Modest Charm Of Nationalism: The End Of The Fair Epoch

By Diana Zisserman-Brodsky | 1996-09-01 12:00:00

"Netanyahu will bring a secure peace!" "Let's make peace secure with Netanyahu!" proclaimed the rightist "National camp" slogans during the recent Israeli election campaign.

In his electoral drive, Netanyahu criticized the Labor government for its partnership with the Palestinian leader, describing Arafat as a "childkiller" and "war criminal." He criticized the Labor party's willingness to give up the Golan Heights as part of the peace agreements with Syria and refused the "land for peace" negotiating formula that the Labor party had adopted in 1992. Expressing his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, he promised to renew development of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

At the same time, Netanyahu affirmed his commitment to the Oslo accords, and his willingness to negotiate with Syrian President Assad. When asked what he would offer Assad in return for peace, Netanyahu said that Israel could ask western democracies to remove Syria from its list of terrorist states. The fact that he presumed to have such influence over a list (that may or may not exist) gave his opponents yet another opportunity to comment on his political immaturity.

While Netanyahu's public appearances - like those of other Likud leaders - may have exposed his lack of political savvy, the leaflets and graffiti that littered the streets reflected the sentiment of the average Jew in Israel: "Netanyahu is good for Jews," "Arabs will vote for Peres," "Bibi or Tibi."1 Heavy handed nationalism dominated Netanyahu's electoral campaign, and seems to have been an effective weapon. There were no more than 30,000 votes (less than one percent) between Netanyahu and Peres, but in the Jewish sector Netanyahu won by eleven percent.

Serious psychological barriers worked against the peace process, not only for militant right-wingers, but for a large number of "ordinary" Jewish citizens. Ethnocentric nationalism, deeply rooted in Israeli society, played an important role in determining electoral behavior, and had more of an effect on the vote than the traditional divisions of "left" and "right."

A "liberated" promised land became a symbol of national pride. A second pivotal idea was that of Jewish dominance in an ethnically diverse society.

The established patterns of collective self-perception portrayed an image of an heroic people struggling every day to defend their children, their state, and their way of life. This struggle was perceived as emanating from the higher, eternal struggle of Jewish people for their existence. This mythological self-perception helped to legitimize both the occupation and ethnic stratification in the eyes of many Israeli Jews.

It was not enough to believe in your "spiritual" right to the "promised land"; to justify building comfortable villas on the site where the Palestinian peasant, his father and grandfather used to graze their cattle. You had to believe that this peasant represented the hostile, outside world, and that his major objective was to ruin your life.

In this respect, Israeli Arabs were often viewed as belonging to the enemy camp, even if they expressed loyalty to the Jewish state. Their subordinated status was seen as a necessary measure of Jewish self-protection, and not as a violation of citizen rights.

The rapid development of the peace process not only made the slogan "land for peace" commonplace, it shook up the complacency of a nationalist conscience, and challenged established patterns of social life. A post-Zionist movement grew out of the Oslo accords and advocated "normalization" or the desire to become like other western nations: a universalist, liberal democratic state based on individual rights that rejected the idea of ethnic domination.

The traditional Israeli position that genuine peace accords automatically guarantee Israeli security has been considerably challenged during the negotiations for peace. An increasing number of people have become aware that peace and security are not synonymous, and that peace does not guarantee freedom from terrorist attacks. Peace agreements create the basis for cooperation on security issues between governments of countries in the region, including Palestinian authorities, which all face the threat of fundamentalist terrorism.

The "national camp" criticized "post-Zionist" ideas, denounced the idea of normalization, and accused Rabin-Peres's government of abandoning traditional, national values for the illusion of a new Middle East, for universalism, and for the "trivial" desire to become like other nations.

To a considerable extent, Netanyahu's election was an emotional reaction to rapidly changing realities. Countering charges by the opposition that the newly-elected government lacked professionalism, Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu's close ally and the new Director-in-General of the Prime Minister's Office, praised the government as "the most Zionist" in the history of Israel. Considering how often the government has declared its commitment to the ideals of Zionism he was probably right.

Ironically, this current trend is inconsistent with the orthodox Zionist doctrine of "mizug galuyot" which anticipated the gradual elimination of ethno-cultural differences and merging of all groups of Jews whatever their cultural background. However, in Israel today ethno-cultural boundaries have not only been preserved but have been translated into political ones. During the elections the polarization of political views along ethnocultural lines was very prominent. Approximately one-third of the total electorate voted for parties championing ethno-religious interests ( a thirty percent increase from the 1992 elections).

The most telling example is the impressive success of the Russian party, which won seven of l20 seats in the newly elected parliament and placed two ministers in Netanyahu's government. During the last 25 years, immigrants from the Soviet Union have made enormous efforts to assimilate into Israeli society. But the same barriers which have divided Israeli citizens into Jew and non-Jew, has separated Jews themselves, by stratifying them according to their country of origin. Confronting symbolic prejudice and discrimination, Russian Jews chose political assertiveness.

Ethnic voting may have a direct impact on the prospects of peace in the Middle East. During the campaign, smaller parties that united on an ethno-religious basis made it clear that they would join whichever coalition won the election. This means that support from these smaller parties on decisions about the peace process would be determined primarily by the government's concessions to their demands. The prime minister, elected by a majority of voters and, consequently, less than ever accountable to his own party, has become the key figure determining the Israeli position and formulating a negotiating strategy.

Netanyahu' s vague political declarations during his campaign has left him room for a lot of political maneuvering as prime minister. In the unanimous assessment of political analysts, Netanyahu is nothing but a tough pragmatic, anxious for personal success. Despite the occasional comment meant to promote peace, the prime minister has tried to impede the negotiating process by avoiding contact with Palestinian authorities, and refusing to take concrete steps toward accomplishing the Oslo accords.

This tactic does not work anymore. The past four years have brought new, internationally recognized standards to the Middle East negotiating process and they cannot be easily discarded. Recent actions by Netanyahu's government (e.g., Foreign Minister David Levi met with Yasser Arafat and even shook his hand), show that he is aware of the negative international reaction to the stagnation of the peace process and has begun declaring his commitment to the Oslo accords. In the near future Netanyahu will meet with Arafat and perform the same symbolic act.

However, he needs to demonstrate much more than evidence of good will. The withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron will complete the implementation of the Oslo II accords, and will pose the first serious test for the new Prime Minister. In the future he must decide on the future of Jerusalem, find a permanent solution to the problem of Palestinian self determination, and face the necessity to trade-off with Syria. How far will he be ready to go to promote peace? Encouraging the negotiating process will secure him an international reputation, and give him the unconditional support of the Israeli Parliament and is not likely to cause any dissent within his party .

The real challenge for the Prime Minister will be to keep the confidence of the thousands voters who secured his victory. Netanyahu, who cynically preyed upon the romantic nostalgia of his electorate and promised them a victory in the race against time will fail to offer a serviceable counterpart to their ruined hopes.

1 Bibi is the common shortform for Benjamin, Netanyahu's first name. Ahmed Tibi is a well-known .Israeli politician and adviser to Arafat.

Diana Zisserman-Brodsky recently immigrated to Canada from Israel, where she worked as a political scientist.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1996

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1996, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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