Josef Olmert


Writing about the current wave of protests in Israel with a view to refer to the future entails for me a clear professional hazard. Yes, I did realize from the very beginning of this government, that something else is going to happen. Just looking at the personal-political composition of the government was an obvious signal, and remembering the threats of retaliation against the losers voiced by some of the victors. For example David Amsalem , one of the heroes of the current drama, made no bones about what he has in store for the opposition. I was surely also aware of the personal predicament of PM Netanyahu with his legal situation and its possible implications, but in fairness it all seemed to me to be yet another typical Israeli political show off-let the boys vent out their frustrations, and then move on. Nor was I expecting the enormity of the reaction, so clearly the current protest caught me by surprise. In retrospect, It should not-the social protest of 2011 showed the power of civic society in Israel, as hundreds of thousands of concerned Israelis went out for weeks to express their views. Still, the reality of Israel in recent months defies all expectations and presumed learned assumptions, but not to the extent that we should refrain from drawing some conclusions about what has already happened and how it can have any bearing on the foreseeable socio-political future of Israel.

For decades, surely since the Six Days War in 1967 the political map of Israel was defined primarily by the attitudes towards the territories of Judea and Samaria taken over in the war and with it what is the solution to the problems between Israel and the Palestinians. Few may remember today that the Movement for Greater Israel which was established right after the war consisted of some of the iconic ideological and cultural heroes of the Labor Movement, and they were the traditional Left Wing. People like Yitzhak Tabenkin, Moshe Shamir, Nathan Alterman to mention just a few. They were reinforced of course by traditional Right Wingers from the Revisionist wing of Zionism and Religious Zionists and altogether the new movement with its annexationist platform gave a new meaning to the terms Right and Left Wing. When the counter movement of Peace Now was established afterwards it became so clear what was the main line which divided ideologically Israeli society. Israel presented ,therefore, a new political specter regarding what is Right and Left in politics. It was not always so easy to explain it to foreigners , but very clear to most Israelis. The greatest political crises in Israel for many years after 1967 were dominated by issues concerning the fate of the territories taken over in 1967-first the crisis over the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982, later the Oslo Accords and the assassination of PM Rabin in 1995 and in 2005 the Disengagement from Gaza. These were the crises which drew the masses to the streets to express their conflicting positions. These were the events which led to the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people, to violence [though never on a large scale], refusal to serve in the IDF and obey a government whose policies were considered illegitimate. In sum, most of the features of the current protest and near chaos in the country. The common denominator between them all was the classic line of debate over the Palestinian question.

The social protests of summer 2011 were something else. They were focused on domestic socio-economic issues, and not on the Settlements and the Palestinians. As they were aimed at the policies of a Likud government they were taken to be a Left Wing protest, and surely there were there elements of strong opposition to the power of settlers and the Ultra Orthodox parties, but the main focus reflected the frustrations of the middle Class. The absence of the emphasis on the Judea-Samaria situation indicated the frustrations of the vast majority of Israelis with the chances for any viable agreement with the Palestinians. The failure of PM Barak Camp David talks in 2000 was a major blow to the traditional Left Wing, but much more so the aftermath of the total withdrawal from Gaza which instead of peaceful co-existence led to repeated rounds of violence. The Abraham Accords and possibly lack of widespread deep public concern about the Iranian nuclear threat led to a growing sense that the real problems of Israel are the domestic issues, rather than the traditional Right-Left schism of the past. In an ironic way, the success of the Netanyahu government in achieving the Abraham Accords may have proved to be the trigger to its current problems. It is so because this success increased the sense of many in Israel, probably the majority of people, that now was the time to start dealing with issues which were talked about before, but never been tackled head on. Netanyahu was the first victim of this sentiment, as he correctly realized, contrary to all his rhetoric about Iran, that the public expected an effort to deal seriously with such issues, but he chose the wrong ones to deal with. Yes, he may have had no choice considering the coalition he created, but he could have created another coalition, and then choose other issues to focus on. He chose a regime change which would be favorable to some constituent groups in society, mostly religious, whether Religious Zionists and Ultra Orthodox and by so doing has proved SO wrong.

The fact is, that the protest is NOT a reflection of the traditional Left Wing opposition to a Likud government. The protest is emphasizing mostly patriotic, even nationalist themes and symbols, and is supported by people who would never have joined it if it was NOT patriotic, even nationalist, and there are SO many of them, including figures who have become symbols of the traditional Right Wing. It is no surprise to me, at least, that there is emerging a sense of frustration in the pro-Palestinian Left Wing about the direction of the protest. There are fringe groups among the protesters which try to give it a pro-Palestinian character but they are really so marginal. With that happening it may be the time to rethink and redefine the Right-Left division in Israel. The attitude towards the Palestinians will remain a factor in the equation, but Social-cultural attitudes and positions will become the dominant features of politics in Israel.

Some may say that they have always been in the background, but surely they seem now to be in the forefront-a big change.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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