Yitzhak Laor: Public opinion, where art thou?

By Yitzhak Laor, Haaretz – 21 Oct 2009
www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1122559.html

Yitzhak Laor

Yitzhak Laor

The avaricious sortie by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his courtiers to Paris was sponsored by a state in which a third of all children live under the poverty line; Barak himself is supervising the starving of Gaza and its 1.5 million inhabitants. All this ties in well with Israel’s current political crisis, which revolves around a crisis of representation: Whom does Ehud Barak represent apart from the arms dealers and military elites? How can the commonwealth’s citizens demand accountability in a manner that would force le petit empereur to reply? The answer is they can’t.

Israel’s political society is essentially a club of advocates [attorneys]. Those advocates are portrayed to constituents as their representatives. The public is invited to elect those representatives, who are feeding on propaganda money, to a term in office. The public is only allowed to choose from the limited offering available, and essentially gives the advocates carte blanche until the next elections. “Public opinion” is not consulted until those next elections, when it is offered such tantalizing choices as “He’s not a pal, he’s a leader,” “He will defend Jerusalem,” and “Who will take on the ultra-Orthodox’s extortion?” Anything goes.

The formerly representative institutions of Israel’s never-too-representative democracy are all but gone: the unions, the workers committees, the protest movement, and most importantly, the political parties as organizations based on membership, chapters and conferences. We’re left with the Knesset factions, which are staffed with the above-mentioned advocates [attorneys] who are wealthy enough not to give a damn. There will be primaries before the next elections. Barak will take to the podium on some kibbutz and speak out against the settlements, and then go on building them regardless. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will talk about the Holocaust, and then give a macho speech at the UN. We’ll be called up to agonize over which is the least repugnant. That’s all.

At the end of the new century’s first decade, Israeli democracy is being administered by four elites: the political elite (which includes influential journalists), the financial elite (which excels in extraordinary cowardice when it comes to opposing the powers that be), the military elite (whose power is greater than anyone would like to admit), and the academic elite (whose role is to legitimize the other three elites). These elites ensure society’s approval for each other, as in the words of the Talmud, “whores fixing each other’s makeup.” Their supreme indifference to public opinion is most visible in moments when they might be held accountable. This is where you’ll find senior officers violating laws accompanied to court by entire lobbies of comrades-in-arms, or that Tel Aviv University dean about whom a court said there was “not a grain of truth” in his claims, but got to keep his job despite clear hints from the judge to the university.

And as indifference goes, there’s nothing quite like the apathy toward the horrors in Gaza while they were happening, despite clear knowledge of what was happening. But the “consensus,” for which a price is now being exacted in Geneva and might soon be exacted in The Hague, was not reached by idiotic solidarity with the military and its orchestra of propagandists in the vast majority of the media, it was ensured by the continuous disconnection between “public opinion” and the political elite. “Public opinion” hasn’t had influence over any level of government, a situation amply illustrated by the failure to release Gilad Shalit or curb the settlement project.

When public opinion doesn’t influence anything for years it dies out, at least while its subjects are law abiding and don’t become military or tax objectors. The paralysis gripping Israelis in everyday life is fed by the emptying of political life of democratic content. Hence the thrill when “the world is against us,” or when “we’re up against the world” – the world in the latter case being the besieged Palestinians. On occasion, “public opinion” stumbles on the Armenian genocide, because that’s what the politicians told it. And the next day comes a new patriotic thrill.

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