Commentary Magazine

The Peace Process: II

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin [“Israel Against Itself,” November 1994] should be applauded for his candid and trenchant analysis of the malaise afflicting Israeli society. He is correct in ascribing it, in the words of Daniel J. Elazar, to the “new privatism [in Israel] that does not encourage great public purposes or individual sacrifice for public tasks,” and which may signify “the end of Zionism” in its classic sense of self-sacrifice for the common good.

It is also true that in this, as in many other respects, Israel reflects Western fashions, both intellectual and popular, from “the decline in religious or national exclusivism” to the addiction to pop music, fast foods, and yuppie “lifestyles.” This, however, is only part of the story, and it begs the question of why Israelis—especially the young, many of whom still insist on joining elite fighting units at great risk—have also become so vulnerable to centrifugal and alienating trends, even while Israel remains under siege, a situation that until now has strengthened national cohesiveness and given Israelis a sense of national purpose.

In all likelihood, the overwhelming reason for the reduced fealty Israelis feel for their community after they leave the army is their disenchantment with the socioeconomic system, as evidenced from the fact that so many, especially among the young, vote against it with their feet by emigrating. There is a growing conviction among them that the system is not only unnecessarily difficult, but also basically unfair and does not provide equal opportunity to those without access or political clout.

Young Israelis are called upon as a matter of course to defend the land, often at risk to their lives. Yet the government, which controls 93 percent of the land in Israel (as well as all the water, natural resources, electricity, telecommunications, 140 corporations, etc., etc.), makes them pay exorbitant prices for it. It takes twelve to fifteen years’ salary for the average wage earner to purchase a small three-room apartment, which means it will take a lifetime for a young couple, spending 25 percent of their income on housing, to pay off their indexed mortgage. At the same time, government land is given almost freely to privileged groups like the kibbutzim and moshavim and to various associations, firms, and individuals with political connections. The government dispenses many privileges to large Israeli firms, including control of access to markets and subsidized credit.

Many of the big Israeli corporations and banks are monopolies and oligopolies which exact high prices from the Israeli consumer, a burden especially heavy for those with low incomes. Small businesses, a major engine of growth, are severely discriminated against and are saddled with high taxes and a heavy bureaucratic load that makes it extremely difficult for young entrepreneurs to launch new ventures. This is a major reason for Israel’s chronic unemployment and low wages. Salaries in heavily subsidized and protected industries, such as textiles and foods, are so low that the average monthly salary comes to only $1,300, while the cost of living is close to that of the U.S. Many Israelis eke out a living by having several wage earners in the family or by moonlighting, often in the cash economy. Still, most young couples make ends meet only by paying punishing interest rates on their perpetual bank overdrafts, and by constant help from their parents.

Though heavily taxed, Israelis get very little return for their money. The quality of the professionals in the government health service is excellent (Jewish doctors!), but services are poor to bad as a result of bureaucratization and gross inefficiency. Schools are overcrowded and teachers are underpaid and undertrained. Pension funds, most managed (or, more accurately, mismanaged) by the Histadrut Labor Federation, face an actuarial deficit of between 60 and 100 billion shekels!

Israelis are capable and hardworking, yet . . . wherever one turns, one can find the devastation of the economy that was initiated by the socialist Labor party, which governed Israel for its first 28 years, and then perpetuated by Likud, which actually increased the government’s budget share of GNP to 85 percent at its peak. Now Labor is doing more of the same. Small wonder that a Heritage Foundation survey recently classed Israel thirteenth among nations with mostly unfree economies.

Such a portrait of Israel may stand in stark contrast to what visiting Americans observe: the beautiful homes, luxury cars, elegant shops, and crowded restaurants and night spots. There are, indeed, many Israelis who have made it big—some very big. But . . . they are the well-connected, on whom the government showers highly-paid executive positions, privileges, and benefits; the ones who enjoy preferential treatment in “public” hospitals, or can afford private health care (often paid for under the table). . . . The incomes they achieve through their ability to manipulate the system are quite high, even by American standards (the top managers of Israeli banks, which are to all intents and purposes bankrupt and in government receivership, get $600,000 annually, plus hefty bonuses, in spite of their poor management).

As Mr. Halkin points out, intellectual fashions are important; ideas do shape our lives. But, as Lord Keynes observed, it is mostly defunct economic ideas that determine our destiny. For most people, even in Israel, pocketbook issues rank first after security. Likud was thrown out of office not because of its hawkish stand, but despite it, mostly because of mounting favoritism and corruption in government and ineffectual economic policies. Labor might be subject to the same fate and for the same reasons come the next elections.

Even in a threatened Israel, it is hard to expect people to be ready to sacrifice their lives (and serve three years in the army and then 30 to 60 days annually in the reserves until age fifty-three) for a system that they do not perceive as just. Similarly, it is hard to expect people to respect the law if in order to stay solvent they must cheat on their income tax.

It is this disastrous set of socioeconomic policies that has alienated many Israelis and made them reluctant to make too many “individual sacrifices for public tasks.” Mr. Halkin’s analysis would have been more complete had he included these crucial considerations.

Daniel Doron
Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress
Jerusalem, Israel



To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin’s article provides an excellent critique of leftist excesses in Israeli political thought and behavior. But Mr. Halkin’s basic argument—that dovish intellectuals and bourgeois individualism have set the stage for a government policy to return all the land conquered in the Six-Day War—also goes too far.

Yes, Yitzhak Rabin has apparently (and lamentably) changed his position on the Golan Heights 180 degrees. But not so on East Jerusalem. There is no sign that Rabin, or, for that matter, Shimon Peres, is willing to relinquish sovereignty over the eastern part of the capital, where more than 150,000 Jews live. Only the hard Right sees an innocuous guarantee from Peres to maintain the Palestinian status quo in East Jerusalem, and the government’s tolerance—a grudging tolerance—of the PLO’s activities in Orient House as proof of a capitulation in the making. . . .

As for the supposed anti-Zionist influence of the “new Israeli historians,” these people may carry a lot of weight in the humanities departments of Hebrew and Tel Aviv universities, and on the op-ed pages of Ha’aretz, but I do not think they count for much in shaping the opinions of Israeli society at large. I doubt that 5 percent of Israelis know what the “new historians” are writing about, or could even name one of them.

Finally, while most Israelis do care more about themselves and their possessions than they used to, and less about their people and their land, this does not mean that they have become rootless cosmopolitans and cowards. They are not as militantly nationalistic as they once were, but on the world scale of militant nationalism, they still probably rate much higher than any other economically advanced nation.

The veterans of Israel’s “1948 generation” accused their sons of going soft from relatively easy living, and of being unable, or even unwilling, to defend the country, until this younger, “espresso generation” gave a fairly decent account of itself in June 1967. The Israelis of the “Reebok generation,” or the “cellular-phone-generation,” or whatever you want to call it, may have lost some of the old edge, but they are still sharp enough: they won’t cave in to the Arabs as easily as Mr. Halkin and some Israelis fear.

Larry Derfner
Tel Aviv, Israel



To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin attacks the efforts of Israel’s “new historians” to dismantle the “mythopoetics of Jewish tradition.” He argues that though the poetics “may have been an impious hoax, . . . it was one without which there would be no state of Israel.” But such an expost-facto argument will hardly quiet the revisionists, who will simply trumpet it as conceding that they are right in their facts. One needs, rather, to think clearly of the function of myths. A myth is not simply a false belief; rather, it is a statement which is believed to be true, whether true or false. Our banking system, for example, rests on two myths, both of which are false and, further, we know them to be false. The first is that when we deposit money in our account, our money stays there. The second is that any time we wish, we can all draw our money out. . . . But as long as we continue to believe these myths, the banking system functions. . . .

The founders of Israel created the myths and people had to believe them in order to justify the sacrifices they made and the threats they faced. Not all were false by any means, but, true or false, they were functional. What is happening in Israel now cannot be fully accounted for by the concept of . . . “privatization.” Myths do not vanish in the face of facts but change as beliefs change. What is happening now is perhaps better seen as a period of myth-transition. . . .

Having just returned from a stay in Israel (my family and I lived there for a year in 1958-59 and have returned twice since then for short visits), I sensed little change in devotion to Zionist ideals. . . . The problem with ideals, as the sociologist Max Weber pointed out in his discussion of charismatic movements, is that you can keep them up only for short periods. You can go out and demonstrate all morning, but before long, you have to plant the corn, get the kids off to school, and repair the leaky roof drain. . . .

In my recent visit, which included two days on a kibbutz in the Golan, I found about the same mixture of idealism and everyday practicality as before. A leader of the kibbutz explained to me that, of course, there was the dangerous nonsense of Rabin and Peres’s program for “peace,” but the basic problem at the kibbutz was the fact that prices for kibbutz products (apples, electric motors, volcanic soil) were not keeping pace with inflation. . . .

Iconoclasts are always around, but Israel is in no danger from them. . . .

Edward Gross
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington



To the Editor:

Though Hillel Halkin’s article is one of the more elegantly written pieces that have appeared recently in COMMENTARY, I believe it deserves a response.

Mr. Halkin seems to argue that the attempt to come to an agreement with both Palestinians and Israel’s neighboring states, including Syria, is overhasty and is apparently based on a Zeitgeist affecting Israel’s secular population, which places exaggerated stress on the individual’s well-being rather than on that of the collective.

There seems to be another underlying theme in Mr. Halkin’s argument, namely, that there exists something akin to the sanctity of territory which must assume priority over the search for peace.

These are rather curious arguments. . . . Let us examine them one by one. Israel’s Zeitgeist, with the exception of a few periods, has always been that peace is an imperative and Israel will have to make a great many concessions in order to achieve it. But this has very little to do with hedonism, individualism, or any of the other currently fashionable “isms.” Israel’s declaration of independence was founded on the concept of peace. The Zionist movement’s adoption in 1937 of the first partition plan proposed by the Peel Commission and the overwhelming support given to the United Nations partition resolution of 1947 were based on the idea of territorial compromise and the notion of a two-state solution. The lodestar of Zionist diplomacy has always been that political reality dictates the need for compromise.

Between 1948 and 1967 Israel’s political struggle was for the recognition of the 1949 armistice lines as international frontiers. This struggle was unsuccessful: Arab countries would not accept this solution or even recognize the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. They tried to overturn the reality of Israel by force of arms. But their failure did not invalidate the underlying concepts and the political reality which brought about the decision of the Zionist movement to accept the inner logic of partition. This logic prevails today, as it did then.

Zionism . . . did not attempt to redeem a land but a people. This remains its goal. The notion of the sanctity of land is alien to the movement; it is part of the terrible Zeitgeist of the 1920’s and ’30’s, when not a few ideologies proclaimed the slogan “blood and earth” (Blut und Boden). . . .

Israel is not entering a “post-Zionist age.” I believe that the true meaning of Zionism is that the search for peace has to be Israel’s most urgent imperative.

The reasons are not only the prevailing political and security considerations, as important as they are. Nor does the imperative of peace stem from a lack of patience. Zionism must deal with questions that can only be addressed in peace, be it cold or warm.

Israel’s population is made up of immigrants from 102 countries. We are still far from able to afford to all people and groups the opportunities they deserve. Nearly 800,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union have settled in Israel. They have to be made welcome not only in words but in deeds. The same holds true for the immigrants from Ethiopia. To do this in a state of permanent belligerency is a task whose prospect for success appears dim at best.

The deep cleavages between religious and ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel have to be tackled. The nature of the relationship between both religious groups and the secular majority remains to be defined. . . .

We have to deal with the problem of equal citizenship for nearly 900,000 Palestinians who are and will remain citizens of Israel, a task which surely cannot be dealt with in a state of war.

The scientific and technological revolution poses problems that cry out for solutions which a prevailing state of war makes nearly impossible.

The list is long and anyone can add to it, but these are core questions which cannot be dealt with by nostalgia, which unfortunately seems to prevail in Hillel Halkin’s . . . article.

None of these problems can be solved by the possession of the Golan or through continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank. None of us knows whether we will be able to achieve the longed-for peace, but we do know that without it Zionism’s goal of a flourishing society in Israel is unattainable.

I believe that this is the true Zeitgeist which motivates Israel’s government and a vast part of its population in its search for peace.

Hanan Bar-On
Weizmann Institute
Rehovot, Israel



Hillel Halkin writes:

Although I agree with Daniel Doron’s criticisms of the overcentralized economic policies of a long series of Israeli governments, I am less certain than he is about the connection of these policies, many of which date back to the pre-state period of the Palestinian yishuv (Jewish settlement), to the weakening of national will that is reflected in the Oslo agreement and its aftermath. A freer and more rational economy might do wonders for the well-being of Israel’s citizens, but it will not necessarily strengthen their resolve to retain the Golan Heights or to assert Jewish rights in Judea and Samaria, the case for which does not rest on economic self-interest.

Larry Derfner wishes to defend the Rabin-Peres government on the issue of Jerusalem, but unfortunately, if he is right about the government’s not being guilty of duplicity, it is guilty of something far worse—namely, stupidity. Indeed, the PLO has been perfectly candid about the fact that unless Israel relinquishes sovereignty over East Jerusalem, the Oslo agreement will not lead to peace; and to sign an agreement inviting an ex-enemy into your home with his guns when he himself tells you that he will turn these on you in the end is decidedly not wise. There are really only two possibilities: either the government has a coherent strategy and is lying about Jerusalem or it is telling the truth about Jerusalem and acting incoherently. And while Israelis may not yet have lost so much of the “old edge” that they are incapable of sticking up for themselves, it is far from clear that their present leaders are capable of sticking up for anything.

Since I wrote in my article that “all societies . . . live by collective myths that legitimate group norms precisely to the extent that they are perceived not as myths but as self-evident truths,” it escapes me why Edward Gross feels the need to point this fact out to me. And if Mr. Gross, after a recent “stay in Israel,” feels that the “mixture of idealism” in Israeli life is “about the same” as it was in 1958, I can only say that the country he observed is not the same one that I first visited in 1957 and have been living in since 1970.

Hanan Bar-On, too, would do well to reread my article, in which I wrote, “Israel needs peace just as the Arab countries do and should make every reasonable effort to achieve it, including painful concessions when these are absolutely necessary and are balanced by similar compromises on the other side.” For Syria to get all of the Golan Heights and Israel none of it does not involve such a mutual compromise; neither does guaranteeing 900,000 Palestinians the right to live securely in their towns and villages under Israeli administration while denying a smaller number of Israelis the same right under Palestinian administration. Precisely because peace is worth paying a high price for, there is no reason why the Arabs should get it on the cheap.

Mr. Bar-On seems to think it unfortunate that the Peel Commission’s plan, which proposed giving a small strip of coastal land not much bigger than today’s metropolitan Tel Aviv to the Jews and the rest of Palestine to the Arabs, did not succeed. I doubt, however, that many other Jews, even those most fervently supportive of the Oslo agreement, agree with him; and if, as I believe it will, the Oslo agreement in its present form fails too, I suspect that Jews will look back on its demise with a similar sense of historical relief. Having personally spilled my blood on the earth of the Middle East in wartime, I am not about to make an ideology of it; all I am for is getting the best possible deal, territorial and otherwise, for Israel and the Jewish people, which is some-thing that the present government and its policies are in my opinion incapable of achieving.

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