Saturday, January 26, 2013

What future, exactly, did we vote for?

A week before the elections, I happened to get a glimpse of Israeli politics from the perspective of the other side of the continent of Asia. Japanese people  have quite a few problems of their own, especially their new Prime Minister who is playing with fire and escalating a confrontation with China over a group of islands where no one lives. "He is our Netanyahu" was how several of the  Japanese activists I met described him. Still, it turns out that quite a few people in Japan feel worried and concerned about the policies of the Israeli Netanyahu and about the continuing Israeli occupation of the Palestinians and the possibility that a flare-up in the Middle East would entail catastrophic effects well beyond the region. A considerable audience turned out at the University of Tokyo to hear what I – as well as Dr. Walid Salem of East Jerusalem – had to say.

The fast Japanese trains brought me to Hiroshima, where I spoke not far from the spot where in August 1945 the nuclear fireball exploded in the center of town and raised the temperature to 6000 degrees. A flourishing city, completely rebuilt physically but with its people still bearing a deep trauma and dedicated to spreading peace in the world. There and in Osaka, Japan's second largest city, I heard people concerned about our situation here and determined to act to achieve a solution. There are such people, and quite a few, there and in Europe and in America and all over the world, people who think it's their problem, and that it cannot be left only to the Israelis and the Palestinians. On the way back, during a short stopover at the airport of the Korean capital Seoul, I glanced at a local newspaper in English that someone had left and found a headline about the dire warnings made by U.S. President Barack Obama, aimed at the citizens of Israel on the eve of their going to the polls.

When I returned to Israel three days before the election, I found the papers full of commentaries asserting that the elections have already been decided and that Netanyahu's victory was completely assured. I embarked on a sequence of last-minute phone calls to tell people that the result was far from predetermined and that it was vital to go to the polls and cast a vote and throw one more personal mote of dust on the Left side of the balance. And on the last night before the elections, there was one more effort to cover the walls of Tel Aviv and Holon with red and green stickers, "If the government is against the people, the people are against the government" and "No doubt - vote against Bibi".  A bit of influence on the atmosphere in the streets where the decision would walk on the decisive morning.

On elections day I went to Polling Station 65 in Holon, to sit on the ballot commission afternoon shift – from three PM until the end of the vote count late at night. Polling Station 65 is located in the Shazar Elementary School on the Martyrs of Cairo Street. The street was named after the Egyptian Jews who in the 1950's paid with their lives when Israeli Military Intelligence agents lured them into taking part in provocative acts of espionage and sabotage. Once,  this affair had turned the Israeli political system upside down, nowadays hardly anyone takes an interested in the origin and meaning of the street's name. Outside the gates of the school a young man is crying out at the top of his voice: "Vote for the Shas Party! For the sake of the Torah! For the sake of Our Master, the Great Sage  Rabbi Ovadia Yosef! Vote Shas!"

We are sitting behind a long table in the school library, at out backs are shelves crammed with books on the history of the Zionist movement. Voters show their ID and go behind the screen.  Some of them emerge immediately with the voting envelope, some linger for long. "Why are there so many parties, even in America they make do with two," complained a man of about fifty with a heavy Russian accent. "What does it matter, as long as our voting slip was there" replies his wife.

"Are you a leftist? A real leftist, one of those going to demonstrate with the anarchists in Bil'in and confronting the army?" asks the ballot commissioner sitting next to me. "Certainly, I have a lot of friends in Bil'in" I reply. "Oh dear, I was there as a reserve officer. We might have met already, even if we were not introduced." The debate is cut short when a whole family arrives to vote and their names need to be located on the voters' roll. In the breaks in between voters, Left and Right ballot commissioners drink coffee and share the snacks they had brought with them.

A young woman comes in with a child of about three in a carriage. She is bored  when the mother goes behind the screen, but gets excited with the opportunity to drop the envelope in the ballot box slot. "Just so, dear, exactly like dropping coins in your little savings box" says the mother. "What a lovely child" says an  admiring ballot commissioner "in fifteen years she'll vote for herself." "If this  country still exists by then. Let's see the results tonight" says someone. "What did you say? How dare you say such a thing!" yells the mother, grabbing  the child and storming out.

From time to time we listen to the radio. There are hints of unexpected developments. Likud leaders are concerned about high voter turnout in left-wing strongholds. Our polling station is in a right-leaning  area, and the movement of voters seems rather sparse. "But among the Arabs the turnout is  low" my neighbor comforts himself. He tells me that he intends to move soon to a West Bank settlement. "A real villa for just eight hundred thousand Shekels. Where in Metropolitan Tel Aviv can you dream of such a thing?" "Don't make long-term plans for this villa, eventually you'll get evacuated." "Once upon a time Titus and the Romans evacuated us, in the end we came back." "Do you want to wait another two thousand years?".

Ten PM. The exit polls, exciting news. Lapid, Lapid. But there is little time to listen. We need to count the votes right here. There are precise and rigorous procedures, which require everybody's full attention. Before opening the envelopes they have to be counted, and the number compared with the number of voters. The chairwoman opens an envelope and announces the name of the party whose slip was inside, and it is recorded in two parallel lists. The final tallies are checked against each other, checked again and again to make sure there is no mistake. After midnight we take the duly signed result sheets to the regional balloting center established at the basketball stadium on Golda Meir Street, where a crowd of hundreds of ballot commissioners are impatiently waiting to deliver their results.

Finally at home in front of the late night TV broadcast. Netanyahu's victory speech sounded more like a funeral oration. Roving TV crews and  commentators in the studio immediately shift their focus back to the Lapid  Festival. There can be no doubt that Yair Lapid is the big winner of the evening, the Man of the Hour, the new kingmaker of Israeli politics. How come we did not see this was where things were heading? Meanwhile, some good news, Meretz doubled its parliamentary strength, while the racist Michael Ben Ari did not pass the vote threshold. The Central Elections Committee had not disqualified him, but the voters did. All in all, the evening ends better than we were afraid of.

Meanwhile, foreign ministries around the world are making urgent calls to their embassies in Israel: "Who is Yair Lapid?". International TV networks are begging for an interview with him. So really, who is Yair Lapid? Seemingly, everyone who lives in this country and sees TV and reads the papers here knows exactly who he is:  a TV personality and the son of a TV personality, a politician and the son of a politician, member of a second generation in the creation of new political parties from scratch. And yet, how did this man we all knew become suddenly such a glittering and dazzling star?

Many commentators have noted the link with the social protest movement of the summer of 2011, the hundreds of thousands who went out into the streets and chanted "The People Demand Social Justice!" and after a few months faded away as if they had never been. And now, so we are told, they emerged and came to the polls, and it was Yair Lapid who managed to channel their protest into his brand of electoral politics protest. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Yair Lapid gave an expression to a very specific facet of that protest.

Already at the time itself there were two distinct trends, two competing narratives in the Social Protest Movement, and both could be discerned in the leaflets distributed at the tent encampment on Rothschild Boulevard and in the placards carried in the mass demonstrations and the divergent speeches delivered from the podium.

There were demonstrations and protesters who spoke on behalf of "The People", an abstract concept perceived as including just about everybody:    Ashkenazis and Mizrahis, Jews and Arabs, left-wingers and right-wingers,  peace seekers as well as settlers, students and academics and high-tech enthusiasts together with hard-pressed manual workers earning less than  the minimum wage - everybody except the handful tycoons at the top who suck everybody's blood, and the government of tycoons' lackeys. It was demanded that these tycoons be heavily taxed, and the money used to fund an Israeli Welfare State, high-quality social services and education and health for all.

This was the banner taken up by Shelly Yachimovich of the Israeli Labor Party. With great perseverance and conviction, she hoped that this would prove the  way to break the traditional boundaries of the Israeli political system and bring into the Labor Party fold masses of impoverished traditional Likud voters who, more than anyone else, have an interest in a Welfare State and strong social services. A nice idea which just did not materialize. The breakthrough did not occur, right-wing voters in the slum neighborhoods and development towns did not cross the lines, and in this week's elections the Labor Party gained votes only in the same places and among the same social layers which have always supported it . Far too little to sustain Yachimovich's dreams of achieving a political overturn.

But the protest movement of summer 2011 also had a different current. Those who spoke on behalf of "The Middle Cass" - also a term which is vague and difficult to define. A frequently heard joke expresses well the spirit: "In this country we have one third of the population who work, and one third who pay taxes, and one third who serve in the army - the problem is that it is always the same one third...". In fact, this is aimed especially at the ultra-Orthodox who, it is asserted, do not work and do not pay taxes and do not serve in the army, a deadweight under which the Middle Class in groaning. And this spirit was expressed by talented television presenter Yair Lapid. His late father Yosef (Tommy) Lapid had started once a party which dealt wit much the same issue.

Yair Lapid, establishing the "Yesh Atid" (There is a Future) Party and running it for a year until the elections, has already surpassed the achievements of his father. He did achieve what Shelly Yachimovich failed to do, getting the adherence of a significant portion of Likud voters (more affluent ones) and leaving Binyamin Netanyahu a battered, bruised and weakened Prime Minister. As all commentators agree, Netanyahu does not have a real option of forming  a government without Lapid and his party. He has no choice but to embrace Lapid as a primary and senior partner in his new cabinet. For his part, Lapid hastened to return the favor and deny outright any idea of participating in an anti-Netanyahu Block. But what use will Lapid make of the position of power which fell into his hands?

Lapid had chosen to open his elections campaign at the settlement of Ariel, and put forward the difference between "settlement blocs" which are considered legitimate and acceptable, as against "isolated settlements" in which there should be no more investment of money. (In the elections he got  ten percent of the vote in Ariel...). In general, during the campaign Lapid - like most of party leaders in these elections - avoided making statements on the Palestinians and concentrated on a "civil agenda".  In recent weeks, however, he did express some concern about the sustained international condemnation of Israel following the settlements building spree in general and in the highly  sensitive E-1 area in particular.

As my colleague Haim Baram writes today, the hundreds of thousands of supporters of "There is a Future" may not care much about the fate of the Palestinians under occupation in itself, but they are not willing to sacrifice their standard of living for a crazy settlement project or a dangerous adventure in  Iran. Unwilling to lose cultural and academic links in Europe and North America, they are not willing to give Netanyahu a green light for a head-on confrontation with President Obama.

And so, as the media reports, "There is a Future" will condition its entry into the government coalition not only on "sharing the burden" – i.e. taking the ultra-Orthodox into the army – but also on resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. The new MK Ofer Shelah – Lapid's close personal friend who together with him moved from journalism into active politics - stated firmly that this is not about empty talks, but serious negotiations leading to the signing of an agreement with the Palestinians and its implementation in practice.

Similar things were said by another of the new party's leaders – Ya'akov Perry, former security chief turned a very successful businessman, who like other former heads of the Shabak security service developed afterwards fairly dovish views. He stated that "the Palestinians are definitely partners to an agreement, even if they are difficult partners" and that Israel should come up with "a divorce agreement" which will put an end to Israeli rule over them. He added that "Yair Lapid is perfectly suitable to serve as Foreign Minister, and he could put an end to the international isolation of Israel."

Rabbi Shai Piron, Lapid's number two and a bit less of a dove (himself a resident of the settlement of Oranit) also elaborated on the same subject: "The concept of two states for two peoples is our one and only entry permit into the  world in which we live. Without this, we will be outcasts and pariahs. This is, provided that there will be no Right of Return in any form, that Jerusalem is Israel's capital and that under no condition will settlement blocs be evacuated. (...) three months ago the Prime Minister vowed to topple the Hamas regime and mobilized 60,000 troops. But then he got a call from Hillary Clinton and refrained from entering Gaza. He understood that Israel's standing in the world must be preserved".

"So, are you going to be Netanyahu's key to the world?" asked the interviewer, and Rabbi Piron confirmed "Yes, Netanyahu needs our key to our world" (Ma'ariv, Jan. 25, 2013).

So, is the aim to end the international isolation of Israel, or to really deal with the Palestinians? Would the main role of Foreign Minister Lapid be to travel around the world, make use of his talents as a former TV anchor and tell  diplomats and statesmen things which they would enjoy hearing (especially after the years of Avigdor Lieberman in this position)? Or is it going to be a real and sincere effort to reach an agreement and implement it? To a large extent, this would depend on the governments and leaders whom Lapid will encounter in the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world. But to some extent it would certainly depend on Yair Lapid himself and whom he chooses as his allies.

The Jewish Home Party, also one of the surprises of this election, is according to many "a natural coalition partner" for Yair Lapid's party, since it shares much of the same "civil agenda".  Number 10 on their list is Orit Struk, one of the settlers living in enclaves at the heart of Palestinian Hebron. Orit Struck is  well known for heading the "Judea and Samaria Human Rights Organization" whose activities focus on the Human Rights of the settlers, and documenting each incident of police violence during the evacuation of illegal outposts. 

On the after the elections, something happened at al-Arub, a Palestinian community located a few miles north of the settler enclave in which the new MK Orit Struk resides. An IDF officer and his driver were driving by on the  highway, embarked on a private pursuit of Palestinian stone throwers and opened fire, killing the 22-year student Lubna Munir Hanash. She was the sixth Palestinian civilian to be killed by Israeli gunfire in the past month. The initial investigation conducted by the army showed that she did not endanger them in any way whatsoever, and that it is very doubtful if their shooting was justified.  Will they be prosecuted? That is also highly doubtful. What is certain is that this incident will get no mention from the Settler Human Rights organization headed by Struk.

So, what will be the situation at the time of the next elections to the Knesset of Israel, due in 2017 - the precise year of the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation? Will the settlers still reside in armed enclaves at the heart of Occupied Territory, and actively participate behind their barbed wires in the Israeli democracy of which their Palestinian neighbors have no share? Will Yair Lapid's political tenure end with the sum total that the ranks of the army of occupation shooting down Palestinians will come to include also ultra-Orthodox soldiers, laying down the Talmud and taking up the gun instead? If so, Lapid will remain a marginal footnote, and the "There is a Future" party will not have much of a future.

On election night, shortly after hearing of the dimensions of his victory, Yair Lapid said in the victory speech to his party's gathered activists: "Tonight, a heavy responsibility was placed on our shoulders."

Indeed, a heavy responsibility. Perhaps much heavier than Yair Lapid himself yet realizes.