Israel's five distinct political-demographic tribes are locked in a many-sided conflict over the future of its democracy. Is Israel a not-quite-finished Zionist revolution or a not-quite-finished Hebrew democracy?by Bernard Avishai / June 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few days before the Israeli election a television roundtable featured, among others, Rehavam Ze’evi, the leader of a small, extreme party which is now part of Ariel Sharon’s core of parliamentary support. Ze’evi is a former general notorious for proposing mass transfers of Palestinians from “Judea and Samaria” to Jordan. His friends call him “Gandhi.” He was asked by the moderator how Sharon would deal with the Al-Aqsa intifada. “Sharon knows the Arabs, they care most about their homes,” Ze’evi replied; “One more shot from Ramallah and we’ll take down the first row of houses.” The moderator then turned to a high-school senior, representing about-to-be-drafted youth. Showing remarkable poise, clearly from Israel’s upper crust, the youth appealed for calm. Referring to Sharon’s 1982 comment that the Lebanon war was fought for political aims, not a milhemet ein breira, a war of “no choice,” the young man declared that his generation “will not fight a war of choice… Why should Israelis and Palestinians make each other quake in their homes?” he asked. Ze’evi faced the camera, his face all leather: “This youth is afraid of fighting.”
Ze’evi is now minister of tourism and not a dominant voice in Sharon’s government of national unity. But the rawness of the television exchange gave expression to a rift within Israel that no government unity agreement could paper over. For Ze’evi, the matter was settled. Oslo was dead, Zionism was in a life-and-death struggle. Israelis could not be friarim (suckers). The Palestinians were up in arms, with weapons they would not have had if the Oslo process had not given the old Fatah leadership the means to impose its authority in the Territories.
Oslo was supposed to draw Israelis and Palestinians into a period of “confidence building.” Instead, the small, cumulative victories have been swept away. Consider one such setback: Dr Thabet of Tul-Karm. Thabet, a dentist and director-general of the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry, was gunned down by Israeli forces in retaliation for a terrorist bomb that exploded in neighbouring Netanya just hours before. In a profile of his widow, Ha’aretz reporter Gideon Levy revealed that not only were Thabet and his wife open advocates of peaceful negotiation with Israel, they publicly credited their ability to have children to an Israeli friend who pleaded with her to be treated by a Tel-Aviv gynaecologist. (“The Israelis gave me my life, and then the Israelis took it 19 years later,” Mrs Thabet said.) It was a relative of Thabet’s, in a state of depression following the assassination, who shot two Israelis, Motti Dayan and Etgar Zeituni, out shopping for bargains in Tul-Karm.