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After the Flotilla: A Survey of the Regional and Local Situation

The following article is taken from the quarterly report by Yacov Ben Efrat, General Secretary of the Organization for Democratic Action (Da'am), to the ODA's Central Committee on July 25, 2010.

The international reaction to the killing of nine activists on the deck of the Mavi Marmara sent Israel into a state of shock. That reaction expressed the international community's loathing for the right-wing administration of Binyamin Netanyahu and for the years of Israel's aggressive rule over Palestinian lives. Long years of foot dragging in talks with the Palestinians, the continuing settlement construction, the project of judaizing Jerusalem, the roadblocks and checkpoints preventing freedom of movement, the separation barrier in the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip—all these have engendered an almost wall-to-wall international consensus against the Israeli occupation. In response to this reaction, Israel was forced to lighten its Gaza blockade significantly, to establish its own commission to investigate the flotilla debacle, and it has now agreed to participate in a United Nations investigation as well.

At the start of the present decade, Israel enjoyed the absolute support of then US President George W. Bush, who condoned its refusal to commit itself to any step that might help resolve the conflict. There were negotiations indeed, but they were kept sterile; they helped Israel's public image, and they served as a cover for tightening control of the West Bank while pressuring Hamas through the siege of Gaza. The Bush policy sowed chaos, beginning with the American entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq and extending to Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians. Iran's rise to its present regional significance should be "credited" to Bush.

With Obama's entry into power, Washington underwent a change of approach, not only because of Bush's failure and the enormous anti-American rage felt by the masses in the Middle East, but also because of the deep economic crisis afflicting the US economy and threatening to plunge the world into chaos. America cannot deal simultaneously with these two fronts. It has to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan in order to devote its efforts to the economy. The military withdrawal will require support from the Arab regimes. They condition that support on a solution of the Palestinian question.

This is why the Obama Administration entered into a direct clash with Netanyahu, who preferred, because of narrow political considerations, to form an extreme right-wing coalition and leave Tzipi Livni's Kadima in the opposition. However, the gap that opened between Washington and Israel enabled a number of factors to enter the picture: Europe sharpened its position toward Israel, followed by Turkey. The latter, a NATO member and former ally of Israel, is seeking to play an active role in the region by cozying up to Iran and opening a direct line to Hamas in Gaza. The events of the Turkish flotilla amounted, therefore, to a strategic about-face.

The crisis with Turkey took place even as Israel was being received into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a fact that shows the contradiction it is living in. On the one hand, its economy has managed so far to avoid the global financial crisis, while on the other hand, all its economic accomplishments, and the significant rise of its upper middle class, continue to be threatened by its growing political isolation.

The Obama administration has made it clear on several occasions that it will not tolerate a perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The blank check policy, and the one-sided support for Israel, have hurt America's standing and damaged its interests. Yet the guarantee of Israel's nuclear supremacy will remain a cornerstone of US-Israel relations, no matter who rules in Washington. The existing differences will remain, because the US believes that the establishment of a semi-sovereign Palestinian state will not threaten Israel's existence, while the Israeli government fears withdrawing from the Territories, an act that would entail confrontation with the settlers (who make up, by the way, a large and significant part of its army).

The Obama Administration wants Netanyahu to change the present coalition by bringing Kadima into the government. Obama has hinted this at every opportunity, while simultaneously reaffirming his commitment to Israel's security. The Americans have opposed Israel on various issues: they have supported a document calling on it to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; they have pushed it to remove the blockade on Gaza; they have pushed it to investigate the flotilla debacle; earlier, they pushed it to freeze construction in the settlements until September. But despite the pressure to change the coalition, Netanyahu insists on keeping what he has, leaving Israel isolated and at odds with the US.

This right-wing policy influences relations inside the government itself, especially with the Labor Party. Its head, Ehud Barak, has lost the support of the other Labor ministers, above all that of Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Minister of Trade and Industry, a powerful party figure. Most Labor members take the position that the policy toward the Palestinians must be changed, that there must be serious, direct negotiations, and that therefore Kadima should be in the coalition.

Against the background of the international isolation, a meeting occurred in mid-July between Obama and Netanyahu, aimed at healing their rift. Obama understood that in cold-shouldering the Israeli PM he had played into the hands of anti-American factors. Turkey had crossed over to the side of Iran. In the Security Council, it had voted against sanctions aimed to limit Iran's nuclear program. In an attempt to derail these sanctions, it had earlier signed an agreement with Iran and Brazil to transfer part of Iran's uranium to itself for limited enrichment.

Obama also has an eye to the US congressional elections in November: if he appears anti-Israel, this might alienate the Jewish vote. After November, however, the smiles will subside, and Netanyahu will have to prove that he merits Obama's support. Having seen where his right-wing government has led him in his relations with Israel's only ally, he will need to take concrete steps to unglue the talks with the Palestinians.

We can see signs of the coming coalition change in the crisis that broke out recently between Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beitenu. The PM's refusal to back Lieberman's initiative on the question of Jewish conversion (an initiative which angered American Jews), have made the prospect of a switch more realistic—that is, Yisrael Beitenu out and Kadima in. Further evidence may be found in the recent meeting between Labor's Barak and Kadima's Livni, which sought a way, apparently, to bring Kadima in, in accordance with America's wishes.

The internal Palestinian conflict deepens

Among Palestinians the flotilla events deepened the schism between Abu Mazen's Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. The latter managed to bring Turkey over to its side, a country that until recently had close military ties with Israel, and in addition, it managed to win points with world public opinion, contributing to the isolation of Israel and inspiring a new crisis between it and the Americans. Hamas succeeded in forcing Israel to lighten the siege, a step that, in turn, created a crisis within Israel. One purpose of the blockade had been to pressure Hamas into freeing Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier it has held captive these four years; its lightening frustrated his family and their supporters, resulting in a 12-day protest march to Jerusalem, followed by a vigil that still goes on beside the Prime Minister's house. These popular measures have been interpreted as exposing Israel's weak underbelly in its ongoing conflict with Hamas.

The blockade of Gaza rose to first place on the agenda of Turkey's Islamic-leaning ruling party against its secular opposition. As for the intra-Palestinian struggle, every Hamas win is a Fatah loss. In the flotilla incident, the PA was exposed as Israel's collaborator. Joined by Egypt, it insisted that the siege's end must be conditioned on an Egypt-brokered reconciliation agreement between it and Hamas. The PA also insisted that the border crossings at Rafah must be under its control. In effect, the PA used Israel's military might against Hamas.

The flotilla events showed the Hamas leadership that there are better methods than the Qassam rocket for ending the siege and gaining recognition of its government. Today Hamas believes that diplomatic efforts will achieve what it could not get with suicide and rocket attacks. This is a delusion. International public opinion identifies with the people of Gaza for humanitarian reasons. But it will not accept the general Hamas position, which refuses accommodation with Israel while imposing a religious doctrine on the Palestinian people.

These are the conditions under which American mediator George Mitchell is attempting to prod the PA into direct talks with Israel. Hostile public opinion directed at post-flotilla Israel makes it hard for the PA to accede. Abu Mazen hesitates to enter direct talks that don't stand a chance. He fears to lose what little credibility he has left with the Palestinian people.

The Arab parties have cut themselves off

A number of leading Arab figures from Israel took part in the Turkish flotilla. This has created a new phase in the deterioration of relations between the Arab parties and the state. Except for Hadash, all the Arab parties were represented, among them Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, as well as the head of the Monitoring Committee, Mahmad Zidan, and Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamist movement. If we take into account the fact that the blockade of Gaza has become a major political issue, a bone of contention between Fatah and Hamas and a bone as well between the resistance camp led by Iran and the moderate camp led by Egypt, it is clear which way the Arab leaders in Israel are leaning.

If truth be told, the political agenda behind the flotilla belongs to the Islamist movement led by Salah. The "resistance" current adopted by him, which is linked to Hamas in Damascus, has put itself forward as representing the Arab masses in Israel. Salah opposes participation in the Knesset or any other parliament, basing himself on the Salafi movement within Sunni Islam. He has transformed "the right of the refugees' return," "al-Aqsa is in danger" and "the siege of Gaza" into programs of action. With these causes as a basis, he acts in accordance with such tactical considerations as serve the political aims of Hamas and strengthen his status on the Arab street.

Raed Salah's confrontations are widely covered by Aljazeera TV, which always follows them with press conferences featuring Hamas chief Khaled Mashal. Sometimes the focus is on Jerusalem, sometimes on Gaza, as topics that serve as propaganda against the PA. The Israeli Arab leadership in all its factions, from Hadash to Balad, is dragged after these events, struggling to keep up and stay alive in the hearts of the masses and the Arab media. They vie with one another in the extremity of their anti-Israel vituperations, each trying to outdo the other in enraging Israeli Jews.

One result of this practice is to provoke racist initiatives from the side of the Israeli Right. In the Knesset these take the form of bills like the Citizenship Law, the Family Unification Law, the Azmi Bishara Law (to put a stop to his Knesset pension), the rescinding of the Knesset privileges of Haneen Zoabi, calls for the interrogation and trial of Arab MKs, and more. Such measures raise the status of the Right in Israeli public opinion, while at the same time enabling the Arab parties to expose the ugly face of the State and attract wider Arab sympathy.

In reality, however—in all that relates to daily life—the Arab public remains stuck in the doldrums. Violence has become the main way of settling disputes. Oppression against women is as deeply entrenched as ever. Education is in steady retreat. Poverty rises in step with unemployment. The real agenda of the Arab public is not to be found in the Knesset, just as the Arab parties are not to be found on the street. Meanwhile, among Israeli Jews, anti-Arab racism increases, fanned by Arab leaders.

The rights of citizenship, housing, education, development, labor, public services, and culture are utterly missing from the agendas of the Arab parties. Instead, the right of return, Jerusalem, and the blockade of Gaza have become their chief slogans. There would be nothing wrong with these causes if behind the demands stood a real plan of action, rather than just a program which serves Hamas against Fatah—and so winds up weakening the Palestinian people. The best service in the struggle against the Occupation today would be to end the violence afflicting Arab society. A weak society, lacking a realistic leadership, is hardly fit to take active part in a struggle against Occupation. The present situation, where the Arab leadership makes do with provocations and heated Knesset speeches, only serves an external agenda, not the basic needs of the Arab masses.

Economic stability at the expense of the workers

The thing that safeguards the stability of the Netanyahu government is the economic power of Israel, for this country has managed to circumvent the crisis that hit the developed nations. At a time when Obama's popularity is plunging because of unemployment, and at a time when Greece and Spain have had to take stern measures, leading to strikes and loss of support for their governments, Netanyahu enjoys a strong majority in the Knesset. The economy is rising compared to the world's, the shekel is strong, in real estate no crisis seems on the horizon. Yet Israel is not an island, and sooner or later the crisis will reach it. A harbinger, perhaps, is the fact that foreign direct investment declined by 64% in 2009, a higher percentage than in other developed countries.

Israel continues the "market economics" that has failed throughout the world, especially in the two nations that went into it whole hog: the US and Great Britain. At a time when Washington is trying to persuade the Europeans to encourage consumption and create new jobs by increasing budget deficits, the Bank of Israel keeps a tight lid on the deficit. Beside an enormous military expenditure, Israel preserves its cuts in welfare budgets and lacks any serious plan for creating jobs.

Israel's economy is concentrated in the hands of some twenty families that have monopolies in real estate, banking, communications, energy and transportation. All this power gives them enormous influence on political decisions. The recent exposures concerning appointments in the Income Tax Authority, the Holyland Apartment complex in Jerusalem, and other scandals involving cozy relations between capital and political power, demonstrate that the Israeli economy serves a thin stratum of the super-wealthy at the workers' expense.

The economic success isn't based just on savings in the welfare budgets, in education and health, but also on low salaries. In the government offices, workers are employed on the basis of personal contracts, without social benefits, for the sake of budgetary savings. Israeli industry, in effect, pays minimum wage as the maximum. "Foreign" workers, as they're called here, pour in, under government policy, to work in construction, hotels, personal care and agriculture. The resultant increase in labor supply drives local wages to the bottom. All these factors have created a destitute working class, whose members know that Israel's economic success comes at the price of their exploitation. The abundance concentrated in the hands of a few is founded on chronic unemployment, which impoverishes the people on the periphery, including most of the Arab cities and villages. These are characterized by a blatant lack of services, infrastructure and education.

The Israeli economy is producing a social volcano—this, because Israel is not a regular nation-state. It is embroiled in an ongoing conflict with its neighbors, a situation that demands great sacrifices from its inhabitants, not only in terms of war casualties but also in terms of frequent military service. The Israel of today is not the state of the Jewish people, rather the state of a few rich families. The socio-economic gap has destroyed the Jewish solidarity that is basic to Zionism. It has further delegitimized occupation and discrimination. The social bitterness stems from the deep feeling of the workers that they are being exploited, deprived and humiliated, with no one to represent them either at the political or the trade-union level.

Change can come if two conditions are fulfilled. First, workers must understand that they will have to fend for themselves by organizing and advancing their priorities. A precondition, however, will be to recognize that the conflict with the Palestinians is blocking the needed shift in priorities. The conflict is presented as an ethnic one. Hatred and racism toward Arabs create an illusion of shared fate among all sectors of the Jewish population. In reality, however, Jews and Arabs—from textile workers to truck drivers—suffer from the same exploitation and live the same hopeless lives. A change of agenda will require that both groups tune the state of their consciousness to the state of their social situation. The road is of course a long one. First of all, it requires social activists, parties and leftists to internalize that consciousness. They must act to organize the Jews and Arabs who, until now, have been blinded by the political conflict.

Conclusion

The rapid changes taking place internationally because of the economic crisis, the rise of anti-Israel sentiment, Israel's behavior in the Occupied Territories, the deadlocked peace talks, and even the internal Palestinian conflict all point to the existence of a deep political crisis, for which no one has the key. On the one hand, sheer refusal and religious extremism are certainly not a solution, but neither is blind support for the United States or for corrupt dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In addition, Israel's policy of the "market economy" is creating a deep social crisis and a lack of trust in government institutions. All these factors can open an opportunity for a new political agenda among socialist parties worldwide, as well as among groups that seek change in Israel. "end"

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