As Israel takes risks, the center is not holding

As Israel takes risks, the center is not holding

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In the midst of serious critical regional and international deliberations, the Israeli leadership and the general public seem consumed by historical, ideological, and religious fights. It is as if when confronted with future peace and security issues, many Israelis would rather concentrate on issues which have divided the country since its inception (if not longer).

By accepting an extended (if hazily defined) freeze on settlements, the Netanyahu government is taking a political risk for peace and making a clear gesture to the Palestinians — as well as to the Obama administration. Israeli negotiations with Hamas (directly or indirectly) appear to be headed toward the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned Palestinian terrorists. The West seems finally to recognize what Israel has been saying all along about Iran’s procrastination game and nuclear threat. Israel appears to be working to improve its relationship with Turkey, militarily as well as economically. In addition, economically, it is also seeking to complete its full accession into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Yet in the midst of all these crucial deliberations, the Israeli government finds itself confronted by an array of groups and citizens who are openly defying the legitimate authority of their democratically elected government. Citizens within a democracy have the right to disagree with their leaders. However, persistent, open, and varied confrontations — some of them physical — are very disturbing. In most cases, the groups behind these actions are not seeking seriously to engage the issues so much as they are hoping to disrupt the actual debate.

Defiance among a small number of soldiers is growing and in some case being supported by rabbinical authorities. At the end of October, at their swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall, two recruits held up a sign saying they would not join in expelling settlers from one of the West Bank settlements previously evacuated along with Gaza settlements in 2005. Several weeks later, another battalion from the same group indicated that they, too, would not participate in settler removal.

Israel’s political and military leadership are concerned that as many as 30 percent of the soldiers currently positioned on the West Bank might support such defiance. Despite a zero-tolerance policy for such conduct, the protesting soldiers reflect the extremist views of some powerful political and religious leaders. While most of the rabbis do not countenance soldiers disobeying orders, the religious/political weltanschauung, which many of the impressionable young soldiers have absorbed in their yeshiva studies, exacerbates their confusion and affects their conduct.

Meanwhile, elements of the fervently Orthodox (haredi) community in Jerusalem have and threaten to continue to physically defy local police enforcing a court order permitting a Jerusalem parking lot to operate on Shabbat. In addition, similar groups have protested the continued operation on Shabbat of the Intel Corporation’s Jerusalem plant.

Israeli newspapers report almost daily the defiance of haredi protesters and authorities, from women being forbidden to conduct their services or to pray with a Torah at the Western Wall to the removal from prayer books the prayers in support of the State of Israel and on behalf of its soldiers. This religious zealotry and political defiance infuriates the larger Israeli body politic. They resent the high cost of maintaining order in the face of protests by haredim, many of whom benefit greatly from the social services administered by the very government they refuse to acknowledge and whose authority they continue to defy.

Finally — and most critically — there was the recent arrest of American-born West Bank resident Jack Teitel on charges of hate crimes and attempted bomb attacks against Palestinian and Israeli leftists. While police suggested that he appeared to have acted alone, many authorities have speculated that he may be part of a cell or a series of extremist cells operating beyond the Green Line. If true, any change in government policy toward the settlements carries with it the threat of violent rejection.

As the right-wing Netanyahu government seeks to make serious political and strategic decisions, the last thing it needs is defiance from the extreme Right, some elements of which were major Netanyahu supporters. The prime minister appears to have learned after some years in the wilderness that he needs to try to govern more from the center — witness his very tight working relationship with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. For decades, Israeli politics was defined by a split between Right and Left. At this crucial moment, it has become the Center versus the Extremists.

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