Time to Circle the Wagons

The majority of Israelis nowadays define their identities in religious, ethnic or nationalistic terms, and their adherence to liberal democratic values is often weak or nonexistent.

Last weekend The New York Times published an editorial entitled "Israel's embattled democracy," expressing concern that Israel may be distancing itself from the liberal democratic principles on which it was founded. Of course, Jewish right-wing groups, both in Israel and the U.S., will point out that the NYT is anti-Israel, and that therefore we can simply disregard what they say.

The problem is that the New York Times is far from alone. I regularly meet with Western diplomats and opinion leaders, many of whom are genuine friends of Israel. Most of them express the same concerns as the Times; some of them do so with great pain, because they genuinely love the country. Time and again, I hear they are trying to bring Israeli politicians to meet with their respective countries' political class. However, they are afraid to do so because they feel Israel's political representatives will only worsen Israel's image.

Unfortunately, I can only agree with them. In my conversations with many of Israel's politicians, I am profoundly amazed (and distressed) by their total lack of understanding of the world at large, and an equally total lack of interest in it. Some of them live in a universe that is much more defined by Biblical stories than by either Realpolitik or liberal democratic values. For others, the universe is defined by the party center that elects them to realistic spots for the next Knesset.

The political class's mentality seems to reflect a general trend in Israel. The NYT editorial quotes experts who say that Israel's demographic shift has led to the point where many Israelis no longer trust the values and institutions of democracy. Akiva Eldar's article in the July-August edition of The National Interest ("Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine") and recent polls by the Israel Democracy Institute powerfully underscore this point. The majority of Israelis nowadays define their identities in religious, ethnic or nationalistic terms, and their adherence to liberal democratic values is often weak and, in many cases, nonexistent.

How has this happened? Part of the explanation is indeed, as the NYT and Akiva Eldar point out, a function of demographic shifts. The proportion of the population that is ultra-Orthodox or national-religious grows because of their high birthrates, and a large proportion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have not been raised in a tradition of liberal democracy.

But I do not believe that this is the whole story. In dozens of countries, experimental existential psychology has shown that people who are faced with existential threat tend to move to the right politically, become less tolerant and more judgmental toward those with other religious and political views.

Israel has always been under such pressure, but since the start of the new century things have taken a turn for the worse.

The series of events began with the watershed of the second intifada, whose traumatic nature is underestimated by many commentators. Then Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, followed by the de facto partition of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas ruling Gaza. And then there was the continuous shelling of southern Israel from the Strip. Add to this the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which effectively shut down the north for six weeks. This chain of events has made Israelis deeply distrustful of Palestinians in particular, and Arabs in general.

The picture is glum. This century's first decade has made a mockery of the promise of Israel's left that peace was possible. In fact, most Israelis have developed an allergy toward the term "peace." They believe that Israel is situated in a really bad neighborhood; that it will have to fend for its existence for decades to come; that might and vigilance, rather than diplomacy and flexibility, will keep us all alive here.

As a result, Israelis do not use the term "Arab Spring" at all. They look with deep fear and distress at the upheavals around the country. They do not trust the Muslim Brotherhood, which has taken charge in Egypt. They are profoundly worried about the horrible civil war in Syria. And they are afraid that Hezbollah will, at some point, fire its huge arsenal (estimated to contain some 50,000 rockets ) into Israel's population. And beyond all this hovers the possibility of Iran going nuclear.

The psychological pressures that push all human beings to the right continue to be very high in Israel, and there is no end in sight. An increasing number of commentators believe that Syria is likely not to survive Assad's fall as a nation state. The ensuing chaos is likely to further destabilize the region, and it will take a long time for the dust to settle and for a new order to emerge.

A cool, dispassionate analysis leads to a clear conclusion: given the Middle East's instability, there will be no center-left government in Israel for the foreseeable future. Israelis will keep the right in power. I don't know of any political analyst who thinks that Benjamin Netanyahu will not be the next prime minister.

He will continue catering to the ultra-Orthodox and the national-religious settlers, and not only because he thinks they are his long-term partners. He also believes that a viable Palestinian state is an existential danger for Israel, and hopes that by maintaining the status quo and expanding the settlements, he will get them to the point of settling for less.

Netanyahu is not opposed to liberal democracy, but he is willing for it to take some hits to stay in power. Some of his coalition partners care little for liberal democratic values, and they are quite willing to sacrifice it for the sake of annexing the West Bank in the long run, because they will not give Palestinians citizenship, while others quite explicitly call for Israel to become a theocracy.

Under these conditions the question is this: What can those of us who do care about liberal democracy, whether inside Israel or among Israel's many friends abroad, do?

I think we need to regroup. There is little use in trying to convince Israelis to move toward historical compromise with the Palestinians in the near future. They will not buy it.

All we can do, for the time being, is defend the structures of civil society and the liberal-democratic institutions that emerged in the first decades of Israel's history: its judiciary, academia, independent media (to the extent they are not already mouthpieces of the government, funded by foreign billionaires) and its art scene.

The good news is that, so far, these structures have proven remarkably resilient - even in the face of the legislative onslaught by the current Netanyahu coalition. If we hang on long enough for the region to gradually calm down (and this could take a long time), Israelis may once again be more open for a commodity that has been very scarce for more than a decade: hope.