Israel at 66 – The time for self-reflection is now

Expanding settlements in the West Bank and adopting an uncompromising stance during the peace talks can only lead to growing international skepticism

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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The celebrations of Independence Day in Israel always follow those of the more somber Remembrance Day for the fallen soldiers, which takes place a day earlier. It is a sad and constant reminder that, despite the tremendous achievements in 66 years of independence, the still unresolved conflict with her neighbours has claimed the lives of many people on both sides. Independence Day celebrations are always an opportune time for the Israeli leadership to highlight the country’s successes and the need to stand firm against security threats stemming from living in a hostile political environment. It is rarer for them to contemplate, at least publicly, their own contributions to this hostility. This Independence Day still must have felt different from other recent ones. It came a week after the peace process with the Palestinians collapsed with virtually no prospects in sight for its revival. Consequently, and with no precedence, an American leader warned Israel that she might be on the road to becoming an Apartheid state. It was also a week which witnessed an intensification in anti-Arab hate crimes – known as "price tag" - by Jewish ultra-nationalists in Israel. And it was also a week in which Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his intention to press ahead with changing Israel’s basic laws to enshrine that Israel “…is the nation-state of one people – the Jewish people – and no one else.” On her 66th birthday, these and other developments threaten the safeguarding of Israel’s long term survival as a Jewish, democratic and prosperous country.

No one should be surprised by the plethora of self-congratulating speeches on Independence Day, but it is regrettable that there was no self-reflection as well. There is no denying that the Israel of the 21st century can boast one of the most impressive hi-tech sectors in the world, ranking 16th in the United Nation’s Human Development Index with a higher GDP per capita than the European Union average. Many point out at the power and sophistication of its security forces as the bedrock of her existence. It is also a country which has a vibrant cultural scene with a very lively film, music and theatre life. Yet, Israel at 66 is facing mounting challenges, which unless addressed successfully, might endanger her past achievements. First and foremost is the inability of the current government to make the necessary perceptual leap of faith which would enable Israel to at least accept, if not understand, that without peace with her neighbours her long term existence is under jeopardy. Particularly, peace with the Palestinians is necessary. Secretary of State Kerry, may regret using the term Apartheid in relation to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, this is the way Israel will be perceived by many people around the world, unless it brings to end her 47 years occupation of Palestinian territories. Expanding settlements in the West Bank and adopting an uncompromising stance during the peace talks can only lead to growing international skepticism whether Israel is remotely interested in the two state-option and if this option is still viable. Therefore, Israel might witness an increasing support for a one state solution and an increasing likelihood of the resumption of violence.

Expanding settlements in the West Bank and adopting an uncompromising stance during the peace talks can only lead to growing international skepticism whether Israel is remotely interested in the two state-option.

Yossi Mekelberg

At 8.2 million, Israel’s population is ten times bigger than at its inception in 1948. The country’s demography is fascinatingly diverse in terms of religion and ethnicity. Hence, it poses a genuine test for the country to embrace this diversity, while at the same time maintaining some level of common identity and values. The Arab comprise more than one fifth of the population, while the Jewish population equals more than three-quarters of it. Neither of these communities are monolithic, and the schism between and among them is increasing. The criminal attacks of the Jewish hooligans of ‘price tag’ on innocent Arab targets within Israel, and the weak response by the authorities, is a national embarrassment and disgrace. Carmi Gillon, the former head of the Israeli internal security Shin Bet, accused the organisation of not taking these attacks seriously enough. Moreover, equal rights accorded by law to the Arab citizens have never been translated into an equal share of resources or treatment by the state. For instance, Israeli-Arabs’ income per-capita and level of education is lower than of that of the Jewish population, and their rights for purchasing land are limited. Incorporating into legislation the notion that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone will serve to further alienate the non-Jewish population. It is an act of utter malice and folly of overly protesting the Jewishness of the state when no such protestation is actually needed.

Economic achievements

The country’s economic achievements can be regarded as phenomenal, considering the tough circumstances which Israel had to endure since her birth. However, on her sixty sixth birthday, dark clouds of corruption and inequality that are gathering very quickly would cause the socialist founding fathers of Israel to turn in their graves. A society which experimented rather successfully with a mixed economy is currently suffering from one of the worst inequalities between rich and poor –more than one fifth of her population lives in poverty – the highest among OECD countries. This is in stark contrast to the growing concentration of billionaires in Israel who have both access to government and influence over the media. Only a few weeks before this year’s Independence Day celebrations, for the first time in the country’s history, a former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was convicted of accepting bribes. His and his accomplices’ court case exposed what is only the tip of the iceberg of the corrupt relationship between wealth and politics in Israel, at the time when many families struggle with daily economic hardships and inequality is at its peak.

Israel at 66 is a country at a watershed in urgent need of resolving her conflict with the Palestinians and addressing domestic disparities, while also forming a clearer sense of identity. Even while celebrating independence Israelis should remember that regardless of who is to blame, their next door neighbours, the Palestinians, suffered from a terrible catastrophe, the Nakba, which is strongly correlated to the revival of Jewish nationalism and its manifestation in the form of Israeli sovereignty.

It is in Israel’s national interest and moral obligation to make the necessary efforts to bring this historical injustice to a peaceful end. Only peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians will create the space for Israelis, regardless of religion and ethnicity, to address political and socio-economic issues which need profound and urgent reforms. For too many years these issues have been neglected or high jacked by the security discourse, and consequently produced leaderships not fit for purpose. Preserving the miracle of having a Jewish state in the first place, requires an honest and brave national dialogue, which does not refrain from tackling notions such as being and Jewish and democratic in the 21st century, the future relationships with a very challenging region which is constantly changing, or socio-economic and moral values to which the state should adhere. Birthdays are the perfect time to celebrate, but even more importantly for soul searching. The question is whether or not Israeli society is ready for such a painful process?


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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