It's the Palestinian Territories, Stupid

It is in the territories that the fate of our economy and health and education systems will be decided. Moreover, the future of culture and high-tech will also be determined by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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The Dome of the Rock, seen from the separation barrier.Credit: Rafi Kotz

History, regrettably, no longer holds its breath when Israel goes to the polls. In the 20 years that have passed since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israel appears to have relinquished the realization of the Zionist dream in its universal historical sense. Instead, it is striding, eyes wide shut, to beyond good and bad, on its road to the metaphysical netzach Yisrael – the Glory of Israel. It doesn’t matter what the goyim say, but what the Jews fantasize.

On the eve of the elections to the 20th Knesset, the threat to Israeli democracy is no longer the polarization that reached its peak with the Rabin assassination; it is the obliviousness and self-righteousness that has gripped the country for the past two decades. What, indeed, is it to be an Israeli at this time, if not to dwell within a fragment of yourself, ensuring that the other parts of the picture don’t disturb you; to do whatever strikes your fancy and not understand “what’s wrong with that”?

Zionism’s concept was rife with contradictions, inconsistencies and dialectical tensions. It offered a new combination of reflective self-observation alongside political action; distinctive, unique, groundbreaking national creation, alongside “normal” existence based on respect for laws and universal values.

Zionism was simultaneously rational and romantic, constructivist and interpretative, innovative and vanguard, but it also learned from the experience of other nations. Distinguishing between dreams that are worthy of being lived and fought for and pipe dreams, between bold utopian politics and regressive messianic politics, was the greatest challenge of the Zionist revolution.

If Israelis still retain an iota of utopian political consciousness and love of truth, of the kind that the conceivers of the Zionist dream and the founders of the state were endowed with, they must curb those who are threatening to abandon Israel’s fate to the forces of gravity of Jewish messianism. In the March 17 election, they must dissociate themselves not only from the nine years that Benjamin Netanyahu – the most diasporic leader Israel has ever had – has been in power, but also the years from 1995 to 2015, which were the worst 20 years in the history of their young state.

It is not enough to be aware of the danger that faces Israel from the continuation in power of a prime minister whose policies and way of life embody the Israeli “What’s wrong with that?” approach. Our attention should be directed primarily at understanding the new political map and its deep ideological and mental currents.

The fate of Israeli democracy will be decided in the occupied territories, the historian Yehoshua Arieli warned 50 years ago. The last 20 years will be remembered as a period in which the Israelis united in order to repress the recognition that democracy, in addition to being a form of administration and government, is also a moral and ethical approach to society – perception of human nature grounded in the view that human beings are their own purpose. The constant presence of two different sets of standards, one for ethnic minorities and one for Jewish citizens – regarding rights, justice, law, values, prospects and human dignity – is vitiating Israel’s moral, legal, economic and cultural life.

That is why it’s in the occupied territories that the fate of Israel’s housing market will be decided, also the fate of its economic productivity and competitiveness, the fate of the legal system and also the fate of the education system and the health-care system. The fate of culture, science and high-tech in Israel will also be decided, sooner or later, by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no exit strategy from reality.

A multitude of factors came together to enable Israelis to erect the barrier of consciousness with which they create a disconnect between their economic situation, and the peace-policy situation. In historical perspective, it’s possible that the heartwarming summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets and demanded “social justice,” will be identified as the date when Israelis forsook irrevocably the opportunity to read between the lines of the reality in which they live, and realize the concept of justice in its universalist Zionist definition.

‘Sane Israel’

In the summer of 2011, one could have derived the impression that the strength of the touching belief of the “sane Israel” that the flaws of the economy and society and the country’s governmental corruption could be redressed without ending Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians and without demarcating permanent borders – was just as misguided as the belief of “crazy messianic Israel” that history could be forced to fulfill the prophetic vision and that it is possible to hold on to Greater Israel for all time.

In the summer of 2011, young Israelis on both the right and the left began believing that what separated them from normality were corrupt relations between government and big capital, and markets lacking fair regulation. That the ills of civil society bore no relation to the society’s militarization and to the settlements in the occupied territories. The summer of 2011 served the ideological right more than the Israelis who are identified with the “social justice” parties want to believe.

Israel, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson’s comment about slavery in the United States, has the Palestinian wolf by the ear. It cannot go on holding it forever, but letting it go also entails a certain risk. In the past 20 years, the fear of losing control over the Palestinians, on the one hand, and of the outbreak of a civil war, on the other hand, has prompted the Israeli political arena to come up with a succession of variations – neoliberal, religious, Mizrahi and folksy – on nationalism.

As long as Israel’s leaders adhere to Ehud Barak’s “villa in the jungle” doctrine – that is, continue to perceive the rule over the Palestinians as a security challenge and not as an existential threat, and hide from the public the role of Israeli policy in the radicalization of the Palestinians’ approaches – the political arena in Israel will go on generating consciousness “bypasses.”

Already now it’s clear that very few of the candidates who will enter the next Knesset are convinced the future of Israeli democracy will be decided in the occupied territories. The suppression of the peace issue in the campaigns, together with the support of Zionist Union and Yesh Atid for the attempt to disqualify the candidacy of Arab MK Haneen Zoabi, show that the center of the political map is reluctant to take an active part in defending liberal democracy against the extreme right.

In these conditions, what Israel needs most is a left wing that will shun the celebration of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences,” with which the center parties have regaled Israelis throughout the campaign.

Israel needs a lucid, diverse and vociferous left that views Jewish-Arab coexistence and the two-state solution as the key to the country’s continued existence as a democracy. Its role will be to build up its strength and support a just social and economic policy accompanied by historic diplomatic moves, such as Israel under Yitzhak Rabin’s leadership at least attempted to foment 20 years ago. Its role will be to remind Israelis that, viewed from abroad, Israel’s political center can hardly be distinguished any more from its right-wing parties, and that by focusing on economic issues, Israel’s popular center parties are deluding their voters into believing that there is a right way to lead a life that isn’t right.

In an interview with Haaretz, one of the creators of the new Israeli television series “Fouda,” which is about undercover soldiers in the West Bank, explained, “What’s great about the series is that it doesn’t have any bad and good.” That is perhaps the essence of Israeliness on the eve of these elections: fantasizing about a life that’s beyond good and bad, as a substitute for doing good and avoiding bad; and not understanding what’s wrong with that.

The author is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian, and author of "Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity" (Karnac Books, London, 2012).

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