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Israeli politics for dummies (2015 edition)

With voting taking place in just 1 week, on Tuesday, the 17th of March 2015, the elections campaign for the twentieth Knesset has entered its final stretch. And as usual with Israeli elections, predictions about the outcome and its consequences are worth less than the paper they are printed on. As any follower of Israeli politics knows, expecting the unexpected is a must. But even on the Israeli scale of surprising results, next week’s vote might turn a big surprise. It just might be that the next Knesset (the Israeli parliament) will not be as fragmented as it used to be.

Read on and this will make (at least some) sense! Image source – Wikipedia

The reason is that the electoral threshold has been raised from 2% to 3.25%, meaning that a party should win at least 4 rather than 2 seats to be in the Knesset (out of 120 in total). Many parties running, both established ones and newcomers (Meretz and Yahad, see below) are balancing just above the threshold. With that in mind, voters may at the last moment cast their ballot for a party that is sure to get into the Knesset, rather than risk having their vote lost with a party that just couldn’t make it. Other factors that complicate the eventual outcome are the application of the Bader-Offer method and the surplus-votes agreements. I’ll spare you the technical details, but it comes down to a slight favouring of bigger parties. So, the Likud got 38 rather than 36 seats in the 2003 elections after the numbers were crunched.

The surprising outcomes are not only a function of technicalities though. The main source of surprises is that Israeli politics is very poorly understood outside Israel. The way I see it there are 3 causes for the failure to understand Israeli politics.

Firstly, most coverage comes from left-wing affiliates. So, Omri Marcus, an Israeli who wrote a guide to “Israeli Politics for Dummies“, has named no less than 3 right-wing parties in Israel “extreme” and guess how many left-wing parties got that title? Right, zero! Not even the communists of Hadash were deemed worthy of the “extreme” label by Omri.

Secondly, It’s the economy, stupid. The Israeli politics is almost uniformly framed as revolving around security in the international media. Yet the Israeli governments usually fall on economic issues and election campaigns are largely focused on social-economical topics like the high cost of living, taxes and child support. Since this aspect of Israeli politics is by and large ignored outside Israel, outcomes of the elections do not fail to come as a surprise.

But the third and perhaps main reason the Israeli elections are so confusing is that, well, there’s just too much going on. This time, there are no less than 25 parties participating, with 10 or 11 standing a real chance of scoring seats in the Knesset. Granted, 25 is less than the over 30 that participated in previous campaigns, but its still a huge amount to choose from.

To enable understanding Israeli politics would take more than a blog post. But I will try to make the Israeli political map a bit more understandable, by presenting some definitions and the main actors, discussing them, where possible, in more general political terms. Without further ado, here’s my best attempt to make sense of Israeli politics.

The political map

Left-Right
The classical definitions of “left” and “right” apply in Israel as well. The “left” is pro-state involvement and government spending, the “right” is about privatization and less taxes. In security terms, as elsewhere, the “left” and “right” are “doves” and “hawks“. In Israel, in addition to traditional opinions on crime and immigration this means the “right” is Jewish-nationalist or Zionist and the “left” is… well, slightly less fervently Zionist. And, of course, there are the Arab parties, which are anti-Zionist.

Black-white
At least part of the Israeli politics is arranged around ethnic lines. In the Jewish majority the “black” are the Sefardi Jews and the “white” are Ashkenazi. With the ethnic divisions being rapidly erased as Jews of different origins happily intermarry, the division becomes less pronounced, with some notable exceptions (see below). The black-white division correlates slightly with the left-right, Sefardi Jews being on average poorer, less educated and more right-wing oriented than Ashkenazi.

Religious-secular
Religion plays a large role in Israeli politics, with at least 4 of the 10-11 main parties including a significant Jewish religious component, supplemented by the Arab Islamist party. Most Jewish religious parties are nationalistic, but their economic platform ranges from ethno-socialism to more republican-style views.

The main players (with the number of seats in the latest poll)

Likud (22)
Despite what some would like you to believe, Likud is nothing like the Tea Party. In social-economical terms Israel is more European than American and Likud is a classical central-right movement that can be best compared to the British Conservatives, the German Christian-Democrats or the milder Republicans.

Zionist Union (24)
The split and fractured remains of the Israeli Labour party have re-united for the 2015 elections under their traditional banner “anything but Bibi [Netaniyahu]”. A classical Social-Democratic central-left party (left-wing Democrats in the US).

The Joint Arab List (13)
Recognizing the very real possibility of being wiped out by the elevated electoral threshold, 4 Arab parties have formed an unholy alliance of Arab nationalists, Islamists and Communists, united only by their rejection of Israel as a Jewish state. Syriza is the best parallel, although if there’s one sure thing in Israel is that the Joint Arab List is not going to be a member of the coalition government.

Yesh Atid (12)
A secular centrist party, that came out of nowhere to become the second-largest party in the outgoing Knesset. As usual with secular centrist parties in Israel, is going nowhere after having failed to achieve any of its goals despite being a major coalition partner with Likud. Comparable to European Liberal-Democrats, or the right-wing of the Democratic Party in the US.

Jewish Home (12)
As you probably guessed from its name, a Jewish nationalist-religious party. Its economic agenda is more right-wing than that of other religious parties, so its probably comparable to the right-wing of the Christian-Democrats or mainstream Republicans.

Kulanu (9)
This campaign’s centrist newcomer. Formed, as usual, by a Likud fugitive who is unsure of most things except wanting to head his own political movement. See Yesh Atid.

Shas (7)
A Sefardi (“black”) Jewish ultra-orthodox religious party. Its program is a unique blend of social demands with religious propaganda. The “left-right” definitions fail here as Shas will sit in any government that will provide its MP’s a reach into the public funds.

United Torah Judaism (6)
The Ashkenazi (“white”) branch of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy. See Shas.

Yisrael Beiteinu (5)
Rather unique bird in Israeli politics, this is a secular right-wing party. Rapidly disappearing as its Soviet-made electorate assimilates into the Israeli society. Has a love-hate relationship with Likud, as the two keep merging and splitting.

Meretz (5)
The last remains of the Israeli left. Dreamy left-wing extremists, attempting to save themselves from (political) extinction by including a green agenda, much as the European Green-Left movements are doing. With about the same very limited success.

Yachad (4)
A splinter-movement of Shas, running together with the scarier components of Jewish right-wing extremism. Stand a real chance of just failing to pass the electoral threshold. Again.

BARUCH2

That’s me (on the right) in Hebron, with Baruch Marzel, the scarier component of Jewish right-wing extremism. This was way back in 2001, apparently he lost a lot of weight since. I do not support his views. I think he’s a fool.

The Day After

If you thought the Israeli politics was confusing, wait until the day after the elections, when the dust has settled and the seats in the Knesset have been divided. Since Israel has a multi-party system, and no party ever gets a majority, a coalition has to be formed. Whether the polls are accurate or not, it seems as if even the two biggest parties (Likud and Zionist Union) will get less than a 1/5th of the seats each. In the most optimistic scenario where they bridge their deep divisions and overcome the mutual resentment, they will need a third partner to achieve a majority. Yesh Atid is the most likely candidate, but even that might not be enough for 61 (out of 120) seats. Any other coalition will have to bring together at least 4 parties and be an even less probable combination of political views. All I can say is stay tuned for what may very well be the best show on Earth!

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Remembering the Great War in the Netherlands

All over Europe, ceremonies are being held these weeks to commemorate 100 years since the outbreak of World War I. Even Russia, where the war has been largely erased from history, unveiled a monument dedicated to “to the Heroes of WWI”. In a twist of cruel irony, it was no other that President Putin who said at the opening that “the tragedy of WWI reminds us what excessive ambitions, an unwillingness to listen to each other and violations of liberties lead to”. If only he would listen to himself. In an even crueler irony, the web address of the article of Russia Today about the event is http://rt.com/news/177300-putin-world-war-ambitions/!

Nevertheless, WWI was, and still is, a conflict of superlatives – also known as The Great War, and the War to End All Wars. More than any other conflict before or since, World War I reshaped the maps and minds of Europe, unleashing powers no one imagined possible and sending shock waves that ripple through the Old Continent, and the world, ever since.

The impact on Europe of that Great War surpasses the even greater war that followed – World War II.  In fact, WWII can be viewed as a sequel to WWI – the participants and alliances were the same and the war was fought on the same battlefields as in 1914-1918. Arguably, the Balkan wars of the 1990’s were a “frozen conflict” left by WWI, that erupted once the political situation “defrosted” it. In a way, even the current events in Ukraine are a distant echo of the fighting of a century ago. The Russian Empire was simply too big to disintegrate at once, and the chunks and pieces of that colossus still rumble as they fall and settle, even 100 years later.

The legacy of WWI is still felt across the continent. Every village in France, Britain and Germany has a memorial listing the dozens of names of fallen soldiers. Unexploded ordnance still occasionally claims lives in Flanders Fields. Families from as far as Australia come over to re-bury their ancestors as their remains are finally identified. Excursions to the battlefields are rated as “excellent” almost unanimously on TripAdvisor.

In sharp contrast, here in the Netherlands, WWI is not part of the collective memory. The Netherlands managed to maintain neutrality, positioning itself as a “social hub” for spies from all the warring parties during the entire war. The commemoration is largely a foreign affair here. There is even no official memorial service. Personally, I find it weird to say the least. Even being officially neutral, the country was involved in the conflict in countless ways, from accommodating refugees and interning thousands of Allied and German soldiers to losing dozens of ships in the limitless submarine warfare. Besides, nowadays the Netherlands is home to hundreds of thousands people originating from countries that did fight in WWI – the Germans, Belgians, Yugoslavs and British residing here all have relatives who have fought and died in those terrible years.

Military smithy in the Netherlands in 1918 (www.greatwar.nl)

I think the Dutch public could and should learn more about the Great War and its significance and impact. Fortunately, I am not alone in this. The NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies states that in the last months the interest for WWI has been surprisingly high, and has installed a national coordinator for the commemoration of the centennial of WWI. Hopefully, we will all learn something from the commemoration. Or at the very least, remember the Great War of 1914-1918.

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Can we have the right for dignity?

I’m sure everyone noticed that last week’s news was particularly bad. In fact, it was absolutely horrible. Here in the Netherlands the scale and impact of the MH17 disaster only now begin to be realized, as the victims are brought back for identification, and a seemingly endless caravan of funeral cars rolls on the road.

Sadly, these dignified images have been preceded by much less dignified ones. I’m sure you’ve seen those, too – it was pretty impossible to avoid them. Even the national news showed every obscene detail from the scene, without editing anything out. Why do they do it? We know there was a disaster. We know it is gruesome. We know it. But do we really need to see all the details on the evening news? Just a few years ago, showing parts of dead bodies on national TV would have been unthinkable. The dead were shown covered in a sheet or pixelated, preserving their dignity as a token of respect. Now, the mainstream media seemingly fight a losing battle with Twitter and Whatsapp for who is showing the most eerie images.

Its not even myself I am concerned about. Yes, my stomach turns if I see the victims of the tragedy of MH17 scattered in a field, but at least I am a grown-up person, well capable of dealing with it. But I have a daughter, who’s just one year old. Right now she’s too young to realize the horror of these images and too young to ask questions about them. It won’t take long though before she does ask questions about what she sees on TV and in the newspapers. And its me who will have to provide the answers. Some day I will have to explain to her that the world can be a bad, bad place at times. But I was hoping that I have a few more years before I have to have this conversation with her, and I would like to choose that moment myself and not to be forced upon me by some news editor chasing the ratings.

And actually, well, yes, its myself I am concerned about, too. Because if God forbid I make the news in the wrong way, the last thing I want is for my mutilated remains to be on public display. We now have the right to be forgotten. Can we also have the right for dignity? Please?

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