Understanding politics in Israel: The limousine theory

Into the Fray: How is it that, time after time, the electorate ends up with a gov't adopting precisely the policy it urged voters to reject?

Yuval Steinitz 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yuval Steinitz 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
On the one hand, the state invests billions of dollars in building a modern army; purchasing state-of-the-art warplanes and constructing modern airfields; equipping and training reserve battalions; and deploying Arrow missiles. All this is right and proper and necessary. But on the other hand, it has permitted a situation to develop in which these selfsame modern, expensive systems are liable to be rendered irrelevant. On the basis of such wishful thinking, battles, and wars, are lost
     – Yuval Steinitz, “When the Palestinian Army Invades the Heart of Israel,” Commentary, December 1, 1999.
To a dispassionate observer, unfamiliar with the mechanisms – and machinations – of Israeli politics, the events of the past two-and-a-half decades must seem to defy explanation, flying in the face of both logic and common sense, and a gross violation of the rationale of democratic principles.

To the vanquished the spoils?
Political realities in Israel since the early 1990s have shown that electoral victory has little bearing on the policies the resultant governments will pursue. Quite the reverse.
No matter how often the doctrine of political appeasement and territorial concession failed to win approval at the ballot box, it nevertheless continued to dominate the policy-making decisions of governments – even of those elected in express opposition to it.
Astonishingly, time and time again, the prescriptions of the vanquished became the policy of the victors.
Thus, Yitzhak Rabin, elected in 1992 on the basis of a series of hawkish “nays,” including rejection of negotiations with the PLO terrorist organization, radically switched his positions, transforming them all to dovish “yeas.”
The policy he adopted was indistinguishable from that promoted by the radical Left of the time – which failed to win voter support.
More dramatically, Ariel Sharon, elected in 2003 on a platform opposing any notion of unilateral withdrawal, adopted precisely this policy, advocated by his Labor Party rival, which was resoundingly defeated at the polls.
In 2009, shortly after his reelection as prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu’s regrettable volte face in the speech he delivered at Bar-Ilan University, accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea-Samaria, was a repudiation of the positions he presented to voters. Indeed, it was an endorsement of those of his opponents, who failed to win sufficient electoral support to form a government.
True, he did attempt to hedge his acquiescence with various unrealistic reservations and restrictions. However, this was of little avail. He had, for all practical purposes, capitulated intellectually and strategically, and in a stroke, fundamentally transformed the debate from one over whether there should, or should not, be a Palestinian state, to one over what the characteristics of the Palestinian state should be.

Conundrum I
In an article I wrote several years ago, titled “The Israeli Political System: How It Works and Why It Doesn’t,” I pointed to the following startling facts in Israel’s parliamentary history:
(a) For 20 of the 28 years between 1977 and 2005 – from the time the Likud first won the elections on a platform of Greater Israel, until a Likud-led government withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in stark contradiction to its electoral pledges – the Israeli prime minister came from the ranks of the Likud.
(b) When the Likud first came to power, not only was the entire Sinai Peninsula under Israeli control, but any suggestion of evacuating the Jordan Valley, dividing Jerusalem or withdrawing from the Golan was unthinkable.
(c) Yet today, well over a third of a century since Menachem Begin’s dramatic electoral victory, all the above are either already faits accomplis or acceptable topics in mainstream political discourse.
(True, lately, some reservations may be emerging as to the wisdom of withdrawal from the Golan. But this nascent realization is far more an outcome imposed by external events in Syria, than one generated by any informed process of internal discourse in Israel.) This demonstrates that while the right wing regularly wins elections, it never really gets to control the reins of power. This phenomenon has virtually nullified the significance of the Israeli democratic process, and can only be explained by the existence of some source of influence, extraneous to the political system, that imposes outcomes very different from those that should result from unhindered operation of the political routine.

Conundrum II
Perusal of the composition of the current government serves only to reinforce this conclusion. It is replete with senior figures – elected incumbents, appointed advisers and influential confidants – who built their political careers on opposition to the very policy it is now purportedly endeavoring to advance.
Prime Minister Netanyahu rose to prominence through his vehement opposition to the Oslo process. His first words in his first address to Likud central committee as prime minister in 1996, which drew tumultuous applause from the audience, were: “The will be no Palestinian state.” Yet today, the declared policy of his government is far more pliant than anything envisioned by Rabin in the Oslo agreements.
The political career of Yuval Steinitz, today holding the Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs portfolios, was in large measure launched by an article he published in Commentary – see the introductory excerpt. In it, he warned persuasively of the grave dangers the establishment of a Palestinian state would pose to Israel’s security, indeed, survival.
Moreover, as late as September 2008 he asserted that “the idea of a two-state solution should be dead, today, because unfortunately a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria would bring about Israel’s demise.”
Yet today, Steinitz seems to have significantly softened his opposition to Palestinian statehood – recently declaring his commitment to the prime minister’s proclaimed support for the principle of twostates.
Conundrum III
Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon and National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror were among the high-ranking security experts who authored a comprehensive and compelling study of Israel’s critical security needs.
The study was conducted in 2010-11, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs headed by former UN ambassador Dore Gold, a close confidant of the prime minister.
The study found that “to defend itself Israel must retain control of the Jordan Valley...
key areas of the mountain ridge [in Judea-Samaria overlooking the Coastal Plain] and the air space over the West Bank.”
Clearly, the political ramifications of these security imperatives are wildly incompatible with any territorial configuration even remotely acceptable to any conceivable Palestinian negotiating partner.
This of course raises the trenchant question of how the defense minister and the national security adviser can endorse a policy that clearly contravenes Israel’s critical security needs, which they themselves recently stipulated.

Why a limousine?
How then are we to make sense of this breathtaking erosion in the positions of Israeli decision-makers – especially as subsequent developments serve only to validate the positions they previously held? Perhaps the best way to conceptualize this puzzling and perturbing process is by means of the “limousine theory of Israeli politics.”
Why a limousine? Well, in a limousine you have driver, in official uniform and a smart cap, who is charged with driving the vehicle. He holds the steering wheel; sometimes he decides to turn it to the right and sometimes to the left. Sometimes he decides to step on the gas and sometimes the brakes. So, the uninformed observer could easily reach the conclusion that he, the driver, also decides on the destination of the vehicle.
But of course he would be wrong.
You can change the driver. At most, this may result in a change in the style of driving – with one chauffeur being a little more cautious and another a little less so. One might even take a different route from the other. But this will not change the ultimate destination of the limousine. For this is not determined by the person holding the wheel, and who appears to be in charge, but by the occupants of the backseats, behind the shaded panes.

Identifying the backseat occupants
Clearly, our allegorical chauffeur represents Israel’s elected politicians, whose overall destination remains unchanged – regardless of who holds the wheel. But who are our backseat occupants? Who comprises the previously mentioned “extraneous source of influence that imposes outcomes on the political system very different from those one would expect from the unhindered operation of that system.”
The principle fallacy that must be summarily dispelled is that these policy U-turns can be ascribed to “international pressure,” as if foreign diplomats and governments were the backseat occupants giving directions to the driver.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
After all, it is impossible to invoke international pressure to explain either of the two most dramatic processes that took place in the past two decades, the Oslo Accords and the disengagement. These were all Israeli initiatives, conceived and promoted by Israelis alone.
In the case of Oslo, the entire process was covertly (mis)conceived exclusively by Israelis without any international coercion.
Indeed, the PLO, cosignatory to these unfortunate accords, was still listed as a terror organization by the US government during the negotiating process. Similarly, the disengagement was not a product of American pressure. Quite the reverse, Washington initially opposed unilateral initiatives and had to be persuaded by Ariel Sharon as to the merits of the idea.
Moreover, current endeavors to reinstate the notion of unilateral withdrawal – now from Judea-Samaria, are again a domestically driven initiative – led by the NGO Blue & White Future, headed by well-known Israelis, and by the Institute for National Security Studies, closely associated with Tel Aviv University.
The backseat occupants (cont.)
We are thus compelled to conclude that our allegorical backseat occupants are homegrown, for whom the specter on “international pressure” is merely an instrument for them to brandish and with which to manipulate public opinion – and policy-makers perceptions – in furthering their own agenda.
So who then are these influential “backseaters”? They are groups in the country’s civilsociety elites that I have identified and discussed in previous columns and who control the legal establishment, dominate mainstream media, and hold sway in academia (principally, but not exclusively, in the social sciences and humanities). These groups comprise an interconnected trinity of influence that dominates the socio-political process in Israel. From their positions of unelected privilege and power, they are able to determine the parameters of the public discourse in the country, and hence the perceived constraints acting on the decision- making echelons.
Accordingly, the have the ability to set the overall direction of the national agenda at the strategic level and to impose their views on elected politicians and the general public.
Ingredients for remedy
I have discussed the motivational elements of these “backseaters” in some detail elsewhere (e.g. “Comprehending the incomprehensible – Part II,” January 19, 2012), in which I offer an explanation for their seemingly inexplicable, indeed lemming- like conduct.
Suffice it to say here that it is not a product of a conscious conspiracy, contrived by some purposely malevolent elitist cabal.
Rather it is an outcome of a cost/benefit analysis as how best to further their personal and professional interests.
It is thus an accumulated consequence of individual decisions and actions driven by the short-term pursuit of prestige and profit of a group of empowered individuals, and which trump considerations of the long-term interest of the wider collective.
However, the capacity to counter this pernicious phenomenon requires a firm grasp and clear vision of the mechanisms that drive it. It will not be remedied by electing different politicians (i.e. changing drivers), but by promoting, emplacing and empowering new competing civil society elites who can challenge the incumbents and displace them from their positions of unelected influence (i.e. by replacing the backseat occupants).
The first step in advancing this crucial revolution is to engender a total revaluation of the strategy of giving by right-wing benefactors. For one cannot win a war without a war chest... But that is a topic to be elaborated on in a future column.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.