How has the Gaza conflict altered attitudes towards Israel’s security and future as a Jewish democracy? Stephen Oryszczuk speaks to leading voices on both sides of the debate.
Distinguished, smartly dressed, with a piercing gaze, Israeli legal expert Talia Sasson sips her morning tea in an upmarket Kensington hotel and tells me what she’s been talking about during her UK visit.
“I don’t think the Israeli government will do what I think they should do,” she says. “So I’ve been criticising them in advance.”
The incoming president of the New Israel Fund has been representing Israel from the State Attorney’s Office for 25 years, her parents and grandparents having helped build the state. She wants to see it safe. But like others on the centre-left, she worries that Israel’s own policies are risking the very state she has fought to protect.
On Gaza, she’s tough on Hamas, but says Israel has the wrong policy towards the Strip. Cranking up the pressure on 1.8 million people who already live in an open prison will only breed tomorrow’s terror, she says. It won’t stop it.
More generally, it is not the rockets that most worry her. What keeps her awake at night is the threat to Israel’s legitimacy owing to the way it treats Palestinians.
In the intellectual space she inhabits, this is something of a resurgent theme, voiced with increasing force and frequency since the mortars and missiles stopped. And at this time of reflection, Sasson says, more Israelis are starting to agree. “People under rockets have no patience,” she says.
“When you’re under attack, you unite, and we did. But when the rockets stopped, people starting to ask what led us into war; why couldn’t we stop the rockets; how do we stop them next time?”
She argues that the right-wing refrain – that the IDF will solve all the problems – has not brought peace. And Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist and former aide to Shimon Peres, agrees that Israel can no longer live by the sword. “Our smart bombs and our planes didn’t help us,” he says.
“They didn’t win the war, and never could have.”Hamas only stopped because they agreed to, she points out. “That frightened people. They saw we can’t control the world, we can’t have peace through force.
” Militarily, Israel must be prepared, she agrees. “But we must also agree terms with our enemies. We give and get back, they give and get back. Political solutions are the only way Israel can survive.”
For her, and others like her, that survival cannot be taken for granted, especially given that Israel’s policies continue to erode its support. “What did we do in response to Gaza?” she asks.
“We expropriate 1,000 acres of the West Bank. Why? How does that serve Israel?”
She leans in. “Let’s talk now as Jews, as supporters of Israel and as patriots.”
“The state was founded on two main principles: a homeland of the Jewish people, and a democratic state. How can this be when 2.6 million people live under occupation, with no political rights, in between 300,000 Jews [settlers] who do? Two systems of law in a shared land with no border? How can that be in a democracy?”
“Settlers have parties to vote for, security forces to protect them, ways to influence their governance, she says. But Palestinians “don’t control anything”.
“You need to control your life. Who controls their lives? The army of Israel does. You want to leave your village for another? Israel has to let you. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. You want to cross to Gaza to see your family? Sorry, you can’t.”
She looks out of the window and points. “If I want to go to Oxford Street, I’m going. Imagine if I had to ask for permission. That’s no way to live. We risk everything with this. We have to remain democratic to continue to exist. If we lose democracy, we lose legitimacy, and if we lose legitimacy, we will lose our state. We can’t do that. We absolutely cannot do that. And many Israelis are starting to agree.”
What she’s warning about is already happening, she says. “We see these price tag attacks. It’s a type of Jewish terrorism. We see anti-democratic laws from the Knesset, to limit funding for human rights groups, because they criticise the occupation and the two different systems of law for Jews and Palestinians.”
Is it true? Has Israel lurched irretrievably to the right? Not if you believe the polls. Well over half of the Knesset members say they would still vote for a two-state solution, which implies the opposite.
The problem, Sasson says, is that this proportion is not represented in Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
It is this government, says Dr Ishai Menuchin, chairman of Amnesty Israel, that used the kidnap and murder of the three Jewish teenagers earlier this this to create a “crisis mode” and enter the West Bank en masse.
“They arrested hundreds without charge, getting information on other cases, collecting genetic data, everything they wanted to do,” he says. “They made Palestinians our optimal enemy. Palestinian minors are shot by Israeli soldiers. Most Israelis don’t care. That’s the mood now.”
He gives an example of the concerns he shares with Sasson. “Two boys were caught throwing stones at an Israeli soldier,” he explains.
“One Jewish boy from Hebron, 14 years old, the other is a Palestinian, also from Hebron, also 14. They’re investigated. With the Israeli boy, they wait until his family to come and he sees a judge that day. But the Palestinian boy is under military system, a different system. He has no adults. It takes 48 hours before he sees anyone.”
He adds: “When you have two different systems of law, for two people, living in the same place, same age, same sex, the only difference is their nationality – what do you call it? What did they call it in Africa? And why do we do it? It depends who you ask. Some Israelis justify it by saying it is because the West Bank is under military occupation. Others deny that it is under occupation.”
Despite this unfairness, Israel gets away with it, he says, because nobody criticises it for its actions. “If they do, they’re accused of being an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew, and the government of Israel uses this. But the end will be horrible. One day the world will say enough is enough.”
Depending on which poll you read, there’s evidence to support the concerns. A recent survey by the Rafi Smith Institute for Mitzvim found that only 13% of Israelis felt Israel’s global standing was good, with a plurality (45% vs 24%) believing that the Gaza campaign caused damage to its foreign relations.
Of those polled, almost two thirds felt that improving these relations depended on progress in peace talks.
Post-Gaza, “Israel’s debit sheet now includes a further decline in its international standing,” says Levy, who joins the ranks of those agonising over Israel’s future.
“Even worse, that debit sheet includes open wounds to Israel’s weakening democratic regime,” he says. “They won’t heal quickly.”
Gerald Steinberg takes a deep breath. This president of NGO Monitor and professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University has heard it all before, and is used to addressing such topics.
“First of all, there’s no concrete evidence that the events of the summer changed the overall Israeli perception of the conflict and of the options that are realistic in moving forward,” he says, in a slow, patient voice.
Throughout Israel, he maintains, there’s really been no fundamental change in thinking. “If anything, the killing of the three boys, the responses, the Gaza war, the rockets – all reinforce the position that the conflict is extremely complicated and that there are no quick or simple solutions.”
Despite his obvious patience, he clearly has very little time for the arguments of his ideological opponents, especially on Gaza.
“There’s a kind of hubris among some on the left that says Israel can somehow change the situation,” he says. “It ignores the fact that Hamas has used every resource available to make rockets and dig tunnels. It ignores the fact that the population of Gaza supports the ongoing war with Israel.”
Israel cannot control the politics and priorities of the people and the government of Gaza, no more than it can control what goes on in Lebanon or Syria, says Steinberg.
“We can only defend our interests. But for 30 years at least, the so-called peace camp has claimed to be able to solve the conflict by Israel changing its policies, which is patronising.”
Israel is fighting against a population that still supports its annihilation, he says, adding: “This is not a function of their suffering. It is a deep religious, ethnic, tribal conflict. Israel can take some actions to protect itself, to mitigate some of the hostility, but we can’t dictate terms. The ‘left’ clings to the idea that it’s all about our behaviour. It’s not.
What next for Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza? Steinberg says this summer’s conflict may, ironically, have moved things forward in some way. “Israel may now have established deterrence, making the costs of attacks too high,” he says.
“Once you have that, then you can agree to some mechanisms to rebuild the civilian infrastructure, but ultimately, “this is a Palestinian issue”.
He says: “Palestinians in Gaza have to decide how to get on, just as Palestinians in the West Bank have to decide how they’re going to run their lives. Israel’s only objective is not to allow the abuse of materials to build more tunnels. After that, what the Palestinians do in Gaza is their business.”