ISRAELI ELECTIONS: THE DYE IS CAST

The Israeli elections are over, the votes counted and the results announced. But what happens now? Can the region hope for a change of direction from Tel Aviv with regard to the Palestinians and international foreign policy, or are we doomed to four more turgid years of the same? Sharif Nashashibi reports, with additional analysis by Lawrence Joffe.

Prior to Israel’s general elections in January, centre- left political parties signed a covenant pledging “to initiate promoting real equality so that within 10 years discrimination between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority will disappear.” It also demands that the state invests 2.5bn shekels (more than $680m) annually over a decade to achieve that goal.

Signatories include representatives from the recently formed Yesh Atid, now the second-largest party in the Knesset after the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list; Labour, the third-largest party; and Kadima, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. None of the ultra-Orthodox or right-wing parties took part.

The covenant says Israel must “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” Such sentiments, while laudable, are nothing new. “We have experienced talk and declarations that were never implemented,” said Ramiz Jaraisy, the mayor of Nazareth – dubbed “the Arab capital of Israel,” and the largest city in the north of the country – and chairman of the committee of Arab local authorities. As such, the timing of the covenant arguably warrants more attention.

It is not outlandish to believe that its main purpose was to galvanise Arab citizens – those of Palestinian origin – to vote, in the knowledge that their participation hinders right-wing parties. Some of the speakers at the signing ceremony urged Israeli-Arabs, who comprise more than 20% of the population, to do so in larger numbers than before. Whether this covenant is sincere, or simply an electoral ploy, remains to be seen. “I don’t expect a change in reality,” said Jaraisy. “Prove to me differently.”

Several Israeli newspapers published opinion pieces calling on Arab citizens to vote, with the liberal Haaretz even printing an editorial in Arabic. The campaign by Israeli Jews and Arabs to get the latter voting was met with an opposing campaign to boycott the elections. It is a difficult dilemma experienced by communities in any country that have a deep-seated sense of disenfranchisement and alienation. Do they when Israel’s prime minister called early elections last october, it appeared like another masterstroke by the arch-tactician. Nearly four years into his term he had diverted attention from the massive social protests of 2011 with a bravura performance against Iran at the UN. he received a standing ovation from the uS Congress, quelled sniping from his Likud rightwing, and maintained his coalition even after most Labour deputies left. He capped his popularity on 18 October 2011 by securing the release of Gilad Shalit after five years’ captivity in Gaza.

Granted, relations with Washington and Ankara had taken a nosedive since he took power in 2009. Last year plans to draft ultra-orthodox Jews into the military divided coalition partners. Critics blamed Netanyahu for curbing civil liberties and tolerating overt racism against Palestinians, both in Israel and the Territories. By late 2012 doubts arose over whether his increasingly jaded coalition could pass the budget.

Still, Israel’s centre-left opposition was even more divided, and none of their leaders could match Netanyahu’s advantage. Even liberal Israelis seemed to despair of seeing a utopian peace deal in their lifetime. Why not, he reasoned, capitalise on his relative good fortune and gain a rousing mandate to govern for a second term?

The left was at sea, opined media pundits, and Israel’s centre of gravity had lurched decidedly rightwards since 2009. In the event, Bibi’s nemesis emerged from the centre-left, and particularly from former talk-show host Yair Lapid, his Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) gained an astounding 19 seats. The party was only created a year ago, and old hands dismissed it as ideologically amorphous, at best a vehicle for its leader’s ego., yet Yesh’s tally put it within one seat of Likud itself and Lapid became the second strongest figure in Israeli politics.

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