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Israel’s Clash of Civilizations — Part I: Jerusalem

Will Jerusalem and Tel Aviv clash over the future of the state of Israel?

August 15, 2005

Will Jerusalem and Tel Aviv clash over the future of the state of Israel?

In a way, Israel is experiencing its own form of the “Clash of Civilizations.” The post-Zionist spirit of Tel Aviv is colliding with the messianic and extremist visions of Israel's future emanating from Jerusalem.

This new “Jerusalem spirit” is driven by those who are determined to contain the threat of Americanization and globalization — and modernity in general.

It is a vision that wants Israel to become Greater Israel — a mini Jewish empire stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

At the same time, however, those Jewish idealists see an exclusive Jewish state, in which the Arab population — a group that could become a majority in a few years — would be relegated to second-class citizens (or non-citizens, for that matter).

It is in Jerusalem, the seat of a government led by Ariel Sharon’s right-wing Likud party, that the crucial decisions about war and peace will be made.

These decisions will be made by a coalition that includes not only those who opposed the Oslo peace process, but also by proponents of the expulsion (referred to as “transfer”) of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

It is also a government that has long supported the expansion and establishment of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank — a fact that remains unchanged by the decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

Many of the more than 200 settlements are isolated deep in heavily populated Palestinian territory — and their Jewish residents number more than 200,000.

An additional 200,000 Jews live in the Greater Jerusalem metropolitan area — including East Jerusalem, which has been officially annexed to Israel.

Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza — as well as the construction of a new security barrier — have increased Israeli-Palestinian friction. They are potentially explosive irritants that can undo any possible compromise.

Despite renewed hopes for peace, many members of the Likud and its current and former ultra-nationalist and religious coalition partners anticipate a never-ending conflict.

That conflict will pit Israelis against Palestinians, the rest of the Arabs — and the world.

Unfortunately, Jerusalem's vision is increasingly that of a xenophobic — and armed — Jewish ghetto eternally fighting for its survival.

Its symbol is not the Americanized web designers and investment bankers of Tel Aviv, but the Uzi-carrying and yarmulke-wearing religious zealots who lead the drive for establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Hence, the militant Orthodox Jewish activists who established settlements in Hebron in the late 1960s live in an atmosphere where they are constantly prepared to encounter — and administer — violence.

This situation culminated in the murder of 29 Muslim worshippers by Baruch Goldstein — an American-born settler — in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 in Hebron.

And it was this mindset that drove one orthodox Jew — Yiga'al Amir — to murder the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995.

Many Israelis believe this tragic event was responsible for the eventual collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

For the residents of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and its political satellites, the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria have become a metaphor for the Israeli condition, the capital of “them” — the forces of reaction Israel’s liberals love to hate.

It is in Jerusalem that the demons, which threaten to suffocate the spirit of Tel Aviv, continue to raise their ugly heads: Zionist and Arab radicalism, Jewish religious orthodoxy and Muslim fundamentalism.

In a way, from the perspective of Tel Aviv, the militant Jewish settlers in the occupied Arab territories and the Arab terrorists who place bombs in discos and coffee shops in Tel Aviv are rival twins.

One group's vision mirrors that of the other. It is a vision based on a zero-sum game which could result either in a Greater Israel or a Greater Palestine, both of which are based on the concept of one state for one people.

American neoconservative supporters of the Likud government respond to Israelis' criticism of the current government in Jerusalem by noting that Sharon was elected by a landslide in a democratic election.

And his being elected was in direct response to the Palestinian uprising and suicide bombings. But that would be an incomplete reading of Israeli public opinion.

The majority of Israelis are demanding that their government safeguard their security — even if that means responding to Palestinian terrorism with tough military measures.

But the same proportion of Israelis regards the building of new Jewish settlements in Israel and the West Bank as a danger to their security.

This group of Israelis also states that those settlements would divert resources from economic needs.

It is certainly opposed to the idea — still proposed by right-wing hardliners — of annexing the West Bank (and Gaza) to Israel and establishing a Greater Israel.

A large number of Israelis do indeed support the idea of “separation" as the end result of an agreement — or as part of an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from most of the occupied territories.

Israelis are aware that by the year 2020, Jews in Israel will number 6.3 million, as opposed to about two million Arabs. That poses a long-term demographic and political problem to a nation-state that wants to maintain a Jewish identity.

Many of these Arab citizens — who are represented in the Knesset — have already demanded cultural and even political autonomy.

The majority of Israelis is concerned that the growth of the Arab population inside Israel would threaten the Jewish majority — and result in demands to secede from Israel.

Add to that the 5.6 million Arabs who are expected to live in the West Bank and Gaza in 2020. Jews could well find themselves the minority ruler of a clear Arab majority.

Israelis could then be faced with having to give Arabs citizenship in the West Bank and Gaza. Those Arabs could then join with the ones living in the current territory of Israel to require the state to change its Zionist-Jewish character.

Or Israel would refuse to grant Arabs residing in the West Bank (and Gaza) citizenship. If Israeli-Palestinian relations remain essentially unchanged, such a decision would turn Israel into a Middle Eastern version of South Africa's racial Apartheid system.

Indeed, some Greater Israel proponents have been trying to square the circle by proposing plans to enable Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza — while maintaining Jewish majority.

One proposal is for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to be granted limited local autonomous areas, similar to what South Africa arranged for the Bantustans — or the United States for Indian reservations.

Those on the extreme right are toying with the idea of “transferring” most of the Palestinians to Jordan, a plan that has been backed by some members of the Christian Right in the United States.

All of which goes to show how much the essence (and spirit) of the city of Jerusalem — and what it stands for and portrays — has changed over the past two decades.

Part II, “Tel Aviv — Israel’s Progressive Spirit” will follow tomorrow.

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