The New Normal: The descent into Tribalism in Israeli Elections

We have certainly been going through topsy-turvey times. Israel bashed the hell out of Gaza, but Hamas was able to claim victory…and was actually able to channel that claim into real diplomatic, political and economic gains.


A national election has been underway now for weeks, but the only real fight has been between Shelly, Zippi and Yair—and maybe Bibi and Bennet.


Actually, the two events—the cease-fire in Gaza and the Israeli elections—have a lot in common.


I know that the idea may be abhorrent to many, but I think that I can prove my point.


Early elections were called in Israel because none of the parties in the coalition was willing to take responsibility for the inevitable—the need to cut the budget and raise taxes in order to cope with the downturn in the global economy. Most worrisome to the sectoral coalition members is the fact that the budget will require a re-prioritization of government spending; and they are liable to lose some of their hard-earned perks.


It’s quite amazing that, although the campaign has been underway for more than a month, not one of the political, diplomatic, social, economic or military issues that need to be dealt with in depth has even been discussed.


Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his stump speeches, has been talking about every subject except those items that are most on voters’ minds. If he has his choice, that tactic will continue. And if the opposition continues to act as it has up to now, he is likely to get his wish.


It had initially been expected that the election campaign would be fought over those issues that had been at the forefront of the news for the past two years, such as what to do with Iran, compulsory military service for the ultra-Orthodox, and how to respond to the social and economic demands made by the demonstrators who took to the streets a year and a half ago.


Interestingly, though, just in time for the election, the highly-respected, politically-neutral, Sderot Conference published its annual survey on what really concerns the Israeli public most. There is a vast gap between those concerns and the issues that most people expected would be at the forefront of the campaign.


I find it particularly fascinating that the issues that the survey pointed to as being the most on people’s minds are also the very ones that have been the least discussed. Maybe that is because they are simply too embarrassing for all the parties running for office to even mention.


In order of importance to the public, those issues are:




The least-trusted bodies in the country are the political parties now running for office. According to the survey, only 7 percent of the public trusts the party they actually intend to vote for.


They have good reason to be skeptical.


One of the first surprises of the campaign was the decision by Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Foreign Minister Avidgor Liberman to form a joint list to run in the campaign. Netanyahu hoped that the combined list would give the Likud an electoral safety margin it had lacked. In the previous election, although the Likud ended up leading the coalition government, the Kadima party actually won more seats.


Liberman, most of whose supporters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, had found that he had run out of potential new voters. Even though he had made a major effort to attract native Israeli voters, he came to realize that heading yet another sectoral party would never allow him to reach his ultimate goal—becoming prime minister. So, in the next stage in his odyssey for power, he has set his eyes on gaining the leadership of the Likud.


However, the Likud is now in an embarrassing position, having discovered that Liberman is about to be indicted for fraud and breach of trust.


And so what did Netanyahu do? He has reserved a place for Liberman in the next cabinet even if the court case is protracted.


And of course, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has chosen Aryeh Deri as one of its three leaders, despite the fact that he was sentenced to jail a decade ago for fraud and breach of trust.


No less annoying to the public has been the ease with which Knesset members have been switching their party allegiance. One after-effect of so many Knesset wannabes shopping around for a party that will provide them with a safe seat is that the campaign has degenerated into a grudge match between the various opposition leaders. For example, former foreign minister and Kadima party leader, Tzippi Livni, who lost out to former chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, in the Kadima party primaries, has set up her own party. The number two and three on her party list are two previous Labour Party leaders, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz—both of whom lost out to Shelly Yacimovich in that party’s primaries.


Another focus for the public has been the role that vote contractors have played in the party primaries. Contractors are folks who trade votes for perks, power or outright cash. Basically, any person who can guarantee the votes of a clan or enough friends can play this game. In the case of Kadima, Tzippi Livni won the first round of the leadership contest because her vote contractors did a better job than Shaul Mofaz’s gang. Mofaz never forgave Tzippi for what he thought was the theft of the job from him; and in the second round, his vote contractors beat Tzippi’s. The only problem is that Kadima’s voters wanted Tzippi, not Mofaz, and so the party collapsed.


Over at the Likud, Knesset member Haim Katz, who also just happens to be the union boss at the Israel Aeronautics Industries bussed about ten thousand of those workers to nearby polling stations to cast their ballots according to the white list and black list of candidates he had drawn up. I’m sure that, as in the past, everyone on the white list will be forever grateful to the honourable Mr. Katz.


The same sort of scene took place during Labour’s primaries. Unionists from the Electric company and the ports, and of course the usual band of Arab and Druze clan leaders all ensured that the victor would be decided in advance.




There has been a significant rise in concern about domestic violence and violence in the streets, primarily by drunken youngsters on the weekends. This has reinforced long-time perceptions that the police force is among the country’s least trustworthy institutions.




A third of the country’s children live below the poverty line—an increase of 60 percent in the past 5 years. Successive surveys have also shown that the gap in incomes between the rich and poor in Israel is second only to that in the United States among Western nations. This has been largely due to the absence of ultra-Orthodox males and Arab females from the workforce. The result has been a constant growth in welfare payments from 683 shekels per capita in 1995 to 1123 shekels today.


Moreover, there has also been a steady growth in the number of working poor as well.


The need to make these transfer payments has resulted in higher taxes paid by the middle class and in budget cuts for the health and education services that they use.


Of even greater concern is that the schooling given to the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox and the Arab populations does not prepare them for the workplace later in life. The ultra-Orthodox do not study subjects such as math and science. Therefore, according to a recent study, the average ultra-Orthodox 17 year old has the equivalent education of a grade 4 drop-out from the general population.




Only the Labour party has so far made the economy the central feature of its campaign. However, its proposals have been heavily criticized by many economists. One reason for this is that, while the Likud-controlled finance ministry has assembled all the projections necessary to prepare the budget for 2013, it has refused to publish its updated revenue, spending and unemployment estimates until after the elections are over.


God forbid that the public should actually know what the folks in power are doing with their money…before they cast their ballots.


In the meantime, though, what the public does know is that real salaries have dropped and consumers’ costs have risen. For example, housing costs, which had sparked the demonstrations, have risen a further 34 percent in the 18 months since the demonstrations broke out.




Most of the local pundits had predicted that Netanyahu would try to divert attention away from domestic social and economic issues by focusing on security problems. However, he has avoided doing even that.


Instead, he has been running a “non-campaign,” spending most of his time sloganeering and complaining about statements being made by Palestinian leaders and the criticisms being leveled by European leaders about the government’s plans to revive settlement activities in the occupied areas.


The issue of whether Israel should attack Iran, for example, has only been mentioned in passing in the campaign to date.


Peace Process:


This issue is far down the list of public concerns. Livni’s party has made the peace process the centerpiece of its campaign, but after a series of hardline statements by Palestinian leaders such as Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal and Mahmoud Abbas, she is not making significant headway.


It had been expected that Netanyahu would try to attract centrist voters by at least being as ambiguous as possible on this issue. However, during the Likud party’s primaries, all the party’s moderates were voted off the Knesset candidates list, and their places were taken by religious and pro-settler candidates. Fear of a backlash by moderate Likudniks has now led the party’s campaign managers to forbid most of these candidates from speaking to the media.


However, it is likely that anti-Palestinian rhetoric will soon increase because polls are showing that the rejuvenated, even more nationalist, religious Habayit Hayehudi Party has been gaining supporters at the Likud’s expense. This explains, in part, why the government has announced a renewed building spree in the occupied areas.


Habayit leader Naftali Bennett handed the Likud a wonderful year-end present by suggesting that really loyal Israeli soldiers like himself could not carry out orders to evacuate settlements. The Likud immediately pounced on the statement, with Netanyahu warning that he would never have anyone who had called for insubordination in his cabinet. And the Likud headquarters directed all their speakers to talk about nothing else. What the Likud conveniently forgot to mention is that three of the candidates for safe places on its electoral list— Energy Minister Haim Landau, Tzippi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin—have also called for exactly that kind of insubordination.




None of the politicians wants to be caught out the kind of boo-boo that Bennnett made. So, the focus of the campaign to date by almost all the parties has been on personalities and minor disputes between those parties that are vying for the support of the same group of voters.


The biggest unknown so far is what the voter turnout will be. The religious parties and the settlers always vote in greater proportions than do the secularist liberals.


Over the years, growing disgust at the constant bickering and power plays within the so-called “centre-left camp” has led its potential voters to boycott the polling booths or to vote for parties that have no chance of being elected. Over the past two decades, the number of centre-left voters who actually go to the polls has dropped by about 20 percentage points.


Ironically, precisely because Israeli Arab politicians have focused on the Israeli-Arab conflict rather that pressing domestic issues such as unemployment, there has been an even greater, 33 percent drop in voting by the country’s Arab citizens.


Should those numbers improve this time, which currently seems unlikely, the centre-left and the Arab parties would be able to create what is known as a “blocking coalition.” This would deprive the Likud of a majority in the Knesset, and force it to seek out more moderate coalition partners.


One of the most interesting features of this campaign, at least to me, is the fact that the pattern one sees on the diplomatic and military battlefield with the Arabs, is almost identical to the one that takes place in the domestic media and in the Israeli meeting halls prior to balloting.


And here a bit of linguistic study is very useful. Words are invented in order to give us a convenient and short reference point for describing something of importance to us. So, it’s extremely helpful to look for words that don’t exist in a country’s political lexicon because they are not required. In fact I have found that looking for words that don’t exist helps explain more about politics in the Middle East than all the verbiage that is spewed out.


In Hebrew, for example, there is no word for the English term “mainstream.” And in Arabic, there is no equivalent for the word “compromise.”


And now I come back to what I said at the beginning of the similarity between Israeli politicking and Arab negotiating and political posturing.


In both cases, the only terms that come close to “mainstream” or “compromise” are the Hebrew or Arabic equivalents of “centrist” or “mid-point.”


The thing is that centrist or mid-point are positions on a scale—not political concepts.


The word “mainstream” means that there are concerns or interests that the majority shares, such as, as I have mentioned, political corruption or violence in the street or in the home. But as we have seen, none of the parties here seem to be concerned with these matters. Instead, they act like tribes that fight over which policies any particular minority can and will impose on the majority.


Now let’s look at the word “compromise.” Compromise is the basis for effective, democratic majority rule. It implies that the opposition has points to make that are well worth taking into consideration when drafting policies and laws.


The thing is: Tribalism abhors compromise. Tribes invariably demand victory. Western journalists and pundits have been disappointed that the Arab spring did not turn Egypt or Tunisia or Libya into western-style democracies. That is because those societies are based on different principles—especially the deep-seated belief that the only real protection a person can have against the vagaries of politics is that which is provided by mutually-dependent blood relations.


But Israel is no less afflicted by political tribalism. As I have long said, Israeli coalition governments are ad hoc tribal federations. The best examples of tribalism in Israel are the ultra-Orthodox parties, the Arab parties and the supporters of the settlers. They almost never discuss or debate issues of true national importance, such as how to deal with the economy. The reason for their existence is to promote the wishes and interests of one minority sector of the population.


What does this mean in practical terms?


To begin with, every political tribe believes that it is inherently superior to and forever at war with every other tribe. Tribes, because they feel innately superior, see no reason to compromise. At best, they are willing to trade things that are of less importance to them in return for concessions by others that are of greater interest to them.


At worst, they engage in endless war, interspersed by cease-fires that allow them time to trade or to nurse their wounds and regain their strength.


Essentially, tribal parties remain parties of “protest,” not parties that prepare themselves for “rule” by adopting comprehensive, coherent platforms.


No less importantly, tribes view any government of which they are not a part as being inherently illegitimate. And courts that do not accept tribal laws and norms are viewed the same way. At their most extreme, tribes reject one of the fundamental premises of stable government—that the government should have a monopoly on violence.


For example, is there any real, inherent difference, other than degree, between Hamas’s summary street executions of Fatah opponents or people claimed to be Israeli agents, and the Israeli hilltop youth? The Israeli, Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas attacks on their respective judicial systems are the product of the same attitude.


In practice, political tribes believe that ultimate victory will be theirs, and so they cannot allow any another party to claim a permanent victory—or even an advantage.


Elections, because they have rules, are viewed as form of non-violent jousting or playing a game.


But just as vote contractors assure who will be nominated, real policy-making does not take place during elections, but only afterwards when the trading to establish a coalition begins in earnest.


And then, once all the trades have been completed a couple of years later, the government loses its raison d’être and it falls.


It’s important to remember that no Israeli government in recent years, even when it had a comfortable working majority in the Knesset, actually served out its full term in office for precisely this reason.


The frustration of the Israeli public at his approach to politics has been palpable for years. To counter this, the politicians’ spinmeisters have come up with a fiction that, because it has now been repeated so often, has become accepted at a “truth.”


For some peculiar reason, unknown to me, almost without exception, Israeli political pundits have welcomed the spinmeisters’ claim that Israel is divided into two political blocs—one made up of the so-called “right,” and the other of the so-called “centre and left.” Basically, the spinmeisters’ aim has been to divide the country into the “usses and the thems”—just as we do during a war—because they think that in this way it is easier to rally wavering voters who are susceptible to calls to vote against a party rather than for one. Remember what happened in the last campaign? Kadima’s final rallying cry became “Tzippi or Bibi.” The result was that Labour and Meretz voters abandoned their parties in droves in the hope that Netanyahu would be defeated


The very idea that Israel is divided into two blocs is a truly preposterous idea. To begin with, there are at least five large, clearly identifiable political blocs in Israel—the so-called left, the so-called center, the neo-nationalists, the Arabs and the Haredim. They have very little in common and are highly unlikely to ever join together in anything more permanent than a specific, ad hoc coalition government.


It is no wonder that the architect and chief cheerleader of this fiction is the American Republican Party strategist and spinmeister, Arthur Finkelstein, who is advising the Likud.


The idea is an almost perfect replication of the strategy adopted by the Republicans in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That approach, as anyone can see, has now led to the total stalemate in decision-making in Washington.


In the three decades following World War II, the battle for the control of Congress was fought out by two umbrella parties. The Democratic Party counted liberal, coastal urbanites, Midwestern progressives and diehard Dixicrats among its members. The Republican leaders included intransigent conservatives, Western libertarians and liberals such as Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller.


In order to accommodate such different world views, the parties engaged in intensive internal debates even before their party planks were decided upon. Those discussions then led to compromise proposals that took into account the most important concerns of all the different party factions.


It is therefore no wonder that the work of Congress was also characterized by innumerable bi-partisan deals.


But in the wake of the Warren Court decisions and the civil rights legislation, in the run-up to the first Reagan election campaign, the Republicans decided that they should present themselves to the voting public as a much clearer ideological alternative to the Democrats. They set up their own, independent think tanks to come up with policies that would distinguish their ideology from that of the Democrats, and actively courted the Southern Democrats. They succeeded only too well.


When a party believes it needs substantial support from the centre in order to win an election, it tends to have a broad frame of reference. In a two-party system, that would mean adopting far-left to left-of-centre, or far-right to right-of-centre platform planks. The election results are then determined by a relatively small number of floating voters in the centre, who act as a strong counterbalance to the extremists.


But when a party takes on a more ideological or dogmatic bent, then the more stringent ideologues and dogmatists, although they are fewer in number, are in a position to gain strength within the party because they are more fierce believers and are often better organized.


For example, the very word “liberal,” which has a very long and impressive political history, became an epithet in the mouths of George Bush and his aides.


In the case of the US, this kind of approach initially resulted in the nomination of candidates such as George McGovern and Barry Goldwater, both of whom were soundly defeated with the help of centrist voters. But that American consensus against extremism has now been weakened.


And the reason for that shift is that the Republican Party, in effect, went in the direction of tribalism. It is no coincidence that most of the so-called “red states” were first inhabited by Irish and Scottish tribalists.


When politics veers into tribalism, certain attitudes are almost always present.


The first and maybe the most important is that the tribal-oriented political parties almost always adopt two totally different and wholly opposite attitudes to policy-making. On the one hand they claim that they are victims of some greater outside force, while at the same time they also adopt a triumphal attitude. During Labour’s heyday, it claimed the triumphal position as the party that founded this country. On the other hand, it also claimed that it was the saviour of the poor and distressed.


Hamas claims that it is a victim of Israeli imperialism, but then also claims that it defeated the Israelis in battle.


In the US, the Republicans claim that their voters are victims of big government budgets, but then claim victory when they are able to staunch cuts in the defence budget.


The Likud too has adopted a similar posture in recent years. The Kahlon phenomenon was an extreme example in point. Knesset member Moshe Kahlon became an instant celebrity for being both an extreme nationalist, who among other things, opposed the withdrawal from Gaza and supported heavy funding for the settlements and, at the same time, adopted an extreme socialist position by demanding more government spending on welfare projects. He never explained where all that money could come from—or whether, if he had to chose between the two, which one he would prefer to fund.


Another feature of tribalist politics is that in order to achieve a cease-fire, both parties to a dispute must be able to declare victory first. That was the basis for the peace accord with Egypt and Jordan, and the cease-fire with Syria. Henry Kissinger prevented Israel from wiping out the Egyptian third army that had crossed the Suez Canal, but was surrounded by Israeli troops in 1973. Jordan won the permanent rights to 50 million cubic metres of water from Lake Kinneret per year even though that water came from what is Israeli property. And Syria was granted the town of Kuneitra, which had been captured in 1967, even though Israeli troops were encamped at that time, far to the east—only 40 kilometers from Damascus.


So too, today, the chances of a cease-fire with Hamas holding have increased because Hamas can claim victory after operation Defensive Pillar.


In Israel, the ruling coalition broke down when reality, in essence, forced the government to cut the budget so severely that Shas could no longer claim even a partial victory.


Interestingly, the Likud is currently undergoing a similar movement towards a narrow platform as the American Republicans did, while Labour, under Shelly Yacimovich, is moving towards a broader frame. She has even gone so far as to claim that Labour in not a “leftist” party.


For this reason, if there is a central theme to this election, it is whether the country’s voters should support the continued slide into tribal politics or support the concept of majority rule, with adequate protections for minorities.


When looked at in detail, the real choices are pretty stark.


Majority rule is inclusionary. Tribal rule is exclusionary.


Majority rule means that the public is the sovereign and is the source of authority in the country. Tribal rule means that the source of authority, whether they be rabbis or charismatic ideologues, are not necessarily elected.


Tribalism rejects the idea that the government should have a monopoly on violence.


And maybe most important of all, government policies are not the product of analysis and prioritization, but the outcome of erratic and incoherent trading of public assets between the respective tribes. When there is a genuine attempt to produce a mainstream policy document, one that demands compromises for all sides, such as the Trajtenberg report, tribalists too often gut the proposal of any coherent meaning—as occurred just this year.




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