More United, Less Passionate

The Guardian- 25/03/2006

Three days now remain until the elections in Israel. The election campaign has been the most sedate in living memory. One may walk the main streets of the three main cities, and hardly be disturbed by activists, posters, leaflets. I remember my first visits to Israel, and the election campaigns of 1984 and 1988. As a London Jewish teenager, I was thrilled by the impassioned debates, the raucous crowds gathered round two rival activists locked in verbal combat, each using a fine range of theatrical rhetorical skills to the utmost. The rival activists at Zion Square and outside the Hamashbir department store in Jerusalem. Endless disputation. Historical analogies, Bar-Kochba, the events of the 20th century, the destruction of the Temple, all freely invoked and brandished. This, I thought, was what a democratic Jewish state ought to look like.

This has all changed now. It is a change of great significance, open to interpretation in a variety of ways. First the facts. Israeli society is a fragmented, sectoral, disenchanted sort of place compared with the fervor of yesteryear. Yet it is also more united than ever before – on the basic issues that have dominated discussion for the last 40 years. This sounds like a contradiction, but isn’t. Allow me to explain. Since the mid-70s, Israeli politics has been dominated by the Labour-Likud divide, with the two big parties, and their argument over policy on the Arab-Israeli dispute defining the political life of the country.

These two parties wore the colours of old, pre-state Zionist factions. On occasion, lip service would be paid to arcane ideological loyalties. Likud derived its support from the country’s poorer Jews, originating in North Africa and Asia and fiercely committed to a nationalist, traditionalist outlook. The party, until recent years, was neither more nor less committed to free market economics than Labour. Labour, meanwhile, was the party of the liberal Israeli middle classes. The split between the parties, as between the pre-state Labour and Revisionist movements from which they emerged, was over high national issues, the one more inclined to suspect the Arabs and cleave to ancestral territories, the other more inclined to compromise.

The structural Labour-Likud divide continued to dominate Israeli politics throughout the ’90s and beyond. But in that period, it became essentially bled of meaning. The experiences of the Intifada, Oslo, the breakdown of Oslo and the subsequent five year conflict with the Palestinians mixed up the old definitions, damaging the basic edicts of the faiths of hawk and dove alike. For many hawks, the Palestinian uprisings called into question the easy assumption that Israel could simply rule over the West Bank and Gaza indefinitely. The growing Palestinian populations of that area made these new concerns ever more urgent. For the doves of Labour, meanwhile, the collapse of the Oslo process, and the rejection by the Palestinian side of the Clinton proposals of December 2000 called into question their easy assumption that sufficient Israeli forthcomingness could quickly wrap up the issue under dispute. The result has been the slow emergence of a new consensus at the center of Israeli politics, which sees no Palestinian partner with whom to deal, and at the same time considers that maintenance of the status quo is not to Israel’s advantage. The Gaza Disengagement, and the likelihood of further withdrawals on the West Bank is the policy fruit of this new alignment. The split in the Likud, and the emergence of the Kadima Party to its astonishing, dominant position on the map is the political result.

So we have a new party that stands for no-partner and unilateralism. This party looks set to win the elections (36 seats, according to current polls) But there is more to it than that. The old parties – Labour and Likud – were based on historic movements, which at their height commanded a fierce partisan loyalty from their supporters. To be a ‘Likudnik,’ or an ‘Alignment (Labour) man’ in Israel was to take on a whole historic narrative and set of loyalties. These old tribal ideological blocs have departed the stage. Many people will turn out to vote for Kadima on March 28th. But the loyalty to Kadima is based on a resigned acceptance of unpleasant facts, combined with a very pervasive feeling of cynicism toward the political class in general. Ehud Olmert and his colleagues are accepted as being perhaps the best team for the job. But the idea that they carry with them the aura of moral authority that a Ben-Gurion, a Begin, or even a Shamir or a Rabin in their time could claim would be met in today’s Israel with a snort of derision. Turnout in the election is expected to be low.

How might one interpret this turn of events in Israeli politics? Well, there is the apocalyptic view held by various left and right-wing Israeli ideologues, along with Hizballah Chairman Nasrallah, Khaled Maashal of Hamas (and for all I know also their European sympathizers) according to which this sense of disillusion signals the advancing decrepitude of Israel, presaging its imminent collapse. I do not share this reading. It seems to me that the growing unwillingness of Israelis to look for identity and moral belonging in politics – the shallowing of political allegiance, the skepticism toward political leaders and so on – places our society in a parallel process to that of other western democracies. In the Israeli case, it is a sort of maturing – not in the idealized coming-of-age sense of that word, but more in the sense of a tempering of hopes, fervor and dreams, an awareness of the smaller amounts that can be achieved, and a consequent narrowing of the place of political involvement, debate and discussion in everyday life.

It has its dangers – an increasingly disengaged public might lead to a despairing acceptance of mediocrity and worse in the political class. But it also represents the possible emergence of a measured, sober pragmatism into a system which has been largely characterized for the last decades by a distinct lack of that ingredient, along with an urgent need for it. I miss the impassioned crowds at Zion Square – nowadays, one assumes that the few kids quietly offering leaflets for Kadima in city centers are being paid to do so. But then I also miss my adolescence, and I nevertheless have no desire to return to it.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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