Likud leader, Benyamin Netanyahu is now in the process of trying to put together a working government, following Israeli national elections. Michael Warschawski’s speech at the AIC’s weekly café brought a large audience to the organization’s Beit Sahour office on Tuesday, February 17. His topic, the ramifications of the 2009 Israeli elections, had generated much interest within Israel throughout the previous weeks.
Mr. Warschawski began his talk by stating that he did not remember there ever being such a boring election campaign in Israel. There were few political arguments and debates compared to years past. He attributed the lack of discourse to the absence of any true differences in the social, economic, and security policies of the major parties. Israelis are bored with elections, he said, and a lack of real challengers caused a lack of interest. He went so far as to say that the international press was surprised by the “civilized” elections.
He voted, but he cast his ballot uncomfortably. Two weeks before the election there had been a “massacre in Gaza,” and two weeks later Israel was “playing a peaceful democracy.” This is an “absurd contradiction,” he argued, and it is hard to believe how fast Israel can “turn the page and have civilized conversations in the cafes of Tel Aviv” after such a horrendous event.
The Election and Israeli Values
Mr. Warschawski then questioned what the elections reflected about the values of Israeli society. The nationalistic right-wing, led by Avigdor Lieberman, made significant headway in the elections. Mr. Warschawski argued that Lieberman gained so much support, even though he is a “fascist, [and] blatant racist,” because he stood out from the other candidates. Israelis saw the other candidates as “clean and nice,” and many of their policy positions were questionable. Conversely, Lieberman articulated his policies much more clearly and thereby won public backing.
Also, Mr. Warschawski stated that Israel’s turn to the Right was an indication of the government’s attempts to “finalize the total destruction of the welfare state.” The nation’s struggling economy, relatively high poverty levels, and unequal distribution of wealth are important issues that should be receiving more attention. Yet, right-wing parties have largely ignored these issues while praising laissez-faire policies and focusing primarily on security concerns. Mr. Warschawski opined, “Even the United States government has come to the conclusion that some state intervention is necessary.”
Voting Inside the Arab population
Mr. Warchowski began by stating, “The Arab tendency to vote for their own national parties is as strong as ever, if not stronger.” Some analysts had predicted that the Arab leadership would call for a boycott of the elections. Others anticipated that many Arabs would vote for more moderate Israeli parties in an attempt to counter Lieberman’s influence. Neither prediction came true, Mr. Warschawski argued, because the Arab parties: 1) knew that the population wanted to participate, and 2) would vote for the parties that would directly strengthen their personal communities. The Palestinian public’s confidence in their Arab representatives was reflected by the fact that all of the Arab parties with power (Balad, Hadash, and Ra’am-Ta’al) kept their seats in the Knesset. Furthermore, Mr. Warschawski pointed to the high level of Palestinian participation and noted that the “rate of abstention among the Palestinian population was lower per capita than that of the Jewish community” in Israel. These results are proof that there is a strong and stable pro-Palestinian foundation within Israel’s Arab community. Moreover, Mr. Warschawski noted that many young Jewish-Israelis voted for Arab parties. For instance Meretz, a leftist party with a backing based in Tel Aviv, experienced a devastating defeat. The party supported the Gaza attacks, and this angered many of its supporters who subsequently shifted their support to Hadash.
The Status of the Protest Movement
Mr. Warschawski lauded the few Israeli journalists whom he said were brave enough to challenge Operation Cast Lead. Gideon Levy, a newsman with Haaretz, had predicted that some parties like Meretz might disappear, but their ideologies would stay strong within society as a whole. Mr. Warschawski agreed with Levy, and noted that the shift in support from Meretz to Hadash was proof of the prediction’s validity. He stated that the challenge for the upcoming years is to figure out how to organize former Zionists who were anti-Gaza War into strong political units in order to counter the advances of the right-wing.
Mr. Warschawski then set out to describe how relatively small organized protest groups can have an effect on society at large. These protests draw public attention to controversial issues and cause some citizens to question the actions of their government. Then, as the protests gain momentum, some political parties that are outside of the mainstream (Meretz and Peace Now, for example) catch on and utilize their broader base of support to promote the protest’s message. It is in this way that a relatively small group of dissenters can have a direct impact on the society as a whole.
Such small-scale protests and demonstrations continue to occur in Israel, but Mr. Warschawski argues that more mainstream political parties are less willing to advocate for the causes. He noted that there were significant demonstrations against Operation Cast Lead, even though the Israeli public largely supported the military actions. Thus, the leaders of such demonstrations have recently found it more difficult to affect the policy of the Israeli government.
The Israeli elections were closely linked to the recent hostilities in Gaza, so Mr. Warschawski was sure to address Operation Cast Lead. He argued that Gaza is not seen as a place inhabited by 1.5 million people; instead, Gaza as seen as an “unimportant entity.” That entity is defined with Hamas, and Hamas is a part of the global threat from terrorism as defined by Netanyahu and the Neoconservatives. The idea of global terrorism has quickly devolved to focus on Islamic terrorism and then Islam itself. This distinction has created a division between the “civilized” Judeo-Christian West and the threat of Islam. The rift has made it difficult for leaders, both Israeli and otherwise, to make an independent judgment as to the best course of action to take. This is why every Jewish-Israeli political party voted in favor of Operation Cast Lead.
Mr. Warschawski also explained that Operation Cast Lead was not completely for electoral benefits. The Israeli government also wanted to utilize the last weeks of the G.W. Bush administration to show the incoming Obama administration that Israel feels strongly about the Gaza situation.
Mr. Warschawski is an advocate of the Israeli political system because he believes it is “very democratic […] [and] gives small opinions the opportunity to be heard in a proportional way.” Yet, his outlook is ultimately pessimistic: “I have never thought this before,” he said, “but I do not want to see my grandchildren living in this country [Israel].” The attacks on Gaza have been very difficult for activists like Mr. Warschawski. It may take time to restore the optimism he lost because of Operation Cast Lead, but his personal pain will certainly not keep him from fighting for a brighter future in the meantime.