Thursday, October 14, 2004

Towards an Israeli Popular Front

Some thoughts on disengagement

It is one of the oddities of Israeli democracy that the very pluralism which distinguishes it from all other democracies in the world has the paradoxical effect of encouraging and empowering the political extremes. Arik Sharon is learning this lesson all over again, as a determined and highly politicized minority is approaching a decisive victory over an apathetic and unrepresented majority. The Prime Minister's disengagement plan, it appears, is now likely to go down to defeat or be stranded in legislative oblivion; and this, despite the support of the president of the United States, the organizations of the Diaspora, and the overwhelming majority of the Israeli people. This must be of the deepest concern for those who care about the State of Israel and the preservation of her identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Due to the simple facts of demography, Israel will soon be facing a situation in which its ability to remain both Jewish and democratic, and, indeed, its very legitimacy as a nation will be called into question; and there is no doubt that there exist forces within Israeli society to whom the principles of democracy and, indeed, even of Zionism itself, are of little or no concern. Under normal circumstances, the existence of such extremist minorities would be of little concern, but Israel has never been a normal country, and, due to a fateful convergence of historical and political factors, that minority currently has influence far beyond its numbers.

Unquestionably, the primary reason behind this unfortunate state of affairs is the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords and the corresponding terrorist war undertaken by the Palestinian national movement, leading to the post-Oslo collapse of the Israeli Left and the corresponding crisis of faith faced by many Israelis in the face of the political process’s failure to engineer an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict. By an extraordinary historical irony, the Israeli Left’s disastrous gamble on the PLO may well result in the failure of a rightwing government to enact the Left’s fondest dream: an end to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. By destroying the public’s faith in political solutions, the Left has ceded the political sphere to the extreme Right, whose sole possession of the commanding political heights have allowed it to challenge the Prime Minister’s disengagement plan with extraordinary effectiveness. In effect, the political arena consists of a single combatant – the pro-settler Right. If this movement should prove victorious – a very real possibility – then the victory will not be the result of its persuasion of the Israeli majority, but the stunning disillusionment and apathy of that majority, an apathy which threatens, more than anything else does, the fabric of Israeli society. How this came about requires some explanation.

Israel, from its origins, has been an odd sort of democracy. With a unicameral system divided between nearly a dozen political parties, many of them religious, the Israeli Knesset is both one of the most pluralistic and the most extremist legislatures in the world. Extremes of both left and right, including the anti-democratic extremes, are represented, with haredi and Arab parties which do not accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish State. This plethora of ideologies has led to a paradoxical situation in which stalemate is common, but, since they serve as the necessary weight to tip the scales towards one end or the other, fringe ideologies have influence and power far out of proportion to their numbers.

Israel is also one of the most highly politicized countries in the world, with abnormally high rates of voting and participation and highly emotional investment on the part of citizens in their political stances. To an extent, this has been fractured by the Oslo debacle and the following terrorist war. One half of the Israeli political spectrum has, in essence, resigned its place at the table and gone home to lick its wounds; while those who had placed faith in the possibility of that faction to achieve peace through negotiation has, in effect, abandoned it, perhaps for good.

The reasons behind this have everything to do with the manner in which the Oslo Process was carried out; essentially, as an independent diplomatic maneuver by a faction of the political left which, for a time, did not have the imprimatur of the Israeli government. Certainly, there can be no doubt that, had the proceedings been attempted in the light of day, as the Egyptian treaty was, the Oslo Accords would never have been achieved. It was this need for secrecy and the necessity of rendering rightwing opposition ignorant of the proceedings, and thus incapable of stopping them, which was, to a degree, the original sin of Oslo and the source of the Israeli Left’s seemingly total collapse today. The simple reason for this ought to be obvious: the secret nature of the proceedings turned Oslo from a process into a gamble, and a fairly massive gamble at that. Should the process succeed, the un-democratic nature of its enactment would not be an issue; should it fail, as it eventually did, and in quite bloody terms, the political price to pay would be immensely high, as, indeed, it has been. In effect, the Oslo Accords not only soured the Israeli people on negotiations, it soured them on a Left which it sees as foisting a disastrous war on them in disregard of democratic niceties. Furthermore, the persistent refusal of the plan’s architects and supporters to acknowledge their failure and the reasons behind it, and, indeed, the breathtakingly arrogant insistence of leftwing leaders like Yossi Beilin and Avraham Burg on blaming the Accords’ failure on the Israeli government itself, and not on their own miscalculations and misjudgments, most particularly in regard to the personality of Yasser Arafat, has soured Israelis not only on them, but on the entire political process. Israelis, in particular, though by no means only, Sephardi Israelis, have come to see that part of the Israeli elite which manufactured Oslo, the Ashkenazi Left, as an illegitimately influential force which will enact its will regardless of the democratic verdict of the Israeli electorate; thus rendering them apathetic and indifferent to the entire political process.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the territorial maximalists on the Right are belaboring under a similar though opposite misapprehension. Judging the events of the past four years as a vindication of their early and absolute opposition to Oslo, they have assumed a political consensus has formed in the Israeli public not only that Oslo was a mistake, but also in support of their territorial ambitions; a position which is, according to all available statistical data, totally untrue.

It is this convergence of unfortunate factors that has brought us to the current impasse over Sharon’s disengagement plan. As a result of the disillusionment of the Oslo Process, the silent majority of Israelis, even, and perhaps especially rightwing Israelis, who favor territorial compromise, have no faith in the political process and thus remain resolute in their apathy. This has left the political arena solely in possession of the pro-settler Right, which has been both well organized and immensely active but which also, most importantly, believes itself to be speaking for the post-Oslo Israeli consensus against a corrupted establishment. All of this is taking place, of course, against the background of the Israeli Left’s collapse into arrogant and sullen irrelevance and its resolute refusal to make its peace with its old nemesis: Prime Minister Sharon. As long as this alignment of political forces persists, the disengagement plan is doomed to failure.

What is called for, therefore, is realignment such as has not occurred in Israel since the 1977 electoral revolution which brought Menachem Begin to power. The various factions of Left, Right, and religious parties which support or are willing to accept territorial compromise must forego their rivalries and resentments and form a parliamentary bloc against the territorial maximalist minority. This bloc would likely include a majority of the Likud MKs, all the Shinui MKs, all the Labor and Yahad MKs who would be willing to accept a continuance of the Sharon-Netanyahu economic reforms, a sizable chunk of the non-NRP religious MKs, especially from Shas, which has proven amenable to territorial compromise in the past and whose primary concern is domestic welfare issues, and, of course, a sizable group of Arab MKs. This majority would be both overwhelming and overwhelmingly Jewish – thus undermining the national religious charge that territorial compromise can only be achieved by Arab Knesset votes – while still including Israel’s Arab citizens in the decision. Such a coalition would also serve to create a feeling of empowerment and purpose for the silent majority of Israeli citizens who desire an end to the occupation but see no means of effecting one through the political process; something which would go a long way towards uniting an often dangerously divided society and fundamentally delegitimizing any acts of extremist violence which may result from the disengagement process, and which so wounded Israeli society with the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

What is called for, then, is a Popular Front of sorts; this time not in favor of anti-fascism but in support of territorial compromise and the preservation of Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic state and, perhaps most importantly, the continuation of the consensus that a Zionist Israel can and ought to be both.