Most Western democracies are based on a two-party system, and some of them can adopt one as high as a four-party system. In these states, political parties are numerous, but they mostly consist of two to four major parties alongside several small, insignificant ones that rarely have any seats in the government.
In Israel, things are different as more than 30 political parties share the Knesset’s 120 seats. Some of these parties can easily split apart into several branches headed by several leaders. Thus, little has changed in the repeated elections of the last few years: the nearly 6.5 million Israeli voters (out of a total population of 9 million) split their votes between these parties, each getting a relatively small number and failing to yield a majority that can form a government.
In the past decade, every government formed in Israel was a coalition government of some sort, including the cabinet formed last week by a group of parties of contrasting backgrounds. This chaotic political space clearly mirrors the Israeli society: a jumble of different racial and ethnic groups and cultures marked by a large divide, each considering itself superior to the others. Jews of German descent, for instance, are quite different from those of Russian descent. Eastern Jews and Western Jews are separated by a wide cultural gap. White Jews cannot stand non-White Jews. Religious Jews clash with secular Jews.
So, what is the secret behind the establishment of such an outwardly coherent state with massive scientific and military powers? The answer lies in two factors that balance out the fragmentation of the Israeli society and hold it together: the first is the ideology of “investing in fear,” and the second is building institutions and ensuring the law respects these groups.
Because of their religious beliefs, these groups were frequently marginalized, persecuted, treated with contempt, murdered, and condemned in most of the societies where they historically lived. In fact, part of the encouragement that the elite of these groups received in their quest for a “Jewish homeland” outside the countries they were born in stems from the wish of Western ruling elites to rid themselves of this historical burden that attracts hatred and contempt in their societies. Therefore, they encouraged migration to Palestine in an attempt to find a solution to what they called the Jewish Question. In a globally unprecedented situation, open migration mechanisms were launched, and any Jew who arrived in Israel was declared a citizen.
To think this migration was “romantic,” as some historians wish to simplify for new generations, would be wrong. In their works, prominent Israeli writers, such as Amos Oz in his book Black Box, described the dark era of suffering faced by the first migrants, most of whom were poor, marginalized, and unskilled. Certainly, there were elites driving them toward migration in line with the plans they had made in cooperation with Western ruling elites and for the sake of the “common interests” that later historical records attest to.
Over the course of seven decades, waves of migrants from both the East and the West arrived in Israel, only linked by their Judaism and the feeling of being persecuted in their original countries, which was amplified by Hebrew literature. In other words, fear was the main factor in the formation of this society. To describe this society as pluralistic would not do this concept justice, for the Israeli society is rather a contrasting, heterogenous social composition, brought together purely by fear of its surroundings and the fear of a long history of torture that could happen once again according to its leaders. The solution, then, was to create institutions that offer these people a refuge, act as the cohesive glue, and prevent their collapse.
Extremism, whether on an individual or collective level, is an outcome of fear. The fearful cannot see the reality of things, and thus, create illusions instead. Fear is a main driver of a decision-making process that is based on irrational reactions.
This explains why nowadays the more extremist an Israeli politician is (especially with regards to their Palestinian neighbors), the more likely they are to rise to power. It is a vicious circle, and one that is poised to increase steadily. The fascism that the Israeli state exhibits toward its neighbors is driven by fear, not confidence. This means that the rational Israeli minority will not get to an influential position in Israeli politics any time soon given all the forms of fear disseminated by current politicians, who have become a far cry from the statesmen they should be. At the same time, neither Palestinians nor Arabs in general have managed to direct deep academic efforts toward understanding the Israeli society for what it really is.
Throughout the decades, Arabic literature could not portray Israeli characters without erecting barriers and surrounding them with ambiguity. The caricature of the greedy, selfish Jew with a crooked nose became the Israeli stereotype.
Perhaps this is justified by the wish to distort this image, but it lacked the objective understanding of the nature of this society and its members. No efforts were made by the academic elite, even in countries that only recently normalized with Israel, to understand the reality of this society. When experts in these countries tried to understand the unprecedented social composition of the Israeli society, they came under fire. Some were even dismissed from their institutions, which deterred others who might have thought of tackling this complex, unpopular topic.
In contrast, the Palestinian society, which is homogenous in almost every aspect, be it language, culture, religion, or customs, has not managed to build solid, unifying institutions, or to elevate the rule of law; thus, fragmenting what is unified instead of unifying the fragments. When you enter a battle, you must consider what you will face with a lot of precision and objective knowledge; emotional thinking can only lead to loss.
Bottom line is; the unprecedented alliance to overthrow Netanyahu is not rooted in disagreement over his policies, but rather, in his disrespect for institutions and contempt for the law.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.