Adi Arbel
Director of the Civil Society Forum

The Path to Freedom Runs Through Civil Society
Former President George W. Bush and Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (Wikimedia Commons)

When I tell people about the Civil Society Forum I run, I can see the puzzled looks on their faces. “I thought you were a rightwinger”, they say, to themselves or out loud. I understand them. In Israeli public discourse, “civil society” is generally seen as code for leftwing NGOs which seek to influence public policy and change it in accordance with their own agenda. Large swathes of the right have a jaundiced view of such work, seeing it as an attempt to create a channel of influence that bypasses democracy, sometimes with the funding of foreign, and even hostile, governments. Contrary to commonly held assumptions in Israel, not only is civil society not necessarily a whitewashed term for leftist organizations seeking to undermine rightwing government, but that civil society can – and should – be an inseparable part of the Israeli conservative worldview.

Civil society has an important and highly valuable role in democratic society, especially Israeli society, thanks to its ability to give a voice to the people, as well as the spectrum of their communities and groups. In this sense, the advancement of civil society, based on nationalist or conservative values, is not a post facto compromise or kludge, meant to balance out the progressive civil discourse from the left, but rather a need we inherently have to allow all Israeli citizens realize their freedom and fulfill their citizenship.

This need goes beyond the commonly held view among the broader public and those few activists and civil society organizations advancing conservative ideas. An active and lively civil society cannot suffice with organizations focused on policy changes, or what we call “advocacy” in professional lingo. Its second and no less important role is to serve as a broad foundation allowing for the granting of services to the citizens while reducing the involvement of the state and its institutions – in a range of fields where good intentions lead to wasteful inefficiency at best, and civic hell at worst.

In the development of civil society in Israel, the left appropriated it to advance its political and social worldview, and the right neglected it. Even though civil society in Israel is vital and significant when it comes to services, especially among right-wingers and religious communities, this is not enough. As long as civil society is weak in the field of shaping policy, its overall influence will remain limited, framed as marginal community activity, and will miss the opportunity to be a significant and competitive alternative for government institutions. Civil society can operate in Israel as a natural continuation of the lively civil society in Jewish communities around the world, during the period of the exile and in our own time.

Until 2005, I was a “couch right-winger”, fulfilling my civic duty by voting in elections, following the dictum “may no-one be absent.” During the 2001 elections, I was in the midst of completing an intelligence officer’s course. The political stars aligned then to ensure only direct voting for the Prime Minister, a contest between Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. There was no question. I went into the voting booth with a large smile on my face and cast the vote I did. Leaving it the female soldier next to me at the polling station wished me a “good day,” and I, a cadet with the mindset of a political minority in a base on the edge of Ramat Hasharon, answered with the typical arrogance of a poll addict: “Tomorrow will be a better day”. And indeed, the polls did not lie: Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister, and I kept smiling. Until February 2004, when the Prime Minister announced that he intends to unilaterally evacuate Jewish settlements:

“This state of vacuum, which is the fault of the Palestinians, cannot continue. Therefore I have instructed, as part of the Disengagement, to carry out an evacuation, sorry, a transferring of 17 settlements, with their 7,500 residents, from the Gaza Strip to the territory of Israel,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an extensive talk with Haaretz, yesterday morning at his official residence in Jerusalem. “The aim is to transfer settlements from places which cause us problems or where we will not be in a permanent settlement. Not just settlements in the Gaza Strip, but also three problematic settlements in Samaria,” Sharon added.

I didn’t understand why Sharon would go about this, but even more, I couldn’t understand how a Prime Minister carried on an enormous rightwing vote, sought to advance a clearly leftwing policy. For the first time in my life, I decided to become politically involved – and not just due to the harm to the settlement project with all its undoubted importance.

When Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister and my youth movement friends participated in protests against the Oslo Accords, I shrugged my shoulders and sufficed with saying that we can’t complain that Rabin was advancing the policy for which he was elected. What did make me get off the couch and become a rightwing activist was what I considered, first and foremost, to be an attack on the values of democracy.

What is the point of a democratic election if the Prime Minister just does what he wants, anyway? I got up from the comfy chair I had as a programmer at a large hi-tech firm and joined the activity of the Ta Katom, a university student movement fighting the Disengagement. Immediately after the cursed summer of 2005, I joined the Institute for Zionist Strategies’ young leadership program, as I was anxious to understand how a Prime Minister from the right was executing a policy from the left. I chose the topic as a personal project and did not let go until I understood the problematic chronicle of events that led to the anti-democratic reality of those times.

In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak travelled to Camp David in order to return home with a final settlement signed by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Despite Barak’s far-reaching proposal and President Clinton’s heavy pressure on Arafat, the Rais rejected every compromise offer. Barak returned home with the news we’ve all gotten used to: There is no partner. Thanks to Barak’s move, Israel decisively won the mutual accusation game between it and the Palestinian Authority, but it also cut off the branch on which the Israeli left of the time sat on – land for peace.

Therefore, precisely because the Israeli public was convinced that Barak was right, it chose to remove him as Prime Minister in 2001 and voted en masse for the rightwing candidate, Ariel Sharon, who won a solid majority of 62% of the vote. In the elections for the 16th Knesset held in the beginning of 2003, the ultimate seal of approval was given to the right’s victory: Likud doubled its size and grew by 19 seats, the Labor lost 7 seats, and Meretz declined by 4 seats. Many on the left who gave up on the effort to advance a diplomatic agenda voted for the Shinui party which sought to advance a secular civic agenda and grew by 9 seats.

This was a great political victory, but not an ideological one. While the right continued to ignore the pressing need of presenting an alternative political plan, there were those on the left who quickly recovered and refreshed their ideology with a new magical solution: unilateral withdrawals “for Israel’s own good”. The idea was first raised in 2002 in a position paper written by Maj.Gen. (res.) Uri Sagi and Adv. Gilad Sher for the Van Leer Institute, a research center identified with the left. Sagi and Sher recommended an initiated separation from territories in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip including uprooting of settlements and a withdrawal to new temporary borderlines until a final settlement could be had. In the 2003 elections, Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate for Prime Minister, adopted the idea and proposed the unilateral evacuation of three isolated settlements in the Gaza Strip. The results of the 2003 election showed this to be a position the Israeli public rejected.

But there’s no such thing as a vacuum of ideas in politics. Lacking a rightwing political alternative, Prime Minister Sharon chose to adopt the left’s plan for unilateral withdrawals – even though he was brought to power on rightwing votes, and even though the White House was occupied by a pro-Israel President, George W. Bush.

The way in which the Disengagement plan was formed and promoted made me understand the power of ideas and the project involved in producing and pushing them: civil society. In fact, we can say that the political system and media discourse are but foam on the water; in truth, it is civil society which produces – far from the spotlight – the hidden undercurrents which influence the height of the waves, the sidewinds, and the directions the ship will take over time.

This post is the first part of an article published in Hashiloach journal

About the Author
Adi served in the IDF for six years as a programmer, officer and team leader, completed his BA in psychology, economics and geography and studied for an MA in conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University. After four years of working at the Elbit Systems as a software programmer, he decided to quit the hi-tech industry and embark upon a new career as a project manager at the Institute for Zionist Strategies. During his work in the IZS, Adi initiated the proposal for “Basic Law: Israel the Nation-State of the Jewish People”, involved with Blue & White Human Rights, a human rights movement that holds a Zionist perspective and founded the Beit Midrash for Zionist Thought. Adi has written a weekly column for Makor Rishon and has published a number of op-eds in Haaretz, as well as other media outlets. In 2011, the Jerusalem Post selected Adi as one of the top ten Jewish Future Leaders.
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