Shooting down the good life myth in Israel

The Israeli Summer explodes the idea that Israelis are too busy lounging on beaches to care about politics.

Yoni Eshpar

Topics World

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Is it possible to promote a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by not saying anything about it? This summer’s social protests in Israel – which culminated in the ‘half million march’ last Saturday – proved that it is. The protesters, who have focused on social inequality rather than the Middle East conflict, have ended up dispelling the popular myth that the peace process is stuck because the Israeli middle class is simply too busy living the good life.

The good life myth was born in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. The nearly wall-to-wall popular support enjoyed by the Israeli army in its exceptional display of force on the Gaza Strip led many around the world to wonder where the once-robust ‘peace camp’ of the Israeli left had disappeared to. The fact that Israel’s economy was demonstrating impressive resilience to the global economic crisis provided an attractive, simple answer: the country’s ‘overwhelming prosperity’ and ‘triumphant capitalism’ made the status quo simply too comfortable for Israelis to bother about doing anything to change it.

Tel Avivis’ ‘don’t care about peace’, a ‘detached elite’ that is generally apathetic to politics. One Israeli economist concluded that the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip continues because ‘Israeli society is a decadent society in an unstoppable decline, resistant to internal calls for reform and politically paralysed from within’.

The underlying implication of all this analysis was obvious. External pressure, through boycotts and sanctions, is the only way to shut down this wild party and turn on the lights. Some, perhaps, are looking at the present protests, which started as a campaign against the high cost of living, as further proof that Israelis rise up and demand change only when they feel the pain in their own personal pockets. This interpretation of events, however, is just as misleading as the hype of the ‘good life’ on which it is founded.

The hundreds of thousands of protesters have gone out onto the streets to expose the daily hardships they have been experiencing while the impressive macroeconomic indicators were being celebrated. This Saturday alone, 450,000 people – roughly six per cent of Israel’s population – took to the streets. Since 2004, Israel’s GDP has maintained (with the exception of 2009) staggering annual growth rates of around five per cent, as unemployment declined, recently reaching an all-time low of five and a half per cent. However, the promise of the good life that came with the ‘economic miracle’ and ‘start-up nation’ rhetoric remained unfulfilled for the vast majority. The cost of living rocketed in comparison to average income levels, driving more people below the poverty line and deepening social inequalities. Two out of five Israelis testify that they find it difficult or very difficult to live on their current income.

However, the main driving forces behind the recent unprecedented displays of public protest were not economic pressures and personal frustrations. Those have been around for years. What got the masses up from their sofas was the sudden burst of hope that things could be different, that there might be a way out.

Hope, in Israel as elsewhere, is the strongest trigger for mass political mobilisation. Hopelessness paralyses it. That is why most of these protesters are reluctant to include ending the occupation in their demands for change. Why would they sacrifice this rare moment of optimistic euphoria for something they have become deeply pessimistic about – a cause they deem hopeless?

It was this profound hopelessness regarding the possibility of a peaceful end to the conflict that the propagators of the good-life myth preferred to ignore or failed to understand. Since the collapse of the peace process in 2000 it became common for Israelis who supported it to treat the occupation as if it were a horn on their forehead. It is seen as something ugly and shameful, but its removal – or so the experts say – is highly likely to be fatal. Stuck with a Catch 22 like that, you quickly learn that it’s better to try not to think about it.

A comprehensive two-state peace agreement is still the most desired end-game for the secular middle class, but they no longer believe it to be possible. This is mainly due to what they perceive as an irreconcilable contradiction between the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and the right of national self-determination of Israeli Jews. Each side refuses to recognise the other’s right while declaring its own as non-negotiable.

The alternatives to peace, unilateral withdrawals, gave in the eyes of many Israelis a dangerous political and strategic advantage to radical militants on the other side – namely Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Finally, the traditional right-wing idea of ending the occupation by annexing the territories would turn Jews into a minority in Israel, and so this option is something few, even on the right, are willing even to consider today.

The death of the good-life myth opens the way for a clearer understanding of the current impasse. The status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians is preferred not because the Israelis are lost in hedonistic pleasures, but because nearly all faith has been lost in an alternative that is both attainable and sufficiently safe. What are therefore needed, in order to break the deadlock, are not new forms of external pressure but new ideas that can challenge the zero-sum rules of the game.

This summer, swathes of Israelis proved that they have not lost the instinct to respond to the call of hope when it is sound. They also proved that such a hope does not have to come down from big leaders with big plans, but can come from below, through an intoxicating competition of ideas over visions for a better, different future. In this, they have joined their equivalents in other countries in the region to prove that there is a new generation of Middle Easterners who, armed with determination, technology and a firm commitment to democracy, have all it takes to show their detached political classes and all the experts in the world the way forward.

Yoni Eshpar is director of the public department at Gisha, an Israeli human-rights organisation.

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