Israel 1948 – 2008, Accomplishments, Challenges, Implications

Israeli flag, Masada. - This photo is under a GNU Licence.

November 4, 2008
By Ralf Fücks
November 4th, 2008, Open University, Ra’anana

Opening remarks by Ralf Fücks

Almost exactly six months ago the celebrations on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel took place. No doubt, there are reasons to celebrate. Even the very fact that Israel has made it up to now is all but self-evident, considering its widely hostile neighbours and its extremely contradictory internal condition.

Even though Israel has become a military and economic superpower in the Middle East, its existence as a Jewish and democratic state still seems at risk. Today these risks are external – to name just Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas – as well as home-made.

Settlements and alienation

Yesterday, during a panel debate on the state of Israel’s democracy, writer and journalist Avirama Golan referred to two main threats: First, the occupation and in particular the settlements, which are no longer subject to democratic governance; and second, the alienation of large parts of society from the political institutions – caused by the dominance of special interests, a lack of responsibility, and by the social disintegration of Israeli society.

Having no clearly defined and undisputed borders amplifies the notion of a state which even 60 years after its birth has not found its definite design.

This is why our congratulations to Israel’s 60th anniversary are troubled by worries about its future. Therefore the topic of this conference is a double one: We are asking questions about the accomplishments of Israel’s past and the challenges for its future, and we hope to find some answers that will have an impact beyond our meeting.

Tzipi Livni - not playing Shas' game

With Prime Minister Olmert’s resignation a pre-election situation has emerged and it is hard to predict what the outcome will be. Kadima has narrowly decided on a candidate with a non-military background. In the course of the negotiations to rebuild a coalition, Tzipi Livni has shown her leadership skills by refusing to play the Shas Party’s usual game of blackmail. Although there was little public enthusiasm about her nomination there is some hope – maybe more so in Europe than in Israel itself – that it will lead to a fresh approach to Israeli politics.

Right now it is hard to predict in what direction Israel’s political party spectrum will develop. Will it splinter even more than during the last elections? Will the next government coalition be less or even more heterogeneous than its predecessor? This is of all but theoretical interest: Over the last years we have witnessed a decrease in the ability to act and a growing inconsistency in Israeli politics. It would be encouraging news, if the next government could really meet the challenges the country is facing.

It is also unclear whether the upcoming election will revitalise the relationship between large parts of the population and the political institutions. If not, participation might be even lower than the 64% in March 2006.

Do Jews attack Jews?

Contrary to the commonly held wisdom that despite all internal squabbles Jews do not attack Jews (with the killing of Emil Gruenzweig and Yitzhak Rabin as notable exceptions) there recently was the attempt on the life of Israel Prize winner Prof. Zeev Sternhell. Uri Avnery commented by saying: “The decisive battle, the battle for Israel, is entering a new phase – much more violent, much more dangerous.”  I wonder whether you go along with that assessment? If Avnery is right, such a development will have grave implications for the Jewish community’s ability to balance its inherent conflicts.

A few weeks ago, in the ancient city of Acre, we have witnessed the most violent clashes between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian citizens since October 2000. Jews and Arabs were hurt, Jewish and Arab property was destroyed, and 14 Arab families lost their homes. However one perceives of these clashes – as the beginning of more to come or as an aberration – they remind us to the fact that coexistence between the Jewish majority and the Arab-Palestinian minority remains extremely fragile.

The term “coexistence” itself expresses the difficulties and conflicts inherent in this relationship – a relationship that has little in common with shared citizenship based on common values, equal opportunities, and a basic consensus on the character and future of the state. It is hard to imagine how, in the long run, such an ambiguous relationship between the Arab community and the state of Israel can remain a viable basis for a shared polity. This is even more so because domestic tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs are in various ways linked to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in general.

We would like to learn whether there is any chance that the recommendations put forward by the Or Commission will finally put into practice – or whether the tensions between Jewish majority and Arab minority will escalate?

Israeli-Russian relations

We recently witnessed the war between Russia and Georgia – a war of short duration but one that will probably create long-lasting aftershocks locally, regionally, and internationally. This war did not just put the US and the EU in a difficult situation. Israel, too, is faced with difficult questions of how to balance conflicting interests, interests that will have repercussions all over the Middle East. The issue of Israeli-Russian relations has to be considered thoroughly, and in turn this external conflict is intertwined with the complex multicultural fabric of Israeli society and politics.

We are confronted with a financial crisis of unexpected proportions, a crisis that has begun to spill over into the real economy. Europe and the US are sliding into recession while, in the emerging economies, growth is slowing down. What will be the fallout for Israel, its economy and budget? Israel is thoroughly interconnected with the global economy and public spending depends considerably on donations from elsewhere. In spite of the strong economic growth of the last years, poverty and social fragmentation remain serious challenges for Israel. To provide basic social security and economic opportunities will be even more difficult in times of a global recession.

Concerning Iran it looks as if the US government has given Israel a clear sign that a military attack against Iran’s nuclear installations is out of bounds. The new US President will try to open diplomatic channels with Teheran in order to test its willingness for co-operation. In this, it will be crucial for Israel not to be left out.

A glimpse of the future?

So where does Israeli democracy go from here? Maybe next week’s municipal elections will give us a glimpse of the future. They might show us whether new political alliances can work and whether they will be able to push issues such as the environment, social security, and women’s rights centre stage.

How will the status of women evolve in the years to come? If Tzipi Livni becomes the next head of government, Israel would be the only country in the world, where all three branches of the state would be headed by women: Prime Minister (Tzipi Livni), Knesset Speaker (Dalia Itzik), and Supreme Court President (Dorit Beinish). That, however, does not alter the fact that in terms of female representation in politics Israel is in 82nd place in the world. Just one example: So far only ten women in Israel have ever been elected head of local government.

Where does Israel go environmentally? “Will it be a greener year?” as one newspaper headline asked, and will greening Israeli politics mean more than just talking green?
“Going green” is not just about conserving nature. Investment in renewable resources plus energy and water efficiency will improve Israel’s budget, put a lid on potential conflicts over scarce resources, and create new jobs. Israel has a lot of technological know-how, an enormous potential for energy savings and solar technologies – yet so far it has acted as if we were still living in the era of cheap oil.

Germany - Israel - a special relation?

How are German-Israeli relations coming along? In March of this year a large German government delegation has been warmly welcomed. Many politicians – federal, state, and local – visit Israel, as well as numerous youth groups, students, and tourists. Yet, on the other hand, there is rising criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, and it is not at all certain that in the future a majority of Germans will want to continue the special relationship and privileged partnership between our countries.

Prof. Zeev Sternhell recently wrote: “If Israeli society is unable to muster the courage necessary to put an end to the settlements, the settlements will put an end to the state of the Jews and will turn it into a binational state.”  Will Israeli society be ready to face up to that alternative? Or will it try to shun the question until it may be too late?  How much outside interference does Israel want in striking a deal with the Palestinians? How much does it need, and how much will it get?

Many in Israel as well as in Europe believe that nothing decisive can be done to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the reasons seems to be the security: How can Israel’s security been guaranteed once the Israel Defense Forces give up control over Palestinian territories? Avi Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, recently suggested that “the solution could be an international force that would take the place of the Israel Defense Forces in the territories as an integral and binding part of a peace agreement.“  I hope that tonight we can further discuss this.

The Heinrich Böll Stiftung has just celebrated the tenth anniversary of the opening of its Israel office in Tel Aviv. It is still our main task to contribute to a reliable and vital Israeli-German partnership, to support democratic participation of all societal groups, and to inject some new green ideas into Israeli Politics. We hope very much that this conference will give us new impulses for our activities – and of course we would like to spread some messages relevant for the broader public in Israel and beyond.

Thank you all for coming and for your participation!

Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books.