Wars of Attrition: Israel's Year in Review

Sandwiched between two Arab civil wars, expecting nothing from the peace talks, quietly legalizing discrimination against its minorities - Israel's year of superficial calm.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

As we head into the new year, we find ourselves sandwiched between two Arab civil wars while engaging in a high stakes peace process with expectations so low the topic hardly registers.

After two years of civil war and reciprocal atrocities, the horrific images of Syrian President Assad’s gas attack on his own citizens belatedly set off the “crimes against humanity” trip-wire of Western leaders. Despite the massive casualties, no one in the West is eager to die to prevent Syrians from murdering one another. The British Parliament undercut Prime Minister Cameron’s intentions to punish Assad for his chemical warfare, leaving President Obama to strike back alone, or with replacement European allies.

Assad has threatened Israel if attacked by the U.S. or by an American-led coalition, so we in Israel are taking precautions: moving Iron Dome and Patriot batteries into position, while we try to stay calm, searching for operational gas masks. We don’t really expect chemical warheads to come our way, but we’ve had plenty of experience of conventional rockets in the past seven years.

The whole affair seems a bit surreal; the U.S. will strike to defend its credibility but not really to topple Assad and then the civil war will go on as before, or the mission will morph into something bigger and we might get dragged in as payback to America. Back in Israel, we have been more involved with the start of the school year and the approaching Jewish holidays than the outbreak of regional war, at least until Shabbat gave us a long enough break to obsess.

The ongoing Syrian tragedy was upstaged for a few weeks by the military coup which deposed Egyptian President Morsi – U.S. government terminology disorder notwithstanding – and the subsequent massacre of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators and the arrest of its leadership. (The release from prison of former President-for-life Mubarak came almost as a footnote.) U.S. credibility suffered as it allowed an unpalatable, autocratic Islamic government to be toppled by anti-democratic means from within.

The correct course is not obvious. In historical hindsight, we can only wish the German military had acted against the Nazi leadership when it still could have, but is that the proper parallel for judging the Egyptian experiment? At least we can agree that that we abhor the carnage.

Israel’s political leaders have been uncharacteristically quiet about both conflicts, trying to keep us out of the fray, and knowing that if a U.S. endorsement is poison in Arab politics, any Israeli expression of interest would be lethal.

On the home front, our “new politics” Finance Minister Yair Lapid passed a vintage Netanyahu trickle-up budget guaranteed to boost poverty and the income gap, but also began – more tentatively than his Yesh Atid voters had hoped – to roll back the public bankrolling of Haredi isolationism. Lapid opposes the social protest message – he’s a neo-liberal capitalist – but his harsh medicine for Israel’s middle class has brought his polling numbers way down. He is playing the long game, hoping he’ll be around if and when the economy climbs out of its 40 billion shekel rut, but he risks replicating Ehud Barak’s mistake as prime inister – abandoning his constituency upon entering office.

Although they get jittery whenever we talk to the Palestinians, the big winners under our new government have been the settlers. Settlement construction is outstripping even Ehud Barak’s record pace, and Palestinian prisoners were released to re-launch peace negotiations to avoid considering even a temporary settlement freeze. Despite being outflanked in his efforts to take over the Chief Rabbinate, and not getting as much special treatment or funding for his brand of yeshivas as he expected from “brother” Lapid, Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett is delivering to his electorate.

For the most part, unfortunately, our leaders are guided by the anachronistic principle that any acre of land in Arab hands is a loss for the Jewish People. The enthusiastic approval for the Begin-Prawer plan to forcibly relocate tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel from their miserable shantytown villages in the Negev is paralleled by efforts to take over as much Arab property in East Jerusalem as possible. It is as if it is still 1947 and we don’t have enough turf to set up our state.

The government also took a step toward legalizing discrimination when advanced a new law to give Israel’s Jewish character priority over its democratic character. A bill to raise the threshold for small parties to get into the Knesset would eliminate existing Arab and ultra-Orthodox political parties, at least as currently constituted.

These moves exacerbate the anti-settlement sentiment that causes Israel’s isolation in Europe, expressed in European Union boycotts of West Bank settlement products, with Israel foolishly choosing to decline research grants rather than acknowledge the occupation.

The bullying of our non-Jewish minorities extends to the xenophobic assault on African refugees. Interior minister Gideon Sa'ar plans to pressure thousands to be deported “voluntarily” to Uganda while locking up thousands of others for years. Sa'ar’s plan should be a source of shame for any Jew familiar with an iota of Jewish or Zionist history. In addition to the bizarre Orwellian language, the plan directly defies international refugee conventions to which Israel is a signatory. The choice of Uganda is odd, even twisted.

What the government is legally and morally bound to do is to implement a systematic review of asylum requests while providing social services to refugees stranded here. If every non-Jew walking our streets is perceived as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character, we will see enemies where there are none.

And yet Israel feels relatively calm. After all, the civil wars are not really about us, and the assaults on our most vulnerable populations are not really about us. Since we don’t expect the peace process to succeed, perhaps extremists on both sides will sit tight. It’s a nine month process, so it’s like the early stage of pregnancy when you mostly ignore it.

The government triumphantly announced the conclusion of the Ethiopian aliyah, for at least the third time, showing much greater enthusiasm for the wrap-up than it ever has for the new arrivals. Credit is due to officials for keeping to the timetable for bringing thousands of Falashmura granted approval to immigrate over the last few years, and to activists from South Wing to Zion and NACOEJ who kept the pressure on relentlessly.

And yet, there are thousands still left behind in Ethiopia, some who were wrongly rejected, and others who are first degree relatives of families here for years. If we don’t want to announce the end of the Ethiopian aliya yet again, an expedited appeals process should be implemented immediately. In the meantime, we have an Ethiopian beauty queen and an Ethiopian victor on Big Brother, tokens of progress and acceptance.

Meanwhile, away from the racist gaffes by rabbis and politicians and the headline-seeking nationalist one-upmanship, there has been increased government investment in employment for Israel’s Arab communities and employment outreach targeting Arab women and the ultra-Orthodox. For the first time, a bit of our precious land was given to an Arab town to build a new neighborhood. After two failed attempts to pressure Arab stakeholders to build skyward in full view of new Jewish private homes, regulations were relaxed so that the Municipality of Sakhnin – a trendsetter among Arab towns – can offer construction tenders that might actually appeal to Arab developers and buyers.

Our reform-minded new education minister, Rabbi Shay Piron, has already eliminated the erratically administered pressure-cooker called the Meitzav, the statewide standardized exams for elementary schools given to many second and fifth grade classes every year.

And Israel’s progressive camp is showing signs of rejuvenation, with think tanks popping up, and politicians fighting back with new tactics, such as the filibustering the draconian national budget. Local elections are scheduled for next month, and evolving local politics reflect the social protest, increased environmental awareness, and new alliances.

So if we Israelis do not find ourselves trying to get Wi-Fi in our bomb shelters, we are embarking on the celebration of a month of Jewish holidays, rebooting the school year after a holiday break longer than school was in session, preparing for municipal elections across the country and commemorating forty years since the trauma of the Yom Kippur War.

A good and safe 5774 for all of us.

Don Futterman is the Program Director, Israel for the Moriah Fund, an private American foundation supporting civil society organizations in Israel. He can be heard on the Promised Podcast.

An illustrative image of a fraying Israeli flag. Credit: Reuters

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