Historian Reflects on ‘Israel Symposium’

Historian Reflects on ‘Israel Symposium’

Irwin Wall is an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Riverside.  He is also currently a visiting scholar at New York University. Prof. Wall participated in this organization’s “Israel Symposium,” Oct. 20-27, 2012, and has just been admitted to our executive board.  His reflections begin here:

Dr. Wall flanked by R. Skolnik & R. Seliger

Meretz is aleft-wing Israeli political party committed to social justice in Israel and an end to the occupation of the West Bank. It seeks a secular Israel in which there is separation between religion and state and a negotiated two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace. Each year it hosts a week-long Israel tour for Americans, organized in the U.S. by Partners for Progressive Israel. The “Israel Symposium” is an invaluable experience for those seeking insight into the functioning of the Jewish state today. It arranges meetings with a range of informed persons in politics and journalism, social activism and religious life, allowing those who experience the Symposium to come away with a coherent picture of Israeli politics and society.

The underlying theme was a troubling one. The issue is not primarily one of external threats to Israel’s security, but of the internal fractures in Israeli society, the demographic pattern that is shifting the relationship between the religious and other groups in society, and the corrosive effects of the military occupation of the West Bank.

Compounding the problem is a deeply flawed political process that is apparently incapable of dealing with the country’s problems. Israel has no constitution. The Knesset is elected by proportional representation. It is the most democratic of possible electoral systems in that it guarantees to all parties some minimal representation in parliament proportional to their share of the vote, but it is also an unstable system that results in many different parties, with none able to get a majority alone, and therefore requiring coalitions in order to govern.

Following Israeli independence, this systemic weakness was masked by the long period of dominance by the Labor-Zionist parties. But since the first change of power to the Right in 1977, no party has been dominant in the Israeli Knesset, and periods of right-wing Likud rule are now sustained by coalitions with other right-wing and religious parties, the latter (especially the ultra-religious–known as Haredim) demanding unaffordable subsidies to their yeshivas and welfare to support male lifestyles of all-day prayer and Torah study.In exchange they provide the state neither soldiers nor a potential labor force as their population grows. But they paradoxically enable right-wing parties to pursue aggressive military policies. Thenecessity for coalition government thus prevents the government from addressing dangerous structural and demographic problems.

Israel desperately needs to solve its demographic problem within its borders, perhaps as much as it needs to end the occupation. The explosion of the ultra-religious population, plus the substantial birthrate among Israeli Arabs, threaten to bring about a new and strange reality in a near future in which non-Zionists in the country within its June 1967 borders outnumber Zionists. Haredim (ultra-religious) for the most part (60% of men) do not work. Yet they and the settlers between them receive twice as much in state subsidies and services than the secular Israeli population within the Green Line who people the army and pay the taxes. Moreover, the ultra-religious, about 10% today, will double in population in ten years, and eventually with the Israeli Palestinians and other non-Jews majority of Israeli citizens will not necessarily recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Meanwhile the state continues the questionable strategy of governing millions of Arabs in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Already demographers warn that the non-Jewish population of the former Mandate territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has a non-Jewish majority.

Right-wing voters in Israel turn out to vote. Left-wing voters do not, or at least not to their full potential. In particular the Left has sacrificed the Arab vote; Arab participation is down to about 50% in national elections for the Knesset where it was once 80%. This is due to the custom of Jewish parties not to include Arab parties in any governing coalition, a blatantly racist practice that Netanyahu campaigned for in 1996, putting the Left in a dilemma of seeming to have to sacrifice their Arab supporters in order to keep their Jewish backers. Shelly Yacimovich, the new Labor Party leader, has shifted Labor’s emphasis from the Palestinian question to social reforms, refusing to emphasizethe link between them. Yair Lapid (a new centrist politician) seeks to enter the governing coalition regardless if it’s right or left-wing. Tsipi Livni has cannibalized the once powerful Kadima party to create a party of her own. Meretz has to worry about survival but it is the only Jewish party that says it will not join a coalition with Netanyahu. All of them, except Meretz, cheer the current policy of the government in dealing with Gaza.

The Arab population in Israel presents less of a problem for the state than the religious, paradoxically. They are politically moderate and hope for the peace process to succeed. But the apparent end of the peace process is a bad omen in terms of their future loyalty to the state. The decline in their voting participation has cost the center-left six or seven potential seats. Arab voters want the Israeli parties to talk to them and appeal for their votes, not to ignore them, and they want their MKs to be part of governing majorities. The Israeli parties, however, are boycotting them. Meretz, however, has a Palestinian candidate in fifth place on its list, and the former Communist party, Hadash, is mostly Palestinian and holds four Knesset seats, with a few others divided between two exclusively Arab parties.

A hopeful note: there are more Arab police now and more teachers of Arabic in public schools. But the Arab poverty rate is 55% compared to the Jewish poverty rate of 13 %. There is a very low employment rate for Arab women. The Israeli Arabs are 80% Muslim, 10% Christian and 10% Druze. The Christian Arabs, less than 5% of the population, do best in Israel in terms of careers, but also are the first to leave.

There are rational strategic analysts in Israel. Shlomo Brom looks at the Iranian and Palestinian problems in the context of the Arab spring. The Arab spring has ominous implications; it reflects a zeitgeistof resistance to external powers and to the West in favor of self-assertion and independence. However, it also recognizes that Arab problems are intrinsic to Arab societies and are not due to the Israelis or the Americans. Brom insists that Iran is not an existential threat to Israel. It is not suicidal, and if it does opt to produce nuclear weapons it will be restrained from using them by the mutual deterrence doctrine that kept the peace during the cold war. Sanctions on Iran only make it more stubborn and hurt the population, firming their resolve to resist. The same should be said about Gaza.

Michael Sfard is a civil rights lawyer. For him the “democratic space” is shrinking in Israel under government pressure. The number of settlers has tripled since Oslo. Settler assault and abuse on Arabs in the occupied territories are out of control. The settlements are physically walled in but have unseen external lines of demarcation. The Arabs cannot locate those lines, which are unmarked and seem to expand, but must fear crossing them nevertheless lest they be attacked by settlers. Ninety per cent of Palestinian complaints are ignored by Israeli authorities. Sfard is pessimistic that a two-state solution is any longer really possible while there are two groups each intent on having one state dominated by itself. Sfard regards the protection of the weak and the democratic process as intrinsic to what it means to be a Jew. He rejects absolutely the idea that a Jewish state can be anything other than a democratic state.

Ilan Baruch headed the Palestinian desk at the Foreign Ministry when Benjamin Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996. He is acutely aware that the world sees Israel to be in occupation of the territories and it rejects the Israeli claim on them. Israel missed the critical importance of the 1967 war, which was that it legitimized the frontiers or armistice lines of 1949. However, the war gave rise to a messianic Zionism involving expansion into the West Bank. The settler lobby is an acute danger to Israel because it countenances violence, and not only against Arabs. A direct consequence of its existence was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Israel’s policies are turning even diaspora Jews against the Jewish state.

Our group had the good fortune to listen directly to Ministers in the Likud government but they provide little cause for optimism. Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon is Vice Prime Minister of the current government and Minister of Strategic Affairs. He was Armed Forces Chief of Staff and is one of the loudest voices in the Likud government advocating a strike against Iran. There is no “Arab spring,” Ya’alon proclaimed. What is happening in the Middle East is the disgorging of an alien import in the form of the Western nation-state. Elections cannot work amid ignorant populations driven apart by ethnic and religious hatreds living in failed states. Libya cannot be a state; it is a bunch of tribes. Syria has dissolved into civil war, and Lebanon, having once done so, threatens to do so again. The same situation prevails in Bahrain and Yemen. Democracy foisted upon the ignorant and the uneducated cannot work. But Ya’alon arguably has this wrong: democracy preceded mass education in the West; it was the democracies that legislated public education there between 1870 and 1900. Dictatorshipfeeds on ignorance.

There can be no two-state solution to the conflict, according to Ya’alon. The Palestinians believe in two states, to be sure, so long as both of them are Palestine. This is what they teach in their schools and this is what Abu Mazen himself believes. It is a myth, moreover, that Israel occupies Palestine. The Palestinians enjoy self-government in the West Bank and Gaza, and they have failed in its exercise in both cases, squandering their freedom in a web of corruption, their authorities persisting on the alms of otherwise stingy Arab plutocracies. Both the West Bank and Gaza are likely to succumb to Iranian sectarian Islamism. It is Iran, we are assured, that is the source of all the instability in the Middle East. Iran supports Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. It has its tentacles all over the world, sewing radical Islam among the Arab populations of Europe and troubling the democracies everywhere with terrorism. Ya’alon believes about the Iranians what the Iranians believe about the Jews; in his mind, the “international Jewish conspiracy” has given way to the international Iranian conspiracy. 

In a small seminar room in the Knesset Gershon Baskin holds forth, disputing everything Ya’alon has just told us. Baskin is the Israeli activist who played a crucial role in the release of Shalit. He was working on a ceasefire in Gaza before Israel decided to assassinate Ahmed Jabari, with whom he was indirectly negotiating. Gaza is not independent, he says. Israel controls what goes into Gaza and allows nothing to come out. Israel controls the skiesand the bordersand blockades the coast. It would like nothing better than for the Gaza problem to go away, for Gaza to separate from the Palestinians on the West Bank and slide into Egypt, so Israel need not count its 1.7 million Arabs among what otherwise constitutes a non-Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. But the reality is that there are over 1.1 million Arabs in Israel proper, powerless despite formal representation in the Knesset. There are nearly 300,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem, who have the right only to vote in local elections. Few are Israeli citizens and if they leave their homes to live elsewhere for a time, they risk losing their Jerusalem residency status.  There are 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank, their autonomy limited to enclaves separated from one another by checkpoints andhighways permitted only to Israelis. 

Of late, under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, their economy has improved. But Israel seeks to keep them only barely on the edge of collapse, hopelessly weak, but supported by Israel nevertheless, which cannot afford their actual collapse; their one efficient accomplishment is to crush terrorism emanating from their territory against Israel. But they do this in the expectation of eventual fair treatment. Failing this,Israel may discover that its barrieris in fact full of holes.
By | 2012-12-12T14:09:00-05:00 December 12th, 2012|Blog, Symposium|0 Comments

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