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

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.

Former Knesset member Mossi Raz of Meretz, in analyzing the rise of the immigrant Right and the dovish political camp’s unprecedented decline in the latest elections, said that “these million and a half immigrants, who arrived in recent decades, constitute 20 percent of the voters, but Meretz and the Labor Party together received only 5 percent of their votes.”

Even traditional supporters of the Zionist Left, such as secular people of the middle and upper classes, shifted toward the Right, in part due to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party’s success in creating a conceptual turnabout in Israeli political culture. The conservative Right successfully separated the notion of “prosperity” from the term “peace” and convinced many Israelis that economic growth would emerge if the government merely managed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and practiced a neoliberal economic policy. This trend accelerated when the West declared a “war on terror” following the September 11, 2001, attacks, which gave Israeli enterprises new access to wide markets. As Forbes magazine noted, Israel became the destination for those seeking antiterrorism technology. The stability and prosperity of Israel’s economy, even without conflict resolution, diminished the imperative of peace for many.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens also have undergone significant political changes since Oslo. These shifts, seen in voting patterns, result from the deterioration in the relationship between the Jewish and Arab populations. These, in turn, reflect a growing sense of Israel’s changing nature as a state; a mistrust between the two population groups; and a rise in the intensity of hostility and violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

This process had a twofold impact on voting patterns: first, Arab voter participation declined; and second, more Arabs who did participate gave their votes to Arab rather than Zionist parties. In 1996, for instance, 79.3 percent of eligible Arab voters took part in the first elections after Rabin’s assassination. In 2003, it was 63 percent; in 2009, only 53.6 percent. Yet, as more of these Arab participants voted for Arab parties, the number of parliamentary seats granted to the three Arab political parties rose to eleven, the highest ever. In 1992, only 47.7 percent of Arab voters supported these parties, but in the elections of 1996, after the assassination of Rabin, sectarian voting jumped to 67.3 percent. In the latest elections, 82.1 percent of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens voted for one of these three parties.

THE BALANCE of political power inside Israel is unsustainable, given the demographic facts between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. For the first time since the establishment of the state, the proportion of Jews and Arabs living under Israeli jurisdiction is approaching equilibrium. Sharon, who was aware of this, tried in 2005 to exclude a million and a half Palestinians from this calculation by withdrawing Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Yet, since Israel continued to exercise control over Gaza’s airspace and sea—and to a very large extent over its land borders—Israel is still responsible for this territory and its inhabitants, according to a widely accepted interpretation of international law. Sergio della Pergola, an expert on demography, estimates that by Israel’s hundredth anniversary, the demographic balance between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will return to what it was before Israel’s declaration of independence: two-thirds Arabs and non-Jews and one-third Jews. Demographers estimate that by 2030, the proportion of Jews in the population will decline to 46 percent. According to another estimate, a similar percentage will be reached by 2020, and some even suggest that by that time Jews will constitute only 40 percent of the population. Regardless, by the end of the present decade, Jews are expected to become a minority between the sea and the river.

The Oslo accords were intended to mark the beginning of a gradual end to the Israeli presence in the occupied territories. Instead, the accords opened a new era for the settlement enterprise, which continues its expansion in the so-called C areas, which encompass 60.2 percent of the West Bank territory and remain under full Israeli control. “This is one of the strangest maps of existing and potential autonomous territories ever agreed-upon by two conflicting parties,” said Elisha Efrat, Israel Prize winner for geographical research. He referred to the way 176 “orange stains” (B areas), representing the Palestinian rural space, are spread throughout the map, with C areas separating them from one another and leaving Palestinians with mere isolated enclaves that preclude any national self-sustainment. Jeff Halper, a human-rights activist, compares this to the Japanese game of Go, in which “you win by immobilizing your opponent, by gaining control of key points of a matrix so that every time s/he moves s/he encounters an obstacle of some kind.”

Since Israel refuses to undertake any commitment to freeze settlement, it uses the interim phases, whose purpose was to advance toward a two-state solution, to create obstacles that would impede a fair, agreed-upon partition of the territory. In the decade following the Oslo accords from 1993 to 2003, the number of West Bank settlers doubled, from 110,000 to 224,000 (not including East Jerusalem). Since then, the figure has risen to more than 340,000. Together with Israelis residing in Israeli-constructed neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, they now represent more than six hundred thousand people. The number of existing settlements authorized by Israel is 124, to which one should add twelve East Jerusalem neighborhoods and more than a hundred “outposts” built by settlers without formal approval by the state (though with the help of public authorities and branches of the government). Many of those outposts were located carefully to prevent any territorial contiguity in a future Palestinian state. It is in these strategic areas of the mountain strip and across the separation wall that the Jewish West Bank population grew the most during 2011.

At the same time, and more formally, Israeli governments worked to increase the settler population in “block settlements” in order to eventually annex these areas, as was openly declared. Some of these blocks are close to the 1967 borders, and, in informal negotiations (such as the Geneva Initiative), Palestinians agreed in principle to the idea that they would be annexed, as long as the Palestinian state would be compensated with separate territory equivalent in size. However, they strongly rejected Israeli annexation of areas such as the Ariel and Karnei Shomron blocks, necessary for any viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.

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