Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine

Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine

Mini Teaser: Geography and demography now trump democracy in Israel. The country pays lip service to the two-state solution while steadily appropriating the land it wants in the occupied territories.

by Author(s): Akiva Eldar

Meanwhile, Washington knew its support for the ongoing peace process, however much it may be a sham, allowed it to maintain good relations with Arab countries even as it nurtured its “special relationship” with Israel. Thus, the United States saw in the status quo an opportunity to preserve its influence in the Middle East by maintaining a delicate balance in its ties with most major regional players. But this approach is far removed from the evenhanded policy championed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the early years of Israel’s existence. Israel today shows immense confidence in the financial aid and large diplomatic umbrella it gets from America, as reflected in Netanyahu’s oft-quoted comment:

I know what America is. America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right [direction]. . . . They won’t get in our way. They won’t get in our way. . . . So let’s say they say something. So they said it! They said it! 80 percent of the Americans support us.

Even the Palestinians get sucked into this status quo game, although they pay the highest price for the current stalemate and have demonstrated in recent years open hostility to continuing the barren peace talks. But in reality, under such extremely asymmetrical circumstances, they likely would suffer the most if the process were to collapse. Since the days of Yasir Arafat, and more intensely since the beginning of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency, the PA leadership has relied almost solely on the international community for generous financial aid and global attention. Thus, the PA is highly dependent on foreign support. Its leaders fear that if they take actions that upset the international community, and particularly the United States, they will lose their aid—and consequently face a possible collapse in their political standing within the Palestinian community.

So, lacking any better alternative, the existence of the PA allows for a kind of welfare for large portions of the West Bank’s political and economic elite. This is true of Fatah, whose raison d’être has become maintaining the ongoing process. It also includes tens of thousands of families whose livelihoods depend on the PA. For these families, stopping the aid would be disastrous. Thus, if the peace process has become an addiction for many participants, as the International Crisis Group report notes, this addiction has become an absolute reliance for the people of the PA.

WHATEVER MOTIVATES most participants in the process, Israel’s embrace of it is most intense, for good reasons—including religion, historical traumas, national security, territorial aspirations, control over natural resources, the threat of internal social division and political survival. Yet, to understand how deeply rooted this imperative is for Israel, one must examine the foundation on which Israeli society and the ethos of its collective identity are built.

If Israeli citizens were to create a collective identification card, most would probably embrace the words “Jewish and democratic.” From the 1940s, when Israel was yet to be established, up until today, these two adjectives have been almost a binding code, the vision with which the different elements of the state were to act. This sensibility was embodied in the country’s declaration of independence, the basis of Israel’s establishment. A body of commentary, scholarship and civic documents emerged that sought to examine whether those two terms were contradictory. These studies included the “basic laws,” the groundwork for a possible future Israeli constitution, restrictions imposed on the platforms of parties running for the Knesset, and many hundreds of news and academic articles.

Yet, since Israel is not merely an abstract idea but an actual political entity, these two concepts—one connected to a collective cultural and religious identity, the other a method for governing—must be merged with the realities of geography. The relationship between the three sides of this triangle—geography, demography and democracy—has influenced Israel’s nature and policies from day one.

When the United Nations General Assembly voted on the partition plan in 1947, two-thirds of the inhabitants of mandatory Palestine were Arabs, while Jews constituted a third of the population. Of course, this situation did not allow for the existence of a state that would be both Jewish and democratic. But only a few months later, with the establishment of the state inside what would become the 1949 armistice line, 84 percent of the population of newly born Israel—spread over 78 percent of the land—were Jews. The formation of an almost absolute identity between the geographic partition and the demographic division over the different parts of what had been mandatory Palestine was anything but accidental. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, summarized the consequences of the 1948 war:

The IDF could have conquered the entire territory between the [Jordan] River and the Sea. But what kind of state would we have? . . . We would have a Knesset with an Arab majority. Having to choose between the wholeness of the land or a Jewish State, we chose the Jewish State.

In other words, the demographic concern was the dominant factor in Israel’s decisions on how to conduct its first war—initially, by encouraging more than seven hundred thousand Arab inhabitants to leave the territories over which it took control, then by refraining from conquering additional territory.

However, this consonance between geography and demography changed dramatically nineteen years later, with Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel’s military took control over vast amounts of land, including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the latter encompassing a 30 percent increase in territory over what Israel had controlled before the war. But these territories were not empty. And although many Palestinians on those lands left their homes, some for the second time, a large number remained. Thus did Israel’s ability to retain simultaneously a Jewish and a democratic identity become endangered. But this departure from the Ben-Gurion formula was not quickly perceived by Israeli leaders, even though the triangle of demography, geography and democracy became much more complex and explosive.

ISRAEL’S GEOGRAPHIC expansion in the 1967 war—and the new demographic proportions between Jews and Arabs under its control—once again forced Israel to make a choice: Which sides of the triangle would strengthen, and which would weaken? Seemingly, the territorial conquests undermined the demographic edge, meaning the Jewish majority. However, no one intended to allow a weakening in this fundamental component of the state’s identity.

“The key phrase in the Israeli experience is ‘a Jewish majority.’ Israelis will do anything—wage war or make peace—to maintain a Jewish majority and preserve the Israeli tribal bonfire.” These were the words of Daniel Ben-Simon, former journalist and current Labor Party member of the Knesset. A senior member of the rival party has expressed a similar position. In a conference held in March 2002, at the peak of the suicide bombings that killed many Israelis, Dan Meridor, deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence and atomic energy in the Israeli cabinet, said: “Of all the various questions—security, the Middle East peace process, etc.—the demographic-democratic problem is the chief imminent threat that we simply cannot evade.” More recently, the newly elected chairman of the Kadima Party, Shaul Mofaz, declared the so-called demographic threat the most dangerous of all to the existence of Israel.

This outlook, embraced by the most prominent figures of the mainstream political parties, is shared by the Jewish Israelis they represent. This is seen in public-opinion polls such as the Democracy Index, which found in 2010 that 86 percent of Israeli Jews believed decisive choices for the state must be taken on the basis of a Jewish majority.

Therefore, a careful analysis of the triangle model cannot focus on the strength of each side independently but must focus on possible two-side combinations. On the collective identity card, the definition of “Jewish and democratic” is being replaced with “Jewish and geographic.” Whenever two of the edges are dominant, the third tends to weaken, and the third in this instance is the democratic component.

THE MOVE toward a “Jewish and geographic” state became even more prominent following changes undergone by Israeli society in recent decades. Settlers, although they composed a relatively small fraction of the population, became the vanguard that directed political thinking for most of the Jewish religious public. The ultra-Orthodox political parties, which previously had been considered the swing faction between dovish and hawkish political camps, accepted the settlers’ doctrine that occupied territories represented Israeli land. They stood by the right-wing parties in opposing partition. This political drift took place at a time when religious groups in Israel became larger in both absolute and relative terms. A survey conducted by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics in 2008 showed that only 40 percent of Israeli Jews between the ages of twenty and twenty-four identified themselves as nonreligious or secular. This trend has great influence on the direction Israeli society is taking nowadays.

In a survey conducted on the tenth anniversary of Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination, Israeli Jews were asked to assess whether the decision to engage in the Oslo process had been correct. While 62 percent of the secular respondents answered affirmatively, the answer given by religious and ultra-Orthodox respondents was the complete opposite; among those respondents, representing a growing segment of Israeli society, more than 70 percent said it had been wrong. Placing “greater Israel” at the top of the value system meant that democracy and demography were undermined among the wider public, to the point where they believed the executive and the Knesset did not have the mandate to decide on territorial withdrawals. This is reflected in a recent statement by Benny Katzover, former chairman of the Shomron settlers’ regional council and a settler leader: “The main role of Israeli democracy now is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its role, and it must disassemble and give way to Judaism.”

Image: Pullquote: Washington knew its support for the ongoing peace process, however much it may be a sham, allowed it to maintain good relations with Arab countries even as it nurtured its “special relationship” with Israel.Essay Types: Essay