A New Israel
After months in the Canadian wilderness, I am finally back in Europe. This past week I visited Jerusalem even as a new Israeli government, the most radical in its history, was being formed.
In the labyrinthine alleys of Jerusalem’s old town the spice merchants were doing a brisk trade this week.
Spaniards, Russians, Brazilians, Africans, Asians and diaspora Jews were crowding around mounds and pyramids of thyme, saffron and sumac to haggle and to buy.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, site of Christ’s crucifixion two thousand years ago, crowds thronged to hear churchmen chant.
At the Alexander Nevsky Church nearby, seat of a Russian Orthodox order which broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate after the 1917 revolution, Russian and Ukrainian-born nuns worked and prayed check-by-jowl.
Amid the crowds posses of Israeli paramilitary police, armed with automatic weapons, kept watch on the corners of alleyways. But they have been keeping a careful eye over this city since taking control in street-to-street fighting during the six-day war of 1967.
For the casual observer, then, the holiest city in the world for both Jews and Christians, and the third holiest for Muslims, was enjoying its usual pre-Christmas bustle.
But outside the high ancient walls and twisting alleyways a revolution years in the making is underway in the state of Israel.
In the coming days or weeks a new government is set to be formed that will be the most right-wing in the young country’s history.
Alongside Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s veteran right-wing leader, will be a host of small mostly settler parties ranging from the ultra-nationalist to the ultra-religious.
For the first time the left, which ruled Israel almost uninterruptedly in its early decades, will be completely closed out of power.
For some Jews it will represent the end of an Israel they have cherished since the state’s bloody inception in 1948.
Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, captured the fears and regret of many in a column entitled: “The Israel we knew is gone.”
For those who worry that the fulcrum of Israeli politics is moving towards the fringes, there is plenty of ammunition.
The new security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who will be responsible for policing both at home and in the occupied West Bank, is a self-avowed Jewish nationalist and firebrand who won prominence leading rallies calling for death to Arabs.
Until recently, he had a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish radical who murdered 29 Muslims and injured more than 100 in 1994, hanging on the wall of his home.
“This is a government that relies on extremists and is from only one side of the map,” said Shimon Schiffer, a veteran Israeli commentator. “I think we will see a very dangerous situation.”
Even before the new government has been formed, there are portents of the instability it might bring.
Last week there was a double bombing in Jerusalem, the first in the city in six and a half years, that killed a Canadian-Israeli student and injured more than a dozen.
In the northern cities of the west banks there were reports of fresh gun battles between militants and Israeli forces.
The twin engines propelling Israel’s shift to the right, analysts say, have been slowly spooling up for years.
The first is the vigorous growth of the ultra-orthodox population, a once tiny minority, who, thanks to their higher birth rate, are now a million strong.
The ultra-orthodox are given exemption from the military and generous child support which means some families, especially those with many children, survive solely on subsidies from the state.
Critics say they are effectively paid to stay at home and study the Torah.
Their children, like their Muslim counterparts in madrassahs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, eschew the study of maths and science and grow up on a diet of strict religious doctrine.
The results is sometimes a deep intolerance of both Muslims and Christians.
“They often spit on the floor when they walk past me,” said Father Jakab, a Franciscan monk who lives in Jerusalem’s old city. “Sometimes they throw rocks at the gate of our compound.”
The second reason for the sea change in politics is that many Israelis now say that, at least in the short term, they have little interest in making peace with their Palestinian neighbours.
While a moral argument to end the killing may still exist, with the advent of better security and technology the practical impetus for making concessions, and especially the notion of giving up land for peace, has lost much of its force.
With Israeli settlers now at the centre of the new government, any drive for compromise will likely become even weaker.
Yuval Noah Harari, one of Israel’s most prominent intellectuals and author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” said in an interview last week that many Israelis have given up on the notion of a two-state solution.
He said they have embraced a multi-tiered system which included “Jews, who have all the rights; some Arabs, who have some rights; and other Arabs, who have very little or no rights.”
Schiffer, who once worked for Israeli radio and is today a columnist, said: “The founders of Israel wanted to build a Jewish democratic state. In our tradition we have to offer non-Jews equality.”
But for many young Israelis and others in the security establishment such views are naïve and outdated.
“My parents were very optimistic about a solution with the Palestinians,” said Tom Zviv, who is a member of Tikvah, a conservative Israeli think-tank. “But it ended in disaster. Terror blew up that optimistic view.”
With a new hard right coalition in the offing Zviv now hopes conservatives can cement their gains by chipping away at the last bastion of an older more politically-moderate Israel: the judiciary.
At issue is how much power the Israeli judiciary, politically to the left of Netanyahu and his new allies, should have to veto laws passed by the parliament.
Among Israeli voters terror attacks and the role of the judges are not the only major issues.
Others include the cost of living in the country, egregious even by the standards of major western capitals. There is also a crime wave sweeping parts of the country, especially areas with large Arab Israeli communities.
Ben-Gvir, who has talked of stripping Arab criminals of their citizenship and taking other hardline measures has only seen his popularity grow as a result.
In Jerusalem, Ibrahim, a quiet-spoken Palestinian father of six who is a trader in the market and has residency rights in the city, though not Israeli citizenship, said that he now feared for the safety of his children.
His daughter, Reem, an Arabic name which translates into English as gazelle, is studying to be an English teacher.
“Every day she has to travel across town on the tram and with people like Ben-Gvir in charge I fear for her life,” he said. “I call her constantly to make sure she is ok.”
“But, then again for us Palestinians life is so bad that maybe it doesn’t matter who the Israelis put in charge.”
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