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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

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.”

Gabriel Sheffer, a prominent expert on the study of regime and societal relations in Israel, views the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel as the key factor in understanding the country’s recent history. In a 2005 article, he stressed that the historical failure to separate ethnic-national identity and religious belief is the primary cause of events in Jewish society and in the relationship between Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians. He explained that this issue distorts Israeli democracy. More recently, he characterized Israel as a Jewish-national-religious state that naturally excludes many citizen groups from any serious influence on public policy.

Even so, it would be a mistake to explain Israeli society’s right-wing drift only in terms of the growing power of religious groups. Another factor is the mass immigration of the early 1990s and the corollary collapse of the so-called Zionist Left.

In 1992, Israeli general elections ended with a change of government: the Labor and Meretz parties, which represented the Zionist Left in parliament, together won fifty-six of the Knesset’s 120 seats. This outcome enabled Rabin to form a Center-Left coalition government that set in motion the historical recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and signed the declaration of principles. Seventeen years later, during the 2009 elections—the most recent in Israel—these two parties won only sixteen seats. Public-opinion surveys prior to the elections showed that 72 percent of Jewish respondents defined themselves as “right-wing.” These results illustrate the rise of the Israeli political Right, which has been growing in force since 1967.

During the 1990s, nearly a million immigrants arrived in Israel, about 85 percent from the former Soviet Union. This group’s size and demographic characteristics had a crucial effect on the composition and nature of Israeli society. These newcomers found in Israel a refuge from a crumbling communist empire that had shaped much of their historical and cultural thinking. Natan Sharansky, a “refusenik” and an immigrant from the Soviet Union, explained to President Clinton, perhaps jocularly, why he was the only Israeli cabinet member who opposed the peace agreement the president was trying to promote at Camp David in 2000: “I can’t vote for this, I’m Russian. . . . I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.”

The 2009 Democracy Index revealed that “in general, the immigrants’ attitudes are less liberal and less tolerant in almost every realm and concerning every topic examined.” For example, 77 percent of former Soviet immigrants in the survey supported policies to encourage Arab emigration from Israel. The right-wing sensibility of these people, who are largely secular, stems not from religious attitudes but from a perception of the Jewish society as “landlord” of Israel, with aspirations to exercise strong national sovereignty over a territory that should be as extensive and secure as possible.

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