I remembered today how much I liked Uzi Benziman’s article, Israel awaits its De Gaulle, when I first read it in 2002.
Benziman wrote the article after yet another Israeli government had failed to serve its full term, and had to call early elections. He noted that once again Israel would tinker with its electoral system in the hope of resolving its political instability, and knew that once again it would be disappointed. And the reason it would be disappointed was that Israel’s political instability did not arise from problems with its voting system, but from the dogged determination of both Right and Left (such as it is at the moment in Israel) to continue squandering its blood and treasure on trying to colonize the Occupied Territories.
Above all, it stemmed from the absence of a leader who could transcend everyday politics, and do for Israel what De Gaulle had once done for a faltering French Fourth Republic, when he answered the chattering jingoism that claimed "France without Algeria is not France", with the simple reality that "Algeria is not France. The Algerian people are not French".
I went back to read Benziman’s article again today, when it looks like Israel may well face early elections again, and it’s as applicable as it was in 2002. In fact Israel seems more unlikely than ever to produce a de Gaulle who will say plainly to its citizens: “The Occupied Territories are not Israel”. You can’t help but notice that at one time Israel produced statesmen who – even when you disagreed with them fundamentally – represented the country with gravitas on the world stage. Today it produces … Shaul Mofaz?
Anyway, the article in question:
The late historian Jacob Talmon loved to tell his students the following anecdote. During World War I, an Italian officer stood up in the trenches, raised his arm, and barked to his soldiers "Avanti." They looked at him, smiled, and took their hands out of their pockets and applauded. "Bravo," they exclaimed. And there it ended. The officer and his soldiers stayed where they were and left soldiers from other countries to sacrifice their lives.
Each year, when Prof. Talmon told this tale to a packed lecture hall, the students would respond the same way. They'd crack grins and grasp the point: The Italians are a people that does not take itself too seriously. This is a people for which surface impressions are more important than internal essence; and it is sufficiently shrewd to acknowledge its character, and let others do the hard work.
Last week, when Ariel Sharon called for early elections, public discourse was saturated by comparisons between the frequent political crises in Italy and the change of regimes in Israel. But this analogy is only skin deep: In Rome, governments rise and fall due to a particular political structure, and, perhaps, because of a national temperament (if such a thing exists) which is reflected in Talmon's story. In Israel, by contrast, the roots of political change are to be found in a miscue 35 years ago, when the state made the mistake of believing that territory it conquered during the Six-Day War was its genuine possession, and that it was entitled to settle there. Even if this distinction does an injustice to the complexity of problems faced today by Italy, it nonetheless seems that Israel's political instability today bears more of a resemblance to France's Fourth Republic, in the period preceding De Gaulle's ascent to power.
The turbulence which rocked France after World War II worsened during the 1950s because it lacked a leader strong enough to relieve it of the burden of the Algerian conquest. Disputes about the future of Algeria convulsed French society; one expression of this social polarization was the change of political regimes. Attempts to stabilize the political framework via a change in the election system were to no avail. Though there were logical, pragmatic arguments favoring the implementation of changes in the political system, such reforms did nothing to amend the fundamental flaw: The French people were divided about the future of Algeria, and as long as the country lacked a leader who might cure this Achilles' heel, France remained under the thrall of political chaos.
The 16th Knesset is to be chosen under a different system than the one used to elect the outgoing parliament. This, in itself, is a welcome change, one which seems to promote stability in a political arena which topples prime ministers every 18 or 24 months. However, though the return of the one vote (for a Knesset list) system is a positive change, it alone has no chance of putting Israel on the path to orderly political rule. The change is only technical; it does not address the roots of the crisis which plagues Israel and threatens to relegate it to the status of a Third World country.
Leaving the territories is the way to take the country out of the mire. Willingness to take this step is the only way to extricate Israel from its muddle and enable it to develop normally. Many now perceive what only a few grasped after June 10 1967 - that the territories can be used as a bargaining chip on the day the Palestinians express willingness to forge a peace agreement that will remove mutual demands and put an end to the dispute. Instead of grasping this truth, Israel's governments have for generations turned the West Bank and Gaza Strip into large playing fields on which to exhaust the Israeli public and sow messianic delusions among it.
This tragic error today threatens the state's foundation, its character and its ability to develop. All indications suggest that the upcoming elections will not address the sources of the national crisis; instead, they will relate only to its external manifestations (among them, socio-economic woes). Israel still awaits its De Gaulle.
-- Israel awaits its De Gaulle, by Uzi Benziman; Ha’aretz, 16 Nov, 2002.
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