The Paradox of Israeli Politics: Sternfeld

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.

8 Responses

  1. There is something profoundly weird and disturbing about how firmly Israel has a cord around the nuts of the leadership of the US staked to the ground -it makes no sense economically, or defense wise.

    Especially as “The jury is out on whether Israeli optimism and dedication to social justice can finally win out over the pessimists and the hawks”

    • AIPAC and dozens of other pro-Israel political ation committees make it a perception that American politicians must be beholden to them or else face their wrath at election time.

      There has been the historical thesis that Harry Truman did not, in is words, want to “inflame” the Palestinians by suppotring Israel’s formation, but was advised that Jewish-Americans in key swing states, such as Illinois, New York and elsewhere could give Truman an upset win over Dewey and Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel came to a stark reality.

  2. Is the American public so very different? Haven’t we been bombarded with cynical media opinion shows that deride compromise and political “analysis” that is breathlessly focused on personalities and the poll-of-the-day? Don’t we share a national mistrust of foreigners and an unwillingness to abide by international rule of law when we find it inconvenient?

  3. To me, what is interesting, is how the Israeli public got to this bizarre state of mind.
    A few years ago when the movie Waltz with Bashir came out, I had a talk with some Palestinian students on campus here. What I asked them was what do they think happened at the point where the movie ended – the Sabra and Shatila massacre. They were amazed to find that the Israeli public roamed the streets demanding the government to resign. Then I asked them is they think that a similar protest can happen today, and they of course said they didn’t, and I painfully agreed. So what has changed since 1982?
    My theory is that the suicide bombings of the mid 90’s, and later the 2nd Intifada tipped the ball. Anyone who grew up, or had young children, or just plain rode buses in Israel during those years, is post-traumatized to some extent. With this climate in mind, the right had a very easy job preaching ‘I told you so,’ and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

    • The Israeli people also roamed the streets asking the government to resign following the Second Lebanon War.

      The Kahane Commission and Winograd Commission reports both laid criticism on the conduct of the IDF and Israeli leaders.

    • What has happened since 1982 ? it depends on where you look and who you ask– Ariel Sharon who oversaw the slaughter of Sabra Chatilla camps in Lebanon who resigned only to later be elected as PM; and the massive Israeli blitzkrieg of Beirut which killed approximately 20,000 civilians; the Ibrahimi mosque massacre of people in prayer by an orthodox ‘doctor’ /follower of terrorist Kahane; IDF incursions into West Bank cities in 2002, destruction of hundreds of homes with what aim? Incredible barbaric violence against “neighbors” has created bleak prospects for the region with a militarily mighty belligerent who claims to be the ultimate victim.
      But perhaps the worst aspect of yr comment –that suicide bombings which started occurring after Palestinians saw that Oslo was another dead-end.
      Up to that point there had been great hope -so, that was when suicide bombings took place, because it seemed there was nothing left but to die.

      The statement that Israelis were “traumatized” by 2nd intifada in itself is mindboggling. Consider that it was again Sharon and his intentionally provocative “stroll” around the Haram w/ 1000 armed police, followed by the killing of 13 Palestinian demonstrators that presented the image of an unyielding occupier & foe who sees no humanity in “the other”.
      That is why no progress has been made. Israeli trauma always is presented as more grievous/deeper/more significant than Palestinians, Lebanese or any others. The Palestinians’ suffering remains a mystery because of peristent Israeli indoctrination about “aravim” as largely dehumanized beings.

      Consider the people of GAZA — invaded & bombed so many times while suffering encage-ment & limitation of all possible freedoms -which Israelis take for granted. Operation Rainbow, Operation Summer Rains, Operation Autumn Clouds…years before 2008’s Cast Lead.

      How much trauma have Palestinian adults & children endured repeatedly over the decades whilst Americans & Europeans read only about Israeli victims and their families.

      In stark numbers, 1600 Israelis died between Sept 2000 to last April ’11
      -while nearly 8000 Palestinians have died & 51,000 Palestinians have been injured or permanently maimed during the same period. Palestinians have no bomb shelters to escape to, nor do they have an army or navy with helicopters or jets to counter the recurrent incursions they suffer, yet Palestinians continue their struggle for self determination despite obstructionism from the US and Israel, whilst theft of their land is ongoing.

      The only word that comes to mind is “chutzpah” when those with the most power perceive themselves as the ultimate victim, whilst those with little to nothing but stones are branded as unmitigated terrorists.

  4. Shaul Mofaz earned a reputation with Amir Peretz as Israel’s worst two defense ministers.

    Under his leadership the IDF withdrew form Gaza and there were about 1,000 Israeli fatalities in the Second Intifada. He was a tough talker that could never deliver as defense minister. He left the defense ministry as a “minister without portfolio” – a clear demotion.

    The occupation has been costly and caused the government to cut back on social programs. The Operation Cast Lead misadventure cost Israel $1 billion in military costs not including property damage from Gaza rockets and lost productivity. The “Arab Spring” social movement in Israel was a rebuke to Israeli hardliners.

    The Labor Party that was inclusive and that led Israel’s post-independence years is merely a fringe party currently.

    Mofaz openly discussed as defense minister that military action would be taken against Iran’s nuclear program – and did nothing.

    Thomas Friedman, in his award-winning book From Beirut to Jerusalem, indicated that the cynical segment of the Israeli electorate must be satisfied before any candidate for prime minister has a shot at winning an election. Israeli security is paramount to those cynics. I do not believe that situation has changed.

  5. I recently attended a large Israel Bonds event. Between awards to significant contributors and active members of the local community were numerous multimedia bits on what the Bonds funding means to Israel. Light rail and roads and schools and huge, successful desalinization plants and other infrastructure improvements, of the type that are dead in the water here, funded by bond purchases that according to the program’s website are very popular with even many US state governments here. Since they are backed by the full faith and credit of Israel, which in turn is backed by the full faith and credit of the US. And with that kind of backing, they have never defaulted on interest or principal, and pay an attractive (in the present market) “spread” above what US treasuries pay

    As noted elsewhere here, the Israeli government, and most significantly the military, receives a major and always-growing subsidy from “Uncle Sucker’s” treasury every year, freeing the very successful and innovative Israeli economy to be ever more aggressive and front-line in the Flat World competition. link to (The same issue of Ha’aretz had this interesting little “untrustworthy unsubstantiated internet article on Mossad meddling in Iran: link to )

    Here’s part of the statement by the incoming director of the fund:

    Finally, Israel bonds are a heartfelt means of building a better Israel. There is an emotional element to this investment that cannot, and should not, be ignored. In fact, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin recently said Congress carefully watches the level of bond sales as a key indicator of American Jewish support for Israel and acts accordingly. It can also be assumed that Middle East regimes that consider themselves still in conflict with Israel, as well as those organizations that are boycotting Israel’s goods and services, understand that with the capital-raising capabilities of the Bonds organization, Israel remains not only militarily secure, but safe and sound on the economic front as well.

    link to Might I encourage the reader to link up and read the whole statement? It’s got a lot of food for thought.

    The main speaker added multiple remarks about the great things that all this money, a billion and more a year, means to Israel. Almost all of the marvelous commercial successes he mentioned were by various startups and small companies who are developing ever more lethal, agile and weird weapons, or the various systems that support the further militarization of that economy, which makes a pretty good chunk of the NGDP selling weapons and technology here, there and everywhere.

    No ruling elite in the world has clean hands when it comes to killing real security of persons and places in the name of “protecting” security by imposing “security states” backed by militarized industrial, economic and social structures. It just seems a little odd that a national military that once prided itself on “purity of arms” has found the wherewithal to become what it is today, and will morph into tomorrow. And it’s even odder that “we” here in America should find our ship of state being piloted, remotely, drone-like, by people in trailers on various “bases” in Israel.

    Is it just me, or is all this “activity” just pretty much totally death-wish-y insane? And the best that we humans can do?

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