The Asianist

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Posts Tagged ‘arab israeli

Is Israeli Society Moving Away from Peace?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress today, 15 years since he last did so as prime minister. What has changed in Israel since then?

In his latest piece for Foreign Affairs, Daniel Levy notes some interesting statistics and trends within Israel over the past two decades that might affect the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace.

The article is valuable for two reasons. First, on an issue as sensitive as this one, it is important to try to unearth numbers to back up your claims regardless of how difficult that task might be. Mr. Levy has at least attempted to do so. Second, more time should be spent understanding the changing societal realities within Israel and the Palestinian territories rather than just focusing on the role of outside actors and domestic politics, lest grand strategy become out of touch with ground realities.

For these two reasons, I will quote extensively and directly from Mr. Levy’s article (available here) based on his research. Some of the trends he has found include:

  • Righward shift: Over the last 15 years, Israel’s parliament, politics and public discourse have all shifted to the right.
  • Demographic rise of Arabs and Haredi: The two fastest growing population groups are the Palestinian Arab community and the ultra-Orthodox Jews (known as the Haredi). The Haredi population has grown more than threefold over only 20 years, from 3 percent of the population in 1990 to 10 percent today. Estimates suggest that by 2028, Haredim will represent a quarter of all children in Israel under 14 and a third of Jewish children that age.
  • Worries about ‘Democratic Frailty’: Many older, more established elite groups in the Israeli secular political establishment, academia, and media have a growing concern over what they see as Israel’s fragile democracy, driven by a sense that Israel lacks a set of universally shared democratic values among its increasingly self-segregated population. The influence of the Russian population on democracy, in his view, is especially worth noting. Almost 20 percent of Israeli citizens are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have arrived over the past two decades. This Russian-speaking community, coming from authoritarian states, is relatively less at home with democratic politics.
  • Expansion of Shas schools: There has been a rapid expansion of the state-funded but independent education system established by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Over the past 20 years, the number of Jewish primary school students enrolled at ultra-Orthodox schools has grown from just over 7 percent to more than 28 percent. This has great implications for Israeli society and its economy: the Shas system and other ultra Orthodox schools teach a narrowly religious curriculum that is less geared to providing pupils with the necessary skills to compete in a modern economy.
  • Integration/Employment of Haredis and Palestinian Arabs: A combination of state policies and cultural norms has meant that both Haredi and Palestinian-Arab communities have low rates of labor-force participation: for example, only 40 percent of Haredi men and 19 percent of Palestinian-Arab women work. To compound the strain on Israel’s economy, Haredi men often spend a lifetime in state-subsidized religious education centers or yeshivot. One think tank report warns that if no state efforts are made to integrate these two populations, they will “deal a blow to Israel’s future as a developed and prosperous state”.
  • Greater resonance of exclusivist policies: The tendency for politicians to exploit Jewish-Arab relations for political gain with anti-democratic and at times unashamedly racist legislative initiatives targeting the Palestinian-Arab community has found great resonance in the Israeli public. According to a 2010 survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, 86 percent of the Jewish public believe that decisions critical to the state should be undertaken only by a Jewish majority; 53 percent support the government’s right to encourage Arabs to emigrate from Israel; and 55 percent say greater resources should be allocated to Jewish communities than to Arab ones.
  • Rise of ultra-orthodox settlement orientation: In the last 15 years, the population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank alone has more than doubled, from 142,000 in 1996 to over 300,000 today. The settler population in East Jerusalem, meanwhile, has grown from 160,000 to over 200,000 in the same period. The demographic makeup of the settlements themselves has also changed. While settlements catering to the ultra-Orthodox population barely existed in 1996, the two fastest-growing settlements today – Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit – are both ultra-Orthodox (their combined population is 80,000 today, compared to 10,000 in 1996). It is worth noting that the average age in Moddin Illit is ten years old, the lowest of any Israeli city. Clearly the political influence of the ultra-Orthodox settlers will only grow in the coming decades.
  • Rise of Religion in the IDF: The Israeli Defense Forces, the state body responsible for the security of those settlements, has undergone quite a transformation. Since the 1990s, the number of religious soldiers in infantry units and among the officer class has grown steadily, such that a third of all IDF officers today are religious.

I’ll let readers decide and debate what the implications of these trends might be for Arab-Israeli peace, and to what extent they are worrying.

Beyond 1967: Obama’s Remarks on Arab-Israeli Peace

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When US President Barack Obama suggested last Thursday that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, those familiar with the evolution of US policy with respect to the issue did not bat an eyelid. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, that did not prevent the media from whipping up the firestorm that has raged over the past few days about an unrealistic return to 1967 that threatens Israel’s existence.

In fact, America’s position since the Camp David negotiations of 2000 has been that while the starting point of negotiations should be Israel’s boundaries before it wrested control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 war, land swaps agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians would be necessary to account for the changing realities on the ground, including some 500,000 Israelis living beyond the 1967 lines. All Mr. Obama did was to formalize this into official US policy. These were his exact words:

The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.

It is a pity that Mr. Obama’s remarks were received with such fierce controversy and vehement condemnation, such that he had to restate his position again at an AIPAC speech Sunday couched in more cozy boilerplate about Israel’s security. The criticism was not based on substance (as Mr. Obama himself stated), but was a powerful display of both the fiery passion that the Arab-Israeli conflict usually unleashes and the frosty relationship that has developed between Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

To Mr. Obama’s credit, as he has done several times before, he responded to this opposition not by throwing in the towel, but by dishing up a dose of honesty and a hint of boldness. While uttering the usual reassurances on Israeli security, he staunchly defended his earlier comments and made it clear that changing demographic, technological, and political trends in the region and beyond made pursuing Arab-Israeli peace an urgent priority, positioning US foreign policy more in line with Israeli moderates rather than Mr. Netanyahu:

What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I’ve done so because we can’t afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast. The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.

Some may argue that despite the high priority accorded to Arab-Israeli peace under the Obama administration and Mr. Obama’s initial boldness (on the Jewish settlement freeze, for instance), he has produced little to show for it, and has in some cases backtracked. The US veto on the UN Israeli settlement resolution earlier this year in particular vexes many. But on an issue that is so politically sensitive, Mr. Obama does deserve some praise for trying and in some cases persisting, even when the realities on the ground and domestic political context have proven challenging and when he has not had the most constructive partners to work with.

It is easy to be pessimistic or cynical about Israel-Palestine, and convenient for a US president just to tow the line on America’s unshakable commitment to Israel. That Mr. Obama has chosen the tougher path of greater honesty and balance, sometimes at the expense of his own image, ought to be at least recognized, even while its outcome may be criticized.


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