A Victory for Israeli Democracy

by Gabriel Ash

Dissident Voice
February 7, 2003



On Tuesday, January 28, Israel went to the polls and gave Sharon a resounding victory: 38 MKs for Likud (Sharon), 19 for Labor, 15 for Shinui, 11 for Shas and 6 to Meretz.


There is a sheer unreality to the elections, like watching someone jump from the top of a building. Ariel Sharon has been Israel's worst prime minister by any sane criterion. Israel faces today the worst security situation since 1973, but then at least it was up against the strongest Arab country and its superpower ally. Today, Israel is fighting, and not exactly winning, against children with homemade weapons.


Israel's economy is shrinking and the negative growth figure is the worst since 1949. Unemployment exceeds 10 percent and there isn't much to which Israelis can look forward.


Israel's international position has deteriorated significantly. Finally, under Sharon's command, organized crime has infiltrated the Likud party. Yet Sharon didn't merely win; he won a landslide, beat expectations, and, in doing so, scored some records. For example, he is the first Israeli prime minister to win a second term in 20 years and the first Israeli prime minister ever to call early elections and win them.


There is, therefore, no escape from the conclusion that Israel loves Sharon. True, it was the least energetic election season ever, and it scored the lowest turnout (68 percent) in Israel's history. But the results couldn't be less ambiguous: Israel loves Sharon, for only love can be so forgiving. It is a pathological love, born of fear and resentment. It is a love without enthusiasm, depressed, resigned, lifeless and angry; a love like giving the world the finger, but love it is, nevertheless. It is, as is always the case in democratic politics, self-love.


Sharon is, above all, a symbol of militarism and brutality. He distinguished himself in the fifties as a butcher of civilians through his commandment of Unit 101, which specialized in cross-border assault and murder. He distinguished himself again in 1971 when he was in charge of the ruthless "pacification" of Gaza with bulldozers. His career pinnacled and then tanked with the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, which, at that time, was just too much for Israel.


None of this has been forgotten by voters. Sharon was elected for his first term as prime minister because he was seen as the strongman who alone could crush the Intifada. It was his credentials as a butcher that made him electable. He didn't succeed in his goal, but the voters who reelected him followed the worn Israeli maxim that "what doesn't work with force works with more force." Sharon's appeal is in expressing better that anyone Israel's elephantine toughness and dogged determination to be as brutal as it takes to crush Palestinian resistance. Indeed, to make the point, Sharon "campaigned" by stepping up the brutality of the army just before the elections.


According to Gideon Levy of Ha'aretz, Israelis don't know what the IDF does to Palestinians in the territories under Sharon's orders. Recently, Levy reminded the voters that IDF soldiers routinely killed 26 Palestinians in two weeks. Of the 26, only seven were armed, while ten were youths and children. Palestinian homes are demolished every day.


Only last week the IDF decided to destroy the market street of the town of Nazlat Issa. 5,700 Palestinians have been made homeless in Gaza alone. Thousand of Palestinians are in Israeli detention, many of them tortured. Over 16,000 Palestinians have suffered moderate to severe injuries in the last two years. Most of them suffer now from lack of medical care, as medical services have been severely and intentionally disrupted by the army. There is no economy in the Occupied Territories, and there is evidence of spreading malnutrition.


Apart from brave Ha'aretz journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, the Israeli media is indeed not paying much attention to the suffering of Palestinians. However, the role of the Israeli media is more one of shaping attitudes than controlling information. I have yet to talk to an Israeli who doesn't know what is going on in the territories. Yet most find ways to dissociate themselves from the moral implications, often using descriptions that avoid the humanity of the victims through the dehumanizing, technical language of IDF counter-insurgency, or belittling Palestinian victimization by referring to it as "whining" or propaganda. These attitudes are no doubt a product of a dehumanizing and pervasive political discourse amplified and sustained by the media, but they are not the result of ignorance.


Much has been made of the paradoxical fact that, while Sharon is so popular, there is an Israeli majority for territorial compromise and removal of settlements, the very positions espoused by Mitzna, Sharon's major opponent. At the popular level, the simple explanation is that even moderate Israelis want revenge now, but they also want to be "generous" at some point in the future. Generosity is a term that pops up a lot in Israel in relation to Palestinians (for example, regarding Barak's Camp David "offer," or in Sharon's "painful concessions"). Moderate Israelis support "full" civil rights for Arab citizens of Israel, as long as these citizens do not insist on being equal to Jews.


Moderate Israelis also support an "independent" Palestinian state, but want to control the state (for security) and want its borders to be made according to what is convenient to Israel, etc. But giving requires uncontested ownership. In order to receive Israeli "generosity," Palestinians must first surrender all their claims. Israelis thus blame Palestinians for not being docile enough, and thus undermining their own "generosity."


This trope of Israel's subjunctive generosity depends on a macho image of Israel's Jewish identity -- in the words of the Beitar anthem, "In blood and sweat/ our race will rise/ proud, cruel and generous." Like every machismo, Israel's self-image as generous depends on a quite fantastic version of Israel's history, one that denies Israel's unbroken record of terror against Palestinians beginning with the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. In this version of history, as in the one every macho tells himself, every episode of violence begins with "her" show of disrespect, her provocation.


The fantasy of peace through Palestinian surrender and Israeli generosity is Israel's national fantasy of possession through rape, as in Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," in which Petruchio teaches Katherine to love him -- prefiguring the Shabak torturers -- by denying her food and sleep. The fantasy is part of the ideological complex that serves in Israel to erase questions of human rights and transforms Palestinians into extras in the narcissistic-machoistic drama of Jewish self-revival. Many Israelis, including among Sharon's voters, do dream of reconciliation and peace. But they imagine peace in roughly the same way rapists imagine love, as the belated recognition of the victim that he/she was never victimized, was in fact the one who started it all, who provoked the violence.


Not surprisingly, this adolescent mode of understanding the conflict engenders unrealistic and unjustifiable expectations regarding both Palestinian attitudes and the dynamics of Israeli politics. Most importantly, the fantasy of future generosity becomes a legitimizing device for cruelty in the present. Sharon's campaign revealed a clear understanding of this psychology. He portrayed himself as a moderate who is not opposed "in principle" to compromise and is willing to make unspecified "painful concessions" in the indeterminate future. But first, one must crush Palestinian insubordination and "teach them a lesson."


Sharon's victory signals above all the endurance and success of that fantasy -- boundless brutality in the present, as if in order to force the Palestinian surrender that will make possible future "painful concessions" by Israel.


Realistically, the Israeli ruling junta has no intentions to ever make any concessions. Palestinians in the territories spent long periods, for example, between 1971 and 1987, in virtual surrender. The Oslo agreement was also a total Palestinian surrender. Israel has used these "peaceful" periods to strengthen its territorial power, confiscate land, pave "Jews only" roads, build settlements, demolish Palestinian homes, etc. The power of the fantasy of subjunctive generosity lies in providing moderate Israelis with a comfortable excuse for continuing to support the brutality of the state, and in particular, for continuing to serve in the IDF and carry on with the daily humdrum of repression.


In thus interpreting Sharon's victory, there is, however, the danger of mythologizing Mitzna and what "might have been." It is true that Mitzna went where no mainstream Israeli politician has gone before. Mitzna set an actual date for beginning the removal of settlements, something neither Rabin, nor Peres, nor even Beilin ever considered.


Yet while Sharon's victory represents the victory of the fantasy of Palestinian submission, Mitzna's defeat does not represent the failure of an alternative vision. Not only did Mitzna fail to articulate a clear alternative, but he failed to rally the Labor Party even around the muddled vision he did present. Most importantly, foreign and security policy was overshadowed by other issues. The topmost election issue was the identity divide between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews which came to the fore through the stunning success of Shinui, essentially a White Power party (similar in its appeal to middle-class resentment of the parties of Haider and Le Pain in Europe). The corruption in the Likud and the question of who will participate in which coalition drew more attention than the differences between the parties with regards to the conflict.


The elections thus represent not merely the victory of muscle Zionism, but the erasure of Palestinians and what the IDF does to them from the public consciousness as a whole, at least as a political question.


This is an unqualified success for the junta, enabling it to continue, and quite probably accelerate, the policy of grinding down the indigenous population by all means available. The dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli consciousness, the fantasy of Israel's moderation and subjunctive generosity, the demand for unconditional surrender, the existence of a strong right-wing pro-Israeli U.S. administration that shares many of Israel's ideological commitments, and the perseverance of Palestinian resistance, coalesce to create the conditions for the escalation of repression. Yet at the same time, Israel's generals are sensing that time is running out for Zionism, diplomatically, demographically, economically, and politically.


In case of large scale war in Iraq, chances are therefore disturbingly high that the Israeli military junta will find the opportunity irresistible for attempting once again a mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.


Already, Israel has escalated ethnic cleansing around the Apartheid Wall that is being built near, but not on, the 1967 border. The building of the wall has been used as an excuse to destroy cultivated fields and homes and cut off villages near the border. The mass destruction of Nazlat Issa is a clear escalation and a testing of the water regarding international reaction. Because the goal of the wall is to isolate Palestinians on its other side, Israel will put special emphasis on ethnic cleansing in the areas that are on the side of the wall facing Israel. In places like Nazlat Issa, piecemeal ethnic cleansing is already happening.


But under the enabling cover of a regional war, history should teach us that Israel's generals will go to the gates of hell in pursuit of Jewish supremacy and empty land. That the junta thinks along these lines is no mere speculation. The idea of ethnic cleansing under the right conditions is a common theme in Zionist planning from Herzel to the very present. One example: in 1989 Netanyahu, later prime minister, complained publicly that Israel failed to use the Chinese Tiananmen Square massacre as a cover for a new large scale ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.


The threat of a major ethnic cleansing operation in conjunction with a war in Iraq is not new. A group of Israeli professors have issued a warning call in September. This warning call was soon endorsed by 800 American academics. However, the results of the elections increase the likelihood of such an Israeli operation. On the one hand, it proves that Sharon has public support. But, on the other hand, the tug of war between Shas and Shinui and Mitzna's refusal to join Sharon's government means that Sharon's second term will probably be short and bumpy. International conditions may also sour quickly: Bush's continued support is not guaranteed. There is, therefore, a sense that the window of opportunity may be closing and that decisive action must happen sooner rather than later. Such a sense of urgency has been at work in almost all of Israel's wars, leading Israeli generals and politicians to escalate the conflict in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1982. It is a pattern that has all the chances of being repeated.


Escalation isn't pre-ordained. The most urgent goal is to block the war in Iraq. But, in addition, all governments, and particularly the U.S. government which is Israel's main source of support and funding, must make plain the inadmissibility of ethnic cleansing and threaten Israel with clear and immediate repercussions, including sanctions, unless Israel puts its supremacist fantasies to rest and abjures ethnic cleansing once and for all. Anything less is complicity.


Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed "opssimist." He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. This article first appeared at Yellow Times.org. Gabriel encourages your comments: gash@YellowTimes.org