May 31, 2007
As the 40th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967 approaches, the accumulated ills of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, coupled with the devastation wrought by neoliberal economic policy, have brought the country to its worst crisis of governability. While the economy is booming and Israel's international standing remains high thanks to 9/11, since last summer's Lebanon war most Israelis feel like passengers stranded on a rudderless ship.
Support for the Israeli government is in the single digits, and the only thing keeping Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in office is the fear of most members of the Knesset that they will not win if new elections are called. In the meantime, lacking any legitimacy, the government cannot tend to the country's pressing business, most importantly, ending the bloody conflict with the Palestinians.
It was Olmert's bad luck to succeed Ariel Sharon just as the steam was running out of Sharon's miracle: the wedding of an aggressive war of politicide against the Palestinians with an aggressive economic war against all but the richest Israelis. Until Sharon came to power in 2001, it was widely believed that Israel had to choose between economic
liberalization and accommodation with the Palestinians, on the one hand, or continuing occupation and a welfare state, on the other. Sharon tried to cut that Gordian knot and pursue liberalization and war simultaneously. The price he was willing to pay was the withdrawal of Israel's military forces and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The idea, however, was not to relinquish control of the Palestinian territories and population, but to make that control more cost effective.
Sharon's scheme would have backfired with him at the helm too, but the inept Olmert expedited the process. After two relatively minor military provocations from Hamas and Hezbollah last summer, Olmert abdicated his authority to Chief of the General Staff Dan Halutz. Haultz launched a war for which the Israeli military was ill prepared and for which it did not possess any workable plan. The sorry state of Israel's military resulted from years of policing the Occupied Territories, a process intensified by the second intifada in 2000.
While irresponsibly launching the Lebanon war of 2006, the government abandoned the civilian population of northern Israel to Hezbollah’s missile attacks. Economic liberalization had meant the extensive
privatization of public services and the gradual stagnation of those that could not be made profitable enough to be privatized. Maintenance of public bomb shelters and supplying the needs of the people who find refuge therein when under attack are not profitable activities. Thus, these services were cut off, or provided very inadequately.
Lately, Qassam missiles from Gaza, an area that Israel has nominally evacuated, but that it keeps under tight siege, have bombarded the southern town of Sderot. Although Qassams have been falling on Sderot on and off for years, the government has done nothing either to solve the problem politically or to provide shelter for residents.
Enter Arkadi Gaidamak, a controversial multi-billionaire of Russian origin who is being investigated for alleged financial misdeeds. In the summer of 2006, Gaidamak evacuated 30,000 people from the north and kept them housed and fed at his own expense for a month. He has now taken it upon himself to fortify 1,300 apartments in Sderot against Qassam missiles, taking on the state's responsibility for protecting its citizens even as the state fails to find a political resolution that addresses the roots of the violence.
There could be no more apt manifestation of the demise of Israel's social democracy after 40 years of occupation. As prophesied, the occupation--in addition to its effects on the Palestinians--has brought about the moral and political bankruptcy of the Israeli state.
Yoav Peled is professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. This piece is dedicated to the memory of Baruch Kimmerling.
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