Brog's Blog

February 16, 2009

What Israelis Want

Filed under: All Posts — brogsblog @ 8:28 pm

Israel’s elections, unlike our own, do not always yield clear or immediate victors.  Thus, almost a week after Israelis went to the polls, we still do not know who Israel’s next prime minister will be.
Still, there is much we can learn from these election returns about the current concerns and mood of Israel’s citizens.  Most Israelis want security, peace and a Jewish majority population.  It is only in the prioritization of these often conflicting goals that most Israelis tend to differ.
The biggest winners in the elections were Israel’s right-of-center parties.  Led by Binyamin Netanyahu, these parties stressed security above all other concerns.  As the dangers resulting from Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza have been on constant display in the form of incoming rockets, Israelis are in a security-first mood.  “Keep the rockets from crashing into our cities,” they said at the polls,  “then we’ll talk about other things.”
Yet while a group of parties on the right took the lion’s share of the votes cast, the single party that  won the most votes was Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadiama party.  Kadima supports a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, but has shown in the recent Gaza operation that it is still able to defend Israel’s security.  Kadima’s success indicates that while security may be first among Israelis’ concerns, peace is not far behind.
Why is it that so many Israelis are still so committed to a two-state solution even after the dangers that have resulted from the Gaza withdrawal?  We get an insight into this motive by focusing on the biggest surprise of the election — the third place finish of the Yisrael Beitenu party.  The media has labeled Yisrael Beitenu “far right” and indeed, some of its rhetoric about Israel’s Arab citizens has been provocative.  But Yisrael Beitenu actually supports a two-state solution.  In fact, Yisrael Beitenu has even proposed giving up the heavily Arab-populated areas of Israel’s Galilee to an eventual Palestinian State — a truly radical suggestion with troubling implications.
Why would this “far-right” party want to give up so much land?  Do they want to reward the Palestinians for the great job they have done in Gaza?  Are they living under a rock?  Of course not.  What drives Yisrael Beitenu and so many other Israeli supporters of a two-state solution is a pressing problem that many Israelis find every bit as serious as the threats to their security: the demographic challenge.
By most accounts, the Palestinians living west of the Jordan river may outnumber the Jews living west of the Jordan river within a generation.  Thus if Israel wants to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state, they cannot incorporate the large Arab populations of the West Bank and Gaza into Israel.  A Palestinian state provides the alternative by which Israel’s Jewish majority is ensured.  For Israelis, a Palestinian state is not a reward, it is a divorce.
Does Israel’s quest for security clash with its desire to retain a Jewish majority?  Sadly, it sometimes does.  As Gaza proves, giving up land to Palestinians committed to Israel’s destruction creates a real and present danger.  No one wants to repeat the mistakes of Gaza in the far more strategic West Bank.  If Hamas ever gained control of the West Bank, we would no doubt see missiles falling on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in addition to Ashkelon and Sderot.
Yet holding onto Gaza and the West Bank in any permanent way raises the demographic threat.  With the land and the strategic depth comes a large and rapidly growing Arab population.  Israel’s greatest hawks, some fear, will preside over the end of the Jewish state not through Arab arms but as a result of Arab births.
Thus our Israeli friends march on.  They juggle the challenges of security and demography.  They weigh long-term threats against short-term ones.  They dream of peace and search for hope amidst the rocket fire and troubling statistics.  As they do so, the old distinctions between right and left become ever more obsolete.


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