On January 15, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper Haaretz printed an unusual opinion piece. Unusual not just because it was printed in two languages, Hebrew and Arabic, which in itself was extraordinary – but also because of the content. The newspaper is doing some soul-searching born of deep despair, because for the first time in Israel’s history the election results are known to all before voting has even begun. The merger of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu has left the opposition powerless. The picture looks even grimmer in the light of the increasing strength of Habayit Hayehudi, headed by Naftali Bennett, and the disintegration of the center-left into four parties: Kadima, Hatnuah, Yesh Atid and Labor.
The key sentence reads: “Since the second Rabin government, which relied on votes from the Knesset representatives of Israel’s Arab citizens, the rightwing has worked systematically to undermine the legitimacy of the Arabs in state decisions. Today, this takes the form of incitement against Arab Knesset members and anti-democratic legislation. On the other hand, forces which aspire to offer an alternative to the rightwing mostly ignore the existence of the Arab population. To change this situation, greater Arab representation is needed in the Knesset.”
Turning point: Rabin’s assassination
The newspaper refers to the period of Yitzhak Rabin’s second government, in 1992, as the start of the increasing divide between Jews and Arabs – and not to the events of October 2000, when Israeli Arab protesters were killed by police. Though the opinion piece blames the rightwing for this divide, in fact the Left ought to shoulder the main responsibility: the roots of this divide lie in the behavior of the Left after Rabin’s assassination.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered because he counted on “Arab votes” to achieve the majority he needed for approving the Oslo Accords. Immediately after the murder, the Left collapsed. Instead of undermining the legitimacy of the Right and the settlement project, Meretz and the Labor Party chose to patch up the schism between the Jewish Left and Right by promoting reconciliation with the settlements and turning their back on Israel’s Arab citizens. The Arab population was recruited to support Labor’s Shimon Peres against Netanyahu in the elections of 1996 (although Peres lost), and Labor’s Ehud Barak in the elections of 1999, enabling Barak to prevail over Netanyahu. But despite this Arab support, the Labor Party preferred to partner with the settlers’ National Religious Party, in whose fold Rabin’s assassin had been nurtured.
Keeping distance from Arabs became the fashion. Meretz leader Yossi Sarid had expressed this attitude even before the Oslo Accords, when he wrote an opinion piece entitled, “Let them come look for me” ( Haaretz August 17, 1990); he claimed that the Arabs had disappointed even him, a human rights crusader who had acted for their benefit. A decade later Ehud Barak contributed to this leftwing vocabulary with his assertion “There is no partner,” following the failure of talks with Arafat at Camp David. The Arabs became a scapegoat for the cowardice of the Left, which feared to confront fascism. From there to the events of October 2000 was just a small step.
In the decade following the second intifada, the Left in Israel lost its way. The doves in the Labor Party – Peres, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik – cozied up to Ariel Sharon. Together they led the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, an act which enabled Hamas to take over Gaza and which weakened the Palestinian Authority. Thus the Left played into the hands of Sharon, who wanted to be rid of Gaza so as to strengthen his grip on the West Bank. The next government, Ehud Olmert’s, held non-committal talks with no results. These endless games paved the way for Netanyahu’s return.
One could say that Haaretz’s call for Arabs to vote comes too late. The settlers have already taken over the Likud. They’ve gotten rid of Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, known as moderates, while the party has thrown in its lot with Lieberman. Now they are trying to bring down the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile Shas conducts a campaign of racist incitement against Russian-speaking citizens and refugees from Africa. The exclusion of Arab citizens certainly plays into the hands of the Right and undermines the Left. But the Labor Party’s disregard for the problem of settlement and Occupation leaves the arena open to all who want to annex the West Bank. The Left without Arabs is a splintered and emasculated Left.
Poverty is the problem, not Arabs
Drawing Arabs back into the democratic process is not easy. The core of the problem is not the schism between the leftwing parties and the Arab parties, but the socioeconomic changes that have swept Israel since Rabin’s assassination. Since the 1990s, Israel has been undergoing a process of privatization in which factories are being shut down and migrant labor is being imported to replace Palestinian workers. As a result, the country has some of the widest socioeconomic disparities in the western world, and the Arab population, weak and poor, is being pushed to the margins. The government has tied its fate to big capital, while workers have no voice. This is the cause of the despairing belief that nothing can be changed through politics.
The situation in which Arab citizens find themselves is not much different from that of many Jewish citizens. In an article in the business paper Globes, published on January 14, Avi Temkin noted that the Likud is losing its support base among the workers, mostly Mizrahim. “To see this trend,” he wrote, “it’s enough to study voter turnout in the last elections of 2009 in what could be called the Likud strongholds: Dimona – 48%, Kiryat Shmoneh – 52%, Sderot – 52%, Tiberias – 50%, Bat Yam – 50%, Kiryat Malachi – 57%, Migdal Ha’emeq – 59%, Ashqelon – 56%, Beer Sheva – 53%, Safed – 54%. These were the towns which brought the Likud to power in 1977… The residents of these same towns were called up in the 80s and 90s to defend and advance the movement which in their eyes best represented their interests.”
To build a real leftwing, capable of offering an alternative to the Right and the settlers, it is not enough to call on the Arabs to “get out and vote” – this call must be directed at Jewish citizens too. Some one million workers, Jews and Arabs, earn minimum wage and have despaired of having any influence through the parliamentary system. Their experience tells them that their employers are backed up by the regime, and that the close relationship between the Histadrut, the Manufacturers’ Association and the government doesn’t leave them any hope for change. The Arab parties, just like the Jewish parties across the political spectrum, simply ignore the workers, who then don’t bother to vote.
Thus the Daam Workers Party is more relevant than ever. We are not a Jewish or Arab party, we don’t represent a specific sector – we represent all workers. We organize manpower agency workers, factory workers, truck drivers, teachers and social workers who barely make ends meet. We know that the old divisions are breaking down, and faith in the government and the current parties is dwindling. The political establishment’s agenda does not even come close to answering the needs of the workers who make up society.
During these elections we are raising awareness and transforming the public discourse – not just between Jews and Arabs, but among the workers themselves. Unity between all workers, from the middle classes to those scraping by on minimum wage – this is the surest path to victory over the tycoons who suck us dry, and over the fascist rightwing which promises nothing but war and occupation.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger