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The myth of a united Israel

In their theorising about Israel's war in Lebanon, Western commentators missed an important point: Israel is a fractured and divided society.

Guy Rundle

Topics Politics

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Various theories have been put forward to explain why Israel attacked Lebanon. For some, Israel was protecting itself against ‘Islamofascists’, while for others Israel was acting as the attack dog for American interests in the Middle East. What these views have in common is the idea that Israel is a singular, unitary entity, its common will expressed outwards into the world. For many participants in the debate, it seems that Israel is that strangest of countries: a land without an interior, a political point particle.

The truth – as even a cursory glance at the Israeli press will reveal – is rather different. Indeed, there seems to be another war going on, inside Israel itself. Political change in Israel has brought conflict between both political parties and the dominant social institutions to the fore. The overwhelming public support in Israel for the war against Hezbollah was not an element that pre-existed the conflict, upon which the decision to go to war was based; rather, that support was summoned up by the inauguration of the conflict itself, and it is increasingly turning into bitterness and suspicion as anything that looks like ‘victory’ fails to arrive. And a pretty significant minority in Israel believe that the meaningless and futile character of this latest war provided a reflection of the fundamental loss of direction within Israel itself.

Left-leaning politician and commentator Yossi Sarid argues that this was not even a war. It was, he believes, the second in a series of pseudo-conflicts, the first being the occupation of the territories, which has lulled the Israel Defence Force (IDF) into acting like a foreign legion. The latest conflict was against a small guerrilla force which projects an image of being an army. Furthermore, the continuous mantra of unity reveals something else, says Sarid: ‘We will win. The campaign slogan that has become a popular bumper sticker. The sentence is groundless….it is supposed to instil confidence in the public, but demonstrates the opposite.’

For Sarid, the repeated praise of the general public’s ‘resilience’ by the political/military elite has a patronising air that disguises a contempt for the Israeli masses: ‘If the Israeli public’s “resilience” and “firm spirit” were praised just once or twice, it would be one thing; it would be bearable. But words of praise cascade down on us…it makes you want to vomit.… [T]he political and military system adopted a “working assumption”, according to which the Israeli people are no more than rabble; that is why they are so surprised [by our apparent resilience].’

Commentator Daniel Ben Simon argues that the gap between those suffering rocket attacks in northern Israel and the ruling elite has been made visible to all by the war: ‘This war has created a clear class rift: those with the means to flee or the relatives to help them rushed to do so. The unfortunate ones are those left behind, crowded into shelters in disgraceful conditions…. A lukewarm conclusion to the war is liable to elicit a stormy reaction among hundreds of thousands of Israelis.’

Ben Simon believes that the war may have been launched as a distraction – not from Iraq, but from the fact that the two political parties Kadimah and Labour have failed to honour their commitment to many of the north’s poor: ‘Until the war broke out, dozens of local authorities in the north were still desperately fighting to pay the salaries of municipal workers. Only this week, thanks to the war, did workers at the Kiryat Shmona municipality get paid. Community centre employees have been waiting four months for their salaries. In Hatzor Haglilit, workers at the religious council have not been paid for more than a year…. This does not even take into account the drastic cuts to social welfare payments.’

Ha’aretz journalist Lily Galili makes a link between the endless praise of Israel’s populace and the economic deprivation identified by Ben Simon: ‘Cabinet ministers and Israel Defence Force commanders praise the “home front”.… But to tell the truth, we have had enough. We have had it up to here with hearing how strong we are, how heroic, how much we can and are prepared to take. The feeling is growing that these words of praise are nothing but a way of passing responsibility to “the people”, which is being manipulatively used.’

Reporter Ruth Sinai makes a more serious charge: that for the political/military elite the people are simply an element in the war rather than a civilian population. Consequently, it was inevitable that ‘interior minister Roni Bar-On [would say] this week in Kiryat Shmona that every city worker in the north who leaves their town or city is a deserter and therefore will not be paid.’

The most direct criticism of all came from Roy Wagner in the Jerusalem Post. He argued that the IDF and Hezbollah have become mutually defining autonomous military outfits, who retrospectively try to conjure up a legitimacy from populations they purport to defend but have no substantial relationship with.

In the West’s coverage of Israel, we hear much from the state’s defenders – whose rhetoric about a ‘fascistic’ enemy threatening Israel’s existence becomes more strident by the day – and we also hear from Israel’s internal crtics, such as Gideon Levy, who summon up the equally apocalyptic image of a corrupted and fallen Israeli state. But we do not get a glimpse of Israel as a fractured and conflictual society; that is a far too complex and demythologising reality for either side of the debate to slot into their easy narratives. Instead, both sides conjure up an image of a unified and purposeful Israel, which serves to bolster their own political frameworks and positions.

However, Israel’s attack on Lebanon looks more like the projection, not of Great Power interests, but of Israel’s own petty institutional and party politics.

The war came at a time when Israeli politics has been undergoing fundamental change, and when all of Israel’s major parties are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. Israel has always been a multiparty, coalition-based system, but until the emergence of Kadimah, the movement of its major right-wing bloc was towards consolidation. While Labour has been solid since before 1948, the formation of Likud in the 1970s was the culmination of a long process of small party consolidation, from what began as the Herut party in 1978. The Kadimah split marked a reversal of this process, since it was formed not around a principle, but around a limited strategy – selective withdrawal from the West Bank – and around the dominant personality of Ariel Sharon. And Sharon is not just any personality: he was the last great link with 1948, and the war that had preceded it. His sudden departure from the scene, after he suffered a stroke, thus created a double vacuum at the heart of the party he founded.

The coincident emergence of the Pensioners’ Party marked a similar splitting in Israel’s hitherto generalised commitment to social democracy. But the Pensioners’ Party is not like the usual small Israeli party formed around an ethnic group or a religious sect; rather, it is built on little more than a series of limited and instrumental demands. It is a de-transcendentalised politics, in a country formed around a potent myth of political/religious/ethnic self-deliverance.

The war against Hezbollah has thus allowed for a quick reconsolidation of Israeli politics; indeed, one of the war’s goals is to convert Kadimah from a peace party into a war one, and thus establish it as the natural successor to Likud, pushing that party to wither at the margins. The war has also brought the Labour party into a war cabinet, with former peacenik Labour leader Amir Peretz now ordained as one of the country’s 29 or so defence ministers. With a series of hollowed-out political parties, Israel’s political elite has to reverse-engineer the public collective feeling that existed when there was a more organic and dynamic relation between society and party.

Part of the problem has been the cultural change in Israel, as notions of collective defence grounded in the guerrilla war of independence and the kibbutz movement have become attenuated by the decline of the latter and the rise of a technology-dominated IDF. It is the inevitable professionalisation of such a force that has driven a wedge between society and military, and – according to Israeli commentators from across the spectrum – transformed the IDF into an arrogant and self-serving force, guilty of supplying the government with a glib assessment of the likely course of the war and of being more concerned with its institutional privileges within Israeli society than with the defence of the country as a whole. Many have remarked on the fact that the current chief-of-staff is an air force man, rather than an army man, which is increasingly taken as a sign that the IDF is an out-of-touch hierarchy.

What all these factors indicate is that Israel is a modernised country, much like Western ones, grappling with the same profound cultural dilemmas involved in passing into a new era in which traditional political frameworks have been fatally undermined. At the start of the current conflict, Shimon Peres remarked to an interviewer that, as there was no superpower presence in the immediate region, Israel would have to be the superpower. It has achieved that as superpowers do – by projecting its internal dilemmas on to an international canvas. Yet Israel is the one party that everyone is relying upon to be unitary in purpose. To admit that its war is as confused, self-deluded and unreflected upon as any other in recent years, would be to threaten much more than the callous blunderings in south Lebanon.

Guy Rundle is European editor of the Australian magazine Arena.

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Topics Politics

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