Something happens to retired chiefs of the Israeli internal Security Service, Shin Bet. Once they leave their jobs, they become spokesmen for peace. How come? Shin Bet agents are the only members of the establishment who come into real, direct, daily contact with Palestinians. They interrogate Palestinian suspects, torture them, try to turn them into informers. They collect information, penetrate the most remote parts of Palestinian society. They know more about the Palestinians than anybody else in Israel (and perhaps in Palestine, too).
The intelligent among them (intelligence officers can be intelligent) also come to conclusions that evade many politicians: that there is a Palestinian nation, that this nation will not disappear, that the Palestinians want a state of their own, that the only solution to the conflict is a Palestinian state next to Israel. And so, on leaving the service, Shin Bet chiefs become outspoken advocates of the two-state solution.
The identity of all secret service personnel is, well, secret, except the chiefs. (When I was a member of the Knesset, I submitted a bill which stipulated that the name of the service chiefs be made public. The bill was rejected, like all my proposals, but soon afterwards the prime minister decreed that the names of the chiefs be made public.) Some time ago, Israeli TV showed a documentary called The Doorkeepers, in which all the living ex-chiefs of the Shin Bet and the Mossad advocated peace based on the two-state solution. They expressed their opinion that there will be no peace unless the Palestinians achieve a national state of their own.
At the time, Tamir Pardo was the chief of the Mossad and could not give his opinion. But he retired earlier this year, and last week opened his mouth in public for the first time. He is a Sephardic Jew whose family came from Turkey, where many Jews found refuge after the expulsion from Spain 525 years ago. So he does not belong to the Ashkenazi ‘elite’.
The recent chief of the Mossad sees no military threat to Israel – not from Iran or Daesh or anybody else. This is a direct challenge to the main plank of Netanyahu’s policy: that Israel is surrounded by dangerous enemies and deadly threats. But Pardo sees a menace that is far more dangerous: the split inside Israel’s Jewish society. We don’t have a civil war yet. But ‘we are rapidly approaching it.’
Civil war between whom? The usual answer is between ‘right’ and ‘left’. Right and left in Israel do not mean the same as in the rest of the world. In Israel, the division between left and right in Israel almost solely concerns peace and the occupation. But I suspect that Pardo means a much deeper rift, without saying so explicitly: the rift between Ashkenazim (‘European’) and Mizrahim (‘Oriental’ or ‘Arab’) Jews. The Sephardic (‘Spanish’) community, to which Pardo belongs, is seen as part of the Orientals. The overwhelming majority of the Orientals are rightist, nationalist and at least mildly religious, while the majority of the Ashkenazim are leftist, more peace-oriented and secular. Since the Ashkenazim also tend to be socially and economically better off than the Orientals, the rift is profound.
When Pardo was born (1953), those of us who were already aware of the rift comforted ourselves with the belief that it was a passing phase. The ‘melting pot’ will do its job, intermarriage will help and after a generation or two the whole thing will disappear. It did not happen. On the contrary, the rift is deepening swiftly. Signs of mutual hatred are becoming more obvious. Politicians, especially rightist ones, base their careers on sectarian incitement, led by the greatest inciter of all, Netanyahu.
Intermarriage does not help. The sons and daughters of mixed couples generally choose a side – and become extremists on that side.
The right, which has been in power (with brief interruptions) since 1977, is still behaving like an oppressed minority, blaming the ‘old elites’ for all their ills. This is not entirely ridiculous because the ‘old elites’ still dominate the economy, the media, the courts and the arts.
The mutual antagonism is growing. Pardo himself provides an alarming example; his warning passed almost unnoticed: a short item on the TV news, a brief mention in the inner pages of the papers, and that’s that.
The one unifying force for Jews in Israel – the army – is falling victim to the rift, too. The generals are mostly Ashkenazim. This may explain the strange fact that 43 years after the last real war (Yom Kippur, 1973), and 49 years after the army became mainly a colonial police force, the army command is still more moderate than the political establishment.
But there is another army growing. Many of its lower officers wear a kippah; its new recruits were raised in the nationalist Israeli school system that produced Sergeant Elor Azariya. On 24 March, Azariya shot dead a severely wounded Arab attacker, who was already lying helpless on the ground. His military trial continues to tear Israel apart, months after it started and months before it will end in a verdict. The defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, openly supports the soldier against his chief of staff, while Netanyahu, a political coward as usual, supports both sides. The images of the childish-looking killer, with his mother sitting behind him in court and stroking his head, is a symbol of the civil war Pardo speaks about.
A lot of Israelis have begun to talk of ‘two Jewish societies’ in Israel; some even talk about ‘two Jewish peoples’. What holds them together? The conflict. The occupation. The perpetual state of war.
Yitzhak Frankenthal, a bereaved parent and a pillar of the Israeli peace forces, has come up with an illuminating formula. The Israeli-Arab conflict has not been forced on Israel. Rather, Israel keeps up the conflict, because it needs it for its very existence. This could explain the endless occupation. It fits with Pardo’s theory. Only the sense of unity created by the conflict can prevent a civil war.
This is an edited version of a longer piece that you can read on Gush Shalom’s website here.