Israel, elections and poverty

By Jean Shaoul:

Israel: High voter turnout results in setback for Netanyahu

23 January 2013

An unexpectedly high voter turnout in yesterday’s Israeli election resulted in a setback for Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing electoral alliance, Likud-Beiteinu.

Netanyahu is still expected to win a second consecutive term as prime minister, but the high rate of participation was motivated in significant part by oppositional sentiment directed against his planned austerity measures and his provocative stance regarding the Palestinians.

High up on the Likud-Beiteinu list are extreme right-wing settlers who have called for the annexation of “Area C”, the 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli military control.

Netanyahu has long made common cause with the right-wing religious parties, but he called an early election in an attempt to capitalise on the rise of new right-wing secular parties. His aim was to use this to push through an austerity budget for 2013 without making concessions to the religious parties’ impoverished social base. This may no longer be possible.

Though the high turnout to some extent indicates a desire by workers to stand against these plans, this sentiment finds no genuine political expression in the rightward-lurching official “left” and “centrist” alternatives.

Yesh Atid, established last year, came in an unexpected second, according to exit polls. The party combines professions of support for economic and social measures to benefit Israel’s beleaguered middle classes with right-wing nationalist and militarist rhetoric. The party will be courted by both Netanyahu and the Labor Party opposition.

The Labor Party has 17 seats. Hatnua, formed by former Kadima Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and supportive of talks with the Palestinians, and Meretz, the social democratic party still associated with a negotiated settlement, are both considered to be on course for seven seats.

There is little prospect for a stable government issuing from the elections, increasing the likelihood of political and social volatility.

Israel ranks 26th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Report, with a per capita GDP of US$31,000, and 17th in the UN Human Development Index. But it has the second highest poverty rate in the developed world, with nearly 25 percent living below the poverty line, and is second only to Mexico in terms of social inequality.

Tenement near Tel Aviv central bus station 4

Tenement near Tel Aviv central bus station 4

A report last November by Israel’s National Insurance Institute showed that 1.8 million of Israel’s 7.8 million people live below the poverty line. In 2011, more than 36 percent of Israeli children were poor, a jump of 1 percentage point from the previous year. Poverty afflicts more than 400,000 Israeli families, including almost 7 percent of families with two working people.

The Israeli government defines the poverty line as individuals who have expendable annual income of about $9,500 after taxes, approximately 50 percent of the median Israeli expendable income. Exactly 24.8 percent of Israelis, or 19.9 percent of families, live in poverty.

As a result of the ongoing suppression of the Palestinians and Israel’s frequent wars with its neighbours, the armed forces consume at least 20 percent of the state budget, although a significant proportion of this is funded by the US. The defence budget, the part that is reported, totals more than education and health combined. In the mid 2000s, defence spending reached 7.3 percent of GDP, the sixth highest in the world.

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Syria’s Golan Heights and East Jerusalem are now home to more than 500,000 people. They are far more generously funded than towns and cities within Israel itself.

Defence expenditure has spawned a high tech military, aviation, security and computer industry, accounting for 10 percent of Israel’s exports. This has given rise to a relatively privileged layer, who earn an annual income of about $62,000 and live in north and central Tel Aviv, with its refurbished Bauhaus buildings, smart shopping malls, and vibrant café, restaurant and club scene.

This type of wealth pales in comparison with Israel’s oligarchs—its 20 richest families, who control about half of the companies on Tel Aviv’s stock exchange. Israel boasts 16 billionaires on the world’s Rich List.

Housing in Hatiqva

Housing in Hatiqva

In contrast, 75 percent of working people earn one-third of the high-tech sector salary and struggle to make ends meet, even with two wages, in an economy with European-level prices. The trade unions, under the umbrella of the Histadrut Federation, have done nothing to arrest this social catastrophe, with the result that union membership is down to about 25 percent, confined in the main to the public sector.

The low-paid include fragmented communities: Jewish Israelis who came from the Middle East and North Africa—the Mizrahim —in the 1950s, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, the ultra-orthodox, and Israel’s Palestinian and Bedouin citizens. Migrant workers—Israel has one of the highest per capita rates of migrant labour in the world—are at the very bottom of the pile.

The Mizrahim earn 40 percent less than their European counterparts, do less well in school, and are less likely to go on to college or university. The 100,000 Ethiopian Jews, who remain socially isolated, fare particularly badly, holding low-paid manual work if they find work at all.

While many of the one million or so immigrants from the former Soviet Union have done well, many more are to be found among the low-wage earners. The poorest group by far of Israeli Jews are the ultra-orthodox, the Haredim, in part because so few of them work, preferring to study in religious seminaries. They are reliant on state handouts and charities to feed their large families.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population, earn 30 percent less than even Mizrahi Jews. Their towns and villages receive a much lower budget allocation than their Jewish counterparts and are to be found at the bottom of every social indicator, including infant mortality, poverty, crime and imprisonment.

The Bedouins fare even worse, particularly those in who live in villages designated as “unrecognised” for more than 60 years, making their land easy prey for confiscation. In southern Israel, near Beer Sheva, about 30,000 Bedouins are about to be driven from their land. Last November, hundreds of police stormed the recognized Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj, deploying tactics used for the occupied Palestinian territories, including the use of undercover forces disguised as Arabs. Despite being refused such rights as access to running water, schools and hospitals, the Bedouin must pay taxes.

Filipino care workers in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv

Filipino care workers in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv

Right at the bottom of the pile are Israel’s 300,000 migrant workers. Following the Palestinian intifada in 1988, the government restricted the number of labour permits for Palestinians living in the occupied territories and encouraged those who largely worked in the construction and agricultural sectors and were paid much less than Israel workers. It recruited workers from southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. While Chinese migrants work in the construction industry, Filipinos look after the elderly and work in care homes, and African and Latin American workers do menial work.

Many of these workers face racist discrimination and are brutally exploited by employers. The Ministry of Labour turns a blind eye and the trade unions do nothing to protect them.

The social consequences of these low wages and social divisions can be seen in the ring of squalid housing to the south of Tel Aviv, in Hatiqva, Ezra Shapira, Kefar Shalem and Argazim. The conditions are not so different from those in the poorer quarters of any of Israel’s Arab neighbours.

Even more shocking are the shacks near Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station, which would not be out of place in Manila. They and the squalid tenements nearby are home to migrant workers, a dozen or more living in one apartment.

Uri Avnery on the election results: here.

Adam Keller on the elections: here.

United Arab List-Ta’al, Hadash and Balad all enjoyed an increase in votes, but Israel’s Arabs can’t help but feel that they missed an opportunity to get more people to the polls: here.

5 thoughts on “Israel, elections and poverty


    by Jeff Halper

    So, what do the elections “tell us”? Do Israelis want peace or not? This is the central question people abroad ask, but if anything, the Israeli elections tell us that, for the high majority of Israelis, the question is irrelevant. Who cares? Netanyahu’s party got less than a quarter of the vote, and the “center,” the largest “bloc,” about a third.

    But “peace” was not a campaign issue for any of the parties, nor occupation (a term never used in mainstream Israeli discourse) or Arabs, the term Israeli Jews use for Palestinians within the 1967 borders and without (the three “Arab” parties got less than 10% of the vote). The fact that “security,” Israelis’ euphemism for keeping the Palestinians at bay, was not even an issue shows how far down the road of pacification and normalization of the Occupation Israelis feel they have gone. Once “the Arabs” fail to threaten us, they become a non-issue. And if anything, this was an election of non-issues – an assertive affirmation of neo-liberalism by a white middle-class for whom “social justice” means affordable housing for its own children.

    Did Israelis “move” from the right to the center? Again, an irrelevant question. Except for the small if vocal ideological left and right and the ultra-orthodox religious, most Israelis have always been in the center, in a place where a determined effort to achieve normality and an American standard of living breaks through whenever pressing security concerns abate. In fact, this is the essence of the deal struck between Israeli political leaders and the public: if you bring us personal security, normalcy and a rising quality of life, we will vote for you – and we don’t care how you do it. Most Israeli Jews were never really right-wing in their political views; they never bought into the Greater Land of Israel ideology of Begin, Sharon and Netanyahu. The ideological settlers represent only about one p ercent of Israelis; 90% of those living across the Green Line are there for economic reasons and would willing move back into Israel if their quality of life did not suffer. And so the mainstream voted against Peres in the wake of the Hamas bus bombings of 1996, voted overwhelmingly for Barak in 1999 when they thought the two-state solution would finally bring peace (or rather, quiet and normalcy) and, just a year later, they bolted for Sharon, a seemingly 180° turn, after the second Intifada broke out and he promised to break Palestinian resistance forever. In the view of the Israeli Jewish public Sharon succeeded in doing just that in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and ever since they have voted “right,” not out of ideological conviction but for those who could deliver personal security. As that concern dwindled over the past decade (2012 was the first year since 1973 in which no Israeli civilian died in an attack in the Occupied Territory), priorities shifted. Now economic well-being was what politicians had to deliver– and hence the rise of the neo-liberal “center”.

    Why, then, haven’t Israelis simply voted for a government that would genuinely end the Occupation and bring them peace, and with that personal security and economic prosperity? Three main reasons. First, for generations Israeli Jews have been convinced by their political leaders right and left that peace with “the Arabs” is impossible. The Arabs are our permanent enemies, goes the line, or in more popular terms, you can’t trust the Arabs. Though deeply embedded in the Israeli Jewish psyche, it is possible to overcome this way of thinking. After all, two-thirds or more of the Israeli Jewish public – up to 80% of Israelis if its Palestinian citizens are factored in – supported the Oslo peace process. Only three weeks ago a poll showed that the majority of Israelis who vote for the right support a t wo-state solution, at least in principle. True, this is very much “in principle,” since Israeli Jews, with little knowledge of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territory, have no clear idea of what a genuine two-state solution would actually entail (the relinquishing of East Jerusalem, the large settlement blocs or Hebron, for example). But it does demonstrate, however, that Israelis are not ideologically dedicated to the Occupation, and in the right circumstances, be it a combination of good Israeli and Palestinian leadership or strong outside pressures, they could be induced to give it up.

    Fearing this for reasons of their own, then, successive Israeli governments have rendered a genuine peace impossible by laying massive “facts on the ground” over the Occupied Territory that have raised the stakes to a point where the concessions necessary to create a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state are impossible to imagine. When you consider that a Labor Defense Minister (Barak) refused to remove five settler families from a blatantly illegal and strategically superfluous “outpost” and sought retroactive approval for 100 other illegal outposts, can anyone envision the evacuation of 45,000 Israelis from Ma’aleh Adumim or a full 250,000 from East Jerusalem? Indeed, a consensus exists among parties from the extreme right to Labor (and even Meretz to a considerable degree) that the “set tlement blocs” – the Jordan Valley, virtually emptied of Palestinian farmers, the Ariel, Modi’in and Hebron blocs, and “Greater” Jerusalem – must remain in Israeli hands no matter what, effectively forecloses any contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

    Finally, as the election demonstrates, Israelis have no motivation to end the “Occupation” (most Israeli Jews would put quotation marks around that dubious word). It does not affect their daily lives, and just as important, it does not affect their ability to achieve economic prosperity. The first decision of the leaders of the social justice protests in the summer of 2011 was to exclude all reference to the Occupation, which was considered a “divisive” issue and not integral to social justice within Israel – a position the Labor Party explicitly restated during the election campaign. In fact, as the laboratory where arms, homeland security devices and other high-tech technologies are developed and marketed, it could be argued that a prosperous Israeli economy depends upon continued occup ation.

    In the end, the Israeli Jewish public will not be a fatal obstacle to a negotiated solution, if that solution embodies two states. But neither will it be pro-active, rising up to overthrow the Occupation. Israelis have learned to accommodate to it and can live with that non- to-semi-issue for another 65 years. Only determined international pressures will move intransigent Israeli governments, but if that happens the Israeli pubic will come along.

    That’s the good news. The bad news is that the two-state solution is dead, buried under settlements and infrastructure too massive and interlinked with Israel to detach, especially given the lack of will among international governments, led by the US and Germany, to exert the pressures on Israel needed to force such massive concessions. But the international community will not move beyond the two-state solution unless prodded – virtually forced – by us, the international civil society. We have the wind to our back. Over the years we have collectively transformed the Palestine issue into one of the world’s great causes, at the level of the anti-apartheid struggle. But we must show the way. Led by our Palestinian partners into envisioning a new solution more just and more do-able, with the input of their criti cal Israeli counterparts and their international supporters – some version of a one-state solution or regional confederation – we will have to overcome the irrelevancies of both Israeli and international politics. If the Israeli election “tells us” anything, it is that the ball is in our court.

    Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).


  2. Gush Shalom: Yair Lapid brought us an extreme right, settler-dominated government

    Press Release March 18, 2013

    Today was established in Israel an extremist right-wing government in which settlers and their allies hold all the key positions: their Minister of Housing will construct settlement housing; their Minister of Industry will divert industries to the settlements; their Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee will provide them with plenty of funds. The Minister of Defense – who is, in effect, the military dictator holding sway over the Occupied Territories – is opposed to any gesture towards the Palestinians, even the smallest and most symbolic. It is a government which appointed a minister to take charge of conducting negotiations with the Palestinians and an entire ministerial team to oversee such negotiations, but would not be able to conduct any such negotiations in reality.

    The primary responsibility for Israel being saddled with such a pernicious and dangerous government does not rest with PM Netanyahu nor even with Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party. The main responsibility lies squarely upon Yair Lapid, the man who scored a big victory in the elections and frittered it away, who dealt a crushing blow to the right-wing block in Israeli politics and then single-handedly restored this same bloc to great power. Lapid’s supposedly “left of center” party won many more votes than Naftali Bennett’s extreme-right formation, but the alliance of these two parties worked entirely in favor of Bennett and his settlers.

    Bennett had taken sober, well calculated steps, focusing on gaining the commanding positions in order to strengthen and bolster the West Bank settlement enterprise. Lapid wasted the incredibly strong position which fell into his hands in the aftermath of the elections, using it to advance marginal and insignificant objectives such as a reduction in the number of government ministers or recruiting members of Haredi Ultra-Orthdox community into the Israeli Army (an aim which would not be achieved in practice, anyway). Moreover, Lapid promoted some manifestly negative and harmful aims, such as steeply raising the electoral threshold which parties would need to cross to gain parliamentary representation – thus violating the democratic right of minorities in Israeli society to be represented.

    Lapid only paid faint lip service to the need of negotiations with the Palestinians. But he even gave up without a struggle such major objectives of his constituency as civil marriage and public transportation on the Sabbath. Now he is getting ready to run the Ministry of Finance and implement austerity policies and severe budget cuts which would hurt the same middle class which Lapid purports to represent.

    Hopefully, Lapid’s voters will remember all this at the next elections.

    Contact: Adam Keller +972-54-2340749


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