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Is Israel Falling Apart?

Foreign observers of Israel tend to focus so intently on the dangers the country faces from its Arab neighbours that they have largely missed an astonishing story that has been accelerating over the past few months: that of the Jewish state’s possible move toward internal collapse. If you consider this an exaggeration, just take note of what the past couple of weeks have brought about. A few days ago the chief of the Israeli police resigned after an investigation that found several of Israel’s highest police officers guilty of corruption and negligence. This came within a week of the forced resignation of Israel’s Chief of Staff from the military because of the fiascos of the second Lebanon war. It was also some ten days after Israel’s minister of justice was convicted of sexual assault while on duty, and a couple of weeks after Israel’s president – who holds a largely symbolic position – resigned temporarily following charges of rape and sexual misconduct. It was also the same day that the head of Israel’s tax authority resigned because of possible corruption charges. In the meantime, several other investigations are still pending, not least two or three directed at the Prime Minister himself, Ehud Olmert, concerning corruption and favoritism. And an appeal to the Supreme Court has already been filed against the minister of police’s choice for a new police chief  – again, because of old charges of corruption of which the nominee had been acquitted only through a particularly narrow benefit of the doubt.

Do these events really presage the collapse of the Israeli system of governance and democracy? There certainly has never been such a deep crisis of leadership in the country that touts itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. The leader of the ruling parliamentary coalition, Avigdor Yitzhaki, said so publicly a few days ago. And the Minister of Education has suggested that all schools devote special classes to the “government crisis”, so that children can speak out about what might well seem to them like a total collapse of all systems that control their lives. Suddenly the Palestinians and the Hizbullah, and even Iranian nukes, have taken a back seat: Israel does indeed seem in danger of imploding from within, at least as a viable democracy.

There are at least two narratives that can help situate why Israel finds itself in such a worrying place on the eve of its sixtieth birthday. For convenience we can tag them by the country’s most decisive formative moments: the story of 1948 and the story of 1967.

The story of 1948 is that of a country that underwent an almost miraculous process of birth and growth despite limited resources. From a tiny nation brought into the world by the twin handmaidens of war and seige, and immediately thereafter deluged with waves of immigration several times greater than its 1948 population, Israel managed to become in almost no time a thriving economic, scientific and military power. This unprecedented leap could not be achieved by following the rules. Not that there were too many rules to follow – even those still had to be created. But the main ethos of Israel’s founding fathers was one of in-the-field activism: to a man on the job – and in those days it was always imagined to be a man, not a woman, undertaking a task that was indubitably essential to the building of the nation – everything was permissible. In those early and exciting days, the most powerful compliment you could give an Israeli leader was to describe him as a “bulldozer”: someone who was right there on the ground, moving mountains and paving roads, unstoppable by anything. Intertwined with the myth of the creation of Israel was a culturally sanctioned encouragement to disregard the rules.

The story continues, typically, that the founding fathers never abused this permission to transcend norms and regulations for their private gain. The supposed proof of this claim, endlessly and nostalgically reiterated, is Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation from his first term as prime minister in 1976. It had been discovered that Rabin’s wife retained a bank account abroad, which was prohibited by Israel’s foreign currency laws at that time: a minor infraction that nonetheless led Rabin to throw in the towel. And yet the disregard for limitations on action, the lack of effective supervisory mechanisms, the advantage of local initiative, and the fact that activities were all undertaken by a small group of people who knew each other intimately, could easily shade into more serious forms of corruption. When Israel’s most legendary soldier, Moshe Dayan, developed a penchant for archeology, not only did he allow himself to take home nearly any antiquity his heart desired, but when this antiquity happened to be sitting on top of Masada – the archeological dig that itself came to symbolize Israel’s success – he had no compunctions about enlisting an IDF helicopter to help lift it off the cliff. Few of these facts were secret; after Dayan’s death the state paid a million dollars to his widow to move his antiquities collection to the Israel Museum, where it should have been all along. Public outrage was minimal.

The story of 1967 is darker. It is the story of occupation. To see the connection, here are two other news items from this past week, though neither has made it into the front pages. The Israeli courts are trying gingerly to evict a group of settlers who used shady real estate manipulation to invade a Palestinian village just south of the Old City of Jerusalem, and who built without a permit a seven story building (inside a traditional village!) for settler families. Meanwhile, inside the Old City, it was revealed that the Israeli government is withholding its formal recognition of the new leader of the Greek-Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, Patriarch Theophilus, because it wants him to sell prime real estate near Jaffa Gate to settlers as a condition for recognizing his official status. Both acts brazenly ignore Israeli law. Based on past experience, however, both are likely to succeed. And such events are common, the tail end of a history of forty years of illegal appropriations under occupation.

The infinite variety of devices through which Israel has condoned and often actively encouraged the breaking of the rules in its drive to expropriate Palestinian occupied land against both Israeli and international law has been documented not only by journalists, scholars and observers on the left: it was also the subject of a thick government judicial document, known as the “Sasson Report,” which created something of a furore when it was handed to prime minister Ariel Sharon in March 2005. Within months, however, the Sasson Report joined the mounting pile of legal and normative documents that have been effortlessly side-stepped by the settlers and their supporters in multiple branches of the government. It was only a matter of time, inevitably, before the lawlessness of the occupied territories – and their support networks throughout the Israeli state apparatus – began infecting Israel proper.

Both stories of disregard for law and norms, the nation-building drive of 1948 and the land-grabbing drive of 1967, have come together above all in one particular figure, mythological already in his lifetime: Ariel Sharon. Sharon was the ur-bulldozer. His name is virtually synonymous with dogged action combined with disrespect for law and authority. His public career as a soldier and as a civilian was built out of repeated acts of disobedience and of establishing facts on the ground; the first Lebanon War is only the most famous and disastrous example. In the occupied territories, nobody did more for the settlement movement than Sharon, who taught its leaders techniques to railroad the opposition. And then he did the same to them, in turn, when he suddenly shifted his loyalties and embarked on his “disengagement plan” in 2004.

It is therefore hardly a coincidence that Sharon’s rise to the highest office in the state  marked a decisive moment in this process of collapse: the moment when corruption and normlessness suddenly seemed to take over the system in all its nooks and crannies. Sharon’s tenure in office was more autocratic than any Israel had previously seen. He bypassed even his own government and ministers through a small cabal of friends and family that came to be know as “The Ranch Forum” (named after Sharon’s private ranch in the Negev, itself a manifestation of quasi-corrupt privilege). It also turned out that Sharon’s unstoppable drive easily bled into self-serving corruption, funneling millions into his family’s bank accounts. And yet, despite the multiple corruption scandals that swirled over his head, Sharon himself remained largely unscathed, saved in part by his mythical status, and in part by his conversion to the disengagement plan which suddenly gave his many critics on the left a surprising stake in his survival. He was also saved, in a sense, by falling into a coma in January 2006: only this personal catastrophe prevented him from seeing a few weeks later his son and political amanuensis, Omri Sharon, being carted off to jail for corruption charges.

So if Sharon’s reign was the epitome of success for the activism of both 1948 and 1967, the reign of his successors has been the time of collapse and of reckoning. With Sharon’s departure Israel has been left with a weak cadre of second-rate politicians, who seem even more puny in the shadow of Sharon’s towering figure and tragic exit. The corrupt practices are all there, but no higher motives can be claimed for them, and no protection from public outrage can be afforded to their perpetrators. They are simply as petty and ugly as they look. Even when Dan Chaluz, the Army Chief of Staff, resigned for reasons ostensibly linked to the failed war in Lebanon, the one act of his that will be remembered with particular public disgust is that even as he ordered the bombing of Southern Lebanon on the 12th of July 2006, he paused to instruct his stock broker to sell his portfolio; a callous, greedy mistake Sharon would never have committed.

So let us ask again: is Israeli democracy in danger? This democracy is young, evolving, and certainly not indestructible. For a while it has been showing clear signs of strain; not least, the inability to maintain reasonable political stability amid the frequent turnovers of ministers and administrations. Now it is showing even clearer signs of deep crisis. According to every survey and poll, levels of popular confidence in the system have never been so low. People are turning their backs on politics as never before. Indeed, the very violence with which the public is pouncing on every falling public figure is a sign of how deep the anger runs. The present void might well encourage those who promise a radical cleansing of the Augean stables in return for a different kind of political rule – and is it such a stretch of the imagination to see them succeeding?

Two figures, indeed, have already been making such a pitch, and should therefore be listened to carefully. Both, probably not coincidentally, are Russian immigrants – and thus even less wed to the Israeli democratic tradition, such as it is. One is a minister in the current Israeli government, Avigdor Lieberman, a self-proclaimed “strong man” with an abiding hatred of the legal system (and a few brushes with it in his past) who has already put forth a suggestion to turn Israel into more of a presidential system with few restraints on the chief executive (as Ben Lynfield reported in the Nation, Dec. 26th 2006). Lieberman’s popularity keeps going up even as that of  the political system falls. But in terms of being the most authentic symptom of how deep the malaise goes, as well as having the greater potential to change the rules of the game, Lieberman pales in comparison to a man who chose this same past week to announce his own arrival on the political scene: Arkadi Gaydamak.

Gaydamak is a Russian born billionaire who owes his wealth in part to shady arms dealings in Angola that led the French to issue arrest warrants for illegal arms dealings and money laundering. Having successfully fended off extradition to France, the oligarch has turned his attention in recent years to philanthropic work in Israel, with a keen interest on using it to create a public image for himself. When it turned out during the 2006 Lebanon war that the government was ineffective in caring for the civilian population under missile attacks in the north of Israel, Gaydamak stepped into the void and set up a ‘tent city’ on the Mediterranean beach for refugees, thus becoming Israel’s most popular public figure at precisely the moment the political class was experiencing its greatest failure. No less dramatically – and Gaydamak has nothing if not a flair for dramatic public relations – when Sderot, a small town near the border with Gaza that is home to Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, was showered with Kassam missiles in the fall of 2006 and Peretz and his colleagues in government were wringing their hands, Gaydamak sent buses to take several thousand inhabitants for a vacation at the Red Sea. Peretz’s angry reaction to this public gesture only underscored how impotent the establishment looked by comparison to this philanthropist with his bottomless pockets.

A couple of days ago Gaydamak announced, in a lavishly organized event, the foundation of a new political party called “Social Justice.” At a moment when all other politicians are seen as guilty, at least by association, for sticking their hand in the till (or somewhere else where it does not belong), the founder of “Social Justice” is the gift that keeps on giving, rather than taking. Gaydamak does not want to enter politics himself – or so he says. Indeed, he cannot even speak Hebrew – his speeches are all translated. What Gaydamak wants, and says almost explicitly, is to use his money to become the king maker of Israeli politics: he wants to choose singlehandedly the next Israeli prime minister. And based on current polls, his ambitions cannot be set aside lightly. But if Gaydamak is convinced that the Israeli electorate is for sale, and if the voters are willing to prove him right; and if this transaction is now happening in the public eye, and met with more applause than dismay; then the problem is not one of the political class alone. Israeli democracy is in severe crisis: the friends of the Jewish state should be mobilizing post-haste to help Israeli citizens, jaded, disappointed and angry as they might be, ensure it is not a fatal one.