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Brandeis professors discuss upcoming Israeli elections

Published: January 18, 2013
Section: News, Top Stories

In anticipation of the upcoming Israeli elections, the Schusterman Center and Crown Center for Middle East Studies held a panel discussion, moderated by Professor Ilan Troen (NEJS).

Discourse surrounding this year’s elections is concerned with the political slant in which Israel is heading—currently leaning more to the right and toward unification—the potential consequences of its political decisions and the world’s response.

The first question Troen, director of the Schusterman Center, posed to the panel was whether the upcoming elections would be transformative, whether dramatic change could be expected to ensue.

Professor Shai Feldman (POL), Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, and Professor Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and Executive Director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American leadership, both stressed the rise of an annexationist right in Israeli politics. Whether the elections will truly be transformative ultimately depends on whether Prime Minister Netanyahu turns the coalition to the center or the right. This monumental decision is driven by whether Netanyahu fears a competitor will grab the leadership of the Israeli right more compared to the international repercussions of a process that may reflect that peace is no longer an alternative.

Adding to the uncertainty, Dr. Yehuda Mirsky (NEJS) discussed the political center, which had previously struggled with gaining any social or cultural traction, but has recently been showing signs of life. It is not clear how the center will do in the upcoming elections, but it could turn out to be a decisive factor.

Troen wished to know what the catalyst for change in Israel could be, whether this factor would come at all, and finally from where it would arrive.

In response, both Hussein and Mirsky cited Fayyad as a challenger to the status-quo, though in order to make a difference he must ensure to continually connect his project to the long-term vision of independence.

Feldman argued that a vital element could be the infrequently-discussed Israeli policy of helping Hamas and constraining the Palestinian Authority, in hopes of it crumbling under its own weight. Many factors could prove to be monumental, and it is of yet hard to tell which will play the lead role.

Switching gears, Troen turned to the question of “normal matters,” or factors that directly impinge upon the everyday lives of Israelis, due to the fact that these do not get as much attention in the talk about the elections as they should. Troen mentioned the recent resignation of a hospital director in Jerusalem, and recent strikes by nurses, doctors and teachers over the past couple of months, as well as other unaddressed questions concerning marriage, housing and the distribution of wealth in the nation.

Regarding social issues in the coming elections, Troen wanted to know what strategies the public would respond to. Feldman brought up candidate Shelly Yacimovich, whose voice has been the most prominent of the current candidates on issues that affect the everyday lives of Israelis, arguing that she does display real leadership, a lack of which is faced in current Israeli politics. Yet Feldman believed that Yacimovich has not been successful in persuading Israelis that she is a new socialist, and appears more “like a socialist from the 50s.” Netanyahu himself, along with his economic vision, has been presented as modern.

Finally returning to U.S. politics and to the final question of the night, Troen wished to know what advice the panel members would give President Obama if they had the opportunity.

Feldman’s best suggestion was to view the Israel-Palestine conflict in relative terms to the various other issues currently facing the U.S., effectively putting a less immediate emphasis on it. Contrastingly, Ibish believed otherwise.

Ibish believes that there is work that can be done within the hierarchy of issues, calling it repair work of sorts. The relationship with Netanyahu must be fixed, as well as Washington’s connection with Ramallah, since a deteriorating relationship between the two actors only benefits Hamas.

Mirsky argued that the U.S. must strive to become a stronger version of itself, since the better off it is, the more sway it holds in the international arena and consequently also in helping Israel.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Professor Shai Feldman. He serves as the Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, which hosted the panel with the Schusterman Center.