Democracy and Colonialism

Israeli politics is boiling. People rejoice: finally, it seems, the deadlock is collapsing. Amir Peretz, a young, Eastern, social-democratically oriented leader took over the petrified Labor Party from the opportunistic Shimon Peres – the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East, and later kidnapped the Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. Just days after these surprising primaries, and following Peretz’s pullout from his coalition, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left his ruling Likud Party, taking with him a third of the party’s Knesset fraction and, according to polls, most of its voters. The old bulldozer is now reshaping the Israeli political map: the present parliament suffered, as usual, an early death; Sharon created his new, private party, Kadima, and since Israeli mainstream politicians usually adapt their views to their party affiliation rather than vice-versa, numerous dizzy politicians – but also quite a few academics, journalists, and other newcomers – are now choosing a new party and worldview that will hopefully assure them the benefits of power after the coming election in March 2006.

The Victims of Neo-Liberalism

As far as Israel’s social policy is at stake, these might be significant developments. Given the world media concentration on The Conflict, the shifts in Israel’s economy are less known outside the country. In two decades of a ruthless neo-liberal economic policy, supported by both Likud and Labor, Israel witnessed sharp welfare cuts, booming state support for the rich (including the insatiable military sector), a successful war waged on organized labor, unrestrained privatization, and, these very days, a sellout of Israel’s major financial institutions to foreign investors, who, portrayed as its great benefactors, come to milk the Israeli economy dry.

This policy left Israel – once a moderate welfare state – with the highest income gaps in the Western world, with growing un- and underemployment, with a rapidly shrinking middle class, with appalling poverty rates among the elderly, children, and adults, and with a prospering charity industry; in short, a society rapidly deteriorating toward Third-World conditions, with the handful of rich enslaving the impoverished masses. With a strong state and a weak civil society, there was very little resistance to neo-liberalism in Israel; one of the last strongholds of organized labor, Israel’s trade-union federation, or Histadrut, was destroyed in the early 1990s by Chaim Ramon, a Labor Party Trojan horse who took over the historic institution in order to demolish it from within. Only now, significantly, did Ramon leave Labor to find his right(-wing) home in Sharon’s new party.

Amir Peretz was Ramon’s successor in the Histadrut leadership: he reconstructed what was left of it, albeit more for the sake of the few surviving stronger trade unions than for the ever growing masses of unorganized laborers. His moderate social-democratic discourse, with occasional vague allusions to Clinton, Blair, and/or Schröder, combined with his highly developed political skills (for better and worse), now won him the Labor Party, making it for the first time in decades somewhat comparable to its sister parties worldwide. Peretz will try to focus the election campaign on social and economic issues, where he can appeal to the masses of the economically threatened, including Eastern Jews who traditionally feel alienated by Labor. No matter how serious Peretz is about changing the economic policy (don’t expect a Hugo Chavez), the shift in the political discourse is not insignificant: not because neo-liberalism is more important or more dangerous than colonialism, but because, the two being increasingly intertwined, opposition to the former may be a good lever to oppose the latter as well.

Setting the Agenda

Provided this agenda shift really takes place, of course. One cannot overestimate the government’s power to set the agenda, and Sharon has a vested interest in focusing on Israel’s “security problems.” The army and the entire military system and industries are on his side. The tension buildup regarding Iran’s nuclear project – a daily obsession for the past two weeks – is clearly such a spin. Tension at the Lebanese border is always ready for escalation – claims about Hezbollah’s (!) “political needs” are always at hand. But the best way to induce Palestinian retaliation is the policy of extra-judicial killing. The time gap between an Israeli assassination and the Palestinian reaction easily enables the propaganda system to make Israelis forget the former when the latter occurs – an ideal agenda-shifter.

Therefore an escalation is to be expected – so much so that in a typical post-critical casuistry, Aluf Ben of Ha’aretz now admits that “election time in Israel is traditionally a time for military escalation,” that “the candidates tend to exhibit militaristic positions considered a recipe for success at the polls,” that “such signs have appeared already in this campaign, with the public threats about Iran” – but is spite of all that concludes that “the decisions with regard to Israel’s response to yesterday’s terrorist attack in Netanya do not appear to be tainted with a need to create escalation” (Dec. 6, 2005). Oh no, of course not.

Following these government decisions, Peretz immediately fell into the trap and was quoted saying his Labor cabinet would take even harsher measures against the Palestinians. That’s the classic left-wing false consciousness: the voters allegedly love hardliners, so we leftists should be even more catholic than the Pope, and then weep behind closed doors why no left-wing alternative is heard, and why the voters move even further to the right.

Colonialism’s High Season

Even without the predictable escalation, election time always marks a high season for Israel’s colonialism. Until a new government is formed, we have at least eight months. Public attention is focussed on polls and party games, the interim government is free of criticism and pressures; it cannot take any “controversial” steps such as evicting illegal outposts, and it is inevitably doomed to continue the “uncontroversial” robbing of Palestinian land by expanding the settlements and by building even more housing units for Israelis on occupied land. Sharon’s commitment to Bush to remove the hundred or so unauthorized settlements has again been postponed, this time till after the election. At the same time, settlers are free to burn and uproot hundreds of Palestinian olive trees and terrorize the Palestinians as much as possible: no one would face them in election time.

Given the continuity of Israel’s colonialist policy before and after each election, and the push each election period gives to this policy, one can question whether colonialism is a conscious choice of the Israeli democratic game, but there can be little doubt that the democratic game is a conscious choice of Israel’s colonialism.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at