Jewish Post & News Article - Hebrew U Professor: “Israeli Politics More Pragmatic Now Than For Past 40 Years”

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hebrew U Professor: “Israeli Politics More Pragmatic Now Than For Past 40 Years”

Rabin assassination was key event of past 15 years in Israeli politics


The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 15 years ago led to a sea change in Israeli politics. The terms “hawks” and “doves”, “left” and “right” no longer have much relevance.

Dr. Reuven HazanThis was the message given by Professor Reuven Hazan, Political Studies professor at the Hebrew University and a visiting professor at Harvard University this year.

Hazan was here Tuesday, May 12, as a guest of the local chapter of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University.

During the course of his 45-minute talk, given at the Berney Theatre, (followed by a 20-minute question and answer period), Hazan developed a somewhat surprising thesis: Israel’s paramount concern with security ever since the 1967 Six-Day War led to an increasing polarization between those who were willing to make territorial concessions for the sake of peace and those who were opposed, until the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. No other issue has come close to mattering to Israelis.

In Hazan’s words: “The topic on which every national election focuses is security…We have a strange situation in Israel,” he said. The economy can be doing very well and Israelis throw the government out because they aren’t happy with how the government is handling the issue of security.

Until 1995, according to Hazan, Israeli politics had been marked by an increasing “polarization” between what were, until then, clearly identifiable left and right groupings, or as they came to be defined: “doves” and  “hawks”.

However, everything changed with that one dramatic moment when Rabin’s life was cut short by an extremist, said Hazan. “The process of polarization that peaked with Rabin’s assassination has reversed itself.” (As a sidenote, Hazan mentioned that he was standing a mere few metres away from Rabin at the moment that he was gunned down.)

Dr. Reuven HazanHazan’s thesis, which was so clearly given, was developed through an examination of  some of the major events in Israeli history over the past 43 years.

Following the Six-Day war, he noted, the concern with “security” (which, he said, could just as well be termed a concern with “territory”), led to one overriding question: “Do we hold on to the land” (taken in the Six-Day War)?

At first, the predominant notion was that territorial concessions would lead to peace with the Arabs. In time, however, the more hawkish elements in Israeli society, as epitomized by Menachem Begin, began to asset themselves.

Nonetheless, even with the election of the first Likud government in 1977, the first settlements established by that government in the Occupied Territories were ostensibly created for “security” reasons in “highland” areas of the West Bank.

By the time Likud was re-elected under Begin in 1981, however, settlements were being expanded into “lowland” areas. By 1984, with Yitzhak Shamir as leader, the first settlements in Arab towns were allowed.

At the same time that Likud was expanding settlements, there were various levels of opposition to  Likud’s policy, ranging from dovish elements who were in favour of major territorial concessions, to the more centrist approach of an Ezer Weizman or a Moshe Dayan.

With the increasing polarization, however, the doves and hawks began “to see the other side, not as a democratic rival,” said Hazan, but “as a hostile threat”.

“The word I am leading toward is ‘delegitimize’ your opponents,” he explained.

Yet, “democracy is based upon pluralism”, Hazan noted. It is “based upon the concept that if I lose an election, my opponent has the right to govern.”

In 1992, however, Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party returned to power with a “razor-thin” margin in the Knesset. Rabin entered into what is known as the “Oslo process” of negotiations with Yasser Arafat and the P.L.O. According to Hazan, “the hawks began the process of delegitimizing Rabin.”

“The height of polarization in Israel was Nov. 4, 1995” (the day of Rabin’s assassination) “because Rabin’s policies were ‘illegitimate’,” according to his opponents.

“Since 1995 a completely different trajectory has overtaken Israeli politics,” Hazan suggested.

“The more we negotiated with the Palestinians, the more Israelis died as a result of terrorist attacks,” he noted. “It was difficult for Israelis to understand: We were negotiating with a national liberation movement that was also a terrorist organization.”

Even, however, with the election of the first Netanyahu government in 1996, a new realism had begun to inject itself into Israeli politcs.

“Netanyahu’s first foreign visit was to Egypt,” Hazan noted.  Netanyahu also met with Arafat more than any other Israeli prime minister and he actually negotiated an agreement with Arafat that was known as the “Hevron Agreement” (whereby the Israeli military withdrew from 95 percent of Hevron).

That agreement was followed by the “Wye Agreement”, under whose terms Israel transferred responsibility for control of large parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

While Netanyahu was capable of making concessions that would have seemed unthinkable for a hard-line hawk, according to Hazan, the Labour Party which, by this time, was under the leadership of Ehud Barak, was moving away from its previously held dovish position.

Barak was “the hawkish leader of the dovish camp,” Hazan said. According to Hazan, Barak said: “I went to Camp David and I made Arafat a proposal that I knew he would turn down because I wanted to unmask him.”

In 2001, with the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister, Israel now had as its leader a man who was, arguably, its most hawkish leader ever, according to Hazan.

Yet it was Sharon who admitted that “Israel has to make hurtful concessions”, Hazan noted. By the time Sharon was elected, the majority of Israelis were prepared to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

“The hawks were now saying we no longer have to hold on to territories to achieve peace,” Hazan suggested. “So, who’s a hawk now?”

Turning to the creation of Kadima as a result of the internal schism within Likud over Sharon’s willingness to make territorial concessions, Hazan noted that, by the time Kadima was founded in 2005, Kadima maintained that “land is no longer a strategic asset.”

In fact, according to Hazan, Kadima actually “won” the 2009 election. “But Netanyahu did a very intelligent thing,” he said. “He jumped over Kadima and brought in the dovish Labor Party” into his governing coalition.

Thus, the situation in Israel today is that “the three major parties are all in the centre,” Hazan argued. “What I’m trying to say is that Israeli politics now is more pragmatic than it has been been for the last 40 years.”

“For the past 15 years the hawks and the doves are so moderate that they sit comfortably together,” he suggested.

“Israel is more pragmatic, more consensual, than it has ever been,” Hazan said. “This is a different Israel – one that Obama has yet to come to terms with.”

Yet, as much as Israeli leaders of the major parties are all prepared to make territorial concessions, the paradox remains that “we can’t test this theory (that territorial concessions will lead to peace) because the Palestinians can’t challenge us. They’re polarized into two hostile camps.”

Hazan ended his talk by reaffirming his thesis: “There is common ground in Israel. The hawks and doves have come together.”

During the question and answer period that followed, Hazan also noted one other benefit that could ensue from the “coming together” of the hawks and the doves: Not only could “a Kadima-Labor-Likud government cut a deal” with the Palestinians, it “could compromise to reduce the number of parties in the Knesset”.

For Hazan, a reform of the political system in Israel is essential to the democratic process there. It is possible, therefore, that the political cooperation that would be necessary among the three major parties for there to be any future peace deal with the Palestinians could also lead to a radical overhaul of the Israeli political system.

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