Israel’s new nation-state law has elicited a storm of criticism since it passed on July 19. Some of this criticism is justified; a law that manages to unite virtually the entire Druze community against it, despite this community’s longstanding support for Israel as a Jewish state in principle, clearly wasn’t drafted with sufficient care, as even the heads of two parties that backed the law (Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon) now admit. Nevertheless, much of the criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel’s constitutional system.
Israel doesn’t have a constitution. What it has is a series of Basic Laws to which the Supreme Court unilaterally accorded constitutional status. Many people, myself included, disagree with that decision, inter alia because constitutional legislation should reflect a broad consensus, whereas many Basic Laws were approved by only narrow majorities or even minorities of the Knesset. Nevertheless, both sides in this dispute agree on one thing: Each Basic Law is merely one article in Israel’s constitution or constitution-to-be. They cannot be read in isolation, but only as part of a greater whole.
Consequently, it’s ridiculous to claim that the nation-state law undermines democracy, equality or minority rights merely because those terms don’t appear in it, given that several other Basic Laws already address these issues. The new law doesn’t supersede the earlier ones; it’s meant to be read in concert with them.
Several Basic Laws, including those on the Knesset, the government and the judiciary, detail the mechanisms of Israeli democracy and enshrine fundamental democratic principles like free elections and judicial independence. There are also two Basic Laws on human rights, both of which explicitly define Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
Of these human rights laws, the more important is the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. It includes general protections like “There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such” and “All persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity,” as well as specific protections for liberty, property and privacy. Though the law doesn’t mention “equality” or “minority rights,” the courts have consistently interpreted it as barring discrimination on the eminently reasonable grounds that discrimination fundamentally violates a person’s dignity (the one exception, which all legal systems make, is if discrimination has pertinent cause, like barring pedophiles from teaching).
Granted, there are things this law can’t do, such as breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce, because it explicitly grandfathers all pre-existing legislation. But it applies to all legislation passed after 1992.
Thus to argue that the nation-state law is undemocratic because it doesn’t mention equality or minority rights is like arguing that the U.S. Constitution is undemocratic because Articles I and II confer broad powers on the legislature and executive without mentioning the protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Everyone understands that the Constitution’s provisions on governmental power aren’t supposed to be read in isolation, but in concert with the first 10 amendments, so there’s no need to reiterate those rights in every other article. Similarly, the nation-state law isn’t meant to be read in isolation, but only in concert with other Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system and basic human rights. Thus there’s no reason for it to reiterate protections already found in those other laws.
Nor are any of the law’s specific provisions undemocratic. For instance, the provision stating that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” doesn’t deprive Arabs of individual rights within Israel, nor does it bar the possibility of Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, which aren’t part of the State of Israel. The only thing it prohibits is an Arab state within Israel’s borders, which is problematic only if you favor replacing Israel with another Arab state.
As for the provision making Hebrew the state’s only official language, many other democracies also have a single official language despite having large minorities with different mother tongues. For instance, 17 percent of America’s population is Hispanic, only slightly less than the 21 percent of Israel’s population that’s Arab, yet Spanish isn’t an official language in America, and few people would argue that this makes America undemocratic.
Indeed, Israel’s new law goes much farther than many other democracies in guaranteeing minority language rights, thanks to one provision according Arabic “special status” and another stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.” The latter provision actually preserves Arabic’s status as an official language de facto. It may have been stupid not to preserve it de jure as well, but “stupid” isn’t the same as “undemocratic.”
All of the above explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute—a left-leaning organization usually harshly critical of the current government—said at a media briefing this week that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run,” and is merely “symbolic and educational.”
The law was meant to solve a specific constitutional problem: The courts have frequently interpreted the Jewish half of “Jewish and democratic” at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature,” as former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak famously said. Yet no definition of “Jewish” can be complete without recognizing that Judaism has particularist, as well as universal, aspects because it’s the religion of a particular people with a particular history, culture and traditions. By emphasizing some of those particularist aspects, the law is supposed to restore the intended balance between the Jewish and democratic components of Israel’s identity. But it doesn’t eliminate those democratic components, which are enshrined in numerous other Basic Laws, nor was it intended to do so.
I’m skeptical that the law will achieve its intended purpose, but I see no good reason why it shouldn’t exist in principle. Israel isn’t just a generic Western democracy; it’s also the world’s only Jewish state. And its constitution-in-the-making should reflect both halves of its complex identity.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 1, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
In January 2017, the Ipsos Mori research company published a shocking poll headlined “Six in ten around the world think their society is ‘broken.’ ” Out of 23 countries surveyed—13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies—only in six did a majority of respondents disagree with that statement.
Moreover, almost four in 10 respondents agreed another troubling claim: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Though the proportion topped 50 percent in only two countries, it exceeded a third in all but three.
Pollsters then asked several questions designed to elaborate on those general sentiments—some exploring trust in national institutions and others exploring attitudes toward immigration. Their theory was that low trust in institutions would correlate to high levels of belief that society was broken, while negative attitudes toward immigrants would correlate to high levels of feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. And there was, in fact, some correlation, albeit not perfect. Notably, countries with both high trust in institutions and low concern about immigration had among the fewest respondents saying either that society was broken or that they felt like strangers in their own land.
And then there was the one glaring exception: Israel.
A majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all seven categories of institutions—international institutions, banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties. In five of the seven categories, more than 70 percent did so. Israel was among the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category; in most, it was in the top six.
Yet when it came to the summary question of whether society was broken, Israel suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with only 32 percent of Israelis agreeing (Japan and India, at 31 percent and 32 percent, respectively, were in a statistical tie with Israel for the bottom slot).
The same thing happened on questions about immigration, which Israeli respondents almost certainly interpreted as referring to non-Jewish immigrants (the ostensibly neutral Hebrew word for immigration, hagira, is actually used only for non-Jews; Jewish immigration, for which Israeli support has traditionally been high, is called aliyah). Israel was among the six most immigrant-averse countries in all four categories: belief that employers should prioritize hiring locals over immigrants, concern about immigrants’ impact on social/public services, concern about their impact on jobs and opposition to uncontrolled immigration.
Yet when it came to the question about feeling like a stranger in your own country, Israel again suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with just 20 percent of Israelis agreeing. Only Japan, at 14 percent, was lower.
Two factors help explain Israel’s exceptionalism in this poll. One is simply that complaining is Israel’s national sport; Israelis routinely gripe about every aspect of their country. Many of those grievances relate to real problems. Nevertheless, the reality is rarely anywhere near as bad their complaints make it sound (a fact that American Jews, who often accept the Israeli left’s complaints at face value, should bear in mind).
Indeed, Israel’s flourishing economy, high standard of living, and high levels of both personal security and personal freedom are all testaments to the fact that its institutions aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as Israelis deemed them in this poll. Countries with truly dysfunctional institutions rarely score well on any of these fronts.
And despite their complaints, Israelis actually do know this. That’s why Israel consistently ranks as the 11th happiest country in the U.N.’s annual “World Happiness Report,” and why on overall assessments of the country—like whether society is broken or whether people feel like strangers in their own land—Israelis were far more upbeat than respondents in most other countries Ipsos Mori surveyed.
But there’s also a deeper reason. Israelis understand that there is only one Jewish state, and for all its flaws, its very existence is something precious and worth preserving. That’s why 90 percent of Israelis define themselves as Zionist. For Zionism, at bottom, is simply the belief that the Jewish people has a right to its own state, and that a Jewish state therefore ought to exist.
This has enabled Israel to escape one of the modern West’s besetting ills. In a world where elite opinion scorns both religion and the nation-state as anachronistic but has failed to provide any compelling source of identity to replace them, many Westerners have grown increasingly unsure of their identities. Hence, it’s no surprise that they feel like strangers in their own land—or as if their societies were broken.
Israelis, in contrast, are very confident of their identity: They are Jews living in the world’s only Jewish state. Thus, it’s impossible for most Israeli Jews to feel like strangers in their own country; this is the state created precisely so that all Jews, anywhere, will always have a home.
Similarly, it’s difficult for most to feel that their society is broken when, against all odds, it has not only successfully maintained the first Jewish state in two millennia, but also turned it, in 70 short years, into one of the world’s most thriving countries. Israel has successfully absorbed Jewish refugees from all over the world and continues to provide an insurance policy for Diaspora Jews nervous about their own countries’ future. It has built one of the world’s 20 wealthiest economies per capita. It has maintained a robust democracy despite being at war since its inception. And its growing economic, military and diplomatic clout led American analysts Walter Russell Mead and Sean Keeley to rank it last year as one of the world’s eight great powers.
Thus, despite arguing bitterly over what policies their country should pursue and complaining endlessly about its many shortcomings, Israelis are overwhelmingly glad that a Jewish state exists, and committed to both preserving and improving it. And that’s why most will be celebrating on Israeli Independence Day next week. Because the very existence of a Jewish state, whatever its flaws, is grounds for rejoicing—and all the more so when that state has so many real achievements to celebrate.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 11, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
Note: Two days after this article was published, Netanyahu was formally named as a suspect in another case, known as the Bezeq case. The police recommendations discussed in this article do not relate to that case.
Recent polls show that if Israel held elections today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party would likely win again, despite police recommendations that he be indicted on six counts of taking bribes. In fact, he’s now polling better than he was before the recommendation was released: Fewer people think he should resign, and more say they would vote Likud. That improvement reveals something important: To many Israelis, the crimes that police are currently accusing Netanyahu of committing just don’t sound all that serious.
Israelis have long known that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are hedonists who prefer other people to pay for their pleasures. Consequently, the revelation that businessmen were plying them with enormous quantities of expensive cigars and champagne wasn’t actually news. And while most Israelis find this conduct repulsive, it’s a price many are willing to pay as long as they feel that Netanyahu is generally doing well by the country, which he is: Even his enemies admit that he has presided over a booming economy, low levels of terrorism and burgeoning relationships with countries around the world.
The real question—the one the polling data hinged on—was what Netanyahu was doing in return for those gifts, and to what degree it harmed the country. So far, the answer seems to be “not much.” Indeed, the quid pro quos detailed in the police report were actually less serious than prior leaks had led the public to expect. While space precludes examining all six allegations in depth, three should suffice to give the flavor.
Let’s start with my personal favorite among the benefits Netanyahu allegedly gave Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan: forming a task force to study Milchan’s proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian free trade zone where one of India’s leading businessmen, Ratan Tata, would produce Tata cars. True, Milchan might have benefited financially had the project actually gone forward (which it didn’t) since he and Tata proposed running the zone in partnership. But anyone familiar with Netanyahu’s foreign policy knows that he has long promoted “economic peace” with the Palestinians as a substitute for the diplomatic peace that currently remains impossible, and that he accords high priority to improving relations with India.
Consequently, it’s fatuous to think he would have to be bribed to consider a proposal that could improve the Palestinian economy while bringing one of India’s largest companies to Israel; it’s the kind of idea that would naturally appeal to him. And even if, as police claim, defense officials disliked the idea, it’s not a crime for prime ministers to have policy disagreements with defense officials. So this charge simply doesn’t hold water.
Another alleged quid pro quo was helping Milchan secure a long-term American visa. But this is the kind of help governments often give leading businessmen, especially if the businessman in question appears to be having visa problems mainly because of his past assistance to the country’s security services. Nor is this something that harms ordinary Israelis in any way. Thus, it’s not something they really care about.
Then there’s the claim that Netanyahu took steps that benefited Milchan in his role as part-owner of Channel 10 television. That’s unarguably true, and it also unarguably cost the Israeli taxpayer money. Channel 10 has serially defaulted on its financial obligations to the government as stipulated in its broadcasting license, yet the government has repeatedly changed the rules to let it stay on the air. But Netanyahu allegedly went even further by helping Milchan find a buyer for his shares when he sought to reduce his stake in this financial sinkhole, and that is the focus of the police recommendation.
Yet it’s far from obvious that Netanyahu’s conduct in this case was motivated by bribery. First, governments have been bending the rules in order to save Channel 10 since before Netanyahu took office and before Milchan acquired his stake. This looks a lot like just one more rule-bending rescue effort: The man who bought Milchan’s shares didn’t just put money in Milchan’s pocket; he also bought shares from other people to acquire a controlling stake in the cash-strapped channel, then injected desperately needed capital into it, thereby saving it from financial collapse.
Second, Netanyahu had previously threatened more than once to rescind Channel 10’s license due to its serial defaults and sell the frequency to new owners who might honor their financial commitments. Each time, however, he backed down after the entire media—joined by the entire opposition—accused him of seeking to destroy freedom of the press by shutting down a media outlet openly critical of him. A similar threat and a similar media outcry preceded the Milchan buyout. So did Netanyahu really save Channel 10 to help his good friend Milchan, or was he simply cowed into doing so, for the umpteenth time, by a media campaign falsely claiming that letting a bankrupt channel fold would be “anti-democratic”?
It’s important to note that two cases still under investigation seem much more serious than the six on which police have so far recommended charges. One involves corruption in the purchase of naval vessels. The other involves multimillion-dollar benefits to Israel’s landline telephone monopoly, Bezeq, including killing a reform that would have significantly reduced landline rates for all Israelis, in exchange for favorable coverage of Netanyahu by an Internet news site Bezeq owns. As of this writing, Netanyahu isn’t officially a suspect in either case, but at least in the Bezeq case, he seems almost certain to become one. And should police recommend charging him in either of these, public opinion would likely turn far more sharply against him.
Still, the recommendations police have released so far don’t tell the public anything it didn’t already know: Netanyahu likes living the high life at other people’s expense. Unless police produce evidence that such luxuries were actually coming at the country’s expense, many Netanyahu supporters will continue believing his outstanding performance as prime minister outweighs his shoddy personal conduct.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on February 27, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Many people nowadays accuse Israel of being a racist state that considers its Arab minority second-class citizens. I wonder, then, how they explain what happened last Friday?
For the third time in the last two years, Israel threatened military action to stop an attack by extremist Syrian rebels on the Syrian Druze village of Khader. It did so despite the fact that Syrian Druze have sided with the Assad regime in that war, meaning they’re aligned with Israel’s arch-enemies, Iran and Hezbollah; despite the fact that Khader itself has been the source of several anti-Israel terror attacks; and despite the fact that such intervention risks entangling Israel in Syria’s civil war, something it has hitherto tried hard to avoid–and all just because it was asked to do so by its own Druze minority, which was worried about its coreligionists across the border.
To most Israelis, it seems both obvious and unremarkable that Israel should accede to this request. But in fact, though Israel has always considered itself obligated as a Jewish state to try to protect Jews anywhere, it’s not at all obvious that it would consider itself equally obligated to try to protect Druze beyond its borders. Threatening cross-border military action on behalf of foreign nationals aligned with your worst enemies, simply because they’re the coreligionists of one of your own ethnic minorities, isn’t an obvious step for any country. And it’s especially not obvious for a country accused of considering said minorities to be second-class citizens.
Thus, the fact that Israel has repeatedly taken action to protect the Syrian Druze says a lot about the true state of anti-Arab “racism” in the country. But to understand exactly what it says, it’s first necessary to understand the difference between Israeli Druze and other Arab Israelis.
The Druze are ethnically Arab, and their religion is considered an offshoot of Islam. But in their attitude toward the Jewish state, Israeli Druze differ markedly from most Muslim and Christian Arabs. All Druze men serve in the army, whereas Muslim and Christian Arabs generally do not. Druze politicians can be found in every major political party (except the explicitly religious ones), and Druze voting patterns aren’t markedly different from their Jewish counterparts. In contrast, other Arabs generally support ethnic Arab parties that are openly hostile to the Jewish state. Druze overwhelmingly identify as Israeli rather than Palestinian, whereas among other Arabs, the reverse has been true until very recently. Finally, given their superior integration, Druze unsurprisingly feel much less discriminated against than other Arabs.
The Druze consider themselves to be and act as loyal Israelis in every respect, so Jewish Israelis consider themselves bound to show equal loyalty to the Druze. Therefore, when Israeli Druze (some of whom even have relatives in Khader) were concerned about what might happen to their Syrian brethren if the extremist militias succeeded in capturing the town, Israeli Jews–who can readily understand concern for the fate of one’s coreligionists in another country–fully agreed that something had to be done. Hence the army, as it has twice before, warned the extremists that if they didn’t retreat, they would be attacked by Israeli planes and artillery. And the extremists, as they have twice before, got the message and abandoned their attack.
In contrast, Israeli Jews feel far less commitment to other Israeli Arabs because other Israeli Arabs demonstrate far less commitment to Israel. This is obvious in their refusal not only to do military service–something most Israeli Jews could reluctantly accept–but even to do civilian national service in their own communities, because they consider it unacceptable to do anything that might be construed as identification with the hated Zionist state. It is equally obvious in their repeated reelection of Arab Knesset members who, in marked contrast to Druze MKs, routinely refuse to condemn Palestinian terror and sometimes even actively defend it, hurl calumnies like “apartheid” and “genocide” at their own government, and side with the Palestinians against Israel on virtually every issue.
Thus while prejudice and discrimination definitely exist in Israel, as they do in every society, they do not, for the most part, stem from “racism.” Rather, they are a response to the objective fact that many Israeli Arabs demonstrate their contempt for and opposition to the Jewish state on a daily basis. While Israel can and does ensure equality before the law for its Arab citizens, it can’t change human nature. And it is human nature to be less generous and more suspicious toward people who openly side with your enemies than toward those who side with you, because loyalty is a two-way street. Indeed, what’s truly remarkable is that Israel has made such great efforts to integrate its Arab minority despite the barrier posed by Arab behavior.
As I’ve noted many times before, Israeli Arab attitudes toward Israel are slowly changing. As they do, anti-Arab prejudice and discrimination will lessen in the same way that prejudice and discrimination against the Druze already have. And nothing demonstrates this better than last Friday’s incident in Khader, when Israel put its army at the service of non-Jewish enemy nationals across the border just because their Israeli coreligionists asked it to do so.
Originally published in Commentary on November 7, 21017
Both could easily be dismissed as unrepresentative of Israel’s Arab community. After all, that very same week, Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi asserted in a speech in Dallas that Jews have no right to self-determination, because “the Jews are not a nationality.” And Zoabi, who is only slightly more inflammatory than her party colleagues, was elected on a joint ticket that receives the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arab votes.
But as a recent poll of Israeli Arabs proves, the community is changing—and not in Zoabi’s favor.
Perhaps most striking was the fact that a decisive majority of respondents identified primarily as Israeli rather than Palestinian, which is something that wasn’t true even a few years ago. In 2012, for instance, just 32.5 percent of Israeli Arabs defined themselves as “Israeli” rather than Palestinian. But the figure has risen fairly steadily, and this year, asked “which term best describes you,” 54 percent of respondents chose some variant of “Israeli” (the most popular choice was “Israeli Arab,” followed by “Arab citizen of Israel,” “Israeli,” and “Israeli Muslim”). That’s more than double the 24 percent who chose some variant of “Palestinian” (15 percent chose simply “Palestinian.” The others chose “Palestinian in Israel,” “Palestinian citizen in Israel,” or “Israeli Palestinian”).
Moreover, 63 percent deemed Israel a “positive” place to live, compared to 34 percent who said the opposite. 60 percent had a favorable view of Israel, compared to 37 percent whose view was unfavorable. These are smaller majorities than either question would receive among Israeli Jews, but they are still decisive. Even among Muslims, the most ambivalent group, the favorable-to-unfavorable ratio was a statistical tie (49:48). Among Christians, it was 61:33, and among Druze, 94:6.
One of Zoabi’s colleagues, MK Yousef Jabareen, hastened to assure the Jerusalem Post that Israeli Arabs must view Israel more negatively than the poll indicates, because “when I meet with people from my community, I always hear concerns about increasing discrimination and racism,” as well as “socioeconomic status, an absence of jobs and housing.” Nor is he wrong about his community’s concerns: Fully 47 percent of respondents felt that, as Arabs, they are “generally treated unequally.” Many were also worried about economic issues and their community’s high crime rate.
But what Jabareen evidently hasn’t grasped is that having an overall favorable view of one’s country in no way contradicts having a long list of complaints about it. After all, Israeli Jews complain constantly about their country’s shortcomings while still believing that its merits outweigh its demerits. Why shouldn’t Israeli Arabs do the same?
The comparison with Israel’s neighbors has obviously grown starker following the implosion of several Arab countries since 2011, and it’s undoubtedly a major factor in Israeli Arabs’ growing appreciation for Israel. But government efforts to improve their socioeconomic situation have also contributed.
For instance, a joint initiative between the government and the country’s biggest private-sector employers produced a sharp increase in the number of Israeli Arabs working at these companies, which typically offer better pay, benefits and promotion opportunities than smaller firms. At several participating companies, Arabs now comprise 14 percent of payroll—less than their share of the population, but roughly equivalent to their share of the workforce.
The government has also invested more money in Arab schools, which—together with a new emphasis on education within the Arab community—has helped boost students’ performance. The proportion of students taking the matriculation exams is now roughly the same for Arabs and Jews, and while more Jews still pass, the gap has narrowed. Indeed, two Arab high schools now rank first and second in the country for academic achievement.
Finally, in sharp contrast to the nongovernmental organizations that spend their time and energy smearing Israel as racist overseas, others have correctly concluded that inequality can more profitably be fought by investing in Arab education and employment. The Israeli NGO Tsofen, for instance, focuses on boosting tech education and employment. Partly thanks to its efforts, the number of Israeli Arabs employed in high-tech has grown more than tenfold in the past decade, the number studying for STEM degrees at Israeli universities has risen 62 percent, and the Arab city of Nazareth, once devoid of high-tech industry, now boasts 50 local startups alongside branches of leading national and international firms.
Even some Arabs from abroad are starting to grasp this. Just last month, a group of Palestinian-American businessmen in Chicago held its first fundraising dinner for a scholarship fund to help Palestinians and Israeli Arabs attend Israel’s Haifa University. Though the dinner is new, the fund has been active since 2015 and has so far supported more than 60 students. Needless to say, that does far more to help actual human beings than, say, advocating anti-Israel boycotts that result in Palestinians losing their jobs.
Changes of the sort the Israeli Arab community is now undergoing take decades to come to fruition. As one example, see Druze residents of the Golan Heights, where despite a steady increase in recent years, fewer than a quarter have so far opted for Israeli citizenship. But as several Druze told Haaretz last month, the divide is generational: The older generation still feels Syrian; the younger feels Israeli. Consequently, even among the younger generation, many say they don’t want to acquire Israeli citizenship yet, because “it’s disrespectful to the older generation.”
Many years must also pass before change percolates through the Israeli Arab community to the point where the Baklys are more representative than Zoabi. But the trend is clearly moving in that direction. And despite their best efforts, the community’s vocal anti-Israel contingent seems powerless to stop it.
Originally published in Commentary on October 17, 2017
Ostensibly, winner Avi Gabbay and runner-up Amir Peretz couldn’t be more different. Peretz is a veteran hard-left activist, an early leader of the Peace Now movement, who was advocating Palestinian statehood back when most Israelis still considered the idea anathema. Gabbay is a moderate who once supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party and, more recently, co-founded the centrist Kulanu party. Yet they sounded almost indistinguishable when answering five questions posed by Haaretz (in Hebrew) before Monday’s run-off (an abbreviated English version is here).
Asked about the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the West Bank, for instance, both men rejected it. “I don’t believe in unilateral withdrawal,” Gabbay said bluntly. Peretz was wordier, but still quite clear. “We won’t continue to settle the territories, but at the same time, we mustn’t forget the lessons of the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza (and also from other conflict areas around the world),” he said.
What makes this surprising is that several Labor-affiliated former senior-defense-officials-turned-activists have been pushing unilateral withdrawal. Among them are former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, the man slated to be Labor’s defense minister had it won the last election, and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, a one-time Labor Knesset member. Thus one might expect the idea to appeal to rank-and-file members.
But Peretz and Gabbay thought otherwise. Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005 resulted in three wars and 16,000 rockets on Israel (compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank), while its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah to grow from a terrorist nuisance into a major strategic threat, whose arsenal of 150,000 rockets is larger than that of most national armies. Thus the candidates evidently concluded that even left-of-center Israelis no longer believe the activist “experts” who persist in denying that unilateral withdrawal endangers Israel’s security.
Moreover, both candidates promised to freeze settlement construction, but only outside the major settlement blocs. This is a sharp rejection of the line the Obama Administration spent eight years peddling—that construction anywhere beyond the 1949 armistice lines, even in areas everyone knows will remain Israeli under any agreement, is an obstacle to peace. It turns out even left-of-center Israelis consider it ludicrous for Israel to stop building in the settlement blocs and large Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. They simply don’t buy the idea that construction in these areas, which will clearly remain Israeli, is a legitimate excuse for the Palestinians’ ongoing refusal to negotiate.
No less noteworthy was one glaring omission. Though both candidates promised immediate final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and deemed a peace deal essential, their only stated reason for this position was to keep Israel from becoming a binational state. Neither so much as mentioned the fear that Israel could face growing international isolation if it didn’t resolve the conflict. That claim has been a staple of left-wing advocacy for years. It was most famously expressed by former Labor chairman (and former prime minister) Ehud Barak who, in 2011, warned that Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” if the conflict continued.
This argument has been getting harder and harder to make in recent years, as Israel’s diplomatic reach has steadily expanded. But it would have sounded particularly fatuous coming just days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, which caused many who had previously parroted Barak’s warning to throw in the towel. Typical headlines from center-left commentators included “Where’s the diplomatic isolation?” and “Modi visit shows Israel can improve foreign ties even without a peace process.” Judging by the fact that neither Peretz nor Gabbay mentioned this argument, they evidently think even Labor Party members will no longer buy it.
As an aside, it’s far from clear that diplomatic ties would continue expanding under a Labor government, because center-left governments typically view the Palestinian issue as their top priority, and therefore devote much less time and energy to expanding ties with the rest of the world. In contrast, since Netanyahu’s government believes a Palestinian deal is currently unobtainable, it has invested enormous effort in expanding Israel’s other diplomatic relationships. And that effort matters. As Kenya’s UN ambassador said last week, it’s only recently that “the lights have gone on” in Israel and it has started engaging. Previously, he spent years asking Israeli officials, “Why are you not engaged? Where is Israel?” But the possibility that Labor might choose to focus on the Palestinians instead doesn’t change the fact that Israel clearly can expand its diplomacy even without a peace process.
Finally, Peretz and Gabbay both rejected the increasingly popular argument among left-wing activists that fully integrating Israeli Arabs requires inviting elected Arab parties into the governing coalition, no matter how extreme those parties are. Inter alia, they include one parliamentarian doing jail time for smuggling cell phones to imprisoned terrorists, another who calls Arab policemen “traitors,” and a third who canceled a meeting with American Jewish leaders because he “cannot in good conscience” enter a building that houses a Zionist organization. Gabbay, typically blunt, said the Arab parties’ Joint List “includes anti-Zionist elements … so we can’t cooperate with this composition.” Peretz concurred: “Incidents that have occurred in the Joint List undoubtedly make it very hard to add them to any future coalition. Effectively, the difficulty is so great as to make this impossible.”
In short, both men upheld the traditional view that integration requires bolstering Arab moderates rather than bolstering radical politicians who support terrorists and/or want to abolish the Jewish state. Evidently, they believed any other position would repel Labor voters.
The bottom line is that, even among mainstream left-of-center voters, many ideas pushed by left-wing journalists and activists remain toxic. It’s a point worth remembering for all those foreigners who get much of their information from these very same sources.
Originally published in Commentary on July 14, 2017
Speaking at official ceremonies marking Israel’s Independence Day, both President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein warned of the dangers of internal rifts in Israeli society. Yet, in fact, the run-up to Independence Day provided eloquent evidence that two of Israel’s deepest internal schisms are slowly healing.
Watching the Israeli government convulse itself over 40 homes in the illegal settlement outpost of Amona, an outsider could be forgiven for wondering whether it had gone mad. If you don’t understand the underlying politics, there’s no rational explanation for why top government officials have devoted more hours to finding a way to avoid razing those 40 houses than they have to numerous weightier issues. The politics of it all makes more sense than the policy, and it also shows why Barack Obama’s approach to the settlements issue is ultimately destructive to the very two-state solution he claims to favor.
As Israeli commentator Yossi Verter noted last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t previously had problems taking steps that upset his base. In 2009, he instituted an unprecedented 10-month freeze on settlement construction, and he’s removed other illegal outposts with relatively large populations. Settlement construction has been slower on his watch than under any previous prime minister, as even the far-left Haaretz admits. He even imposed an undeclared–and unprecedented–building freeze in large Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. So what suddenly changed?
The answer, which became clear to me during a discussion over Shabbat lunch, stems from a generational divide. My generation’s most searing political memories are the 1993 Oslo Accords and the ensuing upsurge in terror; the failed Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2000 and the ensuing bloodshed of the second intifada; and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the ensuing rocket fire on Israel, which has so far led to three wars. So, from our perspective, Netanyahu is basically doing great. Unlike all his predecessors, he has resisted massive international pressure to make further territorial concessions that would be similarly disastrous for Israel’s security. Consequently, we’re willing to cut him slack on other issues, even when we disagree with him.
But people who were children during most or all of the above events have a very different view of Netanyahu. Lacking the memory of how quickly other prime ministers reversed themselves under pressure–Yitzhak Rabin on his promise of no negotiations with the PLO, Ariel Sharon on his promise of no unilateral pullout from Gaza–they don’t see Netanyahu as courageously holding the line against disastrous territorial withdrawals. They take this for granted.
What they see instead is the way he has ceded control of the land de facto by giving the international community veto power over when and where Israel builds. To take the most glaring example, what other country refrains from building desperately needed housing in its own capital because of fear of international pressure? Doesn’t that make a mockery of Israel’s claim to sovereignty in Jerusalem?
So after almost eight years of declared and undeclared construction freezes, younger activists are boiling over with frustration. They want to see Israel acting like a normal, sovereign country and building where it sees fit–which, for many of them, means all over the West Bank. That Amona has become the vehicle for their frustration is a simple accident of fate. Because the Supreme Court mandated its demolition by December 25, the government’s usual trick of postponing any decision won’t work anymore; it has to either raze the outpost or legalize it within the next three weeks.
But what does any of this have to do with Obama’s settlement policy? The answer is simple. Previous U.S. governments distinguished between areas Israel would almost certainly keep under any deal with the Palestinians–like large Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem or the major settlement blocs–and isolated settlements that would have to be evacuated under any such deal. Since building in the former areas didn’t actually impede prospects for a two-state solution, previous administrations didn’t raise much fuss about it.
The Obama Administration, in contrast, objects to new houses in large Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem just as vociferously as it does to new houses in the most isolated West Bank outpost. Nor has it given Netanyahu any credit for his unprecedented restraint on settlement construction; instead, it has consistently and falsely accused him of “aggressive” construction and then used this false accusation to blame him for the impasse in the peace process.
Had Obama quietly acquiesced in building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs and given Netanyahu public credit for his restraint, Netanyahu would have had a solid case to make to his party’s angry young activists. It’s true we aren’t building everywhere, he could have said, but at least we’re building in some places that are important to us. Restraint in other areas is worth it for the sake of good relations with Washington.
But in the face of Obama’s actual policy, Netanyahu has no case at all. You aren’t building anywhere, the young activists justly retort, and if you’re going to generate just as much international outrage by building in Jerusalem as by building in Amona, why not build everywhere?
Netanyahu has striven desperately to find some sort of compromise over Amona, and he may succeed. But the young activists’ anger isn’t going to go away, so at some point, he’ll have to choose: start building and risk the international community’s displeasure, or continue his restraint and risk losing his own base. And when politicians in democratic countries are forced to choose between their voters and foreign leaders, the latter usually lose.
Thus, if the international community wants to ensure that settlement building won’t undermine a two-state solution, it needs to stop opposing construction in areas where construction does no such thing, like Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, and start giving Netanyahu credit for his restraint. Otherwise, he’ll have no ammunition with which to fight his base’s angry young activists. And if he can’t beat them, he’ll almost certainly join them.
Originally published in Commentary on December 5, 2106
A regular reader of Odeh Bisharat’s op-eds in Haaretz might reasonably conclude that the Israeli Arab author doesn’t like his country very much. So I was stunned by the advice he offered his fellow Israeli Arabs in his latest column. Aside from being something you rarely hear Israeli Arab intellectuals say, it’s good advice–not just for his own community, but also for both Israeli and Diaspora Jews:
The time has come for the Arab leaders of public opinion to say outright: In spite of everything, we have it good here. It’s true that there’s a mountain of problems, but we want to be citizens of the state. Here we can fight to improve our living conditions, to protest, mobilize Jewish public opinion and conduct a battle against the extreme right. After all, the program that unites most of the [Israeli] Arab movements is based on the principle that Arabs are citizens of the state in which they will realize their national and civil rights. And in that case, it’s important to convey that the Arabs care about the state, because they care about themselves and their future.
The irony is that even though you never hear their leaders say so, most Israeli Arabs already agree with Bisharat. Polls have shown this repeatedly (here and here, for instance). The latest evidence came from last month’s Peace Index poll, a monthly survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. It found that Israeli Arabs are actually more optimistic than Israeli Jews about the country’s situation–in sharp contrast to what one would expect to find if, as both Israeli and foreign media outlets like to claim, Israel was suffering from a rising tide of anti-Arab racism.
Fully 40.3 percent of Israeli Arabs deemed Israel’s current situation “very good” while another 22.7 percent deemed it “moderately good,” meaning that 63 percent offered a positive assessment. By comparison, only 9.7 percent of Israeli Jews rated the current situation “very good” and 34.0 percent “moderately good,” for a total positive assessment of 43.7 percent. Israeli Arabs were similarly bullish about the future, with 32.9 percent predicting that Israel’s situation would be “much better” in the new Jewish year that began in October and another 21.5 percent expecting it to be “a little better,” for an overall positive assessment of 54.5 percent. The corresponding figures for Israeli Jews were 7.5 and 15.0 percent, for a total positive of just 22.5 percent.
Arab optimism extended across every field the pollsters checked: military-security (where 39.9 percent of Arabs forecast improvement), political-diplomatic (42.3 percent), socioeconomic (42.6 percent) and “disputes between different parts of the public” (31.6 percent). In every category, the proportion of Arabs who expected improvement far surpassed both the proportion of Jews expecting improvement and the proportion of Arabs expecting deterioration. Indeed, the proportion of Arabs who foresaw deterioration ranged from just 2.8 percent on socioeconomic issues to 13.2 percent on “disputes between different parts of the public.” Those last two figures are particularly noteworthy. If Israeli Arabs really felt threatened by rising racism, they would hardly predict improvement in “disputes between different parts of the public” by a ratio of almost 3:1 and improvement in the socioeconomic realm by more than 15:1.
Nevertheless, there’s one very real barrier to further improvement: Israeli Jews largely believe that most Israeli Arabs care more about the Palestinian cause than about their own country’s wellbeing, for the very good reason that this is what they hear, over and over, from Israeli Arab leaders. This obviously encourages anti-Arab sentiment and impedes integration. And as Bisharat correctly noted, it will be very hard to change this perception as long as Arab-Israeli opinion leaders refuse to say publicly that it’s false – that despite the “mountain of problems” Israeli Arabs face, and especially their deep disagreements with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, they nevertheless feel they “have it good here” and really do “care about the state.”
Bisharat’s advice, however, is no less applicable to the Jewish world–there, too, the refusal to “say outright” that things are good in Israel despite the problems is causing serious long-term damage.
As evidence, consider Sara Hirschhorn’s op-ed in Haaretz last week, with the self-explanatory title “Liberal Zionists, We Lost the Kids.” In it, the Oxford University lecturer lamented that young British Jews are turned off by Israel–not, as so frequently claimed, by “the occupation or the settlements,” but by “the very premise of a self-defining State of the Jews, back to 1948.” And to her credit, she acknowledged that liberal Zionist adults are largely responsible for this development: If liberals are to convince their children that a Jewish state is worth having, she wrote, “Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings—we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud—in spite of it all—in the State of Israel today.”
But of course, they rarely do. All you hear from most liberal Zionists nowadays, both in Israel and abroad, is a vile caricature of Israel: occupation, settlements, racism, discrimination, every evil in the modern pantheon. And when that’s all the kids have ever heard, why wouldn’t they end up thinking a Jewish state is a bad idea?
Problems obviously shouldn’t be swept under the rug; Israel is a good place to live precisely because it tries so hard to keep improving. But you can have too much of a good thing, and with regard to obsessing over Israel’s flaws, that point was passed long ago for both Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Jews.
Thus in both communities, as Bisharat and Hirschhorn correctly pointed out, the road to beneficial change begins with ceasing to focus only on the negative and remembering the highlight the positive as well. Saying outright that even Arabs “have it good” in Israel, unlike in so many Arab countries, might be an excellent place to start not just for Israeli Arabs, but also for Diaspora Jews.
Originally published in Commentary on November 11, 2016