The Politics of Stasis Israelis Increasingly Resigned to Life without Peace

REUTERS

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Part 3: Hope for the Future


Israel is still a free country, with a dynamic democracy, a free press and an independent judiciary.

But all it takes is a drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to see that there is also an alternative world within Israel, one in which every 10th Israeli now lives. It's the world of ultra-orthodox Jews, of men dressed in black suits and women in wigs, holding their children by the hand. Most of them would prefer a theocracy.

When a photo of the American president and his advisors was published after the death of Osama bin Laden, it wasn't a Saudi Arabian newspaper but an ultra-orthodox Israeli paper that used Photoshop to erase US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's image -- because ultra-orthodox men are forbidden from looking at unfamiliar women.

At the same time, the seemingly intractable conflict has facilitated the merging of religion and nationalism, with the once politically moderate Orthodox Jews taking sides with the rightwing settlers. Leading rabbis are fighting against government courts and calling on the public to disobey orders issued by the army. Representatives of this nationalist-religious camp hold key positions in the parliament, the military and society. One is the new national security advisor, for example, who, according to Ha'aretz, said at a conference that anyone who interrupts a military mission, even a soldier, should be shot.

Oddly Unanswered

Secularists, nationalists and the religious are wrestling over the character of the nation, and over how Jewish or how democratic it should be. After 63 years, this question is still oddly unanswered, and yet the future of Israel and the West Bank hinges on it. Can Israel be democratic if it continues to occupy the occupied territories? Conversely, can Israel be Jewish if it gives up the biblical regions of Judea and Samaria?

It is by no means certain that democracy will prevail. The biblical connection to the land has joined the secular narrative of the occupation and is more important today than it was in 1967. This is why it makes perfect sense to an Israeli prime minister to use the stories of Abraham, David and Isaiah to justify Israel's claims to the West Bank. Nevertheless, politicians become more irrational where religion is involved.

In the end, demographics will probably decide the outcome of this conflict. Settlers and the ultra-orthodox are the ones having the most children. Israel has a higher birth rate than Libya, and in some cities up to 64 percent of residents are children.

And what of Israel's left, its peace activists, artists, entrepreneurs and liberals? What has happened to the country's silent, secular majority?

The old elites, who once dominated the politics of peace, have largely withdrawn from the political process. Most have gone to Tel Aviv, the liberal enclave where Palestinians, settlers and Orthodox Jews seem equally far away. They are more likely to become involved in environmental causes than political parties. Tel Aviv is also home to those who are enjoying the economic boom and its benefits, including the many new restaurants, spas and wine bars that have opened in recent years. The effervescent, lively and overwhelming city of Tel Aviv is synonymous with this flight from politics.

Smarter than the Politicians

This is partly the result of a widespread feeling that parties and politicians are corrupt. Hardly any prominent politician has not faced a scandal in recent years. Netanyahu was accused of accepting luxury hotel stays paid for by others. Minister Lieberman faces an indictment for embezzlement and money laundering. And then there is the case of Moshe Kazaw, the former president, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for rape.

It would be easy to call Israel a corrupt nation, but it isn't quite that simple, in fact. "There is a lot of exaggeration when it comes to corruption," says Yossi Shain, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "Hunting people with charges of corruption has become a national sport in our country." According to Transparency International, civil servants are less likely to accept bribes in Israel than in France, and the country gets a more favorable overall rating than Italy and Greece.

And if corruption isn't as widespread as it seems at first glance, couldn't it be that ideological obstinacy is not as dominant as it seems?

Intransigence, nationalist and religious extremism paint a gloomy picture that does not in fact coincide with the buoyant mood in the country. In a survey on how satisfied people are with their lives, for example, Israel was rated ninth, well ahead of Germany. This is also part of the picture that is so difficult to understand outside Israel.

Of course, there is still hope for the future, as yet another survey indicates. Despite being accustomed to a constant state of war, and despite their contempt for the Palestinians, 67 percent of all Jewish Israelis support a peace plan that includes a partition of Jerusalem and a withdrawal from the West Bank, but only 47 percent of Knesset members share this view.

What this shows, most of all, is that ultimately most Israelis are smarter than their politicians.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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