July 30, 2000

Unstable Israel falters in its search for peace

Posted in International Economy ·
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A senior Israeli political adviser once said to me that the only thing that mattered in politics was the ‘three-day rule’. Because the country is so volatile and the media so voluble, he contended that if a government could brazen out a particular crisis for three days, some other crisis would emerge to knock it out of the headlines and the government could live to fight another day. This he suggested is how Israeli governments work and survive.

Even by erratic Israeli standards, the past few weeks have had their fair share of crises and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that something more than effective crisis management is needed if the Israelis are to deliver peace in the region.

The starting point is to appreciate that Israel is becoming increasingly ungovernable and the collapse of the Barak government last month is symptomatic rather than portentous.

Although he managed to cobble together a messy coalition, its shelf-life looks to be about that of a bottle of milk. This very instability at the heart of government precludes the Israelis from closing a deal with either the Palestinians or the Syrians.

It now seems highly unlikely that a single leader or party will command sufficient public support to sign, ratify and implement any lasting treaty. Furthermore, if we acknowledge the central role of the Americans and realise that July is, in effect, the last working month of the Clinton administration, we should not be surprised in the least that the Camp David talks yielded nowt.

Despite all the spin, the two sides are still far apart, and if anything the gulf is widening. On the three substantive issues of Jerusalem, refugees and water, no real progress has been made. The Palestinians sensing Barak’s weakness have hardened their positions, while polls indicate that the Israeli public, equally aware of its own government’s frailty, is unwilling to accede to Palestinian demands.

The vacuum has been filled by confrontational rhetoric, and sabre-rattling seems to have replaced diplomacy for the time being.

In recent years Israeli domestic politics has become Italianised: I am referring here to the series of unstable coalitions which characterised Italian politics through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

This model has spread to Israel. Coalitions are inherently unstable, mired by infighting and bickering and ultimately ineffective. To put his government together Barak had to form a coalition with no fewer than five parties, all with substantially different social, economic and political agendas.

In this environment, the king becomes less important than the kingmaker, leaving us with the situation that no prime minister — whether it is Barak or Netanyahu before him — has total control over his government, let alone the parliament.

When all the presidential rhetoric is stripped back, we see that the position of the Israeli prime minister is in fact extremely weak. The Italianisation of Israeli politics condemns the country to poor governance, and when the governance of a country as crucial as Israel is poor the regional autocracies surrounding it have a great incentive to overplay their hands.

The major reason for Israel’s constitutional mess seems to be the ongoing political struggle for the heart and soul of the Jewish state.

In the past, when war with neighbours was a constant threat, Israeli politics were fairly straightforward. You were either right-wing or left-wing; militarily either a dove or a hawk. These were not mutually exclusive; there were as many hawkish left-wingers as right-wingers. But the point is straightforward: the external threat superceded all else.

Now all that has changed. The peace process gave Israelis the time to focus on the differences between themselves and in tandem the arrival of a million Russians in the early 1990s changed the nature of the country. Most significant has been the emergence of a genuine grassroots populist party with a huge constituency, the Shas party.

Founded in the late 1980s, Shas is now the third largest party in the country and represents the Sephardi population in Israel — those Jews who originated in the Middle East and North Africa, notably Yemen, Morocco and Iraq.

Their grievances are economic, cultural and religious. Typically, they are the poorest section of the society. Culturally, many argue that the elite European Jews who have run the country since 1948 look down on them. Religiously, they appear to subscribe to a more mystical, faith-based form of Judaism.

Shas with its religious overtones and its ambiguity on the peace process, has grown exponentially to become one of the most important players in the Knesset.

The Russians, with their specific grievances and separate identity and language, formed their own party, while various fringe parties have emerged from the extreme right to the extreme left. This process has eroded the grip of the two main parties, Labour and Likud, and in the process has made the country quite ungovernable.

Against this background, and with Barak badly wounded from the Camp David failure, a new election is highly likely — possibly this year.

The major problem is that with the ongoing struggle for the direction and identity of the society, future elections will be equally inconclusive, resulting in a revolving door of bad governments.

The future of the Middle East peace process depends on the Israelis redefining themselves. The more angst and neurosis they display the more frustrated and dejected the Palestinians will become, and with a new man at the helm in Syria keen to prove himself, the combination could be explosive indeed.