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Friday, September 16, 2011
Is Israel Over?
No longer the liberal, democratic, egalitarian society it once
was, Israel is fighting the Arabs—and itself.
By Benny Morris
Thousands gather to protest the cost of living in Israel at a protest in Jerusalem on Sept. 3, 2011 (AP)
is under assault. On Sept. 20 the Palestinian Authority plans to unilaterally
declare statehood and go to the United Nations for recognition. This is a
rejection of all efforts for a peaceful compromise. In its wake will come waves
of Palestinian violence. And yet this is just the latest manifestation of an
embattled Israel that is being threatened from the outside—by Muslim Arab states
and societies, Egyptians storming the Israeli Embassy, a nuclear-arming Iran
(with its local sidekicks, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hizbullah in Lebanon), and
a besieged President Bashar al-Assad in Syria—and from the inside by domestic
upheaval that led to the largest mass protests in the country’s history.
than 50 years ago, Israel’s leaders, headed by David Ben-Gurion, believed and
hoped that they were creating a social democracy, with all the requisite
egalitarian accoutrements (socialized national health care, progressive income
tax, child benefits, subsidized cheap housing). Ben-Gurion, who owned almost
nothing and retired to a primitive hut in the Negev Desert, typified the
austere lifestyle, and greatness, of the state’s founders.
is no longer Israel. A profound, internal, existential crisis has arrived. It
stems in part from the changing nature of the country, more right wing, more
restrictive, far less liberal, and far less egalitarian. Many moderate Israelis
fear the country is heading for ruin. Indeed, the country’s ruling class,
including Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors Ehud Olmert (now on trial for
corruption) and Ehud Barak (a former head of the Labor Party and current
defense minister), live in opulence, and the feeling is that they are out of
touch with reality. In Tel Aviv, where some 350,000 gathered in protest, a
widespread chant, set to a popular children’s ditty, was “Bibi has three
apartments, which is why we have none.”
cities popped up as the demonstrators—20- to 45-year-olds, with a healthy
contingent of older people—rallied against nonprogressive taxation, low wages,
and the high cost of housing and consumer goods, which have made it nigh
impossible for families to make ends meet. A full 20 percent of Israelis (and
15 percent of Israeli Jews) live under the poverty line, and the top decile of
Israel’s population earns 31 percent of the country’s total net income. The
lowest decile earns a mere 1.6 percent. Last year Israel was elected to
membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a
group of the world’s 32 most-developed countries. Among them, Israel ranks as
one of the worst (alongside Mexico and the United States) in terms of wealth polarization.
suffers from a steady brain drain, with tens of thousands of university
graduates and wannabe academics moving abroad for lack of adequate positions or
pay. Berlin has a community of more than 10,000 young Israelis, many of them
working in the arts, who found creativity in Israel impossible. In a recent
interview, one film director said that in Israel her energies were spent on
making commercials and fashion trivia in order to subsist; Berlin enabled her
to pursue her passion. In Tel Aviv, kindergartens charge $700 to $1,000 per
child per month; in Berlin, the cost is $120; a kilo of cucumbers costs $1 in
Tel Aviv, half that in Berlin.
the 1950s, Israel was an under-developed country filled with ideologically
motivated Zionists willing to sacrifice for the collective good. Today’s Israel
has a burgeoning economy, driven by sophisticated and internationally
competitive high-tech industries, and a population driven mainly by individuals
who want the good life. They see that too much of the national pie goes both to
the West Bank settlers (who tend to be religious and ultranationalist) and to
the ultra-Orthodox (who contribute almost nothing to the economy and avoid
mandatory military service).
this hard-core contingent is making babies at a rapid clip; they tend to have
five to eight children per family, versus two to three children in secular
homes. This gives them disproportionate clout in Parliament. And that
translates into political power—and economic benefits. (Paradoxically, the
ultra-Orthodox remain the poorest sector in Israeli Jewish society, mainly
because most of them don’t work.)
other side of the coin: Israel’s own Arab minority is emerging as a potential
major problem, too. The Israeli Arab landscape is increasingly dominated by
minarets and veiled women; and its leaders, identifying with their Palestinian
cousins outside, vociferously call for Israel to shed its character as a
“Jewish state” and give its Arab citizens collective minority rights and
perhaps some form of autonomy.
is a deeply troubled democracy. A democracy it still is, for its citizens—both
Jewish and Arab. But Israel is no democracy when it comes to the semi-occupied
2.5 million Arabs of the West Bank and the 1.5 million semi-besieged Arabs of
the Gaza Strip. And all this is now congealing.
the West Bank and Gaza were conquered in 1967, successive Israeli governments
have failed to fully withdraw from them, either unilaterally or with a peace
deal. The Arabs may have been largely at fault—in 2000 Palestinian leader Yasir
Arafat turned down an Israeli offer to withdraw from 95 percent of the West
Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip—but Israel retains its stranglehold over
these people and continues to expand its settlement enterprise.
there looms the even greater threat of resurgent Islam, not just within
Israel’s borders or the Palestinian territories, but across the region, where
it is spreading like a brushfire. Many in the West have taken heart from the
so-called Arab Spring, viewing the upheavals as heralds of democratic
transformation. Israelis are less optimistic. The Islamist message that is
coming out of Ankara, and moving to center stage in Cairo, includes a hard core
of anti-Zionism usually accompanied by anti-Semitic overtones. (Egypt’s deposed
president Hosni Mubarak is now denounced as a “stooge of the Zionists.” A photo
of Netanyahu, dressed in an SS uniform, with a Hitler mustache, making the Nazi
salute, appeared on the cover of the popular Egyptian weekly October on Aug.
28. Inside, the journal carried an article called “The New Nazis”—and it isn’t
even an Islamist publication.)
is creating a series of bureaucratic salves for the country’s economic ills.
But they will be swamped, and rendered irrelevant, in the tide of Palestinian
activism and anti-Zionism that will be set off by the Palestinian statehood
bid. It will then trigger shock waves around the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Months ago, Ehud Barak predicted that Israel will face a “political tsunami.”
Here it comes.
-This commentary was published in The Newsweek on 11/09/2011
-Benny Morris is an Israeli historian