Israel’s Big Bang
"If I know Arik [Ariel Sharon's nickname], he'll head straight for Cairo and try to get votes for Likud"—Defense Minister Dayan on the third day of the Yom Kippur War
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“Labor is left-wing, Likud is right-wing,” red-faced Zionists are probably shouting after reading the previous paragraph. This is true on paper, and it is so exclusively for propagandistic reasons. On checking the facts, a different image emerges. A Labor government was the one to allow the first settlements in the West Bank, while a Likud government was the one to diminish discrimination against Mizrahi Jews. Who is right-wing? Who is left-wing? These obsolete political terms are irrelevant. All Jewish-secular parties are Zionists; nowadays, even most of the ultra-Orthodox Haredim are so. All Jewish-secular parties support human rights violations by the state, though with minor differences in the permitted violations. Most Zionists oppose a constitution (Israel doesn’t have a constitution). The biggest differences between these parties are minor shades in their proposed peace process. All of them claim to pursue peace, while encouraging violence and discrimination. In the 2009 elections, Jewish-secular parties got roughly 75% of the vote. Being exact is difficult, because the borderline between Jewish-secular and ultra-Orthodox parties is fuzzy. In other words, 75% of the electorate voted for various parties that cannot be clearly distinguished. The Israeli political map is a hodgepodge, a mishmash-continuum of equally ambiguous parties.
The Big Bang
This vagueness explains the fluidity of the Jewish-secular vote. There is no real difference between Labor and Likud; thus, single-events just before the elections can sharply change the vote. Moreover, none of them can create stable governments; they always rely on shaky coalitions with ultra-Orthodox parties. This pattern became clear in the early 1990s. Reading the political section of Hebrew newspapers from this period, one will often find the term “HaMapatz HaGadol,” the Big Bang. Politicians in the Labor and the Likud—back then the leading Jewish-secular parties—realized that the way to resolve the problem was to create a Big Bang, a political explosion which would redefine the secular map, with one main secular-Jewish party. This was Ariel Sharon’s purpose when he created Kadima in 2005. Following complex events, it is safe to assess that his party failed. Nowadays, secular Jews are divided between three main parties; coalitional governments have become even more complex.
Considering this, Netanyahu’s decision to run together with Lieberman is odd. Lieberman’s party is even more right-wing than the Likud. If Netanyahu wants to increase popular support for the Likud, he should look towards the center. Kadima and Labor voters should be his goal. Lieberman’s party will always join a Likud-led coalition. Kadima and the Labor parties wouldn’t do that automatically. Thus, it would be smarter for him to attract traditional voters of the latter. This was the Israeli political game of the last two decades. It didn't work. Invariably, secular Jews split their vote. It seems that Netanyahu understood that it is not about traditional right and left-wing politics. The real divide in the Israeli society is ethnic and religious. Jews are divided into secular and ultra-Orthodox (Haredim and Hasidim). Israeli-Palestinians (over a million of Israel’s citizens are Palestinians) are divided into Christians and Muslims, though in their actual state of oppression this religious divide is irrelevant. Ultra-Orthodox parties get around 20% of the vote, Palestinian parties around 5%; the latter are wildly underrepresented in the Knesset. What Netanyahu is trying to achieve is a better version of Ariel Sharon’s Big Bang. By creating a solid Jewish-secular front, he expects to attract the central-segment of the Jewish secular electorate to the Likud. Kadima voters will easily make the transition, Labor ones have became an endangered species and matter little. Opportunists like Ehud Barak (he leads the tiny Independence party, which split from the Labor for the sake of his position as Defense Minister) scatter like leaves in the wind and will join whoever wins.
Netanyahu is gambling. The results of the elections cannot be easily predicted, regardless of the accuracy of the polls. Single, unpredicted events can widely change the results. If he succeeds, we won’t witness a Big Bang, but an implosion, the consolidation of the Jewish-secular vote into one main party. Ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian parties would be on the fringes of the political map. With a noncoalitional government, Netanyahu will be strong enough to implement his plans of war with Iran. If that happens, the world may witness a true Big Bang, a nuclear-oriented war in the Middle East.
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