g. The Post-Rabin Stalemate: New Imagined Agendas and Concrete Military Occupation
Immediately following the assassination the public opinion was definitely convinced that the process initiated and led by Rabin would continue. The mass mourning and the self critic of “right” politicians and electorate of their political violence and the feelings of regret created an atmosphere that Rabin, with his death, had finally defeated his anti-peace and anti-democratic opponents. The youth in the streets and the politicians in the media promised to “continue in his path” (lehamshich lalechet bedarko). The violent and aggressive content of the “right”, and mainly the settlers and their mythological Eretz Israel, appeared as illegitimate and more threatening and dangerous than a compromise with the Palestinians. This image was soon reverted, mainly by the attitudes of the two big political parties, and their leaders.
Threatened by the anxiety and fear that the assassination had created, the young leaders of the Labor party immediately united in their support of the veteran leader and Rabin’s partner, Shimon Peres. It is very improbable that the young leaders would have made the same choice in any other democratic situation, because Peres was the symbol of the mythological politics. Peres led the Labor to all its electoral defeats (1977-1988), and was the leader during the period that the mythological dichotomy discourse of “left-right” was dominant. Among the young Labor generation there were several potential candidates to succeed Rabin, however under the conditions of a crisis and the strong belief that Rabin’s assassination had completely de-legitimized the “right”, they preferred to unite in supporting Peres.
The Likud also supported its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, not so much due to a free choice based on his popular support. On the contrary, Netanyahu was criticized in the Party for his leading role in the political agitation against Rabin, and was considered responsible to what was broadly believed the de-legitimization of the Likud in the eyes of its own electorate. Netanyahu had built a strong Party apparatus that made it very difficult to dismiss him, but the feeling was that if the Party members or Likud voters had had the free choice to express their will they would have preferred another leader.
Netanyahu and Peres were in the right place when Rabin was assassinated, and they remained in their positions not due to their popularity in particular, but rather due to the absence of viable ways to replace them. The belief that Peres would defeat Netanyahu was based not only on the polls but also on an inertia assumption, meaning that Peres would continue in Rabin’s path, and Netanyahu would continue in his identification as an extremist. In other words, the assumption was that the process of democratization led by Rabin, that created new issues and agendas would continue. Yet no one filled this expected role.
Both leaders collaborated in returning to the old mythological dichotomy that was characterized by very similar policies towards the Palestinians, and very contested opposing self images of the nation (Grinberg, forthcoming). In March 1996 Netanyahu decided to recognize de facto the Oslo agreements and even the need to eventually negotiate with Arafat (Ben Simon, 1997). Towards the elections in May 1996 Peres decided to postpone the implementation of the agreement with Palestinians to withdraw from Hevron, apparently fearing the settlers’ reaction.
The two big political conglomerates took no specific stand on almost all the issues raised by the post-Oslo agendas, referring to social and economic questions, culture, identity and religion, and even with relation to the most crucial questions raised by Rabin’s assassination there was no difference: democracy, the place of Palestinian citizens, and the dismantling of the colonial apparatus. All these concrete questions deserved an articulated answer, however the two conglomerates and their leaders were unable to even discuss them.
In order to mobilize their constituencies, the old and secure mythological identities appeared as the most viable option. Supported by a wave of Islamic suicide bombs in March 1996, in his new moderate attitude, and the recruitment of some moderate leaders that improved the image of the Likud, Netanyahu succeeded in reconstructing the “left-right” divide, and mobilizing the traditional supporters of the “right”. The images of the election campaign were extremely similar, both slogans were “moderate”, including peace and security and the colors were national - white and blue. An effort was made to blur the political differences, and to emphasize the mythological identities of we and them. It was a very dramatic vote for very insignificant differences.
But the elections could not completely avoid the new agendas and issues. Communities who felt that their problems were not represented by the two big conglomerates could split their vote for the first time: one ballot for the mythological divide (Prime Minister), and the second ballot for their most direct interests (Party) (Grinberg, 1997). The vote for Prime Minister was very close, with less than 30,000 votes in favor of Netanyahu, but most significantly the two big conglomerate parties lost power to parties that represented interests and identities of communities less mobilized by the national mythology (mainly Russians, Arabs, religious and Mizrachi Parties).
This is the process that created the political stalemate of Israeli imagined democracy: the imagined peace facilitated the concretization of claims and identities within Israel, but it still did not solve the crucial question of Palestinian political space. New Israeli politics take for granted the externalization of Palestinians, but the concrete situation is still of colonial domination and territorial penetration. Again the Israeli imagined democracy concretely excludes the Palestinians from the political space and includes them in its economic and territorial domains. Now this is for the sake of peace. Despite his electoral promise to continue the Oslo process, the new PM had no real pressure to make progress, especially when he was able to build a coalition with “right” parties, that included both supporters of Oslo but also included its strongest opponents. The concretization of peace as a dialogue between moderate sides that neutralize the Israeli and Palestinian opponents has completely disappeared since then.
The basic problem is that this externalization of Palestinians is only imagined, yet everyday life is managed by concrete economic exchange under military rule. During Netanyahu’s rule, the military became the most open and practical opposition to his policies. This is the striking point of Israeli democratization through peace: the military was the actor more compromised and interested in its concretization, because it was the tool of concrete subordination of Palestinians and in constant friction with them. The second group that experiences friction with the Palestinians on a daily basis is the ideological settlers in the densely populated areas, who are strongly motivated to continue the occupation. The large majority could easily forget the occupation.
The problem was, obviously, that the military could not be considered a legitimate actor in the democratic scene. The military is the most important institution that articulates the imagined democracy: they rule the non-citizen Palestinians in the areas that are considered outside of the democratic State of Israel. They obey the democratic orders of the Israeli Government to maintain military occupation of Palestinian areas. Within this framework the military is apparently a-political, but it is the most crucial political actor in the maintenance of Palestinian subjugation. Changes in the Israeli public opinion regarding the occupation were crucial in the capacity of the military to mobilize soldiers, officers and units to accomplish their goals. The changing public opinion definitely influenced the military elites, the question was, how could they influence politics, given the fact that a new Government had been elected, and its image and composition were more extremist than the previous.
The tactic used by the military in order to influence the Israel public debate towards moderate policies was to leak information and evaluations to the printed and electronic media. These tactics were not new, but during Netanyahu’s rule it became crucial because the new Government neutralized peace supporters. The military struggle against Netanyahu was supported by the Minister of Security, Yitzchak Mordechai, who used Rabin’s model of a Minister who represents the views of the military.
The first leaks were seen almost immediately following elections, arguing that the military evaluates that the danger of war has been widely increased. These warnings of the dangers of Netanyahu’s extremism were periodically leaked to the media, aiming either to warn Netanyahu or to awaken the moderate public’s opinion. But the most important of all confrontations took place when Netanyahu made extremist decisions that created tensions with the Palestinians and the Arab neighboring States.
The first confrontation of this type took place in September 1996, when Netanyahu decided to open a tunnel below the Holy Places in the Old City of Jerusalem. This opening provoked mass Palestinian demonstrations that resembled the Intifada, endangering Israeli soldiers all over the territories. They found themselves in situations demanding they fight not only the civil protesters, but also the Palestinian police who were also in the middle of the clashes. The results were 80 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers killed (Newspapers, September 24-28, 1996). The most open and tough critic to Netanyahu’s decision came from the military, arguing that the PM had not consulted them, and that they would not have agreed to the opening of the tunnel (Newspapers, September 25-30, 1996).
This event also represented the new attitude of peace supporters in the Netanyahu era: there were almost no civil society demonstrations, and the politicians hidden behind the military: they mainly took a position supporting the critics of the military. The military became the symbol and speaker of the peace camp, based on the “leftist” myth of security. This was only the first formative event of a pattern that occurred again and again, like the decision to build a new settlement in Har Choma ras el-Amud and others, and the attempt to kill Mishal in Amman.
The pattern that developed was basically that military officers became direct opponents of Netanyahu’s policies, supported by “left” politicians, and several moderate Ministers in Netanyahu’s Government too, mainly Mordechai and Levy. In response Netanyahu accused the military elites of being identified with the “left”, and he also made several attempts to prove actual links between the high military officers.
My argument is that given the imagined peace, most of the Israeli public opinion
was not concerned any more with the concrete power relations with the Palestinians, basically it was interested in the concretization of Israeli internal democracy and new post-conflict agendas. A very symptomatic situation occurred during the Wye Plantation negotiations in October 1998. This was the first attempt at real negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians since the implementation of the Hevron agreements, initiated and pushed by the USA administration. The media reported the differences within the Government between moderates and extremists, that were minimal, yet the real gap was in the Palestinian demands. The Labor Party restrained its public involvement in the debate, supporting the position of “moderate” Mordechai.
At the same time the public opinion was concerned with a prolonged strike of the national students organization demanding a reduction of tuition. Thousands of students in the streets during five weeks of general strike in the institutes of higher education, and a three-week hunger strike of one hundred students were attracting the attention of the Israeli public opinion much more than the negotiations with the Palestinians. The rate of tuition reductions was competing with the percentage of Lands that Netanyahu would yield. This was the crucial shift of Israeli politics: at the moment peace was imagined, the concrete situation became the private problem of those directly concerned with the daily contact with Palestinians, the military and politicians, not a matter of Israeli public interest.
The concretization of democracy within Israel by the imagined peace has placed the military in dire straits. Absent of new political organizations able to negotiate and legitimize the dismantling of the colonial apparatus, the military elites found themselves involved in civilian politics. Towards the advanced elections in May 1999 the military elites entered the competition over the PM in two different lists. The first around the former Chief of Staff who had served during the Intifada and Oslo agreements, Ehud Barak, who was elected as the candidate of the Labor Party after the 1996 elections. The second around two generals who had confronted Netanyahu during 1996-99, the Minister of Security (Mordechai) and Chief of Staff (Lipkin-Shachak).
Almost every General that had served in the Headquarters during the Intifada and the Oslo agreements joined one of two groups in an event that has been described as “democratic military putsch” (Peri, 1999). Despite the fact that the primary goal of the “military putsch” was to remove Netanyahu from office and return to a peaceful management of the conflict with the Palestinians, the basic post-Rabin stalemated situation determined the limits of their action. The election campaign was adapted to the new post-conflict agendas, criticizing Netanyahu mainly for his failure in the social and economic spheres, and not so much for his halting the peace process and deteriorating relations with Palestinians.
The “military putsch” succeeded in undermining the mythological “left-right” dichotomy even more than in Rabin’s success in 1992, but it was not at all on the basis of a pragmatic debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, Palestinians were swept under the carpet, almost completely out of the agenda. The deep stalemate of Israeli politics was enhanced by the election results, yet it became even more emphasized and paralyzing after the formation of the new coalition and in its performance since then.
a. The election results showed that traditional voters of the “right” shifted their support to Barak, while Netanyahu succeeded mainly in the most salient enclaves of peripheral Oriental Jews. But more salient is the fact that the two conglomerated parties that represent the “old” mythological identities are in a deep process of vanishing. While together they decreased from 76 KM in 1992 to 66 in 1996, in 1999 they reached only 45. New political spaces have been created: 20 KM belong to new parties that attracted votes from the mythological “left” and “right”. In addition Shas succeeded in becoming a very serious alternative in the mobilization of “traditional” Likud voters, reaching only two seats less than Likud.
New agendas were suggested, representing issues of environment, women and workers’ rights, but they did not attract massive votes. The majority of the population was mobilized to support parties that expressed the needs of sub-national communities: 27 KM to three religious parties, 16 to two European middle class secular parties, 10 to three Russian new immigrant parties, 10 to four Palestinian parties. In total 63 KM sub-national community parties, 45 mythological parties, and only 12 KM to three parties that have nothing in common. In short, the new agendas have divided the public opinion into fragments that have nothing decisive to say about the peace process, they take it for granted and struggle about the post-conflict agendas.
b. During the coalition negotiations the exclusionist Jewish consensus that excludes the Palestinians was emphasized and reconstructed. Barak declared time after time that his Government would belong to “everyone”. The concept “everyone” bypassed the crucial democratic issue of citizenship, by an implicit exclusion of Palestinian citizens. The Government of “everyone” was designed mainly to differentiate Barak from Rabin: Rabin was the leader only of peace supporters, and he de-legitimized the settlers, Barak would also represent the settlers, their needs and demands, so they would have no need to fight against his Government. The “Government of everyone” resembled the Jewish consensus built by the imagined democracy and the National Unity Government in the 1980’s. Barak negotiated the participation in the “coalition of everyone” with all the Jewish parties, except the national Union party that called Netanyahu a traitor, like Rabin, because he signed the Wye Plantation agreement. All the Palestinian parties were excluded from the potential partnership. The coalition includes six parties representing 68 KM, among these, three parties were members of Netanyahu’s coalition (26 KM) and at least 9 KM openly reject a significant compromise with the Palestinians (Mafdal and Israel Bealia). Seven parties, with a total of 25 KM, remain outside the coalition, despite the fact that they may support an Israeli-Palestinian compromise. Peace with the Palestinians is not at all the goal of the present Government, even if the new elected Knesset can provide the majority to such a move. The attention of the public opinion has moved to new agendas, and Barak is mainly concerned with the reconstruction of the pre-Oslo Jewish consensus that Rabin worked so deeply and courageously to deconstruct.
c. Barak’s policies, since he was elected and entered office, demonstrate that he is unable to articulate the social and political forces that supported the Oslo process and the new post-conflict agendas. Two parties that were the basis of Rabin’s coalition and the Histadrut reformist bloc, Meretz and Shas, are in continuous struggles that constantly threaten to break the coalition and even precipitate elections. The struggles are over post-conflict issues, and Barak is unable to produce viable formulas of coexistence between the parties. In addition, the Labor party was almost totally neutralized. Instead of internal reform and reorganization the ruling Party was completely marginalized. Barak is unable to negotiate, articulate and lead Israeli politics, and the negotiations with the Palestinian counterparts also seem to be one-sided orders imposed by the powerful Israeli side. This was the case of the Sharm-el-Sheikh agreements that corrected Netanyahu’s Wye Plantation agreements, this was the case of an imposed time table to an agreement of principles in February 2000, and this is apparently the case in all the central issues at stake: Jerusalem, refugees, borders and settlement dismantling. While the Rabin Government emphasized the need of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the only chance of any compromise between the sides in the Barak era seems to be international intervention.
All these features of Israeli politics are not the result of Barak’s personal military authoritarian style, exactly as Netanyahu’s policy cannot be explained just as a result of his compulsory tendency to lie. Individual psychology of leaders works within given political and structural conditions that facilitate these leaders to ascent to power, and to be more or less dominant in the political process. The political conditions created by Rabin’s assassination are the relevant explanation of the stalemate that characterizes Barak and Netanyahu’s policies.
The post-Rabin stalemate is displayed by the combination of two different processes: the decline of conglomerate Parties parallel to the rise of new post-conflict agendas and organizations, on the one side, and the reorganization of the Israeli apparatus of domination of Palestinians according to the Interim agreements, that temporally maintained the Israeli domination power. This apparatus empowers the Jewish settlers, allowing them independence from the constant erosion of the electoral support of the myth of Eretz Israel and their parties. This is not a matter of democracy, it is a matter of economic, State and military power of domination, that was never dismantled, and empowers the settlers.
The Intifada started the change in Israeli politics that brought Rabin to power, and the readiness of Israeli public opinion to negotiate by peaceful means the future dismantling of the domination apparatus. However Rabin was removed from the scene in the middle of the transition process, before he began dismantling even one settlement, and before new political discourses, organizations and elites established a dominant status. The Israelis have already imagined peace, but the concretization process was never their main interest. New agendas and politics have developed, but these are unable to elaborate programs and produce leadership towards the transition between the colonial domination of Palestinians and a new democratic Israel. Instead of concretizing democracy, the old imagined democracy that denies the military domination of Palestinians was reconstructed, now legitimized by the Oslo imagined peace.
The basic problem of the process of democratization through peace, similar to the previous imagined democracy, was that it had a contradictory goal: to include and exclude the Palestinians simultaneously - to transform them into a legitimate collective actor and to negotiate their externalization, meaning the creation of an autonomous Palestinian entity. The imagined democracy was a facilitator of the process, in a sense that people could easily imagine where Israel is and where Palestine is. The obstacles were the concrete non-democratic subordination of Palestinians to the military rule, economic dependency and settler penetration of their territories. In other words, the obstacles were, and are still, the uneven power relations between Israel and Palestinians. Democratization and peace processes are the institutionalization, by negotiated means, of the new power relations between the participants.
Here it is also possible to suggest a theoretical insight stemming from the Israeli/Palestinian case. The nation-State organization imposed by the European powers all over the world does not reflect the concrete communities and individuals that eventually became the subjects of the state. Democratic procedures are a compromise between powerful actors within the State, but the whole population is not necessarily included. On the contrary, democracy may be the common ground that empowers the members of the imagined democracy, vis a vis the others, those excluded from the political space.
A non critical theory of democracy, misconceptualized in a procedural (a-political) form, may be one of the strongest tools in legitimizing the denial of rights of the marginalized and invisible. The Palestinians are, in this sense, not the weakest and most invisible nation in the world, yet, unfortunately, they face a very strong adversary and very unfavorable conditions. Imagination and power have a dialectical relation. Imagination is often an efficient way to mobilize the weak in their struggle, but usually it is also an effective means for legitimizing the rule of the powerful.
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