As many have said, including me, the difference between Right and Left in Israel has nothing to do with the usual meaning of the terms. Both the Right and the Left are racist and Jewish supremacist. Both support the worst human rights abuse and both show absolutely no interest in peace or compromise. But that does not mean Israeli politics don't matter. To understand what is really in play we need to have a picture of the Israeli electorate. Israeli voters can be divided into five blocks or sectors. These five blocks exhibit high level of separation from each other, geographically, socially, economically and culturally. Here is the breakdown, with the caveat that all the statements about the people in each sector are generalizations, as economists call them, "stylized facts."
1. Palestinians: about 20% of voters. Part of the indigenous people displaced by the establishment of the state and heavily discriminated against. Live mostly in the Galilee and Negev in separate communities. A minority lives in separate neighborhoods in mixed towns. Generally excluded from the Israeli economy, especially from the state and corporate sector. Average income is 29% lower than the Jewish average. Main language and culture is Arabic. Most are Muslims (83%) but a minority is Christian.
2. Russians: One million, about 17% of voters. Recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union during the post-dissolution depression in the nineties. Most are secular and a sizable minority, some claim as much as 50%, not in fact Jewish. Main language and culture is Russian. Russians dominate the lower rangs of the Israeli economy, especially in services, and many resent the mismatch between their professional education and current economic status. Russian immigrants adopted racism against Arabs as part of 'fitting in' in their host society. Russians are dispersed among older poor Jewish settlements such as upper Nazareth, new settlements such as Ariel and poor urban neighborhoods.
3. Ultra-orthodox: about 12%, mostly descendants of Palestinian Jews. Live in very poor communities, over 50% below the poverty line. Have a distinct religious Jewish culture. Yiddish is a major language. Predominantly live in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and a couple of ultra-orthodox settlements.
4. Secular Israelis: ~20%. predominantly descendants of the Zionist founders of the state, of Eastern European and German background (Ashkenazi). Dominate Hebrew culture. Economically the most affluent group, dominating the professions, the civil service, the top army brass, politics, corporate management, etc. Average wages 140% of the general average. Geographically concentrated in the coastal plain, around Tel Aviv, although the spread out Kibutzim also belong to this sector. This sector exhibits the lowest level of overt racism, but has been in fact in charge of all the racist institutions of the state since their inception.
5. Traditional/religious: ~30%. Predominantly Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab countries in the fifties. But also Ashkenazi religious Jews, including most of the radical settlers. Includes both middle class and poor communities. Religious identification with varying level of observance. This sector is underrepresented in the coastal center and dominates the periphery, including settlements. In the last twenty years this sector has replaced secular Israeli as the source of the officer corps in the army and has increasingly asserted itself in parliamentary politics. Early on members of this sector adopted racism against Arabs to assert their "Israeliness."
These blocks/sectors do not align perfectly on class, ethnicity or any other parameter. But these varying fault lines are fairly correlated. Most secular Israelis are Ashkenazi. But so are the Russians and the Ultra-Orthodox. Some Ultra-Orthodox are from Arab Jewish Background. Almost all of the financial and cultural elite belong to the secular Israeli sector. But each of the other Jewish sectors counts a few representatives. Etc.
This is the map on which party affiliation and voting play out. As typical of a settler society, the first major fault line is between the four Jewish blocs and the indigenous Palestinians. This is fairly rigid. Few Palestinians and even fewer Jews cross that line. Palestinians are in practice excluded from the political process. They are allowed to be in parliament but it is considered taboo to let them influence important decisions. A majority decision is not considered legitimate unless it is made by a Jewish majority. For these reasons, Palestinian parties do not in fact participate in the competition over political power in Israel. That competition takes place exclusively among the four Jewish blocks. It is predominantly a contest between the Israeli secular block, which historically held all the power and wealth, and the other three. The secular Israeli sector has been bleeding power almost continuously since 1977. It's agenda is essentially conservative, fending off the challengers. The Israeli "Left" includes the parties of Labor and Meretz and represents Secular Israelis. The Israeli Right includes parties that position themselves to represent the three contestant sectors, the ultra-orthodox parties, the Russian parties, and the national-religious parties. The Israeli "center" represents the zone of co-optation. This is where the elite seeks opportunities to build large coalitions by offering concessions to other sectors.
With this in mind, here are the players:
Balad, Hadash and Ta'al represent the Palestinian sector. In the last knesset the sector held 10 seat (out of 120). They might have less as the trend toward boycotting the elections seems to be gaining momentum.
Meretz and Labor represent the interest of the Secular Israeli sector. However, they are not the same. Labor is the party of "the establishment." It is the party of retired generals, security apparatchiks, the representatives of the plutocracy and the corporate interests. It's main agenda, if it has any beyond just holding to power, is neo-liberalism and the global integration of capital. As the party most in touch with international capital and most representative of the financial Israeli elite, Labor has been traditionally pushing with one hand for a formalized Apartheid system that would officially (and only officially) "end the occupation." With its other hand, however, it has pushed and deepened the colonization of the West Bank.
Meretz (and a new "leftist" party) is the party of cultural capital and nostalgia for white power. Meretz captures the resentment of secular Israelis, especially the cultural elites, over their growing marginalization within Israeli society, notably by the rising power of religion. It advocates civil rights and even human rights in principle. But when a war is announced Meretz always support it until it grows stale. It officially supports a two state solution that goes slightly beyond what Labor is ready to offer, partly out of nostalgia for the idylic time "pre 1967," when secular Israel was supposedly pure of heart (and blood) and full of goodness. In the last elections Meretz and labor (the secular block) held 24 seats. That is expected to shrink somewhat.
Likud was born out the unhappiness of sectors of the bourgeoisie with the political dominance of the labor party. Menachem Begin skillfully positioned the party to also represent the resentment of Arab Jews against the neglect and humiliation which they experienced at the hand of the Labor party dominated establishment. Since then Likud become successful as the party that protected the interests of the plutocracy while managing the decline of the secular Israeli block. Settlements and repression in the Occupied Territories was a big factor in that compromise. What closed the deal with the voters was however the sense that Likud respected people of non-European background, as well as simply not being Labor. Likud is the most important party in Israel conceptually, because it articulated the grand compromise that all other Zionist parties came to accept with varying degrees of eagerness--neo-liberal globalization for the rich, nationalism and settlements for the rest. In the last Knesset Likud held 12 seats, and is expected to double that in this elections.
Kadima is a party created by the top politicians of both Likud and Labor. Kadima is the product of two political moments. First, Bush's global war on terror ended the tension between repression of Palestinians and capitalist globalization, thus making the previous "bad cop, good cop" routine of Labor and Likud superfluous. Second, both Labor and Likud experienced internal populist insurgencies seeking to wrench a better deal from capital. The result was the creation of a party of almost unadultered plutocracy.
With small variations, the major politics and personalities of Kadima, Labor and Likud are interchangable. They all seek to dominate the grand Likud compromise and differ only on minor inflections of the compromise in favor of different groups. Labor is more sensitive to the cultural identification of secular Israelis with Europe, and is therefore more in favor of hiding apartheid in formal agreements. Likud is more sensitive to the resentment of the outsiders, and seeks to capture it with nationalistic gingoism. All are beholden to the plutocracy and will restrain the occupation only if it threatens economic interests and international alliances.
Shas is an Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi cross over. It negotiates hard for special funding for its social base, supports the Likud compromise and pushes it to the populist edge. It had 12 seats in the last knesset and is shrinking in the polls as Likud gains.
United Torah Judaism is an Ashkenazi Ultra Orthodox party. It takes money for its social base and supports a hard right position on the Palestinian issue. Its six seats will stay put.
The Jewish Home is a religious nationalist party, pushing Likud from the right. The National Union is a less religious and more nationalistic and Ashkenazi ultra-right party. Both together will probably drop from 9 to about 6 seats.
Finally, Israel Beiteinu is the Russian party, whose leader is the former Kahanist Avigdor Lieberman. It held 11 seats in the last Knesset and seems to be the rising surprise of the elections, overtaking Labor as the third largest party. It pushes the Likud compromise from the direction of the populist right, using open racism as the major selling point.
The summary is this. The secular Ashkenazi founders of Zionism built a racist society based on their own political, economic and cultural domination. Since the seventies, that domination has been increasingly challenged by Jews of lower status and different backgrounds. Because racism against Palestinians is the glue that holds the nation together, all Jewish challenges to the founders' hegemony are expressed as a competition in racism. Parties step in front of the electoral mirror and ask,
mirror mirror on the wall, who's the most racist of us all.The only restraining factor is the fear of alienating the Western alliance that support Israel. The rise of the "extreme" right (as if Labor isn't extreme) expresses a number of trends: 1) the continuing assertion of Palestinian presence in the land 2) an intensification of the internal social struggle among Jewish Israelis 3) the continuing decline of the secular Israeli block and 4) the growing confidence that Israel need not worry about negative repercussions from the U.S. and Europe.
Some say that this confidence is a misreading of the international moment. I hope so but I wouldn't be so sure.