Israel's Warring Tribes

| Written By:

On December 17–19, 2008, IDI hosted an international workshop entitled Anti-Politics: Citizens, Politics and the Political Profession. Mr. John Lloyd, who participated in the workshop, shared this article with the IDI website in honor of the occasion. A shorter version of this article was published in Prospect Magazine, Issue 155, February 2009.

The Israeli journalist Ari Shavit wrote recently that "politics has turned into a strategic threat to Israel's existence". It is not an isolated view among Israel's thinkers: the country's political scientists, of whatever persuasion, fear that it is a politically exhausted society.

Under that motto, a group of the country's senior scholars of politics gathered, just before Christmas (and before the Gaza operation) at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), to discuss the threat and its dimensions. (I was one of a handful of foreigners there, and the only non-scholar).

These weren't a group of left wingers. Israel, as elsewhere in the democratic world, has many such in its universities—one of the absurdities of the call for a boycott of Israeli scholars is that they are, of all groups, among the most critical of the policies of the state towards the Palestinians. The IDI group was mixed: indeed, the most senior had served in cabinets of governments of the right. One of these, Yehuda ben Meir, a security hawk, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and a deputy foreign minister in the Begin and Shamir governments of the early 1980s, argued that Israel is "undergoing a grave crisis of confidence (which)...extends to almost all major national institutions and organs of the state...exacerbated as a result of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, it has subsequently reached dangerous and almost catastrophic proportions".

The discussion, which in Israeli fashion was disputatious and energetic, was nevertheless—as the participants remarked, as if in surprise at their own conclusions—extraordinarily pessimistic.  These men and women were saying that, sixty years after it was founded in the bloody war of possession and dispossession of 1948See Benny Morris’ detailed and remorseless account of that in: Benny Morris (2008), 1948: A History of the first Arab-Israeli War. New Haven : Yale University Press., the state of Israel was no longer politically viable. Arye Carmon, who directs the IDI, began the gathering as it went on: "we do not have transparency and accountability—and the public is turning its back on politics...there is a serious deterioration of the public's trust in the pillars of democracy—in the supreme court, in government, in politicians. We have weakly supported institutions which at the same time must carry heavy burdens of responsibility".

That the public is "turning its back on politics" was the official theme of the conference. Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the IDI and the seminar's organiser, linked the Israeli defection from politics to worldwide trends—"politics has become a dirty word everywhere. When we say something is a political act, it means that in some way it is morally wrong. Here we have the Blank Vote Party: their point, which is a serious one, is that blank votes should be counted by the authorities as a protest. If they get across the threshold for Knesset membership they will not take their seats. This is a wonderful example of post-political politics. They don't stand for anything—and they say so".

The link with other polities was successful only up to a point. Scholars from Germany, France, Italy and the UK pointed up various aspects of disengagement in their own countries: Pierangelo Isernia from Siena talked of a waning attachment to the European Union, because of "the increasing view among the public that the EU is a manifestation of the threat of globalisation". Gerry Stoker of Southampton talked of the disengagement from politics  in the D and E social classes in the UK, with only 34 per cent inclined to vote—as against the 66 per cent of social classes A and B who voted. Everyone agreed that the political had both decreased in a formal sense and increased in an informal one: "people," said Stoker, "are at once more alienated from politics and demand more of it". In Israel, said Naomi Chazan of the academic college of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and a former Knesset deputy from the leftist Meretz Party, "people are turning off in a visceral sense. They are nauseated. They put their energy into aid to Africa, or human rights in the world. It is not they are not engaged: they are engaged in a profound sense. But not in party politics."

Israel is a democracy, and shares in democracies' discontents. But it is different, because a defection from formal politics is a much more serious issue there. Other countries' polities run on, with a disengaged electorate: even a system as much abused as the Italian still functions, and has no immediate threat to its existence. Israel does.

One of the invited speakers was Daniel ben-Simon, a former journalist for Ha'aretz and a prospective Knesset deputy (he will stand in the forthcoming February elections) for the Labour Party. He spoke in apocalyptic terms about the corruption in Israeli politics—the blatant trading of favours for votes, the huge and unsustainable concessions made to the smaller parties for their support in the governing coalition, even—he claimed, to some scepticism—open bribery and offers of prostitutes' favours. One part of that at least is true, and a source of growing concern: the ultra-Orthodox sects, a rising proportion of the Israeli population, are less and less part of Israeli society. One evening, a member of the seminar, Kalman Neumann, an expert on religious Zionism, conducted us on a kind of "religious guided tour"—through one of the main ultra-Orthodox areas of Jerusalem, Mea Shearim, established in the 1870s by a group of Jews who wished to escape the crowded old city—then under Ottoman suzerainty. With many injunctions that we should not stare, or take photographs or otherwise annoy those who live there, we shuffled about an area in which men and boys in eighteenth century shtetl dress strode about the streets or spoke animatedly with each other. Everywhere we went, at lighted windows of apartments or schools, men prayed, bowing rhythmically, chanted. The area was run down, almost slummy: women on the streets were few. At the centre of the area, a square formed by houses, with gates into it: the original 1870s settlement, into which we could not go for fear of causing offence. Most of these people play little role in Israeli life: their children have been exempt from military service; they live, in part, on state handouts (since they pray and study, but do not work); they often have contempt for Israeli society. On the tour, Neumann pointed to their expansion into the contiguous districts. The ultra-Orthodox, with the Israeli Arabs, are the dynamically growing parts of the country's demographic. The first wish to play little part in the society; the second are increasingly hostile to it: most of the protests of any size to the Gaza action have come from Israeli Arabs. Their parties—as the ultra-Orthodox Shas—are, said the political scientists at the seminar, bought off: in the case of Shas, its strength increases steadily, rivalling—incredibly to older secular Israelis—that of the declining Labour Party. Part of the deal is their continual separation: votes are promised if the state will leave them alone (but pay for them).

David Ohana, of a Moroccan Jewish background and a professor at the University of the Negev evoked another of the "tribes" in the fractured state: the settlers, whose tenacious grip on their West Bank settlements constitute a fact on the ground with which the present Israeli government has been unable to deal. Referring to the violent riots in Hebron, a few days before the seminar, where settlers had attacked both  Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, Ohana said that "the settlers were shouting at the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) that they were Nazis. I saw one interviewed—he said—'the morals of the state of Israel are no different from those of gentiles of Western culture'.

"This is the politics of political despair. The events of Hebron and the disengagement from the Gaza strip and in the past, the acts of Baruch Goldstein (the military reservist doctor who, fifteen years ago, massacred some 30 Palestinian worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron) are indications of a purpose of breaking away from the Israeli project. It's animosity to the secular culture and contempt for hedonism and consumerism. It resembles the (Italian) Red Brigades and the (German) Baader Meinhof gang. The common denominator is a failure to distinguish between means and ends. Idealism becomes nihilism. Politics becomes terror."

There was another tribe seen as socially destructive—if less apocalyptically so. That was my own, journalists. Yossi Shain, who teaches at Tel Aviv and Georgetown (US) Universities, said that "this is the epoch of sensationalism in Israel. The media have developed a language of hyperbole. The indictment of political figures by the media on corruption allegations has become so pronounced that it may be that this is more dangerous to politics than actual corruption. The use of the word is eroding democracy and getting the wrong people elected—ironically, ore corrupt people. Machiavelli distinguished between accusations with a strong base, and calumnies—and so must we".

Yehuda ben Meir supported Shain—"why are we seeing a decline of trust? Is it objective? That people are less trustworthy? I think it's less that, than that peoples' expectations have greatly increased. The modern state has increased peoples demands. When polls ask about peoples' expectations, they say—my expectations for myself are good, but for the nation—bad. The media tell people about the nation. That gap is caused by the media". Carmon, the IDI director, noted that "there's a wave of journalists moving into politics. Are politics and journalism becoming interchangeable? Journalists especially on TV have become celebrities. The personalisation of politics underscores what's happening".

The last invited speaker was Professor Menachem ben-Sasson, an  outgoing Knesset member (for the Kadima party) and a former University rector. Having refused to take part in his party's fund-raising campaign because he feared the taint of corruption, he secured only a very low—35th position on the Kadima list—almost certain to mean that, on an expected low vote for the party, he will not be in the Knesset again. After a session struggling, as chairman of the Knesset's Constitution Law and Justice Committee, to bring in anti-corruption legislation, he presents himself as a disillusioned man. "Israeli democracy is doing very badly. I don't know if we can change it. We can only change it if a leader comes in who has change as his first priority.

"The system isn't so much corrupted as broken, each of the branches—the executive, the legislature, the judiciary—think the others are inefficient and corrupt. All think the future of the state  is in their hands. There were over three thousand bills in the Knesset last session—it's the result of deputies who wanted to tell the executive how to run the country. Seventy per cent of these are not implemented.

"As a leader, you must act soon after coming to office: but as soon as a leader comes in, his priorities are overtaken by the usual one—security. The difference between the main parties (on negotiations with the Palestinians) are minimal. Why not have a grand coalition? Why can't we do anything together?".

In September, the outgoing Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, had given an extraordinary interview to Yedioth Ahronoth, the biggest circulation Israeli paper. Beginning with the portentous—"What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me," Olmert said that  the country's defence strategists were stuck in 1948. "With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop. All these things are worthless. Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred metres, that this is what will make the difference for the state of Israel's basic security?"

As he had before, he criticised himself for past uncompromising views: "I am the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city (of Jerusalem). I admit it. I am not trying to justify retroactively what I did for 35 years. For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth.

"A decision has to be made. This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years. We face the need to decide but are not willing to tell ourselves, yes, this is what we have to do. We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace."

On Syria, Olmert said that Israel had to give up the Golan Heights—if Damascus would end its support for Hezbollah and take distance from, Iran.  On Iran itself, he said that  "part of our megalomania and our loss of proportions is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself." It was a graphic display of ben-Sasson's point: a leader, by then knowing he would lose his job (because of corruption allegations) bearing witness to a position he could not take when he had real power. The question—"why can't we do anything together?"—was answered by Olmert: because the politicians, as well as the generals, remain fixed in old attitudes.

Israel may win the Gaza conflict, and may secure an agreement which will weaken Hamas. But the enemies to its continued existence are also within: it needs a political renewal, and its scholars fear it cannot find it.