by Mitchell Plitnick
At what point is it legitimate and even necessary to dismiss the will of the people in the interest of peace and justice? This is a vexing question when it comes to Israel.
The latest edition of the Peace Index, produced by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), reflects some disturbing findings about the extent to which any effort to change Israel’s policies and actions in the Gaza Strip specifically, and in the Occupied Territories more broadly, is not merely a matter of changing the government’s actions. It necessitates rejecting the will of the Israeli people. Given the vast dichotomy between the respective weights carried by the wills of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, this is a real problem.
For much of the world, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not viewed as a struggle by an occupied and dispossessed people against their occupation. Rather, it is seen as a two-sided conflict between two peoples over a single piece of land. The two formulations are important — one frames the conflict in terms of an imbalance of power, the other does not, and the balance-seeking view is the predominant form of understanding the conflict, especially in terms of diplomacy and mainstream Western discourse. This may not be the case among the general global populace, but it is certainly true in the offices of Washington, Brussels and even the United Nations.
A Sharp Right Turn
The Peace Index’s findings show there is no longer a rightward tilt in Israel — now there is a massive turn in that direction. The numbers are too stark to be written off as the responses of people involved in a conflict which, however one-sided, still involves most of the country rushing to bomb shelters, sometimes multiple times per day. There is something far more fundamental going on here.
There are splits among the Jewish and Arab publics in Israel, as one would expect. There is a good deal there worth exploring, but let’s be realistic: the views of the non-Jewish public — Palestinian or Druze, Christian or Muslim — mean virtually nothing in Israel, nor are they considered much in the halls of the “international community.” So we’re looking at Israeli Jews, whose views are the only ones that carry weight, a fact that says a lot about Israel and how it is viewed in and of itself.
When asked about political identification, “34% of Israeli Jews self-identified as part of the right, 28% as moderate right, 22% as center, 9% as moderate left, and 3% as left.” Crucially, the question specifically related to foreign policy, which is generally understood as related to the Palestinians, the Arab world, and Iran. As in the Jewish Diaspora, many Israeli Jews hold extreme right-wing views on those issues but are very liberal on social and domestic ones.
Let us also recall what the so-called “center” amounts to in Israel. It advocates militarism, completely supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent actions in Gaza, and largely identifies, in terms of the current government, with Yesh Atid, whose leader, Yair Lapid, kicked off his campaign for the Knesset in a settlement and has stated that Israel should not compromise at all on Jerusalem. That’s the “center” in Israel, and it is as good a barometer as you can ask for in assessing how far right the country has shifted.
Much of the world has ignored the facts of how the current violence in Gaza started, and has come to a consensus that Israel was justified in taking some action in Gaza. But that same consensus, even including Washington, has expressed grave concern about the massive number of civilian casualties in Gaza and the numerous incidents of Israel obviously targeting civilians and civilian sites.
But in Israel, the story is very different. From the Peace Index: “Only 6% of the entire Jewish public sees the IDF as having used too much firepower during the operation. The rest of those with an opinion on the matter are almost evenly split between 48% who regard the use of firepower as appropriate and 45% who think the IDF made too little use of it.” That is an astounding consensus in any country. When 93% of any population votes in one vein on a controversial question, one generally suspects the source of the polling, but the IDI’s reputation for honesty is quite solid.
Quieting the Debate
It has long been an article of faith that discussion of the occupation and Israel’s policies is much stronger in Israel. Many supporters of Israel’s policies frequently cite Israel’s “vibrant democracy” in its defense. Even US critics of Israeli policy often plead the case that matters are debated far more openly in Israel than they are here.
That, however, is changing fast. The discourse in the US has certainly widened, at least in the media, where critics of Israeli policies are seen much more frequently in high profile publications — up to and including the New York Times — than ever before. In Israel, however, things are going in the other direction.
Many will look at the Israeli daily Ha’aretz and think the debate is as vibrant as ever, but they’d be misled. Ha’aretz is read more by activists and interested parties outside of Israel than it is in Israel itself. Always a newspaper of the elite, Ha’aretz is now thoroughly marginalized by mainstream Israelis. Instead, Israelis read the more sensationalist, right-of-center papers like Yediot Ahoronot or Ma’ariv. Sheldon Adelson’s far-right tabloid Yisrael Ha’yom has also garnered a large market share.
The result can be seen in the response to the Peace Index question of “…whether, during a military operation, one should or should not limit freedom of expression in the country as far as expressing criticism of the campaign is concerned (not with regard to the illegal disclosure of military secrets).” Here a majority (58%) of the Jewish public favored limiting freedom of expression under such circumstances while only 39% thought freedom of expression should not be limited.
Indeed, during the recent fighting, mobs of right-wing Jewish Brownshirts (there just isn’t anything else to call them) were routinely attacking Arabs and peace protests all around the country. The demonstrations even spread to personal events when right-wingers protested at a wedding between a Jewish woman who had converted to Islam and a Muslim man (had she not converted, the couple could not be legally married in Israel). This is not the Israel of even five or six years ago, but one that has been shaped by increasing tendencies toward the fascist politics of Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, and which is being shaped by racism, militarism and xenophobia. Readers can draw the obvious historical comparisons.
Which brings us back to the question we are most concerned with: Can the will of the people in what is at least a structural democracy simply be ignored? The answer is a resounding “YES!” At some point, justice must take hold. Democracy is not simply mob rule, or even majority rule. Most mid-19th century southerners did not want to give up slavery. Jim Crow laws were not put to a vote, but had they been in, say, 1950, would they have been voted down? We don’t know because that’s not how such matters are decided.
The wanton destruction Israel is wreaking in Gaza right now, its blatant declarations that it will never relinquish control of most of the West Bank, and its adamant refusal to recognize that Palestinians, whether citizens or not, are entitled to the same basic human, civil and, yes, national rights as anyone else, all make outside interference imperative. The will of the Israeli people is moving further and further away from not only any possibility of peace, but any glimmer of hope that a Palestinian who lives anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will ever have any hope of a decent life. That’s exactly when outsiders must intervene, whether the populace of the dominant state likes it or not.
Right-wing Israelis demonstrating at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv in support of Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, while left-wing Israelis rally nearby, July 26, 2014. Credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90