IT is not surprising that President Barack Obama personally intervened in a backroom argument during the Democratic Party convention to ensure support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the party’s election manifesto. He had said as much during the election campaign in 2008.
However, while persuading his ally, Israel, not to go wild over an Iranian bomb, he and American supporters of Israel would do well to take a hard look at the bomb that has been ticking away within Israel for quite some time.
Israel’s is a deeply fractured and highly volatile society dominated by the extreme orthodox right which holds the state in a tight grip and gives it a veto on domestic as well as foreign policy. Last year Alain Gresh, deputy chairman of Le Monde Diplomatique warned of a war. “In the Middle East, unrest inevitably leads to war. This time, unlike 1973, Israel would take the first direct step, but it will face far more effective enemies”, he wrote, besides the hostility of world opinion, which is fully cognisant of Israel’s aggressive behaviour.
The Israeli army, according to Gresh, is drawing up “plans for further wars based on the ‘security concept’ — that anyone who refuses to accept Israel’s rule in the region is a ‘terrorist’ to be eliminated.”
World opinion has hardened against Israel. Twenty-six European elder statesmen called upon the European Union to impose sanctions unless Israel reviewed its negative stance on the peace process. A Human Rights Watch report documented the systematic discrimination against Palestinians and asked the US to withhold its funding from Israel equivalent to its expenditure on settlements. That comes to more than $1bn.
Rifts within Israeli society were succinctly summed up last month by one who is by no means a hostile critic, Aaron David Miller. “Israel has serious worries: the gaps between rich and poor are growing; the military conscription issue highlights the resentment towards the ultra Orthodox, their unemployment rate (60 per cent for men) and the drain they place on state resources. The country’s demographics look bad — too many ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and not enough secular Jews. Moreover, the mass demonstrations last year by Israelis, young and old, protesting the extremes in wealth and poverty and the squeeze on the middle class were stunning reminders of the extent of general disaffection.”
The spectre of a demographic threat haunts the leaders. The Gaza Strip is reported to have 1.7 million Palestinians, over a quarter of the total Palestinian population in the land. Gaza is less than 1.5 per cent of Palestine. Yet Israel does not feel secure despite its control over the remaining area. Leila Farsakh of the University of Massachusetts estimates that in 2005 there were 5.2 million Israelis living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean as against 5.6 million Palestinians.
That covers Israel as well as the territories it occupied after the 1967 war. Thanks to a much higher fertility rate, the proportion of Palestinians has grown steadily over the decades. They comprise nearly one-fifth of Israel’s population.
The first Intifada in December 1987, the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, stirred the Arab citizens of Israel also. Their condition, none too enviable, deteriorated as a result of the repression that was let loose. The second Intifada, from October 2000, spilled over into Israel itself with its Palestinians protesting in solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territory over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and over land confiscation.
The state reacted with brutal use of force designed to cow the Palestinians into submission and acceptance of their lot as second-class citizens.
The government appointed a commission of inquiry headed by Theodore Orr, deputy chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court. Its report submitted in September 2003 predictably looked with disfavour on the solidarity shown by the Palestinians. But none were prepared for its censure of Israel’s conduct.
It read: “The state and successive generations of its government have failed to address in a comprehensive and deep fashion the difficult problems created by the existence of a large Arab minority inside the Jewish state. Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory. The establishment did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab sector, and did not do enough to give this sector its equal share of state resources. The state did not do enough or try hard enough to create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust practices.”
The report regarded Israel’s policy of land confiscation as one of the main causes of the unrest. But Israel did not mend its ways and this policy continues regardless.
The decade since has seen two phenomena. One is the installation of a virtual apartheid complete with a system of permits, 50 check points and a 700km long wall built with the aim of severing the West Bank from the remaining 46 per cent of the land. The other is the rapid growth of the orthodox Jewish right parties. They hold the balance of power in governance and wield no less influence in the army.
Earlier, the Israeli novelist Shani Boianjiu narrated her experience as a soldier. Her job was to teach combat soldiers how to use different means of suppressing demonstrations. One of the soldiers resented her touch. She wrote: “Last month [August], the law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews — known as Haredim — from mandatory service in the Israel Defence Forces expired. …Defence Minister Ehud Barak granted the army a month to figure out how to begin drafting Haredim. That period ended a few days ago, but a comprehensive solution has yet to be presented. One of the reasons religious Jews claim they cannot serve in the IDF [Israelis Defence Forces] has to do with the presence of women, who make up about 30 per cent of the army. Last year, several religious soldiers walked out of a ceremony in which a woman sang.”
The politicians’ tolerance has encouraged these elements to hold them hostage. No military adventure abroad can defuse the bomb within Israel.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.