Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Creative destruction is the iron law of Israeli parliamentary politics. Parties are formed, collapsed, and then recreated at a speed rare in mature democracies. To British political scientists contemplating the relative chaos of five-party politics, the Israeli pundit would be justified in responding “Chaos? What Chaos? Look what we have over here.”
Confusing it may be, but it is not without order. The centre of gravity, the man who has defined the terms of Israeli politics, and upon whose vision almost everyone is determined to make these elections a referendum is Nafthali Bennett. Known equally for his combination of gothic hyperbole and real-estate ambition, he is not in fact the literary love-child of Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe; nor should he be confused with the disarmingly passive-aggressive Lancastrian Naf “t’Alan” Bennett (“Isn’t that a nice hill you’ve got there, Mr al-Khalil, don’t you think it’d look nice with a settlement on top?”). Bennett is the loudest of the hunters for nationalist Israeli votes whose extremism has provoked these elections
Israel’s government (that misbegotten camel) fell over the introduction of a bill described as defining Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” That much might appear to be pointless symbolism. After all, its flag (and F-16s) are emblazoned with the Star of David; great, and sometimes mocked, efforts are devoted to getting Jews to move there; its seat of government is in Jerusalem, and its name does bear more than the slightest allusion to the history of the Jewish people. A declaration that it is the nation state of the Jewish people – as, say, France is the nation-state of the French people – would simply recognise that obvious fact. The content of the bills in question, and the context in which they were placed before the cabinet were, however, far more dangerous.
Around one fifth of Israel’s population – if Arabic-speaking Druze are included – are Arabs. The terms on which they have made their peace with the Israeli state vary (to simplify hugely: Druze are most integrated, and serve in the security forces; Sunni Muslims the least; Christians are somewhere in between), and though Israel can never quite be “their” state (it was, after all established as the nationalist project of another people), it has offered them enough, in political rights, security and economic opportunities for them to acquiesce in its legitimacy. The promise in Israel’s Declaration of Independence that “the State of Israel…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex” and its – imperfect – implementation by Israeli political institutions was sufficient to ensure functioning social peace.
The nation-state bill that would have raised the “Jewish character” of the state over its “democratic character” – and even the watered-down one that “merely” lacked any reference to equality – were far from symbolic adjustments. They would have in fact put radical constitutional change, intended to insert Jewish legal supremacism, into effect. They emerged from a bidding war on the Israeli nationalist right, between Netanyahu, his potential primary challengers within the Likud party, Nafthali Bennett and (though he might now have thrown in the towel), Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Minister.
This bidding war is the result of hubris. Ever since the Second Intifada discredited the peace camp, Israel has been governed from right of centre, supported by an alliance of voters convinced that peace with the Palestinians was either undesirable or impossible. Fanatical terrorists ( such as those who plotted to blow up the Temple Mount, and assassinated Yitzakh Rabin) aside, the old Greater Israel strategy was quiet, incremental, and focused on provoking their Palestinian enemies into making mistakes.
Every act of Palestinian violence played into their hands. Centrist Israelis might not like the settler movement’s activities, but they would not rouse themselves to oppose it on behalf of people who until recently had attacked them with suicide bombs, and who from time to time rained rockets down indiscriminately upon their cities. As time went on, the Palestinians would find themselves with less and less land over which to neogiate, and military options doomed to be counterproductive. One or two more rounds, and their defeat might have been irrevocable.
This has now changed, and in the competition for nationalist votes, caution has been abandoned. The first error was to increase a party’s threshold for membership of the Knesset from two per cent to 3.25 per cent. Observing that centrist and Arab parties were small, they thought they could be excluded. Instead, it looks likely that they will unite, and increase their representation (closer to home: ories and the Alternative Vote). The second error was to try and blame, as Bennett and Netanyahu have done, the latest round of violence in Jerusalem on Mahmoud Abbas: an accusation that carries no credibility, and has been rejected by head of the Shin Bet. The third has been nation-state law.
Israel’s security establishment is composed of practical people. But where they once saw the peacemaking left as hopelessly naive, they are increasingly concluding that the bidding war on the right, in the words of Carmi Gillon, one former head of the Shin Bet, could lead to “the destruction of the state of Israel.” It appears likely that the main centre-left alliance at the elections will count among its members Yuval Dishkin (ex-head of the Shin Bet) and Shaul Mofaz (ex-head of the IDF). The list of former generals and spy chiefs that is denouncing the current government as “pyormaniacs” or worse continues to lengthen. The security men are changing sides. Let’s hope it’s not too late for them to succeed.