Israel, a Make-believe Democracy

The occupation and the defense budget are the elephants in the room that no candidate, not even Livni and Herzog, will touch.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah party leader Tzipi Livni after announcing their joint 2015 elections list, December 10. 2014.
Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah party leader Tzipi Livni after announcing their joint 2015 elections list, December 10. 2014. Credit: AFP
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Suddenly there is a possibility of changing the government in Israel, and the excitement is great. Indeed, the thought of a government led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni sets the imagination on fire: the end of anti-democratic legislation, a brief pause in the ongoing process of pushing aside Israeli Arabs, a breakwater to the waves of racism and ultranationalism, of persecution, incitement and division; the restoration of the High Court of Justice to its rightful place, the renewal of the peace talks, the weakening of the right-wing thugs in the Knesset, perhaps even the closure of the Holot immigrant detention center.

Something good seems to be in the air, a spirit of a different time, spreading hope. The wider world, too, will cheer and embrace the new Israel, in the event. Every proponent of democracy should rejoice at its approach.

But even this (premature) joy must have its limits, the limits of Israeli democracy. The time has come to recognize that the Israeli democratic game is strictly limited to what happens in the children’s rooms. Even the “most portentous” elections, such as the one scheduled in March, are in fact child’s games, make-believe. The people vote, the government changes (or not), there’s the “left” and the “right” and the “chasm” of differences separating them — but no one speaks about the two terrifying elephants in the middle of the room. No one dares. Right and left, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Isaac “Bougie” Herzog — it’s all the same.

The Israeli occupation and the defense budget, the defense budget and the Israeli occupation. These two giant elephants, that decide the state’s fate in nearly every sphere, are off limits. They are outside the real public debate, they are not even on the agenda. They were long ago declared a closed military zone, a firing range in which trespassing is forbidden. No serious politician talks about them, no one dares. Heaven forfend.

These two densely tangled weeds, together of course with their illegitimate child, the settlement enterprise, have flowered under every government — every government, indiscriminately. Even during election season no one pays them any attention, as if there were a gag order forbidding any talk of them. Not even in the social protests of the summer of 2011 did anyone dare to speak of them. Please do not disturb, we are discussing zero VAT on fresh produce or maybe on apartments, we are discussing the cottage cheese protests, or is it the Milky protests. Foreign observers who happened upon them were in shock: What are you people talking about, what?

There is actually something honest about the fact that these two critical issues are not part of the election campaign: Any wise Israeli statesman knows he has no chance of changing them. Any Israeli prime minister can easily go to war every two years, cause a crisis in relations with the United States every two hours; but they cannot, under any circumstances, cut the defense budget or touch the occupation and the settlements. Everything is included, except for these two monsters, which are expanding at a frightening pace, to cover the entire country.

There have been two or three prime ministers who did stick their hands into the fire, but even they did not do so with the necessary scope and courage. Menachem Begin withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, and built 100 Elon Morehs. Yitzhak Rabin did not dare to evacuate even a single settlement. Ariel Sharon evacuated the Gaza Strip settlements in order to solidify the occupation in the West Bank. The others did not even dare to try. Nor did anyone changed the priorities of the national budget in order to allow for the creation of a different Israel.

Herzog and Livni will also not do this. Not a chance. Say “Prime Minister Isaac Herzog” a few times, and it starts to sound natural. Now say “Prime Minister Isaac Herzog will evacuate the settlers from the West Bank and cut the defense budget.” You’re laughing out loud already. It is no accident that the two leaders who are the hope of the center-left did not even mention these issues in their joint press conference. They know it is beyond them, that it would take more courage than they have. They know what is allowed and what is not, and they know very well the limits of the democracy game in Israel.

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