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Thursday, July 10, 2014

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Security still tops social issues: Israeli pundit

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Yossi Klein Halevi

TORONTO — Israelis who yearn for a kind of “normalcy” in which Israel is freed from “existential angst” are labouring under a “sweet illusion,” says Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi.

In an analysis of the outcome of Israel’s recent general election, Klein Halevi said a growing number of Israelis, particularly younger ones, long to focus on everyday domestic concerns rather than on life-and-death security issues.

But because they live on “the edge of a volcano” in a politically unstable and volatile region, their longing for normality is unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon, he told an estimated 800 listeners in a keynote speech to the closing event of the UJA campaign at the Sheraton Centre last week.

It was announced that the campaign has raised $54 million so far from 16,700 gifts. A UJA spokersperson said a dollar goal for the campaign was not set, but that it’s running $2 million ahead of last year at this time, and more donations are expected.

Last year’s drive raised just over $57 million.

Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem who made aliyah from the United States in 1982, said last month’s election opened up a “new divide” between Israelis concerned mainly by socio-economic issues and Israelis preoccupied by an external agenda relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As proof of his argument that security issues trump internal ones, he cited a widely reported incident on Jan. 30 in which the Israeli Air Force bombed a convoy in Syria trucking Russian-made surface-to-surface missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Klein Halevi suggested that 2013 could well be the “year of decision” when Israel decides whether or not to use military means to stop Iran from building a militarized nuclear arsenal.

Yet Israel is also concerned by other unfolding developments in the Middle East, he noted.

Syria is imploding in a vicious civil war that already has claimed the lives of 60,000 Syrians and internally displaced two million Syrian citizens.

Egypt has been convulsed by instability since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and its replacement by a Muslim Brotherhood government.

In a sombre reference to the increasingly tense period before the Six Day War, when Israel was suspended in a state of anxiety and uncertainty, Klein Halevi said Israelis face a similar moment of reckoning today.

Returning to Israel’s election, he argued that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the sole candidate who placed emphasis on foreign policy during the campaign.

He said Netanyahu has shifted toward the centre in an attempt to transform the Likud party into a pragmatic rather than an ideological right-wing party, but Likud hardliners have resisted his moves, placing the party out of step with the centre in Israel.

Klein Halevi said the political centre was generally reinvigorated by the election and now represents a majority of Israelis.

Although the middle-of-the-road Kadima party was crushed, winning only two Knesset seats as opposed to 28 in the 2009 election, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid centrist party picked up a resounding 19 seats, making it the second-biggest parliamentary faction.

Yesh Atid’s electoral success is significant, he observed. Israelis sent a message for change and signalled a desire for balance, realism and moderation from their political leaders.

They also seek an end to cultural wars and schisms, said Klein Halevi, who writes for the New Republic and whose first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, was an account of his disillusionment with Jewish militancy.

Declaring that Israel can no longer afford to maintain its current relationship with the haredi community, Klein Halevi said that haredi separatism from Israeli society is untenable.

Turning to the perennial Palestinian issue, he said that centrists such as himself are conflicted, knowing that a Palestinian state is both an existential need for Israel and a threat to its long-term security.

“We need to free ourselves from the moral burden of the occupation,” he said, referring to Israel’s 45-year presence in the West Bank, populated mainly by Palestinian Arabs.

The looming demographic imperative, in which a minority of Jews may rule over a majority of Arabs in Israel and the West Bank one day, is one more reason why Israel should conclude its occupation, he said.

Most Israelis are prepared to make painful territorial concessions to achieve a two-state solution, Klein Halevi said.

They also think that government spending in West Bank settlements should be cut substantially and that a building freeze should be imposed in settlements outside major settlement blocs Israel intends to keep, he said.

Centrist Israelis, however, fear that concessions won’t yield a real peace dividend, nor do they believe there is a Palestinian partner willing to engage Israel in a genuine peace process, he added.

Israeli centrists want to be doves, but reality forces them to be hawks, he lamented.

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