If I was a neighbour of the Bennett family in Raanana, I would immediately start organising a demonstration outside his house requesting that he immediately take his family and relocate to the Prime Minister’s official residence in Balfour Street in Jerusalem. While I would be proud that one of my neighbours has been selected to be the new Prime Minister of Israel – regardless of whether I agree or disagree with his political views – that is no reason why, for the next few years, I have to live with all the dislocation of the security paranoia which accompanies public figures in this country – over and beyond the security surrounding almost any other public figure in the world with the possible exception of the President of the United States.
I fully understand his (and his wife’s) desire that their children continue to live in their home environment, go to the same schools, mix with the same friends and go to the same shops (if they are allowed out by themselves). But that has to be balanced with the worsening of the quality of life of anyone living within close proximity to the new Prime Minister and it is a price which Bennet and his immediate family will have to pay in order not to impose upon tens, hundreds, of neighbours. On the contrary it just draws attention to the fact that he lives there and makes it into a focus for public discontent, instead of providing a quiet private space from which to escape the long, presssurised, days which any Prime Minister or Head of State can expect as part of their daily routine.
I know one person who will definitely not agree with me. An elderly relative who has lived in Smolenskin Street in Jerusalem, in the building immediately next to the Prime Ministers residence, since the 1950s — over 60 years -– and who has witnessed the exponential increase in the security paranoia surrounding the personality of the Prime Minister, beginning with the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and who was probably breathing a sigh of relief when Bennett announced that he would not be relocating to Jerusalem. She, and all the residents of that street, would be more than happy to have the walls taken down and for life to return – at least partially – to normality. Well into her nineties, it has become increasingly difficult simply to go in and out of her house, surrounded as it is by security guards, always requesting ID from her and any family or gusts who visit her. To walk along her road these days requires two or three security checks, ugly walls dividing the roads into two and, as is often the case, a requirement to walk around an entirely different, and longer route, simply to visit friends and shops. It goes without saying that without a special permit, you can’t drive along the road and park anywhere near her house.
The security outside the Prime Ministers residence in Jerusalem
Source: public domain
This is vastly different from the situation thirty years ago when one would encounter former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir going for his evening stroll along Keren Hayesod and the surrounding streets of talbieh and Rechaviya, accompanied by a single security guard who had to be at his fittest to keep up with Shamir. One would wish Shamir a good evening as he passed by, to which he would respond, and life would continue as normal.
Part of the disproportional increase in the security surrounding outgoing prime Minister Netanyahu, not forgetting his presidential style motor cavalcade, often in excess of ten limousines, ambulances and other security vehicles, is part of the way in which the Netanyahu family has perceived itself as being , not the first amongst equals, but the first above all others. Much of it has little to do with real security needs but has a lot to do with a Prime Ministerial ego which has grown beyond all proportions, for having remained in the job far too long – and which the internal security forces, the Shabak, who have the responsibility of ensuring his safety and wellbeing, are only too happy to go along with and lay down the law.
Security for the prime Ministers family Source: Public domain
It is partly understandable. The Shabak will never be able to fully live down the fact that Rabin was assassinated so easily in public, an incident which could have been avoided if proper security arrangements were in operation. But proper arrangements does not have to translate into exaggerated arrangements which cause the disruption of the lives of so many people . If indeed this is necesasry, then a new Prime Ministers residence should be built in a secluded space, perhaps near the Knesset and government complex, which can be completely isolated from the rest of the population. This, in turn, would be contrary to what we believe about Prime Ministers in a democracy, namely that they are one of us , coming from the people and returning to the people once they are no longer in office.
I recall the decision which was made at my own university at one point to stop inviting the Prime Minister for his annual visit to the campus, usually at one of the major events of the Board of Governors. For weeks before, the lives of the faculty and the students would be disrupted as advance units would come along to check the areas, declare large parts of the campus as “sterile” , close down large parts of the parking areas, create barriers – all for a single visit which would last, at the most 1-2 hours, and which resulted in as many of the university community staying away from the campus during this period, for as much as their work responsibilities enabled them to work from home or in other libraries and laboratories.
I do not pretend to be a security expert – far from it. But I have been present at events around the world, especially in the UK, when a Prime Minister or a member of the Royal family, have attended an event, with a backup of 2-3 cars at the most, often surreptitiously driving along the major roads without their sirens blasting away – which only serves to make their presence even more apparent to people who would otherwise have been completely unaware that they were in the vicinity – and holding up the traffic at every possible crossroads. In most western democracies, members of parliament who are not amongst the elite group of Ministers, will often come by public transport to the parliament or to other public events and do not feel threatened by such an experience, nor do they automatically believe they ae entitled to special security arrangements.
I am not naïve. We unfortunately live in a violent world and Israel has become a more violent society in recent years. This is expressed in many forms by means of constant threats which are made by demonstrators and protestors (of all persuasions); the violence of their language; the unacceptable use of Holocaust imagery; the use of terms such traitors and fascists to define one’s opponents; the violence expressed in many of the recent right wing demonstrations outside the houses of the new government ministers; the use of social media and mobile phones to make threats; the violence often encountered in mass Haredi demonstrations where some areas are simply no go areas, too dangerous, for the police or the security forces to attempt to go in; the disproportionate violence sometimes practiced by the security forces against Palestinian demonstrations – all of this has increased in recent years and would suggest that the nice safe environment which most of us encounter when we walk along the streets, does not necessarily reflect the reality of the society within which we live.
We read about it in the news media but as long as it does not affect us on a daily basis, we tend to ignore it. Israel’s streets are largely safe to walk around, even late at night, unlike the streets of many other countries, including many western democracies. The fact that most people have served in the military, an institution which legitimizes and justifies violence under certain conditions (threat, warfare, self defence), means that when it does occur in the public and civilian domain, we are often oblivious to the real impact on our lives. For Israelis, security has become a way of life which we don’t always internalise as not being part of the norm. We accept it as a given and continue our lives , hoping that it will not impact us or our families as we go about our normal life routine.
But all of this is used as an excuse by some paranoid politicians and the heads of the security services to completely exaggerate the real security requirements. The Bennet family who, by all accounts, appear to be a normal middle class family living out their lives in a middle class community, have now been pushed, whether they wanted it or not, into the limelight and there is a price to be paid which should not be at the expense of the neighbours and the surrounding community.
Some will say that I am crazy but I make a point of living at the edge of an outlying community, fairly close to the West Bank, overlooking neighbouring Bedouin communities, which does not have a fence. I am worried about the recent trend to set up local civilian patrol groups to “assist” the security forces and the police – who do a great job but are short of manpower. I do not have weapons at home and do not take them with me when I travel, even driving through the West Bank as I often do for work related activities, or to visit people in Jerusalem or Gush Etzion. If it is a sensitive period, when demonstrations or riots are in vogue, I will choose not to drive that way.
One of the great paradoxes of this country is that the Jews came here to set up their own independent and sovereign Homeland where they would feel safe. But to accomplish this sense of security we have spent the past 70 years building walls and fences, along our borders and around our communities and settlements, a sort of self- imposed national ghetto, where entry and exit is limited to a few gates and checkpoints, and where we can move nowhere without having our bags checked. Only when all of this is no longer necessary, will we really have achieved what the State founders and early pioneers set out to do. Instead of being in control of our surroundings, we all too often allow the environment to control us and we only feel safe when we see the wall or the armed security guard..
Bennett is not a person who I voted for. He is far too right wing for my own political preferences. But I wish him – as I would any new Prime Minister – success in his new position and good health to him and his entire family. One of his (and Yair Lapid’s) immediate tasks is to bring government back to the people. This requires less wastage of public funds, fewer governmental ministries, and a real desire to break down the many barriers which have been created over the past decade (and longer) by a Prime Minister and an entourage who have allowed the trappings of power to go to their heads and who have forgotten what democracy is really about and from whence they come.
One of the first things which needs to be done is to re-examine the true security requirements, not only of the Prime Minister, but also the many public figures who demand personal bodyguards and armour plated cars, and who have distanced themselves from the people who elected them in the first place. A Prime Minister must be kept safe from those who would threaten him or his family, but that does not mean that we should continue to accept the security paranoia which has become the new Israeli norm.