Saturday, September 29, 2007

Israeli politics briefing

Tel Aviv from the air

The domestic setting to Israeli foreign policy is often ignored internationally or at least underplayed. My PhD work is basically an argument that you can't separate domestic and international politics (although my case-study is Finland not Israel), particularly not in the globalised world, and this is as true of Israel as anywhere else. Hence what follows is my take on the discussions and briefings we had with policymakers, academics, journalists and others on my recent visit to Israel.

The Israeli economy is hugely successful with growth being driven by high-technology industries, in which the IDF has cleverly involved itself. But this is leading to what a number of speakers called the core-periphery issue (and this is clearly seen by both the left and right) in which certain sectors of Israeli society have missed the high-tech boat and are now being left ever further behind. The periphery has ethnic, religious and geographical aspects to it. A major distinction within Israel is "Ashkenazi" and "Sephardi". The Ashkenazi Jews are generally those of the European descent, whilst the Sephardi are the Jews who came to Israel from the Mid-East and North Africa. Israel was predominantly formed by Ashkenazi and all of the early leaders in the Labour Party (the ruling party until 1977) were of that background. The Sephardi generally arrived in Israel later, after being thrown out of the Muslim states in response to the founding of Israel. Sephardi have seen themselves as second class citizens ever since and remain on average poorer and less educated. The town of Sderot, infamous for being the target of Qassam rocket attacks from the Gaza strip, is a particularly working-class, Sephardi town. Many there say that if it was a rich, white suburb of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv getting rocketed daily, there is no way the government would put up with it. The mayor of Gush Etzion, the settlement we visited in the West Bank not far from Jerusalem, held very similar views saying that the security issues they faced were mishandled by the government because they don’t care about the poor and the rural. The other major ethnic distinction to economic marginalisation is the “Soviet” Jews who emigrated mainly after 1990, and now make up a sixth of the population. Integration has not been wholly successful - as the recent arrest of a “Nazi” gang, made up of Russian-Israeli youths, suggests.

The religious division in the economy affects firstly the Israeli Arabs who face many problems in the technology industries because they can’t get security clearances. This is partly said to be straight prejudice from some parts of the Jewish majority, and partly to do with many of them using the Arab exemption from military service. Secondly, the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews do not take part in the standard state education system, and are also exempt from IDF service. The focus of their religious schools is on the Torah, with English, maths and sciences taking a back seat. This badly prepares orthodox children for taking part in the modern economy leading to economic marginalisation. Oddly, the argument has parallels to that over the Madrassas in Pakistan. At the same time the Orthodox Jews have large families, so this sector of society is becoming demographically more significant.

The political system is currently partially paralyzed, with increasingly unwieldy coalitions having to be formed as proportional representation produces an ever more diverse and fractured polity. The three biggest parties in the Knesset: Labour, Likud and Kadema still do not command a majority even if all vote together. So whilst the marginalized groups fail economically, they remain very influential politically as governments need them in coalitions. This makes the direction of Israeli politics very hard to predict. It also mean that the people of the Israel no longer wholly share its founding premises and experiences. For example the Holocaust was central to the creation of the Jewish state, but this was to a great extent an Ashkenazi experience. The Jews of Yemen or of Iran were little affected by it, yet they now are part of the state that came out of that tragedy. The rise of Likud in the late 1970s was directly related to the support of the Sephardi community, after the post-Independence hegemony of the Labour and the Ashkenazi community, and brought with it a different world-view.

Whilst these important questions of identity and political structure remain unresolved it is not clear what will happen next in the Middle East Peace Process. We were told that last year’s war was fought by Olmert with one eye on Lebanon and the other on the stock exchange - waiting for global markets to tell him when he had to stop because Israel could not handle a collapse in confidence in the economy. The Israelis have long said that they don’t have a partner to talk to with the Palestinians, but to me it isn’t completely apparent who the Israeli partner is either. Until there is a more stable governing-coalition that isn't forced into adopting lowest common denominator policies to pacify such disparate parties within it, the future is far from clear. The next prime minister is likely to be Netanyahu or Barak, both of whom are not likely to have radical new thinking from their first attempts at power in the 1990s. And beyond the peace process, no one really seemed to know what to do about Hezbollah, let alone Iran.


KGS said...

Hi Toby,

You depict a very accurate picture of the Israeli body politic. There is absolutely no doubt about the problems, dilemmas and ironies that are a part of the domestic politics of the Jewish state, and as you state. "This makes the direction of Israeli politics very hard to predict. It also mean that the people of the Israel no longer wholly share its founding premises and experiences."

There is much credibility in the assessment of Israeli domestic politics, that it's own internal problems are acting as an impediment to forming a decisive coherent policy to the situation vis-a-vis the conflict with the Palestinians. That said, in spite of the huge amount of competing ideas as well as the lack of consensus on how to proceed, in the "peace process", one crucial element that binds the vast political spectrum together is the need for security, as well as a growing, vibrant economy.

You state: "but to me it isn’t completely apparent who the Israeli partner is either." In spite of what you wrote --as well as my own words of agreement-- history has shown that regardless of the political mess (disunity between the political parties), if there are signs of an honest, realistic chances for peace, the opportunity to complete the Zionist dream (full acceptance of Jewish nationalism by the Arabs) will not be lightly dismissed.

As I see it, the total lack of a credible Palestinian political enterprise to work with, outweighs any current domestic political malaise within the Jewish state. I just don't view the situation with the same kind of symmetry as others do.

Mikets said...

Hi Toby

It is (of course) more complicated than you say. The Russians who came old enough to requalify, learn Hebrew and so work have jumped into the middle class (over many Sephardim, who have been here for 50 years) The older, sicker nad less qualified are those left behind. (The Russians - as a gross generalisation - are solidy anti Arab, anti Socialist and in favour of negotiating from military strength)

The Arabs are not a monolitihic social bloc. Christian Arabs (it was found recently to everyone's surprise) are one of the most educated and prosperous groups - they have been urbanised longer and took many of the opportunities that the more open Israeli society offered. They (along with the Druze) have no time for Muslim radical Palestineans.

In my opinion, many the Sephardim misinterpreted the economy they found: it was closed to them at first because the economy in the 50s and 60s was a very socialist, Trade Union dominated where state job creation and protection was the priority. By the time they got these jobs, the economy had moved on to reward entrepreneuership and hitech.

I tend to agree with the previous comment. Although Israelis are sick to the teeth with the current political generation, if they can negotiiate a peace deal that represents the (unspoken?) consensus - no refugee return to Israel but some reluctant compensation, dividing Jerusalem, and reworking the 67 line keeping the large Jewish communities now acros the line in exchange for security -the deal will sell itself.

BTW, at some time the Arab leadership will have to come to the Israeli people, like Sadat and KIng Hussein did, to seal the deal.

Mikets said...

Many belive that the ultra religious, high number of children per family, economy will soon implode. Its emphasis on 100% Torah study as being superior to jobs is - as I understand - little Jewish historical and legal justification. This sector belive that you do not need an army to protect yoy or a state to feed you - although they are happy for someone else to do this - since God will protect and provide. Currently its source is political leverage, which is decreasing, and tranfers from outside, which will disappear in a generation when there is no-one sympathetic remaining overseas with money to give or leave to this sector.

Mikets said...

Tel Aviv from the beach would have been better. Not Copabacana; but worth a few lingering shots (the girls I mean, not the sand)

Anonymous said...

disappointingly impartial ... or have I missed something? TF-K

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Mike - thanks very much for your interesting comments. As you say, it is always more complex than you can say in a few hundred words! One of our speakers mentioned the success of the Christian Arabs, putting this down to a great extent to a higher willingness to support the education of girls in comparison to the Muslim Israeli communities. As ever, the emancipation of women seems to have nothing but positives, despite it being desperately unfashionable to call yourself a feminist in this day and age! I'm very interested in your comments on the tailing off of foreign support for the ultra-orthodox community. That's something I was not aware of so I'll have a read around on the issue. We visited the Western Wall and it was very noticeable how many Orthodox men were stopping all the tourists and asking for "contributions" or alms to various charitable endeavors (and I noticed how many of them had what sounded to me like genuine American accents!). Our Israeli guide had a very low opinion of them referring to them as beggars, although I don't know if that was her personal prejudice or has some foundation?

TF-K, it's easy to be impartial when you describe what you see. It's when you suggest what should happen next that the sparks begin to fly! :-)

Mikets said...

The ultra orthodox thing I didn't explain too well. Basically the American Jews from (say) 1930 to 1980 got more secular and richer. But they remembered their grandfathers, and supported many ultra orthodox. Then their kids started turning back to ultra orthodox forms of religion, and they also received money from their more secular parents and then intergenerational transfers from the parents's estates.
But now, as I see it, this engine for creating and transferring wealth is running down as the ultra orthodox themselves have large numbers of children and grandchidren but, being in study halls all day, do not build wealth to transfer down the generations. And, as you saw, 'regular' Israelis do not approve either - for example, recently child allowances, a minstay of these large families, were severely cut.