vrijdag, november 18, 2005

Peretz a 'Breakthrough' for the Israeli left?

In the struggle for justice for Palestine, the left outside Israel so rarely pays attention to economic or political dynamics within Israel proper, outside of how such things might affect the occupied territories. Why concern oneself, too many ask, with the internal processes of the occupier-oppressor when helicopter gunships set elementary schools ablaze and extra-judicial targeted assassinations slaughter bystanders, while the settlements continue to expand on the West Bank and the serpentine Separation Wall meanders through Palestinian land, carving out yet more acreage for Eretz Israel?

But this is a wilfully purblind ignorance, and a perspective as absurd as suggesting that because there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans, there is nothing of interest to the global left in American electoral contests. It is not enough to simply say that there is no genuine electoral left in the United States and dismissively leave it at that. One must ask why this is so. Equally, it is not enough to ask 'What has the Israeli left ever done for the Palestinians?' One must ask why they have done nothing.

In the last week, there has been a political earthquake within the ranks of the Israeli Labor Party: A giant has been felled. How this development may or may not affect the occupation is reason enough to pay attention to internal Israeli phenomena.

New Israeli Labor Party leader Tom Selleck.

Whenever one visits an Israeli newspaper website such as Ha'aretz, one is struck by the number of ads for anti-poverty charities. This is no mere shilling for money for the settlements - or at least some of it isn't. While the world's attention has been rightly focussed on the war crimes committed in the occupied territories, Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister initiated a programme of structural adjustment within Israel every bit as vicious as those of his models, Thatcher and Reagan in the UK and US. The economic liberalisation, steady reduction in social service provision and diminishment of trade union rights continued under Barak and has rapidly expanded under Sharon, whose finance minister is, of course, Netanyahu. The cutbacks to social services have all gone to the country's massive defence budget and funding the settlements. This liberalisation has not gone without consequence. The number of poor families in the country increased by 20.3 per cent in 2004 alone, with one in three Israeli children now living in poverty. Poverty has flourished to such an extent that the gap between rich and poor in Israel is now actually greater than in any other developed country - hence all the charity ads.

The occupation is not merely ruinous to Palestinians; It is also literally consuming Israeli society itself.

[By the way, I don't think visiting a website counts as breaking the boycott - surely one has to be informed in order to offer solidarity to the Palestinians. That said, this whole boycott business is a bit of a fuzzy thing at the edges. Live herbs and helva have been pretty easy for me to avoid (In any case, I manage to kill basil plants with the ease and impunity that the IDF kills eleven-year-olds, so it's all probably for the best), but when I was in Amsterdam last weekend, I accidentally bought a falafel that turned out to be dripping with Palestinian blood. Scarfing down the yummy thing, my German friend, Jens, and my Palestinian friend, Osama, both said more or less at the same time, 'You realise that's an Israeli falafel?', and I responded, 'Mmo, muh-uh. Ifs noff. Ifs mutch.' To which Jens rebutted, 'No, Maoz Falafel's definitely not Dutch, it's Israeli.' To which I rejoindered, 'Oo fwure? Hmm. Oh weh, ifs wery masty.' The next day I looked Maoz up on the old interweb and it turns out it is a Dutch company, just owned by expat Israelis. So ner, thought I. That doesn't count. But then I read that the actual falafel it uses, on the other hand, is not terribly Netherlandish. It's a complicated business, as I said. It reminds me of my days as a teenage vegetarian, when I was morally torn upon finding out that most beer was filtered using edible gelatines, which is made from animal bones, or isinglass, which is made from fish bladders. I gave up vegetarianism some time shortly thereafter. I was not a terribly good vegetarian anyway, what with the regular 'bacon breaks' I allowed myself from time to time. (NB., vegan readers: Most bottled bitters and lagers are O.K., but Guinness? Not vegan!)]

All this has only exacerbated the plight of Mizrahi, or 'Eastern' Jews (immigrants from other Middle Eastern and north African countries), who since their first arrival in the 1950's have been viewed in much the same way within Israel by the Ashkenazi (those from Europe and their descendents) elite as Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and north Africa are in Europe. Most Easterners are trapped on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder and many live below the poverty line. According to veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, the Eastern Jews are overrepresented in Israeli prisons. Of course one shouldn't take the analogy too far, and the poverty that exists in the Mizrahi neighbourhoods doesn't compare to that of the occupied territories and, one hardly need add, there are no helicopter gunships, but Israel has its own Jewish banlieues, if you will.

On the Gush Shalom site this week, Avnery tells of the sort of welcome that greeted the Mizrahi immigrants in the 1950s:
'From generation to generation, a (true) story was passed on about the Moroccan immigrants who were driven to a place in the middle of the desert and told to build a new town for themselves. When they refused to get out of the truck, its tipping mechanism was activated and they were literally "poured" out, as if they were a load of sand.

This racism that divides Israel in two has only intensified since then:
'[T]he Ashkenazi ruling class openly despises the Arab manners, diction and music that the Eastern immigrants brought with them. This overtly racist attitude towards the Arabs became a covert racist attitude towards the Eastern Jews. These reacted defensively by adopting an extreme anti-Arab attitude.'

Labor (and its forerunner, Mapai) dominated Israeli politics from long before the founding of the state of Israel until the 1970s. To this day, while Likud governs, Labor is seen as the party of the establishment. Likud exploited this sense of alienation felt by non-Ashkenazi Israelis to break the lock Labor had in power, by reaching out to the Mizrahim in the late seventies and eighties.

In a pattern we see everywhere else - from the poor American south to those unemployed whites living two doors down from a mosque in a French or German suburb, where those just one step above the lowest of the low often support not the left, but the hard right - Eastern Jews do not vote Labor; they vote Likud. They do not support the peace camp. They do not go to peace rallies. Few of them attended the 200,000 strong rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday in commemoration of assassinated Labor Prime Minister Yitshak Rabin. To the Eastern Israelis, the peace camp is the preserve of the wealthy, Ashkenazi Tel Aviv elite. Why does Labor care so much about the Arabs, they demand, and not the poorest of Israelis?

As Sharon's aide-de-camp, Shimon Peres has not only backed unilateral disengagement, the rapid expansion of the settlements on the West Bank and the Separation Wall's annexation of still more Palestinian land, he has also fully backed Likud's structural adjustment. You couldn't fit a Kleenex between the economic policies of Peres and the right of the Labor Party and Sharon and Netanyahu. So when we ask why there is not much of an Israeli left - or at least one that has done anything for the Palestinians, we must understand that the foundation of any left anywhere - the working class - in Israel for the most part is tied at the hip to Likud.

Which is why the toppling of Peres as leader of the Labor Party by Amir Peretz this week is so profound.

Peretz, which, as Avnery has pointed out, means 'breakthrough' in Hebrew, is a Mizrahi Jew from Morroco and also the head of the Histradrut, the Israeli trade union. Domestically described in similar terms to UK trade unionism's 'Awkward Squad', Peretz's leadership of the union has orchestrated regular general strikes, holding the union's own against Netanyahu both as PM and as finance minister. The first Mizrahi Israeli to head the Labor Party, Peretz won above all because he opposes neo-liberalism in Israel. He wants to push Labor back to the left economically and promises to raise the minimum wage, end the cutbacks, increase spending on social spending and focus on the plight of the huge numbers of Israelis who are living in poverty.

Mizrahi Israelis voted en masse for Peretz in the party's leadership primaries, while Perez won the backing of the wealthier, largely Ashkenazi Labor elite. As a Mizrahi himself, a left-wing trade unionist campaigning on a traditional social democratic platform, he has the potential to knock the Mizrahi pillars of support out from underneath Likud.

Peretz also calls for an end to the occupation and Sharon's unilateralism. He wants to return to negotiations and a final settlement with the Palestinians. Indeed, he has called for a Palestinian state for twenty years - since long before such a call was politically acceptable in Israel. And most importantly, he makes the connection between the occupation and poverty in Israel. If there weren't settlements, if there weren't an occupation, Israel's poor would not be so. The money for the settlements should instead to go to social programmes and poverty reduction, he says.

Opposed to Labor's support for Likud, he is to pull his party out of the coalition government, forcing new elections early next year. Were Labor to win that election, he would be the first non-Ashkenazi Prime Minister of Israel.

Naturally, Israel's bosses have reacted in horror to Peretz's unexpected victory. On the weekend, the Manufacturers Association of Israel and the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce attacked Peretz's economic proposals, in particular his call for a raise in the minimum wage.

Voters, however are much more receptive to his ideas. According to a Ha'aretz poll, if Knesset elections were held today, the Labor Party headed by Peretz would have increase its power significantly, winning 28 mandates - up from its current 21 - to Likud's 39. Also, a majority of the Israeli public believes Peretz's victory in the Labor primaries increased the party's chances to regain power, and for the first time in a long time, 82 per cent of traditional Labor voters say they will consider voting for their party again. Nonetheless, as interesting as this for all represents in terms of movement within the Israeli polity, we must analyse this event realistically, and not with through the rose-coloured gas mask goggles the Zionist left is.

Although the party's chances will only increase from the predicted 28 now that he has won the Labor leadership, 28 is still quite far from being able to form government. Sharon, having been able to associate the country's economic reforms more with his finance minister, and remaining enormously popular for disengagement, would still win, whether as head of Likud or heading up his own party he would almost certainly form if Netanyahu manages to successfully challenge him for the leadership. This party is all but certain to win, and, having lost the next election, Peretz will be disposed of just as quickly as its last leader, Amram Mitzna, who upon his election was also hailed as the peace candidate.

Secondly, the rest of the Labor establishment remain in power and are working to undermine their new leader. All the Labor Party government ministers and most of the party's MKs did not vote for Peretz. They have described his victory as 'traumatic', as shocking as losing to Netanyahu in 1996, that he has stolen 'their' party from them in a hostile takeover, and some people somewhere have already begun to whisper about problems with Peretz's voter registration.

If Sharon leaves Likud to form his own party, Peres will almost certainly join him there, splitting the Labor party. (Ha'aretz jokes, what then would Peretz's rump Labor party be called? 'New Labor'?)

Furthermore, for all the noise about Peretz's commitment to social democracy, his candidacy was a well-oiled machine, co-ordinated by industrialist Benny Gaon, high-tech millionaire Ofer Kornfeld and Guy Spiegelman, another high-tech businessman and the head of the Labor Party academic forum. Futhermore, while described as a firebrand union leader, in recent years he has moderated his stance, presumably with his parliamentary career in mind.

In 1999, he resigned from the Labor Party to form his own party, Am Ehad ('One Nation'). Though he was as much of a social democrat then as he is now, the party won just two mandates in the Knesset that year and three in 2003, and ultimately merged back with Labor last year (ironically following a courtship by Peres, who thought Peretz would protect him against Barak). However popular he is with the Israeli working class, in the two parliamentary tests of this popularity so far, he has been unable to translate it into power.

But, above all, it was not Likud that initiated the occupation, but Labor.

The occupation is Labor's occupation.

In 1974, Labour established the first settlement in the West Bank.

Peres and assassinated soi-disant peacenik Yitzhak Rabin supported Menachim Begin and Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Rabin and Peres never established the safe passages between the West Bank and Gaza promised as part of Oslo, and continued the settlement programme.

Contrary to popular myth, at Camp David, it was not Arafat who walked away from Barak's 'generous' offer of a Palestinian Bantustan, but Barak who walked away from the idea of honourable negotiations that would give Arafat something he could take back to his people.

Even those to further left equivocate: the Meretz Party (now Yachad), the democratic socialists to the left of both Labor and Am Ehad, who hold six seats in the Knesset and are supposedly the party of a just peace with the Palestinians, participated in the 92-96 Rabin (Peres) and later Barak coalition governments - all the while settlements were expanding. Meretz itself is split over the Separation Wall, with half the party approving of its unilateral annexation of Palestinian land. The party is also split over the IDF's actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the so-called 'Securitist Zionist' faction regarding them as legitimate counter-terror operations, while the radicals in the party oppose the actions as 'illegal and immoral. The party also officially denounces the Refuseniks' refusal to serve in the Israeli military (although, to be fair - the party really is divided over this. While it denounces refusal to serve, the party's US affiliate website links to Courage to Refuse ['Ometz Lesarev'], the Refusenik organisation, and the radicals organise support for them and a number of Refuseniks are active at a number of levels in Meretz).

Only the far left, anti-Zionist Hadash party, which currently has three seats in the Knesset, is consistent in its support for Palestinian rights.

But ultimately, the Palestinians do not need to wait for the Israeli left to join their struggle, any more than South Africa's blacks had to wait for the Afrikaaner working class to join theirs. However much it can't hurt to have an Israeli left on side, the Palestinians will struggle on and one day win, with or without one.