a large plurality, but the Russian-speaking Yisrael Beytenu party trailed a close second in the western and southern neighborhoods, even winning first place in the southernmost Nahal Beka neighborhood.

Yet while Beersheba tilted decisively right (Likud 38%, Yisrael Beytenu 12%, Zionist Union 12%), the nearby suburb of Omer, where average incomes are nearly double the national median, leaned just as decisively left (Zionist Union 38%, Likud 22%, Yesh Atid 15%). It hardly needs to be said that Omer is a majority-Ashkenazi town, whereas Beersheba, in areas where Russian-speaking immigrants are not themselves the majority, is heavily Sephardi.

The more one delves into the numbers, the more powerful these cultural divides appear: far-flung West Bank settlements that vote left because of a cultural attachment to the old left-wing elite; middle-class Herzliyans whose votes are more easily predicted based on religious and ethnic roots than economic conditions; southern Tel Aviv’s Arab-Jewish tensions made plain by the results from the Dakar neighborhood in Jaffa, where the Arab list won 23% and Likud 22%.

‘Kissers of amulets’

The left was surprised it lost the election, and as it searched for culprits, none was more obvious than these deep-seated identity politics.

Incidents such as the speech by Yair Garbuz, a former kibbutz member and artist who hailed from deep within the left-wing cultural elite, helped the left’s political managers explain the loss. In an election rally on March 9, Garbuz took to the stage to rail against the left’s loss of the country to “the kissers of amulets” and other benighted populations – a clear reference to believing Sephardi Jews who harbor memories of marginalization by the Ashkenazi elite from the early decades of the state. Garbuz’s speech became a rallying cry for the right.

There is nothing rational in the left’s responses to the election loss

But even as it worried about its own ethnocentrism, the left saw spasms of disgust at Israel’s poorer communities, who voted in large numbers for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Likud is a bastion of liberal economics, so these Israeli poor were voting against their own supposed economic interests, tens of thousands of frustrated left-wing voters insisted.

“We’re not donating anymore” to the poor in periphery towns, ran the cry on Facebook shared by thousands of big-city leftists.

Aerial view of a Saturday March 7, 2015 anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square. (screen capture: Channel 10)
Aerial view of a Saturday March 7, 2015 anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. (screen capture: Channel 10)

Neither self-flagellation nor disgust were well-thought-out responses to the election loss. The left conveniently forgets that Russian-speaking Israelis, now written off as militant and hawkish by left-wing political managers, once voted Labor’s Ehud Barak into power but were turned right-ward in the Second Intifada. It forgets the simple fact that voter turnout in heavily leftist cities like Tel Aviv reached just 65%, while in some of the largest, most right-leaning settlements it passed the 80% mark. It forgets that the poor make up a minority of Israel’s largely middle-class electorate, and are heavily concentrated in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities who vote for their sectoral parties, not for Benjamin Netanyahu; that is, that the left loses elections because it is failing to win Israel’s middle class, not its poor. And it is on the left where one is most likely to find affluent voters celebrating the fact that they vote against their own economic interests — while at the same time expressing disgust that other Israelis from other economic or social strata might be doing the same.

In short, there is nothing rational in the left’s responses to the election loss. Indeed, nowhere is the left-wing elite’s own cultural tribalism more evident than in its frustration at the tribalism of the rest of the electorate.

‘A Jewish soul’

Of course, the left is not alone in succumbing to the culture wars that so clearly drive so much of Israelis’ voting behavior.

Shas, too, ran a campaign premised on ethnic divisions among Jews. In its “transparent” campaign, party leader Aryeh Deri appealed to the “transparent” poor, to low-wage workers or the elderly who struggle to make ends meet. But the campaign also appealed to the “transparent Mizrahim,” or Oriental Jews, who Deri said were made “transparent” by the Ashkenazi elite. To learn which group, the poor or the Sephardim, Shas sees as its most important constituency, one need look no further than the latest coalition talks, where Deri is reportedly demanding the ministries of interior and religious affairs, not the Welfare Ministry in which he might help alleviate the condition of Israel’s poor.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, reacts to exit poll figures at his party's headquarters in the city of Nazareth on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI)
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, reacts to exit poll figures at his party’s headquarters in the city of Nazareth on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI)

Much has been written about the remarkable achievement of the Arab Joint List in uniting all the disparate streams of Arab Israeli politics into a unified Knesset slate. It’s important not to underestimate this achievement, but it is not an achievement of the Arab Israeli electorate — merely of its elites. Still, the joint list was a popular idea among Israel’s Arabs, who, one can argue, are less impressed by their parliamentarians’ deep-seated ideological divisions than by the notion that a larger, more cohesive Knesset presence might deliver real benefits and solutions to their communities’ many challenges.

Does the new pan-Arab consciousness of the new list mean it will seek greater integration in Israeli society and a bridging of the ethnic divide between the Arab minority and the Jewish majority? At the new Knesset’s swearing-in ceremony last Tuesday, party chair Ayman Odeh indirectly answered that question.

Odeh stunned many observers when he chose to remain in the Knesset plenum at the singing of Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva,” even as most of the Joint List’s MKs stalked out. “Hatikva,” which speaks of a “Jewish soul” yearning to be free in the land of Israel, is an anthem that for obvious reasons does not speak even to the most loyal of Israel’s Arab citizens. Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, a Christian Arab, famously stands silent when the anthem is sung at state functions. Joubran is trusted with some of Israel’s most sensitive secrets and with some of Israeli society’s most important decisions (he chaired the Central Elections Committee in the last elections, for example), but that doesn’t change the fact that his soul — not to belabor the point — happens not to be a Jewish one.

Likud, in celebrating its victory, understands better than anyone that its success was a product of identity politics

And so many wondered at Odeh’s decision to remain in the plenum. Was it a signal of respect for the Jews, as with Joubran? “I chose to stay in the plenum today during the anthem and to simply stand silent,” Odeh wrote in a statement later that day, after the swearing-in ceremony. And he explained: “This was my protest against an anthem that does not represent me, which is for me a symbol of marginalization. I usually focus on substance and people, not symbols. But today is all symbolism and ceremony, and therefore it is important for us [in the Joint List], each in his own way, to bring our protest against racism and marginalization into the ceremony.”

The eclectic Joint List, Odeh made clear, was not completely free of a political identity. It was Arab-ness itself, the demand shared by an otherwise diverse Arab elite to do away with the Jewish nation-state in favor of a post-national universalist state, that was its raison d’etre. While the political and social divides among Israel’s Arabs are undeniably deep and real, the very existence (not to mention success) of the Joint List suggests that when it comes to politics, its various components are to no small degree unified by a sense of separateness from the larger Jewish society. The essential fault lines of their politics, as with the Jews, are not economic or social, but ethnic and cultural.

And of course, Likud, in celebrating its victory, understands better than anyone that its success was a product of identity politics. It was no accident that in the middle of the election campaign, Netanyahu fired left-wing (and not coincidentally, Ashkenazi) judges from the Israel Prize for Literature judges’ panel. While the country’s literary elite railed against the hamfisted “political interference,” Netanyahu released a statement that pointed to the very narrow political and cultural origins of the prize’s winners over the years. And, indeed, at the end of March the prize committee announced that the country’s highest literary prize had gone to Algerian-born poet Erez Biton, the first time in Israel’s history that the prize was won by a Sephardi Jew.

Poet and Israel Prize laureate Erez Biton reads Psalm 122 at the Knesset during the swearing-in of new MKS, Tuesday, March 31, 2015. (Screen capture)
Poet and Israel Prize laureate Erez Biton reads Psalm 122 at the Knesset during the swearing-in of new MKS, Tuesday, March 31, 2015. (Screen capture)

It was a campaign entirely constructed around opposition to the Ashkenazi left-wing elite, and to the Arab Israeli politics of Odeh and others that seek a solution to their own conundrum as an ethnic minority through the dissolution of the distinctively Jewish state of Israel. Netanyahu’s warning that “Arabs are voting in droves” on Election Day was not exactly “race-baiting,” as much of the English-language media explained. Race-baiting has a particular cultural meaning in the United States that doesn’t account for the ethnic politics of the Middle East. Indeed, if Netanyahu had merely made a racist comment, it would arguably have been less problematic, because simple racism does not carry direct political ramifications.

Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)
Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)

Instead, it was the Likud’s text-message campaign that accompanied Netanyahu’s comment, including the charge that “Hamas is calling on Arabs in Israel to go out and vote,” that articulated the full message. Netanyahu was effectively arguing that Israeli Arabs were on the wrong side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and therefore that it was critical to counter and neutralize their political influence.

And it worked. The call drove hundreds of thousands of Israelis — according to the Central Elections Committee, in record-breaking numbers — to the voting booths in the last two hours of Election Day, between 8 and 10 p.m., to vote not so much for Likud as against what Netanyahu’s campaign characterized as the “anti-Zionist” left and the actually (i.e., self-declared) anti-Zionist Joint List.

‘To mend the rifts’

Once elected, MKs often find themselves making common cause on a variety of issues with lawmakers from very different parties and constituencies. Arabs and ultra-Orthodox work together to push for increased child subsidies; secularists in Yesh Atid and religious Zionists in Jewish Home fight together to reform the Haredi-controlled state religious institutions; Meretz and Likud MKs work together to strengthen labor protections for pregnant women. That parliamentary reality feeds an illusion among MKs and the media that the Knesset represents some sort of unified whole, a nation at rest going about its business.

The system doesn’t just reflect Israelis’ disparate identities; it reinforces them

But each election, the quiet cooperation of day-to-day life is shattered by the sudden resurgence of identity politics. At the end of the day, the problem Israelis often refer to as “governance” – a Knesset fractured into as many as a dozen parties, each focused on narrow constituencies rather than the general good – goes deeper than the electoral system. Israeli politics have always been tribal, and Israel’s party-list system was inaugurated at the founding of the state in recognition of that fact. But the system doesn’t just reflect Israelis’ disparate identities; it reinforces them. Shas campaigns for Sephardi votes in part by telling Israelis that the divide between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is essential and permanent. The Arab list’s political future depends on convincing Arabs they are politically separate from the Jews. And both Labor and Likud have come to depend on campaigns that don’t just debate the other side, but delegitimize it.

It is true that the 20th Knesset has the most women in Israel’s history, 29 out of 120 lawmakers, two more than in the 19th Knesset. It also has the smallest number of parties since 1992, a fact that may hint at a return to large-party politics after two decades of more splintered coalitions. It is a Knesset elected by the highest turnout since 1999. And it has four Arab MKs in Zionist “Jewish” parties, up from two in the last Knesset. But such piecemeal improvements remain marginal alongside the larger truths one can glean from election turnout data, or from the campaigns of delegitimization and marginalization run by just about every party in last month’s election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin pose with heads of all the Israeli political parties after the opening session of the 20th Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin pose with heads of all the Israeli political parties after the opening session of the 20th Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Pundits may celebrate Israeli democracy each time the country holds a vote. As Netanyahu himself insisted at the Knesset’s swearing-in ceremony last week (when such sentiments no longer carried a political cost), “I intend to form a government that will work for all citizens of Israel without exception. Our first mission is to mend the rifts.”

But Israeli society is fractured, tribal, at odds with itself, and it was those centrifugal impulses that drove voters’ behavior on Election Day. Knesset members are not blind to this fact. They know how and why they were elected, and what part of the Israeli psyche won them their jobs.

The 20th Knesset’s greatest challenge, then, may be the simple fact, revealed in glaring detail in the election results, that it was not elected by any semblance of a cohesive Israeli nation, but by the mutually alienated splinters of a deeply divided society. As one looks ahead to the coming term, it would be strange to expect it to behave otherwise.

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