Israel at fifty

Print edition : May 09, 1998

The challenge before Israel in the 50th year of its existence is to discover a formula to resolve the divisions within and a norm that will guide its relations with its neighbours and the wider world.

WHEN India observed the 50th anniversary of its Independence, the overall mood was one of concerned introspection. Much the same kind of mood appears to be gripping another country, Israel, which proclaimed its new existence and independence barely months after India did so. If this movement from a mood of triumph to one of introspection parallels the Indian experience, the fact that the rest of the world is paying far more attention to Israel's independence anniversary than it did to India's encapsulates the West Asian nation's greater success in the game of global politics.

Many reasons could be adduced for Israel's success in keeping itself at the centre of international attention. A number of these are extraneous to Israel's own efforts. The Western world's horror at the Holocaust and sense of guilt for centuries of oppression against the Jews are the major factors behind the benevolence with which the people in the West (and, following their example, many more in other parts of the world) have treated the Zionist experiment. Israel's status as an outpost of the West in a region that is turbulent, underdeveloped in several respects and yet contains elements that can define the global strategic picture has been another major contributory factor.

There are also factors intrinsic to the Israeli experience that have enabled it to loom as a much larger player on the international stage than its size should have entitled it to. Considered in their individual aspects, each of these factors makes an interesting story - something worthy of attention - of its own. Israel represents the world Jewry's triumph in emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust and centuries of dispersion and persecution. The great fighting skill and spirit of the re-minted Hebrew warrior has captivated the imagination of the world several times. Although its own intrinsic produce does not wholly justify such a reputation, Israel has appeared to symbolise the concentration of the Judaic intellect, which has enabled this civilisation to notch up so many triumphs in the spheres of science, arts and commerce.

GOING back to a comparison of India and Israel, it could be said that the sheer mind-boggling scale of the Indian experiment should have entitled India to a greater measure of respect than it has been accorded. But whiners get few points in international affairs. What stands out in the comparative analysis is the single-mindedness and skill with which Israeli state-builders have not only made their country an object of respect but used it to bend international forces to suit their requirements. Whether it was the United States Congress or administration, the European Union or the former Soviet Union, the Arabs or others in the neighbourhood, Israel just never appears to have allowed the other side to hold the initiative for too long, if at all.

Laser beams light up the sky over Jerusalem's Old City and the Dome of the Rock on April 29, the 50th anniversary of Israel's Independence.-DAVID SILVERMAN/REUTERS

Israel is perhaps the most self-obsessed country in the world and this has surely contributed to its strength in the past. But with the onset of middle age blues there are many people, including those in Israel, who wonder whether this self-obsession could also not be a crippling weakness. Too much of the national energy has been spent on making the world give Israel what it thinks it deserves, or thinks it can get, and not on what it can contribute. This is not just a matter of philanthropy. There still seems to be a dominant element in the collective Israeli mind-set that rebels against the notion of working with others to advance common goals and this stunts the country's international persona and, therefore, its performance.

This basic attitude manifests itself in the Israeli approach to the negotiations with its neighbours - negotiations that are meant, besides everything else, to define and settle Israel's place in the neighbourhood. Opinion polls have consistently shown that an overwhelming majority of Israelis want to live in peace with the Arabs and that majority opinion, though on a declining scale, also accepts the principle of "land for peace" and the Oslo-defined processes. A few Israeli leaders - like Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin - have shown the courage to carry forward the logic of the majority opinion and envisaged a future where Israel will be fully integrated into a regional partnership. But their very articulation of such views has earned them the appellation of "wimp" and thereby crippled their effectiveness.

The obsessive concern with their own interests and their own methods also manifests itself in unrealistic expectations with regard to security. Israel is by far the pre-eminent power in the West Asian region and its strategic connections, no less than the genius and versatility of its people, should enable it to retain this position for the foreseeable future. Military analysts, almost without exception, state that Israel has gone beyond the stage where it needs to doubt its capacity to continue to exist as a nation. Yet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still expresses the view that a Palestinian state is unacceptable since that would be tantamount to the creation of an "Iraq or Iran" on Israel's borders. (The implicit message is that a Palestinian state could, like Iraq or Iran, be strong enough to threaten Israel's existence - a belief that is contrary to the view of most experts that none of these states will be able to extinguish Israel's existence.)

Similar is the attitude of the Israeli state towards the security of its citizens. Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority have not observed all the procedural prescriptions that were evolved through mutual agreement and designed to prevent militant attacks on Israeli citizens. But their intentions should be tested by their effectiveness in containing militancy and not by the methods that they have applied. Even when Israeli generals, who surely know better, have grudgingly acknowledged the Palestinian efforts in this regard the political leadership has refused to do so. Perhaps the Israeli Cabinet believes that such acknowledgement will weaken the country's negotiating capacity; however, their orneriness also gives the impression that they seek the impossible dream of hundred per cent immunity from militant activity. On the basis of this impression it could be said that Israel has set such an impossible test only to provide itself with a justification for refusing to come to an agreement with the Palestinians, which, among other things, will restore their land to them.

The hype about the sanctity of every single Israeli life appears to be having its effect on morale. It certainly appears to be the case that Israel's will to continue its occupation of southern Lebanon until it gets the settlement it wants is getting sapped by the slow but steady loss of life on account of this attritional conflict. Mothers of soldiers serving in Lebanon are in the forefront of the political drive for a settlement with Lebanon. (Thanks to cellular telephones, these soldiers are in daily contact with their families.) Since the Lebanese are unlikely to make a deal until Israel settles the Golan Heights dispute with Syria, this steady loss of morale could have an impact on Israel's options vis-a-vis Damascus.

The weakening of the Zionist/nationalist ardour is manifest in another crucial area. Different segments of Israeli society have obtained exemptions from the two-year military service which was once compulsory for most school-leavers of both sexes. On account of these exemptions, only about half the potential conscripts are being taken on the rolls. While this has not seriously affected Israel's fighting ability as yet, it has implications for the wider society. Since the birth of Israel, actually even earlier, the military was the great finishing school for Israeli youth - the academy where youth from diverse linguistic, ethnic and even nationalistic backgrounds were moulded into Israeli citizens through quite a remarkable exercise in social engineering. Now many of the youth miss this experience.

It could have been thought that development in general education would have provided the mechanism for producing good Israeli citizens in the absence of military experience. However, there are five water-tight systems of education - for instance, a system for secular education, one for religious youth, one for the children of the kibbutz, and so on. Each system represents and serves the interests of a distinct segment of society. Since the struggle for the larger slice of the budget for education is an important part of the wider political struggle among the segments, its resolution, or the lack of it, serves as a bench-mark for the unity of Israeli society.

WHILE there is obviously much intermeshing and intermingling among these different segments, it is possible to identify the strands. There is first of all the Ashkenazi segment (consisting of European Jews), which has been the Israeli "establishment" from the beginning of the Zionist project and which provided the classic divide in Israeli politics. This classic divide pitched the Labour Zionists (who stood for a secular, socialist but still Jewish state) against the revisionists, who stood for nationalism pure and simple. The Labour Party has more or less abandoned socialism but the line of divide still survives (though now it is on the question of policies towards the Palestinians and the Arabs in general). While Labour presents itself as the more forward-looking and accommodative party, Likud (which is the ideological heir of revisionism) maintains that it is the more truly nationalist.

The classical division is still the most important one in Israeli society but a whole heap of other political formations have come forward on the Israeli political stage. Among these the religious formations could provide the most serious challenge to the evolution of the Israeli state and its ability to fit into the neighbourhood. While the religious groups had opposed the formation of the Jewish state, they have since been so alchemised by Israeli triumphalism that they now demand that the state occupy all the land that is mentioned in the Bible as Jewish. They also insist that Israel become a purer Jewish state where religious laws will have special sanctity.

Since many adherents of the religious formations neither participate in productive activity (many devote all their time to religious studies) nor contribute to the state's security, their insisting on ever larger slices of the economic cake creates a peculiar challenge. Their long-term potential for mischief is compounded by the fact that the population growth rate of the religious are much higher than that of the secular.

Outside the International Red Cross building in Gaza City on April 17, Palestinian women hold pictures of their relatives who are languishing in Israel jails.-ADEL HANA/AP

Interacting with the nationalist and religious camps, with a few offshoots to Labour but with a distinguishable agenda of their own, are the Sephardic Jews (Jews who are not of German or East Europeon origin). Believing that they were neglected and held in contempt by the Ashkenazi founders of the state, the Sephardim have carved out a political space for themselves. They are more opposed to Labour than to Likud, because Labour was in power at the time of their initial predicament and because the Sephardim tend to be devout. But the Sephardim are not entirely with the Likud either. Moreover, they have discovered their own political strength and have reason to believe that they can gain more from either of the two main formations by maintaining a distinct political identity.

The growth rates of the Sephardim are also high but their increasing relevance in Israel's politics could cut both ways. Since the earlier generation of Sephardic Jews came mainly from Muslim-majority Arab countries they are regarded as being more racially suspicious of and hostile to the Arabs. But their cultural values tend to be closer to those of the Arab world than to those of the West and, in the long run, this might provide the basis for a rapprochement.

A fourth important element consists of the 700,000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have yet to integrate into Israeli society and quite a number of whom may not even be Jews. They are currently absorbed in their efforts to find a place under the Israeli sun and have yet to define their positions on the wider issues before their country.

AS if the problems within the Jewish community were not enough, Israel has also to contend with its religious minorities. All Israeli citizens are promised equal treatment under the Constitution but the promise has never been truly fulfilled in the case of Israeli Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian. There are advantages for them in remaining in an Israel which is far more prosperous than in Jordan, Palestine or Lebanon - countries to which they could possibly transfer their allegiance - but it would be rare to find an Arab citizen of Israel who does not describe himself as a Palestinian. Two segments of Israel's Muslim community, the Bedouin and the Druze, had served the Jewish state, especially in the military, but their loyalties have recently been called into question and dissent is believed to be fermenting.

The challenges before Israel on its 50th birthday are both internal and external. It has to discover a formula to resolve the divisions within and a norm which will guide its relations with its neighbours and the wider world. Basically, perhaps, Israelis will have to decide what they want their country to become. And for that they have first of all to cease being so insular.

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