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Who Rules Israel?
The New York Times
April 22, 2010

TEL AVIV — The Obama administration’s problems with Israel go beyond the construction of another few hundred housing units in East Jerusalem. More ominously, the ruling coalition in Israel reflects a reshaping of Israeli society that has fortified right-wing designs on the West Bank and strengthened resistance to a peace agreement.

To be sure, this is not the first time Israel is dealing with a right-religious-settler-Russian coalition pushing a reactionary agenda. The difference is that this political alignment could be dominant in Israel for some time to come.

The political left has virtually disappeared, discredited by failed peace gambits. At the same time, the conservative, ultra-orthodox sector is growing rapidly in numbers. So is the Israeli Arab population, which, in the shadow of a failed peace process, is becoming increasingly hostile to the idea of being a minority in a Jewish state — thereby stiffening the reaction of the Jewish majority.

Moreover, the stakes are higher than in the past. The Israeli right perceives an international onslaught against its bastions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It has resolved never to permit a repeat of the withdrawal from Gaza. Hence it is attacking its critics and beefing up its grip on the instruments of power. And this reaction further amplifies Israel’s international isolation, creating a vicious circle.

The most blatant aspect of this right-wing campaign is its focus on the Israeli civil-society groups that monitor government actions and decisions. A bill that has already passed a preliminary vote in the Parliament would require all Israeli NGOs that receive support from foreign governments to publicly declare themselves “foreign agents” if they seek to “influence public opinion or ... any governmental authority regarding ... domestic or foreign policy.”

That means everyone from critics of the occupation to women’s rights advocates could be deemed “foreign agents” if they accept American or European financial support. This could seriously deter domestic criticism of Israeli settlement and occupation policies.

The rightward shift of Israeli society is changing the shape of fundamental state institutions. The combat ranks of the Israel Defense Forces are now so heavily manned by religious settlers and their supporters — close to a third of infantry officers, by some reckoning — that it is possible the IDF can no longer be counted on to forcibly evict masses of settlers. The army chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, has asked that the government avoid turning to the army for such tasks.

On the legal front, the government has failed to enforce High Court orders to dismantle some sections of the West Bank security fence deemed illegal or to remove unauthorized settlement outposts and structures in Arab East Jerusalem and provide equal schooling opportunities for Jerusalem Arab children. High Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch recently felt compelled to remind the government that court rulings are “not recommendations.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition almost seems programmed to provoke. The Internal Security and Foreign Affairs portfolios are in the hands of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), the Russian immigrant-based party whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is known for his Arab bashing and is himself under investigation for corruption. Housing is in the hands of Shas, a party based in the low-income Sephardic Orthodox community — hence the housing construction in places like Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem, where land is cheap.

Of course Israel does have real enemies. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah present growing existential threats to the Israeli public. But the right wing’s hard-line stance leads the government to ignore genuine opportunities for progress toward peace, such as the successful state-building enterprise of the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in the West Bank, or Syria’s repeated offers to renew a peace process that could, if successful, strike a blow against Iran and its proxies.

In this context, Israel’s occasional security successes, as in Gaza last year, perversely strengthen the growing international campaign to delegitimize it.

The Netanyahu government complains loudly about Palestinian incitement against Jews (which is, in fact, decreasing) while its policies encourage or ignore growing anti-Arab incitement in Israel.

If 80 percent of the students in Israeli religious high schools want to disenfranchise the Arab citizens of Israel (one-fifth of the population), as a recent survey found, their schools must be teaching them something very wrong. If the spiritual head of the Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, can tell his huge flock, as he did late last year, that the Muslims’ religion “is as ugly as them,” and provoke little but embarrassed smiles, it is because Shas is a member of the governing coalition. Yet if an NGO I belong to objects to such statements, I might soon be legally labeled a foreign agent.

One redeeming truth remains: Israelis know they need not only American support for their security, but also American endorsement of the Jewish and democratic society they aspire to. A vital U.S. and international interest in regional stability is involved here.

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is co-editor of

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