Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Turkey's Day of Chaos: the New or Old Turkey?

Here in New York, it is 9:00 PM in the evening. In three more hours it will be April 1, or what many know as April Fools Day. However, what we experienced today, March 31, was like an April Fools day gone bad in Turkey, where it became a day of chaos. 

Despite the over four-thousand miles that separate me from Istanbul, a place which I consider as one of my homes, I could feel the immense amount of tension hitting at me via the social media waves. It was 7:00 am my time, 2:00 pm Istanbul time, and I wish I had not checked my twitter. Indeed, I had just went to get a cup of water and planned to go back to sleep. 
Blackout in Turkey (photo by Alec Perkins Daily Digest) 

At the first glance, I saw numerous tweets about a massive electrical outage that had struck the whole country. My feed was filled with tweets and news reports talking about metros, air fields, and stores closing, due to the fact that simply at one moment a major blackout had taken over the whole country. Some tweets were comical, others poked at the lack of accountability of the government. 

For me, this seemed like just another strange day in a country that for the last two years has been full of surprises; the Gezi protests,  recordings released on twitter pointing to mass corruption, the Soma Mine disaster that killed 301 miners, and the electrical outage that struck the polling booths during the presidential elections, which state officials blamed on the work of a stray cat. 

Then, I came across one tweet that with in one second clearly surpassed the story of the electrical outage. A state prosecutor. M. Selim Kiraz, had been taken hostage by a radical militant leftist group, the DHKP-C, which demanded information be released concerning the police killing of the 15-year old Berkin Elvan, who was shot in the head and seriously injured by a teargas canister during the Gezi protests, after laying for months in a coma, until he died. 

Picture of one of the hostage-takers and the prosecutor
The hostage crisis was surreal to say the least; it was splashed across our twitter feeds, with live tweets appearing to come from the hostage-takers themselves, two university students; we only saw the one dressed in a suit, with a beret on his head and a red scarf over his face, who held a gun to the prosecutor, with a Soviet hammer and sickle in the background. As someone who teaches Turkish history, this seemed like it was straight from the 1970's, from the days of Deniz Gezmis; certainly not from 2015.  But it was. This is the reality. 

In mid-afternoon my time, late evening there, slowly the electrical blackout was being replaced with a media blackout of the hostage crisis, and it was clear that the story would not end well. Negotiations between the two parties went astray and in events that are still not clear the two sides clashed, ending with the prosecutor and the two hostage-takers dead. Truly a tragedy for all the families. 

Even if one can only imagine what was going through the two hostage-takers head, who could easily have been my students, and even if one can argue that perhaps the Turkish special forces were too quick to pull the trigger, with it clearly being a botched operation, with the prosecutor now dead, the truth needs to be told: justice cannot be found at the tip of a loaded pistol. This act, regardless of their intentions, needs to be condemned with the strongest words.  

For me however the day symbolized much more. It had seemed that the system had gone totally astray, that the country was going off the rails, spiraling into chaos. Conspiracy from both sides spread like a wild blaze, that was best symbolized by a false report of a fire at an historic Ottoman barracks later that evening.  I too tweeted that there were reports of a fire, which seemed to have been confirmed along side the pro-gov mouth piece Sabah.

False reports of a major fire makes headlines
in pro-gov newspaper Sabah

Happily people in the region of the alleged fire quickly confirmed this to be false. However, the damage done was the fire that was ignited inside of us, and it had taken its toll. 

Tonight we were once again reminded that Turkey is at an extremely vulnerable stage. With elections just a little over two months away, there seems to be no reconciliation insight; and, for anyone who loves this country, Turkish or non-Turkish, pro-government or anti-government, it seems we are all on edge, polarized, frustrated and all very desperate for answers explaining what exactly are all of these events that are occurring in front of our computers screens, and our real lives

Within all this confusion, a major headline of 236 military officers being acquitted after years of serving prison terms for planning a coup against the government, almost seemed mundane. After a day like this who remembers the historic Sledgehammer (Balyoz) case? So much has changed in the last few years. Or, is it that nothing has changed? What Turkey's president, Erdogan, terms as the "New Turkey," seems exactly what we knew as the "Old Turkey." One where justice is a matter of relevance and injustices are great. And, so the story goes on...    

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An Evening With the Joint List and a Breakdown of the Israeli Elections

During the election night, in place of being affixed on my television at home, I made my way up to the Joint List headquarters in Nazareth. Arriving just minutes before the closing of the ballot boxes and the live broadcast of the Exit Polls, the room was packed with activists and members, together with the Israeli and international media, covering one of the big stories of this election. For the first time in Israeli history, the Arab parties joined forces together with the Jewish-Arab Hadash party, in order to ensure that no Arab party would fall under the recently raised parliamentary threshold (see the pre-election guide and my article on the Joint List).  

Celebrating the Joint List Victory
As all eyes were affixed on the three screens (one for each of the main Israeli channels), the countdown began: Five, four, three, two, one. The Likud 27, the Zionist Union 27, the Joint List 13; the crowds cheered. History had been made. The List had secured the third place. And, just as they changed the dynamics of the election campaign season, with the head of its party, Ayman Odeh, becoming somewhat of a star, their voice in the Knesset will be stronger than ever. 

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh being interviewed 

Of course, this is despite the many challenges it faces such as keeping the List intact, which is made up of four different parties with contradicting ideologies; not to mention, the challenge of meeting the high expectations it has raised among its supporters. One reporter asked MP Haneen Zoabi, who is known for her controversial outbursts in the Knesset, about the future of the List and she seemed upbeat that they had found a formula that allowed all the parties to act in unison while continuing to retain their own agenda.  

MP Haneen Zoabi mixing with supporters and media
It was an exhilarating evening, which marked an important step in the direction of reassessing the essence of citizenship in Israel, and the small vibrant Jewish supporters present (who were the minority in the room) cheered together, showing their solidarity with the Palestinian minority in Israel (who were the majority in the room), with a strong sense of unity among all. However, the evening was dampened by what would become the big story of the evening, the Exit Poll had predicted that Netanyahu had succeeded in maintaining his support base, despite the numerous polls that just days before had predicted a decline in support.

The disdain for Netanyhu at the headquarters cannot be underestimated; just that day the Israeli Prime Minister had called on Jews to come out to vote to counter the large participation of Arabs voting, who were “flowing to the ballot boxes in droves.” Yes, the leader of the Jewish state revealed his racist ways in a desperate call to get more votes; inciting citizen against citizen. In fact, the new found power of Palestinians in Israel, ignited one of the most racist campaigns I remember, with Israel Foreign Minister even calling to chop off the heads of Arabs disloyal to the state (yes, you heard right). In the future, I will dedicate a blog to this topic.      

Breaking Down the Elections Results

Now to the elections, what happened? All credible polls in Israel had placed Netanyahu’s Likud trailing behind the Herzog’s Zionist Union. This was not only the consensus of the Israeli Center-Left but also among Likud supporters as well. In fact a look at the final results will show how far the polls were actually off (keep in mind that most polls had placed the Zionist Union at 24 seats with the Likud at 20), with the Likud receiving six seats more than the Zionist Union. Just this morning the final results were declared, after the soldiers votes were counted.

The Final Results:  

Likud 30, Zionist Union 24, Joint List 13, Yesh Aitd 11, Kulanu 10, Bayit Yehudi 8, Shas 7, Y. Torah 6, Yisrael B. 6, Meretz 5.

So what happened? Did the pollsters err?

While it is clear that both the pre-election polls and the Exit polls also were way off, a scientific study would need to be completed to understand the full extent of vote. Regardless, it is apparent that there was a last minute switch among many voters, which went to the Likud. Most likely caused by Netanyahu’s continued hammering in that a vote for Yesh Atid or Kulanu was a vote for a Herzog. Netanyahu also secured votes from the far-right, by convincing people to switch from the mostly settler based Bayit HaYahudi, in order to strengthen his “mandate” against the Left.

Also, as one commentator mentioned on twitter, in the last three days of the campaign Netanyahu provided more interviews than he had in the last two years. In other words, it seems he saw his boat was quickly sinking and he successfully was able to lead it out of rough waters; unfortunately, as mentioned above, also using racist scare tactics. There is no doubt that he pulled through, proving that he is one ace of a politician.   
Does a Victory for the Likud equal a defeat for the Zionist Union?

Not necessarily. The Zionist Union (essentially the Labor party) seriously improved its standing and had it received the extra six mandates in place of the Likud, it is safe to say that Herzog would have had the ability to form a government. Thus, perhaps, the real winner of these elections were the two major parties, the Likud and Labor, returning as the main choice of most Israelis. Together they got 54 seats (up from about 37 in the last elections). This trend is a positive one that will hopefully break the immense amount of political maneuvering of the last two decades.

Is the Labor doomed to remain always second to Likud?

Let’s face it. Since Rabin’s election in 1992, and the major shift to Likud in 1977, the Labor has been trailing the Likud, or the Right block. Further, the crisis in the Israeli left should be seen within the context of the decline of leftist movements in neo-liberal capitalist societies. There is no doubt however that the continued occupation of Palestine (a United Nations non-member state), and how the conflict plays out for the average Israeli, also influences greatly the Israeli political scene. On both fronts, the Labor has failed to convince the Israeli electorate that it offers a better alternative. And, within this failure, parties such as Yesh Atid are able to sweep up 11 seats (down from 19). This party, the neo-liberal capitalist dream, is one defunct of any real ideology other than serving the middle and upper classes needs, who are key swing voters between the two parties. 

So what happened with Meretz?

The leftist liberal party has failed on both fronts as well, this time barely crossing the newly raised parliamentary threshold. Meretz's historical contribution to legislation promoting equality and economic justice is undeniable. However, the party remains a “closed club” for many in the Israeli society, unable to attract societies their legislation aims to protect. Yes, they have feminists, but so does the Labor party. Yes, they promote a LGBT agenda; twenty years ago this was pioneering, today it isn’t. Yes, they have an Arab MP, but its Zionist agenda cuts them off from most of Israel’s twenty percent Palestinian minority. Meretz has become status-quo and it seems that is actually is blocking new Jewish left voices from emerging rather than promoting a dynamic leftist agenda.      

And, the peace process?

What peace process? The only hope on this front now seems to be on the international front where European countries, and recently the United States, are becoming increasingly impatient with Netanyahu; i.e., the only way Israel will enter serious negotiations is via international pressure. The United States will have to take a stand and adopt a clear change in policy. The fact that the Obama and Netanyahu are locked into a round of butting heads makes this switch a bit easier. However, I am not really hopeful Obama has the will or the ability to make real changes. So, for now, most likely it will be more of the same. No doubt that a center-left government would have produced a glimmer of hope. However, we have learned long ago that all past glimmers of hope have only produced more settlements and continued colonization.

 So, the final verdict.....

The sky has not fallen, and the Right wing in Israel is not much stronger than it was before the elections. The Zionist Union with 24 seats has a golden opportunity to strengthen their weaknesses, and unite behind Herzog. However, they need to offer the Israeli people an alternative and not dish out a campaign only based on anti-Netanyahu rhetoric.

Most likely, within the next few weeks, Netanyahu will be able to form a narrow-right government, together with Bayit HaYahudi, Kulanu, and the religious parties. During the upcoming term, however, it will be come clear that they are living on borrowed time. Without, a peace process they will not be able to offer the country's youth a real future. Rather, continued conflict, which will weigh hard on Palestinians living under occupation, and Gaza, which is years under blockade.  

The parties in the opposition, the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, Meretz, and the Joint List need to unite on common struggles, challenging the government on the Knesset floor and in its committees. A real opposition can only work however if it is a united one, which looks beyond on short-term gains. Starting a joint campaign against the racism and delegitimization of the state's Arab citizens could be a place to start. Let us hope that all parties involved will show the responsibility needed for this to work. For now, I remain skeptical. Let's see. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Last Minute Guide to the Upcoming Israeli Elections

With just a week away from the Israeli elections, there does not seem to be any surprises in store; polls are placing the Likud and the Zionist Camp neck and neck, each bringing in about 23-25 seats. The only difference from last elections, which were held just a little over two years ago, is that the center-left coalition is performing much better than previously, due both to the new Labor Party leader, Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog, and the decision to join forces with Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah Party, forming the Zionist Union.

On the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud is running on its own, not like in the last elections, when he ran together with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home) Party, which landed them a decisive victory of 31 seats (with Labor only receiving 15). However, this marriage was short lived, with Lieberman breaking this union, which was one of the reasons Netanyahu chose to throw in the towel and call for early elections, unable to tame his unruly government. Since then Lieberman’s popularity has dwindled and now he is looking to receive only five-six seats.

In fact it was Lieberman, who in his crusade to block Palestinian citizens of Israel (Israeli Arabs) from entering the Knesset, succeeded in raising the parliamentary threshold to over 3.25%, which proved a threat to two small Arab parties, Raam-Taal (Southern Branch of the Islamist party) and Balad (Palestinian nationalist party), and less so to Hadash, the joint Jewish-Arab Communist list. 

A Recent Poll featured in Haaretz; see link

Well, his plan backfired, with the parties coming together and establishing the “Joint List,” now expected to bring in about 12-15 seats, perhaps becoming the third largest party in the Knesset (for more see the following article of mine on the List). There is no doubt that Ayman Odeh, who is leading the ticket, is a real asset, and has an important future to play in his party Hadash, and Israeli politics in general, even if the Joint List will not be able to overcome their differences once the elections are over.  
Yair Lapid’s centrist-capitalist Yesh Atid, is expected to drop from 19 seats to 12-13. The decline in popularity is due to the fact that under the recent government he served as the Minister of Finance and was unable to fulfill one of his main promises: to bring down the surging prices of housing in Tel Aviv and its surrounding neighborhoods. Also, it seems secular Israelis for the time being have placed on the back burner the call to recruit Haredim to the army. 

Next, Ha-Bayit Ha-Yahudi (the Jewish Home) party, which is mostly supported by West Bank settlers and the Israeli far-right seems set to get 12-13 seats, leaving them more or less within the same range as last elections. Similar to the previously mentioned Lapid, this party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, personality and straight forward politics manages also to capture young voters. Of course, it should be noted that Bennett's promise to not give up a single inch of the West Bank blocks the party's participation in any future peace talks, and offers no real solution to the conflict. 

One new party that is most likely going to play an important role in making or breaking the future government is Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu (All of US) party. A former Likud member, who rose quickly in the ranks holding two ministerial offices, is best remembered for passing legislation to lower cell-phone costs in Israel. He prides himself on social justice, in which he represents a largely Mizrahi population (he himself is of Libyan origin), and declares that Likud has strayed from the path of Menahem Begin. Currently, he is polling at 8 seats. 

A once major force in Sephardic/Mizrahi politics, Shas, has split following the death of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.  Led by the once wonder of Israeli politics in the 1990s, Aryeh Deri, its leader returned to politics in 2013, after serving a jail sentence for corruption and more than a decade break from politics. His main party competitor, Eli Yishai deserted the party, and made a very unconventional link with the radical right-wing Baruch Marzel, a close associate of the assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane.

In line comes the United Torah Judaism party, a Haredi list composed of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, which is expected to get seven seats. The religious parties in the past have taken part in both right and left governments, often joining governments in return for funneling funds to their institutions. However, due to the growing demand among some secular politicians that the Haredi serve in the Israeli army, their presence in governments is no longer a foregone conclusion, much to the dismay of the Likud and the Labor parties who are in need of their support.

Last in line, is the far-left Zionist Meretz party, expected to get 5-6 seats. A party that teeter-totters between 3-6 seats (upon its first election in 1992 it received the most ever, at 12 seats). Its contribution to human rights, promoting LGBT issues, and its pro-peace agenda cannot be underestimated. However, it has never been able to turn into an alternative to the Labor, and has not been able to attract a large Arab backing, remaining mostly confined to upper class leftists of Northern Tel Aviv neighborhoods, despite many attempts to diversify. 

Instability to Continue

What comes out of this short guide is the fact that Israel is a country made up of multiple sectors, divided along ethnic, religious and ideological lines, which leaves the winner of the Israeli election scrambling for the 60 seats needed to form a government. In other words, despite raising the threshold, the next government, either led by Herzog or Netanyahu, will be yet another hodgepodge of parties coming together to form a government. Not only is it plagued by the above divisions, but also it is a clash of egos and personalities.

Within this mess, it is no wonder that often the Israeli voters wishes are often shortchanged. While Netanyahu’s recent controversial speech in the US Congress, or the (lack of a) peace process, is what hits the headlines around the world, for many Israelis it is the social issues that lead them to vote for one party or the other. Let us remember that Israel wins the prize of being the poorest country in the developed world. And, while more and more Israelis have a hard time feeding their families, its middle class, often cannot even make ends meet with apartment prices sky-high; all the while, its rich get richer. 

As for the peace process, since 2009 Netanyahu has made zero progress on reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians and time is not on Israel's side. Once the words such as "apartheid" were rare in the Israeli discourse, however, more and more people are starting to describe the continued occupation of the West Bank (and the blockade on Gaza) as exactly that.  Furthermore, the Palestinians citizens of Israel, who make up almost 20% of the population, are witness to a growing amount of racism directed at them. In short, without a viable peace process, it seems matters will just get worse.   

Indeed, the time for change is here. Unfortunately, however, it does not seem these elections will produce much of anything. Let us hope I am wrong. 

On Tuesday, March 17, I will arrive to Israel to cast my vote. Stay tuned for a post-election update......