A new book argues that the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
When Israel adopted a Basic Law in July defining the country as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” opposition was instantaneous and widespread. The objections fell into two categories. Some opponents agreed with the law’s basic premise but objected to specific provisions. Others, however, were dismayed by the very idea of defining Israel as a Jewish nation-state, believing that this definition inherently discriminates against non-Jews. Indeed, liberal opinion today increasingly views the nation-state as a relic of an unsavory past that the West has thankfully moved beyond.
It’s this view that Dr. Yoram Hazony, a longtime friend, challenges in his new book, “The Virtue of Nationalism.” Hazony argues that for all its flaws — and he’s far from blind to them — the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
In the process, he also challenges a conception of Judaism increasingly popular among liberal Jews: the view that “universal values” like equality and human rights are the essence of Judaism. By definition, universal values aren’t unique to Judaism; they are equally applicable to and accessible by non-Jews. But Hazony argues that Judaism celebrates what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called “the dignity of difference.” It’s the only great civilization in history that never sought global application of its laws, customs, and religious practices; rather, the Bible explicitly envisioned a limited Jewish state surrounded by other, non-Jewish states.
It’s worth emphasizing just how exceptional this is. The other two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, both sought global domination. At its height, the Muslim empire stretched from Spain to India; Christianity had the Byzantine Empire in the East and the Holy Roman Empire in the West. Almost every major non-monotheistic civilization was also imperial, including Persia, Rome, Greece and China. And empires continued straight through to modern times‑ recent examples include the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, assigns the Jews a limited territory with specific boundaries. Like everything in Judaism, their exact location is disputed. But even the maximalist conception of this territory is minuscule compared to Biblical empires like the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian.
Moreover, Hazony notes, the Bible explicitly forbids the Jews to exceed those boundaries. In Deuteronomy, for instance, God warns, “Meddle not with [the children of Esau], for I will not give you of their land. No, not so much a foot’s breadth. Because I have given Mount Seir to Esau for a possession … Do not harass Moav, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession … And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, for I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession.”
Nor is Judaism’s self-limitation merely physical. Unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism hasn’t traditionally been a proselytizing religion; it sees no need for the entire world to be Jewish. And aside from the seven Noahide laws, Judaism’s extensive legal code is meant to govern Jews alone.
This doesn’t mean Judaism has no universal moral principles. Indeed, Hazony argues that the biblical idea, later adopted by Protestant nation-states like Great Britain and the Netherlands, requires any legitimate government to satisfy a “moral minimum,” and he considers any theory of nationalism that doesn’t include such a moral minimum unviable. Nevertheless, the Bible recognizes that how these principles translate into specific laws and practices might differ from nation to nation.
All of the above leads Hazony to argue that the Hebrew Bible gave the world the very idea of the nation-state, at a time when the surrounding world consisted of either empires or tribal societies. The rest of his book is devoted to explaining why he believes this biblical political model is still the best we have.
Cohesion and trust
A nation-state is one in which a substantial majority of the population shares certain characteristics, like a common language or religion and a common history, especially of uniting against outside aggression. These shared characteristics, transmitted from generation to generation, provide nation-states with a level of cohesiveness and trust that’s difficult to achieve in states lacking such commonalities, Hazony argues.
This cohesiveness and trust in turn make many other moral goods possible. Indeed, Hazony says, it’s no accident that most of the civil and political liberties we take for granted today developed in nation-states like Britain and the Netherlands.
I’m naturally sympathetic to that argument, not least because I chose as an adult to relocate from America to the world’s only Jewish nation-state. But until recently, that sympathy was widely shared. For centuries, Hazony writes, “a nationalist politics was commonly associated with broad-mindedness and a generous spirit.”
What changed this was World War II — or more accurately, a post-war narrative that blamed nationalism for the war’s outbreak. But before discussing why that narrative is wrong, let’s consider some of the positive goods the nation-state bequeathed us.
First, Hazony argues, the nation-state is the largest political unit in which rulers and ruled can still feel a connection — not a personal connection, since government officials obviously won’t know most citizens personally, but the connection that derives from a shared history, language, religion or culture. And only that sense of connection, in which a shared heritage creates bonds of mutual loyalty, can make a ruler or dominant faction willing to circumscribe its own power.
Since circumscribed power is a necessary condition for democracy, it’s no surprise that democracy first developed in nation-states like Britain. Clearly, not all nation-states have been democracies. But no larger political unit ever has.
The nation-state’s cohesiveness and trust is also a necessary foundation for freedom, tolerance and individual rights, including for minorities, Hazony argues. That may strike many people as counterintuitive. But historically, majorities have usually felt confident enough to circumscribe their power and grant equal rights to all only when they felt that minorities posed no serious threat to the majority’s shared heritage. When dominant groups feel threatened, they often seek to suppress competing groups.
That’s why nation-states like Britain, India and Israel — as well as ostensibly “neutral” states that are effectively nation-states, like the United States, Canada and Australia, with their strong Protestant Anglo-Saxon cores — have historically proven comparatively free and stable, Hazony says. In contrast, countries lacking the cohesion provided by a clear majority with a shared heritage have typically either become dictatorships, torn themselves apart in civil wars, or both — think Yugoslavia or Syria. And every multinational empire in history has ultimately done the same.
Moreover, because a nation-state, by definition, is surrounded by other states with different languages, religions, cultures and laws, it has no choice but to tolerate these differences, even if it loathes them. Not only does this inculcate habits of tolerance, but “this formal grant of legitimacy to political and religious diversity among the nations then became the basis for the toleration of dissenting communities within the state,” Hazony argues.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean every nation-state will be tolerant and respectful of minorities; hatred appears to be endemic to human nature, and no form of political organization is immune to it. But despite sometimes horrific abuses, Hazony argues that nation-states overall have a better track record than multinational empires.
Indeed, precisely because the latter control so much more territory, they can often wreak far greater devastation: See, for instance, the centuries-long persecution of Jews throughout Europe under the Christians’ Holy Roman Empire, or Communism’s decades-long persecution of minorities throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. At worst, nation-states can persecute minorities in one country. Empires can do so across entire continents.
The value of diversity
Another significant advantage of nation-states is that they provide scope for national experimentation, not just in politics, but in science, economics, art and other fields. A multinational empire, in contrast, will necessarily converge toward uniformity, at least on certain issues. And because no individual or group has yet attained perfect wisdom, the experimentation allowed by a world of nation-states is more likely to produce new or improved ideas and practices that other states can adopt.
A salient example, though not one Hazony cites, is the idea that instead of hereditary monarchs who rule for life, executives could be elected by the people and periodically replaced by them. Many countries eventually adopted this idea. But it entered the world only because America broke away from the British Empire, giving it the freedom to launch what was then a revolutionary experiment.
Granted, when nation-states experiment, the results will sometimes be disastrous. But if a nation-state adopts a failed policy, the consequences are limited to that state. When empires adopt failed policies, the suffering is much more widespread. Soviet Communism, for instance, created economic havoc and political persecution across a vast territory stretching from Eastern Europe to central Asia.
Finally, and perhaps also counterintuitively, nation-states have an inherent disincentive to aggressive expansionism. Empires typically seek to bring as many countries as possible under their aegis. But because the nation-state’s cohesiveness depends on the existence of a sizable majority with certain shared characteristics, conquering other states whose populations don’t share those characteristics would inevitably undermine this prized asset.
This, incidentally, is why no Israeli government, including several wrongly branded as annexationist, has ever annexed the West Bank and Gaza, why numerous governments sought to negotiate peace deals ceding them, and why polls have consistently shown a majority of Israeli Jews favoring such a deal in principle. Israelis understand that permanently annexing millions of Palestinians is antithetical to maintaining a Jewish nation-state.
Because Arab states repeatedly attacked Israel from these territories before Israel captured them in a defensive war, it’s understandably unwilling to cede them without good reason to believe that situation won’t return. Thus the fact that every bit of land ceded to the Palestinians so far has become a launching pad for attacks on Israel, coupled with the repeated failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has increasingly led Israelis to question whether a Palestinian state is a viable solution to this problem. Yet even so, support for annexation remains minuscule.
Hazony’s arguments raise one obvious question: If he’s right that the nation-state has historically fostered freedom, democracy and civil rights, why is it widely viewed today as inherently aggressive and oppressive? The answer is World War II, whose horrors are commonly blamed on nationalism — or in Hazony’s words, on “German soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests.”
Yet in reality, he says, Nazi Germany wasn’t a nation-state, but a classic imperial state. Its desire to conquer all of Europe, and then the world, was the age-old goal of every imperialist, whereas the nation-state, as noted, inherently requires limited borders. Indeed, Hazony writes, the Nazis understood themselves as imperialists. They explicitly sought a “Third Reich,” the German word for empire, inspired by the “First Reich,” aka the Holy Roman Empire (which, despite its name, was dominated by Germanic states for much of its history).
In fact, Hazony argues, every large-scale war in history has resulted from imperial ambitions; other examples include the Napoleonic wars and the Cold War, in which Communist expansionism and Western efforts to contain it sparked hot wars worldwide. That’s because imperial states typically seek to enlarge their empires, and therefore necessarily draw many other countries into their wars. Nation-states also obviously fight wars, but because they require limited borders, those wars are necessarily limited in scope.
Hazony’s recurrent comparisons between nation-states and empires may seem like a straw man. The bloody empires of old, with their expansionist wars and persecution of minorities, appear to have little in common with modern forms of multinational or global governance like the European Union (EU) or the United Nations. And it’s the latter that modern liberals believe should replace the nation-state.
But Hazony sees little fundamental difference between older empires and what he terms the “liberal empire” envisioned by many Westerners today — “one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights … are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.” And nothing illustrates this better than the EU itself.
Unlike previous empires, the EU was formed by member states’ consent — a nontrivial distinction. Yet it suffers from many of the same ills that have historically plagued empires.
First, it lacks the cohesiveness and trust generated by a shared heritage. Consequently, after a mere few decades, it’s already under strain from centrifugal forces. Unhappiness over “dictates from Brussels” is widespread throughout the union’s periphery — Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland and, of course, Britain, which in 2016 became the first country to vote to quit the union.
Pundits often deem this griping irrational, arguing that many of the problems these nations decry stem from national policies rather than EU policy. But that merely underscores Hazony’s point: People find it easier to believe ill of “the bureaucrats in Brussels” than of their own politicians precisely because they believe their own politicians are more likely to care about their country’s welfare than politicians with no connection to their country. Nor is this mere self-delusion. By definition, EU officials are concerned with what they consider the good of the union as a whole; often, that will end up being the good of its dominant members, which may not be good for weaker members. See, for instance, EU austerity policies, which benefited strong creditor states like Germany but hurt peripheral states with weaker economies.
Nor is it surprising that one of the most consistent gripes about the EU is its “democratic deficit.” As noted, no political unit larger than a nation-state has yet managed to be democratic. Certainly, the EU is more democratic than previous empires. But voters still have no way to oust EU policy-setters when they dislike EU policies.
Moreover, like all empires, the EU has steadily aggrandized its power, far beyond what most member states originally envisioned. It now governs large swathes of its members’ political and economic life, from setting monetary policy to dictating rules on labor, education and the environment to running courts that can and do overrule national laws.
Thus while the division of power between the EU and its member states originally left space for national experimentation, this space is steadily shrinking. Indeed, Hazony argues, in any federative arrangement, the federal government will tend over time to centralize power and restrict member states’ autonomy.
Even the EU’s most touted achievement, preventing war, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny; it has escaped war for decades solely because it was protected by American troops. Without this protection, it would have faced the same military aggression as states not under America’s umbrella, first from the Soviet Union (see Eastern Europe) and then from Russia (think Ukraine and Georgia). At that point, it would either have fought back or collapsed.
Finally, Hazony argues, empires typically believe their own solutions merit universal application, and indeed are the only “correct” ones. Therefore, they constantly strive to impose these solutions on others and cannot tolerate dissent that challenges the universality of their core truths.
In this regard, liberal internationalism is no different from communism, religious fundamentalism or any other ideology that believes itself the sole possessor of a universal truth. The salient example is liberal internationalists’ intolerance of nationalism itself.
Because the EU and other multinational institutions are predicated on nation-states ceding their own sovereignty, Hazony argues, they cannot abide supporters of national sovereignty. As he notes, this is evident in the “public shaming campaigns” now common in the West against anyone who challenges liberal internationalist dogma, as well as in the loathing for nation-states like Israel, post-Brexit Britain and the U.S. (the latter long predates the presidency of Donald Trump).
The Brexit negotiations are a good example, albeit not one Hazony cites. Brussels adamantly refuses to grant Britain the same deal the EU has with dozens of non-European countries: free trade but no free movement of people or contributions to the EU budget. Yet the scope of EU-British trade means the EU has an interest in preserving free trade with Britain, and it clearly doesn’t object to such agreements in principle. Thus it’s hard not to see this as a classic imperialist attempt to punish Britain for rejecting the empire’s core truth, the wisdom of multinational government, and discourage other parts of the empire from following suit.
In Israel’s case, Hazony cites the obvious example of Gaza. Today, Israel is vilified far more over events in Gaza than over events in the West Bank. But if hatred of Israel were really “because of the occupation,” one would expect the opposite. Unlike in the West Bank, in Gaza Israel did exactly what the world claimed to want, removing every last settler and soldier; ever since, the territory has been a launching pad for nonstop attacks on pre-1967 Israel. Yet hatred toward Israel over Gaza has only intensified since the pullout.
Hazony considers it no surprise that the Jewish state is a particular thorn in liberal internationalists’ side. First, this is because Judaism insists on the value of its own unique laws and traditions, and hence implicitly on the value of national uniqueness in general. Second, it’s because of World War II’s special significance in antinationalist thought.
Because many liberals view the Nazis as the ultimate proof of nationalism’s evil, they find it particularly galling that the Nazis’ principal victims drew the opposite conclusion — that the Nazi genocide was made possible not by nationalism, but by Jewish powerlessness, and therefore, the creation of a new, Jewish nation-state was an inherent good rather than an evil. Or in Hazony’s blunt formulation, Israelis see Israel as “the opposite of Auschwitz.” But to many liberals, “Israel is Auschwitz,” because it embodies the nationalism which they wrongly believe produced Nazi Germany.
This explains not just the often pathological hatred of Israel, but also the fact that more and more liberals believe a Jewish nation-state has no right to exist. Of course, they enthusiastically champion a Palestinian nation-state, but Hazony explains this seeming contradiction through Immanuel Kant’s theory of progress toward enlightened world government: Tribal societies must first become nation-states before advancing to global government. Thus liberals who view the nation-state as a step forward for non-Western countries think that Israel, as a Western country, should know better, and consider its refusal to continue down the road to enlightenment unconscionable.
Yet given the widespread view of global governance as the “moral” choice, perhaps Hazony’s most surprising indictment is his stark formulation of what this choice means: “Here, ‘moral maturity’ is equated with the renunciation of one’s own judgment as to what is right, and of one’s own power to act in the service of what is right.” It’s truly astounding that liberals, who claim to value moral autonomy, have now become the strongest advocates of ceding it.
Why the nation-state law?
Though Hazony’s book was written before the nation-state law was enacted, his arguments underscore a fact that was once widely understood but clearly no longer is: Israel has always been a democracy that generally protects minority rights not despite its self-definition as a Jewish state, but because of it. Indeed, its record on protecting non-Jewish minorities sometimes surpasses that of “liberal” Europe. For instance, Israel has never forbidden civil servants to wear headscarves, like France, or barred mosques from building minarets, like Switzerland. Also, unlike Europe, it funds semi-autonomous Arabic-language public schools to help its Arab minority preserve its language and culture. And that’s precisely because its sensitivity to particularistic Jewish interests allows it to empathize with others’ particularistic interests.
Nothing in the nation-state law changes this. Indeed, the most puzzling aspect of this law is that it says nothing that hasn’t been axiomatic for decades: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and within its borders, only Jews will exercise national self-determination — a provision that neither negates equal social and political rights (as opposed to national rights) for non-Jews nor precludes the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which are outside its borders. Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. Its language is Hebrew. It is open for Jewish immigration. It will strive to preserve the heritage of Diaspora Jews and strengthen their ties with Israel. It will seek to rescue Jews or Israeli citizens anywhere (the term “Israeli citizens” includes non-Jewish citizens). It views Jewish settlement as a value (where isn’t specified, but the Hebrew word used usually refers to inside Israel rather than the territories).
In fact, many of its provisions are already codified in existing legislation. And even the one ostensible novelty, the “downgrading” of Arabic’s status, isn’t really much of a change, as legal scholar Netanel Fisher noted: Arabic has never been equal to Hebrew (for instance, court cases can’t be filed in Arabic), and such status as it had was preserved through a clause stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.”
Moreover, the law in no way supersedes existing Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system of government and basic human rights. Most notably, the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty explicitly protects “the dignity of any person as such,” and courts have consistently interpreted this as barring discrimination, on the reasonable grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity.
In Israel’s constitutional system, each Basic Law is merely one article of a constitution-in-the-making, and is meant to be read in concert with all the others, not in isolation. Therefore, as in any constitution, protections enshrined in earlier articles — in this case, for democracy and human rights — need not be reiterated in subsequent articles addressing different issues, such as Israel’s Jewish identity.
All this explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute – a left-leaning organization not enamored of Israel’s current government – said at a media briefing in July that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run” and is merely “symbolic and educational.” There’s simply nothing in it that undermines democracy, equality or minority rights; these values are no more vulnerable today than they were before the law passed.
Yet if the law truly did nothing but reiterate old truths, why did many Israelis suddenly feel a need to codify these truths in quasi-constitutional legislation? And why was it vehemently opposed not just by people who wish to erase Israel’s Jewish identity, but by many who genuinely want to preserve it?
Primarily, because the very idea of a Jewish nation-state has been under growing assault — from international institutions, liberal intellectuals both in Israel and abroad, increasingly assertive and stridently anti-Israel Arab activists, and above all, Supreme Court justices. Many justices believe, in former court president Aharon Barak’s famous phrase, that the “Jewish” half of Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity should be interpreted at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature.” Consequently, they have repeatedly issued rulings undermining Israel’s ability to preserve particularistic aspects of its unique heritage.
Many Israelis therefore felt a need to reassert Israel’s Jewish identity in a Basic Law that would give this identity equal standing with the state’s democratic nature. But many others, not without cause, feared the consequences of flaunting this identity in a world increasingly hostile to it.
The very fact that reiterating truths held self-evident for decades could cause such an uproar today shows just how far the idea of the nation-state has been eroded. And it also shows why, far more than we need new laws codifying the Jewish nation-state in particular, we need a vigorous intellectual defense of the nation-state in general. Hazony has offered just such a defense.
Originally published in the Jewish Journal on August 15, 2018
Ever since Saturday night’s demonstration against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv, which was organized by Israel’s Arab community, people have been talking about the presence of Palestinian flags. But too little attention has been paid to something even more disturbing—the enforced absence of Israeli ones.
Certainly, demonstrators who wave Palestinian flags while chanting slogans like “With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine” merit attention. As Jonathan S. Tobin noted earlier this week, those protesters clearly weren’t seeking to reform Israel, but to eradicate the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, the demonstration’s organizers explicitly asked people not to bring Palestinian flags since they hoped to attract Jewish moderates rather than just the usual far-left fringe, and understood that Palestinian flags would make Jewish moderates uncomfortable. Nor is it their fault that some people ignored this request; at any demonstration with tens of thousands of participants, some people will disregard the organizers’ instructions. So while the chants and Palestinian flags certainly say something about the intentions of those particular demonstrators, they don’t necessarily indicate the views of the majority.
What’s far more telling is that the organizers also banned Israeli flags at the protest, arguing that they would make Arab demonstrators uncomfortable (here, too, some people disobeyed). They did this knowing that it would undermine their goal of strong Jewish participation since many Jews opposed to the nation-state law would still feel uncomfortable at a protest where Israeli flags were unwelcome. And this wasn’t a decision by a few rebellious protesters; it was made by the Arab community’s most representative body—the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which consists of elected mayors, Knesset members and other community leaders.
In other words, the organizers believed that Israeli flags were unacceptable to most of their community. So they informed Jews that no partnership was possible, even over an ostensibly major shared concern, unless the Jews agreed to forgo even the most basic symbol of their Israeli identity.
If this doesn’t immediately strike you as outrageous, try imagining, say, a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy at which protesters were forbidden to wave American flags. It would be ridiculous. After all, most of the policy’s opponents consider themselves proud Americans who object to the policy precisely because they think it contradicts America’s best values, and most of the immigrants themselves would like to become proud Americans. So why would anyone mind if American flags were present?
For the same reason, Israeli flags were much in evidence at the Druze community’s protest against the nation-state law the previous week. Those demonstrators, Druze and Jews alike, considered themselves proud Israelis, nor did they have any objection in principle to Israel’s Jewish identity. They merely thought the law as currently worded contradicts Israel’s best values as a Jewish and democratic state.
By banning Israeli flags, the Arab community’s protest sent the opposite message. Arabs didn’t come as proud Israelis who felt that Israel was betraying its best values; they came because they oppose the very existence of a Jewish state, up to and including its most innocuous symbol: the flag. And they object to the nation-state law not because of any infelicitous wording, but precisely because it enshrines aspects of Israel’s Jewish identity in a quasi-constitutional law, thereby making it harder (at least theoretically) for the Supreme Court to continue eroding this identity by interpreting “Jewish” at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature” (to quote former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak). In other words, Arab demonstrators were dismayed because they fear the nation-state law will impede their decades-long effort to erode Israel’s Jewish identity—which, of course, is precisely why the law’s supporters favor it.
Lest anyone think I’m reading too much into a flag ban, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee said all this explicitly in a document it commissioned in 2006. The first operative paragraph of “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” reads as follows: “Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Zionist-Jewish elite in Europe and the west and realized by Colonial countries contributing to it and by promoting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in light of the results of the Second World War and the Holocaust.” In other words, Israel is an illegitimate colonialist enterprise that has no right to exist.
The document then proposed various mechanisms for eradicating Israel’s Jewish identity, such as demanding that the Arab minority be given veto power over any policy adopted by the Jewish majority. This, incidentally, would also destroy Israel’s democratic character: Countries where ultimate decision-making power rests with the minority rather than the majority aren’t generally classified as democracies.
Nevertheless, over the past decade, there’s been a slow, grassroots movement toward greater integration in the Arab community. So one could simply argue that more time is needed before this sentiment trickles up to the community’s leadership.
But it’s never been clear whether this integrationist movement represented growing acceptance of a state that’s both Jewish and democratic, or merely a growing belief that efforts to erase Israel’s Jewish identity were gaining momentum. After all, many Jews feel that the state’s Jewish identity is under siege, which is precisely why many supported the nation-state law. Thus it wouldn’t be surprising if many Arabs had reached the same conclusion.
Unfortunately, the Israeli flag ban at Saturday’s demonstration indicates that the pessimistic interpretation may be more accurate. The worrying part isn’t that Arab demonstrators didn’t want to wave Israeli flags themselves; nobody has to wave flags at a demonstration. It’s that any Jew who wanted to do so was declared persona non grata. In short, the Arab community wasn’t willing to countenance any form of Jewish-Arab cooperation that didn’t include the Jews completely abdicating their identity.
That is the real message of the missing Israeli flags. And it’s one that anyone dreaming of a glorious new era of Jewish-Arab civic partnership should keep in mind. Because no such partnership is possible as long as the price of entry for Jews is abandoning Israel’s Jewish identity.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 15, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
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.