Lior Sternfeld writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment
Israel’s center-right Kadima Party has just elected an Iranian-Israeli, Shaul Mofaz, as its leader, in an attempt to position itself to defeat the hard right Likud Party’s Binyamin Netanyahu in the next elections. Mofaz is promising to take up the plight of Israel’s middle class, which is facing high prices and high rents at a time when the super-rich are flourishing. He is a realist on Iran, being an expert on that country’s nuclear program, and agrees more with President Obama’s cautious approach to containing Tehran than with Netanyahu’s conviction that military action should be taken against Iran as soon as possible. Mofaz wants to be prime minister, and he would be a very different kind of leader for Israel than Netanyahu, who is wedded to settlements and war.
Mofaz, a former commando, is hardly a liberal. But his victory inside Kadima does represent a turn toward the center, and it coincided with with some other dramatic, if small and limited developments. An Israeli couple recently launched a massive love-spreading Facebook campaign to defuse tensions between the Israeli and Iranian peoples. The Israeli campaign proclaimed, “we love you- we will never bomb you”, and their Iranian counterparts answered: “we don’t hate you.” It is little enough, but its proponents had a kind of euphoria.
On top of that, two weeks ago couple of thousand protesters gathered in Tel-Aviv to dissent against the hawkish government (namely, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak). Their civic courage echoed around the world. Media outlets worldwide celebrated the fringe phenomenon that revived otherwise dead peaceful hopes.
Last summer, as well, was miraculous in Israeli terms. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets, inspired by the Arab spring. They went to demand social justice and confront the right wing neo-liberal economic policy. It was miraculous because prior to that moment, Israelis seemed to loose their faith in changing their reality and forfeited to cynical politicians before the game has even started. It was miraculous because it provided a glance at the government official priorities, which placed the development of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories above the development of cities and neglected populations inside Israel. It was miraculous because the public called aloud to prioritize public education, civil rights, social democrat principles, over the militarized discourse. Some even argued that Israel would not be the same any more. What a summer.
These four seemingly unrelated episodes might suggest that the Israeli public has matured. It has grown out of the militarized discourse; it has come to understanding that social justice cannot be achieved while apartheid regime is practiced on behalf of this same public in the Palestinian territories. One could seriously think that the Israeli people will not let their politicians deceive them anymore with false declarations of “security needs” or that “the settlements do not pose an obstacle to peace.”
But no. Regardless of everything that has happened since the summer, Netanyahu and his right wing Likud party still win the opinion polls. The leaders of the protests, the leftists and the doves, were left behind in the morning after. How can one reconcile demands for social justice with voting to a reactionary party? How can one participate in the virtual or actual Iran-Israel love campaign and still support Netanyahu/Barak in approval surveys? Well, the Israeli public can.
After years of manipulation, Israelis have come to believe that these objectives can be separated, and can be isolated to single issue each. They came to believe that social justice, civil rights, and security can be granted to the Jewish citizens of Israel, without including the Palestinians (whether they possessed Israeli citizenship or not). They came to believe that the entire Middle East genuinely wants to eradicate Israel and the Jews and therefore only a strong stance will ensure their existence.
The Israeli public finds it easier to believe to the darkest prophesies on either side. Maybe it is part of the contemporary Jewish condition: they do not believe the Arab leaders when they talk about peace (be it the Arab League peace initiative, or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders who repeatedly say they will respect the peace accord with Israel). But they take every esoteric threat dead seriously. They do not trust Israeli politicians who promise to strive for peace, but they will vote once and again to politicians they neither like nor trust, who promote fear and warn of regional threats (and exalt some kind of primitive national pride), just because they sound more as though they have their feet on the ground.
These conflicting trends within the Israeli public raise questions about the national mindset. Attempts like the demonstrations that took place in Tel Aviv last summer and last month should not be taken lightly, but neither should one see them as a sign that the mercurial Israeli public has had a lasting change of heart. The jury is out on whether Israeli optimism and dedication to social justice can finally win out over the pessimists and the hawks.
Lior Sternfeld is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Texas, Austin.