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Israel: a house divided?


“Who are the Israelis today?” “What do they want?”  These are the questions that Isabel Kershner has tackled in her book, The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s battle for its inner soul (Scribe UK, £25), which is published tomorrow. Her book appears as Israel faces the most significant internal crisis in its 75-year history.

Kershner traces how the nation is today defined by its divisions. To understand how it got here, she writes, you have to understand the people who populate the country and how they came to be there. What kind of democracy Israel should be, or if it should be a democracy at all, is not a theoretical discussion, but one playing itself out in real time on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Mancunian journalist Isabel Kershner graduated with a First in Oriental Studies (Arabic and Hebrew) from the University of Oxford. She was my editor at the prestigious magazine The Jerusalem Report before she migrated to the New York Times 16 years ago, where she covers Israeli and Palestinian politics.

She is brilliant and thorough. It was no surprise when Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, suggested to Knopf’s New York publisher, Jonathan Segal, that Kershner, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1990, should write the book about Israel he was looking for. Segal wanted to know who the Israelis were today and what they wanted. He rejected Kershner’s first proposal but loved the second, which became this book.

The publication comes at an acute time in Israel’s history. The country is fighting for its identity as well as for its survival. This battle has been stoked in no small part by Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made deals with the ultra-Orthodox parties to deliver the country’s most right-wing government so far.

Nothing illustrates the massive internal crisis more than the government’s judicial overhaul, “which symbolises a much greater conflict over the notion of what Israel should be,” says Kershner in our Zoom interview from Jerusalem.

Mass protests against the weakening of the Supreme Court, which is the only actual check on government power, and against the possible politicisation of the way judges are chosen, have gone on for more than 31 weeks. As Kershner says, “it has reawakened and invigorated the sleeping liberal, mainstream Israelis who were left without any agenda in the last two decades once the peace process with the Palestinians went into this long moratorium. The long-dormant liberal Israel is alive and kicking.”

They are kicking against several diverse groups pulling the country in opposite directions. The melting pot, as Israel’s co-founder and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion called the new state, is boiling over. More and more people are referring to these disparate collections of Jews, not to mention the Arab or Palestinian minority, as tribes.

Some of the divisions go back even before the establishment of the state. The pre-state underground movements — Irgun, Haganah and Lechi, precursors of the IDF — were at war with each other to the point that in 1948, the nation was on the brink of civil war. The 1950s brought an influx of Arabic-speaking Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, who followed the [European] pioneers who set up the state after World War Two.

“Educated with socialist ideals, the elites…ran the country but are now a dying breed. Grudges and resentments from then have festered for decades. Then there were waves of Russians, Ethiopians, and some American Jews, who became ideological settlers, who believed that the greater land of Israel, including the West Bank, was given to them by God.”

As Kershner says, “There isn’t one Israel, and there isn’t one type of Israeli, and there never really was.” Israelis have contradictory and competing visions. According to Kershner, who spent years travelling around the country and interviewing members of all the different parties and sects, “they are pulling the country in totally opposing directions.”

While it hasn’t reached the level of serious political discourse yet, people are talking about the country splitting up. “People are discussing that on Facebook forums, and academics are talking about the cantonising of Israel because they just don’t see how it can all fit together in the future.”

With that in mind, it is hard to see how Israel can reconcile “the settler demand for the annexation of the West Bank, especially when they don’t want to give the Palestinians equal rights and citizenship. Mainstream Israelis would prefer some partition, if it could be done by agreement to maintain Israel proper as a democratic state with a Jewish majority and a strong Jewish character.”

Is the idea of a two-state solution, I ask Kershner, becoming more challenging to achieve? “Certainly, when you have these divisions on each side. You have the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community, which has grown exponentially in size. It has very little interest in the secular sovereign state of Israel and is only interested in its own communal affairs. This doesn’t really go well with Israel’s national security ethos or economic endeavours.”

Not only does Kershner highlight the many divisions in Israeli society about what to do about the West Bank; she also examines the divisions on the Palestinian side. Arabs form 20 per cent of the Israeli population, but there is a deep schism between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and the Hamas Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.

Kershner states, “The Palestinians, like the Jews, are not a homogenous mass. The young generation of Arabs has changed the human landscape. The discourse of the educated, media-savvy Palestinian Israeli is not about demands for territory and borders. Instead, they want human rights, justice and freedom.”

The seismic shift in Israel, where the military is a central pillar of the nation’s survival, also has divisions seeping in through the ranks, notably in the reserve forces. “In the last few weeks and months we have seen thousands of military reservists signing declarations saying they’re not willing to volunteer their services any more if Israel is not going to continue to be a democratic state. We’re talking about the central foci of power in Israeli society — military reservists from the most elite units, like the pilots. We’re talking about the high-tech entrepreneurs, we’re talking about the leading business people, we’re talking about the medical profession.”

A third of Israelis fear there might be a civil war like the one that was averted in 1948. Kershner remains cautiously optimistic that Israel might come out of the present crisis stronger. But the possibility of a political disaster is closer than at any time since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.