How to win the battle for the soul of Israel

Mar 23, 2015 Published under Israel, Middle East

When I returned home from the studio after a long and exhausting night, I saw that many of the texts I had received while on- air—from close friends, colleagues and family members—shared a common, morose theme: Rather than ushering in the dawn of a new era, the faint grey light of morning felt like darkness-at-noon. Many of Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods and its prosperous suburbs seemed to be in mourning. In cafes, in hi-tech offices and in various newsrooms people spoke of a “disastrous outcome”. The liberal third of Israel’s population seemed to be exhibiting signs of depression. At times, it sounded as if they were speaking of heavy losses suffered in a devastating war. Something precious had been lost. Wherever I turned, I was met with the sense that Israel had not only lost its way, but had disfigured its future. As if there was another country out there: brazenly nationalist, stridently religious, barely democratic. Is this really the case? Did Israel lose its soul?

The elections held on March 17, 2015 were first and foremost a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The results are unambiguous: Netanyahu is seen as the only presidential leader in the country, and therefore many Israelis are willing to look past his shortcomings and forgive his mistakes, and prefer that he occupy the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, from which to defend their nation.

 The elections held on March 17, 2015 were also a referendum about hope and fear. Again, the results are unambiguous: Although, in their everyday lives Israelis are dynamic, creative, vibrant and optimistic, people who crave social justice and affordable housing and cheaper consumer goods —the good life —once in the voting booth they act from a deep sense of fear, of existential angst.

The elections held on March 17, 2015 were also a referendum on Zionism: Is it still a democratic, liberal and enlightened movement as it was in its first hundred years, or has it turned into an extreme, nationalist and religious movement? The answer to this question is not unambiguous. On the one hand, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party is no longer the Likud of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin and Dan Meridor—its liberal foundation has eroded almost completely; on the other hand, the democratic Zionist Union party that rose up against this more extremist Likud managed to almost double its power in parliament.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu crossed a glaring red line with the insidious attitude he expressed towards Israel’s Arabs, but on the other hand, this Arab minority garnered an unprecedented number of seats in the next Knesset. Israel is not Alabama of the 1950s, as some American media outlets have described it. Yet it does face a clear and present danger: a democratic downfall can occur at any moment. Though Netanyahu is the clear victor of the 2015 elections, and though the fear factor is the defining factor of these elections, the question of who is Israel, what are its values and what is its true face is very much an open question.

It is impossible to answer this crucial question without examining and understanding the shared traumas that Israelis experienced over the last two decades: In 1993 they opened their ears to peace with PLO leader Yasser Arafat (the Oslo Accords); in 2000 they tried to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the Camp David peace summit); and in 2005 they withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip (the Disengagement). These efforts did not lead to quiet, calm and security, but to violence, terror and instability.

It is impossible to answer “who is Israel” without examining and understanding the shared traumas that Israelis experienced in the last four years: all around them the Arab world crumbled into chaos (the slaughter in Syria, Islamic State in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, violence in Libya, Yemen and Lebanon). And the Gaza Strip, from which they had withdrawn, became the heavily armed and hostile base of Hamas, raining down a barrage of missiles on Tel Aviv for 50 days in the summer of 2014. The aggregate result of these traumas is an understandable but dangerous shift to the right. Because the old peace-idea was not replaced by a new peace-idea, many Israelis fear for their future and are no longer willing to embrace American and European peace initiatives, which seem to them completely divorced from reality. At the same time, some Israelis have developed xenophobic tendencies that do not stem from inherent racism, but from a deep fear that the center-left in Israel and the international community cannot assuage.

But the failure of the old-peace idea is not the only phenomenon that led to the election’s surprising outcome. The other important phenomenon is the inter-tribal discord within Israeli society. As he did when he was first elected prime minister in 1996 (against all odds), Netanyahu has again assembled a coalition of dejected minorities, one that has much in common with the coalition of minorities assembled by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Though Netanyahu himself is part of the old guard, an MIT graduate who smokes expensive cigars in the company of billionaires, his supporters see him as the quintessential enemy of the liberal elite: the Israeli WASPS (white Ashkenazi supporters of peace).

The surprisingly successful embrace of this subversive-anti-establishment stance led Netanyahu to trounce Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections, uniting a varied group of minorities who flocked to his tent of discontent: Russian immigrants, the Ultra-Orthodox, Oriental Jews and ultra-nationalists among them. In the 2015 elections, Netanyahu succeeded in performing the same trick during the last week of the campaign, just as the media was predicting his demise. He won what many here term an Israeli landslide victory due to his ability to lead a last-minute grass-roots rebellion of the periphery (both geographically and socio-economically) against the center. It was not his fiery speech to Congress that won Netanyahu the election, but rather a series of populist public-square rallies alongside a series of inflammatory media interviews that evoked the lingering identity crisis experienced by many Israelis, who still feel belittled and alienated, far removed from the real centres of power of the Democratic-Jewish state.

The consequences are plain to see: In order to win the battle for the soul of Israel, the Israeli center-left must redefine itself much in the way that the American Democratic Party redefined itself under the leadership of Bill Clinton and the British Labor Party did under the leadership of Tony Blair. What is also needed is a new—and pragmatic—peace-idea that addresses the legitimate and justified fears of most Israelis.

 There must be, above all, a new social contract that will address the inter-tribal chasm paralyzing Israeli society. It is neither wise nor fair to continue to promise a utopian peace that is clearly out of reach. It is neither wise nor fair to continue to ignore past traumas or present threats. And it is neither wise nor fair to condescend to new Israelis and scoff at their traditional religious and ethnic identities. Only an inclusive liberal-democratic attitude, tolerant and realistic, can liberate Israel from the iron grip of ultra-nationalism and ultra-religiousness that makes use of the continuing political failure of the progressive Israeli public to darken the face of the nation. After the shock of these elections, Israel finds itself at a momentous crossroads. The danger of a deep moral deterioration is more real and more acute than ever. But the smart way to deal with this danger is not to heap more hate on Netanyahu, but to embrace and empathize with the people whose fears and difficulties he exploits so skillfully.

Forty-eight hours after the voting booths had closed, I found myself at a wedding in the northern town of Tiberias. The guests were very different than my neighbors, my colleagues and my friends in north Tel Aviv. They were mostly Oriental, traditional and downtrodden, hard-working men and women who strive to give their children a better future. And because they recognized me from news programs on television, many approached me, eager to engage in conversation. More than 80 percent had voted for Netanyahu. Why? Because of their fear of the cauldron that is the Middle East, because of their contempt for the liberal media, because the Tel Aviv elite does not respect their traditions, their beliefs, or their way of life.

I did not argue. I listened. All around me were people who were neither extremist nor racist, and yet the Israeli peace movement and the international community are unable (and often unwilling) to reach them. All around me were warm, charming and dynamic people who are pushed into the arms of hard-liners by the arrogance and ineptitude of the left. When the older skullcap-wearing men mixed with the younger mini-skirted women on the dance floor to the sounds of Israeli, American and Arabic music, I suddenly felt that not all was lost. Despite everything that had happened this week, change is still possible. If we do what we must and can do, we can resurrect the benevolent Israel that now seems lost. It is not too late to save the heart and soul of my beloved country.


Ari Shavit is an Israeli columnist for Haaretz and the author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2013).



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