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Middle East

'Israel is a very divided society'

Israel's upcoming parliamentary election is, in part, a referendum on the country's self-image, with far-reaching consequences for domestic and foreign policy, says Kerstin Müller of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

DW: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently in the United States, where he'll be speaking to the US Congress on Tuesday. One of the topics he'll cover will be a possible nuclear compromise with Iran - something he has warned against. Critics in Israel see a link between this trip and the parliamentary election on March 17; they accuse him of using the trip to drum up support for his campaign. How do you see it?

Kerstin Müller: Different meanings are being attributed to this trip. The center-left camp is assuming that the trip is part of the campaign. I also tend to see it like this. The right-wing conservative press sees it as a historic event, completely separate from the election. Indeed, there are even comparisons being made with Munich in 1938. In other words, that the international community would be making a huge mistake if it were to enter into a compromise with Iran on its nuclear program. And since Israel has the most to lose in this conflict, the country has to do everything it can to prevent such a compromise. Netanyahu is positioning his trip as being of central importance to Israel's security.

GMF Speaker Kerstin Müller

Kerstin Müller is the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tel Aviv

Netanyahu has also frequently spoken about Israel's policy toward Palestine, again in a national security context. What kind of role is the issue of security playing in the election?

It's not playing that big of a role in the public debate. But all the polls in recent years have shown that security is a decisive election issue, especially for the middle class. And since this is an issue that is more strongly associated with the right-wing Likud block, Likud has always won the elections in recent years under Netanyahu's leadership.

I think that's why Netanyahu has chosen to travel to the US now. He's probably hoping to win votes from the center-right. And he'll need them, because two big coalitions are facing off in this election: his Likud block, and the new "Zionist Camp," a center-left alliance between the Labour party and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's party.

A debate about national identity is currently ongoing in Israel, with national Jewish self-image on one hand, and a Zionist-democratic image on the other. What role is this discussion playing?

The election is likely to be very significant with regard to this debate. In the last legislative period, the Israeli right wanted to codify the Jewish character of the state of Israel for the first time in the country's history. In Likud, and especially in Naftali Bennett's [nationalist Jewish Home] party, many are no longer prepared to work toward a two-state solution and grant the Palestinians their own state. They see the region as religious, God-given land: Eretz Israel.

That's why, according to the Israeli commentators, the coming election is hugely significant. Will the country continue to define itself democratically and recognize the rights of Israel's Palestinian population and the decision to grant the Palestinians their own state? Or will the national-religious perspective dominate, under which all the land belongs to Israel? That, of course, would mean that there would be no more peace talks in the foreseeable future.

Religious powers are gaining strength in Israel. What's the background to this development?

Several factors have played a role. Firstly, there's a general growth among the Orthodox religious communities in Israel. This development has affected all of Israeli society. Then you have immigrants from Russia, who tend to be extremely conservative; that's also having an effect on politics. You have government documents that refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria for the first time in more than 10 years.

During the last election, Bennett's Jewish Home party won seats in parliament. Unlike Likud, it has always openly and clearly stated that it no longer wants to pursue a two-state solution. Instead, it talks about annexing the West Bank. So there's a nationalist, religious, non-democratic model on the table. That's of course going to have consequences for international politics. In that respect, the election will be decisive both for domestic and foreign policy.

What kind of effect is this discussion having on Israeli society?

Israel is a very divided society. The ultra-Orthodox Jews live completely separately, and the religious nationalists have also created their own world. Then you have the secular world that you find in Tel Aviv, and perhaps to some extent still in Haifa. These various milieu barely have anything to do with each other, which is why you have a society that is breaking apart. At the same time, there are barely any common political denominators. Israel itself could benefit from an in-depth debate about what a Jewish nation state really means.

Kerstin Müller is the director of the Tel Aviv office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. From 1994 to 2002, she was the head of the parliamentary group of the German Green party. From 2002 to 2005, she served as Germany's deputy foreign minister.