Israel: Tel Aviv municipal elections - a Pyrrhic victory for the Right

The recent municipal elections in Tel Aviv, although won by the right wing, produced a massive swing to the Israeli Communist Party (ICP), which gained 35% of the vote. Jewish and Arab workers, Jewish and Arab youth, voted massively for the ICP. In the commercial, industrial and financial centre of Israel, in the biggest city in the country a radical left mood is brewing among the workers and youth.

The municipal elections in Israel are usually regarded as a prosaic event. The participation is usually low and the candidates are very similar in their promises, their background and possibly their performance. But the recent municipal elections in Tel Aviv were markedly different. For the first time in the history of the city the candidates and their supporters were divided on class lines.

On the one side stood the incumbent mayor, Ron Huldai, an army brigadier general, who was supported by the city's bourgeoisie and the aging upper-middle class. His supporters were the landlords, the business men, the wealthy dwellers and owners of the skyscrapers which scar the city's horizons, the luxurious apartment buildings and villas in the north of the city, exclusively populated by the richest people in the country.

Dov Hanin
Dov Hanin

On the other side stood Dov Hanin, an MP and a leader of the Israeli Communist Party (ICP) standing under the banner of the Ir Le'Kulanu (City for All). Hanin received overwhelming and enthusiastic support by the city's working masses and students: The working men and women living in the south of the city, overburdened by rapidly ascending rents which they are forced to pay for crowded and dilapidated apartments in neighbourhoods abandoned by the city's bureaucracy. This is remarkable since the ICP was always a very marginal party, supported mostly by the Arab minority. It was resented by most Israelis because of its support for the Right of Return for the Palestinian refugees and other principles that are not in alignment with some basic Zionist creeds. No one would suspect that a leading member of that party would be so widely supported by the masses in Israel's largest and most important city.

In the elections held on November 11, 2008, Hanin lost to Huldai by what was seems a substantial gap: Huldai received 50% of the votes in comparison to Hanin's 35%. These figures however, hide a completely different picture: Hanin's party, Ir Le'Kulanu received the same number of seats in the city's council as did Huldai's party, with a slightly larger number of votes. They have immediately begun to organize what seems to be a very powerful opposition to Huldai's rule. The figures also hide the fact that the Left was divided. The Green Party also had a candidate in the race, which received 4% of the votes, with another 0.45% going to an independent candidate representing the Arab minority. Another 10% went to another anti-Huldai candidate, who promised to cancel all parking tickets if elected.

But the most important issue is very much beyond any of these statistics. It is the fact that Huldai now has to face a class-oriented opposition. The elections showed that Huldai failed in the most important mission that any bourgeois politician must fulfil successfully: to keep the working masses divided and to make them forget all about their common class interests. This is what makes these elections one of the most important events in Israel's history: so far Israel's ruling class was successful in replacing the Israeli proletariat's class consciousness with numerous ethnic and religious divisions fed by fear of terrorism and racism against the Arab minority in Israel. The state made sure that class interests would always be perceived as secondary to Jewish "national" interests. The recent elections have proved that this hitherto set up is beginning to crack. Arab and Jewish workers and students voted together and participated in numerous demonstrations and activities in order to place their representative in the mayor's office. Many young Jews were no longer impressed by Huldai's incessant attacks on Hanin's anti-Zionism, his support for equality between Jews and Arabs and his support for draft dodging. They already knew all that, and they were ok with it. A substantial generation gap was also revealed: unlike the conservative Zionism of the more elderly, the youth are much more willing to absorb radically different ideas.

The battle for Tel Aviv

Perhaps one of the hallmarks of capitalist development is the influx of population from the countryside into the big cities. If the opposite occurs – people emigrating from the city back to the countryside – it is usually indicative of substantial economic decline and recession. In industrializing countries, most notably China, the state intervenes to encourage people to leave the villages in order to become workers in the emerging industrial sector. Thus, a state's policy that will force people away from the metropolis would be considered as reactionary even in bourgeois terms. This, however, is exactly the policy planned by Israel with the full support of Ron Huldai.

Recently it was reported that the Israeli government intends to limit the construction of new apartment buildings in Tel Aviv. The government claims that this was designed to "encourage" (the correct term is to force) as many people as possible away from the city to live in the outlying areas. By limiting the supply of new apartments, the prices for the existing ones will rise artificially to astronomic levels, thus forcing many young people to live in secluded and impoverished towns in Israel's periphery.

What is behind such a reactionary policy? The ruling class fears that if Israel's territories are not populated by Jews, the Arab minority will take over. Already there are big concerns that in some areas of the country, such as the north, the Arabs constitute a majority. The concentration of Jews in the big cities and away from the periphery, is thus in contradiction with the Zionist necessity of a Jewish majority. Paradoxically, this policy is actually meant to protect the big cities. The Jewish settlements throughout the periphery are supposed to serve as a buffer that protects the big cities from terror and war attacks. In every war that Israel has been involved in, the periphery was the first to suffer. The peripheral settlements, such as Sderot, also absorb most of the terrorist acts.

Hanin speaks at a demonstration against Israel's actions in Gaza
Hanin speaks at a demonstration against Israel's actions in Gaza

At the time of deindustrialisation, such as the one we are in now, many workers are no longer required in the big cities of Israel. It would therefore be much more "effective" for the Zionist ruling class to evacuate them to the periphery. According to the government's statements, Israel plans to turn Tel Aviv into a financial centre: something like the Singapore of the Middle East. According to this perspective, it would be filled with skyscrapers and luxurious apartment buildings – an Emerald City for the rich, inaccessible to the rest. There is no place for the working class and students in this picture. They are to be evacuated, atomised and scattered into isolated settlements, with a lack of education and no political power whatsoever, dependent on the mercy of the welfare state.

However, the ruling class didn't take into account the fact that the working masses and students would not take this lying down. Struggles have erupted, starting with impressive student protests, which began in Tel Aviv and then swept to the entire country, and ended with the dramatic struggle of workers against the city who wanted to push them out of their neighbourhoods, destroy them, and build luxury apartments instead.

The war over Tel Aviv is a war for the survival of the democratic and progressive section of Israeli society. This section constitutes the revolutionary forces in Israel, and they are taking the first steps in their self-assertion and the grasping of their historic role. The recent elections were just the first round in this long term struggle against capitalism, from which the movement can only grow stronger.

Tel Aviv and The ICP

The class conflict in Tel Aviv has yielded something unprecedented in a conservative society such as Israel. The ICP - as a dominant force within the Ir Le'Kulanu - emerged as a significant political force for the first time since the independence of the state. Cynics may remind us of the Party's reformist nature. This is undeniable, but that is not so relevant at this point of development. What is most important is the fact that suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, so many Israelis were willing to identify themselves so enthusiastically with social taboos such as communism and a critical approach towards Zionist creeds.

These achievements could not be understood outside of the context of the severe crisis facing world capitalism in general and Zionism in particular. While the older Israelis find it difficult to part ways with the dogmas they grew up with, the younger generation is much more willing to relinquish them. While the older generation lived through the boom years of post-war capitalism, this younger generation is composed of people born after the 1970s, during a period of recession, inflation, deindustrialisation, unemployment and the war the state has been waging against the working class. They see how capitalism has no solutions. They were brought up to believe that privatisation and wage restraints are necessary to prevent job loss. The current crisis is proving this to be false. All their sacrifice was in vain. They are much less willing now to allow capitalism to survive at their expense.

On the political front, things are just as bad. The Zionist regime has proved to be completely incompetent in providing peace and security, so much desired by the Israeli masses. The generation gap plays a role here as well. While the older Israelis fought in wars that at least seem to threaten the very existence of their society, this younger generation fights in wars that are totally redundant, with marked imperialistic distinctions: these are the wars in Lebanon and the unending war of appeasement against the occupied Palestinian masses. Many of them are starting to see no solutions to their plight within the framework of Zionism.

We may and we must criticize the ICP for its reformist policies and bureaucratic approach. But in Israel this is the political framework under which the most progressive workers are united. The ICP is the only political force that offers something totally different from anything any other political party in Israel has ever offered: Instead of nationalist superiority, it offers international solidarity; instead of corruption and self interest, it offers honest leaders that are not under police investigation.

In this context there is no wonder that the advanced workers and students are starting to notice it. It will not be surprising if workers and students from other cities will follow suit in the near future. This new blood flowing into the ICP will undoubtedly have some effect on the party itself. The younger members are already more ideological than the old, and more willing to engage in extra-parliamentary activity. These new members can influence the party towards new directions.

In conclusion, we know of comrades in Israel who, having become frustrated by the ICP's reformism, are trying to form their own worker's organizations. We understand these frustrations, but we must advise against any form of sectarianism. The mass of workers in Tel Aviv has turned to the ICP. This confirms what the Marxists have maintained for decades. The working class as a whole is not attracted to small left group, but seeks a mass expression. In Tel Aviv they have done this through the ICP.

With all its flaws, therefore, Israeli Marxists should work with and within the ICP, so they can be in contact with the bulk of the most advanced organized workers and students in Israel, especially in such a historical time, when only a Marxist analysis can explain what is going on and offer a way out.

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