Saved By Demography

Settler with child. West Bank, 2003.

On August 3rd,  Israel’s Channel 10 News released poll results that shocked Israelis. Conducted on July 29 and August 2, the results suggested a major loss in public confidence for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing party. Center-left daily Ha’aretz immediately championed this line, contending that it was a sign Israelis had finally become alienated by Bibi’s policies.

Accordingly, Netanyahu’s Likud Party dropped from 29 parliamentary seats to 25 between those two dates (they currently hold 27 seats); historic rivals Labor rose dramatically from 14 seats to 21 (they have only 8 seats now); Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu remained at the same 15-seat level it currently holds in both polls; Yesh Atid (There Is a Future,) television personality Yair Lapid’s new party dropped from 16 to 12, while the Orthodox/Sephardi Shas, like Yisrael Beiteinu, continues to hold its own, with eleven seats- the same number it presently holds in Parliament.

The polls show that Labor is rising again. However, for anyone who knows anything about contemporary Israeli politics, that isn’t necessarily a positive. Not because Labor isn’t preferable, particularly under its current leadership. The issue is that Labor’s increased popularity may have nothing to do with the Labor Party. While these results have something to do with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bungling of the economy and other issues like the military service law (Ha’aretz‘ point of view,) what it really reflects is the death of the Kadima party, in the wake of its internal split and it’s aborted attempt to participated in the current coalition government.

It is noteworthy that some of Labor’s added seats come at the expense of the centrist Yesh Atid, while the fascist Yisrael Beiteinu and the Shas party don’t just remain steady in those few days, but stay at exactly the same number of seats they currently control in the Knesset. This was initially pointed out by Labor MK Daniel Ben Simon, in an act of crowing, contending that Labor is resurgent. But in the context of Kadima and its 29 seats plummeting into the depths of nowhere, it looks more like a weak opposition to Likud.

Indeed, if Labor did manage to win 21 seats, that would be a 13 seat increase over what it has now, and coupled with Yesh Atid’s 12, those seats represent only a minor gain from the current government’s majority.

Still, it opens up some possibilities, especially since Shas has proven in the past it can be bought, usually with promises of extra funding and pledges not to compromise on Jerusalem. Yet, even if we take this optimistic poll, and bring in Shas, and with equal optimism bring in 6 seats with the Meretz party, such a coalition would still be around a dozen seats short of a Knesset majority.

This raises the same question that has always been raised in Israeli politics: would Labor, if it needed more coalition partners, turn to non-Zionist or Arab parties? The answer is  no, because non-Zionist coalition partners are simply beyond the pale. That, in turn, leads to another question: is it possible for a Zionist Israeli government to conclude peace with the Palestinians? Conventional wisdom says yes, while an increasing number of activists say no.

A friend of mine was asked a similar question. She answered in the affirmative. I believe she is quite right, although I think she would agree with me that an Israeli coalition that included non-Zionist and, especially, Arab parties would be a sign of a much healthier Israel. But there’s really more to the question than that. It seems to me that if a liberal idea of Zionism is to survive, it must reconcile itself with the reality that the settlers have won, and must reconsider how to ensure Jewish self-determination in the future. And that will require new thinking, ideas that break out of the “enforced Jewish majority”/”demographic time bomb” paradigm and begin to envision a Jewish future in Israel that exists in partnership with an Arab future in the same country.

Of course, many, especially those who consider themselves liberal Zionists, don’t agree that the settlers have already won. But whether they have yet or not, I still think the only way to ensure Israel’s future is to enact a constitution, which defines it as a state of all its citizens, ensures it will always be a safe haven for Jews or Palestinians facing persecution around the world but stops short of some sort of “insurance” of a Jewish majority. The Law of Return, which allows any Jew anywhere in the world to simply claim the Israeli citizenship that is granted her by the state at birth while Palestinians often cannot even visit relatives living in parts of Israel or the West Bank their families have been in for centuries, must become a relic of the past.

It seems to me  that an Israeli culture is already well entrenched, that it is obviously primarily Jewish, and that it would endure as a fundamental characteristic of the state even if Jews someday are not the majority. The obsession with ensuring a Jewish majority, however, is inherently undemocratic. Having legitimate immigration laws is one thing, but denying people their rights in order to artificially maintain an ethnic majority is a reprehensible relic of a bigoted human history most of the world is trying to transcend.

Ensuring Israel as a national home for Jews, rather than a discriminatory Jewish state, is the only path toward a positive vision that can save legitimate Zionism. By this I mean a national existence and security for Jews, distinct from the more radical forms that have dominated the Labor Party since the days of Haim Weizmann spawned Herut (the central party of the Likud coalition,) and, of course, the modern versions of these misguided ideologues, as embodied in religiously bigoted parties like Shas or authoritarian parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu.

“Dai la’kibush”(“end the occupation”) is a slogan which is no longer sufficient to inspire change. The settlements are becoming more, not less entrenched, and the Knesset is only moving farther right, and neither Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich or Zehava Gal-On, head of the left-Zionist Meretz party is going to stem that tide. There needs to be a new way of thinking if we, meaning Israelis like my friend, and her supporters in the Diaspora, like me, are going to salvage something from the settlers’ apparent victory. That means a constitution and a commitment to equal rights, and no more fretting over “demographic time bombs.”

Photograph courtesy of Rusty Stewart. Published under a Creative Commons license.


1 comment

  1. Right on! More and more people are beginning to face reality: we wanted 2 states but one state has been created …by the Jews. The struggle now becomes a “Bundist” one — to ensure Jewish security and minority cultural/religious/civic rights in what will shortly become a Palestinian-majority State of Palestine (nee Israel and OT). Zionism, so tragically, has managed to destroy itself and the state it created!

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