Sunday 4 September 2016

The Israeli Civil War

According to an old Israeli anecdote, Charles de Gaulle once complained to David Ben-Gurion, over a glass of (kosher) cognac: ‘Although I am Monsieur le Président, I have to deal with the Prime Minister, and he’s such a potz! You are sooo lucky, Davíd: your Président is just a figurehead; as the Prime Minister, you have all the power…’  ‘Oh, you have no idea!’ said Ben-Gurion with much chagrin.  ‘You see, I have to deal with Jews in Israel.  That’s currently two and a half million aspiring Prime Ministers and each thinks he can do a better job than I do…’

There are now almost 7 million aspiring Prime Ministers in Israel and about the same number in the Diaspora.  And while every Jew thinks s/he can be Prime Minister, some act as if they already are.

Those who closely follow Israeli politics should be familiar with the phenomenon of high-level retired security and military personnel (sometimes even still-serving high-level security/military personnel!) making controversial public statements on political issues.  Such statements, often quoted out of context and sometimes creatively ‘interpreted’, invariably cause embarrassment to the country’s political leadership.

The case of the so-called ‘Gatekeepers’ (former chiefs of the ‘Shin-Bet’ Internal Security Service who went public with their own analyses of the situation – mostly critical of Israel’s political leaders) is very well-known – not in the least because they are often cited, both by Israel’s sworn enemies and by various ‘concerned friends’.

What contributes to this situation is the fact that, in Israel, retired security and military ‘celebrities’ very often aspire to (and quite often achieve) top political positions.  Out of the six ‘Gatekeepers’, four have been involved in politics after retirement; a fifth (Yuval Diskin) flirted with politics for a couple of years, before deciding to remain just a commentator – at least for the time being; the sixth ‘Gatekeeper’ (Avraham Shalom) is the only one who could never enter politics: he had to resign from the Service, after allegedly ordering the summary execution of two captured Palestinian terrorists – and thus becoming a political ‘hot potato’.

Given Israel’s fully proportional election system, anyone aspiring to climb the ladder in politics must achieve national (rather than local) recognition.  This is particularly important for security chiefs who – until not so long ago – operated mostly in the shadows, away from the public eye.  And the sure-fire way to quickly achieve national (and also international) recognition is… to make controversial statements, of the kind that garner media attention and stir the interest of an already jaded public, one that is bombarded with ‘news’ umpteen times a day.  Combine that with the Israeli/Jewish penchant for wild exaggeration and bombastic communication (traits that anyone familiar with the country and its people is well aware of) and you’ve got an explosive mixture – at least from a media point of view; a perpetual generator of cheap journalistic ‘scoops’.

The latest such scoop concerns one Tamir Pardo, former head of the Mossad (Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations).  His potential political ambitions are, for the moment at least, unclear.  But it’s very early in the day: Mr. Pardo retired from the Institute only in June 2016.

A public speech Pardo made a few days ago contained some controversial remarks.  Controversial enough, it seems, to attract the attention of Israeli media and – as always – of various interested parties outside Israel.

The Iranian Press-TV, for instance, stated with some glee:
“Israel heads toward civil war: Ex-spy boss”
The ‘forever-worried-over-Israeli-policies’ US Jewish organisation J-Street lamented:
“Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said that the biggest threat to Israel’s security is the conflict with the Palestinians and not Iran’s nuclear program.”
So what did Tamir Pardo actually say?

In an article entitled ‘Ex Mossad chief: Israel's biggest threat is potential civil war, not Iran’ the Jerusalem Post quoted Pardo as stating:
“There is no outside existential threat to Israel, the only real existential threat is internal division […] Internal division can lead us to civil war – we are already on a path toward that.  If a society crosses a certain line in its division and hatred, it is a real possibility to see a phenomenon like a civil war.”
The Times of Israel’s report, entitled Israel ‘at risk of civil war,’ says ex-Mossad chief, boasted the following quote:
“The internal threat must worry us more than the external threat […] If a divided society goes beyond a certain point, you can end up, in extreme circumstances, with phenomena like civil war.  To my regret, the distance [until we reach that point] is shrinking. I fear that we are going in that direction”
On the face of it, the two quotes are similar; though even ‘on the face of it’, one needs to ask why they are not identical.  Words are important; especially words uttered by a former Head of Mossad on such grave political matters.  Words printed between quote marks in a serious newspaper are supposed to represent accurate records of what has been said – untainted by journalistic interpretation.  How difficult can it be to produce an accurate transcript and translation?

But if we drill down beyond ‘on the face of it’, the two quotes show important differences not just in wording, but in substance, too.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Pardo said that there is no worrying external threat to Israel.  But according to Times of Israel, he implied the opposite: there is such an external threat, though it is not quite as worrying as the internal one.

The Jerusalem Post has Pardo talking not just about ‘division’ in the Israeli society, but also about ‘hatred’ – a rather more loaded term that does not appear in the Times quotation.  The Times also has Pardo qualifying that civil war can happen “in extreme circumstances”.  The Post’s quote contains no such qualification and has a graver, more urgent tone.

I won’t trouble you, dear reader, with a comprehensive analysis.  Suffice to say that all major Israeli media outlets (Israel HaYom, Ynet, Ha’aretz, etc.) covered the same speech; all included quotes from it.  Yet no two quotes are identical; and some differences are quite substantial.

And that’s just the quotes – before we deal with their selection and interpretation.  (And it seems that, the more ‘liberal’ the newspaper, the more liberal the interpretation, too.  Pun intended.)

The words “civil war” exert an undeniable fascination; but, while jumping on that juicy bone Pardo threw them, some of the distinguished members of the press appear to have a problem comprehending (and reproducing for the benefit of the readers) the overall message of that speech.

Ynet reports that, talking about divisions in the Israeli society, Pardo has also said:
"We live in a world dealing with a serious problem of distrust between the citizens and their governments.  Take, for example, the referendum in Britain several months ago.  After all, if you look into how many among the population truly understand the ramifications of leaving the EU, you won't even reach one percent.  The same applies to the primary elections in the US.  We need to be careful not to end up in a similar situation."
None of the other outlets I researched have reproduced this part of the speech.  And yet, if indeed this is what Pardo said, that’s extremely important context.  It changes the meaning of the whole thing, because Pardo appears to say that social divisions in Britain and USA are worse than in Israel.  The passage thus becomes less a criticism of a terrible, unique Israeli problem and more an advance warning to avoid “end[ing] up in a similar situation".

Other passages from Pardo’s speech appear to support such reading:
"At the end of the day, there is more that unites us than divides us, but there are those within Israeli society who prefer to emphasize what divides rather than what unites us.  I can't put a finger on one group or leader; (this phenomenon) exists among all sectors in the country. […] A state is a combination of unity and individuality.  We each have our own unique characteristics, but we also have things that unite us.  Some want to apply their unique characteristics to the entire society—and they fail."
This reads more like a very reasonable plea for unity and less like the hysterical diagnosis of some unique, incurable social pandemics.

The Israeli society is divided, no doubt about it; so is every other democratic society.  In Israel, there are Arabs and Jews, left and right, religious and secular, rich and poor, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi…  Some of these social fault lines are arguably unique to Israel; but so is the social glue that binds the country together.

Israel has fought excruciating wars, heard blood-curdling threats, suffered acts of infernal terrorism, withstood international isolation, experienced deep economic crises, absorbed massive rocket bombardments and took risky steps towards peace with existential enemies.  Claiming national interest, Israeli governments have – at least twice so far – forcibly evicted their own citizens from houses legally acquired.  Trials like these would stretch the social fabric of any nation; yet the patchy Israeli quilt was not torn asunder – not even close!

Meanwhile, real civil wars rage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia… Military coups are staged… no, not in ‘militaristic’ Israel, but in Egypt and Turkey.  And similar cataclysms are waiting to happen pretty much everywhere else in the Middle East, where dictators hold on to power (and hold together crumbling societies) by the skin of their teeth.  With all her undeniable challenges, Israel is the one oasis of stability in arguably the world’s bloodiest region.  I'm sure Tamir Pardo – when not speaking in front of journalists – would agree!

Not that things are peachy outside the Middle East: even the oh-so-civilised, oh-so-progressive Europe is facing fearsome challenges: the continent’s loudly-professed ‘liberal’ ideals fail when tested in the fire of mass immigration; extreme-left and extreme-right movements spring up like mushrooms; deemed ‘things of the past,’ ethnic divisions return with a vengeance; and ‘ever-closer union’ is now ever the butt of jokes and sarcasm.

In the UK, in France, USA and elsewhere, multicultural populations turn out to be not very cultured; while multiracial societies are more than a bit racist.

There are in the world those loudly boasting of ‘progressive steps’ to drown out the clunking noise of chains; in Israel, some are doing the exact opposite: trying to shroud bright achievements in shrill criticism.

Of course, no one can (or should) stop politicians, generals and mere people in the street from expressing their opinion; I just wish that they’d express it with a tad less bombastic hyperbole.  But then, these guys are all Jews, you see; they belong to that people of 14 million Prime Ministers – always self-critical, forever tormented by self-doubt and argumentative to a fault.  After all, what is the Talmud, if not a collection of arguments among Jews?

The media is wrong, you see: that guy who spoke of ‘civil war’ wasn’t Tamir Pardo, former head of the Mossad, but Tamir Pardo – aspiring Prime Minister.  He was just being Jewish.

So, despite what he and other ‘Gatekeepers’ may or may not have said, let me advise the Iranian mullahs in charge of Press TV: don’t hold your breath; to our concerned friends at J-Street I say ‘worry not.’  Israel isn’t collapsing into civil war anytime soon!

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