What The Israeli Election Is Really All About

After more than a hundred days of largely uninspiring, uninformative, useless twaddle, and the commitment of more than 2.3 billion shekels that could have been far more usefully employed, one cannot but come to at least one irrefutable conclusion: Once all the ballots cast in this election have been counted, not one of Israel’s political leaders will be able to claim that he or she speaks for Israel—or even for a majority of Israelis.


Such is the state of the nation. It is leaderless. Worse still, it is directionless.


Amazingly, during this election campaign, the country’s largest party by membership, the Likud, did not even bother to publish a party platform outlying where it thinks the country should go.


And, according to the latest polls, after all the ballots are counted, no single party leader will be able to claim that he or she commands the unswerving support of even a quarter of the electorate. According to these polls, no party is expected to get even 30 Knesset seats—or a quarter of the seats in the legislature.


But of far greater importance, this most recent election campaign has also failed as an exercise in one of the most important aspects of democratic rule. The country’s journalists, taking their cue from the politicians and spinmeisters, as usual, focused, almost single-mindedly, and almost mindlessly on the horse race—in other words, day by day, who was leading and who was losing.


However, real democracy does not just involve choosing the country’s lawmakers and representatives. Even more importantly, election campaigns are one of the few times that members of the public are given an opportunity to hear and read detailed analyses of important issues that they are confronting. And in a properly conducted election campaign, voters are then given the opportunity to debate the relative merits of each proposed solution to each issue so that a consensus can be arrived at, or at least a majority decision can be made on what actions the public’s representatives should pursue in the future.


From the moment this election was called, the Israeli public made it plain that it wanted to focus on domestic issues such as the supply of health and educational services, the high cost of living and the growth in income disparities.


But that was no to be.


That is because, from the outset, Bibi refused to accept the very idea that the public had a right to discuss what was on its collective mind. That, by the way, is not an unusual tack for a failed national leader to take. It is far easier for a political leader to find a foreign issue on which to focus and a foreign scapegoat to blame than it is to confront major issues at home. Just ask Yvette Liberman or Vladimir Putin.


In Bibi’s case, his chosen tack was to focus on Iran and US President Obama. He succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams. Despite all the police investigations and reports about high-level political corruption, despite the mid-campaign publication of the state comptroller’s reports about the high cost of housing, despite the recent revelations about the high cost of maintaining the Netanyahu family in the manner to which it has become accustomed, and despite all the other controversial material that became public during the election campaign, Netanyahu consistently succeeded in setting the political agenda—until almost the very last moment, when he seems to have suddenly realized that most people had stopped listening to what he had to say.


Up to the very last moment Bibi’s acolytes kept criticizing the press for ignoring both Bibi and the Likud’s message. However, an independent monitoring company that provides analyses of media coverage for major corporations found that the prime minister was actually the subject of more than half the media items produced during the campaign. In other words, he got more coverage than all the other party leaders combined. His demand that the election campaign focus only on his fears for Israel’s security and his conspiracy theories that an international cabal was trying to unseat him, combined with the massive coverage by the press that he was afforded, effectively silenced public debate on any other subject.


That people eventually stopped listening to Bibi’s message, though, is significant because it is indicative of just how out of touch he was with the national zeitgeist—the prime reason he was losing voter support.


But Bibi was not alone in his unwillingness to deal with domestic issues in depth. Most of the parties refused to publish comprehensive party platform planks on the real hot-button domestic issues such as health and education policy because that would have meant that these parties were finally accepting the elementary proposition that one of their most important tasks is to enunciate what should be the nation’s policy priorities…and, how any additional government-sponsored services should be paid for. Usually, the Israel’s politicians leave such humdrum work to those taking part in coalition negotiations, lobbyists in the Knesset and bureaucrats’ seeking the easiest way out of any difficulty that they are confronted with.


The parties’ rationale appeared to be that any such decision would inevitably have alienated some segment of the electorate. As we saw from the so-called debate on Channel 2, most of the party leaders preferred to use the tax shekels they had been allotted for the campaign to insult each other instead.


To their credit, Labour’s Manuel Trajtenburg and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahalon did publish detailed, if polar-opposite proposals on how to deal with and pay for poverty-alleviating programmes. But in the absence of any subsequent debate, we never got to even think about which approach might be better or whether Trajtenberg’s social democratically-based ideas could somehow be combined with Kahlon’s market-based proposals.


As I just mentioned, the main rationale behind this sort of behavior seems to have been that, when it comes to final vote counts, Israeli politicians believe that it is more cost-effective not to alienate people by making new proposals than would be if fresh ideas that might be controversial were proposed instead. That reasoning also helps explain the parties’ focus on negative campaigning in general and the media’s focus on personalities and leaders’ foibles.


In my previous discussion about the election, I implied strongly that it was possible that this election might be a turning point in Israeli history. At the time, I laid out some of the micro-trends that are underway in the Israeli political system. This time, though, I would like to try something far more ambitious. What I would like to discuss here is a much broader issue that has been completely ignored by all the critics and all the pundits.


I want to ask, and then answer a seemingly simple question: Is there a single national issue that lies at the heart of and effectively binds all the seemingly-disparate subjects that the public initially said it wanted to debate—whether it is the deterioration in health and education services, the growing number of cases of fraud and corruption that have been brought before the courts in recent years, the increase in the influence of the country’s oligarchs and major corporations, and the growing disparities in incomes?


I believe that there is one such issue. But it would appear that even mentioning it has become so discomfiting to all the country’s politicians that each of them has found that addressing it is simply too painful—or maybe embarrassing—for words.


Put in the simplest terms possible, the issue is: Whatever happened to the social contract upon which public services and the behavioral norms of Israel’s public servants were once based?


The issue of a social contract cannot be underestimated. Countries live and die by the social contact their citizens adopt. Most of the social disorder in Europe today can be traced to the unwillingness of many Moslem immigrants to accept and abide by the existing social contracts the European countries put in place after World War II and after the disintegration of Communism.


And Israelis, of all people, should never forget that the Jews survived their years in the diaspora because of the social contract they created after the destruction of the Second Temple. Among many other things, it included such modern-sounding, sensitive subjects as quality universal education for literacy, pidyon sh’vuim (redeeming captives) and mutual aid.


The rabbis of the Talmud, and, hundreds of years later, the rabbis of the great cosmopolitan trading cities such as Saloniki and Aleppo, devoted much of their intellectual effort to dealing with matters that we today consider to be fundamental aspects of any social contract…be they education for poor children, how to care for widows and orphans, and how to ensure that accurate weights and measures are used in public markets.


In order to properly examine the current state of Israel’s social contract, I will first have to focus on two issues that have also not been mentioned …by anybody…in the election campaign. They are the impact that globalization has had on Israel, and the development of what historian Nils Gilman has called “micro-sovereignties” within the country.


Much of what I have to say about micro-sovereignties has been adapted from Gilman’s superb essay on American micro-sovereignties, titled “The Twin Insurgency” that was published last year in The American Interest magazine.


Over the past decade and more, one thing has become crystal clear to me. Both the long-existing problem of micro-sovereignties and the more recent political, social and economic challenges that have arisen as a result of globalization are challenging the underlying ethos of the entire project of Zionist state-building…and the social contract that Israel’s first Zionist leaders created long before the state was founded.


Social contracts act as a platform and a framework for national, communal action. They are based on the assumption and belief that a nation, as a whole, can come to an unwritten, but almost universally-accepted consensus on which public policies are bedrock expressions of shared values, and what should be the nation’s behavioural norms. Once those ideals, plans for action and descriptions of forbidden behavior have been enunciated, the state, which must then be treated by the contract’s adherents to be a disinterested party if the contract is to actually be implemented, is authorized to intervene in people’s lives in order to implement those policies.


The Zionists’social contract, which found its first, theoretical expression in Theodore Herzl’s Altneuland, became a practical, existential need as early as the first decade of the twentieth century.


The Zionist politicians of the time found that most of the early Jewish immigrants to Palestine were leaving not long after they arrived because their most basic needs were not being met. In reaction, all the Zionist parties at the time, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, committed themselves to the proposition that one of the central tasks of any Jewish-led government in Palestine should be to build and maintain a social infrastructure that all those Jews living in Palestine could believe was of benefit to them both as individuals and as members of a collective seeking internationally-accepted nationhood. Specifically, they promised to raise the standard of living for all—at least as compared to the Arabs—and to ensure that the state-in-becoming would also provide a cushion for those hit by misfortune.


That promise then led the Jewish Agency during the time of the British Mandate, and successive Israeli governments after the foundation of the state, to focus on the creation of human capital through the provision of what Revisionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky in the 1930s called the “Five Mems”—Mazon (an adequate supply of food), Maon (adequate housing), Malbush (clothing), Moreh (an education) and Marpeh (adequate health services). Underlying all these five, was an assumption that these goods could be provided so long as, in return, there was an acceptance by the citizenry that all social services had to be paid for—either through taxation or through services-in-kind such as taking part in public projects or enlisting in the army. Significantly, the unwritten contract held that donations by Diaspora Jews should be used for investment in infrastructure and human capital, not for day-to-day running expenses.


It is difficult for people today to recognize just how revolutionary this latter idea was at the time. Most European Jews at that time had been brought up with the idea that there was a class of Jews, the deeply religious, who were allowed to live off charity—or, what was called “halukah.”


As I will show in a moment, the Zionist’s social contract was often broken by those seeking selfish advantages. Nonetheless, it was sufficiently successful that, at least up to the 1970s, it managed to provide Israeli governments with the trust and legitimacy they needed in order to rule…and the social solidarity that the citizens needed to cope with the existential threats that the country faced.


However, today, as we have seen from all the reports and statistics that have been published recently by government bodies and NGO’s, these foundational principles of modern, Zionist society have been weakened, and for many people, are on the verge of extinction.


To my mind the reason is simple. One aspect of Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael that has been present since the first experiments in Zionist political activism began—the acceptance of and even fostering of micro-sovereignties— has now combined with new supra-political forces that are the product of economic globalization. Together they have produced a social and economic crisis of such proportions that the old social contract is now on the point of dismemberment.


At this point it is worthwhile tracing how and why this destructive process came about.


Since the time of Moses Mendelson an the beginning of the Haskalah Movement at the end of the eighteenth century, Western Jewry has been trying to cope with the need to reconcile traditional Jewish social values with modern economic and political exigencies. The social contract designed by the Zionists was once such experiment. At its heart, it assumed that things like the provision of health care, pensions and education were basic, collective, public goods whose supply should be ensured by the state.


However, beginning in the late 1970s, that approach began to be undermined. The trigger, but not the cause, was the Likud electoral victory.


After having been excluded from office for so long, access to the national treasury for the first time made Likud politicians behave like children in a candy shop. They tried to do too much, too soon—without setting national priorities first. The result was hyperinflation.


Menachem Begin was a dedicated devotee of the old social contract. But his primary interest lay in the field of foreign affairs and security. He therefore left domestic social and economic planning to the other, neophyte and often incompetent members of his cabinet.


Eventually, though, the cabinet had little choice but to employ a remedy to hyperinflation that was not unlike the powerful medications that doctors use to treat life-threatening diseases such as cancer. Like many anti-cancer drugs that are prescribed for humans today, the economic medication that was finally adopted did cure the disease of hyperinflation. However, it also left the Israeli body politic susceptible to debilitating side-effects that had to be dealt with urgently if the nation was to recover its previous vigour. Many of those side-effects, though, have gone untreated to this very day.


The cure for hyperinflation that was adopted entailed a massive reform of the country’s entire economic system. Among other things the individual reforms included a redirection of public spending away from subsidies, the eventual floatation of the shekel, and the adoption of a policy of free-trade. As well, encouraging foreign investment became a government priority, some major state enterprises were privatized, and virtually all of the companies that had been owned by the Histadrut, eventually were sold off to pay the Histadrut’s monumental debts that had been incurred because of its massive managerial incompetence, fraud and a reliance on government perks and protection.


These reforms not only shook the very foundations of the old social contract, they enabled all those who had been seeking an opportunity to make a grab for money and power to manipulate aspects of the new situation for their own benefit.


Those forces, which Nils Gilman calls “micro-sovereignties,” were not new, and had bedeviled the Zionist movement since soon after its inception. Each such group viewed itself as a unique exception to the rules that others believed were binding on all.


In many ways, micro-sovereignties behave in ways that are similar to tribes. Both put their sectoral interests ahead of the well-being of anyone not a member of the organization in question. The only real difference between the two is that micro- sovereignties place mutual sectoral interests ahead of blood-line connections as the primary social glue of their communities.


Significantly, because these bodies cannot supply all their own needs, micro-sovereignties invariably become predatory or parasitic to one degree or another.


They usually acquire their initial strength by taking monopolist control over some, important aspect of the life in the nation-state where they are centred. That monopoly, which can be either legal or illegal, is then leveraged so that the monopolists end up gaining power that is far greater than would otherwise be warranted by the size of the group’s membership.


The first Jewish micro-sovereignty to emerge in Ottoman society was the cartel of orange grove owners. It was soon joined by a new, competing movement of communes that came to be known as the kibbutzim. Those two were soon followed by the creation of yet another monopolist body, the Histadrut.


At their height, the kibbutzim were able to aggregate to themselves enormous state assets such as land, customs protection and government subsidies. And the Histadrut was able to leverage its near-monopoly over access to labour to build a huge industrial and financial empire.


But these bodies were not alone in trying to set up independent power structures. During the1930s, power in Zionist forums was divided between the liberal, bourgeois, free-market-supporting General Zionists led by Chaim Weizman and the Socialists led by David Ben Gurion.


For the first three decades of the Zionist movement, the General Zionists were in almost total control of the movement. However, the kibbutzim and the Histadrut eventually became so powerful and influential that in 1936, David Ben Gurion was able to seize power and take control of the Jewish Agency.


Out of what was perceived to be their need to protect themselves from a socialist onslaught, the anti-socialists then tried to set up micro-sovereignties of their own. The Revisionists, for example, eventually ended up establishing their own trade union and health maintenance organization.


The majority of the anti-socialists at that time, though, were industrialists and financiers who had just arrived—primarily from Hitler’s Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the industrialized parts of Poland. These capitalists were an eclectic bunch who set up among other things, the country’s first steel processing factory and its first pharmaceutical company—both of which are still in existence as Pecker Plada and Teva Pharmaceuticals. With the notable exception of a very few businesses such as the textile plants and Rickard Straus’s dairy in Nahariya, most of these enterprises were monopolies. Most importantly for our purposes, they operated under a gentlemen’s agreement not to step on each other’s toes. The micro-sovereignty of what we today call the “oligarchs” was born.


These various, competitive micro-sovereignties eventually found a modus vivendi. The condominium relationship they created was based on and policed through the use of a modified version of the more theoretical social contract that had been posited by the Zionist politicians in the 1930s. This unwritten and unspoken pact was sufficiently durable that it remained the foundation upon which the Israeli economy was managed during its first two decades of the country’s existence.


The main modification that was adopted and accepted by all the various groups was that each group was free to criticize each and every other group in public for the perks that it had acquired. However, it was considered to be highly improper for any group to openly boast about the selfish benefits that they had gained.


Throughout this period, social stability became dependent on succeeding governments agreeing to maintain a high level of opacity about the advantages they had bestowed on the various groups.


So successful was this arrangement that, even after the Likud’s first electoral victory, most of the country’s capitalist financiers and industrialists continued to vote for the Labour party.


Three successive national traumas shattered that condominium relationship. First, the Six Day War brought with it the occupation of new territories. The Labour party dithered about what to do with these newly-acquired lands. However, the National Religious Party, which had long been a kind of protectorate patronized by the socialists, very soon found a way to use that territorial acquisition as a means to assert its political independence for the first time. Its supporters began that break from the past by adopting the belief structure of Zvi Yehuda Kook, a rabbi who had previously been considered to be a minor religious figure. Kook believed that settlement of the newly-occupied territories by Jews would lead to the Jews’ final redemption. The NRP began to see itself as the agent of that Jewish redemption. To that end, within a very short time, the NRP’s members succeeded in creating an entire, new micro-sovereignty, based on land tenure in the occupied territories and paid for from the public treasury.


Second, the Yom Kippur War undermined the socialists’ control of government and eventually led to the Labour party’s defeat at the polls.


The third upheaval, as I have already mentioned, was triggered by the Likud victory in 1977.
Among many other things, immediately after that election, the new NRP found that it had acquired a monopoly that was even more power-inducing than its previous control over the official rabbinate. It could now determine whether the closely-matched Likud or the socialists would form the next government. The NRP was then able to use this monopoly power to get vast sums of government money for use by the redemption-focussed settlers who had taken control of the party.


Soon after, though, another, new and highly-competitive micro-sovereignty emerged from the backwaters of Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. The Haredim had discovered that the Keynsian welfare state that had been installed as part of the social contract which was binding the rest of the public could be turned into a huge modern example of Haluka. In what seemed to be a modern-day miracle, they, like the NRP, found that simply by supporting one or another of the secular parties that wanted to lead a coalition, they could gain access to tax monies without having to add to that taxation pool, without having to provide services-in-kind such as military service, and without having to abide by any other of the terms of the existing social contract.


All that the otherwise warring and bitterly-competitive Lithuanian-style Haredim and the Hassidic ultra-Orthodox had to do in order to make themselves attractive as potential coalition partners, was to put on a show of unity. This facade then made them appear to be large enough to be considered worthy of taking part in the auction that had already been established by the NRP.


These two new micro-sovereignties were different in many ways from any of the others that had come before. The one characteristic common to all the micro-sovereignties in Israel is that they have always had a utopian bent. This messianism, whether it takes a religious or secular form, has invariably been used by these minorities to justify their parasitic actions. Without exception, they have claimed in the past, and continue to claim, that they are in the van of society and for that reason, everyone else should be grateful for what they are doing—and service them on demand.


However, while the old micro-sovereignties did seek advantages such as customs protection or subsidies, they all operated under the presumption that, in the end, they had to pay their own way—that their contribution to the nation’s financial wealth had to be at least perceived by everyone else to be equal to or be greater than the cost to the treasury of the advantages that they were being given.


By contrast, the two new religious micro-sovereignties believed and still believe that their spiritual contribution to the nation’s wealth through settlement or Torah study was and is at least the equivalent of the financial value that had been created by older existing micro-sovereignties.


No less significantly, the two new groups also began to boast openly to their constituents about their achievements.


Not surprisingly, therefore, during the early 1980s, many more micro-sovereignties began to form. Some of the most powerful ones were created by the works committees in monopolistic government corporations; and these newcomers quickly became as adept as the existing banking cartel, the pharmacists’ cartel, and the coddled export industries at extracting outrageous privileges from the government. This Likud populism frightened many of the more traditional capitalists. And so, in one of those peculiar twists of fate in which Israel seems to specialize, even after the Likud had consolidated its position as the largest single political party by membership, many of the wealthiest capitalists continued to support the supposedly socialist Labour party, while the country’s biggest unions ended up throwing their weight behind the supposedly free market-supporting Likud.


Eventually, the burden of having to feed all these new micro-sovereignties was more than the fragile Israeli economy of the time could take. Compounding the problem was the fact that, once the Likud took office, the kibbutzim and the Histadrut were deprived of the direct and indirect support that previous Labour-led governments had given them. Once that happened, all their acts of mismanagement and their inherent weaknesses came to the fore. Soon, both these bodies most were teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and they then became a greater negative influence on the economy than they had been previously.


The immediate product of all this turmoil—hyperinflation—therefore hit even harder and faster than would have been the case if the Likud had only gorged itself in the candy store called “The Treasury.”.


The recovery from hyper-inflation required American loan guarantees to work. That gave Herb Stein, a Reaganite economist and the American delegate to the committee charged with developing and implementing the needed economic reforms, extraordinary influence.


In essence, the Reagan/Thatcher approach to economic activity that was gaining momentum at the time was based on the belief that if governments became less active in the economy, the economy would become more efficient and everyone would benefit. A major target for economists who supported these leaders’ approach to economics was what Americans have come to call “entitlements.”


In normal, everyday speech, the word “entitlement” usually means that people have the inherent right to expect that the provision of goods and services that satisfy certain human needs will be treated not merely as private forms of wealth, but as public goods and services that can and should be made available equally to all by the state.


However, in recent years, especially in the United States but increasingly in Israel, the word “entitlement” has been turned into a derogatory term by many politicians and civil servants—especially adherents of what is often called the “Chicago School of Economics” or the “Washington Consensus.” Binyamin Netanyahu is one of those fierce believers in the Washington Consensus who have convinced themselves that governments should reduce their activity in the economy, no matter what the social cost may be.


In addition, during the 1980s, Israel was being forced to cope with the impact of yet another combination of Reaganism and Thatcherism…one that was having a growing impact on economies that were competing with Israel for world markets. Both these leaders were convinced that lower taxes, especially lower income and corporate taxes, would lead to greater economic growth. However, this then led to an unprecedented battle between developing nations for foreign investment.


The problem that arose was that, if a country, such as Ireland, chose to adopt the low taxation model, foreign companies, thinking of building a new manufacturing plant overseas would naturally favour the country with lower taxes over ones—such as Israel—that had higher corporate taxes. The two countries then felt compelled to compete over which one could be more accommodating to the potential foreign investor.


All in all, the Thatcherite/ Reagan approach was the very opposite of the Keynesian ideal of building a stable middle class society through demand management of the economy, which had been in place in Western countries since World War II—and which had acted as the philosophical underpinning of the Israeli social contract. At the heart of that philosophy was the belief that all the participants in the economy had to accept certain restrictions and certain social obligations. Arguably, the most important of these was a joint commitment to search for ways to increase productivity and then share those gains in productivity between the investors and the country’ workers so that those workers could then afford to buy the goods that they were producing.


Under the new rules that Israel had begun adopting, though, this obligation virtually disappeared.


In effect, globalization, not just in Israel, has undermined and even destroyed the very idea that industries or financial institutions should become partners in the creation of national collective well-being…or that companies operating within a particular country should have an obligation of some sort to the citizens of that country. The reason for this attitude is simple. Because globalized companies today can be mobile, they feel no obligation to remain in any one country, to adhere to that country’s social contact or to take on any social responsibilities.


Maybe the best example of this process at work in Israel was what happened to the Tnuva company. The endemic inefficiencies at the kibbutzim meant that these collectives found themselves without enough money to provide for those members who were retiring. In desperation they decided to sell a majority stake in their Tnuva food processing cooperative to a British investment company named Apax. Apax’s only concern was to maximize its profits. A huge market study it commissioned found that many of the company’s products such as cottage cheese, had a captive market. The new managers then felt confident that they could raise the prices on many of these products by 30-50 percent without seeing any loss in sales or production.


Until the late 1990s, Israeli food prices were generally lower than those in Europe. Very soon, though, food costs skyrocketed. That was largely because the same, rapacious mindset that had led Apax to invest in Tnuva had led other major Israeli food enterprises to be bought out by foreigners as well. Thus, Ossem is now controlled by Nestle and Blue Band was bought by Unilever.


But the Israeli food industry is not the only group of enterprises that has been affected by the norms being imposed by globalized investors. Even Israel’s flagship, locally-created, high-tech industries are being heavily influenced by foreign investors who adhere to the principles of economic libertarianism as set out in the Washington Consensus.


For example, one fundamental belief associated with the Washington Consensus is that extreme wealth, even if it is in the hands of the few, will eventually trickle down and enhance the well-being of everyone else. But in Israel, this has simply been untrue. Huge profits have been made by individual entrepreneurs through the sale of high-tech companies. But this has essentially involved the sale of Israeli-developed patents to companies abroad. Few peripheral jobs in administration, management or production have been produced. The new owners of the patents, such as Facebook, usually see no reason to contribute to the Israeli society that produced these goods; and all too often even the R&D labs that produced the patents were closed soon after the patents were transferred abroad.




Overall, in Israel, the breakdown in the social contract has been most manifest politically by the elimination of the use of the principle of majority rule in the production of government policy decisions, and its replacement by the current system under which micro-sovereign minorities band together either openly or not…and then negotiate among themselves, sometimes in the open, but usually behind closed doors, together with pliable Knesset members on how to apportion the national cake so that it best serves their narrow interests.


In addition, the old social contract was almost totally dependent on the politicians’ capacity and willingness to foster the citizenry’s trust in the three branches of government to act in a fair manner over the long term—and to impose the principle of fairness on others. However, the adherents of the political system that has now emerged have felt a need to justify their selfish approach and many of their inherently unfair and even illegal actions, and so they have, instead, spent enormous efforts trying to undermine and delegitimize the old system. In particular the religious micro-sovereignties claim that Israeli governments and especially the secular judiciary have consistently proven themselves to be inherently untrustworthy. Therefore, the religious micro-sovereignties claim, they have a right to protect themselves and their beliefs by acting as they do—regardless of the impact that their actions may have on others in the society.


The growth in the number and size of so many non-religious micro-sovereignties has created a different, but no less equally socially-destructive set of economic problems.

For example, as income and corporate taxes fell under the influence of Netanyahu and his economically like-minded allies, Israel became ever more reliant on regressive indirect taxes, such as VAT, whose burden falls disproportionately on lower-income groups that have to spend more of their income on sheer survival than the rich (who can save or invest some of their income). Fifteen years ago, revenues from direct taxes, which are more progressive, were 1.5 times the revenue from indirect taxes. In recent years, the ratio has fallen to 1:1 and in some years indirect taxes have actually brought in more than direct taxes such as income and corporate taxes.

As the Haaretz newspaper recently pointed out, in the 1980s, Israel’s tax burden was 10 percentage points higher than the average for developed countries. By 2000, it had dropped to 35.3% of GDP, about the average for OECD countries. Since then is has declined to just 30.6%, lower than most of the OECD.

The lower tax burden has come at a cost…in the form of less government spending and fewer, increasingly poorer-quality government services. In 2013, in the average OECD country, government activity accounted for 47% of GDP. In Israel it was 40%, putting it at close to the bottom of the developed nations. This, in practical terms, has meant that there has been less money for health, education and welfare.

Another major economic distortion that the system of micro-sovereignties has created has been the advent of a crazy quilt of tax exemptions specifically designed to benefit each tiny, but powerful business-oriented minority in the country. Believe it or not, the finance ministry has estimated that if all these exemptions were eliminated, tax revenues would rise by an incredible 52.6 billion shekels per year. Even if only small part of that sum could be recovered, Israel would be able to virtually eliminate poverty, school overcrowding, hospital overcrowding and still have lots of money left over for fixing roads that produce deadly traffic accidents.

Initially only the voiceless and politically-impotent poor were affected by these developments. However, following the turn in the millennium, the middle class began to be affected too. In order to compete in the global marketplace and satisfy the demands of the increasing number of foreign investors and shareholders, Israeli companies too began feeling increasingly obligated not only to raise prices to the public, but also to ignore one of the most fundamental articles of the unwritten social contract—that productivity gains should be shared reasonably between labour and capital. Once this breach in the social contract became a chasm, the wages of the members of the middle class began to stagnate. Just yesterday, the Central Bureau of Statistics published a table showing that average salaries today are lower in terms of their real purchasing power than they were in 2001.


As a result of this development, the members of the middle class began to protest too. One result was the street demonstrations of the summer of 2013.




All this background now brings us now to the current election campaign.


Conventional wisdom says that this election is between two blocs—one that supports Netanyahu for prime minister and another that opposes him vehemently. The pundits further claim that the primary battle between these two blocs is whether the members of the public should cast their ballots on the basis of security and defence issues and thus support Netanyahu, or make social and economic issues the national priority and vote for the anti-Netanyahu camp.


I would like to assert that something far more fundamental and even revolutionary is now underway. If one looks very closely at the make-up of the two camps, one can see that the real issues that are as stake are not those upon which the pundits have focussed. For example, the Haredim are a critical component of the pro-Bibi camp. Without them Netanyahu will be unable to form a rightist coalition after the elections are over. However, the Haredim don’t give a fig about security and defence issues.


The real and only absolute division between the two camps lies elsewhere. The fact is that every member of the pro-Bibi camp supports the continued existence of micro-sovereignties, while, with the exception of some Meretz folks and a few Labour old-timers, the anti-Bibi camp is made up almost entirely of those who oppose the continued existence of national micro-sovereignties because they distort government spending priorities.


To put my thesis in the simplest terms possible: If I had to describe the central political conflict in this election in one sentence, it would be that the electoral battle we have been witnessing has not been between “left” and “right,” but rather between those who seek to renew the old social contract and those who wish to defend the political and economic worldview that has replaced it.


This conflict is not new. One of the major battlegrounds where it was played out during the past year was the Knesset Finance Committee. The young rebels in Labour who became public figures during the 2013 summer consumer revolt, specifically Stav Shafir, Itzik Shmueli and Merav Michaeli, used that forum to trying to dismantle the primary political framework upon which the micro-sovereignties (including those associated with the Labour party) had depended for so long. Their primary objective was to tackle the lack of transparency that had enabled all Israeli governments to transfer funds out of sight of the public to favoured micro-sovereignties after the budget had been formally passed by the Knesset plenum.


The iconic moment in this battle came when Shafir was videoed in a battle with Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Nissan Slomiansky as he tried to transfer millions of shekels to organizations associated with the settler movement—without a majority of the committee’s members being present.




This election, therefore, should be viewed not as an isolated event, but as one small stepping-stone in a much larger process that has been going on for hundreds of years as Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, try to fashion a political and economic philosophy that is based on traditional Jewish values and practice, but which can also cope with current social and economic forces that are often very much at odds with Biblical and Talmudic tenets.


As for the future…During this election campaign, two parties, Yesh Atid and Kulanu, have promised that, if elected, they will attack the micro-sovereignties issue by demanding that adherence to basic principles of “fairness” and “equality” be imposed on all the existing micro-sovereignties.


But that may be easier said than done.


For example, while the campaign was on, Labour leader Yitzchak Herzog put a considerable effort into publicly meeting with and courting many of the Haredi leaders whose support he may need in order to form a government if asked to by President Rivlin. These religious leaders have already stated that they will not accept many of the reforms that those seeking to renew the old social contract are demanding. For example, the Haredim have already let it be known that their first demand for entering into a coalition will be the abolition of the recently-passed law making draft-dodging by the Haredim a criminal offense, just as it is for non-Haredim. Bibi has already promised that if returned to the prime ministership he will bow to these demands.


Therefore, if I were to offer a projection it would be this: In Israel, it is rare for single events, such as this election campaign, to change entrenched political and social norms. Such changes require long processes and multiple shocks to the body politic before they are implemented.


That is the reason why so little happened following the rebellion of the summer of 2013, and why so many pundits quickly claimed that the social revolt had played itself out. However, as can be seen from the current election campaign it is clear that the revolt did not die. Its supporters just simply needed time to find a different venue and a different format through which they could express themselves again.


In a sense, what we have been seeing recently, over a period of years, bears remarkable similarity to the more-than-decade-long process that led to Labour’s overthrow in the 1970s. Stripped of all its embellishments, that train of events was all about the unfairness shown toward and the arrogance shown by the micro-sovereignties supported or tolerated by Labour…just as the process we are now in, when stripped of its embellishments, is all about the unfairness that has been shown toward and the arrogance that has been exhibited by micro-sovereignties that have been supported by or tolerated by the Likud.


If that is true, it is likely the process we are now witnessing, will be just was extraordinarily messy, as full of ups and downs, and as laden with totally unanticipated consequences as was the previous process.


Clearly, the outcome of this particular election and the subsequent coalition negotiations will remain uncertain for only a short while. However, no matter what the results of these events are, they will not in any way, resolve any of the basic conflicts and problems confronting Israeli society. That is because it is highly unlikely that, given the current political balance of power, the issue of a new social contract will even be raised by the new prime minister in the near future. In the absence of a resolution of the conflict between those seeking a renewed social contract based on a national consensus and those content and even happy with rule by a federation of powerful, selfish minorities, it also now seems highly likely that the period after the next government is formed will be characterized by even more social upheaval and political uncertainty than we have witnessed to date.

The Success or Failure of the Peace Talks is not Contingent on the Outcome of the Current Election Campaign

I have been studying Israel and the Middle East and Israel in detail for almost fifty years, and I have come to one irrefutable conclusion. Modern Israel has produced almost as much as and maybe even more mythology than did ancient Greece.


In most places, myths are used to try to explain things that are inexplicable using the information and the intellectual tools that are available to that society. Israel, though, is a different case. Most of the information and all the intellectual tools needed to discover the truth are available. But for any number of reasons, people refuse to use the assets at their disposal. Instead, all too often, they take a few, highly-selective facts and then mold those facts in such a way that they then reinforce these individuals’ existing personal ideologies or prejudices, or their belief in where their own interests lie. From my experience, almost never is an attempt made to examine the raw data available, get inside Israelis’ heads or ask even the simplest, most obvious questions about what makes Israelis tick, and therefore why they act as they do.


Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the peace process. So what I want to do in the rest of my remarks is to separate the facts about the peace process from some of the myths that surround it.


In order to do so, I have to start with the basics. I’ll begin with a short description of the protagonists.


Much of Israel’s image abroad, and much of the mythology about Israel, has been fashioned by the spinmeisters for those who have tried to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and have come away frustrated and angry that their efforts have come to naught.


Most of those mediators have been American diplomats. These diplomats have one basic mandate: to foster American commercial and political interests abroad. In order to pursue that objective they are trained to maintain contacts with foreign countries’ elites, to provide humanitarian aid to those in distress, and to mediate disputes. When they try to mediate quarrels, they invariably use the doctrine formulated by the Harvard team on negotiating. That doctrine states that there are two ways to negotiate—Track I, by elites talking to elites and Track II, through small group decision-making. Although the Americans profess to believe in democracy, their diplomats are therefore snobs who have consistently shown themselves to be totally uninterested in mobilizing popular support abroad for their efforts.


The media too have played a major role in fashioning Israel’s image. They have done so largely by refusing to investigate or to even mention many of the subtleties and nuances that are an integral part of the ongoing conflict. Worse still, though, in their search for simplicity, they ignore many of the most fundamental realities and huge processes that shape Israelis’ thought and actions.


For example, pundits of all descriptions make great hay about the splits in Israeli society—between the religious and secular, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between the left and the so-called “right.” The list of these divisions seems endless. But one division—to my mind the most important one—almost never gets any play in the media. It is the fact that, since it was founded, the Zionist movement has been divided most clearly between what I call “true believers” and rationalists. Israel could not and would not have been founded, and could not and would not have survived, without both dreamy romantics and hard-nosed realists. The romantics were willing to undergo great hardship including draining the swamps and settling in often inhospitable places. But the realists too made their contribution by, among other things, agreeing to the UN partition resolution, despite strong domestic opposition.


Regrettably, in the past few years, those thoughtful rationalists in Israel who are not on the journalists’ list of elite interviewees have been largely ignored because they do not produce the sound bites and the kind of drama that the media craves.


Recently, for example, more than a hundred top generals, former heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad published an ad in Israeli newspapers demanding that, since the talks with the Palestinians have failed, the government should try to negotiate a deal not just with the Palestinians, but also with the whole Arab world.


Their joint effort was more than just a statement of ideology. It was the product of an attempt by top security professionals by to clarify some of the most basic issues preventing the crafting of a peace agreement.


The ad was duly reported in some foreign newspapers, but then, was just as quickly forgotten.


I don’t have access to the state secrets that led this particular group of security experts to come to the conclusions that they have reached. However, what I can do is to put their effort into perspective. In particular, what I would like to do is to use the data available from open sources, in order to explain how their appeal fits into the overall approach to peacemaking being taken by Israeli rationalists.


In order to do so, however, I first have to debunk one of the most pervasive myths of all—that a shift to the right by Israelis has made peacemaking more difficult.


In order to do so, I first have to provide you with some basic information, some of which has rarely if ever seen mentioned in the media.


First, all the public opinion polls taken over the past half century indicate that more than half of the Israeli public takes rational, centrist positions on most matters. For all the yelling and screaming that goes on there, the fact is that most Israelis actually exhibit considerable probity and a capacity to prioritize issues.


In general, those polls that are mentioned in the media consistently show that Israeli Jews are hawkish on security matters. What the media too often fail to report, though, is that these same Israelis are also more dovish than is generally believed when it comes to issues related to the peace process.


The internal intellectual and emotional conflict that this ambivalence produces, has then led a majority of Israelis to reach many conclusions that myth-makers prefer to ignore.


For example, contrary to conventional wisdom, Israeli Jews, in general, have, in fact, become more dovish over the years. For example, most people don’t recognize that public support for the establishment of a Palestinian state tripled between 1987 and 2006 from 21 percent of the Jewish populace to 61 percent.


There has been somewhat of a drop in that level of support, by about 8 percentage points, in recent years. But it’s not that Israelis have shifted decisively to the ultra-nationalist camp, it’s that, as the peace-making process proceeded, the Israeli public lost faith in the Palestinian leadership, which came to be viewed as weak, rigid, and unwilling or unable to compromise.


Today, only 44 percent of Israelis believe that the Palestinians want peace; and only 31 percent believe that a peace agreement is achievable under current circumstances. For example, 89 percent of Israelis believe that there is little or no chance that Hamas will ever recognize Israel’s right to exist.


Nonetheless, even now, 58 percent of Israeli Jews support the evacuation of settlements in the occupied territories as part of a peace settlement. That is an important figure because the polls also show that only 42 percent of Israelis oppose expanding settlements now.


The reason for this seeming contradiction, readiness to accept foreign criticism about settlement construction, and willingness to waste resources and money is that the majority feels that an open conflict with the settlers at this time would not be worth the effort and the social cost. That cost would only become bearable if and when the Palestinians publicly agree to concessions that the Israeli public deems important.


It is noteworthy that 91 percent of the public believes that if a true peace settlement were signed the country could cope with the domestic upheaval that an evacuation of settlements would probably entail. Israelis, though, don’t want to even think about dealing with the issue until they have something more concrete in hand.


Significantly, despite the current high level of pessimism, the vast majority of Israelis do want the peace talks to be renewed no matter what. Only 19 percent of the public oppose such talks. Moreover, 53 percent say that the negotiations should be directed at establishing a Palestinian state. That bare majority, though, rises to a non-ignorable national consensus level of 64 percent when the process is worded as establishing “two states for two peoples.”


According to the staffers of the National Institute for Strategic Studies who gathered these data, the number of supporters for establishing a Palestinian state is fluid and could rise quickly if current circumstances change. That is because the so-called “right” of the political spectrum is not as strong as it has been made out to be by its friends and foes alike.


I can make that claim because, unlike many pundits, I have carefully examined the country’s voting patterns.


Over the past decade and a half, participation in Israeli elections has fallen from an average of 80-85 percent to 62-65 percent. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox and extremist, neo-nationalist Knesset members for the following reasons:


First, there has been a massive change in voting patterns by the country’s Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Up to the turn of the millennium, about 85 percent of Israeli Arabs voted in general elections. About half of those votes went to left-wing Zionist parties. However, in October 2000, rioting and demonstrations broke out in Israeli Arab towns. Thirteen Arabs were killed by Israeli police gunfire. Young Israeli Arabs became disillusioned that they would ever be able to influence Israeli politics, and so stopped voting in national elections. By 2013, overall Arab participation in national elections had fallen to 53 percent. A bout half of the Arabs’ votes had gone to left-wing, Jewish-led parties, and so it was they who were hurt the most by the Arabs’ abstention from voting.


Second, an analysis of the raw data shows that the fall in the number of Jews voting in general elections is not as great as is currently believed. The raw data show that 73 percent of those Jews actually present in the country continue to vote in national elections.


However, the electoral base of the Likud and the right is made up disproportionately of lower middle class and lower class citizens. Therefore, unlike the centrists and those on the left, a greater proportion of those who oppose the peace process tend not to be absent from the country on election day because they usually do not work abroad, tend not to take sabbaticals, and don’t take long treks to India or South America after their army service.


In addition, pundits make the mistake of lumping the ultra-Orthodox into the so-called “right-wing” camp. The ultra-Orthodox parties do support Likud-led coalition, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the neo-nationalists’ stance on the peace process. They join Likud-led coalitions because they have found the Likud to be more willing than other parties to fund ultra-Orthodox institutions and social programmes.


It is true that the ultra-Orthodox are becoming more intemperate when it comes to issues related to the Arabs. The NISS estimated that today only a quarter of the ultra-Orthodox take centrist positions on relations with the Arabs, while half now support the agenda of the extreme nationalists.


Parenthetically, this movement to the extreme nationalist side can be explained in large part by the fact that those who support dovish positions tend to be better educated, wealthier and have served in the army. As well, a Haifa University study has found that, in general, those who serve as army conscripts finish their military service more sensitive to minority interests, more committed to democracy and minority rights, and more dovish. Not only are the ultra-Orthodox the least educated, the most sequestered, and the poorest members of Jewish society, they do the least army service. (Less than a quarter have ever donned an army uniform, and the vast majority of those who did, became religious only at a later stage in their lives).


The ultra-Orthodox also do not watch the television news and do not read popular, secular newspapers that feature debates on the relative merits of peace-related issues.


Therefore, when pollsters interview ultra-Orthodox Jews and then aggregate their findings with the rest of the data that they have assembled, the resulting statistics show a real and significant growth in support for the neo-nationalist camp.


However it is also important to recognize that this shift in personal opinions will have almost no effect on support for a peace agreement if one is eventually negotiated. That is because almost all the ultra-Orthodox rabbis remain committed to the belief that a peace agreement is necessary to save lives.


Therefore, because of the hierarchical nature of their societies, the ultra-Orthodox masses will, in the end, support their rabbi’s positions rather than abide by their own consciences and prejudices.


However, these are not the only explanations why popular perceptions about the neo-nationalists’ strength are incorrect. Another important reason for this widespread misperception is that there has been a significant change in support for the most raucous, verbose and colourful political fringes; and it is they who invariably get the most media and therefore the most world public attention.


In the past ten years, the extreme left has been eviscerated. Its popular support fell from 10.5 percent in 2005 to 3.6 percent in 2009. By contrast, the extreme nationalist camp’s popular support went up…by two thirds…from 13.6 percent to 20.1 percent—largely at the expense of the centrist moderate right. This then made it appear that Israelis were shifting to the right at the expense of the centre, which was not true. In terms of pure size, the rational Israeli political centre has remained solid over decades.


Overall, an NISS poll that I have never seen reported in the media has found that 37 percent of the national religious camp, 51 percent of non-Orthodox but traditional Jews and 69 percent of the secular support the establishment of a Palestinian state. I personally found the fact that 37 percent of the religious nationalist camp supports the establishment of a Palestinian state even before serious talks get underway again to be a particularly striking figure.



When all these factors are taken into consideration, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that if a peace agreement with the Palestinians is finally negotiated, not only would a majority of the public support it if a referendum were held—as the neo-nationalists are now demanding—support for such a treaty would likely be so great that it would be able to be called a “consensus.”


At this point, I should explain what I mean by a consensus, and why reaching a consensus, rather than relying only on majority support is so important in Israel.


History has shown that, in Israel, even majority public support for a particular issue has often been insufficient to overcome the influence and myth-making capacity of sectoral lobbyists. For that reason, over the years, the most formidable force in Israeli democratic politics has become not elections, but the construction of a national consensus. Every prime minister who has defied a national consensus has been defeated at the next election. Those prime ministers who have been able to build a consensus or those who have followed the dictates of an existing one have been able to withstand all domestic and foreign pressures.


Because of the numerous clefts in Israeli society, all national consensuses have to be constructed from scratch. Inevitably, they are the product of ad hoc coalitions that are formed to support a particular issue, which then needs to gain the backing of 61-67 percent of the public for a period of six months or more. Why 61 and 67 percent? It’s simple. The minorities who actually control matters in Israel because they hold the balance of power in the Knesset—such as the various religious parties—are always happy to press their agendas when they have only a bare plurality of support, not even a majority. But when the public unites behind an issue that is opposed by one or more of these minorities, these extremely vocal groups demand that the decision be made by what they call an “absolute majority (which is 60 percent of the population), or what they call “an overwhelming majority” (which is two-thirds of the population).

Therefore, before even beginning to launch a peace-making effort, a mediator should ask one question that, to the best of my knowledge, no mediator has asked: What would it take to gain the overwhelming support of the Israeli public?


Clearly, the first step should be to set a popularly-accepted objective for the peace talks. Here a bit of simple arithmetic comes in handy. The NISS poll showed that 38 percent of Israelis believe that the most important national value should be to preserve the Jewish majority in the country, while 37 percent said that creating a condition of peace should be the highest value. Both groups put “preserving democracy,” as their second most important priority. Bingo! By combining all three phrases together—peace for a Jewish and democratic state you can to assure a potentially huge majority of public support…75 percent of the Jewish public.


American would-be mediators have done just that. But just stating this goal has obviously been insufficient to get the talks going again. That is because, at the moment, there is no real domestic pressure on the Israeli government to do so. Threats from the US and Europe to apply sanctions, and efforts by non-governmental groups such as the BDS (boycott, divestment sanctions) movement to punish Israel have had no effect.


I would like to suggest that they have all failed to influence the Israeli public because they remain too ignorant about Israeli society…or have refused to accept the fact that Israelis have a very different way of going about decision-making than almost everyone else.


One of the most important aspects of Israeli public discourse—and one that divides the rationalists from the romantics, the messianists and the redemptionists—is also one that international mediators have consistently ignored. The messianists and the redemptionists claims are invariably based on a set of beliefs. The rationalists’ on the other hand, usually demand that the debaters arrive at agreed criteria for judging a situation before they reach a conclusion so that the conclusion can be judged on its worth as defined by those agreed criteria.


One thing that I have consistently found is that foreigners are almost totally ignorant of just how pervasive this contest between belief-driven policy-making and the demand for criteria-based decision-making is in Israel.


For example, to use a non-peace-related case in point, it is not unusual for the Supreme Court, before publishing a ruling on whether a particular law is constitutional or not, for the Court to demand that the government explain in detail what will be the criteria used if and when the law is implemented.


Thus, when the government announced that it would be building the new city of Harish in central Israel, the Court demanded to know what would be the criteria for selling flats and land in the area. When the government’s response showed that the ultra-Orthodox would be heavily favoured, the Court demanded that either the criteria be changed or the law would be declared unconstitutional because the criteria gave unequal, and therefore constitutionally unacceptable, preference to ultra-Orthodox home buyers.


I cannot emphasize enough that this search for criteria applies to all the existential debates that take place in the country—especially those related to the peace process. This process reaches its peak when the “wisdom of crowds” is used to determine what those criteria should be.


And now I come to the primary point I want to make—one that I have never seen mentioned anywhere.


Long ago, in what was one of the most extraordinary exercises in democracy to have ever taken place anywhere, a majority of the Israeli public decided that, even before peace negotiations take place, criteria must be established for judging whether the other side to a peace negotiation was likely to abide by the agreement after it was signed. In other words, even before discussions on borders or water allocations or security measures begin, the majority of Israelis want to be sure that both sides actually want a deal and that the other side will abide by that agreement if a formal pact is signed.


For that reason, in the wake of the Sadat peace initiative, and for almost a decade, from 1977 until the first Intifada broke out in 1987, pundits, active and retired politicians, retired army officers, high school principals, academic specialists and seemingly anyone else with an opinion used op-eds, letters to the editor, radio and television talk shows and radio call-in shows to voice their views on this subject.


What made this exercise even more extraordinary was that the public engaged in this lengthy debate despite years of having been trained and badgered by Israeli and foreign politicians and diplomats into believing that only the elites are equipped with the specialist knowledge needed to judge the value of any peace proposal.


Nonetheless, the Israeli public persisted. And the results were nothing less than extraordinary because they were revolutionary in both their content and their approach. Even more importantly, they were prescient. In particular, they predicted the failures of diplomatic initiatives that were to come, such as the Oslo accords.


The debate began when Anwar Sadat announced that he would go anywhere, “even to the Knesset in Jerusalem” to make peace. Once the Israeli government had accepted his offer and had formally invited him to come, though, the first thing that the Israeli Chief of Staff, Motta Gur did was to put the Israeli army on its highest state of alert.


Gur feared that Sadat’s visit was an elaborate ruse, and that it could be just a cover for another surprise attack by Egypt, as had occurred in such a devastating fashion in 1973. Gur was not alone in thinking that this was an act of deception—or at best, a bit of diplomatic theater.


The reason was that Sadat’s announcement challenged all the conventional wisdom of its day. That so-called “wisdom” proclaimed that Egyptians, because of their hatred for Israel, were incapable of making peace. And, of course, at that time, the Israelis were still recovering from the psychological burns they had suffered during the Yom Kippur War. Prior to the war, military intelligence had had all the concrete information—in the form of wireless intercepts and aerial photographs—that it needed in order to judge that Egypt and Syria were preparing for war. However, using their own “rational,” analysis, based on the reigning conventional wisdom that Egypt would be foolish to go to war against Israel’s superior army, the Israeli analysts made the fatal assessment that war was not an option for Egypt or Syria.


They had failed for the same reason that so many intelligence assessments fail—an inability by analysts to get inside the mind of the opponent in order to judge his or her intent to use the assets at his or her disposal. Gur was determined that he would not be taken in by Sadat, as his predecessors had been.


The twin embarrassments of having failed to accurately assess both Sadat’s intent to make war and his intent to make peace, though, then set off an epidemic of soul-searching among the Israeli public. The very idea that they might blow an opportunity to resolve the Israeli-Arab dispute in the future was gut-wrenching.


In the end, the Israeli public was able to come up with a set of criteria for judging intent that has proven to be almost infallible over a period of more than three decades.


* * *


Before going into those criteria in detail, though, I should lay out the presumptions that I found in re-reading more than 5,000 articles, letters to the editor, and notes I took while listening to radio and television talk shows. The first was that a prior consensus within Israel on whether a peace making effort appears to be genuine, not just a post facto acceptance of an agreement drafted by the elected leadership, is essential. The Israeli public, preoccupied with making a living, picking up the pieces from failed government policies, and fighting a constant guerilla war with the bureaucracy, believes it needs some clear, agree-upon guidelines for itself before it can decide whether it should be roused to take the enormous effort necessary to come out en masse to support one particular so-called “peace proposal” or another.


A second was that the public agreed with the elitists, and was quite open about the fact that it did not have the specialists’ technical knowledge needed to judge whether a particular technical detail such as whether this hill or that, or whether this or that crossroads was worth giving up…or had to be kept in order to maintain national security. The public’s working assumption, though, was that if specific technical points did become a matter for popular decision-making, there were enough pundits who had retired from the military or the diplomatic service to provide the different points of view necessary to come to a reasoned decision.


A third presumption, and this was a revolution in diplomatic practice, was that the public could assess the intent of the other side without having secret material in hand. The assumption here was that while the elites may have been privy to secret facts, the public would be able to weigh the crucial issue of intent based on the statements being made and the actual public behavior of the other side. Put in clichéish terms, the Israeli public’s thesis was that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck and swims like a duck…it’s a duck. All that is needed in order to judge the other side’s intent is for people to come up with clear criteria for what constitutes positive or negative actions; assess all the public statements available to see if they contain real value; and take careful note of all of the speech and behavior patterns of the other side.


The fourth presumption was that although the elites could construct a technical framework for a peace agreement, it would be of no value and could even be harmful to Israel if the intent of the other side was to use that framework for mischief, and not for creating a lasting peace.


As unspoken assumption, but an underlying theme that ran through many of the commentaries was that these same criteria could also be used by Israelis to judge their own government’s intent.


Fulfilling these criteria is easier said than done. To my mind, the singular failure of all foreign mediation efforts has been the refusal by the mediators to accept that if they are to create an Israeli consensus in support of their efforts, they must first prod both sides to respond openly to and then prove that have accepted the criteria that have been established.


It is important to recognize that these ideas were not seen by the writers of these articles as being absolute preconditions for beginning negotiations (which would have just delayed the talks) but rather as preconditions for the success of the talks.


While no formal public opinion polls were taken to judge the precise degree of public support each of these criteria had, there was not a single objection to each of the following suggestions in any of the articles and letters-to-the-editor that I read. They can therefore be assumed to have produced a national consensus. I very much doubt whether any of you would have a fundamental objection to any of these criteria


The first and most important criterion that the Israeli public set has also been the very reason why every round of negotiations with the Palestinians has so far collapsed. It states that the aim of negotiation must be the creation of what has been called “an end point.” In other words, the sides must agree in advance that any signed agreement will mark the absolute halt to any further claims each side may have had on the other. Moreover, in order to assure that this will take place each side must agree to a formal renunciation of violence to settle any future disputes that may arise.


This condition may seem to be self-evident. Anwar Sadat, from the very outset of his initiative, and even before formal negotiations had begun, didn’t just call for peace—a word which even at that time had had lost all meaning because of misuse—he also called out loudly for “No more war.”


To date, while he has rejected violence as a means for gaining his political objectives, Abu Mazzen has refused to accept the demand for an end point; and Hamas has refused to give up the notion of armed struggle. Most of the Israeli analysts I have spoken to believe that Abu Mazzen’s refusal arises from an unwillingness by the Palestinians to give up their belief in and their campaign on behalf of the right of any Palestinian or his or her progeny to return to their ancestral home. These analysts believe that unless the Palestinians at some point give up the dream of being able to return to the homes they or their ancestors lived in up to 1948, any agreement will be considered by the Palestinians to be an interim, one—not a lasting one.


In other words, even if all the technical issues involved in creating a peace agreement can be resolved, the success of such an agreement may ultimately depend upon both sides (including the Jewish settlers) agreeing to give up their inalienable right to dream—and, even more so, their inalienable right to voice their dreams.

Second, each side must demonstrate that its government is sufficiently stable domestically that it can carry out the terms of the agreement once the pact is signed. In the case of Israel, this means that the government of the day must be capable of winning a vote of confidence in the Knesset on this issue. When Ehud Barak disobeyed this rule and tried to push forward with his talks with Yassir Arafat despite the fact that he had a lame-duck minority government, he was punished not only by seeing the talks collapse, but also by losing the next election by a humungous margin.


Since none of the Arab states is expected to turn into a full-fledged liberal democracy soon, their leaders, instead, are expected to be able to show, by a repeated series of acts, that they are at least in control. In particular, the leader must be able to prove that all the armed forces have remained loyal to the government. Both Anwar Sadat and King Hussein were ruthless in cracking down on their political opponents, and in using their security forces to do so.


One of the main reasons why the Oslo accords broke down was that, from the outset, Yassir Arafat was the antithesis of such a leader.


However, not all the fault lies with the Palestinians. Israel’s chronically weak and dysfunctional governments have been unable or unwilling to control their own extremist vigilantes, most notably blatant law-breakers such as the so-called “hill-top youth” (many of whom are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane), as well as other miscreants who have attacked Palestinians, uprooted their orchards, poisoned sheep and defaced mosques. Moreover, illegally-built settlements remain in place, illegally-built buildings remain standing, and some Supreme Court decisions to destroy them have not been carried out.


Third, on fundamental issues, the leader must be able to show that he keeps his word. This then makes him appear to be predictable. More than anything else, even in their own governments, Israelis have sought stability through predictability. The greatest single complaint that has been made against Netanyahu by all sides in Israel is that he has waffled on almost every major issue, and he has often reversed himself. It is ironic that it took Obama’s demands that Israel halt Jewish construction in Jerusalem for Netanyahu to finally take an unshakable stand on an issue.


Sadat, recognizing that the Israelis simply didn’t believe that he was a person of any stature, deliberately set about recreating his image—first by declaring, in 1972, that the coming year would be a “year of decision,” then by going to war, and finally by scrupulously keeping to the disengagement agreements. King Hussein just as scrupulously avoided undertaking any formal agreements—until the peace agreement—so that he could not be put in a position where he might be seen to have broken his word. Once the agreement was signed, though, as I will show in a moment, he made a point of putting on staged media shows that were specifically designed to prove his commitment to the pact that had been signed.


To date, Mahmoud Abbas, has made no promises that can be easily tested, other than his determined rejection of violence as a means to gain the Palestinians objectives.


The fourth precondition was put on paper more as an observation than as a plea or a demand. It states that the leader must be able to show that his staff is both competent and not only personally loyal to the current leader, but also loyal to the state as an institution. After all, it is these staff members who, once the leaders have come to an agreement on principles, will have to deal with the technical aspects of the deal. And it is they who will be responsible for implementing the agreement over time. For example, between 1977 and 1984 Israeli officials and King Hussein held meetings roughly twice a year. In 1984, however, the meetings were halted by Moshe Dayan because Hussein never brought any aides or staffers with him. Dayan had concluded that Hussein had no intention of striking a deal; and that the king was using the meetings merely to keep communication lines open in case a crisis arose.


The reason for the Israelis’ insistence on this point is that, if there is a single national Israeli characteristic, it is the fear of being a “freier,” or being taken for a sucker. Therefore, not only is there concern that the current leader may break the agreement at any time, there is also a longer-term, deep-seated fear that succession in the other camp may lead to conflict. Abbas has not groomed any natural successor, and his office remains packed with political cronies, many of whom are suspected of pure self-interest and corruption. Moreover it remains unclear how a successor will be chosen and whether the struggle for leadership will be accompanied by internal violence or violence against Israelis. Intimate contact between the aides of the senior leaders on both sides (those who will remain in their positions after a leadership transition takes place) is a necessity in order to prevent minor verbal and other skirmishes from being manipulated by candidates for office, and others with an axe to grind, to incite violence. No less importantly, these aides also provide a much-needed, stabilizing, institutional memory.


Fifth, the leader must be willing to speak to the deep-seated fears of the other side. Sadat’s simple sentence: “No more war. Peace” did more than anything else to win over the Israelis. Note that the phrase “No more war” addressed Israeli fears, while the word “peace,” provided the vision. The two ideas had to be inseparable. The game played by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, in which each party competes for the title of which is the greater “victim,” only fosters continued distrust.


Speaking to the other side’s fears is not merely a palliative, however. It helps resolve one of the most important obstacles to peace, the search by each side for legitimacy. The implication inherent in addressing fears is that the other side is a legitimate body whose concerns, whether real or a fantasy, must nonetheless be taken into account. It is noteworthy, for example, that not once have Israeli leaders openly addressed genuine Palestinian fears, such as that the West Bank will end up as a series of isolated Palestinian enclaves.


Sixth, all the statements of import need to be made by the leader to his own constituency, in that constituency’s own political language. Sadat made his historic announcement about going to Jerusalem in a speech to the Egyptian People’s Assembly—with Yassir Arafat in attendance. One of Israel’s serial complaints about Arab leaders is that those who have not made peace with Israel invariably say one thing for foreign consumption and something very different when addressing their own people.


Abbas, in his speeches to his own people, has yet to address any major Israeli concerns; and Netanyahu’s body language, when he spoke of his acceptance of a two state solution, did nothing to allay Palestinian fears that he really did not mean two, wholly independent states.


The seventh criterion is an outgrowth of the sixth. Any statement made by the leader must be repeated several times in the local press to ensure that it is not merely a trick or a slip of the tongue, or can be denied as having been taken out of context. One of the reasons Motta Gur decided to call an alert was that Sadat’s speech to the Egyptian parliament appeared in the Egyptian press only after a delay of 48 hours.


Parenthetically, I find it incredible that many foreign pundits continue to believe and say that Hamas doesn’t really intend to seek Israel’s destruction, when the Hamas leaders repeat, almost every day, that that is precisely what they are seeking. These pundits claim to be able to read Hamas’s intent—but they, unlike the Israeli public, never say what their criteria are for making such a judgment.


Eight, the leader must create a popular mood in support of the basic principles that he has outlined. In the three years prior to his Jerusalem trip, Sadat had worked assiduously to create an atmosphere in Egypt in favor of a settlement. When he finally made his announcement, there was a rebellion by leftist secular intellectuals and by the radical Islamists, but not by the masses. A major reason for this was that he had promised that money spent on war materiel could now be diverted to domestic concerns. When I arrived in Cairo in November 1974, on the first anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, I was surprised to find just how widespread the support for an agreement with Israel was. At the time, no one spoke about “peace,” but the willingness to negotiate was palpable in the universities and in the coffee houses. “Peace” was eventually the price Egyptians felt that they had to pay in return for getting the Sinai back.


King Hussein did much the same thing in Jordan, but over a longer period.


By contrast, to this day the Palestinian school system continues to teach some of the most egregious blood libels against the Jews—although the level has been reduced by a small extent in recent years as a result of American pressure.


By the way, Israel is no less guilty of the same sin. Israeli state religious schools, in particular, continue to teach a triumphalist version of modern Israeli history, during which a discussion about the Palestinians’ legitimate concerns is totally absent.


Ninth, any proposal must create value for both sides that is tangible and undeniable. In the case of Sadat, the proposal was: all of the Sinai in return for a full peace— Egyptian economic renewal, especially the reopening of the Suez Canal, American aid money and the repopulation of the Sinai, in return for an end to conflict. In the case of Jordan it was not just full economic, diplomatic and commercial relations, the deal also included an ongoing trade of inestimable importance: An Israeli promise to provide 50 million cubic meters of water annually from the Kinneret to the Jordanian farmers in the parched Jordan Valley in return for less water, but nonetheless continued Israeli access to wells on the Jordanian side of the Arava valley. That water is crucial for the Israeli farmers there who grow winter crops for export.


Ironically, Obama’s demands of the Israelis, that they undertake unilateral acts that need not be accompanied by similar concessions on the part of the Palestinians, have had the same effect of denying the Israeli and Palestinian leaders the ability to sell win-win scenarios to their own people and to prove that they can be trusted.


Since the withdrawal from Gaza, the very idea of unilateralism has become a dirty word in Israeli politics. That is because the level of violence emanating from the Strip increased dramatically following the pullback because, in the absence of a negotiated, written agreement, the Hamas regime in Gaza has never been bound by any commitments of its own.


Two subjects that are currently in the news and are a major focus for Israeli spinmeisters were not even dealt with in depth during the initial public debate, but were discussed in very great detail after the second intifada broke out at the turn of the millennium.


During the first round of the domestic Israeli debate, the cessation of terror was mentioned often. However, the idea that there should be a halt to ground incursions across or flights by rockets over the internationally-accepted border seemed to be such an obvious one that it was only very rarely mentioned. Because of the rocketing of Israeli villages from Gaza, the need to confront and to halt state-sponsored or patron-sponsored terrorism has now become yet another major issue for discussion. And, if recent commentaries are any guide, the resolution of this issue has now become another Israeli precondition for the success of diplomatic talks.


The second subject, Israeli legitimacy, was also only rarely mentioned initially; and, like terror, was never discussed in depth because it seemed, at the time, to be something so obvious that it need not even be discussed. The current brouhaha over Netanyahu’s demands that the Palestinians must first agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is something new. I should stress at this point that the Israeli public has never demanded that the other side openly and directly recognize Israel as a Jewish state. My impression is that Netanyahu raised the issue in order to prevent the peace talks from advancing.


During the 1980s, the Israeli public appeared to assume that any Arab state that chose to make peace with Israel, ipso facto was recognizing Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. That may have been because, by the very act of speaking before the Knesset, Sadat was recognizing the legitimacy of Israel as it had been defined by its legally-elected representatives in a basic law (the equivalent of an article in a constitution).


King Hussein, as had been his wont, initially used a more indirect approach. As the secret talks got underway, a rumor, apparently deliberately spread by the palace in Amman began to circulate. It claimed that Hussein’s brother, Hassan, the crown prince and heir-apparent at the time, had studied the Mishna, the code of Jewish law, for two years. Whether true or not, the rumor got wide play in the Israeli press, was spoken about publicly by Shimon Peres, and was generally interpreted as an acceptance of the legitimacy of Jewish culture—a culture deserving of study and respect—by the scions of Mohammed himself


After the peace agreement was signed, Hussein went even further. After a crazed Jordanian soldier had killed a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the border area of Naharayim, Hussein not only came to Israel to offer his condolences, he went to the mourners’ houses, where the families, in keeping with Jewish tradition were sitting on the floors as a sign of mourning. Hussein, with cameras rolling, then went on bended knee to shake hands with the families. The the newsreel footage of him, a king, bowing to commoner Jews created an uproar throughout Arab world, but won over even the last of the Israeli skeptics. When I ask Israelis today what is their strongest memory of Hussein, without exception they make reference to that event.


By contrast, Ehud Barak was dumbfounded and apparently permanently shaken during his talks with Yassir Arafat when Arafat refused to recognize that the Jews had any historical attachment to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It is apparently that incident, and several later ones like the repetition of the same claim on the web site of the student union of Al Quds University, (whose president, Sari Nusseibeh, was a member of the Palestinian peace camp), that led Netanyahu to make his demand. Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to relate to the issue of what has now come to be called “The Holy Basin” has now become one of the main stumbling blocks to further diplomatic progress.


If Abu Mazzen chose to, he could follow in the footsteps of both Sadat and Hussein and easily circumvent Netanyahu’s demands that he agree in advance to openly accept that Israel is the homeland of the Jews—without losing the support of the Israeli centre. All it would take is a bit of will and a bit of imagination.


* * *


So, in conclusion, I would like to say that it is patently obvious to all that the peace process has failed to date, and that the patches that have been put on the process have not only failed, but in some cases have set back the process enormously.


Attempts at hard-ball tactics, such as the call for divestment or the demand for a halt in residential construction in parts of Jerusalem have also failed.


So too have unilateral acts.


The assumption that Abbas and Ehud Olmert were close to an agreement is false. Their seminal success was to clear away all the dross that had been left by the spinmeisters over the years until they found the real issues on which they could not agree.


It is, therefore time to rethink the entire process. Complaining about what Israeli leaders do or do not do is a waste of time because of the political constraints they operate under. It is necessary to look elsewhere for actors who are in a position to do something. That one of the most important players in this drama, the Israeli public, has been ignored, has been an act of utter folly.


Even if one believes that diplomacy can only be conducted by elites, a review of attitudes towards the Israeli public is nonetheless long overdue.


And finally, it seems to me that rather than going back to repeating old mistakes, such as emphasizing talks on the hard-nut issues right away, it might be wise to take the advice of the Israeli majority and first build a stronger foundation for the talks by creating a series of visible successes, before going back to discussing those issues that have proven to be impervious to a solution because of the deep levels of distrust between the parties.


The Impact of the Elections on the Israeli Political system

This election campaign is one of the most fascinating and most important that I have ever witnessed. Two aspects of this political campaign stand out—at least to me. The first is that this round of ballotting is not only about the public deciding which parties should be in the next government, even more importantly, this time, the people are being asked to decide what should be the very nature of the country’s representative democracy. Put in a slightly different way, a long process that has been underway for five decades has left almost all the country’s Jewish, secular parties confused about how they should go about politicking; and this election is testing which of the many forms of representative democracy that Israelis have adopted over the years is preferred by each sector of the population.


A second huge issue has also not been mentioned by any of the pundits. It is that one of the fundamental conflicts that has beset Zionist politics for an even longer time—almost since the 1930s— is now coming to a climax.


This month I want to map the political topography of Israel as it has evolved up to this point; and my next analysis will focus on the unresolved conflict that may be the determining factor in the outcome of the forthcoming election.


I will use two events from the mid-1960s as my starting point. Until the mid-1960s, the country’s democratic socialists had been divided into three parties—Mapai, Ahdut HaAvodah and Mapam. Each had a very clear idea of what it wanted to achieve.


Despite their bitter disputes over ideology, the socialists had been able to exert hegemonic control over the country’s political system because, although each fought each election as a separate party, following the election they always united to form a single bloc that then controlled the coalition-making process. By contrast, every opposition party continued to act independently even after the elections were over.


However, in the early 1960s, a new process that would change the political playing field beyond previous recognition began to gather momentum. First, the Progressive Party and the General Zionist Party joined together to form the Liberal Party. Both were similar in outlook and so the merger went fairly easily.


The big change came when these centrists decided to do something revolutionary. They decided to play down their emphasis free-market, European-style liberalism and capitalism, and join up with the Herut party, a populist party that adhered religiously to the Revisionist ideology of Zeev Jabotinsky. This merger of parties based on two very different political ideologies created Israel’s first umbrella party, which was called Gahal. The driving force behind the merger was the realization by both partners that only a party that was large enough could compete with and destroy the hegemony over Israeli politics that the socialists had exerted since the 1930s.


Gahal would eventually absorb two other small parties to form the Likud; and the Likud did finally defeat Labour in 1977.


However, it is important to keep in mind that the Likud victory was not solely the product of it being an umbrella party. At about the same time that Gahal was formed, the socialists, in a fit of hubris, adopted a set of policies that undermined their supposed ideological commitment to universal human equality. Those policies, which were largely based on a belief in Ashkenazi cultural supremacy, ended up totally alienating the large and growing Sephardic and Mizrahi populations in the country. Then, the Labour government’s mistakes prior to and during the Yom Kippur undermined much of the public’s belief that the socialist parties were competent to continue leading the country. And finally, much of the public had become tired and angry at the socialists’ use of coercion to remain in power. For example, unless one had a Labour-run Histadrut membership booklet, it was difficult if not impossible to get a job in the civil service.


Nonetheless, two of the socialist parties, Mapai and Ahdut HaAvodah, believing that they could retain power if only they too adopted the new-fangled idea of an umbrella party, decided to merge as well and create what they thought was an umbrella party of their own.


From that point on, and for more than two decades thereafter, the two big parties became the political home for a range of factions running from the centre and left of centre to socialist in the case of Labour, and centre and right of center to extreme neo-nationalist in the case of the Likud.


However, the umbrella party model had its own inherent weaknesses that would eventually lead to the model’s collapse.


To begin with, everywhere else in the world, umbrella parties have only worked in winner-take-all, first-past- the-post systems such as those that exist in the US and Britain. In countries such as Israel that use the system of proportional representation, there are usually many parties, each of which is based on a predetermined set of beliefs.


When the socialist parties, the Liberals and Herut were more narrowly focused, they too could always rely on a guiding ideology to provide them with a basis for decision-making. For that reason, for decades before the founding of the state and during the two decades after the state’s inception, ideology—whatever form it took— was the determining factor when parties formulated their platform planks.


Their comprehensive ideologies enabled the parties to carefully plane, fit and sand their planks to the point where these proposals were not only mutually-supporting, they were sufficient in number so that the final political platform could and did provide proposed solutions for all or almost all the most pressing social, economic, and defence issues that the country was facing.


The mergers of convenience that led to the creation of the two umbrella parties, however, led to the slow erosion of the two big parties’ attachment to ideology.


The process of fully extracting ideology from political policy-making was a slow one. And it only came to its inevitable conclusion during the next to last Likud primary election, when the last Revisionist ideologues such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Mickey Eitan were denied spots on the Likud party slate.


The lessening in importance of a political, ideological underpinning by the two major parties almost immediately affected all the other Zionist parties.


The National Religious Party, the predecessor of today’s HaBayit Hayehudi, abandoned its comprehensive ideology very soon after the two big secular parties did, and became increasing focused on a few narrow dogmas such as the belief that settlement of the lands occupied in 1967 would lead to the redemption of the Jewish people.


Another alternative that was offered was rule by a charismatic leader. Dash, Shinui and Kadima were cases in point. However, once the founders of these parties died, became incapacitated or began to squabble amongst themselves, the parties that they had founded collapsed.


Still other parties such as the Pensioners’ Party or the Green Leaf Party willy-nilly became vehicles for those who would otherwise have cast blank ballots if the law allowed blank ballots to be counted. These parties found, though, that just being available for such a purpose was not enough for their voters to have a significant impact on policymaking.


Initially, the loss of an ideological skeleton affected Labour more than the Likud. Instead of arguing about principles as it had done in the past, it became beset by intense and bitter infighting, such as the ongoing competition for power between Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres. This preoccupation effectively halted platform-making for more than a decade. Worse still, in the wake of Rabin’s assassination, Peres’s subsequent defeat at the polls because of a wave of terrorist incidents and Ehud Barak’s failed peace-making effort at the end of the millenium, the party chose the path of least resistance—or rather the path that required the least intellectual activity. From that point on, and until very recently, Labour merely sat about hoping for and waiting for the Likud to fail so badly that the public would vote for Labour as the default alternative.


Eventually, though, the Likud too no longer felt the urgency to keep its umbrella intact. Maintaining an umbrella party takes work—a lot of work—because of all the internal negotiating and compromising needed to keep all the factions happy.


In addition, both major parties had found that they could keep almost all their party factions united if they focused on one policy and one policy only—the party’s stand on defence and security issues.


That belief became dogma to Netanyahu after he was defeated by Barak at the end of the last century because his extremist neo-nationalist allies had deserted him for having agreed to fulfill the Wye and Hebron agreements with the Palestinians.


At that point, Bibi came to the conclusion that the most important thing an Israeli political leader needed to do in order to gain and maintain power was to keep his primary and largest base of support intact. If that meant ignoring the other factions in the party, so be it. Bibi believed that his core of support was the neo-nationalist, settler-supporting wing of his party. Critically, he also believed that he could avoid focusing on non-security social issues because, even when he ignored major social issues, he could always count on the support of the Mizrahi voters who had been alienated by Labour in the 1960s. Therefore, after he returned to lead the Likud, Netanyahu’s basic political strategy was to focus almost entirely on courting large blocs of voters…whether they were the West Bank settlers, the residents of developing towns or recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.


It is impossible to underestimate the impact that this perception had on the Likud’s public posture. For several decades after Labour’s initial defeat in 1977, the major parties had felt obliged to at least put on an appearance that they were concerned with more than just security issues, and that they were vehicles for the fulfillment of the legitimate aspirations of most of the public. That was because throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the contest between the Likud and Labour was invariably decided by only 2 percent of the voters—the so-called “swing voters.”


The prize for attracting the swing voters at that time was enormous. The party that could gain a majority their votes could be almost certain of garnering at least 40 seats, or roughly a third of the seats in the Knesset. Not only did a victory of this size ensure that the president would then call on the winning party’s leader to try and form a coalition government, it also ensured that the winning party would be large enough to impose at least a measure of discipline in its coalition partners.


As things turned out, the two major parties ended up being so successful at courting a broad range of voters that, for the next decade and more, they also ended up being tied after almost every balloting session. One product of this battle was the formation of so-called “national unity governments”—a misnomer if there ever was one. Invariably the two big parties treated the formation of such governments as the opening bell for the next election campaign… and so cabinet infighting was ferocious.


Another factor that certainly affected Netanyahu’s perceptions was the political wild card that Menachem Begin had introduced into the political system almost as soon as he had been able to claim victory for the first time. His intent at the time was to ensure that his initial success could and would be replicated in the future. He understood that the Likud needed to find some way to overcome the dangers that were inherent in relying on the large body of unaffiliated, wholly undependable and seemingly capricious swing voters who had made their first appearance in 1977. At that time they had cast their ballots for the Likud and for the new, centrist, non-ideological Dash party. Begin was all too aware that it was Dash’s decision to join a Likud-led coalition that had enabled the Likud to actually take power. He therefore chose to revolutionize Israeli Zionist politics by first courting the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox parties and then legitimizing their participation in government policy-making as full-fledged members of Likud-led coalition governments.


Begin believed that because of their historical antipathy to Labour, the Haredi parties, like most of the Mizrahim, could almost always be counted on, as a bloc, to support Likud coalitions.


Essentially, therefore, Begin chose to tie the Likud’s future electoral prospects to negative voting by three groups who were inherently anti-Labour—the Mizrahim, the Haredim, and the increasingly settler-oriented National Religious Party. Henceforth, it was they on whom he would rely to give the Likud the numbers it needed to form a coalition government plurality. But that also meant that maintaining the Likud as an umbrella party could and eventually would take second place in his party’s electoral strategizing because allying with the Haredim in particular also meant alienating the party’s liberal wing, which was deeply opposed to some of the Haredim’s demands.


The impact of Begin’s decision was soon visible. As a result of Begin’s manoeuvres, the alternative to the umbrella party model that he had created was, where possible, being used as the party’s default option for gaining and maintaining power.


What then happened was that, once the ultra-Orthodox parties had been legitimized, the country was essentially divided into 4 basic political blocs—two Zionist blocs (the so-called “Nationalist” camp and the so-called “Peace” camp), and two tribal blocs (the Haredim and the Arabs). Significantly, though, by their very nature, each bloc was subdivided into of a bunch of separate parties whose positions and dogmas, when taken together, looked remarkably similar to the party platforms that had been produced by the umbrella parties.


Because of all these factors, it was not surprising that the Likud also began to care less and less about courting the feckless swing voters.


At this point, with Labour preoccupied with internal battles for power, and with the Likud in the process of abandoning its umbrella model, secular swing voters who had cast their ballots for Dash found that not only had they lost their previous electoral clout, their real interests and concerns were being increasingly ignored by the major parties.


Because they felt less influential, some of the swingers became more apathetic and either stopped voting or began to vote for parties with no hope of crossing the electoral threshold such as the pro-cannabis Green Leaf party. This then, effectively reduced the pool of Jewish voters who wanted to determine who got elected, which in turn strengthened the Likud’s allies who were particularly adept at getting out the vote.


When that happened, a canard that the country was becoming decidedly more right wing began to creep into Israeli political parlance.


A reaction to the vacuum in the centre that had been created was inevitable. By the end of the 1990s, the centrists in the two big parties who were being excluded from their party policy-making forums began to coalesce with the swing voters that had supported no particular party in order to form a new bloc of their own. And so the 1999 elections saw the emergence of two non-ideological centrist parties—the aptly named Centre Party and Shinui, each of whom garnered 6 seats.


Once this happened, the major parties began to attract fewer and fewer votes; and the smaller, sectoral groups both within the Likud and in Likud-led coalitions, began to acquire more and more power because, increasingly, it was they who could hold the balance of power in Likud forums and in Likud-led coalition governments.


The Likud should have been forewarned about what the consequences of such extreme factionalism could be. For years, the competition for power within Labour had led to paralysis in that party. So bitter had this factionalism become that after the turn of the millennium, Labour ended up changing leaders roughly every two years.


In the end, the Likud didn’t change leaders as often. But by 2006, power plays within the party’s central committee had brought the party almost to the point of collapse.


This alteration in the way the major parties operated led to a profound change in the nature of Israeli democracy.


Israel prides itself on being a democratic country in a sea of dictatorships. In theory, at least, Israel’s system of proportional representation in the Knesset is one of the fairest ways there is of implementing democratic rule. As I have already mentioned, unlike the “first past the post” and “winner takes all” system, used in places such as Britain and the US, the Israeli system ensures that minorities can receive due representation in the country’s legislature.


However, Israelis have always had major difficulties in making this system of democracy work effectively and fairly. That difficulties should arise should come as no surprise to anyone. The country is deeply divided along religious, ethnic, economic, ideological and social lines. Moreover, more than half the country’s citizens either come from or are the first generation progeny of people who immigrated from undemocratic countries.


In most democratic countries, these divisions are made less severe if the citizenry adopts a belief in one premise—that elections are held to serve a very specific purpose…that they are designed to allow the national sovereign (in other words, the public) to determine which individual or which party is best prepared to carry out the policies that the majority of the public deem important for protecting and enhancing the country’s residents’ well-being.


Israel, however, is not like most democratic countries. Israeli voters have never been able to actually choose either the person they wanted to represent them or the policies they wished to see implemented.


For some Israeli voters, these issues were never important. About eleven percent of the Israeli public, those who vote for ultra-Orthodox parties, don’t care about democracy. Most believe in and want a theocracy to rule over them. To these people, the purpose of elections is to provide the rabbis who control the parties they vote for with the financial and political wherewithal to replace democracy with rule by authoritarian religious leaders who claim God as their sovereign.


But there are also other, more subtle forms of authoritarianism that have been endemic to the Israeli political system. For example, in the old days, that is, up to the first Likud victory in 1977, all the parties in Israel had committees of party officials whose task was to decide who would appear on the party’s slate of candidates, and in what order. Ostensibly this system was designed to ensure that all the groups of voters who had been targettted by the party would be represented on the slate. In practice, though, these committees ended up choosing candidates who would, first and foremost, serve the party bosses and their needs.


In the wake of its first electoral victory, the Likud was the first party to introduce a form of primaries as the most democratic way to choose candidates. It gave its whole central committee the right to choose the list of candidates. Labour was soon forced to follow suit. However, it took the process one step further and granted the entire membership the right to choose the slate.


But these new ways of choosing candidates created another problem. Field workers, who could round up blocs of voters who were loyal to them, could become vote contractors. They could and did then sell the votes at their disposal to the highest bidder in the party. By 2003, the primaries system, especially in the Likud had become totally corrupt, with huge sums or promises of government-funded perks being exchanged in return for blocks of votes.


It was the public’s disgust at this corruption, as well as the fact that the centrists were being ignored by the large parties that enabled Ariel Sharon to form Israel’s first, truly successful, centrist party…Kadima.


So shocked was the Likud by Kadima’s success that it finally reformed its system of primaries. As part of that reform, the party leaders decided to follow Labour’s path and eliminate the Central Committee middlemen by making the primaries direct elections by the party’s rank and file.


However, that reform created another major new problem. The new system of choosing Knesset candidates eventually enabled one tightly-disciplined group, the neo-nationalists, to carry out a slash and burn strategy that finally destroyed what had been left of the Likud’s umbrella party model.


What happened is as follows: In the wake of the 2009 elections, the settlers and a group of extremist cohorts launched a successful effort to seize control of the Likud. They began by initiating a major drive among their supporters to join the Likud. They were counting on the fact that, in general, only just over half of the Likud’s members show up to vote in the party’s primaries. Thus, they didn’t need to garner a majority of the Likud’s total membership to gain their ends. Their efforts came to fruition during the party’s 2013 primary elections. The party members who did vote ended up electing a slate of hard-line neo-nationalists and religious messianists. Among other things, as I have already mentioned, the last hardy band of Revisionist ideologists including Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Mickey Eitan, and the moderate wing of the party were virtually obliterated.


Not only that, though, in order to create what is sometimes called in military parlance “a force multiplier,” these same settler supporters then went on to vote for the HaBayit HaYehudi party in the general elections themselves—thus giving the settlers, in effect, a double vote. The success of this manoeuvre then enabled the settlers and the neo-nationalists’ spinmeisters to claim that the country as a whole had shifted even further to the right.


The facts, of course, were very different. The Likud had shifted to a more extreme position because its moderate and its ideological wings had been hanged, quartered, and disemboweled. But this had come at a cost. The party actually lost seats in the next election…largely to a new, up- and-coming centrist party, Yesh Atid. By the time the Likud took power, it could muster only 18 seats in the Knesset. Yesh Atid was actually the largest party in the Knesset with 19 seats.


At this point, another endemic feature of Israeli politics was magnified beyond all previous recognition. Under normal circumstances, it is rare for voters to be able to influence government policy. That is because, no matter what the various parties promise in their platforms, the agenda for any government is not set during elections, but only during the coalition negotiations that come after the voters have visited the polling booths. From the Likud’s point of view, that was not too horrendous a reality so long as the parties making up a Likud-led coalition belonged to the same bloc and were used to wheeling and dealing with each other.


But the last election added a new complication to this situation. Israel’s only truly Marxist party—that is, one based strictly on class—had just been formed. Yesh Atid, which claimed to be the true representative of the middle class had surprised everyone by its electoral success. No coalition could be formed without it. The thing was, though, that it did not belong to the classic Likud-led bloc that Begin had created.


The result was coalition chaos. And that then prevented the country’s titular leaders from carrying out their most fundamental task—to balance the mandate they believed that they had been given to implement voters’ wishes with the imperative to lead the public into new areas of policymaking.


When the current round of elections was called, the county’s basic political topography looked roughly as follows:


The extreme left had collapsed because it had become increasingly isolated from the Israeli mainstream. Its popular support had fallen from 10.5 percent in 2005 to 3.6 percent in 2009, when Netanyahu was reelected prime minister. More importantly for our purposes, at the other end of the political spectrum, the extreme right’s popular support had shot up…by two thirds…from 13.6 percent to 20.1 percent—largely at the expense of the moderate right.


However, largely as a result of both the public’s growing concern with social and economic issues, and the failures of the American-mediated peace process, the old political divisions and the old political boundaries had also been altered.


Labour had been the first to react to this change in public attitudes. First, the party’s leader, Yitzchak Herzog, created a joint electoral list with the centrist HaTnuah party, effectively reviving and reestablishing Labour image as a centre to left of centre umbrella party. Almost immediately, Labour’s support skyrocketed and its public opinion poll numbers quickly surpassed those of the Likud.


Then during the Labour party primaries, an even more fundamental change in the party’s posture took place. Its members, for the most part, decided to finally reject the very idea of factionalism, bloc voting and minority representation as the basis for competing with the Likud.


Instead of projecting themselves as the representatives of one of the established, religious, security, ethnic or narrowly dogmatic political sectors, almost all those who had been elected to realistic places on the party slate had focused on issues that crossed all these old divisions. To everyone’s shock and amazement, not one representative of a known established voting bloc—not one general, one former Soviet, or one Ethiopian—was elected to the party list. Instead, the party members elected candidates such as, Stav Shafir who had made a reputation as a fighter for greater transparency in government, and Itzik Shmueli had made his reputation as a fighter for the rights of the handicapped.


The Likud has been left bewildered by this turn of events. Almost immediately after Labour’s initial jump in public support, and even before the Labour primaries, Netanyahu seems to have suddenly realized that the support by political blocs that he had counted on might not be enough to ensure his reelection as prime minister. For weeks, he has been waffling about how to cope with a new situation where not only Labour, but several other parties are going through major readjustments that cannot but affect the Likud’s electoral chances.


Initially, he blamed everybody else for the failures of his recent government—but that only brought public and press derision. Then, for a short moment, it looked as though he would try to reclaim the loyalty of the moderate Likudniks. But that effort fell by the wayside when the Likud membership once again elected a largely hardline neo-nationalist slate of candidates in the party primaries.


At that point, he found himself almost bereft of political manoeuvring room.


Within his own, so-called, “nationalist camp,” the National Religious party’s successor, HaBayit HaYehudi, was also undergoing a revolutionary change of its own and was making a monumental effort to attract those secular, extremist neo-nationalists, such as Danny Dayan, who had previously voted Likud. Today, many in HaBayit HaYehudi, under party leader Naftali Bennett’s tutelage, perceive themselves to be and are projecting themselves to many in the neo-nationalist camp as a younger, more activist, real Likud successor.


At the other end of the Likud’s political spectrum, Yvette Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which had once also targeted the neo-nationalists, has been shifting ground and has decided to compete with Yesh Atid for those alienated, secular, pragmatic Likudniks whom Bibi has been ignoring.


To make things even worse, Netanyahu was now being faced by an entirely new phenomenon that his previous political strategizing had never taken into account—the advent of niche parties of a sort the country has never seen before.


In the past, as I have mentioned, Bibi’s political world had been inhabited by ideological parties, dogmatic parties, ethnic parties such as Shas, Ashkenazi Haredi parties, single-issue parties such as the Pensioners’party and umbrella parties.


Now, though, both former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon and former Shasnik Eli Yishai have set up parties of their own that don’t fit any established model. Kahlon is targeting those Likudniks who have neo-nationalist tendencies, but also want social issues to be addressed.


And Eli Yishai has set his sights on attracting those who are both neo-nationalist, Shas-voting Haredim and Likud-voting, traditionalist, Mizrahi neo-nationalists.


All three party leaders—Lapid, Kahlon and Yishai—are succeeding in attracting support because, unlike the Likud, which is committed to its system of primaries, these party leaders can precisely target voters because they are able to appoint the members of their electoral slate.


Netanyahu has thus found himself being end-played at both ends at once. During the primary campaign, he put almost all his efforts into ejecting Moshe Feiglin, from the party slate. He had blamed Feiglin for the neo-nationalist takeover of the Likud prior to the last election. However, he then found that the resulting slate that he called “excellent” was hardly that. Because of all the changes that were taking place in the political playing field, he was being saddled with as unattractive a list of candidates as he could have conjured up in his worst nightmares.


Because the hardliners had won most of the top places on the slate, there were few real and attractive moderates for people to vote for. But, even more embarrassingly, there were only two women elected to realistic places on the party’s electoral list; and not one single candidate with a record of social welfare activism had been included in the slate. To save himself, he is now going to use his prerogative to appoint two people to the slate himself, but it is going to be hard for him to find a moderate Ethiopian social activist woman to fit into the bloc voting model that he has been using.


But the election campaign has now turned out to be even more complicated than that.


Here, a bit of history becomes very important in understanding how things may develop.


Over the past decade and a half, participation in Israeli elections has fallen from an average of 80-85 percent to 62-65 percent. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox and extremist, neo-nationalist Knesset members for the following reasons:


First, there has been a massive change in voting patterns by the country’s Arab citizens, who make up about 17 percent of the voting population. Up to the turn of the millennium, about 85 percent of Israeli Arabs voted in general elections. About half of those votes went to left-wing Zionist parties. However, in October 2000, rioting and demonstrations broke out in Israeli Arab towns. Thirteen Arabs were killed by Israeli police gunfire. Young Israeli Arabs became disillusioned that they would ever be able to influence Israeli politics, and so stopped voting in national elections. By 2013, overall Arab participation in national elections had fallen to 53 percent. Because about half the Arabs had previously voted for left-wing, Jewish-led parties, Labour and Meretz were hurt the most. This was because the pool of active voters had more Jews than their numbers in the population warranted and this then favoured those Jewish parties, such as the Haredim and the HaBayit Hayehudi, who could get out the vote.


More than 93 percent of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ supporters and about 85 percent of those who support parties that back the settlement movement’s activities actually cast ballots.


The Likud could count on a different advantage it had over the left. The electoral base of the Likud and the right is made up disproportionately of lower middle class and lower class citizens. Therefore, unlike the centrists and those on the left, a greater proportion of those who support the Likud-led bloc tend not to be absent from the country on election day because they usually do not work abroad, tend not to take sabbaticals, and don’t take long treks to India or South America after their army service.


Given all these factors, a snapshot of the election campaign to date provides the following picture:


According to current public opinion polls, if elections were held today, the centre-centre-left bloc of Meretz, Labour and Yesh Atid could expect to win about 39 seats. The group that might best be labelled “the Likud renegades” including Kahlon and Liberman could garner about 18 seats. The right to far-right grouping of the Likud and HaBayit Hayehudi could also win about 39 seats. And the Haredim may win 15 seats.


If one relies only on these numbers, it would appear that, despite all his trials and travails, Netanyahu still has a better chance of forming a coalition—provided that he can overcome the extreme personal animus that Liberman and Kahlon feel towards him.


But there are a whole bunch of new factors are at work at this very moment that could alter these projections by election time.


Here are but a few:


Yvette Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has suffered a crushing blow from the revelations about a police investigation into fraud by some of the party’s leading figures. However, it is still unclear what the impact of those revelations will be. The latest leaks from the police indicate that many Likud officials, including town mayors, may also be involved. Those suspicions together with the current infighting and charges of fraud being levelled as a result of massive irregularities in the party’s primaries could hurt the Likud’s public image.


Liberman’s claims that the party is being hounded by still unnamed forces, may strike a chord with the party faithful. On the other hand, as the immigrants from the former Soviet Union—especially the young—are being “Israelified,” they many no longer feel the need for separate, landsmanschaft representation.


By the way, pollster Mina Tsemach has found another group that is being “Israelified”—Mizrahi voters who no longer feel the need to vote as an ethnic bloc. She has discovered, for example, that while only 5 percent of Mizrahi voters were willing to cast ballots for Labour in the past election, 15 percent say that they may be willing to do so this time.


Another more-obvious Mizrahi issue is whether enough immigrants from Asian and African countries and their progeny will vote for Eli Yishai’s new party for it to cross the electoral threshold of 4 Knesset seats. Current polls indicate that Shas, if it were united, would win 8 seats. But it is unclear whether Yishai’s wing of the party can win enough votes to cross the threshold for representation in the next Knesset. If it fails to do so, all its votes will be lost to the right-wing bloc and it will end up doing to the right what groups such as the Green Leaf Party have done in the past to Labour.


Yet another question is whether the Arab parties can unite to form a single slate—as Labour and the Tnuah party did. If they can, the Arab Israeli leaders are promising not to campaign in the election, but to focus all their efforts and all their money in getting out the vote. If they do adopt that strategy, and if they do succeed in bringing Arab participation in the elections up the levels that were common up to 15 years ago, the unified slate could win as many as 14 seats. They would not be doing so by taking votes away from centrist and left of centre Zionist parties. Rather, they would be doing so by expanding the overall pool of voters, thus diluting the electoral capabilities of the right and right of centre.


Add to all that is the fact that, to date, Moshe Kahlon has been riding high, in part because he has yet to produce a concrete political agenda and because his past record has yet to be tested. He rose to fame as the communications minister who cut cellphone charges dramatically. However, his record as Welfare Minister does not really stand up to scrutiny. More than one “good government” group is preparing to publish Kahlon’s Knesset voting record, which shows that he consistently voted against important welfare legislation that was presented as private members’ bills in the Knesset.


And finally, the true centrist voters are back in the limelight once again. Mena Tzemach has found that fully 21 Knesset seats worth of the Jewish voters, those who consider themselves centre-centrists—not right of centre or left of centre—say that this time, because Yesh Atid is being increasingly perceived of as left-of-centre, they have no party to vote for. The way they end up leaning once the campaign gets underway in earnest, could be a determining factor in the electoral results.


But, in the end, the biggest deciding factor, as has happened so often before, may very well be how the Palestinians behave. The majority of the Israeli public, in all the polls taken so far, has shown that it wants the election to be fought on economic and social issues. However, conspiracy theorists on the left fear that Abu Mazzen is no longer seeking a new round of peace talks, and he therefore would welcome a neo-nationalist victory so that he can put the blame for a failure to renew peace negotiations on the new Israeli government. All it would take, these conspiracy theorists believe, is a renewal of violent demonstrations on the West Bank or a few rockets lobbed from Gaza…which Netanyahu would then treat as a blessed gift from the god of political warfare.

The Israeli Budget: Yes, You Can Fool All the People All the Time


To most people, there is nothing more boring than reading a budget or listening to a budget debate.


That is unfortunate because national budgets can be endlessly fascinating. They are probably the best objective mirror a country can produce about where it is at, what its priorities are, where it wants to go, and how it intends to get to where it wants to go. A budget that doesn’t add up, or is confused about how government revenues should be earned and how that money should be spent, is the best evidence there is about whether the government is chaotic…and worse still, whether it is pandering to rather than leading the public.


In many countries, but especially in Israel, the numbers that appear at the end of the fiscal year, when the national accounts are published, are invariably very different from those that were published when the budget was originally passed. All too often those numbers end up undermining and even contradicting the words thrown out to the press and used in public forums throughout the fiscal year by political spinmeisters…because while words are cheap, national accounts are the record of whether people actually put their money where their mouths were.


I cannot stress enough the usually-unrecognized fact that each year Israel actually produces a plethora of budgets; and that is the primary reason why, when the national accounts are published at the end of the year, they usually bear only a passing resemblance to the document the government presented to the Knesset for approval the previous fall. In Israel, when the two documents are compared in detail, the resulting data present a dismal, even frightening portrait of the Third Commonwealth—what it is like now, and what it may very well become.


For those seeking a quick bottom line, I can say without any fear of contradiction, that Israeli budgets, regardless of which parties are in power, have invariably demonstrated that Israeli governments have been unable to define what social values the country stands for, what sort of society they want to create, what their specific, practical goals are, and how goals that are enunciated in words, can actually be achieved.


About 82-83 percent of any budget is fixed in advance because of the need to pay for such fixed costs as the interest on the national debt, salaries and pensions to civil servants, as well as previously-made commitments to municipalities or contractors. The other outlays, however, often vary widely from year to year, and, as I have already mentioned, from the beginning of the fiscal year to its end. For example, this year, 4.2 billion shekels had to be added to the defence budget to pay for the war in Gaza, a costly enterprise that had not been anticipated at the beginning of the year. But there are also many other changes that are made to the budget during the year that the public is largely unaware of.


So what I would like to do now is to take you on a tour of the budget process, as it proceeds each year. The thing to keep in mind most as I proceed with my narrative is that Israel’s serially dysfunctional governments and Knessets have distorted the economy to such an extent that, in the best years, much of the economic planning contained in the budget is devoted to overcoming or at least ameliorating some of the most socially-destructive elements in the economy that the politicians had previously introduced over the years.


My primary focus will be on one statistic. The Central Bureau of Statistics is now projecting that GDP growth next year will be 2 percent. Since Israel’s population growth rate is 1.9 percent per year, that means, in effect, that if the CBS estimate is correct, the growth in GDP per capita next year will be virtually nil. The statistics just published indicate that, during the third quarter of this year, Israel actually had negative economic growth.


Virtually all economists believe that Israel has the capacity to grow its GDP buy 5-6 percent per year, if the economy were managed properly. Everything I point to from hereon in will be directed at explaining the gap between the economy’s potential and the current dismal reality.


I’ll start with some of the major distortions in the economy. All are man-made. So that you don’t think I’m being unfair, I’m going to use only the data assembled by the World Economic Forum, the UN, official Israeli bodies such as the Bank of Israel and the State Comptroller and the World Bank. All the data indicate that when it comes to the activities generated by the Israel’s middle class, such as the quality of R&D, willingness to innovate and capacity to innovate, Israel stands among the top three countries in the world. However, when it comes to almost any activity in which the government or the politicians have a role, the Third Jewish Commonwealth has become a third world country.


According to the World Economic Forum, Israel today stands 79th in the wastefulness of government spending. One reason for this is that it also stands 79th in the world in terms of spending on political favourites at the expense of the country’s majority. No wonder, therefore, the government here stands 81st in the world in terms of the public’s trust.


But that’s the good news. From here on, it’s all downhill. You see, not only does the government make a botch of things, it prevents almost everybody else from doing a good job. Take red tape, or what is usually called “government regulation,” for a starter. The World Economic Forum puts Israel at the 116th among nations in the amount of Red Tape its working citizens have to confront. The World Bank points out, for example, that it takes an average of 14 days to get through the red tape in order to set up a business in Israel. That compares with only 1 day in New Zealand, 2 days in Australia and only 4 days in Hungary.


Arguably, the biggest distortion is that the shadow economy—that part of the economy that operates out of sight and out of the reach of the tax man is estimated to amount to roughly one quarter of the GDP—or about 200 billion shekels a year. The World Bank estimates that Israel stands 93rd out of 189 countries when it comes to its people paying all the taxes that potentially could be collected.


Some, but not all of the tax evasion and tax avoidance comes from organized crime. But according to the Forum, Israel stands only 75th in the world in the battle against organized crime. And, by the way, when it comes to all other police services, it also stands a paltry 69th.


Much of the rest of missing money comes from people who believe that without cheating the tax man on things like VAT owed as a result of a plumber or electrician’s visit, they cannot make ends meet


It would seem obvious that a good way to whittle that tax avoidance down would be to hire more policemen and more tax assessors. But the government claims that there is no money for that. As you will see throughout the rest of my remarks, it would appear that that this so-called “right-wing” government does not accept the basic principle of capitalist economics—that you have to invest if you want to make money.


For example, even if a tax case does get to trial, such trials can last 7 years or more. That is hardly a way to generate deterrence. So frustrated do the overworked prosecutors become, that all too often they will agree to a plea bargain that results in only a relatively small fine. For example, according to the State Comptroller, a kabbalist rabbi who specializes in selling amulets and blessings, had a bank account amounting to 867 million shekels, but had never paid an agora in income tax. In the deal he finally struck with the tax authorities, he had to pay back only 40,000 shekels. That is not the sort of thing that would encourage the little guy to make a special effort of his own to reduce the national debt.


An obvious solution to this problem would be to hire more judges and prosecutors—but there is no money for that either…obviously because, as the Forum found, it has to go first to satisfying the short-term or wasteful needs of political favourites.


The overcrowding in Israel in courts is so bad that the World Bank puts Israel in 93rd place when it comes to enforcing contracts—the basis of all business dealings, capitalist or otherwise.


Overall, and largely because of the government’s actions and inactions, the Israeli economy is only half as efficient and half as productive as the American one. That is one of the primary reasons why prices for almost everything here are higher than in other developed countries. In general, Israel stands 76th in the world in terms of productivity.


The question foreigners keep asking is: Why then, if increased productivity is the key to increasing everyone’s wealth, and if increased productivity could be fostered by simple, rational and sane government policies, why don’t Israelis protest more in the streets just as they did in the summer of 2011? Well the dirty secret is that to pay for even the basics, Israelis, despite all the Jewish holidays, invariably have to work longer hours than most other people in developed countries. They simply don’t have the time to engage in extended protests. Only Mexicans, among the OECD nations work more hours per year. The problem is that when you measure the amount of GDP produced per hour worked, Israel is in second last place among OECD countries. Israelis produce 33.7 dollars per hour worked as compared with 86.5 dollars in Norway and 71.1 dollars in Ireland. And unlike Norway and now Israel, Ireland has no fossil fuels to sell.


Why is productivity so low? Well, for one thing, according to the Forum, Israel stands 126th in the world when it comes to domestic competition for consumer spending, and 143rd when it comes to the dominance wielded by just a few firms. Nineteen families control more than half of the companies on the Tel Aviv stock exchange; and they have no real desire to compete with each other. Among the many other incentives they have to limit competition, the managers of these big companies also get extra pay when they are invited to sit on each other’s boards.


In addition, it’s not unusual for high-ranking politicians and civil servants who are charged with overseeing or legislating aspects of these magnates’ businesses, when they retire from their government jobs, to get new employment positions with these oligarchs at wages that are far higher than they got while working in government. They thus have an immediate incentive, while they are still in public service, to cultivate and to be kind to big business.


But not all the blame can be put on the oligarchs and their minions. Monopolies and cartels are common everywhere in the economy. The Histadrut, the so-called protector of the working man and woman is one of the most flagrant protectors of personal and group privilege. It vigorously fights the breakup of government-run cartels and monopolies because it is controlled by those unions in government-owned monopolistic businesses such as the electric company, the national water company, the ports, the country’s only international airport and many others. Unsurprisingly the workers in these businesses get wages that are far higher than those prevalent in the rest of the economy for the same sort of work.


And how does the Forum rate the government’ efforts to control monopolies? Not very highly. It puts Israel at 118th among countries doing battle with monopolies and cartels.


Another major reason for the lack of productivity is that the road system and the public transportation system in Israel is so poor that Israel has two and a half times the road congestion as is the average in the OECD countries, even though it has half the vehicles per capita. It can take longer to go by bus from Holon to downtown Tel Aviv 12 kilometers away than it takes to go from New Jersey to Manhattan 60 kilometers away. This makes it much harder to match people with available jobs and raises the cost of delivering consumer goods. Why is the transportation system so poor? No money, of course—or so we are told.


Maybe the best example of how low productivity affects Israelis is the construction industry. The average Israeli now finds that he or she simply cannot afford to purchase a new home. Today, according to the Israeli Housing Ministry, it costs an average of 157 monthly salaries to buy a three-bedroomed flat in Israel, as compared with 110 salaries in high-cost London and only 62 salaries in the US. I’ll go into the issue of how taxation raises the cost of an apartment to an absurd degree in a moment. But for now, I’ll just focus one aspect of the process of actually putting up a building. Part of the current exorbitant cost of housing can be attributed to the fact that Israeli construction workers are only 40 percent as productive as their OECD counterparts.


Another, no less important factor is that government red tape raises costs enormously. According to the World Bank, Israel stands 140th in the world in the hassle required to get a building permit—up from 135th place last year. It is in 151st place in registering property, and in 103rd place when the need arises to finally hook up to electricity lines.


And then there is the issue of who is actually working in this economy. The answer is: not enough people to pay for the costs of running the country. One reason for the lack of national productivity is that the Haredim don’t work as much as everybody else. In 1979, 70 percent of Haredim worked. Today, only 26 percent do. And the proportion of Haredim in the general population is growing. The biggest problem that the Haredim create, though, is one that is rarely, if ever mentioned. Because they don’t work, and as a group they do not pay enough in taxes, in order to compensate for the lack of government revenues that this situation creates, the entire taxation system has been distorted—to the detriment especially of the secular and Zionist religious working poor. I’ll come to that issue too in a moment.


A major factor in any economy’s growth level is consumer spending—and especially what is called “discretionary consumer spending.” This is the spending that people do after they have paid for the basics like food, housing and clothing. According to the latest figures published by the National Insurance Institute, however, the median income in Israel is only 5,500 shekels. Since, on average, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, an Israeli family of four needs a net income of at least 11,848 shekels just to cover normal living costs, most people cannot get by on what they earn. Those who keep their expenses to an absolute minimum, even if they can get public housing (which, increasingly people cannot find because none is being built) obviously don’t have the money to drive economic growth.


Another huge distortion that the highly-respected Taub Center for social research has found is that roughly a third of Israelis can only get jobs that pay the minimum wage of 4,300 shekels per month. However, half of those who should be paid at least the minimum wage, do not get it. Why don’t these folks get the minimum wage? Simple. There aren’t enough people to police the law. Why not? Because the government says it can’t afford to hire more wage inspectors.


Then too, there is what is called “the gender factor.” Israeli mythology highlights the days when men and women worked equally in the fields. That, of course, was always just hokum. But, according to the Forum’ latest report, Israel is in 130th place in wage inequality for men and women doing the same jobs. Only Angola is worse.


All this means is that Israel is 4th highest in the developed word in the level of overall poverty. 35.6 percent of the population cannot cover even their basic needs.


There are two main pockets of poverty in Israel—among the Haredim and among the Arabs. That was not always the case. It was only after the Haredi parties joined the coalition government in the late 1970s that, they were able to manipulate their political leverage to the point where, in effect, the rest of the Israeli population was forced to involuntarily provide them with “Halukah”—the stipends given voluntarily in the past to Torah scholars.


But even if we ignore these two large groups, the fact is that twenty percent of those who live below the poverty line are normal, secular Jews. In the 1980s, at the height of hyperinflation and virtual economic collapse, only 8-9 percent of those people in this socio-economic group lived below the poverty line.


And never to be forgotten is the impact the banks have on the economy. I could spend thousands of words just describing the negative effect the banks have on the Israeli economy. But I’ll suffice with just one major example. About 80 percent of the salaried jobs in this country are produced by small and medium-sized businesses. Banks here are now paying zero interest rates on deposits. They then lend that money out at rates of about 3.5 percent interest to major corporations. But small and medium-sized firms have to pay a crushing 7-11 percent interest.


Since real wages—in other words the purchasing power of an average pay packet—has dropped by 9.5 percent over the past decade, the average Israeli’s savings amount to precisely 121 shekels. And you have to take into account that this is an average that is created by including in the calculation the millions of shekels in savings accumulated by the very wealthy.


With all that as background, I’ll now turn to a perennial hot topic—revenues and taxation. Israel supposedly has a fairly just system of income taxation. The top fifth of all income-earners pay 60 percent of all income taxes. As well, corporate taxes and capital gains taxes, which hit the rich in particular, are also relatively high. But, as they say here, that is all “Israbluff.”


In theory, at least according to the Bank of Israel, taxation makes up only 30.4 percent of GDP, as compared to an OECD average of 34.7 percent. In part, as I have already noted, that is because many Israelis don’t have the wherewithal to pay taxes. For that reason, the money to pay for the health system, education and other basic civil services has to be found in ways that are totally unacceptable elsewhere because they end up both driving people into poverty and preventing people from becoming more productive.


Because of both populism and a desire to attract the Haredim back into the work force, Netanyahu, since 2005 has actually been lowering the income taxes levelled on the middle class. However, in order to make up for that loss in revenues, indirect taxes have been raised to often absurd levels. The best known of these taxes is VAT, which is levelled on all those goods and services provided in the country except those provided in Eilat. By adding 18 percent to the cost of everything, the government, in effect, drives those who are only marginally above the poverty line back down below that line. Similarly, by cutting the payments it makes to the municipalities, it has forced those municipalities to raise property taxes, regardless of the person’s income. Then, of course, in order to pay those tax rates, merchants have to raise the prices for the goods they sell.


But that is not all. There are a whole slew of the hidden techniques the government uses to balance its books. One way is to charge exorbitant fees for goods and services that are then not written down in the books as taxes. For example, as any parent knows, so-called “free education” in Israel is hardly free. Parents here have to pay for many of the costs of a child’s education such as books, field trips, and private lessons. Free health care too is hardly that. If you don’t want to wait for up to a year for care in some hospital clinics you have to pay hefty sums for private care. Even a basic necessity such as water now costs five times what it once did. And to top things off, the government is now allowing municipalities to add a surcharge to their tax bill of up to two percent for what is imaginatively called “security services.” What additional security this payment provides is anyone’s guess.


Another such hidden tax is levelled on those parents who have a child in the army. Because the wages paid to those doing their national service are totally insufficient to cover a person’s basic needs, it is the parents who have to make up the difference This parental cost has been estimated to amount to a minimum of 1200 shekels a month. For already-poor parents, that cost can be a crushing or even impossible burden.


One of the most outrageous schemes for extracting money, and one of the prime reasons why housing in Israel is so costly is that the government runs a land sale monopoly. For years, the government has restricted the amount of land for home construction that it has been selling. This has naturally created a shortage of housing, which, in turn raises demand. Then, when it does auction land, pent up demand drives prices up way beyond what would be the case if more land had been made available. Those profits too are not registered on the books as taxes.


Taken in its all and all, 43 percent of the direct cost of an apartment in Israel is paid directly to the government in the form of land costs and taxes. Indirectly, the government raises the price of apartments even more than that because the payments that builders have to make to the banks for credit become greater because of the time delays caused by red tape. It is no wonder, therefore, that while in 1997, 72 percent of Israelis owned their own homes, today, only 58 percent can afford to do so.


If there is one single factor underlying a majority of Israel’s economic woes, however, it is the education Israelis receive today—or rather the lack of it. Put simply, the lack of investment in education in previous decades has now created a dramatic decline in the country’s wealth of human capital, and thus its capacity to grow its GDP.


According to the World Economic Forum, Israel is now in 86th place in the world in the quality of its primary education, and in 79th place in the education it provides in maths and sciences. And it is important to remember that the tests on which those placings were based, were not even given to the Haredi pupils.


According to the OECD, pupils registered in Israeli state elementary schools spend an average of 5,741 hours in class each year. That’s a lot. The OECD average is only 4,553 hours. The big difference between Israel and the rest of the world, though, lies in class size. Israel averages 26.8 children per teacher, while the OECD average is 14.5 children per teacher. In other words, despite the long class hours, Israeli students actually get less individual attention and instruction than their peers elsewhere.


The results are pretty appalling. In places like Kochav Yair, where parents have the capacity to tax themselves to pay for enrichment classes for their children, 93.4 percent of 12th graders earned a matriculation certificate. In poverty-stricken Jisr e-Zarka, only 25.24 percent did. Overall, there is a gap of 16.8 percentage points between the scores of Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli students.


In Haredi cities, the situation was even worse. In Modi’in Elite, the figure was only 7.24 percent of the high school-leavers.


These low marks are an important harbinger of Israel’s economic future. A series of studies has found that once the quality of a child’s education in what are termed “core subjects” drops below a certain level, the families they create when they reach adulthood will become endemically poor for generations to come because of an economic circle that has been established. The syndrome works like this: If a child does not get an adequate education, he or she, when they become parents, will never be able to earn enough money to give their children enough educational enrichment for those children to get well-paying jobs. Without well-paying jobs, those progeny will never be able to give their children the educational enrichment they will need to get jobs…and so the cycle repeats itself endlessly.


Overall, what has happened to the country’s education system is possibly the best example there is of all that is wrong with the budgeting process. In the early 1990s, Israel was blessed with a huge influx of Russian-speaking immigrants, most of whom were highly educated. By the time the huge wave of immigration was over, more than half of adult Israelis had a university degree—the highest percentage of degree-holders of any country in the world. Among other things, these highly-educated workers filled critical job slots in high-tech and in the health services. But no plans were made for the day when these immigrants would begin to retire.


So, for example, while the number of university students has risen two and a half fold since 1973, only one new university, that in Ariel, was created. And the total number of senior faculty in research universities, as opposed to colleges, grew by only 9 percent.


The impact of this change can be seen almost everywhere, but nowhere more than in health care. For years, the country relied on the self-taxation of parents who were willing to pay high fees to send their children to learn medicine in places like Hungary and Romania. But that was still not enough to fill the growing shortage of health care professionals. And so today, Israel is facing a dire shortage of nurses and doctors in some critical fields such as pediatrics and internal medicine. Were it not for the fact that a disproportionate number of Israeli Arabs have now chosen to study medicine abroad, the situation would be even worse.


All told, today, only 44 percent of Israelis aged 25-34 have a bachelor’s degree. In other words, today, fewer Israelis have a university education than did their parents. According to the OECD, 65.7 percent of South Koreans, 58.5 percent of the Japanese and 56.9 percent of Russian adults hold university degrees. Since fewer than half of Israelis get a matriculation certificate these days, there is very little chance that Israel will ever regain its previous standing. In other words, Israel is almost unique among developed countries in that the younger generation is less educated than the previous one. Even with the increase in education spending that will begin next year, it will take at least a generation before the country recovers.


And despite all the brouhaha given to immigration, especially from increasingly anti-Semitic Europe, don’t expect immigrants to fill the job slots that the country will need. According to the Forum, Israel today stands 83rd in the world in its capacity to attract the educated talent it needs. And the brain drain is increasing because the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union find that they are not being accepted as Jews by the religious establishment. They thus do not develop emotional ties to the country, and so feel few qualms about emigrating.


How did all of this come about?


I have long tried to show that the Israeli government is a federation of political tribes. Each tribe that is represented in the coalition government is interested first and foremost in funding its own members’ interests. Only afterward are the needs of the majority taken into consideration.


Each year, the budget for the coming year is prepared by the Finance Ministry by the end of June. At best, the cabinet then spends no more than three sessions debating the provisions of the budget. That debate focusses almost entirely on who gets what. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a debate specifically designed to lay out long-term national priorities.


The budget is then usually presented to the Knesset after the Simchat Torah holiday, and, by law, is supposed to be passed by December 31. Since the hyperinflation crisis in 1983, it has always been accompanied by a unique Israeli invention called “the arrangements law,” which is intended to be an omnibus bill containing the enabling legislation necessary for the implementation of the provisions in the budget itself.


In the past, the arrangements law was actually a hodgepodge of all the economic reforms that the government wanted to introduce, but which it knew in advance it would have difficulty in getting passed using normal Knesset procedures. The idea was to overwhelm the Knesset members with so much legislation that they couldn’t really give each item proper consideration before the December deadline. However, as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision, today, the arrangements law can only contain provisions that relate directly to the budget.


As I noted before, the one thing to keep in mind most as I discuss the budget itself is that the budget law and the arrangements law passed by the cabinet—and the amended versions passed by the Knesset—invariably bear only a passing resemblance to the way the money is actually earned and spent.


That great huckster PT Barnum was only partially right when he declared “You can fool some of the people all the time. And you can fool all of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Even the man who searched the world for all the freaks mother nature had conjured up could not have conceived of the fact that when it comes to the Israeli budget, all the people do get fooled all of the time.


The process begins even before the budget proposal is presented to the cabinet. The finance ministry draws up a projection of how it expects the economy to behave in the next fiscal year, and therefore what the government can anticipate the revenues will be. In the old days, prior to the turn of the millennium, that document was drawn up in conjunction with the Bank of Israel, whose governor, by law, is also the government’s economic advisor. The Bank stopped cooperating and began preparing its own projections, however, when it found that the ministry of finance incessantly, and with a fervor that would have done a Haredi rabbi proud, religiously massaged the figures to satisfy the political needs of whoever was finance minister at the time.


That massaging continues to this very day. As the central bank pointed out in its critique of this year’s budget, in order for the projected budget deficit not to look too high, the finance ministry has included several projected sources of income for next year that are purely imaginary. For example, the proposed budget for 2015 now projects billions of shekels in revenues next year from the privatization of government-owned companies. The thing is: privatization projects take years to plan and execute. For example, the privatization of Bank Leumi has been underway since 1982 and has still not been completed.


Another thing that is always included in the budget and the arrangements law is a package of what are called “goats.”


The name comes from a Yiddish folk tale. A poor man with 13 children lives in a one-room house and can no longer tolerate the noise and the mess. He goes to his rabbi and asks the rabbi what he should do. “Bring a goat into the house,” the rabbi says.


The man dutifully does so. Two weeks later, he goes back to the rabbi to tell him that the situation has gotten much worse. The rabbi tells him that now is the time to take the goat out of the house. The man comes back to the rabbi the next day. “You can’t imagine what happened,” he man says. “The house is so quiet.”


So it is with Israeli budgets. The finance ministry inserts all sorts of provisions that it knows in advance will be totally unacceptable to Knesset members. This then enables the member to make great hay in the media about how they are protecting the public’s interests. In the meantime, because they focus only on the goats and those measures that most affect the interests of their political tribe, they ignore many other, far more important provisions.


You have to understand one fundamental thing about Israeli budgets. The professionals in the finance ministry are mandated to make the numbers in the budget add up. Because of political manipulation, such as the massaging of projections that I just mentioned, that is rarely possible. Therefore, these boffins have to resort to all sorts of subterfuges. For example, each budget contains a provision for reserves for unexpected events such as natural disasters or wars. However, invariably, the Knesset finance committee members end up committing the reserve to cover current spending even before the budget is passed. For that reason, the ministry officials have to find all sorts of imaginative ways to hide the real reserve. One year they did it, in part, by allocating funds to build new railway lines even though the tenders for those rail extensions had not yet even been published. Another year, they knew that interest rates were going to go down, but nonetheless kept the debts repayment section of the budget at the same level as the year before.


However, even that sneaky system doesn’t always work. Prior to the last election, the then finance minister Yuval Steinitz, who is a great political manipulator but knows nothing about economics, presented a budget whose numbers had been massaged so thoroughly that when Yair Lapid, the new finance minister, took office he found a gaping budgetary deficit of 40 billion shekels.


How do governments handle such situations once the mismanagement of public funds can no longer be hidden from the public? Invariably the cabinet then calls for across-the-board spending cuts. That means, though, that all the distortions in the budgets remain intact and no effort need be made to set out national priorities. That is precisely how both the education and the health budgets were cut to such low levels in the first decade of this millennium.


And now we come to one of the biggest ruses of all—off-budget spending that can amount to hundreds of millions of shekels in any one year. For example, successive governments have always claimed that they have allocated development budgets to outlying areas based on the principle of one-third going to the north of the country, one third to the south and one third to the West Bank. That is a total lie. Much of the development budget for the West Bank is hidden in provisions in six different ministerial budgets. But, no less importantly, hundreds of millions of additional funding are funneled through two organizations—Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael and the settlement budget of the World Zionist Organization. Nobody knows how much money the Keren Kayemet sends to the West Bank because its budget isn’t published. However, it has been estimated by some to be about 800 million shekels per year. The Molad organization has estimated that of the 199 million shekels that the WZO distributed last year, 149 million went to West Bank Settlements.


And finally last, but not least, each year billions of shekels are redistributed by the Knesset finance committee after the budget has been passed. In some years, this has amounted to as much as 40 billion shekels. Most of this reallocation is done when very few members of the committee are present at a meeting, and so it goes almost totally unnoticed in the media.


What happens more often than not is that these transfers are made following back room deals that provide distinct advantages to political insiders. For example, during the war in Gaza, the finance ministry asked the committee for an additional appropriation of 1.2 billion shekels to cover the cost of the war up to that point. In order to persuade committee chairman Nissim Slomiansky to speed up the process, Finance Minister Lapid had little choice but to agree to an additional payment to the council for West Bank settlements of 20 million shekels. No explanation was given for how that money would be spent. It was just handed over.


Given all these facts, it is unsurprising that Israelis, today, are 426 billion shekels in debt—to the mortgage companies, banks, credit card companies and even the pension funds from whom they have borrowed to finance consumption now…often without thought to what they will need in the future.


If this trend continues, Israel could soon face a major debt crisis that can only be remedied by government policies adopted now that can create more productivity. Unfortunately, it now appears that we will be entering yet another election period during which the government is more likely to adopt easier, but counter-productive policies such as raising the minimum wage without increasing policing of that regulation and without installing the infrastructure that would foster a rise in productivity.


The New Diplomacy in the New Middle East

I have long preached that major economic, social, political and military events do not just happen. They are invariably the product of processes that have been underway for a very long time.


That presumption is certainly true for all the events we have been witnessing in the Middle East during the past few years.


A second presumption is that, when major crises occur, a single-minded focus on events enables people to avoid thinking about the underlying causes and implications of those events. Unfortunately, when viewed against the background of the so-called “Arab Spring,” that assumption has also proven to be true.


In general, crises come in two basic forms. Some are like a volcano, where pressures build up in a single, geographical location or subject area and then explode upward and outward. Others are more like severe weather storms, where masses of unreleased energy meet, and when they do so, they combine to produce a virtually unstoppable destructive force that can create havoc anywhere storm moves to.


The processes that have led to the storms now battering the Middle East can be traced back at least to the First World War.


It was then that the United States emerged as a world military, political and economic power; and it was then that the British and French carved up the Middle East into countries that, for the most part, had no historical precedent. Often-warring and usually-competitive ethic clusters, tribes, and religious groupings were gathered together into single geographic units that were convenient for these colonialists to administer, but which then created the seeds for long-term conflict between the various factions.


World War II brought about an end to these exercises in colonialism. However, America’s role in the world then grew geometrically.


As part of the post-war realignment, the United States adopted a format for international diplomacy that has remained largely unchanged since it was first employed as part of the Marshal Plan and as a response to the growing threat posed by the Soviet Union.


The US divided the world into two camps—“us and them.” In reaction, many third world countries formed their own camp—“neither you nor them.” But what really mattered was that all three camps were based on the premise that the basic political unit in world affairs and in all negotiation settings was the nation-state. Even when there were guerilla wars, the object of the rebels, until relatively recently, was usually to take control over a given geographical area.


Throughout the immediate post-war period, the Americans used their massive wealth and military power as bait to encourage other countries to join American-led political and military alliances that were intended to deal with strategic objectives such as containing and lessening the influence of global communism. In other words, in return for America’s commitment to defend them militarily, America’s allies had to accept that Washington would have the first and last say on any issue that the Americans believed was in their national interest.


This approach led to the creation of American hegemonic groupings with names such as NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization), CENTO (The Central Treaty Organization) and SEATO (The South East Asia Treaty Organization).


The most successful of these groups was undoubtedly NATO, while the least successful was CENTO. NATO was a success because its members, from the very outset, were not only facing a clear threat—the Soviet nuclear arsenal—they were bound by a complex matrix of national interests, common cultural values and a willingness by the European partners to accept American hegemony in return for a military umbrella that enabled the Europeans to keep their defence costs low. Low defence costs were as important in rebuilding Europe after World War II as were the generous aid packages offered as part of the Marshal Plan.


The very success of NATO, however, led the Americans to believe that this format for diplomacy could and would work elsewhere—even where the same underlying political, military, social and especially cultural conditions did not exist.


CENTO, otherwise known as the Middle East Treaty Organization, or the Baghdad Pact, was formed in 1955 and collapsed finally in 1979. It was made up of Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Great Britain—as motely a group of nations as one can imagine.


It suffered its first blow in 1958, when a military coup in Iraq overthrew the monarchy, and the new leadership almost immediately established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. It finally died in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.


During its short lifetime, it accomplished almost nothing. But the problems it highlighted should have served as a warning to the United States about some of the issues Washington would have to confront if, in the Middle East, it continued to try to use the standard diplomatic format it had employed in establishing NATO. The most important of these portents was that, despite any surface appearances to the contrary, America’s apparent hegemony was not as strong as the Americans assumed it to be.


But that forewarning, like so many others, went unheeded.


As time passed, there were many other warnings as well. Probably the most obvious one was the decision by Saudi Arabia to nationalize a major American economic asset, ARAMCO (the Arabian-American oil company), in stages up to its full acquisition by the Saudis in 1980. More significantly, the Saudi rulers did so despite the fact that Saudi Arabia remained almost totally dependent on American military power for its defence. Not only that, the Saudis were among the instigators of the 1974 and 1976 oil shocks that sent oil prices into the stratosphere and led to major international economic upheavals including in the United States.


By doing so, the Saudis highlighted two weaknesses in the American approach. First, they demonstrated that if a country was wealthy almost beyond measure, it could separate the twin pillars on which the American hegemony relied. And secondly, they showed that such a nation need not accept a foreign hegemony and yet it could still get foreigners to commit to defending it. In other words, henceforth, at least in the Middle East, according to the Saudis’ strategic assessment, even titular allies who were dependent on the US for survival, could whittle away at the hegemony on which all American foreign policy was based without suffering a penalty. It was a lesson that the Turks and the Qataris in particular, would eventually take to heart.


The other signals that should have affected the Americans’ approach to the Middle East included the simple fact that in many places elsewhere in the world, the other pillar, American military power, was not influencing many countries to the degree that Americans believed it should. After all, the fact is that, beginning with the Korean War, the Americans have not won a single major military conflict. Now, especially after the costly economic and military bruising it received in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American’s continued reliance on its military and economic might as the primary means to try to influence Middle Eastern regional diplomacy has proven to be far less effective than it still supposes.


I could devote hours just to listing the many other wake up calls. For example, one of the most traumatic was the attack by Hizbollah, a non-state actor, on the American’s military barracks in Beirut in 1983. During the assault 241 American servicemen were killed. That bloodbath led the US to withdraw from tiny, militarily-weak Lebanon with its tail between its legs. Among other things, and at the very least, the bombing of the barracks should have warned Washington to be extremely wary about the growth in influence of non-state actors who were not members of the three established global political camps.


But that too was not to be.


Worse still, the US itself began a process that would eventually further undermine its capacity to maintain its hegemony.


That international hegemony had been supported by a domestic policy that included a disciplined approach to policing the excesses of capitalism and ensuring that the cost of any war would be shared equitably among all sections of the US population. However, following the Viet Nam War that discipline began to erode because pressures from the wealthy led to deregulation of some of the most potentially volatile parts of the domestic US economy. By the time George W Bush began his interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, this process has reached the point where, even during a period of mass military spending, taxes on the rich were being cut. This, together with the economic crisis of 2008, then led to a gaping budget deficit from which the Americans have yet to recover…and which influences its capacity to wage war today.


Another very important turning point worth noting came in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, dictators in Latin America were overthrown, and rule by democracy strengthened in large parts of Asia. At that moment the American punditocracy declared that liberal democracy had won, focussed only on glorying in those events, and so stopped thinking how the Americans’ posture in the world might have to be adapted to meet new challenges emerging from these happenings.


When he took office, President Obama sought to reverse some of these processes. Among other things, he tried to rebuild the US economy, in part by extricating the US from the hugely expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.


However, he did nothing to alter America’s basic approach to diplomacy, which, as I said, since World War II, had been built on the presumption that American economic and military power could be used to pressure other countries into bowing to the Americans’ will. No less importantly, he did nothing to alter that other axiom of American diplomacy, the dogma that everyone in the world wanted democracy and the Americans’ style of life.


There was an underlying, but false assumption, that with American guidance and encouragement, all the countries of the world would follow the path of the SEATO nations and the countries of Latin America, and slowly but surely move to democratic forms of government. Even today, Americans have difficulty in conceiving that places such as Russia, central Asia and the Middle East may be unwilling or unable, for deep atavistic and cultural reasons, to follow the path of these other nations.


This inability to comprehend the great gap that separates the political culture of the US from those of the states in the Middle East in particular, when combined with a disinterest in spending American wealth on new military adventures in that region of the world, has since led to one diplomatic disaster after another. Even oil-poor states that have been long been heavily dependent on American military and economic aid, including Egypt and Israel, have recently been willing to openly confront Washington’s attempts at imposing its fiats.


In the absence of the military and economic hegemony that Washington had once been able to leverage into diplomatic hegemony, the Middle East has reverted to those styles of diplomacy that the region’s countries and non-state actors have used since time immemorial.


It is this subject, which has been given too little thought because of the media’s focus on all the dramatic and bloody events taking place in the region, that I want to concentrate on from hereon in.


In particular, I want to highlight how these changes have affected Israel. For one thing has become eminently clear to me. This massive alteration in the very nature and workings of regional diplomacy has left Israel in a quandary.


In the past, Israel had always accepted American diplomatic negotiating norms, if not American demands, because Jerusalem had, for the most part, understood that its survival and prosperity were dependent on at least appearing to behave like a client state.


However, like so many other seemingly-bonded client states such as the European countries and the Saudis before it, Israel’s national interests demand that it must now challenge American stylistic and substantive dictates to a greater degree than ever before.


The first major sign that such a process had begun came when Israel agreed to an eleven month freeze in settlement construction in the West Bank, but, at the end of that period, could not show any progress in its peace talks with the Palestinians. When President Obama demanded that Israel continue with the freeze despite having received no equivalent gesture from the Palestinians, the Israeli government said “No!”


The important thing to keep in mind as I go into greater detail is that once that tipping point was passed, the Israelis have been left at sea as to how they should act in the international arena.


At this point, I have to lay out as clearly as I can—and that is not easy—what that arena now looks like when viewed from Mount Scopus.


Israel’s approach to international diplomacy was largely set in 1967, when France and Britain both declared arms embargos on the Jewish state. Those embargoes were applied largely because these countries wanted to preserve and enhance their trading relations with the Arab countries. The reaction in Israel to this trauma was a growing belief that the Europeans could not be trusted, and that the Europeans would always be willing to sacrifice Israel on the altar of convenience.


Another major shock came in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, when almost all the African countries, which Israel had assiduously courted as potential counterweights to Arab-led bloc-voting at the UN, broke diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.


Because of these events, which culminated in the passage of the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, Israelis came to believe that they were alone in the world.


However, by then a countervailing process was already underway. President Johnson had already decided to, for the first time, sell offensive weapons to Israel in the form of Phantom fighter jets. And so, from that time onward, maintaining a strong relationship with the United States became Israel’s diplomatic priority. That meant, first and foremost, accepting American political and diplomatic norms as the basis for communication between the two sides.


There were distinct advantages to this decision. Israel and the US became unsigned, but nonetheless formal allies, not just friends. As part of this process, the US began supplying other types of arms and vetoing anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN on a regular basis. As the alliance became more entrenched, Israel also felt increasingly free to take advantage of US domestic political norms. For example, it encouraged American Jews to become full-fledged members of the lobbying fraternity in Washington. That then enabled it to use organizations such as AIPAC to “work the hill”—in other words to create a strong counterweight to any decision-making done in the White House. No less importantly, these lobbyists were slowly able to neutralize the influence that pro-Arab officials in the State Department had been able to wield for decades.


However, there were negatives as well. The advent of American military and economic aid meant that many in Washington came to believe that Israel had become so dependent on American largesse that it could be turned into an obedient client state.


Another downside was the fact that this single-minded focus on Washington led Israelis to largely disregard the Europeans—except as consumers of Israeli goods.


So entrenched did this approach become that successive Israeli governments ignored the massive, world-wide changes taking place in the field of diplomacy—and especially the growing role being played by the media in government decision-making in democratic countries.


For example, European correspondents stationed in Israel, and especially those reporting to media outlets in the smaller European countries, were regularly snubbed by Israeli officials; and their requests for help were ignored.


The results were soon visible. The Nordic countries began adopting increasingly negative attitudes to Israel, and even overwhelmingly pro-Israel Holland, the only Western country that had once had an embassy in Jerusalem, ended up becoming ever more critical of Israeli policies.


Israeli government officials responded to the increasing criticism of Israel in Europe either with statements of bravado about how successful they were in moderating that criticism, or with whimpering, simpering complaints about anti-Semitism.


Probably the best example of this attitude of benign neglect of the media was the decision by successive governments to allow Danny Seamans, the man who was arguably the most incompetent official in all of the Israeli bureaucracy, to remain the head of the Government Press Office for more than a decade. During his tenure, he did more to alienate the foreign press in Israel than any other individual in Israeli history.


However, undoubtedly Israel’s greatest long-term mistake was to allow the US State Department and the White House to set the international agenda for Middle East diplomacy. Much of that agenda has little to do with the reality of the situation in the Middle East. Instead it is very often the product of what is often called “inside the beltway” bureaucratic and institutional needs.


A particularly notable feature of the Washington mindset has been the penchant of administration bureaucrats from both major parties to simplify the reasons for the conflicts in the Middle East so that the White House and State Department, at their daily briefings, can produce quick media sound bites for domestic consumption. For example, at formal briefings and in closed door sessions, officials have constantly, but falsely claimed that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank is the single greatest obstacle to Middle Eastern stability.


This “keep it simple, stupid” approach had serious consequences that have now fed the growth in the political, military and social chaos that the Middle East is currently undergoing—but not in the ways Secretary of State John Kerry recently implied.


In order to “keep things simple” for the media and for the Washington bureaucrats’ domestic audience, for far too long, complex and embarrassing issues were downplayed or ignored. Possibly the most obvious example of simplification to the point of absurdity was the refusal by American diplomats to highlight the fact that the Palestinians’ continuing attachment to the right of return is at least as much of an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making as is the Israelis’ settlement programme.


Another good example of a major issue that was largely ignored arose in the years after 9/11. Even after it was shown that most of the perpetrators of that disaster were Saudis or products of an education they received at Saudi-sponsored religious institutions, the US chose not to discuss publicly or launch a campaign to alter the teachings in those institutions. The result was the continued, rapid growth of the Moslem Salafist movement and its offshoots…al Qaeda and now ISIS.


Even now, that attitude continues.


During the past few years, the Americans tried to persuade everyone that al Qaeda was being controlled through the use of American drones and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The truth is that al Qaeda affiliates have actually grown in strength and in number to the point where today they control huge areas running from the Sinai, across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa to northern Nigeria. And, of course, in Syria and Iraq, al Qaeda affiliates, including Jabhat el Nusra and ISIS, are doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.


This “keep it simple” approach also had a significant impact on the European and other foreign correspondents who also attended the Washington briefings. They came to believe that their task was restricted to reporting the statements emanating from Washington, and then to writing approvingly or negatively about the “talking points” the bureaucrats had chosen. Only very rarely did they question whether that list of talking points was so narrow that the issue under discussion was being distorted.


Put in a different way, because Washington is host to the world’s largest corps of foreign correspondents, successive administrations have gained control over the reporting agenda of the world media on issues related to the Middle East and especially Israel. In practice, the Administration raises an issue…and then the focus by the world media is on whether the American or a Middle Eastern body such as Israel’s approach to that issue is appropriate or not. The complexity, nuance and ambiguity of multifaceted issues is then inevitably ignored.


This phenomenon has led to increasingly lop-sided reporting. For example, when there were conflicts between Congress and the White House over America’s policies towards Israel, US officials and American journalists would invariably highlight the role played by AIPAC during those battles. Totally ignored was the fact that the Saudis, among others, had developed a no less influential and potent means for influencing American policy.


Because the congressional committee system is largely built on the principle of seniority, American armaments factories have tended to gravitate to those states whose representatives and senators either head or are in line to head defence appropriations or foreign policy committees. The Saudis have always had a policy of purchasing far more sophisticated—and far more expensive arms—than they can usefully employ. Merely by dangling offers to purchase billions of dollars worth of arms before the eyes of congressmen—and the jobs those purchases can create—they can influence foreign policy decisions without any of the public fuss that accompanies AIPAC’s more open lobbying efforts. If direct lobbying efforts are needed by the Saudis, the armament companies are usually more than happy to provide any services requested.


I will go into how the Saudis also use their fabulous wealth to influence world diplomacy at the very end of this assessment.


All these factors, when combined with the failures of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent international economic crisis, and Washington’s bungled reaction to the so-called “Arab Spring,” have now changed the Middle Eastern diplomatic arena beyond recognition.


In retrospect, I think it has now become clear to most people that the initial, too-thoughtless American reaction to the recent revolts in the Arab states was probably the primary trigger that set off the perfect military, social and diplomatic cataclysm that has now enveloped the Middle East.


The failures in Iraq an Afghanistan, combined with America’s ongoing economic crisis, had initially led President Obama to adopt a two-fold policy towards the Middle East—an attempt at outreach towards what the White House had convinced itself were moderate elements in the Arab world, and a decision that, henceforth, no American soldiers would be sent to do battle in the region.


Until the archives are opened, we will have no idea whether the Americans even considered that the immediate effect of those twin decisions would be the de facto abrogation of America’s previous policy of trying to impose its diplomatic norms and its approach to dispute resolution on Middle Eastern nations.


Be that as it may, when the White House also announced that the US would henceforth focus its foreign policy on Asia, many in the Middle East came to the conclusion that the US was trying to run away from any further serious involvement in the region.


Certainly, despite the growing regional unrest, the US failed to enunciate any clear strategic goals. And from all appearances, it was being reduced to reacting tactically to events as they occurred. The US approach to the revolution in Libya appeared to confirm all those suspicions.


With great hesitation, the US agreed to participate with the Europeans in bombing Muammar Gaddaffi’s supporters. Those supporters were defeated. However, because there were no foreign “boots on the ground,” after he was killed, Gaddaffi’s arms warehouses were almost immediately thrown open. These arms were then looted by local tribesmen, which then set off a civil war. Even more importantly, those arms began to be sold in wholesale quantities to terrorists elsewhere.


Nonetheless, the US continued to vacillate on what should and could be done to cope with the potentially disastrous situation that was developing.


Further confirmation of the growing impression that the US no longer had a coherent, strategic approach to the events taking place in the Middle East came soon after the fiasco in Libya. President Obama promised to bomb Syria if Assad used chemical weapons. But when those weapons were used, he refused to undertake aerial assaults.


In the absence of a realistic strategy, the Americans seemed to be relying solely on previously-enunciated, but always selectively-employed, so-called “principles” as their source of guidance on how to react to the events that were taking place. For example, even when it had become plain to everyone that the Moslem Brotherhood was leading Egypt to social and economic ruin, Washington continued to support the Brotherhood after the Egyptian army launched its coup because the Brotherhood had adhered to the American principle of seeking power by through democratic elections. Then, US even went so far as to halt arms shipments to Egypt at the very moment that the Egyptian army was engaged in a bitter and costly war with al Qaeda-associated, anti-American jihadis in the Sinai who were being indoctrinated by Saudi Salafists and who were getting huge quantities of arms from Libya.


The immediate impact of all these and other decisions was a growing loss of US credibility in the region, and the creation of a diplomatic vacuum. In particular, states in the region no longer felt obliged to even consider, let alone act on American entreaties, because they saw no advantage in doing so. Instead, there was an almost instant regression to the negotiating norms that had been used by the region’s desert tribes for millennia. Those norms focus on the acquisition of short-term advantages to the detriment of long-term strategizing. They produce alliances are fragile. Promises made by their practitioners are quickly forgotten. The use of hypocrisy is turned into a fine art. International bribery and corruption are deliberately fostered. Vast sums of money are used to buy favours. And one party can even end up supporting both sides to a dispute in which they are not immediately involved. The Qataris and the Turks, for example, have become masters of that particular technique


Once this trend grew, the Israelis, who had submitted to American dictates on how and when to negotiate for so long were left adrift, and, and I noted earlier, they were clearly at a loss about what to do.


This situation soon led to a “theater of the absurd” drama, whose plot or non-plot even Beckett or Jean Anouilh would have had difficulty in concocting.


The narrative goes as follows:


As I mentioned earlier, after the Egyptian military took power, it began a major crackdown on the terrorists who were attacking Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai. As part of that operation, it closed the land crossing between the Sinai and Gaza and began sealing the tunnels leading from Gaza to the Sinai. It also strengthened its military working relationship with Israel beyond all previous recognition.


When the latest war in Gaza broke out, because of everything I have noted up to now, Egypt, but not the United States, was uniquely positioned to determine the war’s outcome. Unless Israel chose to lift its embargo on Gaza, no persons or goods could enter Gaza without Egyptian approval. For that reason, Egyptian President el Sisi, with Saudi financial and political backing, began to use the levers at his disposal. In particular, he announced that he would not negotiate with Hamas to open the border crossing until there was a cease-fire. Hamas, which was desperate to extract any real success from the war, used every trick in the book to try to avoid agreeing to a cease-fire until someone, anyone, had handed it anything that it could use to persuade the population in Gaza that the huge number of deaths and the massive destruction Israel had inflicted had been worth the cost.


The Israelis, who felt they could no longer rely on American diplomacy to accomplish anything worthwhile, chose to accept and learn from el Sisi’s stance.


Of course, this decision was not cost free. The longer the fighting continued, the greater the drain on the Israeli treasury was, and the greater was the danger of Israeli soldiers and civilians being killed.


But to get back to this non-plot: The US could not tolerate the situation it was now in—a situation it had largely created itself. It could not stand being excluded from this battle of wills; and, for domestic political reasons, it could not accept the slow pace that el Sisi’s tribal-style, siege-like tactics required. In the US, the emphasis by politicians and bureaucrats on retaining media support requires politicians and bureaucrats to act rapidly (and often with insufficient forethought) before a media item “goes cold” and before the media turns on the politicians for “doing nothing” about the situation.


For that reason, in one of the stupidest moves in modern diplomatic history, John Kerry asked the Turks and the Qataris to intercede with Hamas to agree to a cease-fire because, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the Turks as members of NATO and the Qataris as hosts to the biggest US military base in the Persian Gulf, were believed to be of the camp that the US labels as the “usses.” The Americans seemed to have taken no note of the fact that the Turks and the Qataris were sworn supporters of the Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas, and so were also perceived by the Egyptian military and the Israelis to be sworn enemies who would do anything to weaken them. Furthermore, the Americans seem not to have even considered that, given those widely-known facts, Hamas might use the opportunity being handed to it to buy more time.


When the US got what it thought was a positive nod from Turkey and Qatar for its cease-fire request, it announced, with considerable self-congratulation, that there would an almost immediate halt in the fighting. When Hamas again openly rejected the proposal, American credibility in the Middle East plummeted to previously unthinkable, new lows.


Given all the above, it is now possible to track, in detail, how all these and other important political weather patterns combined to create the current storm that has ISIS at its centre. To review:


  • Before-9/11, and despite the Saudis actions in the 1970s, the American hegemony in the Middle East appeared to have solidified. The Soviet Union, America’s long-time competitor in the region had collapsed. However, that was a mirage. And so, even after 9/11, and the subsequent military and political failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US refused to accept that its previous hegemony was being challenged to a greater degree than ever before.


  • More than 3 years ago, a revolt broke out in Tunisia, and subsequently in Egypt. The Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood hesitated to become involved, but then chose to bring its supporters out into the streets. The US insisted that Mubarak resign because he was thwarting what Washington believed was a popular Egyptian movement to institute democracy.


This then led to a major crisis of confidence between Riyadh and Washington. The Saudis said that they were angry at the way Washington had treated its long-time ally. A more important reason was the Saudi’s fear that some day the Saudi royal family might be abandoned by the Americans too—a fear that the Administration did nothing to alleviate. This would soon lead the Saudis to once again use the financial levers at their disposal, independently of any American concerns or interests. As I said earlier, I’ll go into detail on that development at the very end of this analysis.


After Mubarak resigned, the Brotherhood promised not to run a candidate for president, but then backtracked on its promise. This led Saudi Arabia, which had been a longtime supporter of the Brotherhood, to turn on this fellow Sunni organization. The primary reason? The Saudis could not accept that the Brotherhood, as a Moslem organization, had embraced democracy as a means to gain power. That precedent was also perceived to be a threat to the Saudi family’s rule.


When the Egyptian military seized power, the Americans condemned the coup and withheld aid. The Saudis, now at odds with both the US and the Moslem Brotherhood rushed to Egypt with political and financial support.


The Turks and the Qataris, allies of the Moslem Brotherhood, were appalled at what the Egyptians military was doing to Brotherhood supporters and so supported the Americans’ decision to impose sanctions. The Israelis were intrigued but confused as to how the events in Egypt would eventually play out. The Israelis intensified their backroom military contacts with Cairo and soon thereafter, enthralled by the results of that cooperation, even went so far as to dream that they might become members of a behind-the-scenes alliance composed of Jerusalem and the major Sunni Arab states including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and some of the Gulf emirates.


  • When the civil war broke out in Syria, most observers predicted that Bashar Assad would fall soon. They were wrong. They failed to take into account that the shift from American hegemonic diplomatic norms to tribal political norms would have on the course of events.


Assad could and did call on the support of his Iranian and Hizbollah allies. Any Western political rationalist had the right to suppose at that time that Iran, which was then suffering under extensive world economic sanctions, would have considerable difficulty in providing such an aid package. However, by that time, the previous American hegemony had evaporated and the tribal political rules I noted previously had kicked in.


For example, those rules state that a tribe that is not a direct partner to a dispute can and should adopt several different and even conflicting postures at the same time—so long as the cumulative effect produces at least a short term advantage for it. In this case, Turkey was openly opposed the Assad government and was providing aid to those fighting the regime. As a member of NATO, it was also, ostensibly, an American ally and had agreed to abide by the packages of sanctions levelled against Iran.


But, lo and behold, Iran could pay for all its economic and military aid to Syria because, in part, Turkish middlemen were found to have been buying Iranian oil; and Turkish banks associated with the Turkish government had been allowed to launder the money that the Iranians had earned from these and other illicit oil sales. Yet another reason was that, in the absence of a clear strategy, the United States had also begun to play the double game in earnest. For example, it had agreed to a softening in the sanctions against Iran even though, at the same time, it openly opposed the Assad regime.


  • The extended war, caused in part by the Americans’ fear of becoming directly involved in the fighting, enabled two al Qaeda offshoots, Jabhat el Nusra and ISIS, to gain a foothold in Syria. Turkey allowed would-be members of both organizations to cross the border from Turkish territory into Syria. As Sunnis, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and Gulf charities had originally all supported Jabhat el Nusra and ISIS against what they perceived to be an Iranian, Syrian, and Hizbollah Shiite axis. That support continued until ISIS announced that the Saudi heretics, in their words, were their next target. The Saudis responded by demanding that the US become more directly involved in fighting ISIS. In effect, despite all it had done to weaken the US’s hegemony in the region, it demanded that the US still play by the old hegemonic rules and send in troops.


When the US demurred and suggested that regional countries use their own troops to battle ISIS on the ground, the Saudi were appalled. Their army is not designed to do battle. It is extremely well equipped, for reasons described earlier, but it is poorly trained because the Saudis fear that a well-trained army might, at some point, launch a coup.


  • ISIS had been growing in strength and in capabilities for 8 years, but those capabilities, and its potential to ally with both disaffected Sunni tribes in Iraq and former Iraqi Baathist army officers who had lost their jobs following the American invasion of Iraq, had been ignored by almost all Western intelligence agencies.


Since the beginning of the US withdrawal from Iraq, the political situation in that country had been obviously deteriorating. The single-minded policies of Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki had favoured the country’s Shiites and ignored the needs and demands of the large Sunni minority.


Nonetheless, the US, in yet another act of principled idiocy had failed to support the justified Sunni demands because al Maliki had been democratically elected. Thus, all the billions of dollars that the US had sunk into gaining the support of the Sunni tribesmen during the so-called “surge” came to naught when these tribesmen sought out allies in their battle with al Maliki, and found them in ISIS. Worse still, when ISIS began its offensive in the Sunni areas, the Shiite based Iraqi army melted away, both because its commanders had been appointed almost solely because of their loyalty to Maliki and not because of any competence, and because the rank and file Shiite soldiers had no desire to die fighting to save the Sunnis.


  • Once it went into battle, ISIS’s superb video campaign on social websites enabled it to attract battle-hardened fighters from Chechnya and artillery fodder from all over the rest of the world. Its initial, well-chosen military successes in Iraq then endowed it with vast troves of arms and stolen money.
  • The US had merely watched as ISIS gained in strength, and the casualty rate in Syria had grown to almost 200,000. There was barely a peep as ISIS engaged in mass killings of prisoners. The US could have delivered deadly blows to ISIS while the rebel fighters criss-crossed the Syrian and Iraqi deserts and were left exposed by the open terrain. But they chose not to…until, that is, ISIS had the gall to behead two American journalists and video the executions in glorious Technicolor.


Because they had given up their interest in exerting their hegemony in the region and because they had failed to find an alternative comprehensive strategy, the Americans found themselves mirroring Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum about Israelis. In this case, though, it was the Americans who had no foreign policy with regard to the Middle East. It was being guided only by domestic politics, including the American public’s reaction to the beheadings of the two American journalists. The cost of that reaction is now expected to be in the billions of dollars. One of the major, absurd outcomes of this tactically-based approach to ISIS has been fact that the American bombing campaign has also enabled the Assad regime to refocus some of its efforts from fighting ISIS to doing battle with the rebel forces sponsored and equipped by the Americans.


  • To date, the only non-Shiite group that has committed forces to the ground battle against ISIS are the Kurds. In fact, it would appear that the anti-ISIS alliance can only agree on thing…that the war should be fought to the last Kurd. However, in yet another twist in this story, Turkey has refused to assist the Kurds and has even bombed Kurdish PKK forces in southern Turkey. To top things off, and while all the anti-ISIS allies are willing to fight to the last Kurdish soldier, they are opposed any move by the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria to unite politically.


  • Just to make things even more complex, the Turks have chosen to put on a superb display of modern Byzantine politics. They decided to accept oil for resale from ISIS, the Kurds in Iraq and the Iranian government—all while trying to wrest the leadership of the Sunni world from the Arabs.


  • The Israelis have so far taken a low-keyed stance to all these events. They have been acting in concert with the US, Britain, the Saudis, most of the Gulf States to provide intelligence and other invisible forms of support, such as increasing the water supply, to Jordan. However, any dream that Prime Minister Netanyahu may have had of creating even a real backroom alliance with the Saudis and the Gulf states is being thwarted by his own refusal to enter into serious peace talks with the Palestinians—a primary demand by the Saudis for entering into a deeper relationship with Israel.


All this, when taken together, has produced the following result: Instead of the countries in the region and foreign states such as the US and Britain acting on the basis of predetermined strategies that could produce long-term alliances and long-term planning, all these states have instead chosen to restrict their diplomatic efforts to entering into ad hoc deals directed at resolving short-term tactical problems as they emerge.


No one has benefitted more from this return to tribal politics than Binyamin Netanyahu. Since he became beholden domestically to the extreme neo-nationalists, hejust liken theb Saudis, has focused almost single-mindedly on his own domestic political survival. This has included making the same sorts of ad hoc deals with coalition partners and doing the same double-dealing that has become so prevalent elsewhere in the region. Matters have even reached the point where he has given up almost all his most cherished economic beliefs in the service of short-term political advantage.


This situation has enabled him to escape from the need to enunciate any long term plans for dealing with other pressing issues such as the growing BDS movement, the weakening of Israel’s support among the European public, and a whole slew of other domestic and foreign challenges.


In sum, Israel and the US, even without new or formal alliances with the Arabs, have now become full-fledged, practicing adherents of the most primitive form of the Middle Eastern tribal behaviour.


Welcome back folks to the politics and diplomacy of the 5th century BCE, when the first permanent human agglomerations outside caves began to appear…in the Middle East, of course.


There is, however, one major exception to this trend. The Saudis, who are experts in tribal diplomacy, have also managed to leverage their extraordinary wealth to create a new form of diplomatic leverage. Unlike the Qataris who believe that their wealth enables them to buy whatever they want, the Saudis have come to the conclusion that since the Americans can no longer exert their will as they once could have, Riyadh can fill that vacuum by simply doing nothing.


On the surface, that may seem to be an oxymoron. But the reality is that we are now in the midst of a world-wide economic slowdown. Despite entreaties by other oil producing states, though, the Saudis have refused to cut production or even discuss cutting production. The result has been a precipitous drop in world oil prices.


This collapse in oil prices has had at least two major consequences. First, the Europeans have now become dependent on lower oil prices to keep their economies afloat. This makes them particularly sensitive to any Saudi diplomatic demands. But even more importantly, the drop in demand and prices has created an economic crisis in the two countries that have been aiding Bashar Assad the most—Russia and Iran. Currently, oil prices are hovering around 82 dollars a barrel. However, in order to maintain current rates of government spending, Russia is believed to need oil at 120 dollars a barrel and Iran is thought to need oil at 140 dollars a barrel.


If things continue as they are now progressing and oil prices drop even more, within a year, both countries will have depleted their monetary reserves, and neither country will be able to afford to continue assisting the Syrian government without suffering serious domestic consequences.


All of which goes to show you that, under the current chaotic circumstances in the Middle East, and especially in the absence of an American hegemony, diplomacy may end up taking many new, imaginative and extraordinary forms.

An Exchange of Ideas

I received this response to my letter to Rabbi Dow Marmur (posted previously) from Howard Adelman, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at York University. My response follows immediately afterwards.


Values and Israeli Society


Howard Adelman

Just before Yom Kippur, Rabbi Dow Marmur forwarded me a missive sent to him by Jim Lederer (see attached) which invited comments. I read the long letter and was very intrigued since it picks up on the theme of yesterday’s blog stressing the still small voice of accumulating whispers of ordinary citizens. Since the letter also deals with ethics, and, more particularly, just war theory, I could not resist commenting.

If you decide to read the letter (and possibly my response), do not be put off by the long introductory note of self-pity and lament in Jim’s missive. He does have some relevant points and observations. Unfortunately, Jim also argues that not only has Israel been misunderstood, but that he has been both misunderstood and ignored. He alone has grasped a very different Israel than the one put forth by knee-jerk defenders, whom he refuses to call rightists, left-wing critics of Israel who are so narrowly focused on the misbehaviour of its government or as an immoral occupier, and Israel’s liberal admirers who zero in on Israel as a start-up nation. Jim argues that a very different Israel has emerged in a grass-roots based value system that is quite at odds with Israel’s former history.

Jim insists that his account would never be published in any contemporary newspaper or journal. I agree. But not because of his thesis, but because the combination of self-pitying and haughty self-righteousness is so off-putting. Further, the letter itself needs better organization and considerable editing.  Accusing all non-Israelis of a detachment from reality (with the exception of Rabbi Dow Marmur) does not help, especially when accompanied by a more general dissing of non-Israelis.

Jim argues that within the Jewish world, a gap – no, an enormous canyon – has developed between Israel and the diaspora so that two very different Jewish civilizations have emerged. This is a radically different argument than that put forth by Sara Dobner on Israeli-Diaspora Relations in the 24 September issue of the Canadian Jewish News. Sara offers a thesis that, in contrast to early Israeli society that was antithetical to the diaspora and refused to acknowledge that it had a future, the new Israel has come to accept the persistence of the diaspora as an independent source of inspiration and culture in the Jewish world. Instead of a gap developing into a canyon between the two worlds, Sara observes new bridges being developed between the two realms. Instead of the old depiction of the diaspora as doomed to disappear while in the meantime it served as a valuable lobbying ally and a source of philanthropic funds, Israel has now accepted the diaspora as a permanent partner, even though the tension between Zion and the gola persists.

Jim is a direct heir and grandchild of the old Israeli view that degraded and dismissed the diaspora, only he is even harder on the diaspora, insisting that it only understands Israel as a caricature while he himself caricatures the diaspora. For he claims that the diaspora fails to grasp the emerging sense of new values in Israel as relevant and authentic. He further claims not only that Israel and the diaspora have different cultures and that Jews in each have different identities, but that Israel and only Israel has developed a vibrant and authentic core of new values while the diaspora has not only not contributed anything to this emergence, but in general it is too superficial to even comprehend what has happened — whether among leftist critics, right-wing defenders or liberal admirers of high-tech Israel.

In spite of the radical differences between Jim and Sara, both accept the belief that Israel and the diaspora express radically different identities for Jews and the two societies manifest very different cultures. While Sara stresses building bridges and a synergistic relationship between the two societies, Jim is both dismissive of the diaspora, but goes further. He not only condemns the diaspora as irrelevant, but claims it is a prime source of misunderstanding. While Jim is the only one to understand the new reality emerging in Israel, Sara argues that diaspora Jews who are olim in Israel and Israelis living abroad are best positioned to interpret and mediate between the two societies. Jim puts the new emerging Israel on a pedestal while Sara pursues a new model of Jewish-diaspora relations.

Jim offers a potted history of the decline and self-destruction of five obsolete versions of Zionism. Communist Zionism was destroyed by Stalin’s doctor’s plot, though he could have noted that the same thing happened in the diaspora though the final nail in the coffin came with the invasion of Hungary in 1956. European style nineteenth century liberalism morphed into the Likud with its visions of Greater Israel, and, I would add, in the diaspora into the support for right-wing Israeli governments especially by the ultra-rich. Classic left-wing socialist Zionism self-destructed because it mishandled immigration from the Arab world, brought about the catastrophe of the 1973 war and totally bungled the post-war economic challenges of globalization. Mainstream Jewish orthodoxy destroyed itself by becoming fixated on settlements abandoning its former concern with social justice and the rule of law. And although revisionist Zionism had a last gasp in the remnants of an old dynamic faith as expressed by Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Mickey Eitan, all defeated in the 2012 primaries of their once esteemed party, the movement morphed from a party of principle into a party of expedient and pragmatic politics. These developments together took the place of a bygone political realm of contending values.

However, creeping up underneath the worn clichés of obsolete Zionist forms and the valueless politics of pragmatic politicians interested only in power, has emerged a new inchoate Israeli movement rooted in Kehilla-style decision-making versus advocacy majoritarian politics based on being either for or against a proposal or set of proposals. Like pragmatism, this is process politics rather than a politics of ends or ideals, but unlike pragmatism, for Jim this new movement is rooted in a deep sensitivity to values — as if James, Dewey and the other pragmatists, including Hirschman, were not rooted in a deep sense of values.

It was here that Jim almost lost me. For he defines the Kehilla process as working by consensus, like a Quaker meeting. But in my understanding, the Kehilla mode of political governing that emerged within Jewish communities in Eastern Europe was not a consensus process. The local partially autonomous community structures, focused on religious matters, education and philanthropy, with the entitlement to tax to support such enterprises, arose after WW I in Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic Republics. These new political structures were based on electoral politics representing a myriad of contending parties – Zionists, Bundists, Orthodox, Folkists with a myriad of subdivisions – that were mirrored in early Israel. They operated by majority rule, not consensus, though the majority could only be reached by enough of the various minorities reaching an agreement. This is not consensus politics. But, perhaps, just as the new historians in Israel are interpreted in many ways, the new history of Jewish government in Europe in the inter-war period has a new narrative of which Jim is a proponent of one particular reading.  I just am ignorant of such a reading, for it does not fit in at all with what I have read.

At the same time, I am sympathetic to Jim’s main point that a new value-based movement is emerging in Israel. I take as my example my experience with Micah Goodman, the young Israeli philosopher and specialist on Maimonides, who initiated Ein Prat – The Academy for Leadership, that my granddaughter, Ariella, attended both before she went into the army, during the army and for a year after her army service. Micah has promoted a new paradigm for Israeli politics based on listening to the other and not telling the other. However, I found Jim’s thesis wanting — that this new movement is rooted historically in the Israeli Black Panther protests fifty years ago, Motti Ashkenazi’s demands for accountability after the 1973 war and increasing efforts to make the people rather than the Knesset sovereign.

I am also in full agreement with Jim on his central thesis that the IDF has the most advanced inculcation of just war ethics than any army, though the American army is not far behind. (The Canadian army is not even in the running.) Jim correctly roots that development in Israel in Assa Kasher’s manual that he wrote for the army in the nineties. It is manifested in the guidelines provided to pilots in their bombing runs and in the provision of ethical and legal advisers to commanders on the operational level. Though the Geneva and Hague guidelines are indeed woefully inadequate in dealing with asymmetrical warfare, there has been a great deal of work in Israel and abroad on the issues that arise. More significantly, as a commentary on Jim’s dissing of both the diaspora and the ethics of all other nations than Israel, these worldwide movements, though primarily rooted in Israel and the United States, challenge Jim’s thesis that Israel and the US do not share any fundamental values in common.

The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty (though perhaps not the basic Law on Freedom and Occupation) that Amnon Rubinstein and Dan Meridor promoted in the Knesset, was influenced a great deal by American (and Canadian) law. The initiatives in the IDF and in the Knesset were matched by developments in the Israeli Supreme Court — as Jim argues. Like its American and Canadian counterparts, these courts usually proceed by incrementalism rooted in specific cases that try to balance various competing values in a society, in the case of Israel where security is so important, balancing security with fairness, the protection of civilians, proportionality and a dedication to common sense. In all of these courts, their best judgments are guided by principles of coherence, consistency and correspondence with the facts.

However, I myself find these developments in Israel to be inadequate because they have not been matched by the creation of adequate systems of accountability. Further, too little progress has been made in overcoming the tensions and impetus of military values and imperatives so that just norms at present remain in a relatively weak position in countering these other strong forces in military decision-making. Though there is a process of investigating failures in observing whether just norms have been followed, these are not timely enough or open enough to offer sufficient progress, though these processes are infinitely better than the ideologically driven biased processes of the UN Human Rights Council.

Thus, although I take Jim’s letter to contain a number of valuable nuggets of truth and wisdom, it is too marred by distortions and an atonal insensitivity to other sources that are far more balanced, proportionate and discriminating.


My Rebuttal

I am deeply grateful to Dow for distributing my piece and to Prof. Adelman for accepting my offer to comment on it.


But first a gripe: Prof. Adelman, I am a fervent adherent of the old Hollywood dictum “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.” The name is Lederman, not Lederer.


I particularly enjoyed receiving a copy of Howard’s blog posting because I hope that my missive to Dow and Howard’s reply will encourage others to enter into a needed, spirited debate on whether, how and why Israel has been misunderstood. Moreover, what he wrote, what he chose not to write about, and what he appears not have known to write about go a long way towards proving the worth of many of the central ideas that I put forward.


Surprisingly, he made only passing reference to the central theme of my piece—that the Israeli public is in the midst of constructing a new, national value system that is adapted to their traditions and unique experience; and that because of shallow media coverage, the world, and especially Diaspora Jewry is unaware of the process that is underway.


Had he stated that the information I presented was new to him, I would have felt that I had accomplished my objective and would have said no more. Had he written that he was aware of the process that is underway, I would have expected him to expand on the subject and provide both me and his other readers with details of which I may have been unaware.


In the end, in this case, anything else said or written is just “Shmearach,” as they say in Yiddish.


So, in the wake of his remarks, here is my shmear. I will address the assertions he makes point by point.


Without having ever met me, Howard accuses me of self-pity and self-righteousness. I beg to differ. I love my work and find it exciting, not pitiable. However, for very objective reasons, and as I noted in my letter to Dow, I do suffer from a sense of deep frustration.


I have been the Senior Israel Analyst for Oxford Analytica for the past 22 years. My work is distributed by expensive subscription to the World Bank, the IMF, dozens of governments (including Canada’s) and several hundred major international corporations. My mandate is a very special one. I am tasked to deal with precisely those issues that are ignored or distorted by such august media outlets as the New York Times, the Guardian and The Economist. I spend most of my work time sifting through vast quantities of raw data; and all too often the conclusions I come to differ markedly from the blatherings of politicians, the spin of bureaucrats, the defences put up by diplomats, the models employed by and the dogmatic utterances of academics, and the assumptions, presumptions and conventional wisdom of the media’s punditocracy.


My briefs regularly appear among the list of most-read articles published by Analytica, and I most surely would have been fired long ago had my observations proven to be incorrect or lacking in prescience over time. Nonetheless, no matter how well-footnoted and referenced my articles for the general public are, I have not had a single piece published in a North American journal or magazine in 15 years. In most cases the editors never try to refute the arguments I make or challenge the data I provide. They appear to take the same view as the one voiced most directly to me by a CBC editor I had many years ago. In all seriousness, he instructed me: “Don’t tell me what the Israelis say. Tell me what I know.”


From a purely ideological point of view, I find it hard to accept that only those with access to wealth—and not ordinary people—should have access to the material that I produce.


As I mentioned to Dow, my frustration came to a head during the recent war when I kept reading and hearing errant nonsense and outright idiocies in the media such as that Israel was behaving in an inherently morally inferior manner because fewer Israeli civilians were being killed by Hamas rockets than Gaza Palestinians were being killed by Israeli warplanes. These sorts of too-often-repeated logical fallacies served to highlight a subject I have long railed about. Because, over time, media coverage of Israel had been so shallow, non-Israelis are suffering from cumulative ignorance about one of the most dynamic elements of Israeli society, its ongoing search for a value system that takes into account the often unique experiences Israelis have undergone.


Contrary to what Howard alleges, at no point in my article did I diss the Diaspora. I merely pointed out that because of ignorance, Diaspora Jews were not aware of this dynamic and thus have not taken part in it. For this reason, while North American Jews had devoted masses of energy and effort wrestling with the questions such as whether membership in the tribe of Judah could be patrilineal as well as matrilineal (which created no waves among Israelis), American Jews took no note of the debate that raged in Israel on what should be the content of the civic textbook used in public schools.


Different priorities and different data sets in common use by both parties have combined to create a canyon between the two groups of Jews on the subject of what shuld be on the agenda of public debates.


Howard accuses me of being the “heir and grandchild of the old Israeli view that degraded and dismissed the Diaspora.” The very opposite is true. My letter to Dow was written with great pain at the lack of real communication between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. I am all in favor of building bridges between Israelis and the Diaspora, but that cannot come about so long as Peter Beinart and Norman Podhoretz and their ilk insist that Israel bow to their dictates—especially those decrees that do not relate to and even fly in the face of Israelis’ day-to-day experiences and the rites of passage they undergo.


For that reason, I therefore also feel obliged to challenge Howard’s support of Sara Dobner’s assertion that new olim and Israelis abroad are best positioned to build these bridges. My experience is that these two groups are too busy just adapting to and learning the basics about the new environments they must personally cope with to be able to assess accurately the macro-issues that today divide two, increasingly different Jewish civilizations.


To take but one example: On Rosh Hashana, Diaspora and Israeli Jews read the same Torah portion—the Akeda. It deals with the binding and potential sacrifice of Isaac. Following that holiday service Diaspora Jews probably never give much more thought to that narrative—at least not until it is once again recited during the normal annual Torah reading cycle.


This is not the case for any Israeli parent who has a child in a fighting army unit. Because migrants tend to be relatively young, it is doubtful whether they have children liable for conscription.


However, middle-aged and slightly older Israeli parents, every two weeks, very often find themselves having to actually enact the Akeda story themselves. Parents with children in fighting units, at five-thirty on Sunday morning, invariably and dutifully usually end up take their beloved child to the nearest bus stop. And, like Abraham, they entrust that child to the desires and even whims of an almost indefinable, seemingly amorphous body over which they have no control, but which they have no choice but to trust implicitly. Each time this rite takes place, after a ceremonial kiss, these parents have no choice but to turn their heads away, without knowing whether the child in whom they have invested their souls will soon be sacrificed. Only someone who has experienced such an event himself or herself is positioned to begin to comprehend Israelis’ motivations.


Other, similar, unique rites of passage have additional, cumulative effects on Israeli perceptions and behaviours that then make those behaviours almost incomprehensible to foreigners.


Howard then goes on to claim that I somehow ignore the contribution that has been made by value-seeking pragmatists such as James, Dewey and Hirschman. I do not ignore them just as I did not ignore the pragmatic Edinburgh philosophers I did mention in my piece. I merely pointed out that in Israel, it is not only the intellectual elite that is grappling with morally and ethically complex existential issues of this sort. In many cases, and unique to Israel, the search for solutions to weighty value-laden problems is being led by the hoi polloi.


Howard follows this critique by committing a major historiographical error. He claims that the Kehilla mode of self-governance emerged in Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic Republics after World War I; and that it was not based on consensus politics. As I pointed out in my piece, it evolved in the Diaspora in the years following the final codification of the Jerusalem Talmud; and it has survived for some 1500 years. Howard, apparently a staunch Ashkenazi focussed on his recent roots, seems to be totally unaware that the Kehilla system of governance is a modified form of self-rule that was prevalent in communities in Israel during the period of the Sanhedrin, that North African and Sephardi Jews were using Kehillah governance long before the Moslem conquest, that Iraqi Jews and other Mizrahi communities adopted the system after the hereditary Babylonian ethnarchy collapsed in the 10th century CE, and that the system was well–established in Ashkenaz by the time of Rashi. In addition to organizing and paying for things such as education and the mikve, this consensus-based system was the primary means used to negotiate, collect the funds for and make the decisions necessary to fulfill the mitzvah of redeeming those hostages whom were regularly kidnapped by brigands and barons in medieval Europe.


By disregarding this historical truth, Howard also does an injustice to the thousands of gabbais (sextons) over the centuries who were entrusted with not only running the synagogue, but with maintaining the communal unity that has always been a prerequisite for Jewish survival. The gabbais collected all the gossip needed to head off communal disputes before they became destructive communal battles. They were the first person Jewish travellers arriving in a town met if they were seeking lodging; and they were thus responsible for collating potentially threatening news about the outside world. And, most importantly they presided over the consensus-building chat that invariably accompanies the daily shiur that takes place in all Orthodox synagogues between the mincha and maariv prayers.


Incidentally, so atavistic is this craving for consensus that today, even secular Israeli institutions such as Israeli youth movements, devote much of their time teaching youngsters how to go about joint consensus decision-making.


Howard finds my assertion that this movement towards consensus, popular decision-making began with the Black Panthers and Motti Ashkenazi to be “wanting.” All I can say is that this is what I witnessed personally. If he can point to another period when the Labour movement’s hegemony was finally undermined by mass popular actions, I am open to persuasion.


On one point, at least, we do seem to agree. As I noted in my piece, and as he stated so forcefully in his response to me, Israel has not created adequate systems of accountability. But then, as I mentioned, this is precisely why the search for common values began…as an antidote to the politicians’ refusal to hold themselves accountable to a set of nationally-agreed-upon standards of behaviour. And so, as I concluded, Israel is now in the midst of a guerilla war between large numbers of value-seeking citizens and those bureaucrats, army officers and freely-elected politicians who refuse to be held accountable for their actions or inactions.


While Howard concludes his remarks by alleging that my assessment “is marred by distortions and an atonal insensitivity to other sources,” I too can suggest that his critique is pervaded by these same faults.


I therefore have a suggestion to make. One of the primary and most impressive features of the Israeli values-seeking movement has been its emphasis on a self-felt need to devote an exorbitant amount of time in seemingly-repetitive debate before its participants come to an agreement on the criteria that should be used to evaluate any proposal brought up for public discussion. This process is certainly one in which the Diaspora not only has a right but also a duty to participate in. That is because the battle to formulate criteria is not only the main means that the Israeli public and the courts have to force accountability on the government, the results of the debate inform almost every aspect of Israeli life from who has the right to lead a public protest to relations with the Diaspora to when the public believes it should mobilize in support of a peace proposal.


For more than thirty years, I have tried dozens of times to publish reports on these efforts to establish criteria, but every article I have written on the subject has been rejected by editors as being “not for us.” The ignorance by Diaspora Jews about the substance and the manner of approach that Israelis take in dealing with existential matters such as those that I have talked about, as well as my own frustration, is thus, I believe, perfectly understandable.


To their credit, the folks at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple have now asked me to speak in early February about the criteria the Israelis have created for judging the viability of any peace initiative. The material I have gathered is based on an analysis of over 5,000 newspaper articles, op-eds, speeches, panel discussions and the notes I took of radio talk shows. This collective “wisdom of the Israeli crowds” has proven over time to be extraordinarily prescient and has predicted both the peace agreement with Jordan as well as the collapse of the Oslo accords. It also reveals with extraordinary clarity the reasons for the failure of all the abortive peace-making missions that would-be mediators have launched over the years.


I invite you Howard, and anyone else interested in the subject, to attend my talk in February. Who knows, you may even have something important to contribute to this ongoing search for wisdom.


In the meantime, I also invite anyone and everyone to respond to my original article, Howard’s response and my rebuttal. If you do, we may even be able to begin a bit of canyon bridge-building.

Israel’s National Values: A Letter to Rabbi Dow Marmur

Dear Dow,


I am writing you this letter out of sheer frustration and because you are one of the few people I know who is capable of understanding what I am talking about. I am certain that what I have to say would never be published in a North American journal. So, if you want to pass this note on to your friends, you are most welcome to do so. Even more importantly, I would appreciate any input you or your friends may have.


In July, the Israelis invaded Gaza…again. The morning after the military operation began, I went through the reactions as they appeared in the media. Even in supposedly “serious” North American and European newspapers and journals, the reactions could have been written the day before the troops entered Gaza—or even five years ago.


It was clear that those commentaries were at one with the reasons given previously for the failed US mediation efforts to find a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the Europeans’ constant harping at Israelis for being nasty to the Palestinians, and the increasing obliviousness of Diaspora Jewry to what has been taking place in Israeli society.


Most of the beliefs and opinions that were expressed in the Guardian, in the New York Times, on CNN and virtually everywhere else, bore only a passing resemblance to reality.


From all that was said and written, it would appear that Israel has become a figment of almost everybody’s imagination.


As you know, I have been studying Israeli politics and social behavior—and the media’s coverage of that behaviour—for 47 years. But it was only, during July of this year, after the war broke out, and after listening obsessively to the Israeli talking heads on television, reading the leaks and statements coming out of Washington, watching the reaction of the Europeans, and sifting through the comments made by both so-called Progressive” and “right-wing” Diaspora Jews that I was finally able to comprehend why Israel is so misunderstood by the outside world.


Not only that, I came to the conclusion that, yes, as Peter Beinart claims, there is now a chasmic difference in priorities and perceptions between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jewry that is leading to the development of two Jewish civilizations.


I do, however, differ fundamentally with Beinart about the primary reasons why this gap in mutual understanding is becoming a canyon. And that is why I have written this missive.


After I had stripped away the mountains of verbal roughage about the war being produced by the professional and amateur punditocracy, and after I had weeded out the often racist and otherworldly garbage being produced by the headline-grabbing extremists, and after I had discarded the usually vapid statements of Jewish Diaspora officialdom, what I was left with was fascinating and almost beyond belief.


As you may have guessed by now, I found that the foreigners had nothing new to say. Invariably, they merely repeated old, worn assumptions and opinions as though they were mantras or intellectual or emotional comfort blankets.


By contrast, this same festival of talking heads was being used by mainstream Israelis of all political persuasions as an opportunity to stop and evaluate something that no one outside of Israel ever talks about.


From everything that was said, this difference in approach was quite obviously due to the fact that much of the world, including Diaspora Jewry, has become fixated on three subjects, and three subjects only—Israel’s high-tech prowess, its occupation of the West Bank, and the behavior of its government.


I can understand the foreign media and foreign diplomats’ disinterest in Israeli common folk. When Israelis have something important to say to each other, they usually speak Hebrew, not English. Translating not only the language, but also the cultural language takes too much effort.


What I do find remarkable is that the Diaspora Jewish leadership and the Diaspora intellectual leadership also talk only about what the Israeli government says and does; and they rarely, if ever relate to what the majority of Israelis are saying and doing. So called “right-wing” Diaspora Jews spend most of their time issuing statements in support of the Likud-led government, AIPAC says that its mission is to support any Israeli government that is in office, and the so-called “Progressive” Diaspora Jews seem to put all their energy into opposing any current Israeli government policy.


The thing is: Israel is more than just assemblage of geeks, occupiers and loud-mouthed politicians. More importantly, it has become a truism that Israeli society is divided…between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between the religious and secular, and between the rich and poor. However, no one ever talks about the deepest crevasse of all—the one that separates the majority of the Israeli public from the politicians they freely elect.


As polls about the workings of Congress in the US show, voters’ dissatisfaction with their elected officials is nothing new and is not confined to Israel.


The big difference between the two countries—and between Israel and most of the other countries in the world—is that mainstream Israelis are actively trying to do something about it. They have undertaken a number of self-help, self-awareness projects that have been invisible to foreign eyes.


To my mind, the most important of these is that many Israelis (but emphatically not a majority of their titular leaders) have embarked on a slow, but steady attempt to create a unique, national code of values. To the best of my knowledge no other country has ever embarked on such a project and involved such a high percentage of its people in it.


Many other countries claim to have a set of unique national values. But when you ask the citizens of these countries to delineate what those values are, all one gets are a set of generalizations or slogans such as “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or, in the case of Canada, “Peace, order and good government.”


The Israelis, though, are doing something very different. Instead of acting top-down by taking a slogan and then trying to examine what its particulars should be, the Israelis have been building their code, incrementally…in other words, from the bottom­-up. In terms of style, the code is very Talmudic in nature—an evolutionary accumulation of detailed decisions made over time as discrete issues and problems have presented themselves.


However, as invariably happens with bottom-up processes, it is only as now, when a crisis occurs, when people look for precedents and for previously agreed upon anchors as guides to action, and when enough of these decisions can be brought up as examples of how people should behave under given circumstances, that these decisions can be collated into a coherent whole.


That is what made listening to the Israeli talking heads so special. Once those who talk incessantly had had their say over and over, the media began searching for fresh voices. These new voices brought up many issues and provided a great deal of information that had not been revealed or discussed in the popular media before. In other words, because the fighting lasted so long, the media, in the end, succeeded in assembling a broad cross-section of Israeli thinkers and original researchers.


When I carefully examined what both groups were saying, I found an important unifying theme in their remarks. Both kept referring to certain social values that they had obviously accepted and internalized. From their tone of voice, they made it clear that they assumed that these values had been internalized by many others. And from the comments and reactions of participants in panel shows, it became clear that those assumptions were correct.


For years, I have been carefully studying what has been said and written in op-eds, radio talk shows and other popular media. After discarding the piles of prejudiced junk, and when taken in sum, these remarks have demonstrated that there is clearly an ongoing quest for a set of nationally-acceptable and nationally-accepted values.


I suspect that this search has been driven by a fundamental weakness in Zionist politics.


The entire Zionist experiment was based on using a combination of political ideologies, dogmas, power politics, and political expediency in order to create a Jewish state.


By the second decade of the 20th century, most of the Zionist activists had become adherents of one of five very different, competitive, comprehensive ideologies—Socialism, European-style liberalism, Revisionism, Political Modern Jewish Orthodoxy and Communism. Each ideology produced its own political tribe, and each tribe had its own strict rules of self-governance. Up to the 1970s, it was not unusual for Israelis to refer to the political party of their choice as their “home.”


However, over time, each ideology collapsed and each tribe lost its ability to control people’s thoughts and behaviours.


The first to go were the communists, especially after the details of the so-called “doctors’ plot” and the excesses of Stalinism were revealed.


Liberalism died in the late 1960s when the Progressive and General Zionist parties joined together and then united with the Revisionist Herut party to create the Gahal and later the Likud parties in an effort to finally unseat Labour.


The various socialist parties underwent a slow collapse. The process began in the wake of their mishandling of the immigration of Jews from Asian and African countries in the 1960s; and socialism itself died when it could no longer provide answers to the challenges posed by the post-1973 Yom Kippur War period.


Modern Orthodoxy, in its original, comprehensive form, disappeared once the National Religious Party became fixated almost solely on settlement in the occupied areas…to the detriment of its prior concern with social issues and the rule of law.


Revisionism was the last ideology to disappear. Its last theorists and practitioners were Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Mickey Eitan, (who were defeated in the 2012 Likud primaries), and Ruby Rivlin (who was kicked upstairs to the ceremonial presidency of the state in 2014).


In the absence of agreed, comprehensive ideologies, and as centralized political party and government control over people’s day-to-day lives waned, the politicians began to rely more and more on often-incoherent, narrow dogmas and pure political expediency in order to gain or to remain in office. The place of ideologically-based tribes was taken by special interest groups, which had little or no interest in the common weal. These groups included certain industrialists and financiers, works committees at state-owned enterprises, settlers in the occupied territories, and the ultra-Orthodox, among others.


This state of affairs then created a crisis among all those who wanted to be able to express themselves as individuals…and had chosen not belong to one of the special interest groups.


By the late 1970s these outsiders began a search to see whether and how the country’s citizens could find an adequate balance between individual rights and the need for community solidarity.


The answer to the question: “Do individuals have rights?” seems self-evident to most Westerners, but not to many Israelis. In the early days of the state, under Labour governments, communal rules were imposed, often stupidly, and invariably heavy-handedly, from above. For example, if you didn’t have a red Histadrut membership booklet, you were very unlikely to get a job in the civil service.


Tribalism, whether it took the form of membership in a kibbutz or in a Hassidic group, or more recently, going to live as a West Bank settler, has always been endemic to Israeli society—and it has even grown in recent years. But tribalism, by its very nature, needs to obliterate pluralism and individual rights in order to survive.


That means inculcating a disapproval or even a hate of anyone who is not a member of the tribe. Most of the divisions in the country stem from this “us” and “them” approach by the various tribal leaders.


When hyperinflation hit in the early 1980s, it quickly became clear to the majority that this particular economic disaster had been caused by these special interests over-feeding at the public trough. There had simply not been enough money available for defence and for satisfying the special interest groups’ hunger for cash.


A new format for setting national priorities and apportioning national assets was needed.


But this was easier said than done.


Despite free elections, but because of manipulative bloc voting by dogmatists and special interest groups in general elections, the Knesset was becoming less and less representative of the body politic as a whole. And coalition governments were increasingly becoming, in effect, federations of minority special interests. As part of this process, coalition cabinets had taken on all the features of and were now behaving very much like traditional tribal councils.


From then on and up to today, the needs and concerns of the majority were largely ignored… that is, until individual, highly-publicized crises—whether they were water shortages or the realization that there was insufficient equipment to fight forest fires—required that the government finally address them.


A vacuum had been created. There was an urgent need to find a vehicle or means that would foster reasoned discussion about those national issues that required principled and long-term solutions. Otherwise, it was clear to the rational majority, the state’s existence would be endangered.


The rabbinical injunction “Kol ha’yehudim arevim ze el ze” (Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew) has long been an Israeli cliché. However, as I noted earlier, as ideologies died, it was becoming increasingly evident that the special interest groups’ leaders were able to game the system of proportional representation, and then use the instruments of state to deliberately create major, self-serving divides in Israeli society through the use of hyperbole and the spread of totally inaccurate information.


That is why, during the recent crisis, Israelis actually shocked themselves by the way they united behind the war’s aims and acted, almost in unison to provide comfort, solace and practical aid to both the soldiers doing the fighting and the residents of the border with Gaza who were fleeing the constant mortar shelling and rocket fire.


Israelis were amazed that somehow, some way, despite the ability of the country’s politicians to use the huge and powerful instruments of state to foster national division, the majority of the public had managed to discover or rediscover a set of values that they held in common. And because these tenets were so deeply held by so many, they could then be used effectively to reinforce and maintain national unity.


I now want to use the rest of this note to trace how that body of principles was created.


In retrospect, it was almost inevitable that the impotent and virtually voiceless majority would eventually try to fill the values vacuum that had been created by the special interest groups, because Israel could not survive as a state without volumes of accepted rules and norms that could act as a glue to bind together an otherwise divided and divisive people.


Cooking up that glue was a Sisyphus-like task. The cumulative results of that effort only began to become apparent to the careful observer during the last decade. However, today, those results are clearly visible to anyone who takes the effort to cast off his or her preconceptions and examine the reality that has been created.


To be fair, it was only during the two years prior to the recent war that most Israelis were made aware of what they had wrought. And, ironically, it took the country’s most extreme neo-nationalist Knesset members to do so. That was because it was only after the Supreme Court was attacked by these Knesset members and their constituents for having supported those ideals, and it was only after those activists also tried mightily to pass legislation to limit those human and political rights that had evolved over the years, that the Israeli public understood what had taken place over time.


As I said earlier, I for one, find it truly remarkable that none of Israel’s friends or critics has made any effort to examine the process that is underway. For that reason, I can say without any shred of doubt that all of those who claim to be speaking from a humanist, ethical or moral position, whether they be so-called “pro-Israeli” Peter Beinart acolytes or the J-Street folks, or neo-nationalist Jewish Diaspora extremists, or whether they be those in the morality and ethics “business” such as rabbis who support Israel but find it morally lacking, or opponents of Israel such as the American Presbyterian Church or Canada’s United church are clueless panderers of ignorance.


A combination of laziness and self-righteousness may account for much of this thoughtless nattering. But I think a far more important dynamic is at work. It is becoming ever clearer to me that foreigners are simply incapable of comprehending the process that is underway.


That is because, seemingly without any guiding hand, individuals and groups seeking reasoned, not ideologically-based, dogmatically-based or expediency-based solutions to national problems, have adopted Kehilla-style decision-making.


Jewish Kehilla self-governance evolved after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is unique because it is the single most long-lasting and most successful non-tribal, non-monarchical form of government in human history. It has been the primary means by which Diaspora Jewish communities have ruled themselves for more than 1500 years.


It was only superseded by advocacy-based politics when the Zionist movement was formed. The founders of the movement, who were seeking to establish a nation-state for the Jews, believed that, if they were to succeed in this task, they needed to adopt the same format for self-governance that other democratic nation-states were using. That is because, unlike advocacy-based rule, Kehilla governance relies on often-excruciatingly slow consensus-building.


The re-adoption of Kehilla governance as a framework for decision-making by those seeking to end or limit the power of special interests in Israel is a development of extraordinary significance. The fact that consensus-based decision-making can and is being applied on such a huge scale in a modern nation-state—and not just in a closed ethnic and religious community—goes a long way to explaining why non-Israelis, who are familiar only with the advocacy-based, majority rule systems used in other democratic nation-states, do not even begin to know where to look to see what is actually taking place in Israel.


This blindness then helps explain, at least in part, non-Israelis’ fixation on the occupation as the sole criterion for judging Israelis’ ethical and moral values. It is unfortunate, but all too true, that the simplistic “for and against” debate that the occupation induces, when combined with a lack of concern for and a lack of interest in the complexity of Israelis’ day-to-day lives, too easily enables foreign critics to express their vain self-righteousness with such abandon.


In effect, most of Israel’s critics, from President Obama, through the leaders of the EU, to the various humanitarian NGOs such as Oxfam, have been saying to Israelis, “You are going to lose our support unless you start to think and act as we do,” instead of first asking “What’s really up with you Israelis?” and then surveying the material easily available in open sources and in the open mouths of most Israelis.


Had all these non-Israeli groups taken the effort, they might have discovered, as I have, that the wisdom of crowds in Israel is on its way to producing what appears to be a comprehensive, non-dogmatic, pragmatic alternative to those foreign ideologies that were the product of thinkers such as Marx, Hume, Locke and Burke, but which have proven to be inadequate political guides for most Israelis.


I would now like to look at what that alternative is in some detail.


One crucial aspect of the quest for common values that is particularly fascinating to me is that despite the fact that the Israeli value-code-in-the-making has been the product of multiple, independent contributors, working while widely different sorts of events were occurring, it is internally coherent.


But before I even begin to discuss what I mean by coherence, I first have to explain how the most basic premise of Kehilla governance—the need for decision-making through consensus-building—actually works in Israel.


Some of the initial consensus-driven contributions to the construction of the Israeli value system have been easily visible. Other ones have been more subtle. The most visible input came from a series of mass political protests that were initially directed solely at bringing about changes in very specific government policies.


The first exercise in consensus building took place in the most unlikely of venues by the most unlikely of people. The heroes of this particular, short-lived saga unoriginally called themselves the “Black Panthers.” The name was a takeoff from the group of young blacks of the same name who were active social protesters in the United States at the same time. The Israeli panthers were young, largely-uneducated, primarily Moroccan immigrants who, during the early 1970s, protested against the maltreatment of the Jews from Asian and African countries by the Labour Party hegemony. Lacking the political experience to build a large-scale movement, they focussed on publicity stunts such as stealing milk to distribute to the poor. Their protests were short-lived. However, the feelings the Panther’s represented and their ability to articulate them openly, did finally find successful expression when Labour was driven from office by Mizrahim, who, acting by consensus, voted en bloc and en masse for the Likud in 1976.


The second major figure in this extended drama was Motti Ashkenazi, who had commanded an outpost along the Suez Canal when the 1973 war broke out. When he was demobilized, he began a lone vigil outside the prime minister’s office demanding that the government take responsibility for its failure to prepare for the war. In Israel at that time, the idea was revolutionary. The Labour party and its affiliates had been in power, seemingly forever. And they fully expected to continue to do so.


Significantly, in Hebrew, to this very day, there is no equivalent for the English word “accountability.” When I queried the Hebrew Language Academy once about why this was so, their reply was “Nobody ever asked us.” In other words, Motti Ashkenazi was demanding something that could not even be conceived of because it could not be articulated by a native Hebrew speaker at the time.


The English-speaking Prime Minister, Golda Meir, who had previously labelled the Panthers “not nice boys,” was horrified by Ashkenazi’s effrontery. However, after Ashkenazi’s lone protest quickly swelled into an ad hoc movement of tens of thousands, she was forced to resign. For the first time, the public found that if it came to a consensus and then acted en masse, it could bring about major changes in political behavior…even when the protesters had to face the bureaucratic and political cudgels that could be and were wielded by those who had hegemonic control over the instruments of state. Labour should have been forewarned about the fate that awaited it. But by that time it was blind to the impact this new/old politics of consensus-building would have.


Later mass consensus-based protest movements were also directed almost entirely at making the government accountable for its actions or inactions. Among other things, these mass protests forced governments to tackle hyperinflation and to end Israel’s 18 year occupation of southern Lebanon.


One truly remarkable feature of this form of mass-participation policy-making is that it has been accompanied by the development of a series of rules that determine, in advance, who can be trusted to lead such a movement and how they should go about it. All the available evidence indicates firmly that anyone who breaks any of these popularly-delineated rules will fail to gain the support they are seeking. In other words, in order to prevent wasted energy and in order to save the time needed to launch an extended protest movement that might go nowhere, the protesters have built an efficiency mechanism into the overall concept of popular mass-protest policymaking. Today, if someone wants to launch a campaign to build a consensus around a particular issue, he or she must follow consensus-determined ways of approaching the task. Otherwise, he or she is doomed to failure. That is why, when a revolt by the middle class brought as many as half a million Israelis out into the streets during the summer of 2011, the rebels, despite their huge numbers, could not keep their protest alive and failed to accomplish most of their objectives.


Another phenomenon that has accompanied the exercise in effective mass mobilization has been a subtle, but monumentally important change that has taken place in the use of Israeli political language.


I have already noted the example of how protesters succeeded in imposing the concept of accountability on the Labour government even though the demonstrators didn’t have a Hebrew term for what they were doing. Here is an example of how just substituting one word for another brought about a change in the political culture.


For many, many years after the founding of the state, it was common for Israeli politicians of all stripes to declare that the Knesset was “sovereign.” In other words, that that body was the country’s ultimate source of authority. Almost invariably, wannabe and sitting Knesset members would then run their campaigns for office using the slogan Smoch Alai”—trust me. In other words vote for me because I am an authority you can rely on.” Today that slogan is almost never used in public.


And if the word “sovereign” is used at all, it is the “people” who are referred to as being the sovereign.


This change in perceptions, at least among the secular, about who or what constitutes the nation’s source of authority was particularly significant because it was that alteration in perceptions that gave the value-seekers the self-felt right and self-felt duty to look for ways of forming a consensus to mold solutions for critical national issues—some of which, as I also mentioned before, were even existential in nature.




The biggest initial boost to this process of building a national moral and ethical code based on consensus, though, came from two, wholly-unexpected, government-affiliated sources. The first source was the military.


Prior to the popular Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 and came to be known as the Intifada, Israeli soldiers had usually only had to be trained to fight on open battlefields. However, once the stone-throwing Palestinian youths took to the streets, the 18 year old conscript soldiers were forced to face a whole series of new questions and new situations which they had not been trained to confront. For example, what was a soldier to do when he saw a rotund woman, draped in the thick folds of a hijab, whose large belly might have been a sign of advanced pregnancy or a mound of explosives strapped to her waist?


After such confrontations became day-to-day occurrences, the IDF had very practical reasons for wanting to establish a code of conduct. Unlike other armies that are based on the employment of professional soldiers, the IDF’s core corps of fighters are conscripts who bring a civilian mindset to their task. And because they were not trained to cope with moral issues, soldiers’ morale and discipline—the key features of any successful army—were being affected.


For that reason, a public committee chaired by Prof. Assa Kasher was established in 1992, and charged with creating a formal ethical code for the Israeli military. The committee’s recommendations were amended and strengthened by another committee in the early 2000s, which also gave the final document the title “The Spirit of the IDF.”


The impact of the committee’s work cannot be overestimated. Unlike many treatises on ethics that are theoretical in nature, The Spirit of the IDF was written as a practical, day-to-day manual whose purpose was to help eighteen years old cope with humanitarian issues that they would likely be facing every day.


Just over a third of Israeli girls and two-thirds of Israeli boys serve in the army. I know of no other country where such a huge percentage of the country’s citizens are put through an intensive course in practical ethics at an age when they are most susceptible to formulating a worldview that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.


Incidentally, the recent television talk fest turned out to be a propitious time for instilling these same values in those who had not served in the military. For example, as the Hamas rocket fire on Israeli towns, and thus desires for revenge, grew in intensity, the IDF had to painstakingly explain why Israelis pilots were forbidden to bomb Hamas’s rocket launchers if innocent civilians were nearby. The discussions were often accompanied by real videos of pilots who talked approvingly about having had to abort missions because enemy civilians might have been hurt.


Several aspects of the IDF’s code of ethics are particularly noteworthy. The committee interviewed dozens and dozens of academic ethicists, generals and anyone else, regardless of their political leanings, who might have important input. The result was yet another consensus decision that could then easily be accepted and internalized by masses of people.


Another important consequence of the formulation of the ethics code is that the self-felt need by the military for the creation of such a code highlighted the fact that the very same people who felt free to criticize the Israeli soldiers for their actions or inactions in the occupied territories had failed to produce a practical codex of their own that the Israelis could simply copy. As well, international law, and especially the Geneva and Hague conventions, were also only a partial help because they are woefully out of date and fail to take into account the particular and unique, asymmetric nature of the fight against terrorism.


As the massacres in Syria and Iraq have demonstrated so vividly, even now, after more than a hundred thousand deaths and the displacement of millions, the international community has failed to take up the challenge of rewriting international law to cope with the questions of morality that terrorism has raised.


No less importantly, the Israeli committee’s focus was on how people should behave in situations of extremis…even when the other side refuses to obey the law. The committee’s recommendations, in effect, have now also delineated a suite of outer limits for Israelis, in all walks of life, on how they should behave in everyday life.


This is but one of very many examples of how force of circumstances has compelled Israelis to blaze ethical and moral trails in places no one has gone before. Of far greater importance is the fact that the cumulative impact of each of these actions has now led to the construction of a coherent matrix of ethics and morals that make the entire set of Israeli values unique in both their tone and subject matter.


Incidentally, for that reason, when Israeli publicists and propagandists insistently assert that Israel’s friendship with the United States is based on a common set of values, they are perpetuating a lie.


And by the way, I think that it is more than just interesting that when a committee of Knesset members tried to create a similar ethics code for Israel’s public’s representatives and other state officials, a majority of Knesset members refused to bring it to a vote so that it could become law.


Another totally unexpected development in the value-creating process came about as a result of what are probably irreproducible circumstances. A Knesset committee led by inveterate value-seekers, Amnon Rubenstein and Dan Meridor wanted to produce a Bill of Rights that would be incorporated into Israel’s constitution-in-the-making. Such a bill had been virulently opposed by the existing religious parties because it would have given legal precedence to man-made law rather than Halakha, and because it would have undermined the Orthodox religious establishment’s monopoly on Jewish religious life by declaring that freedom of religion (including freedom to practice the Jewish religion as an individual sees fit) is an inherent right.


Fortunately for those seeking a society more respectful of individual freedoms, Shas was totally ignorant of the history of the battle for such freedoms in the West. When Meridor and Rubenstein agreed to drop the sections dealing with religious freedoms and made a few other minor changes, two laws, Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation were passed by Knesset pluralities. I need to emphasize the word “pluralities” here. That is because, amazingly, despite these bills’ importance, a majority of Knesset members did not even bother to show up to vote for them.


No less important than the passage of laws themselves, these statutes were also given super-legal status, which meant that they could be used to invalidate other laws. When the Supreme Court began to use these laws for exactly this purpose in 1998, Shas leader Ariyeh Deri rued that agreeing to pass these laws had been the biggest mistake of his life.


However, the Supreme Court has been playing another, much more subtle, largely invisible role in formulating the Israeli national value code. That is because the Court is unique in one important respect. The Israeli Supreme Court is the only high court in the world that also acts as a High Court of Justice. As such, it is the only Supreme Court anywhere that is the court of first instance in cases involving the relations between the state and its citizens. Not only that, it is accessible to any and all citizens…and even non-citizens if they live in Israeli-occupied territories.


Unlike the Knesset, which can pass laws that create comprehensive codes of behaviour, the Court deals only with discrete petitions. Its impact on the national code of values, therefore, is the product of an accumulation of legal precedents that are set, and day-to-day decisions that explicate in detail how Knesset laws and its own precedents should be applied in practice.


In some cases, when no law can deal with the issue at hand, and the Court is reluctant to set a precedent, it sends the matter to the Knesset with a request that appropriate legislation be passed first. However, if the Knesset, for reasons of expedience fails to deal with the matter at hand satisfactorily, the Court has often returned to adjudicate the case so that justice can be done. The most recent, well-publicized example was the issue of whether ultra-Orthodox males could and should be given a wholesale exemption from national service. It took almost two decades of citizen petitions and backing and forthing between the Court and the Knesset before a final legal decision was handed down.


Because the court has been willing to deal with such a wide range of subjects, a very important popular, political process has now become well-established: An individual citizen or interest group, brings a matter for adjudication by the court. Once a decision is handed down, if there are no large-scale protests that lead to the Knesset passing a law that reverses the court’s conclusion, the resolution of the issue at hand is accepted by the public as a consensus decision by the citizenry as well—and is immediately internalized as yet another brick in the establishment of the common weal.


A superb example of this kind of value creation occurred after the second Intifada had begun and 450 Israelis were killed in one year by Palestinian infiltrators and suicide bombers. A national consensus demanding the construction of a fence separating pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank soon developed. The construction of such a fence was vehemently opposed by the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and their allies because it implied that the whole West Bank, especially the section to the east of the fence, might thereafter, not be considered to be part of the whole Land of Israel. However, a massive public protest, along the lines of the one that had led to the eventual Israeli evacuation from southern Lebanon, forced the government to construct the barrier.


The fence, and especially the concrete parts of it, was soon labelled “the Apartheid Wall” by Israel’s critics. Had they been able to navigate their way past their own sloganeering, these critics might have discovered that the building of the wall had produced something very special.


The job of planning and constructing the obstacle was handed to the Ministry of Defence, which, quite naturally, took only topographical and security considerations into account when it decided on the route that the barrier should take. A raft of petitions from both Israeli interest groups and individual non-Israeli-citizen Palestinian landowners protesting the route immediately ensued. For example, environmentalists protested that the fence would seal off natural paths used by wild animals in their search for food and reproduction, while Palestinian farmers remonstrated that the fence, in many cases, prevented them from tending those fields that were away from their homes.


After many years of handing down decisions in the discrete cases presented to them, and by using reasoning based on Israel’s real security needs, ethics, international law, Israeli law, legal precedents, the doctrines of fairness and proportionality, and, especially a huge dose of common sense, the Court not only decided what the final route of the fence would be, it effectively created, with a majority of the public’s consent, a corpus of criteria, based on a now-coherent value system, that can and should be used by negotiators when deciding where to place Israel’s final border with the Palestinians if and when final peace talks take place.


However, it is important to recognize that even a multitude of legal decisions does not make for a value system. There are two real tests that can be used to judge both the coherence and the objective validity of a value system based on multiple inputs. The first is whether the criteria which have been used in prior cases and which will be for judging cases that have not yet been brought up for adjudication can be proven to be objectively valid. The second is whether the judgments that are handed down cohere sufficiently so that they produce synergies and decisions that need not be brought before the courts for adjudication because they are “self-evident.”


The war with Hamas demonstrated clearly that at least those parts of the value system that could be tested by that violent conflict are coherent and can be applied in other cases as well. For example, during the war, a major, raucous, public debate that had developed died a sudden death when jurists discovered that a decision on one very important and controversial matter had already been made because two totally different and unrelated Supreme Court decisions had already created a synergistic “self-evident” resolution to the question raised.


As the number of rockets raining down on Israeli cities grew in number, many Israeli politicians, especially those in the extremist neo-nationalist camp, (I refuse to call them right-wingers because most of them are not true ideologues, but simply self-indulgent, populist, demagogic practitioners of political expediency) demanded that Israel cut off all electricity and water supplies to the Gaza Strip. Their demands were backed by a detailed, learned paper by a Bar Ilan university law professor who demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that Israel was permitted by international law to cut off water supplies to Gaza. What Israel could not do, by law, he pointed out, was to prevent a third party from supplying this water by, for example, bringing in water in tanker trucks.


However, as other legal experts quickly pointed out on television, the Israeli Supreme Court had already come down with two ultra-relevant decisions that would prevent the Israeli military from halting the pumping of water to Gaza even if it wanted to. The first, which I’ll call “Decision A,” was essentially an extension of the Spirit of the IDF. The question raised was whether a soldier going into battle was bound only by the terms of international law and military law, or also by those of Israeli civil and criminal law. The Court held that the soldier was bound by all four sets of laws, even if he or she had crossed a national boundary.


In a totally different and wholly unrelated case, what I will call “Decision B,” a social action group had brought a class action petition before the court. A few years earlier, the Israeli government had taken water distribution out of the hands of the municipalities and had given that responsibility to 53 new state-owned companies because the municipalities had failed to use the money earned by selling the water to consumers to adequately maintain the piping system. Once established, these companies began to cut off the water of those who had not paid their bills—including the poor, the elderly and the infirm. The Court held that because water is a basic human necessity, the companies are forbidden to cut off supplies, regardless of the reason. When Decision “A” was added to Decision “B” the “Decision C” (whether it was permissible to cut off water to Gaza) became self-evident, and the demand was dropped immediately.


Incidentally, here is an example of the point I made earlier about Israel and the United States developing very different value systems. In Israel, by law, no one is allowed to deprive anyone of access to potable water. By contrast, at the same time that this judgment was handed down in Israel, about 100,000 blacks in Detroit had had their water supplies cut off after failing to pay their bills.


Of course, the creation of a truly comprehensive value system in Israel is incomplete. Most of the opposition to the quest for a comprehensive and internally coherent value system has come from those bodies that have a monopoly in the determination of what Israelis may or may not do. I am referring here specifically to the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate. I would need another full-length article just to describe the ways that they have used to deliberately undermine and even abort attempts to develop criteria that could be used to fill in the missing holes in the currently-used value system.


Not all changes in or additions to the value system are initiated by the Israelis themselves. At times, the government has been forced by outside intervention and circumstances beyond its control to totally reverse what had been the political policy equivalent of holy writ. However, it is important to keep in mind that when such alterations are made to the value system, they still require mass validation before they can be implemented as long-term policies and not merely as short term expedient sops to critics.


For example, globalization, which is totally beyond Israel’s control, has forced the country to become export dependent or die a slow but inexorable economic death. No less a public icon than David Ben Gurion, though, had long ago established what had become an ironclad government dictum. He had declared that “It doesn’t matter what the goyim think, it’s what the Jews do that counts.” He also dismissed criticisms of Israel by the UN with the words “Oom-shmoom.”


For decades later, the Israeli public, taking Ben Gurion’s words as their cue, had disdained any foreign criticism of Israel as “disproportionate” or as an example of anti-Semitism. Invariably, when Israel was criticized for any moral or ethical lapse, Israeli spokespeople and the country’s politicians would seek out examples of why the criticism had been unfair, the product of a double standard or an act of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism.


The issue came to a head following the so-called “Goldstone Report,” a UN-sponsored, detailed listing of war crimes Israel had allegedly committed during its military operation in Gaza in 2005-2006. As was their wont, Israeli politicians immediately reacted to the document by calling it the product of a “self-hating Jew.”


In the past, the Israelis would have done nothing more than gripe. However, this time, the report, despite its innumerable inaccuracies and faults, led to a transformation in Israelis’ approach to the outside world. Like most Israeli consensus-based decisions, that transformation was the product of a long process of mass thought and debate, which, in this case, had begun as early as 1969. At that time, the then Prime Minister, Golda Meir, ordered the foreign ministry to see if it could negotiate a trade pact with what was being called the EEC, or European Economic Community—the precursor of today’s EU. At the time, she was not particularly interested in the economic value of the agreement. She was far more concerned about using the pact as a means to break Israel’s political isolation.


However, the agreement that was eventually signed became a keystone of Israeli economic development and survival; and it was soon followed by other free trade pacts with countries such as the US and Canada.


As globalization gained momentum, and as Israel’s economic ties with the rest of the world broadened and deepened, Israelis were gradually forced to reconsider whether they should and could afford to remain aloof from foreign criticism as Ben Gurion had counselled, or whether these new circumstances required a change in their country’s approach to the outside world.


Most Israelis, by the time the war with Hamas broke out, no longer scorned the international community. In fact, they craved acceptance and were even willing to tolerate a double standard by others if that was the price that Israel had to pay to gain that acceptance.


Following the publication of the Goldstone report, Israel’s primary trading partners in Europe increased their existing demands that Israel abide more strictly by the Geneva and Hague Conventions as the Europeans interpreted them. No such demands were ever made of the Arab states.


Nonetheless, in order to avoid possible international sanctions, the government decided that Israel would both obey international laws and abide by the European’s double standards, even if those laws and standards took little or no account of the harsh realities Israel was facing. To that end the IDF ended up posting experts in international humanitarian law in every divisional headquarters and in every air force command post. From that point onwards, no military operation could even be considered, let alone launched without it having been vetted first by the lawyers. In this case, the Israeli value system had, ironically, been strongly influenced by foreign demands that the Israelis actually disagreed with.


I found one outcome of the Israeli choice to abide by foreign entities’ double standards to be particularly interesting. During the recent war, those high standards were not always kept. Among other incidents, six UNWRA schools that were being used as shelters for Palestinians displaced by the fighting were hit by Israeli fire. In some places, the shelling can be attributed to errant artillery fire, and in others to the fact that Hamas fighters were firing rockets from near the schools. But the Israeli army could not provide adequate explanations in all cases. The Israelis promised to set up tribunals to investigate all the cases in question.


Nonetheless, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, both of whose armies had had been guilty of far greater offenses in Iraq and Afghanistan, felt free to criticize Israel for, in their words, “not living up to the standard it had set for itself.”


At times, the mind boggles.


This kind of hypocrisy is not new, of course. But what is particularly worrying to me is how this hypocritical behavior negatively affects Israel’s search for peace. I now have to provide you with what I think is an excruciatingly important aside.


Making peace is probably the greatest moral challenge Israelis face.


The fact is, though, that most Israelis don’t pay very much attention to the so-called “peace process,” an attitude that has led to heavy criticism from foreigners, including many Diaspora Jews.


The thing is: the Israelis do have very good reasons for acting as they do. In the past, the Israeli majority—the very group of value-seekers I have been discussing—has made a sincere effort to address some of the most crucial aspects of peace-making. Almost totally unknown to Diaspora Jewry and almost everyone else, is the fact that Israel’s wise crowds, as part of their search for peace, have produced one of the most extraordinary breakthroughs in the history of political science and international peace-making. The tragedy is that those insights have not only been totally ignored, they have been buried by would-be mediators because they challenge all the bureaucratic and institutional premises, and needs, of the foreign policy-making fraternity everywhere.


Here is what happened.


In 1977, Anwar Sadat announced that he would go anywhere, “even to the Knesset in Jerusalem” to make peace. After the Israeli government had accepted his offer, and had formally invited him to come, the first thing that the Israeli Chief of Staff, Motta Gur did… was to put the Israeli army on its highest state of alert.


Gur feared that Sadat’s visit was an elaborate ruse, and would be just a cover for another surprise attack by Egypt, as had occurred in such a devastating fashion in 1973. Gur was not alone in thinking that this was an act of deception—or at best, a bit of diplomatic theater. I won a bottle of Black Label from a senior Canadian diplomat, after we bet on whether or not Sadat would actually come. The diplomat was not alone in misinterpreting Sadat’s intentions. Had I made the rounds of most of the diplomatic community, I would have been able to lay in sufficient supplies to keep me in booze to this very day.


The reason was that Sadat’s announcement challenged all the conventional wisdom of its day. That so-called “wisdom” proclaimed that Egyptians, because of their hatred of Israel, were incapable of making peace. And, of course, you also have to remember, that, at that time, the Israelis were still recovering from the psychological burns they had suffered during the Yom Kippur War. Prior to the war, military intelligence had had all the concrete information, in the form of wireless intercepts and aerial photographs that it needed in order to judge that Egypt and Syria were preparing for war.


However, using their own “rational,” analysis, based on the reigning conventional wisdom, that Egypt would be foolish to go to war against Israel’s superior army, the Israeli analysts made the fatal assessment that war was not an option for Egypt or Syria.


They had failed for the same reason that so many intelligence assessments fail—an inability by analysts to get inside the mind of the opponent in order to judge his or her intent to use the assets at his or her disposal. Gur was determined that he would not be taken in by a WOG (a wily oriental gentleman) like Sadat, as his predecessor had been.


The twin embarrassments of failing to accurately assess both Sadat’s intent to make war and his intent to make peace, though, then set off an epidemic of soul-searching amongst the Israeli public. For a people who yearned for peace more than anything else, the very idea that they might blow an opportunity to resolve the Israeli-Arab dispute in the future was gut-wrenching.


What made this exercise even more extraordinary was that this same public engaged in this lengthy debate despite years of having been trained and badgered by Israeli and foreign politicians and diplomats into believing that only the elites were equipped with the specialist knowledge needed to judge the value of any peace proposal.


Nonetheless, the Israeli public persisted. And the results were nothing less than extraordinary because they were revolutionary in both their content and their approach. Even more significantly, their importance and validity were provable because they were prescient. In particular, they predicted the success of the peace talks with Jordan and the failures of other exercises in elite diplomacy, such as the Oslo accords, the Camp David talks with Yassir Arafat, and the Mitchell and Kerry peace-making missions that were to come.


In other words, the Israeli public was able to come up with a set of criteria for judging the intent of potential negotiating partners that has proven to be almost infallible over a period of three decades. The tragedy is that these criteria, as I noted, have been ignored by every so-called “peace-maker.”


I know from my own experience that every time I have tried to show policy-makers and think tank denizens in Washington what these criteria are, they have dismissed them as “unimportant” and “not relevant.” I suspect that that is because they believe that only self-designated elites like themselves are capable of providing insights and making decisions. To them, what can fairly be called the “Israeli moral majority” is unimportant and irrelevant.


And now I come to the last value system input that cannot and should not be ignored. Although the Israeli value system, as it has evolved, is strictly secular in nature, it would be absurd to expect that residents of the Jewish state would not also seek intellectual and ethical sustenance from the trough of Jewish tradition. It is therefore impossible to ignore the fact that Jewish tradition always plays an extraordinarily important role in fashioning the Israeli mindset—even among secular Israeli Jews. However, as so often happens in Israel, the use of the tradition is often reinterpreted in surprising ways that then lead to counterintuitive results.


Whenever a crisis in Israel arises, each of the warring camps invariably makes use of often-contradictory quotes from the Bible, the Talmud, or the Rabbinical Sages to justify the position it has taken. In fact, I know of no other country where ancient texts play such an important role—even among secularists—when the populace is seeking solutions to current issues.


For example, the religious settlers have always used Biblical texts to justify their activities. However, non-Zionist rabbis, including the late former Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, have responded with other quotes as proof that it is morally sound to give up land in return for peace.


The vehemence with which Israelis express their opinions about the settlement issue has led many Israeli to fear that should a final or even partial political agreement with the Palestinians require the evacuation of settlements, a civil insurrection by religious settlers defending their homes and their deepest beliefs could and would ensue.


Every Jewish schoolchild in Israel is brought up with the narrative that the two greatest tragedies in Jewish history were the Holocaust, and the destruction of the Second Temple. The Rabbis of old attributed the destruction of the Temple to “free hate” that led to civil war at the very moment that the Roman legions were already breeching the gates of Jerusalem. That lesson is driven home in almost every classroom in the country.


So potent is this fear that the majority of Israelis have given the settlers free reign to do as they please despite the fact that polls going back forty years have always found that 62-64 percent of the Israeli public supports the trade of land for peace.


However, in a situation that Israelis call “hafuch al hafuch,” which might be loosely translated as “the exact opposite of what you might reasonably expect,” polls also show that, if a real peace agreement can be negotiated, the rabbis’ injunction will produce an effect that is the polar opposite of what is currently feared. If the polls are correct, this very fear of a civil war, and the rabbis’ conclusions, would lead an overwhelming 85 percent of the Israeli public (including a majority of the settlers) to accept a final majority decision on the subject.




In sum, as can be seen from just the few examples I have given, almost unseen, the Israelis have made exceptional strides in developing a comprehensive and coherent national value system.


However, this missive should not be interpreted as an attempt to idealize Israel. Far from it. Not to be ignored or forgotten, the recent war also highlighted many of the most powerful, unresolved ethical and moral issues still facing the country.


One obvious one is the poverty in which many of those in the outlying areas of the country continue to live. Socialism failed in Israel for reasons that are too numerous to list. However, its replacement, virtually unfettered, rapacious capitalism has created its own problems, not least the fact that over half of the productive economy is controlled by only 20 families…and they have exhibited almost no social conscience.


Yet another, no less important difficulty is the so-far unresolved need to cope with the fact that the members of the three lowest socio-economic deciles, made up primarily of the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, overwhelmingly support political parties whose policies actually prevent their constituents’ from escaping from the poverty trap.


And, of course, the need for peace remains an ever-present issue.


What I have tried to do with these few words is to examine a real phenomenon that has been totally ignored and to provide a partial corrective to the black and white, too often ignorant portrayals of contemporary Israeli society.


The issues Israelis are forced to face and to cope with at times seem endless; and so it is easy for foreigners to pick at and point to what has not been done.


What is important to recognize, though, is that even a casual perusal of the country’s newspapers indicates that almost all the important, outstanding issues are on the public’s agenda and are not being swept under the rug.


However, it is important to take into consideration as well is that the speed and manner by which Israelis end up dealing with these issues should not be judged by standards used in other countries that do not face the individual and the combination of the problems that Israelis do.


Foreigners make their biggest mistake when they assume that whatever the government says and does is representative of what the majority of Israelis say and want.


As I have noted, though, what Israeli governments say and do are not necessary reflections of the popular will because Israeli governments are federations of minority special interests. In almost all cases, government decisions are based on the lowest denominator of the coalition partner or the alliance of partners that is best positioned to bring down the government.


If recent history is any guide, resolving the multitude of problems Israelis face will take time. Most likely, the issues still not covered by the existing value system, will continue to be addressed almost invisibly by being dealt with randomly and one at a time as special cases in point. Only a retrospective survey, as I have tried to do here, will tell us whether the end result is the creation of a truly comprehensive and coherent value system.


But the thing to keep in mind is that, at least as of now, a process leading in that direction is underway.


All my best,




ISIS—Some Stuff Obama Didn’t Mention

The Saudis, the Gulf States, the rest of the Arab world, and anyone with even a moderate acquaintance with Arab history and culture should have known better. Nonetheless, all claim to have been caught by surprise by the appearance of ISIS, al Qaeda and the myriad of other violent Islamic political groups that have grabbed the headlines recently.


This most recent bout of violent Islamism can be traced as far back as the late 1970s. It was then that the Saudis and the Gulf Sheikhs put into place all the conditions needed to produce the perfect storm of religiously-driven carnage that we have been witnessing of late.


By that time, advances in the availability of modern medical practices had brought about a steep decline in pre-natal and post-natal children’s deaths, which eventually led to a youth bulge in all the Arab states. For example, it is estimated that, in Saudi Arabia, fully two thirds of the population is under the age of thirty.


The oil shocks of 1974 and 1976 had brought untold new wealth to Arab countries that had petroleum reserves. However, in most cases, the inflow of money was not being invested sufficiently in job-producing enterprises and was not being distributed in an equitable manner. In addition, rote learning in schools in Arab schools was producing alumni who were ill-equipped to cope with today’s job market. As a result, while the elites were spending extravagantly on themselves, the hoi polloi were often finding it hard to make ends meet. In particular, young males were finding it increasingly difficult to scrape together the money for a bride price.


And then, to top things off, the ruling sheikhs pumped billions of dollars into charities whose primary purpose was to establish and maintain mosques and madrassas, especially in those countries where there were large Moslem communities. Those charities favoured extremist preachers who could rally the masses with their anti-modernist, hateful sermons; and the Madrassas taught little more than fundamentalist religious doctrines to impressionable children and teenagers.


The sheikhs adopted these spending policies despite the fact that 600 years ago, Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn Al-Ḥaḍrami, otherwise known simply as ibn Khaldun, a man considered by almost all Arabs to be one of the greatest minds that the Islamic world has ever produced, had predicted that exactly these sorts of circumstances would produce the events we are now witnessing.


Born on May 27, 1332 in Tunis, ibn Khaldun came of age at the very moment when it had become clear that the Golden Age of Arab intellectual thought was ending.


The Moslem world had been captivated by the teachings of a charismatic, fundamentalist, mystic preacher named al-Ghazali, who had railed against Western influences, especially Greek philosophy. As well, the caliphates that had formed the basis of Islamic governance, and which had been considered by all Moslems to be the ideal form of governance on earth, had collapsed. In Spain, the Christian Reconquista had destroyed the Umayyad caliphate; and the great Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad had been crushed by the Mongol hoards. Their place had been taken by petty monarchs, other types of authoritarian leaders and tribal alliances. With the notable exception of Egypt, which was hemmed in by deserts, no geographic area under Moslem control had fixed borders; and there were no Moslem “states” as we understand the term today. Instead, there were fluid, temporary boundaries that kept changing as a result of conquests and/or alliances between tribes.


It was a situation that, despite outward appearances to the contrary, bears a remarkable resemblance to the Arab world created by the Europeans in the wake of the overthrow of the Ottoman caliphate during World War I. The Europeans, just before they left, created nation-states that were based on the format that the Europeans had developed over hundreds of years. But those states lacked the deep philosophical underpinnings that had made the European-style nation-state so successful. For example, no one of the intellectual stature of Locke or John Stuart Mill, who was capable of melding democratic ideals with traditional beliefs, had arisen within the Islamic world. The nation-states created under the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement were therefore merely facades.


Ibn Khaldun was uniquely positioned to observe the world in which he lived. He had invented the fields of sociology and historiography, had been a highly-regarded judge, and had been a confidant of some of the leading rulers of his time. After becoming a personal emissary of some of these public figures, he also became among history’s canniest and most manipulative politicians. Among many other things, his writings presaged some of those of Machiavelli.


His work as both a judge in day-to-day matters and as a diplomat enabled him to understand Arab politics and the workings of Arab societies perhaps better than any man ever has.


Ibn Khaldun’s masterwork was a seven volume history of the world. However, he is best known for his introduction to that history, called the Muqaddimah. In that book, he laid out a detailed description of how Arab societies during his time governed themselves.


His greatest and most famous insight was about how social conflicts in the Arab world play themselves out. He believed that the core of political life is ‘asabiyyah, which can be translated as “social cohesion” or “group solidarity.” This social cohesion, he observed, arises spontaneously in tribes and other small kinship groups; and it is intensified and enlarged by a religious ideology. This sense of community, he noted, can exist at any level of civilization, from nomadic society to states and empires. However, it is usually strongest among those who come out of the physical or political desert.


In our day, the environment that the Gulf Sheikhs and the Saudis created in their newly-funded mosques and madrassas was almost ideal for producing just such cohesive, religion-driven groups.

Ibn Khaldun further argued that dynastic governments such as those in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States today, have within themselves the seeds of their own downfall at the hands of such groups. Such dynasties, he observed, rarely last longer than three generations. Once they establish their rule, they become increasingly lax, less coordinated, disciplined and watchful, and more concerned with maintaining their new power and lifestyle. Their initial sense of cohesion then dissolves into factionalism and individualism, which then makes them vulnerable to predations and conquest by new, strong, more vigorous, committed groups.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory certainly held true when it came to the dynasty that the Assad family established in Syria, and the ones that both Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Kaddafi tried to set up in Egypt and Libya respectively.

Another parallel with the situation today is the fact that the groups ibn Khaldun described invariably ended up primarily fighting other Moslems—unless they were invaded by European foreigners.

The current situation has left the Gulf sheikhs in an existential quandary.

In yet another fascinating repeat of history, the modern sheikhs’ proposed solution bears a close resemblance to the moves initiated by Arab dynastic rulers from the 9th century onwards. When Moslem leaders could no longer trust other Moslems to fight their battles for them because of coups and assasinations, they used the services of foreign, slave mercenaries, mainly from Europe and the Caucuses, whom they came to call Mamlukes. The Ottoman Turks, later referred to these non-citizen fighters as Janissaries. During Ibn Khaldun’s time, the Mamlukes in Egypt had become so powerful that they had created their own sultanate.

If one considers Westerners today to be enslaved to Arab oil, then the international force that John Kerry is trying to put together to fight ISIS certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to the Mamlukes of old. Today, the Saudis and the Gulf Sheikhdoms have refused to commit their own forces to do battle against ISIS—just as the Moslem rulers of old feared to do. So far, the Saudis, the Gulf Sheikhs and the Jordanians have promised logistical help and money, but not ground troops of their own.

President Obama has now promised to “degrade” and destroy ISIS. But if Ibn Khaldun’s projections are correct, Obama will be unable to do so unless he can find some way to prevent such groups from developing the initial social cohesion that they require. In effect, that would mean persuading those countries where the sheikhs have built their mosques and madrasses to shut down these institutions. However, it is unlikely that any democratic country would dare do so for fear of inviting charges that it is restricting free speech and freedom of religion.

That leaves only one alternative—to persuade the sheikhs to cut their funding to these institutions. The thing is that these sheikhs fear that if they do so, their domestic Moslem religious leaders will turn on them. Therefore, they are unlikely to do so.

The Saudis have recently promulgated a series of laws banning contributions to terrorist organizations. However, these laws do not apply to otherwise non-violent, but religiously extremist Salafist institutions.

Experience has shown, though, that these bodies provide an excellent incubator of talent that, with only a bit of nudging, recruiters for violent organizations can draw on to build up their ranks.

That means that the Western democracies, which now fear that battle-hardened European, American and Australian Moslem extremists may return to their homes after learning all the techniques of terrorist warfare during their service with ISIS, are currently facing a so far unresolvable conundrum. They have now agreed to spend their national treasure to pay their soldiers to protect the same Gulf sheikhs who are spending their personal and national treasure to build institutions that foster the corps of fighters with whom the Westerners are doing battle.

Relying on air power is unlikely to have the results that are hoped for because the ISIS fighters have no qualms about using innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq as living shields. The solution to the conundrum will ultimately have to lie elsewhere. Only a change in the social environment in the West and the Middle East that leads young Moslems to seek succor and community in extreme institutions will enable these youngsters to find the kind of honor that can replace the certificate of martyrdom on the battlefield that they are currently seeking.

But that too may be too much to expect. In the absence of any viable, long-term solution, we may simply have to learn to live with this day-to-day threat, as the Israelis and the Iraqis have had to do for so long. And if, in the future, the name of the threat is not ISIS, it will nonetheless, undoubtedly, have many of the same characteristics as this group.

The Irrelevance of the Left in Israeli Policy-Making

What ever became of the rational, activist, Jewish left? Recently, I have been reading a great many of the writings by authors who claim to be representatives of what is nowadays being euphemistically called “Progressive” or “liberal” Diaspora Jewry. By any objective measure, it is neither progressive nor liberal in its outlook. It has become even more doctrinaire and intolerant than many of those it criticizes.


Not only that, its self-appointed spokespeople tell everyone else what to do, but never take to the barricades themselves.


After perusing several years worth of the output of people like Jonathan Freedland, Jonathan Chait, Roger Cohen, Peter Beinart, and most recently a new whiner named Anthony Lerman, I have found their work to be boring, repetitive, self-centred and totally lacking in new ideas.
Almost invariably, their writing consists of whimpering, simpering prose bemoaning that Israel has ignored their entreaties to act like they believe they would act if they were in a position where they actually had to face the consequences of dealing with the issues that Israel has to confront.


Oh how the once-mighty have fallen into self-pity.


I remember the vibrant left of the 1960s and 1970s only too well. In those days, it wasn’t hard to spot a committed rational leftist. Unlike the rightist and the communist blusterers, who hid behind their ideologies so that they didn’t have to take the effort to come up with an original thought, rational Jewish leftists tended to be a rather contemplative lot. The intellectuals among them tended to do a lot of research before they spoke, and often seemed to me to be the true heirs of the Talmudic tradition of “On the one hand, on the other hand.”


Unlike their competitors on the extremes of the political spectrum, these intellectuals seemed to revel in trying to explore and to fathom the nuances and the complexity of the human condition.


No more.


Today, what passes for leftist intellectualism is no different from the blind dogmatism one finds elsewhere…with the exception that their posturing is also combined with navel-gazing self-absorption and self-righteousness. There used to be an old saw on Fleet Street “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” A more apt one that could be applied to today’s Jewish “Progressives” is “Never let the facts get in the way of a good angry sob.”


“It’s not quite like that,” the phrase once commonly used by rational, well-researched leftist debaters before they demolished an opponent’s argument, has now disappeared from common usage.


There is possibly no better example of this revolution in word usage than in the unfounded canard, propagated by both the right and the left, that Israel “is moving to the right.” So common has this phrase become in the writings of so-called “analysts” that it has gone beyond conventional wisdom and become a truism to too many.


Had the punditocracy done even a minimal amount of research, its members would have found that this claim is patently false. The truth is that, as a result of the police brutality that accompanied the rioting by Arabs in Israel in October 2000, many young Arabs decided that national Israeli politics would never provide them with an adequate vehicle for them to accomplish their social and economic goals.


As a result, the participation of Israeli Arabs in national elections dropped precipitously from its previous average level of 82-85 percent to the current level of 53 percent. Since a majority of Israeli Arabs had usually voted for leftist Israeli Zionist parties such as Labour and Meretz, this meant that, under the Israeli system of proportional representation, the activist neo-nationalists were handed a gift and gained in the number of Knesset seats that they held.


I have to say at this point, that, unlike all the “Progressives” I have met, I refuse to label the settlers in the West Bank and their supporters “rightists.” That is too honourable a term. Real conservative rightists can trace their intellectual roots back to genuine political thinkers such as Hobbes, Burke and Strauss. The settlers’ beliefs, however, are the very antithesis of the theorizing of those men. The settlers are far more closely related to Bolsheviks because of their belief in centralized planning, reliance on military power and dependence on high taxation to further their enterprise. Moreover they have shown an appalling tolerance towards those who defy the rule of law, do not believe in Palestinian property rights, and do not accept the sovereignty of the majority—all cardinal rightist principles.


But to get back to the issue at hand. It is true that there are more, extremist, nationalist Knesset members than ever before, and they are more vociferous and vocal than their predecessors. However, their presence in the Israeli legislature is not the product of any significant shift in the opinion of the Israeli body politic. Beginning in 2011, the settlers and their supporters began joining the Likud in droves in a deliberate attempt to take control of the party’s electoral slate. They succeeded. When the last primary’s ballots were counted, the settler radicals had managed to drive out the remnants of the party’s old-line Zionist Revisionist theoreticians, such as Dan Meridor, Mickey Eitan and Benny Begin, and had installed a cabal of Knesset candidates whose presence on the slate would have made Revisionism’s founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky, weep in despair.


In its original form, Revisionism was a comprehensive political ideology that grew out of the European liberal tradition. In many ways, its platform, with the exception of its demand that Jews control both banks of the Jordan River, most closely resembled that of liberal Republicans in the US. It favoured the rule of law, equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and a basic security blanket for all Israelis. The new Likudniks were uninterested in such niceties.


To make things worse, when it came to general election time, the settlers who had taken control of the Likud agenda then voted for the religious HaBayit HaYehudi party—effectively giving the settlers and their supporters the same kind of influence and power that comes from a double vote.


Instead of bemoaning the election result, the Diaspora “Progressives” would have done the Israeli political system a far greater favour had they thought about how best to entice Israeli Arabs back into the country’s political framework, and then set about campaigning for things like equal rights, compensatory funding for education and making more land in Arab communities available for home building.


But that was not to be. Harvard Professor Ronnie Heifetz calls the kind of behavior Diaspora “Progressive” pundits engage in, where people exhaust themselves in fruitless or useless endeavours and then have no time to deal with real issues, “work avoidance.”


By any reasonable measure, work avoidance has become an epidemic among Diaspora liberal Jewry.


It’s not that I view 1960s and 1970s Jewish social activism with nostalgia. But it is objectively true that, in those days, Jewish social activists didn’t whine about a situation, they did something about it. And they helped achieve concrete goals not by telling others what to do, but by first asking those most affected by inequality, for example, what they could do to help. Activists in those days would have thought it presumptuous to tell the blacks seeking their civil rights how they should act.


I was a personal witness to what actually took place. Scenes such as “Need bodies for a demonstration? I’ll try to get them for you, or “Need money and Dick Gregory is available? I’ll arrange a fund-raiser”, or “Martin Luther King wants to come to town for a speaking engagement? Fine. You can have the Temple’s sanctuary and I’ll see about getting other synagogues’ mailing lists,” were regular occurrences.


Today’s self-labelled “activists” do the very opposite. They keep telling Israelis what to do, never ask questions, and never listen when Israelis, unasked, tell them what is really needed.


For example, during the period from the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt to the first Intifada in 1986, the Israeli press was awash with suggestions on how the Israeli public could be mobilized to support peace negotiations with Israel’s neighbours. I went through 5,000 articles, op-eds and notes on radio talk shows and found that they could be boiled down to 9 points. During another period of intense reflection that came in the wake of the second Intifada that began in 2000, another two points were added.


Some were easy to fulfill; others required a bit of thought before they could be implemented; and a couple of them required real imagination if the problems they raised were to be solved.


But when I presented my findings to diplomats in Washington, NGO members, or Jewish “Progressives,” they were waved off as unimportant or trivial. However, those issues were obviously hardly trivial to those Israelis who had spent a lot of time thinking about them and trying to rally a consensus behind them.


The thing is that it would have taken real work to concretize them and to campaign to have those suggestions adopted.


Take the issue of a freeze in settlement activity as an example. President Obama got Bibi Netanyahu to agree to an eleven month freeze in settlement construction, but made no effort to ensure that, after that period was over, Bibi would have something to show his critics so that there would be a domestic constituency in favor of extending the freeze.


Clearly one of the central problems in the peace negotiations is the lack of trust and the lack of goodwill on both sides. One of the ways the left could have helped the peace process along would have been to campaign to increase both the level of trust and of goodwill. One of the most important of the 9 Israeli demands is a call for an end to the demonizing of Israel in Palestinian textbooks and on Palestinian television. It is certainly a demand that the left could sympathize with and work towards. However, in all the articles by “Progressives” that I have read, that issue has never been addressed. In an act of sheer idiocy, the left has totally ignored the natural human desire for a quid pro quo in inter-human dealings. It has been easier to simply wail about settlements.


Work avoidance takes many forms. What, for example, has prevented the left from linking the Palestinian demand for a freeze on settlement activity with the Israeli desire to see hateful stuff excised from official Palestinian texts? Why have leftists not called for a trade? A trade whose basis would be an end to settlement construction in return for an end to the production of hateful material has so many obvious advantages that I find it quite incredible that no one has campaigned for it.


What makes such a trade so inviting is the fact that implementation of such a deal is easily subject to monitoring. Furthermore, setting easily-understood concrete goals would be simple: No more housing starts in return for an end to hateful words. And to top it all off, any breaches of such an agreement could be easily spotted and dealt with quickly because the US already has programmes in place that could be adapted to provide the necessary supervision.


Or how about addressing what has proven to be the most problematic of the nine points? Not unreasonably, the Israeli public wants to be assured in advance that once a peace treaty is signed, neither side will have any further claims on the other. The Palestinians have refused to agree to this demand for two basic reasons. It would mean giving up the visceral hold that the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their heirs to their ancestral homes has on most Palestinians. And, secondly, Sharia law holds that all lands captured by Islamic forces automatically become the property in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust. For that reason, any act that would legitimize Israeli possession of land previously held by Moslems is strictly forbidden.


Many Israelis have tried to grapple with what appears, at first, second and third glance, to be an unresolvable problem. Iraqi-born Eli Amir, one of Israel’s great men of letters and a devout member of the Israeli left, for example, has suggested that the problem could be overcome if, before the next round of peace talks is held, both sides declare that they are entering into the negotiations recognizing that not all their dreams can be fulfilled. It is certainly a valid suggestion that the Diaspora Jewish left could accept and campaign for. And if the left’s members find some genuine objection to it, why not put the effort into coming up with a viable alternative?


Okay. Okay. I know why not. Doing something so revolutionary would mean having to give up bathing in self-pity and doing real work.

The Israeli-Hamas Cease-Fire Negotiations: Real-Time Middle Eastern Politicking that American can Learn From



The political and diplomatic negotiations leading up to the announcement of each Israeli-Hamas cease-fire were among the most fascinating and revealing political exercises in recent memory.


However, to paraphrase a man much wiser than me, never in the course of human endeavour has so much nonsense, with so few insights, been said and published by so many.


Amazingly, but not surprisingly, virtually all the journalists who reported about the event and all the politicians and diplomats who talked openly or leaked their opinions, were totally incapable of recognizing the reality staring them in the face. Instead, they resolutely stuck to whatever opinions they had had about the Middle East that they had been using as filters and blinders long before the fighting even began.


Possibly the most instructive article written by a journalist that highlighted this phenomenon was by Mark Landler of the New York Times. It began:


WASHINGTON — When the State Department condemned Israel’s strike on a United Nations school in Gaza on Sunday, saying it was “appalled” by this “disgraceful” act, it gave full vent to what has been weeks of mounting American anger toward the Israeli government.

The blunt, unsparing language — among the toughest diplomats recall ever being aimed at Israel — lays bare a frustrating reality for the Obama administration: the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has largely dismissed diplomatic efforts by the United States to end the violence in Gaza, leaving American officials to seethe on the sidelines about what they regard as disrespectful treatment.

I have never been a great fan of Binyamin Netanyahu. But this time, he was absolutely correct to treat these same American officials “disrespectfully” because they were being even more oblivious both to the old realities of the Middle East, and to the new ones being revealed by the negotiations themselves, than is their usual wont. And after all their failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and virtually everywhere else in the Middle East, that is saying a lot.


For example, Secretary Kerry, days before the final cease-fire, insisted on declaring a cease-fire on his own, even though Israel had said that it would not leave Gaza without first destroying the tunnels it had found, and Hamas had declared that it would not cease fire until all the Israeli soldiers had left Gaza. Kerry had made his declaration because he chose not to listen to the two main protagonists. Instead, for reasons I have yet to fathom, he accepted the unfounded promises of the Turks and the Qataris that Hamas would accept a halt to the fighting, despite the promises of the Israelis.


With behavior like that, all the sides were right to push the US to the sidelines. Too much was at stake. The parties directly involved in the crisis simply could no longer afford to allow the US to engage in another round of useless limelight-grabbing and grandstanding.


Throughout that effort, the Americans had continuously and destructively blundered through the multiple, enormously-sophisticated sets of double, triple and quadruple games that all the serious parties to the negotiations had constructed in order to make the cease-fire talks work.


The Americans’ anger at Israel may very well have been the product of the fact that Washington had difficulty in admitting and then accepting that it was totally out of its depth—and so it lashed out at the easiest target available. More to the point, American officials may have resented that long before Kerry arrived to try his hand at crisis management, the Israelis had accepted the idea that that Egypt should be the prime mediator and thus the star of the show; and Israel had refused to budge from that position.


One must always keep in mind that, while Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu may be horrible at best, that is still nothing compared to the huge grudge match in which Obama and Egyptian President el-Sisi are engaged. el-Sisi has never forgiven Obama for having ordered Hosni Mubarak to leave office, for having supported the Moslem Brotherhood in the belief that it was a moderate Islamic political organization, and for having postponed the delivery of helicopters and night vision equipment when the Egyptian military retook power. Egypt badly needs both the Apache helicopters and the night vision equipment in order to fight the al Qaeda affiliates that are doing battle with the Egyptian army in the Sinai.


One reason for the US blundering may be that, in order to sell its intervention in the Middle East to its domestic audience, any American administration must first define who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Then it must show why it is in America’s national interest to side with the good guys. And, finally, it needs to formulate a simple slogan that it can use to promote its policies in the media. Catch phrases such as “pro or anti-Israeli,” “the Axis of Evil,” “leading from behind,” and “the Shiite Crescent” are classic examples of that kind of simplistic crowd manipulation.


The thing is that the Middle East, as the US should have learned after its experiences with countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, has never leant itself to such simplification. Among other things, there are constant marriages and divorces of convenience between tribes, ethnic groups and states; and hedging bets by nestling up to both sides in a conflict is a well-refined art.


Both these phenomena are visible at present at the Cairo. Put in the most simplistic terms, there are two basic camps represented at those negotiations…well…errr… sort of: those who support Hamas and those who oppose it.


Anything and everything I have to say that goes beyond that minimalist statement gets messy. For example, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was actually playing the role of a hedger. I’ll come to that in a moment.


So, if you, the reader, nonetheless, want to “keep things simple stupid,” you should stop reading now, because what I am about to do at this point is to try to lay out, in as easy and as intelligible and as schematic a form as I can, the extraordinary matrix of policies and interests each side is bringing to the cease-fire talks in Cairo.


If you do choose to read on, please excuse me in advance if you get lost along the way.


Here goes.


For all of the last half of the 20th century and for most of the still-young 21st century, there were two hegemons in the Arab Middle East—Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The two lived happily together in a condominium relationship of convenience. Egypt was the political hegemon, and Saudi Arabia the financial hegemon. However, in the latter years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign in Egypt, that country’s elite could no longer cope with Egypt’s growing domestic economic disorder. For that reason, even before the popular rioting that came to be called “The Arab Spring,” began, wannabe successors to Egypt as Middle Eastern hegemons, especially non-Arab Turkey and Iran, began to try to encroach on the Egyptian government’s increasingly vulnerable turf.


Iran did so by steadily strengthening its ties with Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Alawite regime in Syria. Extensive contacts were also established with Hamas’s primary expatriate headquarters in Damascus, which was responsible for the group’s international relations, donor funding and arms purchases. To top things off, Iran established its own terrorist group in Gaza called “Islamic Jihad.” These jihadis were financed directly by Teheran, and were trained in Iran by the Revolutionary Guards and by Iranian proxies at Iranian-sponsored installations in Lebanon, Syria and Malaysia.


Three events that took place in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century enabled Iran to make quick inroads into Egypt’s turf. In 2007, Hamas staged a bloody coup in Gaza and, at about the same time, al Qaeda and radical Egyptian and Saudi Islamists began converting young Sinai Bedouin to their bloody creed. The Bedouin radicals, who wanted to launch a rebellion against the Nile Valley-focussed Egyptian leadership, had become newly wealthy by shepherding through the desert a growing wave of African migrants seeking work in Israel. This income enabled the newly-converted radicals to buy arms that had previously been beyond their financial reach.


Iran, always on the lookout to make money from arms sales and to weaken Egypt, and wanting to assure the flow of arms and cash to Islamic Jihad, soon made contact with the Bedouin. Never mind that Iranian Shiites and Sunni radicals were mortal enemies, a marriage of convenience was formed.


Until its coup, Hamas had been able to fund its activities largely through donations from Islamic charities based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, especially Kuwait. However, the costs of ruling Gaza raised Hamas’s expenses dramatically. Although 57 percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget continued to flow into Gaza, that was simply not enough for Hamas to fulfill its ambitions of making war against Israel.


By taxing goods brought through the tunnels            dug into the Sinai, it was able to increase its budget by an estimated 25 percent; and the import of subsidized or cheaper goods from Egypt, such as fuel, lowered costs. However, as the war preparations progressed, even that was not enough to balance its budget.


There are an estimated 57 terrorist groups in Gaza, some made up of no more than a few members of the same family. Essentially, by forming a “resistance” group, any clan can acquire a license to purchase and hold arms…which are essential tools needed when inter-clan rivalries get out of hand.


However, of all the non-Hamas “resistance” groups, one, Islamic Jihad, stood out because of the largesse it was receiving from its Iranian sponsors. It was only natural therefore that Hamas would want access to these same resources. And so it struck a deal with the mullahs in Teheran that, in return for money, arms and training, it would allow Islamic Jihad almost total freedom of action. Yet another Sunni-Shiite marriage of convenience had been consummated.


Hamas reached the zenith of its power in the wake of the “Arab Spring” riots. Among other things, it helped organize and mount the biggest prison break in Egyptian history. Hundreds of the most dangerous prisoners, including dozens of Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas leaders were released.


After the Moslem Brotherhood was elected and Muammar Kaddafi was overthrown, the new Egyptian government turned a blind eye to the caravans of arms shipments making their way across the Sinai from Iran and from looted warehouses in Libya.


When the steady flow of arms deliveries became a flood, the marriage of convenience between the urban Hamasniks and the radical Sinai Bedouin was reaffirmed and strengthened. Each was able to provide the other with needed services. In return for training by Hamas in Gaza, the Bedouins allowed Hamas to establish weapons-making workshops and warehouses to store the largest rockets being imported in the caves in the central Sinai mountains. Those caves enabled Hamas to keep its biggest and heaviest weaponry out of sight of Israeli intelligence, and safe from Israeli bombers.


At that point, and especially after it became clear that Egypt’s stature under Brotherhood rule was weakening, two other wannabe power brokers and political hedgers, Turkey and Qatar, began to raise their profiles in Gaza.


Both countries had long been strong supporters of the Moslem Brotherhood and both had also been active in helping Iran break the corset of US-negotiated sanctions that had been imposed on Teheran because of its nuclear research and production efforts. However, to hedge their bets, both were also acting as hosts for huge American military bases, and maintained permanent, active, open lines of communication with Washington.


So, at the very moment that Washington and the Western media were awash with reports about Sunni-Shiite competition and warfare, in actual fact, a powerful, anti-Western Sunni-Shiite alliance had already been constructed, and was thriving.


It was only natural, therefore, that an opposing alliance, made up of those countries that would be most affected by the new partnership, would be formed as a response. Jordan, Israel, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia had long nurtured secret contacts with each other. For years, Israelis had joked that Meir Dagan’s appointment as head of the Mossad had actually been just a cover for his real, secret, role as ambassador to Riyadh.


The outbreak of civil war in Syria, between yet another Iranian-assisted, condominium of Alawite Shiite supporters and Sunni Moslem merchants who had benefitted from Alawite rule, and Sunni radicals sponsored by Turkey and Iraq, enabled the new, anti-Brotherhood coalition to finally construct an ongoing forum for regular meetings.


Before I go on, it is important to emphasize, again, at this point, a widespread Middle Eastern political, diplomatic and military phenomenon that is given insufficient attention in the West. Hedging bets is a common Middle Eastern practice. That explains why Turkey and Qatar while being active members of formal and informal alliances with the West, could also maintain intense economic and political relationships with Iran, and support Iran’s proxies in Gaza.


But now back to the opposition alliance-in-the-making.


Once the Syrian civil war began in earnest, the West decided to support a third group of moderate Syrians opposed to both the al Qaeda-linked forces and the Iranian-allied Syrian government. The need to support such a third force took on additional urgency when the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra forces and its allies captured about 80 percent of the Syrian Golan Heights abutting Israel and Jordan. A joint command centre, made up of intelligence officials from Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the US, Britain and France, was set up to coordinate the defence of the area. It was only natural that anti-al Qaeda countries in the Gulf, and Egypt after the overthrow of the Moslem Brotherhood, would also want to share in the intelligence information being produced. The other members of the new alliance were more than happy to welcome both, first as adjuncts, and later as active members of the unwritten partnership. Those ties were made all the stronger because all the Middle Eastern members of the coalition were also united in their hatred of the Moslem Brotherhood.


Another binder was the fact that, after the new military government in Egypt began cracking down on the radical Bedouins in the Sinai, its military relationship with Israel strengthened to previously unheard of levels. Among other things, Israel gave its assent to Egypt bringing more troops into the Sinai than was permitted under the two countries’ peace agreement. As well, because Israel had just finished building an ultra-sophisticated fence along its border with Egypt, replete with all sorts of the most modern electronic gadgetry, it was now in a position to provide Egypt with intelligence material that would otherwise have been unavailable to the Egyptian military.


In return, Egypt not only sealed off the land crossing from the Sinai into Gaza, which Hamas and Islamic Jihad had used to bring in cash and weaponry, and not only did it seal off the tunnels dug between Gaza and the Sinai, it set about destroying the workshop and rocket storage warehouses that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had built in the Sinai mountains in conjunction with the radical Bedouin. The destruction of these facilities would soon play a major role in Israel’s ability to defend itself when Hamas and Islamic Jihad began rocketing Israel.


The growing Israeli-Egyptian entente, combined with the newly-developed formal/informal arrangement among the anti-Brotherhood Middle Eastern countries, left the US in a pickle. The Obama administration had convinced itself that the Brotherhood could be a moderating, democratic Islamic force for good. Guided by that belief, it had called for Mubarak’s resignation, had supported the election of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, and had opposed the return to power of the military there.


America’s open disapproval of Egyptian President el-Sisi, and the process that had brought him to office, actually worked to el-Sisi’s benefit. He no longer felt encumbered by the need to satisfy any American demands.


Immediately upon taking office, he had set himself two big goals—repairing the Egyptian economy and restoring Egypt’s position as the rightful political hegemon in the Arab world. To that end, he took coherent, principled stands to promote both objectives—and stuck to them. For example, despite public anger, he reduced wasteful subsidies on fuel. And after declaring that a cease-fire must precede any talks on the future of Gaza, like any other monarch who believes he is indispensable, he then sat back and waited for others to come to him. They all ended up doing so.


The US and the Europeans, as has always been their wont, were impatient with this sort of behavior. They made it plain to both the Egyptians and the Israelis that they just wanted to see an end to the nightly news pictures of dead children in Gaza because their constituents found those images intolerable.


The Israelis, by contrast, had come to both appreciate and respect el-Sisi’s political skills, and were content to allow el-Sisi to lead. This willingness then led to the tensions and what the Americans believed was the Israelis “disrespect” for Washington’s position and mediating efforts.


What the Americans failed to take into consideration was not only that Israel was content to let Egypt lead the negotiating effort, the techniques el-Sisi was using melded almost perfectly with Binyamin Netanyahu’s political world view. Since he became prime minister for the second time, in 2009, Netanyahu has tried to initiate as little as possible in order not to alienate his radical neo-nationalist allies both within the Likud and among his coalition partners.


He had been thoroughly traumatized when, during his first term in office in the late1990s, after signing the Wye agreements because he felt he had no choice, his neo-nationalist allies turned on him and drove him from office.


The Hamas offensive had also caught him off guard. He had been warned about the build-up of rocket supplies in Gaza and the Hamas effort to build tunnels. However, he had become fixated by the Iranian nuclear threat and had accepted the IDF’s assessment that the threat from Gaza should take fourth place in Israel’s list of strategic concerns, after Iran, the rise of Islamic radicalism in Syria and Iraq, and Hizbollah¸ in that order.


Having never thought all that much about the threat from Gaza, Netanyahu had never decided upon a policy or a set of objectives that could be used if a crisis developed.


For that reason, he allowed Hamas to determine the pace and extent of the fighting. Even after the fighting began, he refused to set a concrete political objective that could help the IDF in its planning. Initially, his only military objective was to answer “fire with fire” and promise “quiet for quiet.” As a result, the initial rocketing of Israel was answered only with orders to the air force to bomb easily-accessible targets that would cause as little corollary damage (i.e. civilian deaths) as possible. Netanyahu also accepted every cease-fire proposal that was offered.


The ground war was ordered only after Hamas began using the tunnels it had dug for hit and run raids.


Even when the army had virtually completed destroying the Hamas tunnels that it had discovered, Netanyahu could enunciate only one feeble objective—that Gaza eventually be demilitarized.


By contrast, as I have noted, el-Sisi was clear in enunciating his political goals; and resolute in the tactics he chose to adopt to reach those objectives.


One of el-Sisi’s initial tactical aims in support of those objectives was the elimination of any and all competitors to his control over how the cease-fire negotiations would eventually be conducted. Fortunately for him, the US, Turkey and Qatar did much of the work for him when they launched their abortive, independent attempt to get Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. Once Hamas had rejected what these three countries were convinced was a done deal, they were discredited, and there was no longer a place for them at the negotiating table.


el-Sisi was particularly happy to see the policies of these three countries self-destruct. He appears to love nurturing a grudge against all three for having supported the Moslem Brotherhood. On a very practical level, he could not afford not to drive Qatar and Turkey away from the negotiating table because they were and remain congenital hedgers who could not and cannot be trusted.


el-Sisi’s next move was to craft the makeup of the Palestinian delegation to his liking. He refused to talk directly to any Hamas representative, and, in all his public remarks, never even used the word “Hamas.”


However, he eventually had no choice but to accept a delegation with only a fig-leaf, loyal PLO trooper, Azam el-Ahmed, as the head of the Palestinian team. The delegation is otherwise made up almost entirely of Hamas stalwarts or Hamas supporters. el-Ahmed now acts as the formal go-between between Hamas and Egypt and Hamas and Israel, but he has no influence on the delegation’s decisions. That is because, in part, el-Ahmed’s boss, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had become extremely sensitive to the fact that Hamas’s “resistance” to Israel had been winning over the hearts, if not the minds of Palestinians in the West Bank.


When the fighting first broke out, Abbas had done what Israel had always demanded of Palestinian leaders. He had condemned Hamas’s terrorist violence in Arabic, and before a meeting of the Arab league. However, to many West Bank youngsters, he had then appeared to be an Israeli lackey. As the violence progressed, and as street violence by youngsters in the West Bank and Jerusalem grew, Abbas felt obliged to adopt two defensive tactics. He ordered his police to use a heavy hand on demonstrators in the areas under his control. However, he also decided to adopt all of Hamas’s political demands as his own. Not only that, he led the request to the UN’s Human Rights Council to set up a committee to investigate Israeli war crimes. To top things off, his aides began leaking stories to the press that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would soon sign the Rome Treaty, which would enable the PA to bring charges that Israel had committed war crimes before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.


All these latter acts alienated the Israelis—something el-Sisi could not afford.


When the negotiations are over, he needs Abbas to be into a position where the Palestinian leader, with Israeli approval and active support, will be capable of playing a significant role in the post-fighting order. To that end, he has been trying to rehabilitate Mahmoud Abbas’s public image and especially his political clout. Among other things, el-Sisi is now in the process of trying to replace Hamas officials with PA supporters in those government positions in Gaza whose mandate will be determined by the negotiations.


In order to rehabilitate Abbas, el-Sisi also had to ensure that the Israelis would remain passive observers while the process effort was underway. That task was less easy than it initially appears.


In effect, by agreeing to hold talks with the joint Palestinian delegation, Egypt had already come out in open support of the PLO/Hamas government of reconciliation that Abbas had cobbled together following the breakdown in the peace talks with Israel.


Netanyahu had strongly condemned the Palestinian reconciliation government when it was first formed, and had made his refusal to have anything new to do with the new Palestinians government a central policy.


Parenthetically, it is important to note that Hamas is not a member of the PLO. And as the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, has pointed out, while ending the Israeli occupation and “freeing Palestine” has always been a fundamental Hamas creed, like all the other fundamentalist Islamic groups, it has never called for the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state.


As part of el-Sisi’s rehabilitation efforts, he has now insisted that, henceforth, the Gaza side of the crossings from Egypt and Israel be manned by Abbas’s own Presidential Guard. That demand is essentially meaningless because Israel and Egypt totally control the entry of any goods arriving in Gaza from their territory. However, it has tremendous symbolic value because, if the demand is finally accepted by all the parties to the talks, it will give Abbas’s security forces their first foothold in Gaza since they were summarily and brutally kicked out of Gaza in the wake of the coup there.


Ironically, all of el-Sisi’s activities may explain why the PA has been relatively silent throughout the cease-fire negotiations. Abbas appears to be letting everyone else do the most difficult work or him. Among other things that seeming-passivity enables him to avoid answering difficult questions such as whether the PA personnel are capable of performing this or that task.


Once he had consolidated Egypt’s’s position as the primary mediator, allowed himself to veto other wannabe participants, and begun the process of rehabilitating Abbas, el-Sisi set about determining what the negotiating procedures would be and what the agenda for the talks would be.


Hamas had gone to war because it was in desperate straits. It was bankrupt, but could find no way to bring money into the strip. Palestinian banks, fearful of being sanctioned for engaging in business with a declared terrorist organization, were no longer willing to transfer money to the Strip. And after Egypt closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza, Hamas’s couriers could no longer deliver arms or suitcases of cash either.


In addition, except for its friends in Turkey and Qatar, Hamas had become diplomatically isolated. Even its relationship with Iran had been terminated because, at the insistence of the Moslem Brotherhood while it was still in power, Hamas had closed its office in Damascus, and had halted contacts with the Alawite government in Syria. The Brothehood had demanded that Hamas support the Sunni rebels, many of whom were Moslem Brotherhood members.


Once the Brotherhood was overthrown in Egypt, Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, who is based in Qatar, made a major effort to re-establish the Iranian connection. And once Hamas had agreed to negotiate a cease-fire in Cairo, Meshal ensured that a strong Iranian supporter, Hamas’s former ambassador to Teheran, Imad el-Alami, was included in the Palestinian delegation to the talks. However, the impact Iran may be having on the delegation is still unclear.


el-Sisi hates the Iranians as much as the Israelis do, but, after Abbas had agreed to the make-up of the Palestinian delegation, el-Sisi had little choice but to accept the presence of an Iranian proxy at the negotiating table.


To date, el-Sisi has been managing the negotiations using a style and technique that is the polar opposite of the one usually employed by US envoys. The Americans usually try to be as inclusive as possible. That is, they try to involve as many parties as possible in the hope that if one of the main negotiating parties demands some quid pro quo for a concession, and the other party refuses to provide one, a third party may be able to step into the breach and offer something of value to the first party as compensation instead.


el-Sisi’s technique so far, though, has been to divide up Hamas’s list of demands into discrete issues. The resolution of each of these issues has then been apportioned out in such a way that they are discussed in separate, strictly bilateral talks.


For example, el-Sisi declared that, while the decision on whether to reopen the gates on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing was exclusively an Egyptian one, he would permit Hamas to raise the issue in separate, bilateral talks with Egypt.


The same approach applies to the issue of money flows into Gaza. el-Sisi insists that this is an internal Palestinian problem that should be resolved in negotiations between the PA and Hamas.


The Israelis could have kissed el-Sisi for all he has done for them. Unlike the Americans, el-Sisi has managed to create an environment in which Hamas, for the first time ever, has had to face off indirectly with Israel, without any big-time patrons or backers who have the power to influence Israel sitting in its corner.


El-Sisi’s demand that each issue be placed into a discrete negotiating box and that the box only be opened during head-on bilateral negotiations has made both Hamas and Israel distinctly uncomfortable. A measure of their discomfiture has been the dramatic increase in the attempts by both sides to use gamesmanship as a means of boosting their ability to rut.


For example, even though it is the PA that has always been and will continue to be the sole party capable of controlling the legal flow of money into Gaza, Israel announced with a great flourish that, as a gesture of compromise on its part, it has now agreed to allow donor money to enter Gaza.


In its statements to the press, Israel has now also demanded that Gaza be completely demilitarized over time, as called for in the Oslo accords. However, the hollowness of the demand is evidenced by the fact that Jerusalem has yet to explain who would be willing to take on the job of entering the tunnels and confronting the guards posted at the doors of the underground command centres.


In another sterile grand gesture, Israeli officials are demanding that, even if total disarmament is unfeasible at this time, as a minimum, Hamas has to be prevented from re-arming and restocking its arms depots.


This, however, is a moot point. Israel certainly has no intention of allowing the entry of arms into Gaza through its border crossing points, and it is now fairly assured that Egypt will, in the foreseeable future, continue to prevent the smuggling of arms from its territory into Gaza. (By the day the cease-fire talks began, Egypt, by its count, had found and destroyed 1,649 tunnels leading from Gaza into the Sinai).


These examples of Israeli posturing are relatively harmless because they are geared primarily at reassuring domestic Israeli audiences that the government is looking out for their interests.


A much more difficult problem that el-Sisi faces is that Hamas actually believes that it has won the war with Israel. Therefore, it has concluded, it is deserving of the spoils of victory.


The Israelis may view Hamas’s statements to this effect as gamesmanship, but Hamas’s beliefs are having a direct impact on its negotiating posture and the demands it is making.


So, while the Israelis point to the massive destruction of buildings in Gaza as proof that Hamas has lost, Hamas perceives that this destruction is merely an insignificant side effect of what it is convinced is a truly great victory. As proof, it notes that the Hamas leadership, its political and military command centres, and its hard core of fighters have remained intact and untouched despite the Israeli air and ground assault.


Ironically for Netanyahu, Hamas supports its claims by pointing to the raft of statements that have come out of Israel’s extreme neo-nationalist camp that basically agrees with them.


Hamas also believes that it has many other factors working for it. For example, even before the Israeli ground attack began, Israeli officials declared that Israel had no interest in overthrowing Hamas because the result might have been the “Somaliazation” of the Gaza Strip and the possible arrival there of al Qaeda or ISIS. Another perceived strength is the outcome of Hamas’s carefully-managed PR campaign. While the heaviest fighting was going on, the foreign camera crews in Gaza were prevented from photographing either Hamas fighters or rockets taking off from civilian areas. All the cameramen were then left to record were the scenes of wailing women, dead bodies, funerals and destroyed buildings. This had then led to a huge popular backlash against Israel that had, in turn, led foreign governments to begin putting pressure on Israel to compromise. And finally Hamas also says that it believes that the Israeli public is less willing to tolerate a war of attrition than Gazans who have nothing more to lose.


el-Sisi appears to be totally unfazed by the Israeli’s demands and theatrical gestures, just as he is unconcerned about Hamas’s even more ludicrous belief that it can dictate preconditions for beginning talks. That is because, unlike the Americans, he is completely comfortable using Middle Easterners’ sense of time to his advantage. Because he has no costs to take into consideration such as Egyptian soldiers’ deaths or the economic consequences of a failure to come to a quick cease-fire agreement, he has been content to wait and let the Israelis and Hamas exhaust themselves. That may explain why, despite the current crisis, he chose to make state visits to Saudi Arabia and Russia.


A sign that the exhaustion he is seeking is setting in will come when the two sides begin discussing issues that have a real likelihood of being resolved. For example, one such issue is Israeli permission for so-called “dual-use” materials such as cement and reinforcing steel to enter the Strip. These sorts of materials are essential for rebuilding homes and business. However, they can also be used for military purposes such as bunker and tunnel construction.


At this moment of writing, both the Israelis and Hamas are still playing hard to get.


Crucial to el Sisi’s success will be his ability to marshal the aid of other members of his alliance to prevent a possible stalemate from deteriorating into another round of heavy, purposeless fighting.


From all he has done and said to date, it would appear that one of el-Sisi’s strategic objectives is to entice Israel into believing that, if it can come to a deal with Hamas that is acceptable to both Egypt and Abbas, and as a result of the enormous changes taking place throughout the Middle east, it will then be in a position to negotiate formal and informal agreements based on mutual interests with the other members of the anti-Iran/anti-Hamas alliance.


One example of the benefits that can accrue has already been demonstrated by Jordan.


Jordan is the Arab’s representative on the UN Security Council. The radical Arab states had been calling for yet another Security Council resolution condemning Israel. Normally, the drafting of such a condemnation would have been a matter of course—as would have been the equally inevitable US veto. This time, though, the Jordanians informed the Egyptians and the Saudis that, surprise, surprise, despite all their efforts, they had found it difficult to get a sufficient number of countries to support such a measure. Of course, it would not say publicly that most of its efforts we actually directed at preventing such an action.


But herein lies the rub.


All of el-Sisi’s efforts are presenting Netanyahu with a challenge that goes far beyond the details of a deal with Hamas on a cease-fire on the Israeli-Gaza border. The implementation of almost every detail in the final deal will depend on how strong and intimate Israel’s future relationship with the PA becomes. In other words, the fulfillment of all of Netanyahu’s wet dreams will depend on whether Israel’s political talks with Mahmoud Abbas are renewed. Netanyahu does have the support of more than half the Israeli public for such a move. A Haaretz newspaper poll indicated that 53 percent of Israelis supported the idea that Israel should help strengthen Mahmoud Abbas.


Netanyahu’s problem is that the 37 percent who strongly oppose such a move come from the political camp made up of the extreme neo-nationalists in the Likud and those coalition partners who are currently keeping his government intact.


Netanyahu, though, may very soon be forced to decide whether Israel simply cannot afford to give up the comprehensive political feast el-Sisi is offering. That is because Netanyahu’s greatest fear at this point is that, after a final cease-fire agreement is signed, a weak PA may end up acting as merely a protective political envelope that will enable Hamas, and especially its military wing, to continue doing as its pleases.


Despite his recent record of dithering, Netanyahu may very well have to make such a decision by the time the Knesset reconvenes from its summer recess after Succot is over, towards the end of October.


If recent past history is any guide, el-Sisi will be content to wait until then.