The political earthquake that shook Israel last week went, at first, almost completely unreported in America. I can put forward some explanations why it wasn’t reported – in a nutshell, because the story is a lethal combination of confusing and embarrassing. By yesterday, however, the initial stench and general sense of disgust at the surprise “unity government” deal have apparently faded away as the news traveled the Atlantic – and Israeli PM Netanyahu (hereafter, “Bibi”), the deal’s apparent winner, landed on a Times Magazine cover crowning him as “KING BIBI”, no less.
Once again, the mainstream American press is missing the story, lock stock and barrel. This not about King Bibi and his political wizardry (although he has certainly become more proficient over the years). With all due respect to Bibi – and very little is due – performing the political feats he has accomplished has become as easy as taking candy from a baby. The real story should be: how weak, compromised and downright farcical the Israeli political system has become.
Of course, when it comes to Israel and the American press, there will always be those who try put lipstick on any pig, at all costs. One fellow Krauthammer even equated last week’s “unity government” deal with Israel’s first unity government, formed in May 1967 when Israel faced a siege imposed by the mighty Nasser, leading a military coalition of 3 of its neighbors backed by the Soviet Union. So now, according to Charlie K., just like in 1967, Israel’s leaders valiantly rise above petty politics and unite for the national good in the face of lethal danger.
It’s a great text, that Krauthammer column, but none of it is true and it bears zero relation to reality. Just ask the Israeli public – they don’t buy that crap:
Most Israelis believe the Likud-Kadima unity deal was driven by personal and political considerations rather than the national good, and few believe the new 94-MK coalition will carry out the promises its leaders made Tuesday, a Haaretz-Dialog poll has found.
Evidently, Tuesday’s lengthy press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz failed to convince the public, which remains suspicious and skeptical of all their talk about national responsibility: Only a quarter of respondents said they believe the two were motivated by the good of the country.
Of course, only fools would expect anything except crass shilling from dear ol’ Krauthammer. But even respectable Israeli columnists have aggressively pushed a 2-pronged message of “nothing to see here, just move right along and be grateful for what you’ve got”. The 2 prongs are:
1. The expanded coalition (nearly 80% of the Knesset parliament) will allow Bibi to tack back from right to center, and eventually embrace bold diplomatic moves.
What a fine example of wishful thinking! Even the two clowns themselves, in their above-mentioned lengthy news conference, never promised anything of the like. Rather, they focused on the second-tier wedge issue of imposing national service on certain sectors of Israeli society. This issue, which rises periodically whenever some politician thinks s/he can squeeze some mileage out of it, is roughly the domestic-politics analogue of the gay-marriage issue here in the US.
Bibi and Mofaz also threw in some lip-service about “reforming the system of government” – a morsel that some pundits swallowed as if it was manna from heaven. I really don’t understand: aren’t pundits supposed to educate the public against stupid credulity? In the best of cases, nothing will come out of that lip-service – because I really don’t want anyone dear to me to be subject to whatever these wackos at the government cook up under the title “reforming the system of government.” The “reforms” we’ve seen so far from Bibi’s coalition, usually supported or even sponsored by members of Kadima (who were supposed to be in the opposition), included all manners of curbing opposition and civil-society activities, with wording carefully calibrated to punish only activities on the left side of the map – or new legislation gnawing away at the tattered remnants of checks-and-balances in the Israeli system. So one can only imagine, what bright ideas might emanate from these freedom-loving luminaries, when they set their sights directly on “government reform.”
The second mainstream-pundit prong to sell the deal to us is 2. There’s nothing unusual here. Major Israeli parties have repeatedly over the years, tried to lure smaller parties into or out of the coalition (the 1990 “Stinky Deal” was such a case), or even poach individual Knesset (Parliament) members off of each other.
This, at least, is a true statement. But that single nugget of truth is a fig-leaf for a swarm of fallacies and distortions. So… like countless parents and teachers before me, let me remind the Serious People of Israel that just because “everybody’s doing it”, doesn’t mean it’s ok. Poaching undermines democracy. In fact, in order to combat the phenomenon the Knesset itself enacted a law that prevents poaching of any number of MKs smaller than one-third of a faction. This has hardly solved the problem. It only turned poaching into a big-game sport: poaching complete parties.
Right after the 2006 elections, Kadima poached the “Retirees’ Party” – a highly successful fraud that managed to come out of nowhere and clean out 7 seats, by promising to fight against the system on behalf of those neglected old folks. Instead, the “Retirees’ Party” had completely dissolved itself overnight into Kadima in exchange for two government cabinets, and was never seen or heard since. Of course, in 2006 too the pundits told Israeli citizens (including some quarter-million voters who thought they were empowering a new clean anti-Establishment force) to move right along, nothing to see here.
But Bibi is the undisputed poaching champion: he has two parties and one half-party under his belt, just from this term. Which leads me to the issue of quantity, frequency and manner of poaching. Yes, Knesset members have been poached before. But never before had the largest party in the Knesset and the anchor of the parliamentary opposition been poached in the middle of the night by the government, in its entirety – without the slightest knowledge of most of that party’s leadership. Moments before being told of the deal, Kadima’s MKs were sure they were voting for dissolving the Knesset and an early election – a motion put forward by the government itself and supported by all factions. The next moment, they became part of the government.
In fact, Bibi’s current term at Israel’s helm has – start to finish – been created and sustained via stinky back-room deals with individual corrupt party heads, in flagrant contempt of their colleagues and the voters. To be precise, 3 such deals. The first 2 with Labor leader Ehud Barak (one to set up the government, one to split up the Labor Party) – and now with Mofaz. It is easy to forget, and most people have forgotten – but Bibi’s party actually came in second in the last elections, with 27 seats (out of 120) to Kadima’s 28. If it wasn’t for all those back-room deals, he’d have to settle for a power-sharing agreement with Tzipi Livni right from the start, or go to another election much earlier and under far less convenient circumstances.
There are two main lessons to be highlighted here. First, this is not how a democracy operates. If one party head can always buy off corrupt heads of other parties in shady back-room deals in order to grab power, if all that 80% of Knesset members care about is getting into the coalition, regardless of the coalition’s policies and values – then the existence of parties, parliament and elections is rendered meaningless. Even worse, the elections and party slogans become a charade that serves to hide the real machinations of power.
Frankly, it is amazing that such a statement of the obvious is even needed. But the mainstream discourse in (and about) Israel is a strange beast, and therefore you will have to search very hard to find any trace of this basic truth in the many thousands of words already spilled about the Super-Stinky Deal.
For anti-Occupation gadflies like me, the entire affair is no coincidence. It is not in the halls of Knesset that Israel’s democracy was killed, but on the ground in the Occupied Territories. Stinky Deals like this are only the inevitable icing on the cake, or the nails in the coffin (pick your metaphor!). Needless to say, such a straightforward reasoning is also laughed out of any “respectable” Israeli discourse nowadays. But here’s the beauty: the specific chain of events leading up to the apparent dissolution of the government and its resurrection via “the Deal”, has started directly from an Occupation court case, a land-robbery case in which the government has been found in contempt of court decisions. In other words, I rest my case. This also proves, that even small activist groups in the political fringe – such as Yesh Din, the Israeli human-rights NGO that helped the Palestinian land owners fight for their rights – can affect the entire national trajectory.
And the second lesson: Kadima, the largest party in the last two Knessets, a party who controlled the government in 2006-2009, has never really been a party in any meaningful sense. All along, Kadima itself has been one big “Stinky Deal”, a cruel hoax perpetrated upon the public by politicians and the media. There is no There There.
Because you see? There was a reason why it was so easy for Bibi to poach Kadima. Most of its members were simply dying to be poached. Despite their surprise to learn about the deal, they eagerly jumped on the bandwagon and approved it. Because all Kadima has ever been about, was the meeting point between a disingenuous political marketing trick, and a great shortcut for politicians to get some government jobs.
Nothing more, nothing less.
And now, the “party” was over for Kadima (lame pun intended). The pre-election polls released before the Super-Stinky Deal had forecast their mighty 28-seat faction to contract almost to single digits, and – who knows – as the campaign rolls maybe even go extinct. So it was time to join the new national sports: “Bibi, Buy Me!”
The Israeli mainstream media has a very good reason to tell citizens to move on and not pay attention. After all, they were chief collaborators in pretending that “Kadima” is a genuine political party, a party that has some sort of identity somewhere, or perhaps even a hint of a spine. But it doesn’t.
This is of course intimately tied with the first lesson. The vast majority of Kadima’s politicians have remained Likudniks in heart and soul. The entire “Kadima” thing has been a trick to lure left-of-center voters to elect those Likudniks. This is yet another way in which the Israeli political system, since late 2000, has turned into a charade and a farce, a pretense of democracy rather than the real thing.
The sad truth is, that since 2001 there has been no real mainstream opposition party in Israel. The opposition has been relegated to the fringes, mostly outside the formal political system. Since the right-wing fringe is rather close to power, and constantly plotting Armageddons – this leaves us, the anti-Occupation progressives (I count myself as a geographically remote member of that fringe) – all alone, trying to hold the whole thing together somehow.
Here is a brief history of the land-robbery case that has almost led to the government’s downfall. I strongly recommend reading the entire account on the Yesh Din website. All quotes are from there.
The case revolves around an expansion of the Israeli Bet El settlement near Ramallah; a neighborhood called (by the developers?) “Ulpana Hill”. Ulpana is an Orthodox religious girls’ school. As settlements do, Bet El wanted to expand. The teeny problem was that a large chnuk of the expansion was onto private land still owned by Palestinians, and all the expansion was into area completely outside the municipal limits of Bet El (note: of course, any “municipal limits” decided by Israel’s government for any settlement are illegal by definition – but this neighborhood, again as is very common, was built even outside those limits).
The construction of five permanent buildings slated for evacuation on May 1, 2012 (and not the entire neighborhood) in the Jabel Artis complex, on land that belongs to residents of the Palestinian village of Dura al-Qara, began in 2006. Immediately after the construction began, the Civil Administration issued a final order to stop the work and demolish the illegal construction outside of the jurisdiction of the settlement of Beit El and without an outline plan.
Yes, a demolition order was issued. but was it carried out? Was it?
Come on, are you kidding me? This Ulpana Hill is in Bet El, and the (fraudulently named) “Civil Administration” sits all the way yonder, in…
Yes, the HQ of the body issuing the demolition orders sits at the vary same settlement where this brazen robbery happened under its nose – yet for years and years it couldn’t get around to demolish the buildings.
I guess the “Civil Administration” schmucks were too busy with The Arabs. You know, the daily grind of refusing all those building permit applications for Palestinian homes and structures on Palestinian-owned land, and then sending forces to demolish those “illegal Palestinian structures”.
Or perhaps they are too busy tracking down the dangerous, subversive, and of course, illegal phenomenon of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals joining forces to establish unique renewable-energy installations on Palestinian-owned land. Needless to say, demolition orders for these abominations were issued, and surely the forces, time and budget can be found to carry them out.
So pity on the poor, poor folk at the “Civil Administration”. How could they ever find the time and resources to demolish those Ulpana Hill buildings?
Meanwhile the settlers came to the rescue. First, by issuing transparently phony sale documents for the land. But even the “Civil Administration” officers could not do much with those crude forgeries:
* The purchase agreement was fictitious: “The name of the seller on the purchase documents presented is not the registered owner of the plot nor was he the registered owner in the past.” (State response to HCJ, January 2010)
* Amana knew that the “seller” was not the legal owner of the land: “We should add that the purchasing company knew the name of the seller was not identical to that entered in the land registry.” (Letter from deputy staff officer for land, February 2010)
* The seller was seven years old when the land was registered and therefore could not have been entered as its owner (Letter from deputy staff officer for land, February 2010).
Then, after a final High Court ruling in September 2011 told the “Civil Administration” to pucker up and demolish the dang things already, the settlers turned to their signature move: twisting the arm of government. And twist they did. In fact, nowadays they don’t need to go very far to do the twisting, because there are so many settlers holding government cabinet posts that I’ve stopped counting them.
So Bibi et al. started finding excuses, pretexts and distractions to avoid carrying out the demolition order. But even the newly appointed, right-wing Orthodox High Court chief has had enough, and told the government in early May in no uncertain terms that they are in contempt.
At this point, the innocent reader might wonder: WTF? Israel has nearly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, 500,000 if one counts East Jerusalem. Give up those five idiotic buildings and get done with it. Clearly, our innocent reader does not think like a settler.
Israel’s settler lobby is the mental and political twin of America’s “Tea Party” right-wing base. They take no prisoners. They embrace no compromise. If a politician defies them, they never forgive and never forget. And Israeli politicians know that.
There is also a more cool-headed rationale for avoiding evacuation. There are hundreds, no thousands of cases like “Ulpana Hill”. True, the High Court likes to posture (i.e., actually do justice to Palestinians) on a single cherry-picked case, in order to help distract from those thousands of cases, which might be slightly less perfectly documented, or the plaintiffs received somewhat less talented legal aid, etc. In the bigger picture, as far as the Court is concerned, the settlement enterprise – despite massive evidence for its inherent land-robbery nature – is probably safe.
But from a pro-settler government’s perspective, giving in on the Ulpana Hill might still open a political and diplomatic Pandora’s Box. After all, there is very little daylight between Ulpana Hill and any other West Bank settlement. So this little case might turn out to be like the proverbial crack in the Dutch dike.
This is why the government is still trying to find ruses and excuses not to implement the demolition order.
Faced with this “Ulpana Hill” scandal, a few other settlement-evacuation no-win situations, and annoying political posturing from some coalition partners over the civil-service bill, Bibi decided to go to election. This in itself (despite some ridiculous reporting I heard on NPR) is no news. The last 7 Israeli elections in a row have been early elections. The timing, too, was perfect for Bibi – a summer campaign, helping pre-empt the revival of last summer’s massive protests. He was ahead in the polls (although not as devastatingly so as the media would have us believe), and the opposition was confused and divided.
But then the final Ulpana Hill ruling came out. Bibi faced the even less appetizing scenario of having to actually evacuate and demolish “dear Jewish families from their homes, like in the times of the Pogroms” – right in the middle of the election campaign. Last week, he was ambushed at his own Likud party assembly meeting, heckled, humiliated and hounded out by settler supporters.
Buying off the Knesset’s largest “party”, he knew, would be a piece of cake compared with facing these fanatic nutcases whom he has helped raise and nurture. In fact, Kadima leader Mofaz had already sent out feelers offering himself up for sale.
I am leaving off writing the (very short) history of the Kadima “party”, and why it is a “party” with quotation marks and not a genuine political party, for another time. Maybe by next week it will implode anyway, and then it will be even more fun to dissect the subject.