A friend of mine on the Israeli Right recently asked me what seemed to him to be a tough question to answer: two months after winning the election, what terrible things has Netanyahu actually done? “Forget what he’s said,” my friend told me. “You point out one really bad thing that’s happened.”
So I mentioned Bibi’s economic policies. And rested my case.
The rightist-religious government headed up by Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have a three point agenda:
* Bring the peace process to a grinding halt, with no further concessions to the Arabs.
* Move toward greater religious coercion in Jerusalem first — and later throughout the country.
* Launch an all-out attack on the Israeli social welfare state and the trade union movement, an create an unrestrained capitalist society on the Reagan-Thatcher model.
Bibi’s supporters might use somewhat different language to describe this three-pronged attack (e.g., “restoring Jewish content to the Jewish state” or “creating a free market”) but we both mean the same things.
Those of us in the opposition who have not been seduced by the idea that “Bibi cannot be as bad as he seems” are united in our belief that what Israel needs now is an alternative to the current government, one that can unite a majority of Israelis against the Netanyahu camp and win the next elections.
In the next several weeks and months there will be a struggle taking place on all three fronts. We saw a good demonstration of this during the last couple of Saturdays in Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators demanded the closing down of a main street on Shabbat, while a few hundred secular protestors called for the street to remain open. And last week we also saw “Peace Now” in action, making headlines by holding a press conference which highlighted the growth of Israeli Jewish settlements in the occupied territories in recent years (under the Labor government). And a little more than a week ago, we were witness to a massive show of strength by Israel’s national labor center, the Histadrut — a strike of some 400,000 workers which shut down the public sector for a day.
Struggles will take place on all these fronts, and while everyone making these efforts — from the brave handful of Meretz supporters in Jerusalem to the determined activists of Peace Now — deserves credit and praise, we have to ask ourselves: what is the lever that moves the world? Or to put it another way, let’s do some simple mathematics.
The struggle against religious coercion:
We know that this struggle unites people on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Rafael Eitan’s “Tsomet” party has long taken a pro-secular stand. And the Russian immigrant party, Israel b’Aliyah, has a largely secular constituency which enjoys a good pork chop as much as the next guy. There were apparently supporters of the rightist “Third Way” at last week’s rally in Jerusalem, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the lefties of Meretz. So,yes, a coalition of rightist and leftist Jews opposing religious coercion could be built. But such a coalition would exclude (and alienate) hundreds of thousands of religious Jews, including many who are not particularly hawkish, such as the leadership of the “Shas” party. And as far as we’ve been able to see in Jerusalem, and everywhere else, the issue of religion turns out masses of religious Jews (150,000 demonstrated last night) but does not activate equivalent numbers of secular Jews. In terms of sheer numbers, this does not look like the way to build a new majority which can bring down the Netanyahu government.
The struggle for peace:
For four years, maybe more, the Labor Party has made the issue of peace the only issue it talks about. Peace is indeed an issue which unites secular and religious Israelis, the rich and the poor. By making peace the central issue in the election campaign, the Labor Party was able to substantially reduce the Likud vote among Israeli Arabs and Druze. The country’s intelligentsia, the business community, and journalists in the print and electronic media were united in their support for Peres and the peace process. On the other hand, many ordinary Jewish voters, scared out of their wits by the terrorist bombings in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv less than three months before the elections, voted not for Peres’ abstract promise of “peace” but for Netanyahu’s concrete promise of “security”. Shimon Peres and the Labor Party put all their eggs in the peace basket, but the reality was that a majority of Israelis, and a great majority of Israeli Jews, didn’t share their vision of a “new Middle East.”
The struggle for social justice:
Under four years of Labor rule, the social gap between rich and poor in Israel widened. Yes, the economy grew and unemployment fell. But for many thousands of Israelis, there was no peace dividend — and there was no hope. Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, working class families in the development towns, impoverished farmers and decommissioned soldiers looking for work voted by their thousands for parties which seemed to represent their interests — Shas, which is very much the party of the Israeli poor, Israel b’Aliyah, representative of the vast Russian immigrant working class, and the Likud — particularly its “Gesher” component, headed up by David Levy.
These voters in a country like Britain would naturally flock to the Labour Party; in Germany, they would vote as a block for the Social Democrats; in Italy, their votes would automatically be cast for the Party of the Democratic Left. In other words, they are the natural constituency for a mass party of the democratic Left.
What Israel needs today is a just such a party, representing the working people and the poor — a social democratic party.
It has been many years since the Labor Party, despite its affiliation on paper to the Socialist International, played that kind of role. (To the contrary, several of Labor’s top leaders today are advocates of privatization and a withering away of the social welfare state.) In the late 1980s, the newly independent Mapam seemed headed in the direction of becoming a social democratic alternative to Labor, but lost its way on the road to unity with the free market liberals of Shinui and Ratz, forming Meretz — a party far better known for its anti-religious-coercion message than any message it might have for the poor or working people.
In an incisive article for Ha’aretz last Friday, new Labor MK Shlomo Ben Ami warns that the trio of Netanyahu, the Bank of Israel’s Frankel, and Finance Minister Meridor, are leading a “liberal fundamentalist” crusade to create a Thatcherite regime here in Israel. And the democratic Left, meaning primarily the Labor Party, seems to have no answer except to suggest that things might be done a little differently.
Toward a new majority
Imagine for a moment that Israel had a party that spoke on behalf of the working people and the poor. A party that put issues like unemployment, housing and education at the top of its agenda. A party that united religious and non-religious Israelis, Jews and Arabs, residents of the thriving Tel Aviv-centered metropolis and the impoverished development towns on the periphery. Such a party would constitute a clear majority against the “liberal fundamentalists” of the Netanyahu camp. Such a coalition, if constructed, would offer the best hope for bringing down the Likud government.
It’s good and important to struggle against religious coercion. And the peace camp must intensify its acitivities to salvage what we can of the peace process. But if we want to defeat Netanyahu and bring down this government, we will have to build a new majority based on economic and social issues. To do that, Israel needs a social democratic party.
It’s just simple mathematics.
Letters from Readers
1. I may not agree with you on every economic issue, but I know what a screwed up place Bibi seeks to make Israel. I also know that the two years of Labor government from 1984-1986 brought the Israel out of its hyper inflation. The years 1992-1996 were among Israel’s best economically. Perhaps it is as simple as staying out of stupid wars and not giving money away wholesale to the idiots in the territories so that they can creat their own vision of the messiah there, but Labor clearly distributes its “pork” in a far more egalitarian and socially conscious manner. This, more than any other economic policy, would probably lead to Israel’s best economic growth.
I am impressed at the breath and depth of your knowledge and analysis – it is not the usual rantings of the (often stupid) “true believer.” Keep up the good work with the web-site, I have really begun to look forward to the new week’s edition. — Greg Apt, Israel
2. After 2 months as Prime Minister, I want to said that Bibi disappointed us . when I heard about the economic decisions, I just wanted to cry. In the next election we have to be together and to vote for Ehud Barak. . . .I think that only the people that live in Israel can feel what is mean to be a soldier in the Golani division and after 3 years the goverment doesn’t care about you . . . When Rabin was Prime Minister he helped us in education. Today I’m an engineer, ,work and have a family. I just want to say: ATA HASER HAVER which means — I miss Rabin. — Shmulik, Holon, Israel
3. Hi. After I saw today Davar L’Shalom, I got to the Internet to go see BibiWATCH. Is there any way to get BibiWATCH to my mail box (not snail mail)? If yes, I will publish it through the Israeli mail network Ultinet what has 150 BBSs all over Israel. — Eran Agmon, SysOp of T.N.D. BBS, Israel
We’re working on getting a LISTSERV, which is a way to send out BibiWATCH by email. We know that most people who use the Internet don’t have access to the World Wide Web. Eran’s letter also reminds us that there are still many people out there using local electronic bulletin boards (BBSs) and we’re happy to see BibiWATCH distributed through those networks as well.
4. You remind me of the “good jews” of Europe in the 1930s. They were the doctors and teachers and lawyers and other professionals in the Jewish community. They were the ones who calmed the ordinary people when the Nazis came. AND THEY COMPRISED THE JUDENRAT, the committees that sent the ordinary jews off to the extermination camps. You remind me of them, because you would make peace at all cost. You would give up the Golan, from which Syrian shells can be lobbed into Israel. Like the “good jews” of the thirties, you would calm the rest of us, assuring us that everything will be all right, that the destruction of our homes was simply to enable us to have newer ones.
As far as I am concerned, we don’t need your kind of “good jews”. We do not need another Judenrat. We need jews who will carry out the message of Massada in dealing with the rest of the world, NEVER AGAIN. We need Netanyahu!!! So I wish you no good. — David Cantor, USA
First we were accused of being “Arab lovers” and now — collaborators with the Nazis. Likud supporters should be very carefuly about calling those who’d give up the Golan “Judenrat” members and other such endearing epithets; as we’ve shown in previous issues of BibiWATCH, leading Likud politicians like Foreign Minister David Levy seem just as likely to “give up the Golan” as the editor of this newsletter. And by the way, what exactly is the “message of Massada in dealing with the rest of the world”? Collective suicide? How many of you out there are American Jews willing to fight to keep the occupied territories — until the last Israeli?
5. Yeah, okay, so you’re entitled to your (misguided) opinions. But keep the rhetoric down (do as I say, not as I do). You’ll have more credibility, and you’ll diminish the sin’at chinam that has caused us to be so dispersed and alienated from one another. (Your page might also get more boring, but it’s worth it. Trust me on this.) — Barb K., Edison, N.J., USA
Not sure I followed all of that. In any event, I have no intention of making BibiWATCH more boring. Quite the opposite.
6. As a journalist from Canada, covering the elections for a number of North American publications, I was disgusted by the anti-democratic attitude of the Labor Party in the past two years. Peres, Ramon, et al, were succeeding in turning Israel into a banana republic and police state. Coverups were rampant and the lies that were being fobbed off on the media were transparently blatant.
The election, itself, was evidence of a malaise in Israeli society. Aside from banners and two half hours of commercials, this was one of the quietest election campaigns I have ever witnessed in any country. It was almost like tossing a rock into a pond and no ripples appear yet underneath the surface you know the water is boiling. It became not only unfashionable to criticize the government, but in many cases, outright dangerous unless you didn’t mind spending time in administrative detention or, at best, being detained for questioning. . . .. — Marshall Shapiro
Marshall’s letter goes on quite a bit from here, but I couldn’t help pausing at this point. It was “dangerous” to “criticize the government” under Shimon Peres? Administrative detention of journalists? Excuse me, Marshall, but which North American newspapers are publishing your stuff?
7. I was very saddened to read your BibiWatch today, on Tisha B’Av the day of national mourning and fasting for the Jewish People . . . For those of us who were shocked and terrified by the process leading to the destruction of the Jewish State and the “rest-in-peace” process (by having Israel cut into pieces,) it is a great relief that Netanyahu has been elected by the MAJORITY of Israeli Jews and that we can now see some chance of true peace.. . . But first there must be peace between us. The first step if for us to listen to each other and stop name-calling and insulting. (Remember, that’s what Tisha B’Av is about) . . . . Despite the horrors of this morning [terrorists killed two Jews]. I was at Mearat HaMachpela this morning to pray for ALL of us! — Leah Wolf, Metar, Israel
BibiWATCH was not published on Tisha B’Av — though I see nothing inappropriate in discussing the fate of the Jewish nation and its state on that holy day, or any other day for that matter. I agree with you, Leah, that we should “listen to each other” and that’s what I’ve tried to do with this Letters column. I am publishing letters from both sides of the issues, giving lots of space to my political opponents. In the previous letter, I was accused of being a modern-day collaborator with the Nazis; in the next letter, another Likudnik implies that I’m a Communist. I guess this business of us all being Jews and having to love each other isn’t working out. Next time, pray harder.
8. As for the your comments on the Histadrut – did you lift your copy from Pravda or perhaps the Daily Worker? The Israeli public is having to learn that the days of government subsidies and state-owned industries are numbered, if not over. Your statement on “class politics” is indeed wishful thinking on your part – most people will soon realize that they will benefit directly in the long run from economic reform.
Finally – thanks for your publication. I find your newsletter to be at times entertaining source of humor and amusement, especially when you crow about the possibility of having the Histadrut being the force for political change. That one still cracks me up… — Jonathan Meola, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Why is it every time I mention trade unions, someone has to cry out “Communist!”? I understand that in some states of the American South — as well as throughout the Soviet empire when it existed — independent, strong trade unions were not exactly welcome. But in the state of Israel, working people still have the right to organize themselves into unions and to strike if they so desire. And as the Israeli economy begins its slide down the slippery slope (the stock market crash here was just the beginning), I expect the trade union movement in this country to play an increasingly prominent role in national politics.