Silly Israelis, This Will Never Be a Normal Country

Israelis had started to think we lived in a normal country and could worry about luxuries like 'the cost of living.'

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

“Bloody hell, this was supposed to be over." So thought many Israelis as hundreds of rockets rained down on Israel’s south and center in the last couple of days.

After two weeks of negotiations interrupted by the occasional rocket attack or air raid, the fighting is back in full force. Senior ministers are saying on TV and radio that negotiating with Hamas was a mistake to begin with and that the war (or “operation," as it’s legally called), should continue, with extreme prejudice this time.

The thing is, the war is already over. And Israel lost.

No, not the war against Hamas, or against the Palestinians. The war that Israel has lost goes deeper, into our aspirations and delusions as a people.

Shrapnel in our macchiato

Over the decades, especially since the Second Intifada, it had seemed we could win this thing. Suicide bombings stopped, and rocket attacks were pretty much limited to Israel’s southernmost towns. We started to think we could be a normal country. That we are a normal country.

You could call it the OECD-ization of Israeli discourse. Ever since Israel joined the OECD in 2010, Israelis felt more and more - how to say, European. As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians receded into a quiet, albeit tense, status quo, interrupted by economically-inconsequential military operations in Gaza, we’d let ourselves believe we do belong with the world’s developed nations.

In the last three years, especially following the social protests of 2011, the discourse in Israel shifted radically towards social and economic issues. Israelis veered away from the Palestinian issue, on which they'd seem to simply have given up, and started caring about Israel’s housing crisis, the soaring cost of living, the decline of the welfare state and the rise of crony capitalism.

They stopped buying the story that "life's expensive because we're constantly at war" and started to realize they were being robbed. The media started reporting about business tycoons, lobbyists, prices and inequality.

But these days, yet again our news is dominated by stories about rocket attacks, radical racist thugs, international artists canceling concerts and, most lately, the “danger” of mixed marriages between Israelis and Arabs.

We began to think of ourselves as Start-Up Nation, a country with a vibrant high-tech economy, beautiful beaches and vibrant nightlife in Tel Aviv, without right-wing militias looking for leftists to beat up or rocket debris falling into your macchiato. We even exported this narrative of innovation and good time abroad, convincing ourselves that Israel could one day be, entirely, Silicon Wadi, just like Tel Aviv.

Over the years of that vacation from Palestine, we even began to discuss, seriously discuss, cutting Israel’s 60 billion shekel ($17 billion) defense budget. After years of serving as Israel’s last taboo, Israelis started to question the military’s righteousness, not because of human rights violations in the West Bank, mind you, but because of the army’s overblown pensions. Israelis started to wonder if the army was not only a noble organization fighting a noble cause, but also as an interest group that fights to preserve its own self interest.

Now the ministry of defense is asking for a 15-18 billion shekels ($4-5 billion) boost for its budget, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who rose on the strength of vowing to move money from defense to civilian causes like education and welfare, is talking about "reevaluating priorities."

Welfare who?

The military, probably, won’t get that much. But it will get some enormous addition that is sure to savage spending on education, healthcare, infrastructure and welfare.

Just this March, Lapid said “It’s time to cut the defense budget and use the savings for social services." Now, priorities have changed.

But those are only the direct costs. The biggest costs are hidden ones that will result from Israel’s political discourse leaving the social and economic field and returning to the usual divide between left and right.

In the best case scenario, Protective Edge will lead to some medium-term quiet in Israel’s south. It could just as likely develop into a lengthy and bloody war of attrition. But, regardless of its outcome, one thing can be already said: the veneer of normalcy is dead.

Our illusions of building a civil society while maintaining a military occupation? Dead. Our presumption that we could focus solely on social and economic issues, as if the conflict didn’t exist? Frozen until further notice.

it’s not, mind you, that Israelis have it harder than Palestinians. The war is infinitely harder on the Palestinian side. But as rockets are once again launched from Gaza, and the life of Israelis in the south becomes a nightmare once again, it might be worthwhile to acknowledge the biggest impact the war might have on the Israeli psyche: we are not a normal country, and every social or cultural aspiration we have will always be shrouded by the conflict.

To paraphrase Michael Corleone, we thought we were out. They pulled us back in.

The height of the social justice protests in Tel Aviv, August 2011.Credit: Tal Cohen
The sign in red letters at a social justice protest says says: “A home is not a luxury.” Credit: Daniel Bar-On