Who really runs Israel?
Martin Sherman explains why Israeli election results are often meaningless
Consider the following remarkable facts regarding Israel’s parliamentary history:
(a) For 20 of the 28 years between 1977- when the Likud first won the elections on a platform of "Greater Israel - and 2005 - when a Likud government withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in stark contradiction to its electoral pledges - the Israeli government was headed by a prime minister from the Likud.
(b) When the Likud came to power, the entire Sinai Peninsula was under Israeli control, any suggestion that Israel might evacuate the Jordan Valley was virtually unthinkable, any thought of dividing Jerusalem was tantamount to blasphemy, and any hint of withdrawal from the Golan was almost akin to treason.
(c) Yet today, over a third of a century since Menachem Begin’s dramatic electoral victory, all the above are either already faits accomplis or are widely considered inevitable in the not-to-distant future.
This clearly demonstrates that although the "right-wing" consistently wins elections, it never really gets into power. It is a phenomenon that can only be explained by the existence of some influence extraneous to the political system that imposes policy outcomes that diverge radically from those that should be expected from regular operation of political routine.
As such it is a phenomenon that has virtually emptied the Israeli democratic process of any significance.
Thus, Yitzhak Rabin who in1992 was elected on the basis a series of hawkish "nays," radically switched his policy mid-term, transforming them all to dovish "yeas" which begot the Oslowian fiasco. Even more dramatically, Ariel Sharon, elected on a platform opposing any notion of unilateral withdrawal, adopted precisely such policy, advocated by his Labor party rival and rejected by the electorate.
Two claims not infrequently espoused to account for these cases of flagrant disregard for electoral pledges must be summarily repudiated.
The first is that they were the result of international - particularly US - pressure. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In the case of Oslo, the entire unfortunate process was covertly conceived exclusively by Israelis and Palestinians in remote Scandinavia without any international coercion. In fact, the PLO, cosignatory to the accords that emerged from this ill-considered initiative, was still listed a terror organization by the US governments at the time of their conclusion. Likewise, the disastrous disengagement was not a product of American pressure. Quite the reverse, Washington initially opposed unilateral initiatives and had to be convinced by Sharon as to the merits of the idea.
The second claim that needs to be dispelled is that these mid-term policy reversals reflect some far-sighted wisdom in dovish policies of territorial concessions and political appeasement that made the post-election abandonment of more hawkish political platforms inevitable.
Indeed, one of the most astonishing aspects of the Israeli political system is of ostensibly "hawkish" politicians adopting, once in power, "dovish" policies they previously repudiated. After all, these policies have consistently and continuously proved disastrous failures.
So if the most dramatic political initiatives over the last two decades cannot be attributed to international pressure, or to the far-sighted wisdom of Israeli leaders, or the preferences of the Israeli electorate, what can it be ascribed to?
Trinity of influence
The answer is to be found more in Israel's sociological structure than its political mechanisms. More specifically, it lies in composition of its civil society elites who control the legal establishment, dominate the mainstream media, and hold the sway in academia (specifically in the social sciences and humanities faculties - where the politically-correct dominates.) These groups comprise an interactive trinity of influence that in effect dominates the socio-political process in Israel, sets the direction of the national agenda at the strategic level and imposes, with great effectiveness, its views on elected politicians and the general public.
Thus, for example, the legal elite can impede any assertive initiative that the elected polity may wish to implement. Similarly, the media elite can promote any concessionary initiative that the elected polity may be loath to implement. And when the stamp of professional approval is required for either, the amenable academic elite is ever-ready to provide it.
It requires little analytical acumen to identify that these were the mechanisms that generated most of the major political processes over the last two decades. Accordingly, the ability to understand the political realities in Israel is contingent on understanding the worldview and the cost-benefit analysis of these powerful and influential elites.
For them, the approval of peer groups abroad is far more important in determining their agenda than the approval of Israeli citizens at home. Invitations to deliver keynote speeches at high-profile conventions, sought-after appointments as visiting scholars at prestigious institutes, lucrative grants for research projects are far more forthcoming if one in identified as empathetic to the Palestinian narrative than as committed to the Zionist one.
This reality has far reaching effects. For example, it prevents the adherents and all those under their considerable influence from portraying the Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular, in their true light. After all, such an assertive portrayal would make the dominant elites' worldview look outrageously irresponsible. They are thus compelled to depict the Arab/Palestinian side in a far more favorable light than reality warrants while portraying the Israeli side in a far more negative one - otherwise there would be no justification in handing over areas of vital strategic importance to Arab/Palestinian control.
After all, to acknowledge Arab brutality and backwardness, to focus on the repression of women, the suppression of dissidents, oppression of homosexuals, to draw attention to the harassing of critical journalists and the hounding of political opponents would gravely undermine the prudence of any policy advocating establishment of a Palestinian entity barely a mile from the national parliament, overlooking Ben-Gurion airport, adjacent to the Trans-Israel highway and atop crucial water resources.
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of the consequences that the imposition of elite political preferences on Israeli policy has - for both the preservation of Israeli security and Israel democracy.
Firstly, with regard to security, the aversion to drawing attention to the real nature of the Arab world prevents Israel from persuasively presenting its case and creating international understanding for the dire dangers that it faces in contending with such adversaries.
Secondly, with regard to democracy, the dramatic elite-induced policy reversals since the early 90s constitute a powerful disincentive for partaking in the electoral. For what is the point of voting any party or person into power if they end up implementing precisely what was rejected by the voters?
Contending with this phenomenon is no easy matter within the constraints of democratic norms, and the operational details of a strategy to address it are beyond the scope of this article. However, whatever form such strategy may take, its point of departure would need to be an accurate articulation of the problem and its overriding objective to publicly expose those responsible for the dangerous distortions they impose on the nations political mechanisms, unveil their myopia and/or their malice, undermine their standing, and erode their status. This is the only way to neutralize their influence and contain enormous damage that they inflict on the nation.