By Mike Eilan
If all is lost then why bother?
In these hot days towards the end of October, it has been easier to get excited about the American election campaign than what’s happening with Bibi, Shelly, Tzipi and all the other nicknames that denote either familiarity or affection I don’t feel.
At least Obama, whom I like but don’t necessarily agree with, has what the pollsters call a path to victory. It’s true that he’s done hardly anything to help us and the Palestinians make peace, but at least I can hope for a second term turnaround, and also he seems like a smart and decent man who’s done some good things.
So it’s better to look at America, which I couldn’t care less about, than face the horrible arithmetic at home, where the forces of racism, religious intolerance and blind, howling stupidity seem so assured of victory in our elections. Any way you cut the cake, both before and after the Biberman deal, both with Livni and without, the grand coalition of the right and the religious is bound to prevail. So why bother? Better hide my head in the sand and follow RealClearPolitics and Intrade.
I am writing this piece at Roy’s invitation as a result of an email dialogue we’ve been conducting for the past week or so. It started when I excitedly pointed out that if Palestinian Israelis were to participate in the elections at the same percentages as Jews, their vote would account for 24 mandates in the Knesset. (The rough and ready arithmetic here was based on the fact that they are 20% of the population and that their admittedly higher percentage of people below voting age are counterbalanced by the very much higher percentage of Haredim below voting age.) It wouldn’t matter whom they voted for. It wouldn’t be for the right and this would upset the entire political climate – for the better.
Then the cold voice of reason made its entrance, stage right, bearing precedents and numbers. The chance of a higher voter turnout among Palestinian Israelis is very, very low. Peres lost the 1996 elections against Netanyahu, because of the bombardment of Kafr Kana in Lebanon. Palestinian Israelis didn’t vote against him – they just stayed away. Voting is an expression of trust in the system and there have been no events to suggest that Palestinian Israelis might have any more trust than previously, and indeed there is a clear political incentive to ensure that they don’t have that trust.
The inexorable numbers behind the religious right that are most noticed are the much higher birthrate, both of Haredim and the various brands of knitted kippot. Behind these are another set of numbers – the settlers who live beyond the ’67 borders. There are half a million of them and each one of them has at least five family members or close friends inside Israel proper who will share their real concern that any peace deal with the Palestinians will endanger their homes. These are the numbers that really determine Israeli elections and these are the numbers that make people like me on the Israeli left say well, we’d better go for a one-state solution.
As if there were a one-state solution on the table. If that disheartened, aging and morally decrepit part of the Israeli population that believes Israel should withdraw to the ’67 borders can’t persuade the rest of the electorate to adopt this sane, much discussed option to ensure the continuation of Israel as we know it, how on earth will they persuade anybody to accept a solution with such dangers of massive bloodshed and a lack of self determination that even the phlegmatic Belgians don’t like very much? Does anybody seriously see the Jews ceding their hard-won sovereignty, or the Palestinians ceding their dream of sovereignty? After so many years of fighting you become a mirror image of your enemy, and the strongest common denominator between the two peoples is their stubbornness.
This is the point where one usually gives up, as I must confess I often do. But the act of giving up is based on the fallacious assumption that this admittedly bad state of affairs will sort of muddle along. It’s fallacious because it is based on extrapolating only short-term memory of the past to the immediate murky future. The Arab Spring and the horrors of Syria have shown what happens to inherently unstable systems and to assumptions of that kind.
The internal Israeli system is also far less stable than it looks. The hegemony of the religious right is based on many factors, but one of its strongest legs is the combination of two separate but interrelated policies: expensive land inside the ’67 border and land that is basically for free, in some cases, or much cheaper in the West Bank. The state owns 94% of the land in ’67 Israel and successive governments have treated this as a cash cow. The high price of land inside the border combined with heavy building in West Bank settlements is a formula for long-term rule by the right.
Buying support this way is stable only if there is no opposition, both from Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians’ main mode of opposition is an intifada, which last time turned out to be much worse for the Palestinians than the Israelis. The Israelis’ route to opposition is political; insisting, en masse, that there are more important things than settling another hilltop to suit a messianic agenda. This was the unspoken subtext of the protests of the summer of 2011. In hindsight, the fact that Israelis took to the streets to talk about housing, education and social fairness is far less surprising than the fact that the protest died with such a whimper. Young people can still not make a living and buy a home.
But the people’s anger is still there, doing nothing, and nothing has really changed. In my dialogue with Roy he said, quite rightly, that the mass of Israelis would do nothing to end the occupation because they saw nothing wrong with it. They will, however, seize any alternative that looks like a fairer deal and also accept, with this deal, what everybody knows in the back of the mind – that the occupation is bad for Israel.
So why bother? Because the situation is not only bad but dangerous. Violent explosions based on inherent instability are the norm in this part of the world. Is all lost? I don’t really know, but so long as the option of using civil concerns as the lever to create a major change in the order of priorities, I think it’s wrong to give up.