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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Apocalyptic Fears Now; Unforseen Risks Tomorrow: Israel’s Poorly Predicted Future

Filed under: Peace Process, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 449   6 Adar 5761 / 1 March 2001


After seven years of the peace process, catastrophic remarks about the end of the State of Israel are much more frequent than they were before the Oslo agreements. Judaism has a long tradition of religious apocalyptic thought; in the secular end-of-days fantasies of the last few months, however, no salvation is offered the community.

Journalist Tallie Lipkin-Shahak, wife of the previous Israeli Chief of Staff – and present minister – Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, wrote: “It is to be hoped that what we are observing is not the end of the game, not the death of the Zionist enterprise and all its good intentions, not the fading of the lofty dreams of an enlightened state. Without all these, in the long term we will simply be lost.”1 Yisrael Harel, a leader of the Golan settlers, said of Prime Minister Barak, “because of the cracks he made in the last taboo, the right of return, he is losing everything and perhaps we are too.”2

What appears in the media is only a small part of widely held feelings. Recently this author was asked – as a test – by a convinced Israeli left-winger whether he would be in favor of dropping napalm bombs, killing as many Palestinians as possible west of the Jordan, if matters came to the brink. For most Israelis, however, the concern has not been what will befall the Palestinians. They have been worried about what would happen in light of the extreme concessions Barak’s government was willing to make in order to reach a peace agreement: if an agreement was reached at all, many believed it would prove to be yet another worthless piece of paper within a few years, if not before then.

A businessman who had lived through the Holocaust in his youth expressed his fears to this author: “There may be another Shoah here in a few years. Logic says that I should at least have some kind of an alternative base ready abroad. Now I understand the lethargy of well-off German Jews when Hitler came to power. They were reluctant to draw the conclusions for an eventuality that they could face.” A professional business analyst remarked: “Whatever way I look at it, the scenarios are bad, or lead to a dead end.”

A retired Israeli diplomat told this author that he had shocked his son by telling him that he did not know in which country his great-grandson would have to live, as it was unlikely that the Arabs would ever make any concessions.


Apocalypse in the Mainstream

Cataclysmic thought is not confined to the man in the street. Important figures in Israel’s mainstream are also forecasting extreme danger. Former Supreme Court President Moshe Landau stated in October 2000: “I fear for the state’s survival. I think that the existence of the Jewish state is in danger. I see great external dangers facing us. But the internal dangers are even bigger: the general feeling of bewilderment, the confusion of concepts, the social disintegration.”3

After Barak’s extreme concessions to the Palestinians at Camp David II, MK Natan Sharansky said: “We came very close to destroying the Zionist enterprise.” When Barak called him from the United States, the leader of the Israel B’Aliya party told him: “Please remember that you are the first leader in Jewish history who is voluntarily dividing Jerusalem. Think all the time about this.”4

Prof. Arnon Sofer of Haifa University’s Department of Geography predicts a continual deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations which could threaten the very survival of the Jewish state.5 He argues that the Jewish population in the area west of the Jordan River, once British Mandatory Palestine, is only 51 percent of the total population today, and that it will fall to 42 percent by 2020. He expects most of the Arab population in the area to remain poor, as a result of which, relations between the various populations in the region will be characterized by constant friction and frequent conflict.

Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz has gone on record as saying that accepting President Clinton’s proposals, now defunct, “endangers Israel’s security.” In the cabinet meeting which nevertheless approved these proposals, Mofaz stated that an agreement based on them will not enable the defense of “the largest population concentration in Israel” in the center of the country.6

Apocalyptic concern has many facets. A few days after the murder in January of extreme rightist Binjamin Kahane, former head of the General Security Services Carmi Gilon and former Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz sent a letter to Prime Minister Barak, cautioning him about security threats to the Temple Mount by Jewish messianic groups. They warned that such an action could lead to catastrophic events.7

On the same day, January 5, Yediot Ahronot carried a prominent article stating that somewhere there is a Jew who “is already preparing the bomb that will ignite the area.”8 It raised the fear that an attack would be carried out on a Jewish or Palestinian leader, or on a Muslim holy place.


Expectations at the Time of the Oslo Agreements

Frequent apocalyptic predictions are not necessarily self-fulfilling. They also stimulate people to act to prevent this. This is a universal phenomenon. One American business leader called the book about his company’s strategy Only the Paranoid Survive.9 Great vigilance is a central tool in preparing for an uncertain future. Even with apocalyptic fears and in a state of paranoia, it is necessary to calibrate one’s judgment if one wishes to follow realistic policies.

In any case, there is a critical need to try to understand one’s prospects better. To improve our perspective on the future, we should not only evaluate the current situation, but also verify to what extent several of its key components were correctly identified a few years ago.

Important lessons for methodically assessing Israel’s future may be learned by analyzing the accuracy of forecasts made in the mid-1990s. This is particularly relevant because there have been rapid developments, and some of Israel’s present major preoccupations are very different from what was expected after the Oslo agreements.

A few months after these agreements in 1993, this author asked sixteen leading Israelis what the future would bring; this resulted in the book Israel’s New Future: Interviews.10 Almost all of the interviewees belonged to the Israeli mainstream. There were no active politicians among them, in order to avoid including forecasts reflecting political interests rather than objective evaluations. Despite some remarkable predictions, the main practical value of the book now lies more in what was not foreseen, rather than in who got it right and who did not.

In the absence of any scientific studies, rereading the interviewees’ forecasts gives as good a picture of Israeli expectations at that time as any. That such an approach does not meet academic standards does not affect its usefulness. The book makes it clear that key developments in the past several years were either unforeseen or, at most, only mentioned in passing.


Forecasting Israel’s Place in the World

The first section of Israel’s New Future: Interviews assessed the country’s external relations, while the second looked at internal developments. This division reflects the see-saw of priorities that characterizes Israel’s history.

Imminent apocalypse was not of concern to those interviewed. If catastrophe was mentioned at all, it was from a long-term perspective. For instance, Mordechai Abir, now Emeritus Professor of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University, stated: “We have to keep in mind the risk of a PLO state in the territories which could eventually turn into a fundamentalist Palestinian state that openly rejects the very right of a Jewish state to exist in their midst.”11

Abba Eban remarked that the treaty with Egypt had reinforced Israel’s logistic superiority, and had made Israel a safer place both for the individual and the nation. He added that “the possibility of war with Egypt is so remote that both sides are probably not even making contingency plans for it.”12 However, at the end of 2000, Barak warned several times that the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan might collapse if Israel did not accept the Clinton proposals.

There are other important current issues which no interviewee even mentioned seven years ago. Today, many consider the way in which the Palestinian Authority educates children the key indicator of its true intentions. Since it has been known for decades what the Palestinians have been teaching their children, it was possible to forecast its pertinence as a litmus test of their intentions. The inability of outstanding Israelis to foresee this should be cause for deep concern; so should the very limited attention that the issue of Palestinian education has received in recent years in anything but specialized papers.

Today, many would agree that, whatever the outcome of current peace negotiations, Palestinian education is a crucial criterion to be monitored in order to see whether genocidal propaganda against Israel will disappear, and whether Palestinian school maps will include Israel or continue to refer to it as occupied Palestine.13

Recent studies indicate the contrary. Palestinian Authority Teachers’ Guides “direct the teachers throughout the educational system to use the texts and class discussions to inculcate hateful opinions regarding Jews, Zionism, and the State of Israel.” This includes beliefs and opinions such as “Zionism is an example of Nazism, Hatred of Israel, Jews are dangerous enemies of Allah, Islam and the Arabs. Israel has no right to exist and is destined to be destroyed. Be eager to wage Jihad against Israel and Yearn to die fighting Israel.”14

One critical conclusion can already be drawn: the Palestinian youth educated between Oslo and the present day has been poisoned by hatred against Israel; much of it is a “lost generation.”


Propagating Murder

The importance of Palestinian education is particularly important for two reasons. Today, Islam is the one powerful, worldwide ideological stream in many parts of which a culture of death and murder is widely propagated.

This trend is not limited to the Shi’ites, of whom Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah are prime examples. In Sunni Baghdad, tens of prostitutes were beheaded last year. In Saudi Arabia beheadings are a regular punishment. In Algeria, major massacres by Muslim fundamentalists have been going on for years. During the month of Ramadan alone, at the end of 2000, more than 300 people were murdered there. In Syria, Bashir Assad has come to power whose father killed tens of thousands of civilians in Hamma. Although not officially proven, it is very likely that the Libyan government of Kaddafi had the bomb placed on the PanAm plane which exploded over Lockerbie.

It is hardly by chance that the world’s most wanted terrorist, the Saudi Osama Bin Laden, is an Arab. He has been indicted by the United States for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed over 200 people. Furthermore, he is suspected of having organized the attack in October 2000 on the American ship USS Cole in the port of Aden, where 17 American servicemen were killed; even after that, he moved so freely in Afghanistan that he was shown in January 2001 on an Arab satellite channel, attending the wedding of his son.15

In Indonesia, a country of “moderate” Southeast Asian Islam, the recent explosions of mass murder and expulsion in Timor and the Moluccas are a further example of violence inspired by Islam. During Christmas 2000 in various parts of Indonesia, bombs exploded near churches, killing 13 and wounding 200.16 Over the past decades, hundreds of thousands have been killed in pogroms of various kinds.

No other prominent culture today speaks about holy war the way several main Muslim currents do. Sending young Palestinian children to attack soldiers is one aspect of it. This is not a new tactic, however; it was already applied by the Iranians in their war against Iraq.17


The Palestinian Record

A second reason why education is so crucial an indicator for assessing the future is the Palestinians’ overall record. They are a small and young nation. If one looks for areas in which they have “enriched” the world with something original, one finds only one field: terrorism against civilians. We may recall a few examples: putting preserves containing explosives in a supermarket; placing a refrigerator containing a bomb in a square in Jerusalem; throwing the handicapped American Jew Klinghoffer overboard from a hijacked ship; at the Olympic Games in Munich they were also innovative and murdered eleven Israeli athletes.

Monitoring Palestinian education is imperative because it is much more constant – and therefore much more reliable – than the two-tongued statements of Palestinian Authority politicians who say one thing to the world and another to their domestic audience. It seems a logical precaution that, if no changes in the Palestinian educational system occur, no concessions whatsoever should be made.

The question thus arises: if such a crucial and foreseeable issue was not anticipated by intelligent observers, why did this happen? One answer is that, in biblical times, there was only one case of writing on the wall and the difficulty was in deciphering it. Today, there are so many instances of such writing that we cannot discern their relative importance. While trying to improve our assessments we should simultaneously understand that, besides the already many worrying issues today, there will also be other important ones that we have not yet foreseen or which are just beginning to emerge.

All of this provides a strong argument in favor of monitoring in a better way the main indicators of Palestinian behavior. Frequency and diversity of sources are a sign that an indicator may be serious. Terrorist acts and weapons purchases are the most important ones. Another litmus test is whether terrorists are freed. There are also less weighty, but still significant, indicators such as the Palestinian Authority’s abetting the theft of cars and equipment from Israel.


Decision-Makers Do Not Listen

Other problems in Israeli interaction with the Palestinians were identified quite well at the time of the Oslo agreements; however, they were pointed out by people to whom the country’s decision-makers did not listen. Political scientist Yehezkel Dror commented on these agreements at the time: “The declaration by top Israeli politicians that many of the problems which arose during the realization phase of the agreement with the PLO were a surprise is a grave symptom of Israel’s decision-making primitivity on fateful issues.”18

Dror stressed that he supported the peace process. However, he had deep reservations about the lack of deep thinking by Israel’s top politicians. He stated that they show statesmanship in taking initiative but lack policy development staff, and do not want them.

The decision-making process has hardly improved since then. In early 1996, after a spate of terrorist attacks, Yediot Ahronot published a report that in April 1995, Internal Security Minister Shahal had presented the government with a plan to prevent or reduce terrorism which had been continually delayed.19

A few months earlier, Jacques Neriah, formerly a senior advisor to Rabin, had withdrawn his book of memoirs shortly before it was to be published. Several chapters appeared in Yediot Ahronot, however, revealing some of the negligence on the Israeli side in the original Oslo negotiations.20

Then-Police Chief Assaf Hefetz noted that, since the Oslo agreements, he and his people had been warning that catastrophes would result from the negligence of the Palestinian Authority: “The police had a number of meetings with decision-makers in the army and security forces in which they said: ‘We know that old mines in the Gaza Strip are being dismantled and new bombs prepared from the explosives….The terrorists collect these materials. There is nobody to prevent them from doing so.’ I was at the meetings where these things were said.”21

Former head of Israeli military intelligence Gen. Uri Saguy stated in an interview in Ma’ariv that, while in his post, he had told both then-Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres that there were clear signs of a Lebanon-like situation developing in Gaza. Peres’s reply: “You are destroying my peace.” To this Saguy retorted: “I bring you a bad message, and you shoot the messenger. It is not my task to build or destroy your peace. I have to draw a realistic picture.”22


Arafat Still an Enigma

With regard to the quality of preparation, the negotiation situation had not improved before the fateful Camp David II meeting last summer. Even after the talks, leading Israeli negotiators continued to state that they were unable to read Arafat. A Jerusalem Post interview with Gilead Sher stated: “No other Israeli has logged more negotiating hours with the Palestinians under Barak’s watch, including with Arafat himself, than…Gilead Sher. ‘To tell you the truth, Arafat is an enigma to us,’ Sher says in a reply that is at once candid and frightening. ‘I believe he is an enigma to certain leaders of the Palestinian leadership as well. I’m not sure that at the crucial moment he will be there with a pen ready to sign. I’m not sure that he will be there reaching for the hand that Barak will be extending to him. I’m not sure.'”23

Prof. Avraham Friedman, head of the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, has pointed out that while Barak, like Netanyahu, employed American media advisors for his prime ministerial campaign, he did not take the trouble to retain a foreign media expert when the Palestinian uprising erupted. This provides perspective on the respective relevance attached to personal and national interests.

The peace camp in Israel includes many people who believe that one of the state’s main goals should be to become “normal” and that peace is a fundamental step on this road. No “normal” leader in any “normal” society, however, would make major concessions to someone who has proven to be so untrustworthy in so many negotiations. Arafat has broken every agreement he has signed.

More particularly, even the peace camp’s most fundamental prediction – that giving up the territories would lead to peace – has been proven radically wrong: the Palestinians have made it clear that they consider this insufficient, and are insisting on the right of return, a euphemistic way of destroying Israel. In the best case, the Oslo process can be described as territories in exchange for breathing time and terrorism. The logic is then that one should give up as little as possible, as slowly as possible, in exchange for as much reciprocity as possible.

The millenary character of the greater Israel movement is generally understood; that the Israeli peace movement, although largely secular, has many messianic characteristics is much less so. One aspect of this is that, the more its prophecy fails, the more its belief seems to be strengthened. The cultic character of the peace extremists is not so obvious because they lack a specific dress code.


A New American President

Another issue of great importance is the role that the United States will play in the Middle East conflict in the coming years. In January, George W. Bush was inaugurated as President of the United States. Expectations are that, having no international experience, he does not intend to become personally involved in the Middle East peace process.

Martin Indyk, the American Ambassador to Israel, has stated: “I believe that there will be continuity in the U.S. government’s approach to U.S.-Israel relations and the peace process. There is bipartisan support for the idea that a foundation stone can be formed for a successful peace process. I believe that President-elect Bush will pursue that same bipartisan cause.”24 Since then, many others have made forecasts.

In order to understand how difficult it is to predict what role the U.S. government might play in the future, we should look back to the expectations about Clinton’s involvement in the Middle East negotiations in the months following the Oslo agreements.


An Inward-Looking United States

Several of the interviewees offered predictions on this subject. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abba Eban believed the United States was turning inward: “In such a situation of passivity, Israel has to be much more rigorous about a security set-up. Before, there was always the feeling that America would come in….The Clinton administration does not seem to care very much about foreign relations. One does not really know what America will do if Israel gets into serious trouble.”25

Yehezkel Dror commented that what catches an American president’s attention depends partly on external pressures and partly on his personal tastes. He added that, considering the dramatic upheavals in Eastern Europe and the domestic problems in the United States, Israel was likely to receive less attention.26

Former Foreign and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who had withdrawn from politics at the time of the interview and is now a Likud MK, remarked: “Although America has gone through isolationist periods in the past, almost since World War II it was considered obvious that the United States must take a responsible position in international relations, and that these problems were no less important than domestic ones.”

He added: “There is clearly an attempt to change policies, due to the apparent difficulties the United States is experiencing in the global economic sphere and the domestic social problems that seem to have arisen in the past few years. The general feeling is that the president has to concentrate on America’s problems.”27

It is not clear whether Clinton’s wish to play a major role in the peace process was misjudged at the beginning of his first term of office, or whether his attitude changed gradually to making the Middle East peace process a key issue of his presidency. We may conclude, however, that it is impossible to accurately predict a president’s attitudes at the beginning of his presidency – especially if it lasts for eight years, a factor that should inspire further caution in Israeli leaders before taking bold steps.


Tense Relations with Europe

Some important issues were analyzed quite correctly a number of years ago. Political scientist Dan Segre summarized very cogently four reasons for the negative attitude of Europeans toward Israel in the past decades. He noted that the dream of Israel’s representing an ideal state, unrealistic from the beginning, had to break down. Israel refused to be the only vegetarian state in a world of predators. In addition, Arab wealth suddenly increased as a result of the inept manner in which the West handled the oil crisis in 1973. A third factor was the conjunction of Arab and communist propaganda against Zionism. A fourth was Israel’s ties with the United States or, in leftist propaganda terms, American imperialism. Segre concluded: “Marxist anti-Semitism has had a profound impact on the European left.” He added: “Israel has shown in the 45 years of its history how an underdeveloped country can modernize, whereas many of the former European colonies are collapsing. This is another irritant for European leaders, though this is never explicitly said.”28

Even if the main characteristics of Israel’s tension with Europe have remained the same, important new elements have emerged. While the electoral power of Muslim voters in several European countries already far exceeded that of Jewish voters in the early 1990s, it was not considered an important factor in the attitude of European democracies toward Israel. Today, European Jews tend to voice moderate opinions about the conflict, partly out of fear that the Arabs can mobilize larger numbers on the streets. In France, Arab anti-Semitism has become violent, leading to the largest spate of attacks on Jewish institutions in Europe since World War II.


The Foreign Media

The attitude of the foreign media toward Israel was well analyzed seven years ago by David Bar-Illan: “The true reason that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much more in the news lies in the complete disproportion between the two sides. On the other side, there are not only the Palestinians but all the Arabs. Their 22 states wield vast power and have major resources. They provide a big market for the West and are thus a strong force in world politics. If they did not back the Palestinian cause, people would care about it exactly like they do about the Basques in Spain, which is not at all.”29

Analyzing a situation does not change it, however. The Israeli reality presented by the foreign media remains very different from the complex situation in which the country finds itself. The short, violent television segment and the background against which it is filmed create a social frame for the media’s message. This reporting changes the way in which Israelis are perceived; people who do not know Israel can judge only the pictures they receive or the articles they read.

There has even been a deterioration in Israel’s manner of dealing with the press. During the Palestinians’ violent hostilities, the Israel Government Press Office had no director. The post was only filled at the beginning of January 2001 by Danny Seaman, who said that the office had many vacancies while a thousand foreign journalists converged on the country in October. He commented that, particularly with Barak, there was a feeling that “we don’t need good public relations, we need good policies. Good policies will create good public relations….In September [when the riots started] good policy didn’t help us. Today we know why the GPO needs good public relations.”30

The government hesitated for a long time over whether to issue a White Paper about the PLO’s failure to live up to its commitments. When it finally published a poorly presented document, it did not even include the name of its publisher.31 Afterwards the government continued to vacillate about its policy, and recalled the copies of the report sent to embassies abroad.

In fact, the Barak government no longer made a great effort to put forward irrefutable facts in the country’s favor. Publicizing this information was left to a few independent pro-Israel writers abroad. One of these, Charles Krauthammer, commented: “Fighting has broken out in the Middle East, we read. This use of passive phrasing, almost universally in media reports on the violence in Israel, is a way of deliberately expressing agnosticism about the cause of the fighting.” He added that the fighting was “not spontaneous. And it is not without direction. Arafat knows what he wants, and he is prepared to sacrifice as many of his own people as it takes to get it. Preferably on television.”32

George Will, another independent, wrote: “Today about a million Palestinians remain in what are propagandistically called refugee camps. In 1945 there were many millions of refugees and other displaced persons in Europe, many in camps. By 1950 this problem was essentially solved. Why, 52 years after the failure of the Arab war to kill the state of Israel in its infancy, are there still camps populated by the children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren of people displaced in 1948? Because Arafat and other Arab leaders use these festering sores to foment irredentist extremism.”33


Predicting Domestic Issues

Important elements of Israel’s present internal situation were also not perceived well seven years ago, although several interviewees assessed some of the problems quite well, among them the cultural struggle between the religious and the secular which has developed more markedly since then.

Former Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Israel Katz accurately forecast at the time that the Russian immigrants “will show their strength…in politics and other fields, much faster than other immigrant groups have done in the past.”34 He added that it remained to be seen whether their political activity would take place within the existing political framework, or whether they would establish their own parties. While the Russian immigrant lists failed in the 1992 elections, the new Israel B’Aliya party, led by Natan Sharansky, gained seven seats in 1996 and two immigrant-led parties won a total of ten seats in 1999.

At a recent symposium in memory of JCPA founder Daniel Elazar, former Minister of Absorption Yuli Edelstein stressed that it is surprising how well the Russian Jews have integrated in Israel. He said that we do not realize that it could have turned out very differently: “We might have had a whole group of White Panthers.”35


Doubts on Democracy’s Viability

However, a major current issue in Israeli society was completely ignored in the interviewees’ predictions. Today, doubts about the viability of the Israeli democratic system are frequently expressed in private conversations. These feelings of dissatisfaction with respect to the existing political and social order are still vague and poorly articulated. Those who express them do not know what other system should replace democracy and how change should be brought about.

Many reasons for this phenomenon can be offered; one is that it may be linked to the aforementioned apocalyptic mood. Another is the feeling that, in the context of a non-democratic and violent Middle Eastern environment, the checks and balances of a full democracy are too heavy a handicap when confronting neighboring dictatorships. Many Israelis consider international law and human rights considerations as largely designed to protect Arab terrorist-friendly societies against Israeli actions.

This unease with the efficacy of democracy also reflects the tension between the policies that Western democracies can afford to preach in incomparably milder political conditions and the actions that many Israelis consider to be necessary.

To this may be added an even vaguer argument: if Western democracies frequently berate Israel without condemning those Arab states and the Palestinian Authority who, in their use of language, show themselves to be Hitler’s successors, perhaps democracy is indeed a luxury.

A very different component in this complex situation is the declarations by ultra-Orthodox leaders that they will honor Jewish law over that of the state when the two clash.


The Elite and Oslo

For many Israelis, the beleaguered State of Israel also follows far too liberal a policy toward Israeli Arabs who identify with the Palestinian aims and extreme leftist Israelis who serve the Arab cause. The latter is expressed, for instance, through continuous criticism of whatever Israel does, while avoiding criticism even of Arab terrorism.

During his term of office, Prime Minister Netanyahu frequently spoke out against the social elite without, however, detailing exactly what he was accusing them of. Shortly before this year’s elections, Ma’ariv columnist Amnon Dankner was more precise, writing: “This social group is ‘the best of the best’ of Israeli society; certainly in its own eyes. This is the Ashkenazi, liberal, secular elite in politics, academia, media, economics and the civil service, which has linked its good name and fate, its force and skills of persuasion to the peace process with the Palestinians, known as the Oslo Process.”36

Dankner added that this process had become a religious one, around which assembled the peace prophets and the forecasters of a “New Middle East”: “Priests of the cult and commentators who specialized in turning harsh facts into messages…the murdered of Oslo became, in their mouths, victims of peace.”37 He said that this leftist group had “desolidarized” itself from the Israeli poor, while there flourished “a strange phenomenon of solidarity, mercy, and identification with the Palestinians’ suffering.”38

If a balanced program for reducing civil liberties in Israel were presented in an articulate manner, it would probably receive widespread support. This should not affect the country’s democratic character: it would only be following what has commonly been done in Western countries in times of tension. Recent examples are Spain – as a reaction to Basque terrorism – and the United Kingdom with regard to North Ireland. For instance, the voices of IRA terrorists are not allowed to be heard on British radio or television. A study of the manner in which France treats its North African minorities might also yield revealing insights.


Extreme Self-Criticism

The abuse of the asymmetry between Israeli self-criticism and the Palestinian attitude has been well analyzed by a Dutch Christian observer, the theologian G.H. Cohen Stuart: “Jewish and Israeli self-criticism is a valuable good. It is frightening, however, how often this is abused by the outside world. This is similar to the way Christian theology used through the ages the self-criticism of the prophets as a weapon against the Jewish people.”

“The same happened in most of the interfaith meetings in which I participated as theological advisor of the Dutch Reformed Church between 1982 and 1994 in Israel. The Jewish speaker analyzed his own society critically. Mistakes made were not embellished. When a Christian Palestinian spoke he depicted the own community as an eternal peace dove without any mistake or failure….If one heard him one got visions of a paradise existent before the coming of the Jewish occupant and immigrant. He referred to the Jewish speaker to mention the source of all evil and problems in the Middle East.”39

Senior Ha’aretz journalist Ze’ev Schiff pointed out that “There is hardly any weapon or tactic that Israel has used in reaction to the Palestinian violence that has not come in for criticism both at home and internationally.”40 His conclusion was: “If all these complaints and allegations were to be accepted, the only thing left for the IDF to do would be to throw stones at the Palestinians. And maybe not even that.”41


The West and Its Enemies

Sophisticated Israelis are well aware that Western democracies behaved much more harshly against domestic supporters of their enemies during World War II. For example, the British authorities interned Fascist leader Oswald Mosley while the war lasted; and the U.S. interned Americans of Japanese origin in concentration camps. Today the U.S. regrets this, but what counts is what was done and not what the next generations may be ashamed of decades later. This is equally valid with regard to the dropping of atomic bombs or the British bombing of Dresden in which ten of thousands of civilians were killed. Until the present day, many admire the republican side in the Spanish Civil War; yet it committed a huge number of atrocities, although admittedly less than the nationalists.42

Further proof that one need not be an authoritarian to limit civil liberties was given by Switzerland at the end of January 2001, when the World Economic Forum took place in Davos. Protesters were not admitted into the area: the police pulled them out of the trains en route to the town.

The behavior of the West has not changed radically. This is proven by the UN peacekeeping force in Somalia and UN actions in the Balkan wars in recent years.

In an op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post, Alex Safian of CAMERA43 wrote that, when the U.S. raid to capture Somalian war lords failed, the soldiers were surrounded by Somalian militiamen and civilians. In the ensuing battle, which U.S. officials called “carnage”: “Up to 500 Somalis were killed and 1,000 injured in the fighting; press reports indicate that ‘hundreds of women and children’ were among those treated in hospitals afterwards. Despite these very high casualties, U.S. Army spokesmen asserted that excessive force had not been used nor international law breached, and that the Somalis themselves bore ultimate responsibility for the bloodshed.”44


Loss of Confidence

All motifs of unease with democracy pale, however, in comparison with the salient one: loss of confidence in the political system has increased since Oslo, and there is widespread feeling that it is failing the country. The latter also concerns the relations between institutions and the quality of Israeli leadership.

The change in the electoral system and the split voting for prime minister and Knesset have had major unforeseen consequences. The prime minister now wields much more power than before and the big parties have lost many Knesset seats. This has upset the balance in the government’s relationship with the Knesset. The Netanyahu and Barak governments have been characterized by the prime minister’s taking a very central role without checks and balances. An extreme example of this is Ehud Barak’s carrying out crucial negotiations concerning the country’s future after tendering his resignation.

Another important reason for the doubts about the viability of democracy is the increasing distrust in the intellectual honesty of politicians. Prime ministers are elected on platforms whose most essential parts they then fail to keep. This is particularly clear in the case of Barak, but was also true for Netanyahu and Rabin. In the February 2001 elections, both candidates promised that they would bring peace, while it was clear to all that whether this would happen depended largely on the Palestinians’ attitude. Few believe Sharon’s promise not to dismantle any settlements.

Parliament is equally irresponsible. Before the last elections, the Knesset went on an unprecedented spending spree, approving multibillion shekel laws for which there is no financial cover.


The Failure of Direct Elections

Very few analysts seem to have understood the importance of the direct election issue at the time of the Oslo agreements. This has probably only accelerated a degradation of leadership which was already very clear before in the case of Rabin, who politically bribed two right-wing politicians in order to get the Oslo II agreement approved.

Due to Rabin’s assassination, he has become an icon and a saint of peace in the eyes of the left. The many Israelis who consider him to have been a political failure and an immoral operator remain largely silent. Yigal Amir’s murderous act has thus achieved the opposite of his objective. One could say that his act has largely castrated the Israeli right’s possibility of strongly opposing the policies of the Labor government. According to political scientist Ehud Sprinzak, Baruch Goldstein’s murderous attack in Hebron has also had very negative consequences, insofar as it caused Hamas to initiate suicide attacks.

There are other grounds for concern as to where democracy is leading. The Labor party’s chances of remaining in power depended increasingly on the support of Israeli Arabs. On February 5th, the day before the elections, the Jerusalem Post carried a front page story headlined: “Barak Bids for Crucial Arab Vote.” Before that, Barak had already apologized for the Arabs killed by the police in the Israeli Arab uprising in October 2000.

Arab leaders are fully aware of Labor’s dependence on them. When Sharon was leading over Barak by more than 15 percent in the polls, Sami al-Kassem, editor of the Nazareth Kul al Arab paper, wrote that “if the Jewish voting pattern changes and the difference between the two candidates is reduced to only isolated percentages, I am sure the Arabs [will] swallow their pain and do what’s necessary, in the best interest of both peoples.”45


Dual Loyalty or Fifth Column

Even as moderate a comment as this reflects the dual loyalty of Israeli Arabs at a time when Israel faces serious hostility from the Palestinians. In the second week of January, Israel formally declared the situation with the Palestinians an “armed conflict.”46 Statements by Israeli Arabs of identification with the suffering of their brethren in the Palestinian Autonomy were being made at a time when a poll conducted by the Palestinian think-tank Jerusalem Media and Communications Center indicated that two-thirds of Palestinians support suicide bombings.47

Amir Makhoul, Director of the Ittijah umbrella organization of Israeli Arab groups, was a strong proponent of boycotting the Israeli elections. He did not even hesitate to say that his motive was to support Israel’s enemies: “Our interest as a part of the Palestinian people is to deepen the crisis faced by Israel’s leadership, and not to rescue that leadership.”48

The statements of several Israeli Arab leaders are considered at best a thin disguise for their sharing the Palestinians’ political aims, particularly as they come after riots in the Galilee and elsewhere which partly had the character of an Arab uprising against the state. Some of these statements were quoted during the election campaign in an anti-Barak advertisement by the right-wing Herut party headed by MK Michael Kleiner.49

Many Jewish Israelis now consider a large number of Israeli Arabs a Palestinian fifth column. For reasons of political correctness, this concern could hardly be voiced publicly as recently as six months ago. At the time of the Oslo agreements, the Jewish perception was far from such a consolidated position.

A surprising indication was mentioned in passing in Yediot Ahronot. On election day, a helicopter took Ariel Sharon all over the country. Flying over the Galilee, the pilot avoided the area of Wadi Ara, saying that they have done so since the Arab uprising.50


Razing Umm el-Fahm to the Ground?

A few more opinion polls in the future which would continue to indicate that the great majority of Israeli Arabs would support the Palestinian side in any confrontation with Israel would provide further justification for the perception that many Israeli Arabs are potential enemies of the state. Political scientist and veteran journalist Yosef Goell, considered to represent the pragmatic middle-ground in politics, wrote in the Jerusalem Post about the Arab uprising in the Galilee: “The police restraint is why there were ‘only’ 10 Arab rioters killed.”

He added: “In connection with the worst rioting, in Islamic Movement-controlled Umm el-Fahm it is critical to make the following tragic but unavoidable point: Umm el-Fahm lies on one of the most critical internal security roads in the country, the Wadi Ara road. Every mother and father in Umm el-Fahm should be aware that in the case of a future war, if there is the slightest attempt by ‘innocent’ Arab villagers to slow up Israeli reserves rushing to the front, their town will be razed to the ground, with a massive loss of life.”51

Had one given this text anonymously to expert analysts in the middle of last year, they would have guessed that it had been written by an extreme rightist. It would have been highly unlikely that the Jerusalem Post or any daily in Israel would have published it. It indicates how rapidly realities and perceptions in Israel change. This makes predictability even lower.

Understanding that the future of the country is – to a substantial extent – in the hands of citizens who are the country’s potential enemies is likely to increase the feeling that the rules of democracy should be changed.

Doubt in the viability of Israel’s democracy was only beginning when the interviews were conducted. Political scientist Peter Medding was the only one to remark on this in passing: “Too many elections in too short a time, due to the inability of the politicians to reach agreement, is destabilizing and likely to lower the public’s faith in democracy.”52


Alternative Leadership

Given this lack of confidence in the politicians, alternative leadership might have been provided from outside the government and the Knesset. The presidency is a potential source for this, but neither the present nor the previous incumbent have the standing to do so. The President of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, has tried to step into the vacuum on many issues, but his authority and that of the court have increasingly been eroded, mainly due to his own policies.

His predecessor, Judge Landau, said of Aharon Barak that he is “leading the Supreme Court and the judicial authority down the wrong road. This precious man is a riddle to me. I don’t have an answer to the question of what makes Aharon Barak tick….[He] has not, and does not, accept the rightful place that the court should have among the various authorities in our regime.”53

Landau accused him of aiming “to interject certain moral values [into society] as he deems appropriate. And this amounts to a kind of judicial dictatorship that I find completely inappropriate.” He added that Aharon Barak’s attempts to increasingly concentrate power in the judicial system “leads to a dead end. Because the court is getting in over its head, in a morass of political opinions and beliefs.”

At the time of the Oslo agreements, the role of the Supreme Court in Israeli society was already considered problematic, though much less than today, and mainly concerned its relationship with the government. Former Supreme Court Justice Miriam Ben Porat – Israel’s State Comptroller at the time – stated: “It is very difficult to determine where the High Court can express its opinion, because the case is not political, and where it cannot, because the issue is political. Even if the case is political, but has general public aspects as well, the High Court can express its opinion. I cannot say whether that is necessary, right or wise. The only question I can answer is whether the court is allowed to do so.”54

Ben-Porat added that the High Court had great discretion here. It should avoid dealing with those issues which concern the political world and the general public when the result would be the court’s loss of credibility in the eyes of the public. She saw this as the crucial issue. “If somebody…says he wants to see norms established, or that he has been harmed by the public administration, then the court has the competence to deal with it. In each generation, the High Court has, however, to determine the borders of its intervention. A major consideration here has to be that public trust in it will not be harmed.”


An Isolated Supreme Court?

The attack on Judge Barak by Moshe Landau has given a new dimension to criticism of the Supreme Court. This was because of who gave it rather than its substance. There has been much previous criticism, but its authors did not have Judge Landau’s prestige.

In a detailed essay, Mordechai Haller wrote: “While Israel possesses one of the most diverse populations in the world…its judicial selection process has produced a bland and intellectually uniform Supreme Court, leaving the opinion and concerns of a substantial majority of the Israeli public underrepresented, or not represented at all.”55

Haller added that Barak had given an interpretation to Jewish values which was “deeply troubling, since it so clearly defies the intentions behind the phrasing of the laws – intentions which are not difficult to ascertain, since the laws were passed only seven years ago. The word ‘Jewish’ was meant to be distinguished from the word ‘democratic,’ as it has always been in Israeli parlance.”

He concluded: “If we are to avoid the accusation that Barak is deliberately attempting to thwart the intentions of the Knesset and the latent constitutional beliefs of the public, we may draw only one possible conclusion: that Israel’s Supreme Court is so isolated in its intellectual climate, so removed from the ideals held by the members of the public, that its members actually understand this to be a legitimate reading of the law.”56


The Attorney-General

Due to the polarization of Israeli society, the perception of the attorney-general – another figure considered to be above the political parties – is also being undermined. This became particularly evident after the Clinton proposals were made. At the beginning of January 2001, Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein made public a letter to Prime Minster Barak in which he questioned the prime minister’s moral authority to negotiate shortly before the elections, “all the more so when speaking of a minority government with a prime minister who has resigned.”57

The prime minister responded by saying that Rubinstein’s political position is very close to the right, and that his private opinions are of no interest to the public. The Labor Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin, however, defended the attorney-general, saying that, if the prime minister were to sack Rubinstein, he would resign. Beilin stressed that he disagreed with Rubinstein’s opinion. Former Minister of Justice Amnon Rubinstein, now member of Knesset for the Meretz party, also defended the attorney-general, despite his disagreement with his opinion.58

A few days later, in the Knesset Constitution Committee, the atmosphere was heated up further by then Coalition Chairman Ophir Pines Paz of the Labor party, who explicitly said that Rubinstein’s legal opinion stemmed from his political views. Upon this, Rubinstein retorted: “…you are insulting many people who have worked in the civil service for many years. I have been a civil servant for 30 years. In my ruling, I laid out my professional view, just as the Chief of Staff and the head of the General Security Services gave their professional opinions to the cabinet.”59

After the meeting, Pines sent a letter to the attorney-general, saying that his ruling was “laden with phrases with a clear ideological color” and with “citations [that] testify to your ideological stance….I am sorry that you are unwilling to admit…that the justification for your ideological views is your [religious] faith.”60


The Acceleration of Distrust

This is only one example of how fast the lack of trust in public office-holders is accelerating. By now, everybody in a public position is suspected of expressing political opinions rather than objective or legal assessments. For example, Yediot Ahronot columnist B. Michael wrote that it would be better for everybody in public service, other than judges, to express their political opinion rather than to hide it from the public eye and yet act on it. He added that, if Chief of Staff Mofaz did so, it would be possible to assess appropriately his proposals, recommendations, and actions. He also remarked that the sole reason one could criticize Rubinstein is that his letter to the prime minister was in fact an op-ed article on public stationery with the stamp of his office.61

In the same issue of Yediot Ahronot, Ron Ben Yishai wrote that the heads of the Israeli intelligence community were surprised that the prime minister had issued a warning of a possible general war in the Middle East: “Barak’s campaign and media advisors took with his approval a few non-dramatic sentences which the prime minister had said at the General Staff forum and the Knesset Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense, gave them an urgency and threat which was not originally there, and fed them to the media.”62 Ben Yishai added that the purpose of this was to give the public the impression that one should stop an immediate threat of regional war by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians according to the Clinton proposals.

A few days later in Ha’aretz, Reuven Pedatzur went far beyond that by devoting an entire article to the claim that Prime Minister Barak had “used the threat of war in the region for internal political purposes and thereby stopped acting like the leader of a nation.”63 He accused the prime minister “of having cynically exploited the fear of war among Israelis and of having chosen to disregard the far-reaching implications of his statements – implications that could cause the stability of the region to degenerate and armed conflict to break out.”64

The next day, a statement by the Chief of Staff in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee seemed to confirm these accusations. Mofaz said that the IDF had not identified preparations by foreign countries for starting a war against Israel, but rather that they preferred to use diplomacy.65

Again, a few days later, former General Security Services chief Ami Ayalon said that “the Israeli defense system applies a populistic pressure on the political leadership and weakens it in that way.”66


Religious Leadership

Religious leadership might have attempted to step into such a vacuum. In the West, the Pope has shown that he can draw mass audiences from outside his own constituency, however controversial his views may be. In Greece, another Mediterranean society, the present Archbishop of Athens, Christodoulos, has become a very authoritative voice on many issues.

However, Israeli rabbis have a limited political following at most. Their opinions are irrelevant outside their own specific constituency. Had he wished to, the one religious figure in Israel who might have provided wider leadership is former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. He has a core audience of over 15 percent of the voters who supported his Shas party. From this base, he might have reached a broader audience, especially as his political opinions are middle of the road.

Rabbi Yosef’s use of crude and extreme expressions, however, has made him unacceptable outside his own captive audience. He called Prime Minister Barak “a blind fox,” and earlier labeled the previous prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, “a blind goat.” When asked by one of his followers why he was willing to support the latter in the forthcoming elections, should he be a candidate, the rabbi said: “At least a goat is a kosher animal.” He went even further by saying of former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni: “On the day she dies, one must make a feast.”67

Another former chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu, whom the National Religious Party considers its spiritual leader, compared the ministers who voted for the Clinton proposals to the biblical spies. His captive audience is substantially smaller than that of Rabbi Yosef. The opinions of the two current chief rabbis carry even less weight.68

The rabbi of the Beit El settlement, Zalman Melamed, recently said that the Barak cabinet belongs in Hell. Such Israeli right-wing rabbis enjoy a negative image, even outside leftist circles, in view of the extremist position several of them took before the Rabin assassination.69



Now that the peace process has brought much more apocalyptic thought into Israeli society, this should raise serious questions as to what the value of this process has been. The above analysis of how poorly foreseen some of the most crucial current issues were supports a number of conclusions. The first one is that even major predictable issues may be ignored in the forecasts of highly intelligent people. The issue of Palestinian education is a cogent example.

Other serious issues are unpredictable, such as the attitude of American presidents during their term of office. Thirdly, it is widely known that many other problems are handled in a very faulty manner by Israeli authorities. Developments in Israel happen much faster than their lessons are learned. Despite awareness of this, however, the political system will not do anything about issues such as adequate preparation for negotiations with the Palestinians, developing concepts to limit the tensions with Europe, or learning how to relate to the bias of the foreign media.

Mistaken decisions can be extremely costly for the nation. However, the politicians who knowingly ignore warnings are punished, at most by an election defeat. This has been the case almost continuously since the Yom Kippur War. We may conclude from the above analysis that, were the interview exercise to be repeated today, looking back in a few years’ time would probably reveal similar failures to assess the future correctly.

It is against this background that great caution is required. It only makes sense for a country to gamble on its future in desperate circumstances. Israel is far from being in such a situation. If risks cannot be properly assessed, maintaining the status quo may be a safer solution than any movement in what is, by now, a discredited process only semantically associated with peace.

*     *     *


  • Jerusalem Post, December 15, 2000.
  • Ha’aretz, January 11, 2001.
  • Interview with Moshe Landau, Ha’aretz, October 6, 2000. He added: “And the weakness of the national will, the lack of readiness to fight for our lives. The illusion that peace will obviate our need to fight and defend ourselves. These things give me no rest. They really keep me awake and are affecting my physical health.”
  • In Jerusalem supplement, Jerusalem Post, December 8, 2000.
  • Ha’aretz, December 11, 2000.
  • Yediot Ahronot, December 29, 2000 (Hebrew).
  • Ha’aretz, January 7, 2001 (Hebrew).
  • Yediot Ahronot, January 5, 2001 (Hebrew).
  • Andy Grove of Intel.
  • Manfred Gerstenfeld, Israel’s New Future: Interviews (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass/Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 1994).
  • Interview with Mordechai Abir in ibid., p. 82.
  • Interview with Abba Eban in ibid., p. 27.
  • See, for instance, Manuels Scolaires de L’Autorit? Palestinienne, Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, November 1999 (French).
  • Itamar Marcus, Palestinian Authority Teachers’ Guides, Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, March 2000, p. 9.
  • Jerusalem Post, January 11, 2001.
  • NRC Handelsblad, December 23, 2000 (Dutch).
  • See also Justus Weiner, “The Use of Palestinian Children in the Al-Aqsa Intifada,” Jerusalem Letter No. 441, November 1, 2000.
  • Interview with Yehezkel Dror in Gerstenfeld, op. cit., pp. 45-6.
  • Summarized in Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Those Who Are Guilty,” Jerusalem Post, March 27, 1996.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Gilead Sher, as quoted in the Jerusalem Post, December 15, 2000.
  • Jerusalem Post, December 15, 2000.
  • Interview with Abba Eban in Gerstenfeld, op. cit., p. 29.
  • Interview with Yehezkel Dror, in ibid., p. 38.
  • Interview with Moshe Arens in ibid., p. 52.
  • Interview with Dan Segre in ibid., p. 63.
  • Interview with David Bar-Illan in ibid., p. 111.
  • Jerusalem Post, January 19, 2001.
  • Palestinian Authority and P.L.O. Non-Compliance: A Record of Bad Faith, November 2000 (n.p.).
  • Charles Krauthammer, Jerusalem Post, October 8, 2000.
  • George Will, Newsweek, January 8, 2001.
  • Interview with Israel Katz in Gerstenfeld, op. cit., p. 166.
  • JCPA memorial meeting for Daniel J. Elazar, December 17, 2000.
  • Ma’ariv, January 19, 2001 (Hebrew).
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • G.H. Cohen Stuart. Fourth Letter 2000. Rhoon (Dutch).
  • Ha’aretz, January 10, 2001.
  • Ibid.
  • Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 173.
  • The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
  • Jerusalem Post, December 12, 2000.
  • As quoted in Ha’aretz, January 9, 2001.
  • Jerusalem Post, January 11, 2001.
  • As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, January 10, 2001. The figure given in March 1999 was 26 percent.
  • As quoted in Ha’aretz, January 10, 2001.
  • Jerusalem Post, January 19, 2001. It quoted statements by Arab leaders, under the heading “Barak eats their humous, the left counts on their votes. Barak is good for Barakei.” “MK Mohammed Barakei: ‘Israel Arabs bless the intifada and must take part in it.’ MK Azmi Bishara: ‘I do not object to all of Israel becoming Palestine.’ MK Abdul Malik Dahamshe: ‘I stand by my comments regarding the breaking of arms and legs of the police.’ MK Dahamshe on Israeli Arabs: ’20-25 percent of them would like to destroy the State of Israel and kill the Jews.'”
  • Yediot Ahronot, February 9, 2001.
  • Jerusalem Post, October 10, 2000.
  • Interview with Peter Medding in Gerstenfeld, op. cit., p. 132.
  • Interview with Moshe Landau, Ha’aretz, October 6, 2000. He added: “And this is dangerous both for the state and for the court. It is dangerous for the state because it intensifies the social rifts. And it is dangerous for the court because it leads the court to lose the main foundation upon which it bases its standing, the faith in the impartiality of the legal system concerning matters of public disagreement.”
  • Interview with Miriam Ben-Porat in Gerstenfeld, op. cit., p. 145.
  • Mordechai Haller, “The Court That Packed Itself,” Azure (Autumn 1999).
  • Ibid.
  • Jerusalem Post, January 2, 2001.
  • Jerusalem Post, January 3, 2001.
  • As quoted in Ha’aretz, January 9, 2001.
  • As quoted in ibid.
  • Yediot Ahronot, January 5, 2001 (Hebrew).
  • Ibid.
  • Ha’aretz, January 8, 2001.
  • Ibid.
  • Jerusalem Post, January 10, 2001.
  • Yediot Ahronot, January 12, 2001 (Hebrew).
  • Yediot Ahronot, December 12, 2000 (Hebrew). This attitude toward opponents is not totally unprecedented in the Jewish tradition: when the Vilna Gaon, the leader of the Mitnagdim, died, the Hasidim feasted.
  • Yediot Ahronot, December 29, 2000 (Hebrew).
  • Ibid.


*     *     *

Manfred Gerstenfeld is Chairman of the Steering Committee of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, co-publisher of the Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, and an international consultant specializing in business and environmental strategy to the senior ranks of multinational corporations. His books include Environment and Confusion (Academon, 1994), Israel’s New Future: Interviews (JCPA and Rubin Mass, 1994), and Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment (Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and Rubin Mass, 1998).