Workers' Liberty #68


The Right loses ground in Israel

Eric Lee argues that the long view of Israeli politics shows a peace camp in historic ascent, a religious block in historic decline, and a deeply divided and weakened far Right.

THE editors asked me to contribute my views on 'Jewish fundamentalism' in Israel in parallel to a discussion on Islamic fundamentalism. The very invitation to do such an article - though it was certainly well intentioned - is part of the problem with the British and international left when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The problem is simply this: there is no symmetry here, no rise of 'fundamentalisms' on both sides of this long and tragic conflict.

There is a tendency here in Europe among well-meaning people to look down upon the peoples of the Middle East with their endless fighting, believing that there is no rhyme or reason to it all, blaming it all on obscure religious beliefs. We all see on television pictures of extremist religious Islamic leaders, sending off their teenage fighters to martyrdom and therefore we assume that there must be a similar phenomenon on the other side. After all, this is a tribal conflict, right?

But of course there is no such symmetry. An important part of understanding what is happening in the Middle East is grasping its utterly asymmetric character. Not Islamic fundamentalism versus Jewish fundamentalism, not racist Arab chauvinism against racist Jewish chauvinism, but something entirely different.

The mainstream left here in the UK is absolutely convinced of the asymmetric character of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the Jews are completely in the wrong, the Arabs completely in the right. This is not a caricature of the position of most left-wing groups in Britain and elsewhere; it is a fair restatement of their views. (I'm acutely aware of this because every time there is bloodshed in the Middle East, I get the invariable email messages denouncing me for having been born to the wrong ethnic group.)

But back to the region: the most elementary lack of symmetry we notice is, of course, in the social and economic sphere.

While unemployment in Israel remains high (by European standards), and the income gap between rich and poor is growing (as it is in most capitalist societies), by and large Israel is a fully developed capitalist country with a European standard of living. The basic civil and political liberties we enjoy in most capitalist countries are enjoyed there - at least for the Jewish majority. And the Jewish people in Israel have secured something which the Palestinians only dream about: national self-determination.

The Palestinians live under conditions of extreme poverty and, to make matters worse, suffer under a political dictatorship by a corrupt and ruthless Fatah-led regime. And instead of an independent Palestinian state, they live - still, seven years after Oslo - under Israeli military occupation.

The economic and social conditions under which the Palestinians live breed such things as religious fundamentalism. The economic and social conditions under which the Israelis live do not.

I should add that it is not only their economic and social suffering which breeds fundamentalism among the Palestinians; it is also the persistent failure over decades to secure their basic national and civil rights. There is nothing like living under military occupation for a generation or two to create the kind of frustration in which religious fundamentalism can thrive.

Of course there are some Israeli Jews who share certain of the extreme views of the Islamic fundamentalists, including a willingness to sacrifice their lives in suicidal terrorist attacks. The case of American-born Hebron settler Baruch Goldstein comes readily to mind. But in more closely examining these extremely rare cases of symmetry, the actual asymmetry becomes all the clearer.

The suicide bombers are nearly universally acclaimed by Palestinian society to be martyrs. Yet the overwhelming majority of Israelis were sickened by Goldstein's machine gunning of Muslims in one of their holiest sites.

Looking at the 'rise of fundamentalism' in both societies, Israeli Jewish and Arab Palestinian, it becomes clear that the very term 'rise' hardly applies equally to both. Among the Palestinians, so long as the occupation continues, so long as their economic suffering persists, it is entirely reasonable to expect fundamentalist groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to grow. And this is precisely what has been happening for decades.

Among the Israelis, exhausted by decades of conflict, their economy booming (especially the high-tech sector), and their long isolation within the other countries in the region having ended, there has been a prolonged decline of the extreme Right.

That Right, it may be recalled, first came to power in 1977 under the leadership of Menachem Begin, toppling over a half-century of Labour Party rule (which extended back to the pre-State period). From that moment on, it has been downhill all the way.

In the great battles between the moderate and extreme Right over the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in the wake of the Camp David peace accord, the extreme Right was soundly defeated. By the mid-1980s, the Right had lost its parliamentary majority and had to share power on and off with Labour. By 1991, the Rightist government - then headed by Yitzhak Shamir - was compelled against its will to enter into a US-sponsored international peace conference. A year later, it was out of power. And a year after that, in 1993, the unthinkable happened and Israel was engaged in open negotiations with Arafat and the PLO. The hard core of the Israeli Right continued to splinter even during the Netanyahu years, and by the 1999 elections its core - the Likud party - was a shadow of its former self, falling from 32 to 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's parliament, winning barely 15% of the votes cast.

In that election we should remember that there was a massive swing to the Left - a fact often ignored in today's accounts of Barak's parliamentary 'weakness'. While it is true that Barak's own core party, now renamed 'One Israel', holds only 26 seats itself, the parties to its Left on the Palestinian question (Meretz, the Communists, and two Arab parties) have another 20 seats. In addition, the militantly secular Shinui party, the dovish Merkaz party, and Histadrut head Amir Peretz's workers party added another 14 seats to the parliamentary Left, bringing the total to 60. Presuming that none of those parties would throw their support behind a Sharon-Netanyahu government, that means that a rightist government is impossible under the present Knesset. In addition to those 60 seats, Barak is able to call upon the relatively dovish Shas party with its 17 seats, as he has done now, to guarantee that his government doesn't fall from power.

The long historic trend in Israel, over decades, has been a strengthening of the voices of moderation, of those prepared to exchange ever-larger blocks of territory for peace. What was once unthinkable - such as ceding the Golan Heights to Syria, or dividing Jerusalem and sharing it with the Palestinians - is now government policy. Ideas that once got Israeli peace activists like Abie Nathan thrown into prison are now widely accepted and bear the seal of approval of Ehud Barak's government.

But what of the religious forces in Israel? After all, one sees endless images in the media of traditionally-clad Jews praying at the Western Wall, demonstrating against peace, and so on. There can be no doubt about it - the foreign media finds black hats and long black coats sexier than the costumes worn by the overwhelming majority of Israelis.

But the fact remains that historically, the religious parties have never been more than a well-organised minority in Israel, sometimes holding the balance of power and sometimes not. (Back in 1948, when David Ben Gurion set up the first Israeli government, he unnecessarily brought in the National Religious Party - and left out the Marxists of Mapam, the United Workers Party.)

Though the religious parties - which have been weakened over time by numerous splits - have had their ups and downs at the polls, they remain a minority. The majority of Israelis continue to vote for traditional parties of the right, left and centre. (The religious parties today control only 27 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.) The Israeli majority drive their cars on the Sabbath day, do not wear skullcaps, and have been known to eat non-kosher foods.

The very high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox Jews led some to worry that over time they would emerge as a significant demographic force, but the massive wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union has put a stop to all those fears. The overwhelming majority of those new immigrants are non-religious.

(I actually did once meet an ultra-Orthodox Russian immigrant who was living in a West Bank Jewish settlement. Surprised at this, I asked him what he did back in the USSR. 'I taught dialectical materialism at a Party school,' he told me. Makes sense.)

Those Russian immigrants have cast their votes for a wide range of parties, including specifically immigrant parties (which now control 10 seats in the Knesset), and their votes were credited in 1992 with having brought Yitzhak Rabin and the Labour Party to power. They have also created a major cultural shift in Israel. Not only are Russian language newspapers now available everywhere, but non-kosher butcher shops selling pork products have also opened around the country. (You could always buy pork from one of the left-wing kibbutzim, but now you can buy it everywhere.)

The religious parties, and in particular Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jewish party which split in the 1980s from the traditional non-Zionist religious block (Agudat Yisrael), do not feel as if they are on the rise. To the contrary, they feel under attack by a country they see as growing ever-more secular. Shas, it should be pointed out, is not at all extreme on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Its 'spiritual leader' has long supported the exchange of land for peace and it was his support for the Oslo accord that gave Rabin the parliamentary backing he needed to move the peace process forward.

Despite their own weakness, the religious parties have tended to use every opportunity when in government - particularly during the Netanyahu years - to extort every last penny out of the treasury's coffers. They have also tried - with notable lack of success - to impose Iranian-style religious laws on the country. In so doing, they have triggered an extraordinary development in Israel that became clear in the 1999 elections: an anti-religious, militantly secular backlash. The Shinui party, headed by journalist and TV celebrity Tommy Lapid, managed to win a surprisingly large number of seats (six) in the Knesset on a one-issue anti-religious campaign.

The picture I'm painting of Israeli society may seem to be an excessively optimistic one. I see a peace camp in historic ascent, a religious block in historic decline, and a deeply divided and weakened far Right. I can also see the possibility - further down the line - of a normalisation of Israeli politics in which class, rather than ethnicity, religious beliefs, or one's views on security matters, plays a central role. Only in such an Israel can there be room for a Left in the proper sense of the word.

I stand by that view, even as we now see the possibility of a return to power by the far Right in the wake of the new Palestinian intifada.

The long-term historic trend in Israel does indeed point in a positive direction - but in the short term, the decision by Arafat and the Fatah leadership to support the uprising and abandon the peace process will have disastrous consequences on the Israeli political scene.

By rejecting Barak's Camp David offer of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem - an offer that would have been inconceivable only a few months ago - Arafat has been able to partially revive both the Israeli far Right and the parasitic religious parties which thrive on it. That partial revival may yet turn out to be robust enough to sustain another right-wing government in Israel, possibly headed once again by Binyamin Netanyahu, which would be disastrous for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Such a regime would set back the cause of peace by many years - and would almost certainly result in more bloodshed and wars - but in the end, the Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to come back to the negotiating table and discuss the terms of a settlement. This is something that the Israeli public has by and large accommodated itself to. It is now the Palestinians' turn to learn that there is no alternative to peace.

Back to the contents page for this issue of Workers' Liberty

Back to the Workers' Liberty magazine index

[ Home | Publications | Links ]