A young Jewish settler (R) speaks with an Israeli police officer near buildings slated for demolition in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Beit El.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Tamir Pardo, the former head of the Mossad, kicked up a storm in the dog days of summer this week when he chose his first public appearance since stepping down as head of the spy agency in January to warn that Israel could descend into civil war.
“There is no real external existential threat to Israel, the only real existential threat is internal division,” Pardo said. “If a divided society crosses a certain line, you can end up, in extreme circumstances, with civil war. Unfortunately I’m afraid we are going in that direction,” he added.
As a former head of the Mossad, Pardo is in a good position to assess external threats to Israel. With the Iran nuclear deal pushing off Tehran’s aspirations to get its hands on an atomic bomb for at least the next decade, the collapse of Syria, Iraq and Libya, Hezbollah bogged down in the Syrian civil war, covert ties with Saudi Arabia and the warming of relations with Egypt, his assessment that there is no existential threat on the horizon is on the money.
But civil war? Is that really a realistic possibility? Does Pardo know something that the rest of us don’t and does his old job give him any particular insight into that question? Talk of civil war is about as old as the state, but it didn’t happen when Israel pulled out of Sinai, it didn’t happen in the disengagement from Gaza, it didn’t happen at the demolition of Amona. Those events, which had the potential to split Israeli society, passed pretty much without violence despite all the strains.
Pardo didn’t specify who his comments were aimed at, but it is safe to assume that he was referring to the settler movement. While there are violent separatist strains among the settlers who would like to plunge Israel into all-out conflict with the Palestinians and perhaps the wider Arab world by committing atrocities, they are by far not strong enough to coalesce into an organized force that would challenge state rule, and the mainstream settler movement knows full well that it is entirely reliant on the state and army.
I turned to Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute to get his thoughts on whether Israel really could slide into civil war. He tells me that while we are in the midst of a cultural war, with several groups in Israel that have very different visions for the country’s future, that is a long way off from a civil war.
“Pardo failed to differentiate between very grave ideological cultural disputes that create serious rifts in society and between a civil war, which really isn’t on the cards,” Stern says.
Stern explains that one factor that makes civil war unlikely is that the Jews of Israel have a common denominator in Jewish nationhood; a solidarity, seen in times of crisis, that derives from a common historical memory and the understanding that while we may not have a common mission, we do have a common destiny. That, he says, is something that is very deeply ingrained in Jewish society in Israel “There is a feeling,” says Stern, “that doesn’t exist in many places in the world, that we are one group – obviously that comes from our historical memory, from the Holocaust, from external security threats, from the fact that most of the world doesn’t see us a society composed of different groups but as one entity and judges us for better or for worse as such. This gives me reason to think that the fear of a civil war - at least among the Jewish population – is really not founded.”
Pardo is right to say that “there are those in Israeli society who seek to divide” and he is course right to add that there must be equal opportunities and resources for all, but it’s time for public figures to adopt a responsible and rational discourse that doesn’t resort to apocalyptic rhetoric at every opportunity.
Pardo’s predecessor, the late Meir Dagan, spoke out after he stepped down against the doomsday talk and fear mongering on Iran. Pardo, too, reportedly said that the term existential threat was used too loosely with regard to Iran. The same kind of level-headedness should apply to his analysis of Israel’s internal processes.