The Future of Israel

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 27, No 3, Summer 1999

Netanyahu is out. Barak is in. What does it all mean? 

The Jewish state is fifty-one years old. For the first thirty years of its history it was governed by the socialism Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state. Members of this establishment dominated the government, the media, the army, the state industries, the labor unions, and the arts. They defined what it meant to be Israeli. The 1967 war brought them to the height of their power.  

In 1977 renegade Ashkenazim, led by Menahem Begin, came to power. They emerged from the same secular Eastern Europe background, but they repudiated socialism and embraced an expansionist nationalism. Their victory was made possible by cultivating the outsiders who hated the establishment: Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews, who were growing in number, and Sephardim, who by then constituted one-half of the Israeli population. The irony of the new government was that it was essentially a Sephardic protest movement led by secular Ashkenazim. 

The “protest” government stayed in power by cultivating every new group that hated or resented the old establishment. Almost one million resentful Russian immigrants were available for the picking. But the intifada, the Arab rebellion, undermined the credibility of the Likud, the party of Begin. The Labor establishment returned to power by promising peace. When the assassination of Rabin made the colorless Peres prime minister, the establishment lost again. The “protesters” returned under a new charismatic upstart leader, Bibi Netanyahu. 

The Netanyahu government was united by one compelling bond: hatred of the Labor establishment. This establishment had long since abandoned socialism and had become the heart of the wealthy bourgeois and professional class. Netanyahu cultivated this hatred, bringing together in one cabinet many parties with incompatible agendas and mutual hostilities. Secular Russians and the Sephardic Orthodoxy both hated Labor, but they also disliked each other. Netanyahu remained the Ashkenazic kingpin of a largely non-Ashkenazic constituency. 

In the end Netanyahu’s arrogance, sleaziness, and inept opportunism brought down his government. Abandoned by the Russians and die-hard Ashkenazi nationalists, he lost to Barak. The Labor establishment has returned to power, again with the promise of peace. But the Israel it will be governing is vastly different from the Israel it created. 

There is a prevailing misconception that the ascension of Barak to power will tame the Orthodox and will secure peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. But the Barak government of necessity includes both Orthodox and nationalist leaders who are wary of the peace process. The stunning victory of Barak in the race for prime minister was not matched by an equally significant victory in the Knesset. The Labor party, like the Likud, lost votes. Many new, small parties have emerged. The establishment could have governed without the Orthodox and the nationalists only by accepting the support of the Arab parties. But the Jewish public would not make concessions to the Palestinians if there were Palestinians in the government. 

Barak’s problem is that Israel today is divided into six rival communities, none of which has a clear majority. There is the old Labor establishment filled with liberals, peaceniks, and civil rights advocates. Most of the well-known writers and intellectuals belong to this constituency. There is the rival Ashkenazic community of renegade nationalists who established the Likud party. There is the militant union of Ashkenazic Orthodox Israelis who represent the fanatic settlers of the West Bank. There is the Sephardic or Oriental community, now represented increasingly by the Sephardic Orthodox party called Shas, which received wide support in the recent election. There is the Russian community, which has developed its own political parties to defend its own interests. There is the Arab community, twenty percent of the Israeli population, which has created Arab parties to give it representation. The old system of two major parties is gone. Each constituency has its own little party to give voice to its demands and grievances. 

Barak needed to paste together enough constituencies to make his government viable. If he is going to make peace with the Arab world, he needs the support of a large majority. A narrow majority of secularists and Arabs would only trigger violent resistance. As long as the peace issue is the dominant one, the conflict between the religious and the secularists will have to wait for resolution. The secular establishment is no longer large enough to have its way. 

Peace will not be easy to achieve. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are now in favor of territorial concessions, most of them do not want to concede very much. The current Palestinian entity in the West Bank consists of eight urban “doughut holes” surrounded by the Israeli army and militant settlers. Giving the whole West Bank to the emerging Palestinian state is unacceptable to most of the Israeli electorate. Giving any part of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority is even more unacceptable. Making a deal with Syria is now popular. But abandoning the Lebanon enclave is less popular, and giving up the Golan Heights even less so. Without the surrender of the Golan Heights no peace with Syria is possible. The maximum concessions the Israelis are willing to make do not even touch the minimum demands of the Palestinians and other Arabs. 

There is no doubt that the recent election mobilized secular Jews with a greater passion than ever before. The hatred of Orthodox intrusion and coercion, aggravated by the continuous provocations, is very intense. While the Meretz party, the old secular voice, grew stronger, a new, more militant secular party called Shinui burst on the scene with six Knesset seats. Shinui, led by a famous and controversial antireligious television personality, is a sign that the formerly passive secular constituency is now prepared to resist. But a combined sixteen votes in the Knesset is less than what the Sephardic Orthodox have. Barak is confronted by a country that is on the whole ambivalent on the religious issue. Most Israelis hate the greedy fundamentalists, but they are not comfortable with secular militancy either. Even the Reform and Conservative movements, which are ironically viewed as secular in Israel, have not won wide support among the Israeli public. They tend to be seen as North American imports. 

The setting for all these controversies is the Israeli economic recovery. Market capitalism is triumphant. State enterprises are being privatized. The welfare state is shrinking. The American-style consumer culture has replaced socialist asceticism. The old textile industries are closing in the face of world competition. The new high-tech industries are thriving, laying a good foundation for Israel’s economic future. Israeli aggressiveness is enhanced by the new competitive environment and the rise in personal expectations. Israel has been normalized as a successful first-world country with an American edge. While poverty and unemployment linger among the Sephardim, the Ashkenazic establishment has enough money to plant trees in America. 

The future of Israel is considerably different from the vision of the secular kibbutzim. It has an ambiguous character. Israel is a Hebrew state with a large Arab minority. It is a Western nation with a large Eastern population. It is a secularized people with strong nostalgia for tradition. It is a consumer culture filled with fundamentalist protestors, symbolized by Planet Hollywood on the one hand and yeshivot on the other. Barak has to manage this ambiguity, not some theoretical body of liberal democrats. 

Humanistic Jews should be heartened by the Barak victory. The peace initiative will be resumed. The Orthodox will be restrained. Secularism is taking on a life of its own. But our expectations should be tempered by reality. There is no simple Israeli agenda. There are six of them, all of them mutually incompatible.