What Just Happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu trashed President Obama, the peace process, and Israeli Arabs — and made a startling political comeback. Maybe it’s time Americans recognized that Israel has changed.


During George W. Bush’s first term, a lot of thoughtful foreign observers felt sorry for America and its good-hearted citizens. A fluke in our electoral system had allowed Bush to take office even though Al Gore had gotten more votes. Once in power, Bush turned out to be a radical conservative rather than the like-father-like-son moderate many voters had expected.

And now America wasn’t acting like itself at all: It was trumping up bogus reasons to start wars, creating a “law-free zone” in Guantanamo, torturing prisoners caught on the battlefield, and even imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without trials. How sad it must be for the peace-and-freedom-loving people of America, sympathetic foreigners thought, to see what was happening to their country.

Then we re-elected him.

Around the world, the shock of 2004 was the realization that the problem wasn’t him, it was us. Americans, or at least a majority of the Americans willing and able to get out and vote, liked this kind of government. Who could predict what we might do next? [see endnote 1]

That’s what came to my mind Tuesday when Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister of Israel.

The spirit of 67. Like a lot of Americans (and in spite of my criticisms of Israeli policy on this blog) I have a deep and irrational affection for Israel. In June of 1967, I was an impressionable ten-year-old stuck inside with a cold and nothing to watch on TV but the Six Day War that was pre-empting all other programming. I was completely sucked in by the David-and-Goliath narrative all three networks presented as tiny Israel thrashed its much larger neighbors. What better fantasies could a housebound Midwestern Lutheran boy ask for than to be an Israeli tank commander kicking up sand in the Sinai, or a pilot screaming over the horizon and striking terror into Egyptian or Jordanian troops? [2]

In the decades that followed, Israelis were easy to identify with: They looked like us and dressed like us and talked like us. All the Israeli leaders who showed up on TV spoke marvelous English. They seemed so polished compared to Yassar Arafat, who always looked dusky and unshaven and foreign. Israel’s armed forces fought like ours, with tech and air power and a high value on each soldiers’ life. Their parliamentary system was more like the British, but that was OK too; it still had campaigns and elections and courts that enforced basic rights.

In high school, I had friends who had been to Israel, and others who wanted to go. They made it sound like such a magical place. Of the Arab countries, only Egypt piqued my interest, and then only the remnants of its dead civilization. Present-day Cairo or Baghdad or Damascus held no similar allure.

Through the 1980s, I paid little attention to the Palestinians. Sinai had gone back to Egypt in the prototype land-for-peace swap, and no doubt the West Bank would eventually be part of some similar deal. It was taking longer than I’d expected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the new and expanding Jewish settlements [3], but peace seemed to be in everyone’s long-term interest, so I had little doubt it would eventually happen.

Since the 1990s, though, I’ve been increasingly bothered by the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Even appreciating the complexities involved in resolving the problem, it’s hard for me to get past a basic sense of wrongness: This can’t go on. Something has to be done.

Israeli conscience. My main solace these last few decades has been that a lot of Israelis feel that same wrongness. For example, one chapter of Ari Shavit’s recent book My Promised Land discusses his military service as a guard at the Gaza Beach detention camp in 1991, and how he and his fellow soldiers struggled to cope. They know there is no real comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany — for starters, Israel isn’t out to annihilate the Palestinians — but they can’t help but feel the resonances.

And even N., who harbors strong right-wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp. M. explains with a thin smile that he has accumulated so many days of reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.

I, too, who have always abhorred the analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hinted at it, can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong. They well up when I see a man from Pen Number 1 call through the fence to a man from Pen Number 2 to show him a picture of his daughter. They well up when a youngster who has just been arrested awaits my orders with a mixture of submission and panic and quiet pride. They well up when I glance at myself in the mirror, shocked to see myself here, a jailer in this ghastly prison. And when I see the thousand or so humans around me, locked up in pens, in cages. …

What makes this camp tick is the division of labor. The division makes it possible for evil to take place apparently without evil people. This is how it works: The people who vote for Israel’s right-wing parties are not evil; they do not round up youngsters in the middle of the night. And the ministers who represent the right-wing voters in the government are not evil; they don’t hit boys in the stomach with their own fists. And the army’s chief of staff is not evil; he carries out what a legitimate, elected government obliges him to carry out. And the commander of the internment facility is not evil — he is doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. And the interrogators — well, after all, they are doing their job. And it is, they are told, impossible to govern the occupied territories unless they do all this. As for the jailers, most of them are not evil, either. They only want to leave all this behind and get back home.

Yet in some mysterious way, all these nonevil people manage together to produce a result that is evil indeed.

Shavit is the great-grandson of one of the original British Zionists, and in his own way remains a Zionist, loyal to his great-grandfather’s Jewish humanism. (In an earlier chapter, he retraces his ancestor’s tour and tries to imagine what he saw and what he was thinking. [4]) He believes the Occupation is a cancer on the original Zionist vision, and it needs to end — not just for the sake of the Arabs, but also for the sake of the Jews.

But he is optimistic. The Zionist story, as Shavit tells it, has always balanced the need for the Jews to survive as a people with their need to survive as a moral people. The current moral challenge is nothing fundamentally new, and Zionists will figure it out as they always have.

The tension Shavit feels between morality and survival reminds me of a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson, who late in his life hoped for the eventual end of slavery but (fearing a race war if the slaves were freed) saw no practical way to bring it about:

We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

I really want to believe Shavit, and to believe in the ability of Israelis like him to meet their moral challenge and shape a just future. But the politics of the Netanyahu era are hard to reconcile with his hopeful vision. And Jefferson’s Virginians never did figure out how to end slavery, did they?

Against democracy. Israelis deal with the contradiction between the Occupation and Israel’s traditional democratic values in two opposite ways: Some, like Shavit, come back from military duty with a determination that the Occupation must end. Others return with a weakened commitment to democracy, an attitude that is sometimes called “bringing the Occupation home”. It is psychologically difficult to serve in the territories, treating Palestinian Arabs as a subject population full of terrorists, and then in civilian life to see Israeli Arabs as fellow citizens with rights. Even Israeli Jews who oppose the Occupation can come to seem like a dangerous fifth column.

To appreciate the full anti-democratic ugliness of the Netanyahu era, read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Blumenthal is a secular American Jew, the son of the former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Like Shavit, Blumenthal mostly tells stories rather than argues. But the stories he tells come from the kind of Israelis you don’t usually see on CNN: Arabs and left-wing Jews, as well as members of the openly racist parties to Netanyahu’s right. [5]

Americans typically only notice Israel’s foreign policy, but Blumenthal calls attention to disturbing domestic laws that get little coverage in the American media. For example, the government has tried in a variety of ways to make it difficult for Israeli Arabs and their Jewish sympathizers to commemorate the Nakba, a day of mourning for the Palestinians driven from their homes in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. [6]

On the Israeli left, there is an effort to boycott products made in the West Bank settlements they consider illegal. But a 2011 law makes promoting such a boycott a civil offense. Simply saying “I think people shouldn’t buy West Bank settlement products” in public could land you in court. Wikipedia summarizes:

The law states that individuals or organizations who publicize a call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation to the State of Israel and/or to an Israeli institute and/or to a specific region under Israeli control, [my italics] may be sued civilly, in tort, by a party claiming that it might be damaged by such a boycott. The law also allows Israeli authorities to deny benefits from individuals or organizations – such as tax exemptions or participation in government contracts – if they have publicized a call to boycott and/or if they have obligated to participate in a boycott.

Some Israelis are ignoring the law and daring the government to enforce it, including the Hebrew-language Facebook page “Sue me, I’m boycotting settlement products.”

Most disturbing of all is a Netanyahu-supported and cabinet-approved bill that is still awaiting a final vote in the Knesset: the Nation-State Law, which would end the principle — often ignored by the government, but still occasionally invoked by the Supreme Court — that all Israeli citizens are equal under the law. Haaretz summarizes:

The legislation, which was originally drafted by right-wing MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), is an attempt to resolve the tension between the country’s dual Jewish and democratic character, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

It does that by defining Jewishness as the default nature of the state in any instance, legal or legislative, in which the state’s Jewishness and its democratic aspirations clash.

In December, Bernard Avishai put the issues bluntly in The New Yorker:

[T]his bill is about writing into the law old Zionist provisions that have morphed into racist and theocratic practices. It will make judicial correctives nearly impossible. … If it comes to an election, it will be best for democratic forces to unify, not only around what Israel does, but what Israel is. Israelis not in the thrall of settler fanaticism need to decide whether they want to be part of the democratic Western world or not. The Jewish nation-state law puts the choice starkly: a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.

Conflict over this bill is part of what led Netanyahu to call for the recent elections. But contrary to his hopes for a clearer mandate, late polls indicated his party might control only 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and that a more liberal coalition might get first crack at forming a new government by controlling 24 seats. [7]

Americans are used to political campaigns ending on a Mom-and-apple-pie note. No matter how radical his positions might be, a candidate closes with an appeal to the center, and attempts to prove to late-deciding voters that he’s not as scary has he’s been made out to be.

Facing defeat, Netanyahu did the exact opposite; he embraced more firmly the ugly side of right-wing politics. He came to America to rally Republicans in Congress against President Obama; he reversed his support for a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians (and then flipped back after the election), leaving the world to wonder whether he has any plan for peace at all [8]; he warned the public of the “danger” posed by Arab voters “streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations“, i.e., using their legal rights as Israeli citizens; and he charged that a left-wing government might “follow orders” from the international community rather than defend Israel.

And it worked. In a stunning comeback, his party took 30 seats in the Knesset, which (combined with the vote for other right-wing parties) grants him another term as prime minister. During that term, he will know he owes his office to anti-Arab, anti-peace, anti-international-community, anti-democratic rhetoric.

What this means for Americans. There is still a large bloc of reasonable, humanistic, democracy-valuing, peace-loving Israelis. They are the ones that Americans are more likely to know: more likely to visit this country, more likely to write books published in English, more likely to appear on American TV, and so on. Similarly, Americans who visit Israel will probably spend most of their time inside a bubble of humanistic and democratic sensibility; their academic or business contacts will be largely drawn from educated, well-traveled classes where people yearn for “a globalist Hebrew republic” rather than “a little Jewish Pakistan”. [9]

But what this election should teach us is that those people are not the majority. The problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, it’s the electorate. That problem is not going away; it’s getting worse. Israel is drifting away from peace and democracy, with no turnaround in sight. [10]

Americans need to face that reality, and re-evaluate our policies in response to it. We can no longer blindly support the Israeli government, hoping that someday it will produce an Anwar Sadat, or even another Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres. Those days are over in Israel.

President Obama may be starting to figure that out. If he takes any action based on that new understanding, he will come under a blistering attack from our own right wing. The rest of us will need to have his back.


[1] That’s my explanation for those huge and adoring crowds Barack Obama drew across Europe during his candidacy in 2008. It wasn’t his personal charisma or even the inspiring symbolism of a black president. Europeans looked at Obama’s popularity and hoped: “Maybe the most powerful nation on Earth isn’t crazy.”

[2] I remember a joke from that war: An Egyptian commander sees an Israeli soldier stick his head out from behind a dune, and sends five men after him. None come back. Then he sends twenty men, and none of them come back either. Finally he sends a hundred men. An hour later, one badly wounded soldier crawls back to report. “It was ambush,” he says. “There were two of them.”

[3] I am careful not to use Jewish and Israeli interchangeably, and in this case Jewish is the more appropriate term. Arab citizens of Israel typically are not welcome in the West Bank settlements, even ones their taxes helped build. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Few, if any Arabs live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and a surge of violence in recent months has persuaded some to leave those in east Jerusalem.”

The right of Israeli Arabs to live in certain parts of Israel is also controversial.

[4] If I met Shavit, I’m sure we’d find a lot to argue about. But he has written a really good book. It is not an argument, but a series of historical vignettes of the Zionist movement. (HBO is about to make it into a movie.) As Palestinian author Sami al Jundi recognized in The Hour of Sunlight, the way to bridge a divide is not to convince opponents with your arguments, but to engage them with your stories.

[5] In his closing chapter, Blumenthal spends time with young leftist Israeli Jews who can no longer live in Israel freely or in good conscience. He finds an active community of Israeli expatriates in — of all places — Berlin.

A more nuanced but equally disturbing account of Israeli society is a review of Goliath by anthropologist (and self-described “nice Jewish girl”) Callie Madhof.

Even though for ten months, I hadn’t expressed a single political opinion, I had also not hidden the fact that I’m not afraid of Palestinians or Palestinian towns and cities. Even in my role as a researcher, by simply being open to visiting and speaking to Palestinians, I had marked myself as leftist. In Israel, a lack of racist paranoia is in itself a political position.

These are the parts of Israel that most American Jews don’t see, and most Israeli Jews don’t see anything wrong with. As a book about Israelis, Goliath runs up against the problem that the reality it depicts is beyond a large portion of its potential readership’s imagination. Whereas Israel’s liberal critics ask what went wrong, or how we can salvage the Zionist dream, Blumenthal’s critique cuts deeper, settling in the rifts of contemporary Israeli society and following the politics of apartheid to their terrible conclusion. His is not a picture of a polarized society, but one that is frighteningly cohesive, as it moves ever closer to fascism.

[6] The closest American parallel would be the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. In the U.S. this can be controversial, but is considered a clear expression of free speech. I can’t imagine Congress passing a law to harass such celebrations.

[7] Forming a 61-vote majority is even harder than it looks, because no Arab party has ever been included in a governing coalition, forcing would-be prime ministers to cobble together super-majorities of the primarily Jewish parties. (That’s what has given those tiny religious parties their clout through the years.) The Joint Arab List captured 14 seats Tuesday.

[8] Marc Schulman commented in the Times of Israel:

[W]e have always claimed that the Palestinians were the ones who were guilty of saying one thing in Arabic to their home audience, and something different on the international stage. Now … our Prime Minister has been caught brazenly doing the same thing.

My reading of Netanyahu’s support for a two-state peace plan is similar to my reading of his support for a “better deal” with Iran: He is always available to accept his enemies’ surrender, but has no interest in finding a mutually acceptable compromise.

[9] Imagine coming to America and visiting only Berkeley or Wall Street. You might go home thinking of the Tea Party as a noisy rabble that wiser heads will easily handle.

[10] Optimists will point out that the United States rejected Bushism in 2008. But that reversal did not come from any new understanding, it resulted from external shocks: the Iraq War turning into a disaster and the economy collapsing. To hope for a similar Israeli turnaround means hoping for similar external shocks.

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Comments

  • joeirvin  On March 23, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Another book to read is “Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine” by Raja Shehadeh.

    • weeklysift  On March 23, 2015 at 10:31 am

      It is a good book about how things look from the Palestinian viewpoint. In this article, I was trying to stay focused on Israel.

  • Pat Mitcham  On March 23, 2015 at 10:26 am

    May I post this on FACEBOOK in its entirety? Some people don’t want their writings there for one reason or another. And that is why I’m asking. Your writing is so very clear, thank you. Patricia Mitcham, Huntsville, AL. Sent from my iPad

    >

    • weeklysift  On March 23, 2015 at 10:30 am

      As long as you include a link back to this blog, I’m happy.

  • adrian  On March 23, 2015 at 11:22 am

    “The closest American parallel would be the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. In the U.S. this can be controversial, but is considered a clear expression of free speech. I can’t imagine Congress passing a law to harass such celebrations.”

    Alas, there is no need to imagine.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/arizona-mexican-american-studies-curriculum-constitutional_n_2851034.html

    • weeklysift  On March 23, 2015 at 1:21 pm

      While my sentence is still technically correct, since you’re talking about Arizona rather than the federal Congress, I yield to your larger point. It’s always dangerous to cite the U.S. as a standard of sanity.

  • smegmatism  On March 23, 2015 at 11:58 am

    Correction: Egypt didn’t “peak” your interest, it piqued it. Cheers 🙂

  • tfm1066  On March 23, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Very interesting, and the comments this far are courteous. I made a comment on a post-election FaceBook post by a fellow who purports to write for a large-city east coast newspaper. He instantly replied, not to dispute my suggestions

  • 1mime  On March 23, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Imagine coming to America and visiting only Berkeley or Wall Street. You might go home thinking of the Tea Party as a noisy rabble that wiser heads will easily handle.

    Imagine coming to America and visiting only Congress (-:

  • coastcontact  On March 23, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    You have ventured into a topic that I believe most American Jews do not fully understand. The question is what is the responsibility of American Jews to Israel? As a non-Zionist Jew I understand the needs of many for a Jewish homeland but my allegiance is to America not Israel. I believe most Jews in America think as I do. Non-Jews can offer all the analysis they want but they cannot understand that Jews are very defensive because they are the most hated group in the world. I have no solution to the dilemma of the Israeli Palestinian conflict that will make with either group happy. I doubt a solution will be found in another generation.

  • Jeffrey E. Salzberg  On March 26, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Remember that Israel is a parliamentary democracy, and a particularly fractious one at that. Likud only won 25% of the districts; in other words, 3/4 of Israeli districts voted against Netanyahu. This is hardly an overwhelming mandate.

Trackbacks

  • By Survival and Democracy | The Weekly Sift on March 23, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    […] that means is the subject of this week’s featured post “What Just Happened?“. My main take-away from the election is that the problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2015 | The Weekly Sift on December 28, 2015 at 10:11 am

    […] Freedom vs. Big-government Rights“, which leaned on After Appomattox by Gregory Downs. “What Just Happened?“, my discussion of Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election in Israel, leaned on two books: My […]

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