Israel/Palestine,  Your View

On the eve of elections

This is a guest post from Alex Stein of

For the first time in my life, I’m about to cast a vote that really counts. My excuses for my apathy towards Britain’s first-past-the-post system no longer apply; Israel’s pure system of proportional representation means that my voice can indeed make a difference. With this responsibility, though, come a number of tough dilemmas. Is it a choice between Tzipi and Bibi? Are all the leading candidates broadly similar? Is it right to pretend I am voting for Prime Minister, while ignoring the rest of the names on the party list? Should I ignore the race for the top and focus on strengthening a smaller party? All these questions remain unanswered, which is why I remain – even this later in the day – an undecided voter. 

A few months ago I was a Livni supporter, and I’ve even done an ickle bit of campaigning for her. This commitment emerged from literal waking nightmares about Bibi returning as Prime Minister, a deeply felt sense of tragedy that America was voting Obama just as we were about to vote for Bush. In short, I felt the stars were finally aligning. Over the last two years Livni has demonstrated her commitment to the diplomatic path with the PA, a path that would be spurred on by unprecedented goodwill from the international community should she be elected. Or at least that was my assumption. Moreover, there is something refreshingly down-to-earth about her, and she seems to be free from the stain of corruption that has blotted the career of so many of her counterparts.

Doubts set in during Operation Cast Lead. She didn’t do a good job in front of the foreign media, and was far too gung-ho about Israel’s war aims, making absurd claims about toppling Hamas, claims that couldn’t possibly be fulfilled. Even since the ‘ceasefire’ she’s continued down this path, demanding that Israel go in hard after every rocket fire, walking into the trap set for her by Barak, according to which everything she says will be characterized as lacking experience. I know that she’s caught in a bind: sexism has characterized both of the other candidates’ attacks on her, and she’s damned if she does and damned if she’s doesn’t. Plus I’m aware she’s electioneering. But there’s been something quite ugly about her rhetoric in recent week, an ugliness that has significantly curbed my enthusiasm. 

Barak will be Barak. Whatever’s good for him will be promoted like the greatest policy in the world. With Bibi and Livni sloshing it out to prove who’s the toughest, he’s suddenly holding court at Ben Gurion University about building a tunnel between the West Bank and Gaza. I’m familiar with all this, yet have still been relatively impressed with his performance over the last few weeks, particularly since the ‘end’ of hostilities in Gaza. I’m not impressed enough, however, to give him my vote. He had his chance, and I see no compelling reason why he should be given another.

The same applies to Bibi. He’s transparently an awful guy, but politically he’s not quite as bad as they all say. The truth is he has no strategic plan towards the Palestinians. He talks up his idea of economic peace like the messiah’s on his way, but without offering political hope it will amount to nothing. At the same time, though, I don’t think there’s any reason to fear some kind of major settlement expansion. While he stands at the head of what is essentially a far-right party, he’s also the one Israeli leader most in thrall of American power. For all the rhetoric, he knows when to be subservient, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of surprise withdrawal – albeit ultimately of a symbolic kind – during his reign.

So how might the winning coalition shape up? The irony is that Bibi would probably bring in Labor while Livni may yet end up sitting down with Lieberman. While some polls optimistically show Livni edging out Bibi, none of them show the left-wing drop defeating the right-wing bloc (the Arab parties, of course, remain in limbo). I don’t see how Livni can form a coalition without bringing in either Shas or Yisrael Beitenu. We saw what happened when she tried to play nice with Eli Yishai and co back in November, and there’s no reason to think that anything will change this time around. Which leaves Lieberman. Amidst all the justified furor over his remarks about oaths and Israeli-Arabs, it’s easy to forget that he’s not fundamentally opposed to a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank, or indeed to a Palestinian state. He also has to deliver on civil marriages, which suddenly puts him in bed with the left. Bibi has not yet managed to work out how to play Lieberman, who seems to be pinching votes off him right to the last. Plus Bibi wants a broad-based coalition, to try and show the world they’ve got nothing to worry about.

In some ways, then, a vote for Livni is a vote for Lieberman. One of the big reasons I’m turned off the major parties is their support of the bill to ban Balad and Raam Taal from the elections. The Supreme Court may have overruled this decision, but the damage had already been done. Needless to say, Lieberman supported this measure and then some. Israeli politics is a dirty game, of course, and it’s to be expected that people will engage in some particularly dramatic swinging. For me to vote for Livni now, though, given all of the above, I’d have to be really convinced that she’s going to make the breakthrough with the Palestinians. On this, I’m still to be convinced.

Of course, my most natural bedfellows are Meretz-Yachad, but they remain too elitist, and I can’t stand Amos Oz playing Ovadia Yosef to the café-dwellers. Which leaves Meimad-Yeruka, an intriguing hybrid of environmentalism and liberal orthodoxy. They first caught my eye in Umm-el-Fahm, when a long time Arab Hadash voter told me he was considering switching his allegiances to the new boys. Their central contention is that the environment is the only issue which can actually unite the whole country, and it’s with this banner that they’re trying to win over voters from across the ethnic and political divide. They’re not bound to the old ideological assumptions, and their presence in an increasingly stagnant political arena is refreshing. The question is will they pass their threshold, or will supporting them be a wasted vote?

These are my dilemmas. I’m not sure I’ll solve them until I find myself in the booth. In the meantime, advice from the esteemed readership of Harry’s Place is actively encouraged…