Okay so this post is going to be based on the premise that the sudden and vicious attacks in Gaza by the Israeli military are prompted primarily by domestic political concerns - that is that the military campaign is intended first and foremost to impress domestic voters. Those of you with US-heavy dashboards might remember when 75% of the tumblrs you follow were reblogging gifs of Obama announcing bin Laden was dead and gloating about it and predicting how helpful it would be in the 2012 election, right? Think something like that.
Israeli politics is kind of difficult to understand because of the profusion of parties and electoral coalitions. This arises predominately from the unique electoral system the Knesset uses - the whole country is allocated 120 seats, and then any party who gets more than 2% of the vote nationally gets a proportional share of those 120 seats. Then there’s a pretty formalized negotiation process to ensure that a majority coalition happens.
This system encourages a massive profusion of parties, because Israel has a huge diversity in terms of culture and wealth/development levels and has a whole lot of high-stakes political decisions in terms of Palestine. There are also domestic political issues, like the separation of church and state (or I guess shul and state) and recently the right of Haredim (uber-Orthodox Jews) to get out of national military service. Anyway, the current breakdown in the Knesset looks something like this (the number of seats is in parentheses):
- Likud + Yisrael Beitenu (27+15) - So historically Likud was the main centre-right party with a more pro-business orientation and a really reluctant and hawkish stance on the Palestinian peace process. Yisrael Beitenu is the party of non-religious Russian Israelis who have been opposed to religious influence, the Palestinian peace process, and most of all rights for Israeli Arabs. Both parties are more pro-business than the rest of the big parties, and recently they’ve been very closely linked on the inexplicable policy of vigourous and brutal military action against Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. Last month, Likud and Yisrael Beitenu agreed to merge to form a single electoral list. This is a big deal, because Yisrael Beitenu is drastically more hawkish and opposed to rights for Israeli Arabs than Likud (or, really, any historical Israeli government). Anyway, these are the people running things right now.
- Kadima (28) - Kadima formed from a bloc of Likud and Labour members to support Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan - so, this was basically a party founded expressly to gain some traction on the whole peace process. Then Ariel Sharon had a stroke, and the rest of the party’s platform (i.e. all domestic policy) turned out to be a bit of a muddled mess. This party has the best showing in the last election, but will be basically wiped out this time as voters defect to Labour, Yesh Atid, and Meretz.
- Labour (8) - This is the main historical centre-left party in Israel. It’s softly centre-left and probably the most pragmatic about the peace process. Historically Labour governments have been the ones willing to give up settlements or other occupied land (e.g. the Golan Heights) in exchange for peace deals. Labour has done very poorly in the last couple elections, which has culminated in the emergence of the separate Independence party - but they’re likely to regain much of their support in the coming election.
- Shas (10) - This is the party of extremely religious Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews - particularly the Haredim. They want greater rights for Haredim, they want all Separdhi and Mizarhim to be encouraged to adopt Haredi lifestyles, and they have been hit by more fraud, forgery, and bribery scandals in the last decade than the rest of the Knesset combined. They’re part of the current governing coalition.
- Independence (5) - This party was formed from a split in Labour since the last election. It’s basically like the New Labour movement in the UK in that it was formed as a more centrist (and Zionist) wing of the existing Labour party. (But because of the Israeli system it’s of course forming its own list.) Currently they have four Cabinet positions but it’s not clear whether they’ll even make the 2% threshold in this coming election.
- United Torah Judaism (5) - Just what it sounds like. Guided by rabbis. In favour of more religious legislation. Not super helpful in terms of the peace process.
- United Arab List + Taal (4) - This party list primarily represents Israeli Arabs - that is, the majority of the pre-Israel non-Jewish population who didn’t end up in Palestine. It’s also supported by something like three-quarters of Bedouin voters. Unsurprisingly it supports expanded political rights for Israeli Arabs and a sovereign independent Palestine with a capital in East Jerusalem. In the past this party has been the target of attempted bans by the Israeli Central Elections Committee but fortunately the Supreme Court quashed this.
- National Union (4) - This is a group of far-right religious Zionist nationalist parties which formed an electoral coalition. They want to maximize the immigration of Jews to Israel, aggressively settle the West Bank of Palestine, and basically treating the Palestinians like a minority within a bigger Zionist Israel as opposed to their own nationality with a right to sovereignty. Together with Jewish home, they’re part of the right-wing nationalist bloc in the Knesset.
- Hadash (4) - This is a joint Israeli-Arab socialist party. It supports shutdown of all the settlements, rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and hard-left stances on environmental and social issues. Along with UAL-Taal and Balad, it’s part of the left wing of the Knesset and probably the closest to what North Americans would identify as a left wing.
- Meretz (3) - This is basically a European socialist party. They’re all about peace with Palestine, human rights, environmentalism, religious pluralism, and so on. They’ve had the first Israeli Arab woman MK, the first openly queer MK, and they identify as Zionist but supporting withdrawal from most settlements for a two-state solution. Their current showing (three seats) is way off from their historic support.
- Jewish Home (3) - This is a rebranded version of the old National Religious Party, but the name basically describes their priority pretty well. Jewish Home is a religious Zionist party that likes the idea of Israeli as a religiously Jewish homeland. Together with National Union, they’re part of the right-wing nationalist bloc in the Knesset.
- Balad (3) - This party shares many of its goals with UAL but focuses more on the rights of Israeli Arabs within Israel; rather than having a Jewish state and an Arab state Balad prefers to think of having a “binational” Israel and a separate Palestine.
- Yesh Atid (0) - They don’t have any seats right now, but I’m including them because they’re likely to break in to the Knesset at the next election. This is a brand-new party based on a principle of sweeping reform. They want to write a constitution, reform education and labour markets for Haredim (who need to work more) and Israeli Arabs (who need to be discriminated against less), and go for a two-state peace deal. Personally I’m really interested to see how this goes.
- Whole Nation (0) - This is another new party that will likely get seats. It’s a breakaway party from Shas that wants to see the Haredi enter the workforce and society. (Right now Haredi men generally don’t work because they are too busy trying to be as religious as possible. They also don’t do the military draft. And they have like six kids per household. In case you needed confirmation that this was a badly broken system.)
So at this point you are probably thinking “holy eff that’s a whole lot of parties” and yeah that’s a big problem with this kind of massively proportional electoral system. It encourages lots of fringe parties and makes any long-term commitment difficult because a future coalition could very easily arise to undo any promises. This is almost certainly the biggest barrier to any sustainable Palestinian peace deal.
So what can this tell us about the recent attacks on Gaza? Right now, the coalition government in Israel consists of Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, Shas, the Jewish Home, Independence, and United Torah Judaism. So, that’s three secular centrist-to-pro-business parties (Likud, Yisrael Beitenu) and three religios parties (Shas, Jewish Home, and UTF). And note that Yisrael Beitenu is super uncomfortable with the notion of religious institutions controlling government. So this is a super unstable coalition government. Basically the only issue that unites them is the concept of “nationalism” in the sense of really hardline military action against Palestine.
For the next election (which happens in January), Likud and Yisrael Beitenu have doubled down on this one big issue to combine as Likud Beitenu. This is likely to cost Likud much of their traditional support; working-class Mizrahi and Sephardi voters tend to support Likud but not Yisrael Beitenu. The editor of Haaretz framed the pivot in Likud’s priorities really clearly:
With Lieberman as second in command and heir to the throne, and his supporters in prominent spots on the joint ticket, Likud will become a radical rightwing party, aggressive and xenophobic, that revels in Israel’s isolation and sees the Arab community as a domestic enemy and a danger to the state.
At the same time, polls show this joint list losing a lot of support to religious nationalist parties, especially Jewish Home and National Union. Yisrael Beitenu is also likely to take a big hit in the near future over their leader Avigdor Lieberman likely being indicted for corruption. This is obviously super contentious right in the middle of the election campaign, but it’s looking pretty likely that the indictment will happen. Anyway, recent polls show the bloc losing six or seven of its 42 seats, which is problematic for dominating any future coalition government.
So far, the nationalist coalition that currently runs things looks likely to keep their majority by winning around 63 seats total. But this depends in a big way on how much Whole Nation and the other small parties do; anyone falling below the threshold would throw off the entire coalition. And while currently the centre-left is pretty disorganized, but big jumps in support for Yesh Atid and Labour over the time since the last election means they might be able to block the nationalist coalition. (Note that because Hadash, Balad, and UAL generally don’t get invited to participate in governing coalitions, it’s totally possible to have a situation where neither the right nor the left can really get a majority.) There are also rumours that Tziporah Livni and/or Ehud Olmert (former centre-left party leaders) might return to politics to start a new centre-left bloc which would likely also siphon off Likud voters who like the idea of centrist Zionist government with competent domestic policy but are uncomfortable with Beitenu Yisrael and the religious parties. (No idea how likely this is considering that the election is two months away.)
So right now the government’s ability to maintain power is in trouble on all fronts; the Likud base is leaving the party for more hardline religious parties, Yisrael Beitenu’s leader is facing a big corruption scandal, and traditional centre-left parties are polling well. By attacking Gaza, the Israeli government scares the Likud base away from voting for the more religious parties, because At the same time, attacks on Gaza makes it basically impossible to pursue any peace deal with Palestine, which makes it way more difficult for the centre-left parties to present any kind of coherent plan in this regard. Also, during wartime it’s way more straightforward to label any criticism of the government or the military plan as criticism of the state itself, which obviously helps the incumbents.
In conclusion, I’d suggest that the best way to think about the Israeli attacks in Gaza over the last couple days is not as some kind of coherent long-term plan to destroy Hamas or block Palestine from seeking further recognition at the United Nations, but rather as a vicious and bloody campaign strategy by Likud and Yisrael Beitenu to centre the whole election debate around Israeli nationalism and ensure that their party remains the dominant bloc in the governing coalition. No argument that this is an absolutely horrible tactic they’ve adopted.