Academics, the Media, and the Turkish Protests

At the multi-authored blog, Political Violence @ a Glance, Christian Davenport laments the state of analysis on the protests in Turkey. Giving voice to what I’m sure many of us academics ask ourselves (and our spouses, partners, and close colleagues)—why isn’t my scholarly work being cited?—Davenport wonders why what is now considered the “mainstream media” haven’t called on academics for their expertise. We write on the general issues that are playing out in specific contexts (“case studies,” in academic terms), and so it stands to reasons our insights matter and could contribute much to explaining what’s happening.

Later in his piece Davenport explains why he looked only at the New York Times for his evidence—it’s America’s paper of record, normally has good coverage of events, and has many readers. This seems reasonable. But there are lots and lots and lots of excellent analyses out there on the protests, written by scholars, activists, journalists, and analysts—many of whom are not American. Most of it isn’t in the mainstream media, though some of it is. Rather, it is written in blogs, online magazines, and other sources. It is shared through a Twitter community that, unfortunately, seems to incorporate only or mostly Turks or long-time Turkey watchers.

In the first few days of the expanding protests, for example, I compiled a list of what I thought were good analyses of what was happening. Sources included Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, many personal blogs, and a host of other non-mainstream media publications. If you exclude the first two sources, only a couple—The Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal—could fall into the mainstream media category.

Davenport’s discussion raises three important and inter-related questions that are increasingly being debated in academia. First, how cloistered (or not) is the nature of academic life? Clearly Davenport doesn’t live or work in a cloister (see the categories on his blog for proof). But it would be interesting to know if, in trying to see what “the media” has said about the Turkish protests, he read the other literature I cited in my list. The expansion of social media has allowed academics who want to study an ongoing phenomenon to read for real-time evidence more than just the standard media. How many scholars take advantage of this?

Second, then, what is the role of the academic in public life, particularly with the emergence of social media? Davenport is right that most scholars are ignored far too much in the mainstream media—including television, radio, and print. If our stuff isn’t getting out there, we should wonder why “they” (the journalists) aren’t contacting us. But we should also ask whether we have been writing on topics for a too-small, already-inclined audience. Some, certainly; but I think the accusation that academics don’t think in policy terms or write only esoterically is too much of a straw man.

The question then becomes, how can we get our analyses out there? It’s hard to get an op-ed published in one of the big media outlets; that’s partly why many of us write for other places, including our own blogs. It’s as much, if not more, our responsibility to get our work out there.

And following from this, the third question: How can we resolve the ever-present tension between the generalist and the area-studies specialist? Davenport’s point is well taken: scholars often write on a general topic, the implications and findings of which can be applied to different cases/developments. Comparative analysis is extremely useful, even necessary. In the case of the Turkish protests, for instance, one wonders whether the Arab Awakening is the closest similar experience; or whether it’s the J14 demonstrations in Israel; or whether it’s something else or some combination. Whatever the answer, there are—as Davenport rightly noted—insights to be gleaned from previous work on the topic of social protests and movements.

This brings me back to my first point. I agree with what Davenport is trying to do. But I wonder whether he went far enough in his analysis. The New York Times is mainstream, and what academic wouldn’t love to publish an op-ed in it? But much of the deeper, contextual analysis is being written up elsewhere. If we academics don’t account for that, too, then we’re not keeping up with the times, so to speak.


Taksim Square Meets Rothschild Boulevard

When the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests first broke out, analysts immediately thought of the Arab Awakening. The comparison might seem obvious at first glance—Tahrir and Taksim can also make for a nice alliteration. I suggested that the better comparison might be Israel’s social justice protests (better known as J14).

Over at Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow does a good job of exploring why such a comparison might be the appropriate way to go—including the nature of democracy and the popularity of the ruling party in Israel compared to the Arab states. I think he’s right: both the Israeli and the Turkish protests were driven by middle-class voters, who demanded/demand greater public accountability and participation in governmental decision-making. Few were/are advocating for a wholesale change in the system.

If J14 is the model, then we also need to think more about how the protests might end.

Israel’s social protests began in 2011, and continue into 2013. But the momentum has diminished considerably, for a number of reasons. Analysts of the Turkish protests and the demonstrators themselves might take note of these reasons, and learn from the Israeli experience.

First, because the protests were driven by middle class voters, it was hard to keep the momentum going for too long. Protestors need to work, take care of their families, and so on. By the end of the first year, rallies were held on the weekend and had taken on more of a party-like atmosphere, a place to hang out, than an effort to effect genuine political change.

Second, there was a concerned government effort to shut the Israeli rallies down, including the use of force. While this alone isn’t necessarily enough to put an end to protests, it certainly dampens enthusiasm for all but the most die-hard. In the Arab states, it was extreme police violence, including the killing of demonstrators, which helped galvanize the masses. One might even argue that the Israeli police—and the Turkish police thus far—are inadvertently maintaining a “proper” balance between “light” and extreme violence, and thus depriving the protestors of another spark.

[Update: It’s been pointed out, particularly by Gabriel Mitchell and Dahlia Scheindlin, that the Israeli police’s use of force was either minimal or more in line with the coercion used against Palestinians rather than Jewish-Israeli protestors. Both points are well taken. My purpose was to note some common use of force in both cases (beatings, arrests), but yes, the Turkish police response has certainly been far more violence.]

Third, the government co-opted many of the demands of J14 by appointing the Trajtenberg Committee to look into the reasons behind the unrest and to suggest plausible ways of accounting for their concerns. The Committee took its role seriously, meeting with protest leaders (at least in the big cities) and trying to offer some solutions. These tended to fall within the government’s neoliberal priorities, but it was genuine. Showing itself willing to meet protestors’ demands took some of the wind out of J14’s sails.

Fourth, in a political system that boasts strong parties and a strong executive—particularly where the government has considerable control in the parliament—extra-parliamentary movements have a difficult time translating their activities into political gains. This was certainly the case in Israel, which apart from the settler movement does not have a tradition of powerful interest groups operating outside the political arena. There’s no indication that Turkey is much different.

Fifth, some of the main leaders of the social protests had political aspirations. Whether they were intentionally using J14 as specific vehicles or not, after the first year and a half they started to move into the political arena, particularly into the Labor Party, which they argued was the next stage in achieving real social-economic change.

Finally, Israel held an election in January 2013. While it was some time after the start of J14, it was close enough that protestors could manifest some of their concerns and demands into voting—which again removed some of the impetus for keeping the rallies going. That the Labor Party and Meretz (traditionally associated with more government involvement in society) gained seats and the centrist Yesh Atid absorbed many of the middle class votes that reflected the J14 demands may have satisfied the base of the demonstrations for now.

It’s too early to say definitively that J14 had a major effect on policy in Israel. Now that the government budget has been presented in Israel and it’s proven tough on the middle class—to be fair, a tough budget was necessary given Israel’s deficit—protests might regain the momentum they had two years ago. But then again, they might not; that many of their demands have not been met could be an indication that the system has simply absorbed them without any lasting change.

Are similar conditions emerging in Turkey?

Coalition Considerations after the Vote

The Israeli election is upon us, or at least upon them. There have been lots of good analyses about the campaign and likely results of the voting—though there has been less discussion of possible outcomes of coalition bargaining. But this is important—the voting itself will heavily influence what government eventually emerges after several weeks of discussions, but several other factors will come into play, including how the parties determine their interests, the number of seats each got, and the regular give-and-take of politics.

Most of those who have considered what a post-election government will look like have assumed it will be a right-religious one. This is entirely plausible, but as I’ve argued already I don’t think it’s a given. Here are some of what I think are these other factors, all predicated on the assumption Netanyahu will be asked to form the government:

– Benjamin Netanyahu is more interested in stability and maintaining his position than anything else. He’s a pragmatic opportunist, and he can be pushed (through domestic and international pressure). He’s very committed to making Israel a free market economy, as his work in the 1990s and 2000s and his spinning away from promises to account for the demands of the 2011 tent protests have demonstrated. But he is open, I think, to moving around on other domestic issues like electoral reform, the haredi draft, and religious freedom. On the peace front, while I don’t think he wants to actively pursue an independent Palestinian state and does believe settlements are a legitimate expression of Jewish identity, he has in the past signed agreements (Wye River, Hebron) under the right conditions. In other words, his conceptualization of interests opens the door to more potential coalition partners than it seems.

– Tzipi Livni is desperate to make something of herself out of this election. I won’t say it’s her last chance, but she did nothing constructive when she served as leader of Kadima. Her perhaps surprising ability to garner 7-10 mandates, according to polls, is an indication that her name still matters. Look for her to try to enter the coalition; if she doesn’t, she’ll have nothing to show for two election cycles, which could well end her political career.

– Yair Lapid seems to have surged toward the end of the campaign, again according to polls. He, too, isn’t interested in remaining outside of government. Look for him to get in so that he can work on his credibility, legitimacy, and experience.

– The coalition negotiations will prove trying for Shas. In addition to competing with another religious party (Jewish Home), it will have to compete on the social-economic front with Yesh Atid, Labor, and possibly Am Shalem as well. Its position is the weakest it’s been in for a long time because of the emergence of so many rivals to its key positions.

– Final thought for now: whatever coalition does emerge, don’t get too excited or lose hope (depending on your views of it). It would not be a surprise if the coalition doesn’t stay together for four years. Bibi has a lot more choice than usual, but this also makes whatever government he puts together more unstable in the sense that the more parties there are inside and the more waiting for their chance in the wings, the more he and they can play everybody off everybody else.

There are some shared ideas between different sets of parties, but each of them still represents a set of very narrow interests. Those parties in government will have to stay true to them if they want to remain credible to their constituencies—and that includes those with narrow constituencies and those that are fighting for the same ones. But if they stay too true to them, in the face of competing demands from coalition partners and policies they don’t like, they can lose their position in the government. I suspect these dynamics will very much matter.

For other good posts about things to consider at this point in the election, read Michael Koplow’s piece and Noam Sheizaf’s analysis.

Shelly Yachimovich’s Balancing Act

This analysis of the Labor Party primary results in Israel appeared earlier today in Open Zion:

The Labor Party held its primaries on Thursday. The results give leader Shelly Yachimovich an opportunity to continue claiming the center by playing off the rightward shift in Likud, but they also pose some difficulties for her internally and on foreign policy.

I’ve argued before in these pages that Yachimovich is playing a smart long game, carefully reconstructing Labor and avoiding issues that are overly controversial and of less interest to the Israeli public at this moment. She has channeled Israelis’ disenchantment over growing income inequality, rising prices, and a general sense that the country’s drift from its former collectivist ethos is not necessarily a good thing (a feeling not shared by everyone, to be sure). These sentiments were best captured by last year’s “tent” protests, and Yachimovich has successfully built on them.

The primary enhanced her ability to campaign on this issue in a way no other party can. In second place on the electoral list is Isaac Herzog, who’s long been identified with the more liberal social wing of the party. In third spot is Amir Peretz, former chairman of the Histadrut, the giant labor federation.

Cementing the image of Labor as now focused on socio-economic issues are the spots given to two young leaders of the social protests: Stav Shaffir was elected to ninth place and Itzik Shmuli, former president of the National Union of Students, took 12th. Supplementing them are Merav Michaeli, a feminist activist, in fifth place and Mickey Rosenthal, a well-known journalist, in 13th place.

All of this allows Yachimovich to claim her party is the only genuine alternative to Likud. But Israeli party politics is known for being a sharp-elbowed game. Particularly since the 1990s, parties have become unstable in the sense that challengers are always campaigning against the contemporary leader.

This undermines party unity, shifts everyone’s attention away from policy, and contributes to a poor image of the party in the popular mind. Although Yachimovich has retained a strong grip on party politics, even she has suffered from this: Amir Peretz is considered a rival for control over the party’s ideas—she wants to keep the party centrist, while he wants to move it more left. There have also been reports of tensions between Yachimovich and Michaeli.

Indeed, Israeli journalist Lahav Harkov tweeted as the results came in that “A lot of people [Yachimovich] didn’t want got in high spots.” It’s not clear that Yachimovich will be able to avoid these internal disputes, or that potential rivals and dissidents won’t challenge her. Ari Shavit, writing at the start of the Labor leadership campaign last year, noted that Yachimovich has enough drawbacks—such as being too confrontational or ill-informed about policy issues—that raise concerns about whether she can manage domestic party affairs.

At the same time, Yachimovich has generally avoided commenting on the peace process or conflict with the Palestinians. But if she’s going to remain successful she’ll have to address it sooner rather than later. The U.N. General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a non-member state yesterday along with the Likud’s rightward shift will make it a more important policy issue than it would otherwise have been.

So far, when she has commented on it, she’s tried to stay within the current consensus: no Right of Return, annexation of major settlement blocs, and Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. But Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, was elected to the unrealistic 27th slot, making it unlikely he’ll enter the Knesset. This means Labor has fewer people with credibility and a record on the issue. While Peace Now has long been associated with the “delusional” left, it’s more careful policies in recent years have put it in a good position to make stronger arguments.

Yachimovich still has her work cut out for her. Yesh Atid and the Tzipi Livni Party, her main contenders in the center and center-left, have not been polling so well. But to be a real challenge or opposition to a Likud government, she’ll have to maintain party unity and continue to attract the bulk of the centrist and leftist vote. Not an easy task in the rough-and-tumble world of the Israeli political system.

Tomorrow Israel Won’t Be Thinking About the Palestinians

Israelis will not be thinking very much about the West Bank, the settlements, the Palestinians, or the peace process in the near future. Short of major changes in conditions, none of these will occupy the attention of Israelis.

It is not a new or startling conclusion, but it is reinforced by the panels and discussions here at the Presidential Conference in Israel. This is all the more telling given this year’s theme of “Tomorrow”–a consideration of what the near future holds for Israel.

I attended a good panel on the future of the tent protests in Israel. Chaired by journalist Orly Vilnai, it was composed of Tamar Hermann (who writes on Israeli public opinion), Daphni Leef and Itzik Shmuli (two of the young leaders of the social protest movement), and Avi Simhon (who was on the Trajtenberg committee that examined the protests and made recommendations to the government on how to address its concerns).

It was a very passionate and exciting panel. But the emotions were focused on how to proceed from here, and how the government is and should be reacting. The Palestinians and the peace process weren’t mentioned until near the end, when Leef was asked about this issue’s place in the protests.

Her response was telling. She said she was the wrong person to ask about the issue, and that you couldn’t fault the protestors for coming out in support of the particular issues they did. In one of the more poignant statements of the conference, she said people came out thinking “only of their pain.” Given the demands of the protestors, it seems reasonable if not obvious to conclude that this refers to the rising cost of living, wealth disparity, and so on–the things that directly affect the average citizen. The settlements or Palestinians do not.

Hermann provided broader context. Despite the passion surrounding the tent protests, the majority of Israelis are satisfied and content. They see, she said, how bad things are in other countries. And they see what they have here. Moreover, the middle class simply isn’t ready to take up the cause of the social protests (or, it seems obvious, the peace process and the occupation). They are afraid to rock the boat, and without them, change isn’t going to happen.

Hermann also defended the importance of politicians being involved in thinking how to change socio-economic conditions, noting that it is a political issue that will have to be dealt with at that level. As has been said many times already, in the political arena the occupation is even less popular as an issue for action or holds less interest than the social protests.

Few of the other panels dealt with or are scheduled to deal with the Palestinians. There are sessions on the future of Israel’s borders, and of the Arab Spring’s impact on Israel, and general ones on how Israel should think about the future. But for a conference built around the issues of the future, there is remarkably little–apart from the by now seemingly obligatory statements on the importance of the peace process here and there–discussion focused on the peace process and its components.

For good or ill, it doesn’t bode well for any change in that sphere.

Israel’s Dysfunctional Political System

Like other Israel-watchers, after the bombshell news that Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly crafted a new coalition government to avoid early elections, I now have to change what I originally intended to write about Israeli politics.

But I’m going to continue with the broad theme—that of the dysfunctional nature of Israel’s political system—because it matters beyond this short-term development, and because it’s this very troubled system that allowed Bibi to pull off what is clearly a stroke of genius.

First, though, a few words on who won and lost. Bibi is the big winner: he avoided the uncertainty of elections and having to fight off a renewed Labor, still-relevant Kadima, and fresh Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s new party).

Ehud Barak also won big. Michael Koplow over at Ottomans and Zionists has a nice explanation why, but in a nutshell he staved off the strong possibility that his faction, Atzmaut, would have disappeared in the election without enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Shaul Mofaz also comes out a winner: he managed to enter the government without having to worry about an election; he did what Tzipi Livni was unable to do (join the coalition); and as a former senior general will now help shape the discussion over Iran and the peace process (he doesn’t care that much about the social justice issues sparked by the J14 protests).

The biggest losers are: Tzipi Livni (having never met the expectations set out of her, she lost the leadership of Kadima to Mofaz, who then did what she couldn’t do and took the party into government); public confidence in the political process (since Mofaz had railed against Bibi’s leadership and insisted he wouldn’t join a Bibi-led government); and Yair Lapid (because he had his legs completely cut out from under him).

Beyond this, it’s hard to predict at this point how things will go. Much depends on whether the coalition partners can keep it together; on the American elections; on developments in Iran; and so on. We need a little more time to make durable arguments about the future.

Now to Israel’s political system. In some ways, it’s a bit of a surprise that it hasn’t collapsed of its own weight. The thing that keeps saving it from doing so is developments like tonight: when individuals and parties put aside their mutual antipathy, their electoral promises, and sometimes even their principles to jump into the government.

Here are four major issues that weaken the system.

Hyper-democracy: Israel is a hyper-democracy, by which I mean a multitude of parties—and a party can mean no more than a tiny handful of individuals—always compete in elections. Barring a platform that negates Israel as a Jewish state, incites racism, or supports armed struggle against Israel, any party can register. It’s normal for tens of parties to compete in each election, and for over 10 to be represented in the Knesset, provided they pass a threshold of 2% of the national vote.

Because of this, no party has ever gotten a majority of Knesset seats (61 out of 120). Every government has, therefore, been a coalition of several parties. Until the 1970s this wasn’t a major problem, but as Labor’s dominance in the political system waned and Likud grew stronger, this system encouraged these two big parties, the ones closest to the center of the political spectrum, to forgo a governing alliance with each other in favor of fighting over the support of the multiple small parties (except for a brief—and successful—national unity government from 1984-1988). This, in turn, dilutes policy as the senior coalition partner “sells” its preferences in return for small parties’ agreement to join its coalition rather than the opposition’s.

Voting system: Closely related is the voting system: proportional representation, with the country designed as a single district. This has strengthened the role of the party in elections and policymaking, and undermined the relevance of individual candidates.

At the same time this has been coupled with the rising power of central committees in the major parties. Here, influential party officials are able to barter for votes for party leadership and to determine which candidates will be placed where on the party’s electoral list (the higher up on the list, the more likely that candidate will make it into the Knesset). Politicians and policy platforms, then, are determined more by the rough-and-tumble politics of bargaining than serious policy discussion.

Power of the religious parties: A “religious” party has served in almost every government since the establishment of the state. For a long time it was the National Religious Party (NRP), a staunchly Zionist party. In the 1980s, the non-Zionist Shas party burst onto the scene, determined to trade its political support in return for resources for its religious and Sephardic electorates (funds for social services).

As Labor and Likud tried to avoid sharing a government, they each sought to buy the support of Shas, so that they could form the coalition. This pushed both the NRP and, later, the third religious party, United Torah Judaism (itself a merger of two other parties) to follow Shas’s example, strengthening the centrifugal forces in the political system. Moreover, both NRP and its contemporary off-shoots (National Union, Jewish Home) and UTJ take a harder line on settlements and relations with the Palestinians, posing a constant threat to a government in which they sit and which advocates more movement on those issues.

Personalization of politics: An over-focus on individuals has undermined normalization, stability, serious policy debate, and institutional memory. In the non-religious parties, personalities have come to play an out-sized role in determining party politics, particularly in terms of stability and coalition bargaining. Since the 1980s, but especially the 1990s, party leaders have faced struggles to maintain their position in the face of consistent challenges from would-be leaders. Labor is the worst: between 2001 and today, the party had six leaders. All of them were forced to defend their tenures in the face of challengers’ efforts (usually successful) to unseat them.

At the same time, party leaders have made it their priority, in the face of party principles and public declarations, to enter government. Hence Mofaz’s agreement tonight; Ehud Barak’s splitting off from Labor in 2011 to form a smaller faction so he could take up Netanyahu’s offer of Minister of Defense; and so on.

The religious parties are not run by central committees but rather subject to the individual authority and direction of their prominent rabbis. And, of course, there is the tendency to form new parties around individuals, rather than ideologies or policy goals: Lapid, Barak, Yitzhak Mordecai, Ariel Sharon—they’ve all believed that they represent something new in politics, and can drive, by sheer force of their will and their appeal, their parties and their goals. Their record is primarily one of weakening the bigger parties, by siphoning off their votes; typically they don’t last more than an election or two. Freud would have had a large pool of subjects to study.

There are reports that the new coalition is working to change the political system, presumably to strengthen the big parties and undermine the smaller ones. If so, this would go a long way to stabilizing and de-politicizing the system. If that happens, tonight will have been worth it.

The Israeli Left Needs a Better Game Plan

Ari Shavit’s piece in Haaretz does a nice job of showing that the Jewish “brotherhood” is the mirror image of the Muslim Brotherhood (and other Islamists) in the Arab world. As religious fundamentalists, their most extreme position thus far is that it’s better for soldiers to be martyred rather than hear a woman singing. In such a process they are chipping away at the modern, secular institutions of the state.

Even more dangerous is the emergence of that hybrid creature, the hardal. For a long time, the religious Zionist community—dati leumi, and its political manifestation, Miflaga Datit Leumit or Mafdal for short—and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community—the haredi­—did not get along. The former’s belief that Zionism was not a blasphemous attempt to remove God from the equation of Jewish history was anathema to the haredi, the most extreme communities of which opposed the very existence of the state of Israel.

But beginning in the 1970s, some religious Zionists became more radicalized in their attitudes toward settling the territories. As they also became closer to the haredi in their levels of religious observance, many haredi, who in the past didn’t involve themselves on policy toward the territories, have come to see holding on to them as a necessity. Many Orthodox families are moving there, because of the cheaper cost of living; many believe that if Jews are already living there then their lives must be protected; and many seem to have accepted the old religious Zionist narrative that Zionism can part of God’s plan.

The ability of the religious to control the policy agenda is an oddity. Its population is small (about 10% self-identify as haredi, and 10% as Orthodox, while almost 50% self-identify as secular); its political powers are hemmed in by its minority position (in the current Knesset, 19 seats out of 120); and civil authority takes precedence over religious authority in numerous areas. For instance, even where religious laws are hegemonic, such as in marriage, the state will still recognize civil marriages performed outside the state.

But the ability of religious groups to assert their priorities has been strengthened by two processes in particular: One, the major secular parties cannot cooperate with each other. The national unity governments of the 1980s were an exception, and only came about after Likud and Labor were sufficiently alarmed at the reach of the religious parties. So they would rather bring the religious parties into government coalitions than compromise with their opponents on the other side of the political spectrum.

Two, the behavior of the (secular and dovish) left in Israel has been politically problematic, both on foreign policy and on Israeli identity. It’s not entirely the left’s fault: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin took away the one person whose military and hawkish credentials could not be questioned but who could claim total legitimacy for the left’s goals and appeal to those beyond the left. And the failures of Oslo—the fault of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and the Arab states—have scarred Jewish Israelis and made them more suspicious than ever before.

This, in turn, has made support for settlements a default position; at best, the issue of support is more complex than the left allows for. Although polls show diminishing support for the settlements since the first intifada and the onset of the Oslo process, in June 2011, the Israel Democracy Institute found that 70% of Jewish Israelis would not support the removal of all settlements even for a full peace agreement with the Palestinians, while only 26% would. That latter figure rises only if major settlement blocs can remain with Israel.

But the left has not accommodated itself to these changed realities. Much of it, particularly on the hard left, continues to rail against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, but in the process calling into question the very notion of Zionism. To many Israelis, those policies might be problematic but still necessary, but questioning the relevance of Zionism as a Jewish national movement—in the face of the global Israel-as-an-apartheid state and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movements—is just plain dangerous.

By focusing primarily on the Palestinians—their plight, their needs, their demands—the left in Israel has taken itself out of the political game. Jewish Israelis don’t want to hear this—they either have their own problems (witness the J14 protests and the unwillingness to incorporate demands for justice specifically for Palestinians) or they are doing well and don’t need to consider the conflict anymore, like they did during the Second Intifada.

It is said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. These struggles over policy toward the territories are reflected back into domestic issues of identity, where the left is similarly seen as weakening the very identity of Israel as a Jewish state—indeed, not caring at all about such a thing—and the right is seen as valiantly defending it against a global delegitimization campaign. This opens the door to passivity among non-religious in the face of religious incursions into the public sphere.

I don’t believe most Israelis accept the creeping Orthodox fundamentalism. But the only way to change the balance of political forces in Israel is to reassert a credible secular and dovish political platform that can appeal to the bulk of the secular public. It might be Machiavellian, but in politics, principles only go so far. Israelis are smart enough to know a credible alternative when they see it. As of now, there isn’t one.

Israeli Democracy is Safer Than We Think

The warnings are dire: Israeli democracy is greatly endangered, and those who will suffer will be the Palestinians, the secular, the foreign workers, the leftists; in short, everyone who isn’t haredi, secular nationalist, or religious nationalist. There are plenty of examples of this trend toward the shutting down of what have long been basic freedoms and values in Israel, including efforts to stifle groups critical of government policies, segregate men and women in haredi and the broader society, deepen the second-class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel (or even sever them from their citizenship), and expand settlements in the West Bank and tolerate settler violence toward Palestinians there.

On the individual level, Jewish-Israeli society is witnessing rising racism toward the Arab population; and there are efforts to clear Arabs out from living in certain areas and even working for Jewish employers.

Worrisome indeed. However, the situation was never as clear-cut as many have assumed. Much of it is contextual and conditional, which means that if the broader circumstances change or can be changed, then these threats to democratic values will decline.

First, some of these attitudes and efforts are a function of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself and a broader sense of Israel’s position in the world. That is, when Israel is perceived to be under siege and without friends, its (Jewish) citizens hunker down and come to accept that politics must be so arranged as to facilitate an effective response to these external threats.

Compared to the late 1990s, for example, the Tami Steinmetz Center’s Peace Indices found that on the “Oslo Index,” the “Peace Index,” and the “Negotiation Index,” trends were dropping by the late 2000s. This public attitude translates during elections into greater support for right-leaning political parties. The right is perceived to be tougher on security, particularly as compared to left parties with weak leaders, and willing to censor internal criticism out of necessity.

Second, changes in Israel’s socio-economic structures have led to a decrease in concern for policy toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and by implication the domestic politics of the conflict. Time Magazine’s assertion that Israel doesn’t care about peace captures this condition well. Economic growth rates in Israel have been remarkable. Although the gap between rich and poor in Israel is increasing at an alarming rate, Israelis are still doing much better overall in social and economic terms. And even where concerns about this gap exist—such as the J14 social justice protests—the fact that a large majority of Israelis support the continuation of the protests indicates the specifically socio-economic focus of their concerns.

Third, for all the vitriol heaped on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and he does deserve at least some of it), it’s not clear that he’s as blindly heavy-handed as widely assumed. When push comes to shove—and the shove is accompanied by heavy pressure either from within Israel or outside of it (or both)—he does block policies promoted by his coalition partners or even fellow Likud members intended to shut down debate and diminish political freedoms.

Although he might not learn, in the deeper cognitive sense, what is the better policy, he does react to context. He isn’t willing to push Israel into isolation for the cause of domestic politics. Reports are that Netanyahu has done this very thing, by freezing two bills designed to cut the financial legs out from human rights groups critical of the Likud-led government.

Fourth, in opposition to groups created to weaken Israeli democratic freedoms, from Im Tirtzu to West Bank-based settler organizations, there are a host of groups shining light on the darker practices and intentions of some of the national and religious Zionist and Orthodox groups.

In Federalist No.10, James Madison argued that the existence of “factions” was inevitable in a genuine democracy. He concluded that the best way to make sure some factions didn’t impose their narrow interests on everybody else was to ensure the existence of various factions balancing each other out. This describes the Israeli case, where many groups like the New Israel Fund, Bimkom, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah, Yesh Din, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Machsom Watch, and others all work to check the stifling of rights and freedoms and multiple voices.

None of this is to say that Israel is not in trouble, or that those interested in maintaining an open polity can sit back and rest. But more realistic appraisal—including of the contextual factors—is necessary to avoid overly-ideological or end-of-days pronouncements that might sound good in a news release but do not help address the specific cause of the given problem. It will also help to plan for the long game, instead of being forced to play the short game by always having to react to immediate efforts.

Without understanding that the current situation is conditional, it might be easy to despair of Israeli democracy. Rather, the broader view provides for some hope not only for change, but for efforts to enact that change.

The Future of J14

I attended the most recent J14 demonstration, this one at Rabin Square on October 29. Although I arrived late to it, there were still lots of people there—singles, gay couples, straight couples, families. There were some fiery speeches focusing on the high cost of living and the cruel anonymity of the market. There were heated political discussions in small groups on the outskirts of the demonstration. At the end, Hatikvah was sung and many in the crowd stood (relatively) still and hummed along.

All in all, it appeared that J14 retains the interest of many Israelis. While I think Gideon Levy’s take on the demonstration might be a bit of a rush to judgment at this point, I’d argue that Ami Kaufman’s uncertainty about its energy and effect is more telling.

J14 is important because of how it began and what it represents, but the key consideration now is how it will pursue its goals of social justice, raising the quality of public services, and changing Israel’s socio-economic structures. Will it remain an extra-parliamentary movement trying to shape the policy discussion? Or will it join the political system and try to directly manage Israel’s social and economic policies? I suggest that the first option is the better one.

In the Israeli experience, groups operating outside the Knesset have been quite successful. Think of the settler movement, the defense establishment, the labor movement. Once groups move into the Knesset, though, their success has diminished. Apart from the religious parties, the Israeli political system does not easily facilitate protest or special interest parties, and movements that have transformed into political parties might shine brightly for a brief electoral moment in the political constellation, but they soon fizzle away.

From 1948 to 1977 the Israeli political system was a “dominant party system,” in which Labor’s hegemony was reinforced each election. The old quip, that elections were held only to determine who would be Labor’s coalition partners, rang true until the Likud “earthquake” victory of 1977. From then until 1992, although Likud never dominated the system the way Labor had, it was the “go-to” party and the senior partner even in governments that included Labor.

From 1992 to 2006, the two parties alternated control of the government. The sudden rise of Kadima in 2006, with 29 Knesset seats, raised questions about whether a new era had emerged—one in which third parties could have a chance at governing.

Kadima’s star appears to be fading now. If current projections pan out, not only will Likud increase its seats from 27 to 37, but Labor will rebound as well from 8 to 22 seats. In both cases, these gains will come to a great degree at the expense of Kadima: the same survey indicates Kadima will drop from 28 to 17 seats.

If J14 rides its wave of support into Labor—and the polls indicate Labor’s rise in popularity is partly due to renewed interest in social-economic issues—it’s not clear that this will translate into real political power. Requiems for Labor’s future were common when Ehud Barak took his small faction out of it to form Independence, and there isn’t any evidence that Labor can return to its former glory or even become a major party anymore. The Israeli electorate has, at least temporarily, shifted right; and as long as the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t getting any worse for Israel and the Palestinians continue to make Israelis feel threatened and besieged, Likud’s primacy is all but ensured.

If J14 can’t go through Labor, it certainly can’t go through Likud or Kadima: the former’s free market orientation is anathema to it, and the latter’s single-issue focus leaves no room for addressing Israel’s high cost of living. This only leaves the option of forming another party.

But here again the omens are inauspicious. The history of “third parties” in Israel—that is, parties that are not Labor or Likud but that appeal to voters in the center of the spectrum, independents, and those interested in broad change—is one of super-bright stars that disintegrate quickly by the heat of their own expectations.

The major third parties that have been formed over time, which have sought to address similar issues as J14 and adopted a more dovish foreign policy platform, have done well in one election, but disappeared in the following one.

In 1965, David Ben-Gurion left Labor to form Rafi. It received 10 seats in that year’s election; but zero in 1969. In 1977, the Democratic Movement for Change won 15 mandates (contributing to the defeat of Labor by siphoning off many of its supporters), but none in 1981. In 1996, the Third Way won a mere 4 seats, but even that could not be repeated in 1999 when it didn’t win any. And in 1999, the Center Party took 6 mandates only to lose all of them in the next election in 2003.

J14 has potential to matter in policymaking. But in historical terms and under contemporary political conditions, its best chance is an extra-parliamentary movement, mobilizing support and channeling it into votes for parties that agree to work toward its goals.