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The New Israel

This essay has been adapted from chapter 8 of Michel Warschawski’s Toward an Open Tomb: The Crisis of Israeli Society (Monthly Review Press, 2004), which presents an important dissident Israeli perspective that is rarely given a hearing in the United States. Warschawski is cofounder and director of the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in Jerusalem and a well-known anti-Zionist activist. He is also the author of Israel-Palestine: le défi binational (Textuel, 2001) and an award-winning memoir, On the Border (forthcoming from South End Press).

With the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin on November 4, 1995, a long interval of relative openness, liberalization, and attempts at peace and normal relations with the Arab world came to an end. By assassinating Rabin the Israeli right not only seized political power —including inside the Labor Party—but also drove the last nail in the coffin of a certain kind of Israel. That Israel gave way to a new kind of country, with its own particular values and, in the end, a new constitutional framework and set of institutions. How was the transformation to this new Israel accomplished?

The Central Electoral Commission had to disqualify a party list and two Arab Members of Knesset (MKs) before certain Israeli intellectuals, journalists, and legal experts began asking themselves whether Israel is still even the limited democracy it had been since its founding. The fact that Haim Baran or Uri Avnery ask the question and answer no is particularly significant. Both of them have seen themselves for years as Zionists and Israeli patriots. Baran is what Israelis call a “prince”: a son of the country’s first pioneers and leaders; Avnery is a hero of the 1948 war, a former MK and celebrated journalist. We are therefore hearing the feeling expressed at the heart of the old Israeli elite that what they thought they had created during Israel’s first decades is disappearing, perhaps for good. As Avnery writes:

Liberman, Orthodox leader Effi Eitam and other Likud leaders are in the vanguard of a fifth column that is laying siege to Israeli democracy. They have begun by inciting their followers to violence against Arab citizens and excluding Arabs from the political system. Now they are speaking of eliminating the “extreme left.” Can anyone doubt that their next demand will be to eliminate the whole left, however “moderate” or “patriotic”? Then, in keeping with other historical examples, it will be the turn of the Likud “liberals.” Am I being alarmist? Not really. High Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak has just compared Israel’s current situation, in the presence of Israel’s president, to Nazi Germany. A Holocaust survivor himself, Barak said, “If it could happen in the country of Kant and Beethoven, it can happen everywhere. If we don’t defend democracy, democracy will not defend us!” The Libermans are out to destroy the democracy we have built and create a Fascistan. (

A Fake Democracy

During the last three years we have seen many signs that the most basic democratic norms are disappearing. Arabs suspected of links with terrorism have had their Israeli citizenship taken away. Arab MKs have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity. Openly racist opinions, political programs and bills—particularly projects for ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories and of Israel itself—have gained legitimacy.

This development could take place quickly, without leading to a major crisis, because Israel has always had an idiosyncratic conception of democracy. Democracy for Israelis has always been restricted to two things: predominance of the majority over the minority by means of elections and the acts of the executive branch being based on laws adopted by a parliamentary majority (AIC Special Reports, winter 1986). This is obviously a rather meager conception of democracy, which completely neglects the concept of rights. Contrary to what has often been claimed, the fact that Israel has never had a constitution is not the sole responsibility of the religious parties. The real reason is that Zionist politicians have never been capable of writing a real democratic constitution, guaranteeing equality of all citizens and fundamental rights independent of the will of the majority. Israel has always been defined not only as a Jewish state (and democratic state, according to the hallowed formula) but also as a country in a state of emergency due to several decades of war. The state of emergency is so deeply rooted in Israeli political culture that neither peace with Egypt nor peace with Jordan nor the joint Declaration of Principles with the Palestinians has been able to put it in question.

We can go deeper into this problem of democracy in Israel. The abrupt passage in 1948 without any transition from Jewish settlement organizations to a state structure made it very hard for Israel to adopt “norms of governance.” Norms of governance are by definition different from the norms that political-military organizations use, which are not bound by any clearly defined code of laws. (Palestinians know something about this from their own experience today. They find it terribly difficult to move on from the way the PLO functioned to the way the Palestinian Authority should function, as an elected semi-state that is supposed to adopt democratic norms.) Fifty years after independence, the behavior of the State of Israel and its political class still reveals a certain slippage between the state, the ruling parties and the politicians, and between a binding legal framework and interests that cannot be contained in that framework. Corruption is one example, of course. But there are also political and military practices that violate the law but the executive branch considers necessary, such as the use of torture and extrajudicial executions.

The State of Israel resorts to two mechanisms to finesse these contradictions. The first is outright denial, which leads to veritable schizophrenia. We have witnessed this mechanism at work in the intelligence services, police, and public prosecutors’ systematic lies about the use of torture; their lies in court ultimately led to a serious institutional crisis and the formation of a national commission of inquiry. Another example: denying the existence of the Israeli nuclear arsenal has prevented establishing safeguards. According to international experts this has resulted in many technical incidents and made Israeli reactors the most dangerous in the world after Chernobyl-type reactors.

The second mechanism is the use of personalized legislation. What happens if the law (in fact a “fundamental law”) requires that candidates for the post of prime minister be members of the Knesset, but Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants to run, is not in the Knesset?* The fundamental law is amended so that Netanyahu can run. Another example: a former minister is in jail for corruption, a big campaign is waged for his release, and a law is adopted allowing certain prisoners to be released after serving half their sentences. Another: a fundamental law limits the size of the government to seventeen ministers, but Ehud Barak, in order to have the broadest possible coalition, has promised cabinet posts to about thirty politicians, and the fundamental law is changed.

Since laws—including laws with a constitutional character—can be changed to satisfy individual interests or the needs of the moment, why not just skip the process of lawmaking altogether? Shaul Mofaz, former head of the army high command, announced his candidacy for the Knesset last year although the “cooling-off period” required by law between his retirement and the elections had not yet expired. Mofaz’s argument before the Electoral Commission was almost refreshingly straightforward: if he had been paying attention, changing the law would have been no problem. The only reason the law wasn’t changed was pure forgetfulness. So let’s pretend it has been and stop wasting time.

The flexibility of laws is one corollary of the absence of a concept of rights in Israeli democracy. Even when rights are mentioned explicitly, as in the fundamental laws adopted during the years of the liberal interval, they are always conditional: “provided that no law exists to the contrary,” or “except in case of emergency,” or “if this does not contradict the Jewish character of the State of Israel.” In short, fundamental rights exist—like the principles of gender equality and equality between citizens of different faiths—unless the parliament has decided democratically, that is, by a simple parliamentary majority, to infringe them.

In Israel, no one has any rights just by being a citizen. Rights—the parliamentary immunity of Arab MKs; the right to run for office if you fail to meet certain political or ideological criteria (which can change whenever the parliamentary majority changes); the legal existence of a party whose program says that the notions of “Jewish state” and “democratic state” are mutually contradictory; the citizenship of Arabs who supposedly have ties with “terrorism,” etc.—can be abolished by majority vote. What could be more natural therefore than MK Avigdor Liberman’s party’s taking the next step and proposing in its election platform to strip Israelis who defame Israel of their nationality, explicitly mentioning rebellious soldiers and officers, former MK Uri Avnery and lawyer Lea Tsemel?

When a country has created borders that it has continually expanded in violation of every rule of international law; when the end, that is, the Jewish state, always justifies the means; then it should be no surprise that respecting Israel’s own rules turns out to be terribly difficult. Ordinary citizens follow the example of their leaders, who apply at home the same lack of rules that they have applied systematically in international relations. The impunity that Israel enjoys within the international community is not only a denial of justice to the victims of its permanent aggression; it is also one reason for the internal degeneration of Israeli society. “But why should I be the only one in this country who obeys the laws?” the racquetball player asks on the Haifa beach.

A New Political Class

That Israel’s political culture and practices have for years borne little resemblance to what is generally understood by democracy does not make the current degeneration any less real or terrifying. A recent example illustrates this. Twenty-five years ago Yitzhak Rabin had to resign as prime minister because of a bank account containing a few thousand dollars that his wife had opened in Washington when he was ambassador there. At the time neither Rabin himself nor the political class nor public opinion considered the young prime minister a martyr; he had to give up his post as a matter of course because he had broken the law. Last year, by contrast, a police investigation implicated Ariel Sharon in a corruption scandal involving several hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only did Sharon not think for a moment of resigning; backed by the whole Israeli right, he counterattacked, accusing the public prosecutor’s office and police of being in league with “leftists.” He added that the law was inappropriate and needed to be changed.

Another example: five years ago, after a trial that had dragged on for over ten years, the Jerusalem district court sentenced former interior minister and Shas Party leader Arie Deri to four years in jail for corruption. The High Court confirmed the sentence. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for months proclaiming his innocence and demanding that the High Court be dismantled. “Deri Is Innocent” could be read on every wall in Israel and many bumpers. The Knesset voted a special law for his early release. The declarations of Deri’s innocence were not based on a different interpretation of the evidence and testimony, but on two nonlegal arguments: “You [the left] condemned him because you hate Shas and Jews of Arab origin [Deri is of Moroccan origin],” and “The rest of them all take bribes, too.” Particularly worrying is that a substantial part of the political class, specifically the right and religious parties, joined in the popular campaign against the very legitimacy of the judicial system. During the past ten years the composition of this governing political class has changed completely.

At the heart of this change has been a veritable military coup. Admittedly, the army always played an important political role in Israel, both in its own name and through higher officers recycled as politicians. When Ben Gurion had to resign in the 1950s, he used the army several times, particularly the head of the high command, Moshe Dayan, to force the government’s hand. On the eve of the June 1967 war the army forced Prime Minister Levy Eshkol to form the first national unity government, including Menachem Begin and Dayan as defense minister.

Up until Rabin’s assassination, however, the high command remained under the government’s control and abided by its decisions. The hypothesis has often been put forward in recent years that there is an organized far right current inside the army and various security services, which opposed the Oslo process and took initiatives to sabotage it, including and above all by provoking attacks. This hypothesis has never been proven. But there is no doubt that the army has been the breeding ground for a powerful right-wing current, with General Biran and the successive heads of the high command, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Yaalon, in the lead. This current has used its power to influence many government decisions.

From 1996 on, the army became a genuine power in its own right in relation to the government. Peres recognized its autonomy, Netanyahu strengthened it, and Ehud Barak—his name keeps popping up—made it his true political party. Higher officers sit in on cabinet meetings; military intelligence concocts “information” the army justifies political and military initiatives and writes the scripts. General Moshe Yaalon was the first to call the Palestinian Authority a terrorist organization, he furnished the “evidence,” and came up with the scenario deployed from the end of 2000 on to destroy it. Since 1996 higher officers have been making political statements, threatening the government when they consider it insufficiently determined to carry the pacification campaign to its conclusion, and addressing the public directly in order to “explain” the gravity of the situation to them. This has been a true military coup, reminiscent of de Gaulle’s 1958 coup inasmuch as it has taken place with the agreement and support of the democratically elected political leadership. It has become an ongoing process through co-optation of higher officers in political party leaderships and at the head of the most important ministries.

But the changed character of the State of Israel’s political leadership goes beyond the weight of the army high command. The major role of fundamentalist religious parties on the one hand and Russian parties on the other must also be emphasized. These two political forces represent and give a voice to currents in Israeli society to which references to democracy, the rule of law, and separation of powers and civil liberties mean absolutely nothing. “The composition of the High Court must be changed because it doesn’t take account of what public opinion wants,” said Orthodox MK Hendel after the judges had declared Azmi Bishara and Ahmad Tibi—together with fascist gang leader Baruch Marzel—eligible to run for the Knesset. A few minutes later a Russian MK expressed his astonishment that this same court had ruled out General Mofaz’s candidacy “for purely technical reasons”—that is, because the law explicitly forbade it (Israeli radio broadcast January 9, 2003).

The law of the state does not count for the religious parties; for them only God’s law is legitimate. For the Russian parties, democracy and individual freedom are superfluous luxuries and the first cause of what they consider to be Israel’s moral and political weakness. Both currents share a boundless anti-Arab racism. The only difference between them is the Russians’ hatred and contempt for believers and religion. This is admittedly no small thing at a time when the religious forces are pushing to install a quasi-theocracy in place of the “Jewish democratic state.”

New Ideology for a New Regime

Underestimating the weight of these openly undemocratic currents in the Israeli political class would be a serious mistake. Even numerically they already account for more than a fourth of the members of the Knesset and almost half the ministers in the current government. Ideologically the old “Jewish and democratic,” non-religious Zionist worldview with its liberal connotations is in full retreat, while a discourse and ideology is taking hold that is reshaping the whole of Israeli culture. The new ideology combines four main elements: a nationalist militarism more or less associated with religious fundamentalism; avowed racism; a die-hard spirit impregnated with messianism; and a willingness to question every democratic norm. Put together, these elements help shape a generalized paranoia, which leads Israelis to view the whole world as an existential threat to Jewish survival in the Middle East or anywhere else.

This new ideology’s first and doubtless most perverse effect is acceptance of the domestic state of siege and normalization of death. Israelis seem to accept the deployment of the army and police on a vast scale and the thousands of security guards at the entrances to all public facilities—restaurants and supermarkets, schools and department stores—without a shadow of a reservation, as if this were a completely normal way of life for individuals and the nation. Sometimes people even seem to accept this state of affairs with pleasure, as if the society finds it easier to live with this reality than with a normality dependent on what the right calls “the risk of peace.”

Even worse, the high toll of Israeli civilian and military victims is also seen as something inevitable. The society seems to have gotten used to it with surprising speed, tolerating a government that has proved incapable of ensuring the safety of its own citizens. Nurit Peled, who lost her daughter to an attack in Jerusalem, borrowed the phrase “the kingdom of death” from Dylan Thomas to denounce this perverse adaptation to the death of innocents.

The mixture of aggressive nationalism and victimization produces a level of violence inside Israeli society that can hardly be gauged from outside. But it is enough to listen to broadcasts of Knesset debates to get a sense of it. One MK promises that Arab MKs will face a firing squad; another describes his fellow MKs of the Zionist party Meretz as “traitors.” It remains to be seen who will submit the most drastic bill aimed not only at “terrorists” but also at any form of dissent inside Israel. The High Court and the media, but also often the police and public prosecutor’s office, are regularly denounced as anti-Jewish or even as a “leftist mafia.” Mutual respect, minimal civility and especially commitment to democratic norms are all nonexistent. Democratic norms in particular are viewed as noxious residues of a regime that it is overdue to be replaced with an authoritarian state that will at last be prepared to take the measures required to guarantee Israel’s security and Jewish character.

This violence and rejection of the requirements of democracy by Israel’s elected officials serve as a model for its citizens. I have already mentioned what the graffiti on the walls and the bumper stickers on the cars say. These attack not only Arabs but also anything perceived as the enemy within, from the “Oslo criminals” that should be brought before a court-martial to the “hostile media,” by way of Judge Aharon Barak and the police chief who dared to open an investigation into the Sharon family’s possible corruption. The refusal to allow people to stay alive which Israelis express more and more openly when it comes to Arabs—whether residents of the occupied territories or Israeli citizens—is being extended now to Israelis who refuse to howl with the rest of the pack or who would just like to live normal lives in a democratic, secular society. When law gives way to a mixture of clean consciences and force as the basis of relationships with other human beings, then it is sorely missed when freedom needs protecting in one’s own community. This is an old truism that Israeli liberals are now learning the hard way.

Violence is manifested not only in Israeli politics but also in everyday interactions at home and in the street. The lack of civility that has always been one of Israeli society’s blemishes has mutated into sheer crudeness. While Israelis were noted in the past for their inability to say “please,” “excuse me,” or “thank you,” today they are ready to physically attack someone who cuts ahead of them in traffic; and since they often have guns on them, such incidents sometimes end in tragedy. Psychologists and social workers are continually warning about this escalation of violence, but their warnings seem unlikely to make a difference. The whole society is sick, terribly sick.

The Left Gives Up

This deterioration of society and its internal norms of behavior worries the moderates in Israel even more than the political situation does. Yet far from gearing up for a counteroffensive, most of the moderates seem to have decided to give up.

During Friday night dinners in middle-class homes the talk is a mixture of lamentation and despair, with a seasoning of paternalist disgust at all the people who are leading “their” country to disaster: meaning Sephardic Jews, Russians, and the Orthodox, not real Israelis like them. These people found the interview/confession of Moshe Nissim (the “Kurdish Teddy Bear”) about his ecstatic bulldozing of Palestinian homes in Jenin delectable. They forgot about the responsibility of his commanding officers, most of whom were “good Israelis” like them.

First the grandchildren of those whom historian Tom Segev calls “the first Israelis” were angry with the Palestinians for daring to reject their generous peace offer. Now they are angry with other Israelis for having brought the right and Orthodox to power. As usual, they have no sense of their own responsibility; they just sulk about the ingratitude of their less privileged fellow citizens. The left’s demonstrations, against the plundering in the occupied territories and against growing state authoritarianism, have accordingly fizzled out like a burst balloon. The left lost the will to fight a long time ago, in fact as long ago as Rabin’s assassination, for the survival of its own vision of society, even for Israel’s survival as a nation.

Many on the left are fully aware that the very existence of Israel is at stake. They are sending their children abroad, buying property in Europe, and trying to get hold of a second passport. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s prestigious mathematics department, which used to be able to boast of its famous mathematicians, has been incapable for over two years now of filling several posts, because even Israeli doctoral students prefer to continue their careers at less prestigious U.S. or European universities.

There was a time when the Zionist left was accused of “shooting and then crying.” Today we can say that it bombs and then whimpers in self-pity. Far from fighting for the society that it dreamed of not all that long ago, it is turning inward. It is accusing the whole world, the Palestinians first and foremost, of being responsible for its sorry fate, and dreaming of a more normal future in Europe or the United States. Undoubtedly this will only strengthen the forces of reaction in Israel.

Only a small minority is continuing to fight, both for the rights of the Palestinian people and to stop Israel’s transformation into a fundamentalist state that has shed its last democratic pretenses. Will this remnant be able to block Israeli society’s rush to destruction, and stop the country from crashing into the wall of hatred around the world that Israelis are building with their own hands? The relationship of forces is not encouraging, and time is short.


Israel has no constitution, however, the Meretz party managed to push through the adoption of several “fundamental laws,” which are to a certain extent laws of a constitutional type.

2004, Volume 56, Issue 07 (December)
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