Super Stability: A Reason for Israelis to Rue the Chinese Curse of Having to Live in “Interesting Times”



I don’t know whether you have thought about it, but when it comes to areas like foreign affairs or defence, or even a whole slew of domestic issues in Israel, Israelis have recently been deluged by a flood of spin and often baseless speculation in the world media. For example, almost every Western media outlet has run at least one major article on how Israel will attack Iran. But almost all those articles have been written by people who are clueless about the real capacity of the IDF.


As the saying goes: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, talk.”


This drought in real news about existential issues has really been a warning signal. Israel is once again going through a period of what I call “super-stability.”


There is a very big difference between political “stability” and “super-stability.” Normal political stability occurs when events follow each other in a generally-predictable path. Real stability is actually an oxymoron because it requires that progress be made in resolving the problems a society faces, even if the movement is slow or is interspersed with occasionally dramatic moments.


Super stability, on the other hand, is a political pathology—a condition where nothing is happening, and so there is no outlet for growing tensions within a society.


Ironically, when there is a consensus among pundits that a particular country is “stable,” it has usually actually entered into a period of dangerous “super-stability.” That is exactly what happened in the months prior to the fall of the Shah, in the months preceding the rioting in Tunisia, and the period in Israel prior to the first intifada. In other words, while things may look terrific on the surface, once super-stability sets in, even a very minor event can have an explosive aftermath.


For example, the first intifada broke out after a simple car accident between an Israeli and a Gaza driver. In Tunisia, rioting broke out after a fruit vendor was given a ticket by a municipal inspector. And the upheaval in Syria began after some teenagers were arrested for daubing graffiti on a wall in the city of Derr’a.


So, my ears perked up and alarm bells began to ring inside my head when I heard a couple of months ago that Likud flaks were boasting that Israel now had “the most stable government it has ever had.” This, to me was an almost sure sign that Israel was entering into a period of very serious trouble.


So what I would like to do in this article is to explain the pathology of super-stability, to give a few examples of how it expresses itself and especially the distortions in Israeli politics and society it fosters, explain how Israelis react to it and finally, by using Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join a national unity government as a model, explain one of super-stability’s central underlying causes in Israel that needs to be dealt with urgently.


But first, I want to make a very important general observation.


I think that the most striking, unifying factor in almost all of the events taking place in the Middle East is that they are all being initiated by minorities…and that they are being directed primarily against other minorities. In other words, in neither Israel nor in any of the Arab countries in which revolts are taking place, are there representatives who are speaking out on behalf of a national mainstream. There are political camps, but very little national consensus.


In an attempt to find consensus seekers, the media too-often label some politicians in these countries as “moderate,” or “centrist.” But these terms are not only meaningless, their use obfuscates debates about pressing national issues.


For example, the word “moderate” is a comparative term. So we must always ask “Moderate compared to what?” There is a specious claim, for example, that the Moslem Brother is moderate…compared to the Salafists.


Big deal. Both want Sharia government.


And when someone is called a “centrist,” it usually means that this person sits in the middle between two polar opposites. He or she doesn’t necessarily have to have a coherent world view or even a rational approach to a particular problem—just that they object to what the opposites propose. That automatically puts them into the “middle” of an argument


In Israel, the appearance of national polarization is striking. It’s not that Israel doesn’t have a mainstream. Polls have shown for years that on almost every existential issue, the citizenry there eventually mobilizes into a bloc that provides a resounding 62-67 percent show of support for a particular solution to a problem that has arisen.


The problem that invariably arises is that this majority of the population, the mainstream, has almost no representation in the Knesset. Hebrew doesn’t even have a term for the English word “mainstream.”


I cannot emphasize enough that, in politics, the word “centrist” does not mean “mainstream.” The fact that Israelis use the terms synonymously, is part of this national political pathology that I will be discussing in depth in a moment.


Mainstreaming in democracies is crucial because it is the only way to efficiently fashion a list of national priorities that is rational and equitable. When I talk about priorities I don’t just mean, for example, how much money should be spent on defence, and how much on education?


Among other things, I am talking about situations where deeply-held values come into conflict. For example, how much of the public purse should be spent on the elderly to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for all they have done, but who are now coming to the end of their lives and are very expensive to maintain? And how much, by contrast, should be spent on the youth upon whom the future of the country depends.


What is important in all this is that when there is no mainstream politics, minority interest groups fight for power and sectoral allocations that are disproportionate to the minorities’ numbers or their contribution to society as a whole.


When a country enters a period of super-stability, it is usually after one group of minorities has entered into an alliance and has managed to silence another bunch of minorities.


Minorities play a crucial role in democracies. If minorities are silenced, tensions within a society then tend to build until they reach the point of explosion because they have had no outlet.


The same is true if the mainstream, which is usually made up of members of many political minorities, is silenced because it cannot find adequate representation in the halls of power.


How can we tell if minorities or the mainstream are being silenced? The crossover point between stability and super-stability usually occurs when one or more factions in a country succeeds in instilling an unreasonable fear or an unreasonable level of fear in the country’s citizens. Fear is a normal human response to uncertainty, but unreasonable fear—such as the old hoary one that Jews control the world’s banking system—prevents rational discussion on how to resolve problems.


In non-democratic countries that fear is usually instilled by the central government and its security forces. In democratic countries, or in counties just emerging from authoritarianism, minorities can also do the same thing simply by framing events in such a way that fear among others sets in.


When that happens, political battles usually take on almost all the characteristics religiously or tribally-based warfare—even if physical violence is not employed.


A good non-Middle Eastern example of this syndrome is the American Tea Party.


In a democracy, if a minority succeeds in gaining too much power because it has been successfully playing the fear card, two things then usually happen: The population becomes polarized and finds it difficult to create compromises. But even more importantly from a long-term perspective, is that the makeup of the voter pool is altered because consensus-seekers in the mainstream, out of disgust, chose not to vote. In Israel, for example, the voter turnout has dropped from over 80 percent two decades ago, to about 65 percent today. Most of those who fail to vote are moderate consensus-seekers.


In democracies such as Israel and the United States, this phenomenon then allows the minorities to exert political power that is totally disproportionate to their numbers. In less or non-democratic societies it leads to inter-tribal or interreligious violence as we now see taking place in Libya, where inter-tribal violence is rampant, and in Syria, where the civil war there is taking on more and more of the characteristics of both a tribal and a religious war.


A fundamental aspect of this dynamic is that minorities usually, but not always, thrive politically when the population of a country is not fearful that it is facing a common external threat. External threats tend to bind all the citizens together, in a mainstream, to confront the common enemy.


When there is no external fear, minorities too often use their ability to induce irrational fear in order to divide and rule.


The basic technique used by each of these groups is to first induce a fear within the group itself—even one that is not based on fact or any reality— in order to ensure the group’s own members continued loyalty to the group. This induced worry can even lead to hysteria and panic—about what the “other” will do.


Who is “the other?” It really makes little difference. Anyone will do. In the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, for example, it is anyone who is secular—or worse, Reform or Conservative.


But this is not a phenomenon restricted to the Haredim. Israeli governments, dating back all the way to Mapai times, have always tried to invoke internal threats as a means of diverting attention away from their inability to cope with domestic problems that the opposition was trying to capitalize on. And it worked. Mapai never had a majority in the Knesset, but it ruled uninterruptedly for almost 20 years.


The Likud, since it first seized the reins of government, has used that technique no less often.


The problem the Likud faces today is that things are too good for the party’s own good.


Think about it for a moment. The advent of the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system has been a disaster for the Netanyahu government because the system works, and so the threat, and fear, of rocket fire from Gaza has been reduced enormously. That means that the country doesn’t feel obliged to unite behind the Likud leadership in order to confront the possibility of bloodshed.


The same is true of the collapse of the peace talks with the Arabs. The Likud can not longer use the “threat” that the settlement project is in danger in order to rally supporters.


Another disaster for the Likud has been the collapse in popularity of both Labour and Kadima. Both have been so weakened by their internal infighting and their inability to come up with an original, comprehensive, political agenda that will attract mainstream voters that they cannot, at least at present, be used as political punching bags.


So, if there is no immediate threat to focus on, one favourite technique used by all minority politicians to induce fear is to raise some great specter from the past as an example of a potential threat today. In Israel, Netanyahu has been using the Holocaust as means of inducing fear about the threat from Iran, even though the two situations are simply incomparable


Another popular technique  relies on using the “thin edge of the wedge” theory—in other words, if you give in just a bit, more will be demanded and then all hell will break loose. This, for example, has been the primary tactic used by the Haredi parties. And when it doesn’t work, the Haredi rabbis invariably issue some more stringent and extreme Halacha (religious ruling) that they know will create verbal ire and even a verbal war, with the “other”—in this case the secular or liberal Jews. Ordering women to sit at the back of the bus is one example.


We saw a variant of this tactic, by the way, when, during the spring of 2012, Lt. Col Shalom Eisner beat up an unarmed Danish protester in the Jordan rift. Eisner had broken almost every rule in the book, not only by attacking unarmed civilians, but even more egregiously, from the army’s point of view, lying about what he had done.


Nonetheless, because the minority settlers were concerned that Eisner’s actions might somehow delegitimize their enterprise, they rushed to his defence. Naftali Bennet, the former head of the settler movement, in a commentary on Channel Two’s Meet the Press, even went so far as to assert that the Dane was actually part of a world-wide conspiracy designed to delegitimize Israel. For that reason, Bennet implied, Eisner was actually a victim.


A third popular technique used in democracies is to try to rally supporters by attacking vital state institutions. In the US, the idea of “big government” has always been a popular election issue of conservatives.


In Israel, we have seen a whole raft of bills introduced recently in the Knesset by some Knesset members that are deliberate attempts to induce unnecessary fear in the public.


Take a look, for example, at the bills that have been submitted to the Knesset in 2011 and 2012, and actually passed by the legislators.


The so-called “Nakba law,” forbids municipalities or public organizations from funding public demonstrations about what Israeli Arabs call the “Naqba”—or “catastrophe” that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. The indirect message is that Israelis should be fearful of Israeli Arabs’ freedom of speech.


Then there is to so-called “Admissions Law” that allows small communities to reject people who want to live there if, according to the law, “they are not right for social life in the community,” or if they “do not match the socio-cultural fabric of the settlement and there is reason to assume that they might harm it”—whatever that may mean. This might best be called the “xenophobia law” because it enshrines a citizen’s right to be fearful of others, and to actually prevent otherwise respectable citizens from exercising their basic right to own property where they choose—even if there is no real justification for punishing them in this way…other, of course, than a fear of what they might do some time in the indefinite future.


The so-called “Boycott Law” says that any Israeli who publicly calls for a boycott of “a person or body because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions, or an area under its control.” Such individuals or groups can be sued, even if the boycott call has no effect. In other words, if an Israeli is opposed to the settlement programme on ideological grounds, he and those who think like him—and there are many in the country—are now forbidden from calling, for example, for a boycott of goods produced in the West Bank settlements. In other words, this law is ultimately designed to induce a fear in Israeli citizens should they even contemplate acting on the basis of their beliefs.


Say for example, if the protest leaders called for a boycott of Bank Leumi because of its high fees, they could be sued too because the bank is partially state-owned.


A particularly egregious example of this kind of political manipulation is the so-called “Infiltration Law.” It stipulates that foreign refugees and asylum seekers who arrive here are to be held for a minimum of three years, and in some cases indefinitely; and Israelis who help them will also face stiff penalties. But the law makes no provision for unraveling the current bureaucratic boondoggle of how the differentiate between simple job seekers and refugees fleeing real persecution. Again the message is: fear those you don’t know well.


This particular law is particularly good example of what I have been talking about, because, like so many other laws…but rarely so blatantly…the fears that have been engendered fly in the face of hard objective facts. Folks like Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Internal Security Minister Aharonovitch have been claiming that the infiltrators and illegal residents are both a demographic threat and a major source of crime. The real truth, according to the Knesset’s own research department is that while about one in fifteen Israelis in the major cities has engaged in crime, only about one in 80 of the illegals and infiltrators has done so—despite the illegals’ often horrendous descent into poverty because the government does not allow them to work legally.


When the head of the research department confronted Aharonovitch with these statistics—which had actually been provided initially by the police—Aharonovitch’s reply reportedly was “I don’t care what the facts are, it’s the way I feel.”


So much for evidence-based policymaking.


There are a bunch of other laws that have been submitted with the same intent to create fear that are either now stuck in committee or have been frozen by Netanyahu because they are simply too embarrassing.


One bill that has not been frozen, though, is Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman’s proposed law that would allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws struck down by the Supreme Court through the use of what amounts to a simple coalition majority. The implication is that one should fear even the highest court in the land because it is not to be trusted.


Each of these bills is worthy of criticism, but the situation is actually much worse if you view them collectively.


If one looks at all these bills, not individually, but as whole, it is fairly easy to discern that there is a strategic and not just a localized tactical intent behind their formulation. To begin with, by inventing issues that induce fear, Knesset members can not only gain a lot of publicity, they can also avoid having to confront real, difficult, substantive issues because they can claim that they are already preoccupied with dealing with these “threats” that they, themselves, have invented


Of greater significance, though, is that fear-mongering is being used constantly by some minority parties and minor factions within parties in order to leverage their strength so that they can change Israel from a state governed by the rule of law, which protects the rights of the mainstream, to a state in which every principle of governance is negotiable by the country’s politicians. This would then give minorities a decided advantage over everyone else when policies are being formulated. That has long been the aim of the Haredim, and their successes to date have now emboldened elements within the Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, and the National Union to try to do the same.


The impact of this approach is already visible.


For example, it has led to a major split within the Likud between traditional liberal democratic Revisionists such as Benny Begin and Ruby Rivlin, who remain true followers of Zeev Jabotinsky, and who believe firmly in the rule of law…and what I have come to call the “extreme neo-nationalists” such as Danny Danon, Yariv Levine and Zippi Hotovely. This division has become particularly acute in the wake of the Likud’s internal elections for delegates to the party convention.


That vote also provides a very striking example of how a minority in Israel can leverage its power to the point here it can almost pull off a putsch.


The neo-nationalists, who are a decided minority in the party and in the country, began their campaign to take over the Likud by joining the party in unprecedented numbers in 2011, even though many of them intended to continue to vote for other parties in the general elections. Netnyahu tried to halt their move by calling for early primary elections. But that didn’t help. The normal turnout for an internal party election is about 40 percent of the registered members. But this time, the extremists who had already joined the party voted in disproportionate numbers. That then led to a disproportionate number of their supporters being elected to attend the party convention.


Those delegates then attended the convention in disproportionate numbers. Normally, only about 30 percent or so of Likud members show up at a national convention. So, in order to make the convention venue look overfull on television, the party rents a hall that is very slightly smaller than the number of expected delegates. In this case, the party rented a hall that held 400 people. But 3,000 delegates actually showed up.


At the party convention, the rebels then tried to take control of the meeting. Bibi had nominated himself as the president of the conclave and wanted to be elected by a show of hands. But the rebels demanded a secret ballot—and were confident that they would win.


Netanyahu was then forced to cancel the vote entirely and left the meeting in embarrassed shock. One of the reasons why Netanyahu may have agreed to the formation of a national unity government with Kadima is that he felt that he needed time to figure out how to deal with this attempt by a party minority to take over the party as a whole. If the extremists had taken control of the party, the Likud would have lost its ability to win over members of the majority mainstream.


Before I get into the whole story of what happened when Kadima joined the government, I first need to give you a verbal snapshot of where Netanyahu’s government was at just before the formation of that new, humongous government. Netanyahu did have a strong personal lead in the polls. But his government, made up of 6 minority parties, had exhausted whatever common ground they had had, and were finding it increasingly unable to initiate new projects—even ones demanded by the Supreme Court such as a replacement for the Tal Law that allowed wholesale exemptions from compulsory military service by the ultra-Orthodox, and the evacuation of the settler outpost of Givat Ulpana. A resolution of both these issues was being stymied by cabinet minorities. Bibi initially welcomed elections because an election campaign would have enabled him to ignore these issues—at least for a while.


But these events were not the only things that were happening within the country. Among other things, the demonstrators who had taken to the streets the previous summer had already announced that they were planning another series of protests…which would have taken place in the midst of the election campaign. And the decision on whether to attack Iran was coming to a head. Even before that, Bibi was going to have to confront a series of highly embarrassing reports by the state comptroller on the lack of preparedness for the Carmel forest fire, on the sick relationship between the general staff and the defence minister…as well as a bunch of other problems.


In Israel, when major existential issues such as these are at stake, and when the government fails to deal those issues adequately, the mainstream public takes control by using a series of tried and true, and even unique ways of addressing these issues. The long way involves years of debate and revision. But there is a shorter way too—and that is to attack an issue head-on by seeming to talk about something else entirely.


Don’t laugh. It’s true.


And that was the technique chosen again this time. First and foremost, the public began revolting against the fear-mongering to which it has been subjected, but in a way that must have been mindboggling to a non-Jew because this very deep conflict was presented to the world public as actually a debate on whether to attack Iran.


How is that? Well, this may sound very hoity-toity and highfalutin’, but if you had listened carefully to the debaters on television at that time, they had entered into a very deep and even engrossing discussion about the Olympian philosophical subject of epistemology—the study of what we can know. This debate is nothing new to Jews. It dates back all the way to Talmudic times, when the rabbis declared that prophesy had ended and no one could henceforth claim to have talked directly to God. As a result, the rabbis declared, one could only gain an inkling of what God wanted through the study of texts, precedents and debate. That meant, first and foremost, gathering together all the information that is available on a particular subject and then judging its relevance to the subject at hand. By the way, this ingathering of all available knowledge was considered to be so important that even heretics and foreigners were allowed to give evidence if it was germane to the subject under discussion.


Epistemology is a pretty heavy subject, though, and politicians wince at even using the word. So what the debaters did was to break the subject up into many of its constituent parts, and then, when any particularly irrational suggestion arose, they marshaled that constituent part of the study of epistemology that best undermined the particular fear that was being induced.


The underlying and most frequently-used strategy is based on the belief that knowledge is the only antidote to unfounded fear. Once you know the facts, the debaters argue, you can deal with the problems at hand by using the wisdom of crowds and by building mainstream support for solutions designed to allay unnecessary fears.


For example, after Netanyahu analogized between the Holocaust and the Iranian threat, newspaper columns and internet sites in Israel were flooded by protests by ordinary Israelis. Bibi’s analogy may have tapped into American Jews’ psyches, but in Israel it led to revulsion and disgust. The Israeli protesters’ main theme was that, by comparing the situation of the Jews today with that of the Jews in World War II, Netanyahu had demeaned all the sacrifices and all the accomplishments of this country’s citizens during 64 years of independent statehood. Reservist soldiers, in particular, seemed to have taken the analogy as a particular affront. To them and others, Israel’s honor, self-esteem and self-image had been undermined by their own elected leader.


In other words, as I mentioned earlier, while the formal discussion was about whether Israel should attack Iran, the really important subtext was “Bibi, get off the pot and stop fear-mongering.”


The critics’ primary repost to Netanyahu was that the state is capable today of dealing with any existing threat. To support their position, the mainstream protesters, most of whom serve in the army reserves, pointed out basic facts that Netanyahu had chosen not to mention: that during the Holocaust, there was no Jewish state with a well-trained and well-equipped army to which Jews could flee; and the Jewish people had had no formal and formidable allies such as Israel has with the United States today.


This kind of civil, mainstream reaction is nothing new here. Roughly once a decade, and particularly after a social, military or economic crisis—and super-stability does count as a form of crisis— the Israeli public embarks on a debate about what it views as the source of the crisis. In the 1960s, the subject was the ill-treatment of new immigrants. In the 1970s, following the Yom Kippur War, it was about government failures and political responsibility. In the 1980s it was about political populism and how this had led to economic collapse. In the 1990s, it focused on whether peace with the Palestinians was actually possible. And in the last decade, it has focused on glaring social problems, such as the growth in poverty and the increasing disparities in income.


In each case, the debate gathered momentum quite quickly as more and more knowledge of the situation became available. And when the government of the day failed to respond to the factual information that had been made available to the people, it ended up being thrown out of office.


How can you tell if a protest will build to the point where it becomes a civilian rebellion by an unsatisfied mainstream?  It’s actually quite easy. Let us look at the two most recent public revolts as examples—the consumer rebellion that broke into street protests in the summer of 2011 and the ongoing argument about whether to bomb Iran.


The best way to tell is to look at who the leaders of the protest movement were and why they were attractive to other Israelis.


It is important to note at this point that the leaders of the protest movement included a large number of previously-anonymous young people. Most recently, the argument against attacking Iran now has been taken up by a group of senior defence officials, both those currently serving and those recently retired, who previously had rarely talked in public. How then did they leap from anonymity to sudden fame and even adoration?


Both these groups were following in the wake of others, just like them who had come before. Motti Ashkenazi, began as a sole protester in front of the prime minister’s office in 1974. Eventually, though, he became the spokesman for many of the hundreds of thousands who had lived through the Yom Kippur War, and who were disgusted by the government’s performance. Later, there were the economists who came out of academic obscurity to offer painful, but widely-accepted solutions to hyperinflation.


And, of course, there were the four mothers, who fought to extricate the country’s soldiers from the 18 year quagmire in Lebanon. And Uzi Dayan, before he entered politics, who successfully fought to build the fence in the West Bank to halt the infiltration of terrorists—despite the extremely vocal opposition of the settlers.


What each of these individuals and groups had in common is the following:


They were perceived by the public to be “ideal” and trustworthy Israelis because they exhibited the following features. They were


  • loyal and upstanding citizens
  • having a particular expertise in the subject
  • having a personal stake in the outcome of the debate
  • having personal integrity
  • addressing an issue that was affecting the majority of the population, not just a sectoral group
  • having no known or public political party affiliation
  • being willing to suffer some sort of personal hardship on behalf of the cause
  • being able to formulate the question as having a directive for action component but requiring only a “yes” or “no” response.


Once they passed that initial screening, they then had to be able articulate a rational programme for action that was devoid of unfounded threats or fears.


Invariably, governments had always tried to pooh-pooh rebels of this type. In this most recent case, Likud officials initially tried to portray the security experts as petulant babies, who were disappointed that they had not been promoted or had not had their terms extended.


But once the protest leaders passed all of the mainstream’s character and programmatic tests, they were usually able to garner wide support very quickly. Otherwise, how can anyone explain that one Haredi man’s protest over the price of cottage cheese, and one young woman’s anger that her rent had been raised, ended up encouraging half a million Israelis to join in a mass street protest in the summer of 2011?


Now, before I come to my concluding section where I will discuss one of the primary reasons why governments here don’t usually last more than to years because they cannot escape the trap of super-stability, let me just review very quickly how we got to this point.


I started this talk by saying that we have been going through a news drought because the government no longer has an agenda it can agree on. The minority parties who make up the government have exhausted whatever interests they once had in common—other than remaining in office. That has left many critical issues, such as the Tal Law and the future of Givat Ulpana, unaddressed. That situation enabled minorities within the coalition parties and the political minorities that make up the government to try to leverage their positions to gain more power. As part of that campaign, they induced fear, where, based on the facts we know, none was warranted.


The political stalemate had also led to growing tensions within the public, which rejected the fear-mongering and demanded that real issues affecting the country’s citizens be addressed. To justify their positions, the protesters brought a great deal of new knowledge to the public’s attention.


Bibi responded, as he had in the past, by first embracing the protesters and promising change. But then, when all the information was assembled, organized and analyzed by the Trajtenberg committee, he eviscerated most of the committee’s main recommendations in order to placate his Haredi coalition partners. For example, the Trajtenberg committee had recommended that priority for public housing be given to those families where at least one parent worked. But that provision was dropped because of the opposition from Shas.


Unable to legislate real change, Bibi tried to settle into the comfort of a super-stable government. But this had paved the way for yet another social explosion. Bibi responded by trying to unite the country by inducing fear of Iran.


The result was that a group of the country’s leading security experts felt impelled to break their public silence and to challenge Bibi’s fear-mongering head on.


They argued rationally, based on the facts at their disposal, that Israel is secure and has the capability to defend itself. By capability, I mean the country’s citizens have both the capacity and the will to defend themselves. However, they cautioned, at this moment, it is inadvisable to use that power.


Their arguments were simple, clear and easy to understand.


  • Israel’s military capacity is not unlimited and it needs allies if it is to undertake a successful military campaign thousands of kilometers from its borders.
  • Because Iran has not yet reached the point where it has decided to build a bomb, it does not present an immediate existential threat to the country.
  •  Iran could become an existential threat in the future, but Israel is not now in imminent danger. Therefore, there is still time for diplomacy, and war should be contemplated only as a last resort, not an immediate option…because of the damage it could cause to the country.
  • Furthermore, a diplomatic effort is a reasonable option because, contrary to the fears spread by some politicians over the years that Israel is alone in the world, the country has not been abandoned. It now has real diplomatic allies because it has joint interests with other powerful countries.


Government supporters were dumbfounded by the nature and the intensity of this attack—and the use of fact to counter the fears Bibi had been fostering.


Initially Netanyahu’s supporters fell back on ad hominem attacks. Some of the critics, for example, claimed that these defence experts are now “out of the loop,” and didn’t know what they were talking about. Others argued that even though these people are now ordinary citizens, they had no right to talk as they did.


To their credit, Bibi and Barak did have reasonable and rational responses to their critics. Barak argued that, just in case its allies backed out at the last minute, Israel needed to ensure that it retained an ability to act independently. Because of its military limitations, it could therefore not allow the Iranians to reach the point where its nuclear production facilities were so well protected that they could no longer be successfully attacked by Israel alone.


Bibi argued, no less rationally, that without a constant and viable threat by Israel to attack Iran—with all the consequences that that entailed—the current alliance against Iran would not have been formed. And Israel had to maintain a real threat lest those allies, in the end, out of their own interests, chose not to adopt the military option.


A largely unspoken, but real fear running through this debate was that a basic premise of the defence experts, both in Israel and the United States, that they would know for sure when Iran had made a decision to build a bomb, could be fatally wrong. This fear is a bitter remnant of the experience of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel had had all the information necessary to lead to the conclusion that Egypt and Syria were planning to launch a war. Not only were the Arab forces in place, but military intelligence had picked up signals that ambulances were also being marshaled at the front, which didn’t happen during exercises. And to top it all off, both King Hussein and a spy in the top echelons of the Egyptian security services were warning that a war was imminent.


Nonetheless, Israel’s “best and brightest” military leaders chose to ignore the evidence because they believed that Sadat would act “rationally” and would not confront Israel’s superior military strength.


What the so-called “experts” failed to take into account, and what they only found out after Sadat launched his peace initiative years later, was that while he was eminently rational, his rationality as based on premises that were different from the ones the Israelis had considered.


There was a real fear that this time Israel might not get the signals in time, and if it did, it might misinterpret them as it had done before—and as the Americans had done so often in the recent past.


The public quickly discarded the ad hominem arguments because those jibes added nothing to the debate. Instead, it recognized the obvious fact that many of the government’s critics still serve in the reserves, where their knowledge is updated. And, in any case, they maintain close contacts their counterparts elsewhere in the world who are still in the loop.


What the public was craving and what it needed now was a thorough analysis of the conflicting claims in order to come to a rational decision about how Israel should act.


However, it was just at this point that many of Israel’s informal political checks and balances began to break down. The media, which might have laid out the arguments in an orderly and comprehensive fashion, fell into a classic trap. It began treating the argument as a “He said, she said” story.  The coverage then morphed into a narrative about a contest between verbal gladiators—not a rational argument between people who were equally concerned about the country’s future.


But worst of all, at precisely that moment when the Knesset opposition was duty bound to fill the vacuum left by the media’s failures and enter the debate, it failed to do so.


Since, for obvious security reasons, the government can’t reveal all the information in its possession, and since the media and the official opposition did such a poor job of analysis, the public was left to choose between what the government was saying and the judgments of those who did have access to that material and who could now talk openly.


The results were immediately clear. The public’s real fear was that Bibi and Barak were not trustworthy. Polls showed that only 24 percent of Israelis favoured an immediate, unilateral attack, while 62 percent (an overwhelming mainstream majority) believed that an attack should only be undertaken in conjunction with the United States.


By rights, the debate about attacking Iran, just as the ones on poverty and the growing gap in incomes, should have taken place first in the Knesset. That is what parliaments are for. But, as I pointed out, in Israel, the Knesset does not represent the mainstream in the country. Worse still, governments are federations of minority parties, each of which is, first and foremost, out to promote its members’ own sectoral interests. After these governments have divided up the public purse among their different interest groups, and after they have dealt with all the issues they share in common, they become stupefied, and super-stability sets in.


Super-stability, of course, is great for the politicians…but bad for the country. It enables the Knesset members to keep their perks and privileges and salaries for as long as they can, even if they end up dealing with nothing of real substance.


At this point the Israeli system of governance breaks down completely. It has done so time and again…and again…and for the same fundamental reason.


Even though political rule in Israel is based on the parliamentary system of governance, there is no real provision or traditional role here for what the British and commonwealth countries call “Her Majesty’s loyal opposition”—with the emphasis on the word “loyal.”


In any parliamentary system, when super-stability sets in, it is not only their duty, but in their self interest for the opposition parties to step forward with a coherent programme to shatter the super-stability.


In parliamentary democracies, this is the point where all the research the opposition parties should have done while the government was bulldozing through its own measures, comes into play.


The techniques opposition parties have available are all well known. They have to lay out all the facts that they have accumulated on issues of concern to the mainstream. They then need to prepare a list of questions to the government designed to clarify any holes in this data base. And finally they are bound to provide an assessment of their own based on their perception of what the country’s national spending and political priorities should be.


In this, Kadima and all the centrist parties Israel has had in the past, have failed disastrously. To compensate for the party’s incompetence, Mofaz had little choice but to escape into the existing super-stable cabinet…in the desperate hope that this would give him time to put its own house in order.


The underlying reason for Kadima’s failure and the failure of so many so-called “centrist” parties in the past is that they tried to be “centrist parties”, not mainstream parties. Instead of hitting the streets to listen to the public and find areas of consensus, they were elitist, run by former generals and old political pros, who never felt obliged to consult with the hoi polloi. They assumed that they could rely permanently on the protest vote that had initially brought them into office.


In other words, with the death of political parties based on a comprehensive ideology in the 1980s, those Israeli parties that don’t make it into the government have never taken the effort to figure out what their job should really be.


Instead, they have tended to sit back and wait until either they were courted to join the government of the day or until the government of the day made such a hash of things that they could then present themselves as “the alternative” to the government in power. Usually, by the way, they have joined a governing coalition, where they eventually disintegrated.


One of the main reasons why this has happened is that most of the centrist parties have been led by ex-security people—Yigal Yadin, Ezer Weizman,Yizchak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and now Shaul Mofaz are but a few examples. Their whole worldview was shaped by their jobs in the security services, where the hierarchy is based on its ability to issue orders and follow orders. They have also learned that publicity, praise and promotion come from building blocs of obedient supporters, appearing to be in the midst of things and, as they say in Hebrew “taking command.” That means, when they enter political life, joining a government under any and all circumstances in order to be “where the action is.” Dull research based on listening to the mainstream that may be made up of members of different political parties is simply not their forte.


Their problem, once they join the government, is that being centrists, they have not necessarily come up with original ideas that will attract voters the next time around. What then too often happens is that, instead of debating policies, they end up in personal intra-party ego battles. But even those battles become sterile because the protagonists are also usually so fearful of alienating potential coalition partners that they never come up with specific plans or spending priorities of their own that might win mainstream votes, but alienate potential coalition partners.


Kadima is now being widely criticized for having joined the government, even for a short period. A fig leaf for Mofaz, when he suddenly joined the coalition was the promise by Bibi to bring about electoral reform by December 31. Now, having made such a botch of joining and quitting the government, maybe Kadima’s greatest contribution to Israel would be to reconsider and then enshrine in law a real role for the nation’s loyal opposition. Because, without an effective opposition, the mainstream will continued to lack power, and serial, ineffective governments will continue to form, on average, every two years.


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