Thursday, March 25, 2021

Party Animals

Ultra-Orthodox Jews argue with Israeli border police officers during a protest over the coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Ashdod, Israel, last week. Photo by Oded Balilty/AP via NBC News.

Yesterday's vote in Israel, the fourth in two years, as the indicted bribe-taker prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu fails to form a government or reneges on the partners with whom he formed the previous one, so that the only way he can stay in office and out of prison is to keep calling for another general election every six months, seems to have had a hilarious result: as usual, Netanyahu's coalition doesn't have a majority, but this time the only party that seems to be ready to save him is the Arab Islamist one, the Israeli version of Hamas as it were, the Ra'am party, which won five Knesset seats (the more or less leftwing Arab Joint List won six).

Ra'am is "socially conservative" (its leader, Mansour Abbas, has advocated LGTBQ "conversion therapy"), but belonged to the Joint List until this election, breaking off in order to pursue a possible deal with Netanyahu, for reasons that seem to me more cynical than evil

Abbas has justified working with Netanyahu and other Zionist parties if he can, in exchange, gain benefits for the Arab community which faces poor infrastructure, a growing murder rate and high unemployment. 

except for the way it implicitly condones the Israeli apartheid system (well, I call it apartheid) condemning the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank to permanent statelessness and dependency, now that Netanyahu has fully abandoned any plausible concept of a two-state solution.

Then again, Ra'am voters aren't exactly Palestinian themselves; the party's base is mostly Bedouin, from the region's desert herding culture, where the Palestinians proper are traditionally fruit and vegetable gardeners, so maybe they just don't feel solidarity with them the way Israeli Palestinians do.

It's striking me that Israeli politics is a perfect example of what you'd want to call "identity politics" if the term hadn't been hijacked by the right: so many parties representing not an ideological stand of any kind but a particular identity community ready to sell its support to whichever big party (very conservative Likud or less conservative Blue and White) makes it the best offer

  • Shas (Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox)
  • United Torah (Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox)
  • Religious Zionist (Zionist ultra-Orthodox)
  • Yisrael Beitenu (Russian)

while the traditional left (Red Labor, hardly red nowadays, Green Meretz, and the partly identitarian big Arab tent Joint List) languishes into oblivion because it doesn't even want to sell anything, let alone have anything to sell. 

Why shouldn't the Ra'am party get into the market? Other than that they'd be joining forces with an apartheid regime? If the other guys had won, the Blue and White faction, the apartheid wouldn't have gotten any better (leader Benny Gantz agreed to annex the West Bank in his coalition deal with Netanyahu last year; he's made noises about negotiations with Palestinians since that coalition's inevitable failure, but he's shown he has no belief in them and can't be trusted). Why shouldn't they try to get people better infrastructure and more jobs? Of course if Abbas believes Netanyahu is likely to achieve anything for his constituency, you could accuse him of not being as cynical as he needs to be.

But Israeli politics is certainly warped, and it isn't because they have a lot of parties and proportional representation.

I wonder if there really is a connection between apartheid and "identity politics" in this sense. Certainly South Africa itself has a remarkable number of ethnically identified parties—the relatively progressive but mostly white/Indian/Coloured Democratic Alliance that serves as official opposition to the ruling ANC, the rightwing Afrikaner Freedom Front, the Zulu conservative Inkatha Freedom Party, the very conservative African Christian Democratic Party (which seems to mark itself especially as pro-Israel), and the Islamist Al Jama-ah founded in 2007. Apartheid has long since been repudiated, of course, but we know as a matter of history that the exclusively white National Party that ruled the country in those days created Inkatha as a divide-and-rule stratagem, just as they supported parties to divide Ndebele from Shona in Zimbabwe on their northern border, and Shona from Tsonga in Mozambique to the east. We know Israeli authorities developed Islamist parties in occupied Palestine in the 1980s, as far as that goes, as a counterweight to the irreligious, leftist PLO, which is how the world got Hamas.

Just a couple of years ago, Netanyahu himself was involved in a failed intrigue to stop a couple of far-right rivals, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, from taking over a proposed merger of the New Right and the Union of Right-Wing Parties

Sara Netanyahu (the wife of the prime minister) was recorded speaking with Rafi Peretz' wife, Michal Peretz, in an attempt to convince Peretz to retain his number one slot on the list; she was unsuccessful. It was also revealed that Benjamin Netanyahu was involved (despite his denial).[13] The URWP and the New Right agreed to a joint run on 29 July 2019, with the New Right's Ayelet Shaked leading the joint list. As part of the agreement, the alliance declared that they would negotiate together to establish a right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu.

—which was the origin of the anti-Netanyahu Yamina party (won 7 seats yesterday, same as Labor) and, because Netanyahu was unable to form any kind of government without Yamina, the unsustainable "unity government" of Netanyahu and Gantz, in which Rafi Peretz got a post as Minister of Jerusalem.

Which is, I think, where the moral of the story is more or less to be found: Israeli politics, with its wealth of frequently merging and splitting parties and shifting personal loyalties alongside the steady presence of the identity-politics parties, isn't really, and hasn't been for a long time, much of anything more than a mechanism for distributing patronage—passing it out here and withdrawing it there—and privilege (like the longstanding permission of some groups to skip military service). The country isn't getting anything done, either, whether it's peace with its neighbors (Bahrain, UAE, Morocco aren't neighbors and have never been at war with the country) or dealing with its housing crisis, to say nothing of its initially hailed approach to Covid-19 , or the vaccination program, which has faltered in recent days after what seemed like amazing success, for what seem to be disagreeably familiar reasons, or excuses:

Only 29% of Israelis overall say they trust the government, while 25% of Arab-Israelis say the same, according to the 2020 Israeli Democracy Index. Some Arab-Israelis have been angered by discrimination and hostility towards their community, as well as by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian territories like the West Bank and Gaza, where vaccinations have barely begun. Some Haredi Israelis, meanwhile, feel their culture and belief system is incompatible with what they view as Israel’s secular mainstream society, and many trust religious leaders over secular authorities. During the COVID-19 outbreak, Haredi groups have butted heads with government officials over lockdowns and restrictions; some have gathered for holidays and funerals despite restrictions against large groups. In an August poll, more than half of Israeli Haredim said their community’s trust in the current government was shaken amid the pandemic.

All of this is relevant to the vaccine rollout, experts say, because people who distrust the government for any reason may be less likely to listen when it pushes a vaccine.

Our problems in the US, including a dysfunctional politics that too often seems (in the one-party conservative states at least) absolutely like a mechanism for dispensing patronage and group privileges, aren't so unlike theirs. We've only got two parties, and one identity that really plays rough within the system, I suppose, the jealous white whiners with their stories of "reverse discrimination" and lawsuits, but maybe we have a lot in common.

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