The state of Israel: Internal influence driving change

IKEA in Netanya - August 2009 Israel may soon hold an election dominated by internal and domestic issues not the peace process

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The view, as our plane banked, was familiar: the sea, the sand, the skyscrapers of the Tel Aviv coastline. It was my first return to Israel since the end of my posting as Middle East correspondent, 18 months before. What I wanted to discover was how far that familiar picture had changed.

After all, there was the same right-leaning government, the same absence of peace talks with the Palestinians. But all around, the region had transformed, as the winds of the Arab Spring had blown. Was Israel's apparent quiescence all that it seemed?

Israel is a country where the surface picture can distract from deeper, contradictory trends. Take this summer's social protests. They appeared to share, with many Western countries, the rage at capitalism's inequalities. And yet Israel's economy is growing apace - 5% a year - thanks to its world-beating hi-tech sector. And the protesters took a vow of silence on the most contentious issue of all - the conflict with the Palestinians.

Start Quote

There ain't going to be peace any time soon with the Arabs. So let's fix Israel”

End Quote Naftali Bennett Yesha Council chief executive

A short distance north from Tel Aviv lives a man who embodies both those contradictions. Naftali Bennett is the chief executive of the Yesha Council - the Settlers' Council, which represents the ideologically motivated Jews who have set up home in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Mr Bennett does not live in the territories. Rather, this young hi-tech millionaire has just moved into a large house in Israel's expensive central plain.

He says the protests are a sign of maturity and health: "What we saw over the summer was, look, there ain't going to be peace any time soon with the Arabs. So let's fix Israel."

Naftali Bennett predicts that the next Israeli general election (in just under two years' time) will be the first in Israel's history where domestic, internal politics - rather than "the conflict" - will be what the parties scrap over.

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The state of Israel is on BBC Radio 4 on 6 November at 13:30 GMT and on BBC World Service Assignment on Wednesday 9 and Thursday 10 November

The head of the Settlers' Council also sees a symbolic significance in him living, not in the West Bank, but close to Tel Aviv. The settlers are moving in to the mainstream of Israel.

Rising influence

Take the conscript army - one of the founding institutions of the state. It is not simply that there are growing numbers of the religious and the settlers performing their national service, and then rising up the professional ranks.

Amiad Cohen, the head of security at the West Bank settlement of Eli, 40km outside Jerusalem, is one of those teaching at the growing number of pre-army schools. He travels regularly to one such school, in Tel Aviv, to lead discussions, with secular teenagers.

Jewish settlement of Eli in the occupied West Banks Eli in the occupied West Bank is home to 2,800 Jewish settlers

As we walk the perimeter of his settlement, Mr Cohen gestures to the hills around. "This is our country. We will live here. The question is: 'will it be with peace, or will they force us to fight?'. So yes I'm happy that we influence. The army is a mirror of who we are. And I'm happy that the army is changing."

Gershom Gorenberg would agree that the army is being reshaped. But the author of the just-published book The Unmaking of Israel says that the changes pose a profound threat. If it were to come to it, Mr Gorenberg asks, and the army were ordered to evacuate settlements in order to end the occupation, would there now be mass insubordination?

He argues that when it comes to the occupation, to the increasing tangle between state and synagogue, and to Israel's relations with its own indigenous Arab community, the decisions made, and the decisions put off, "are undermining Israel's democracy, and indeed its very existence as a state".

Fast-forward

Indeed, far from the image of an Israel mired in unchanging politics and stagnant diplomacy, the country feels as if it is living its life on fast-forward. Quite apart from the revolutions on its borders, and the unfinished business of the occupation, its own population is transforming.

Writer Gershom Gorenberg Writer Gershom Gorenberg argues the Israel is 'unmaking' itself

According to the official Bureau of Statistics, next year, 47.5% of children entering school will be either haredi (ultra-orthodox) or Arab (or Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, as they increasingly prefer to be called).

Both groups, by and large, see themselves as tribes apart from the broad Israeli mainstream. The haredim have traditionally not been part of the tax-paying economy, and have not served in the army - the men spending their time in study of the torah. The Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (22% of the Israeli population, and growing) have long felt disenfranchised and discriminated against in politics, jobs, and housing.

Where there is more consensus, among Israel's many groups and tribes and factions, is that another major flare-up may be just around the corner. They do not want it, but it is coming.

They have different views as to how wide the blame should be spread, about how far their government is complicit or helpless. But there is more agreement that, while they may want peace, a full resolution, it is beyond reach - perhaps forever.

And so, as one diplomat friend in Israel put it, "the Israelis carry on drinking cappuccino on the side of the volcano".

But perhaps that it is also true of the rest of us, as we gaze on this centre of apparently intractable, inevitable conflict. Israel is a tiny country of seven million on the eastern Mediterranean. But the state of Israel should concern us all.

Tim Franks presents The state of Israel on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 6 November at 13:30 GMT and on BBC World Service Assignment on Wednesday 9 and Thursday 10 November. It will also be available as a podcast here.

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