We are a small island of democracy in the middle of an ocean of change

Emmanuel Nahshon is the Israeli Deputy Chief of Mission in Germany. He sat down with Martin Eiermann to talk about disillusioned youths, change in the Middle East and the future of peace talks with the PLO.

The European: Rents in Israel have doubled in some cities over the past few years; the country has the second highest poverty rate in the developed world behind Mexico. When Israel was founded, the picture looked very different. How could the country become so unequal in a relatively short period of time?
Nahshon: There is a big Israeli paradox: We are a very rich country, but large segments of the population don’t benefit. And two groups are much less involved than others: The Arab minority – particularly Arab women – and the Ultraorthodox Jews who devote their lives to study. You could calculate that Israel’s economy would be doing better without these groups. But that misses the point. They are part of our society, and the governments have tried hard for the past twenty years to integrate them. That is not only an economic challenge but a cultural challenge. You cannot impose certain types of behavior on a part of the population, so we need to have a reasoned discussion about our problems.

The European: It seems to me that protests are the last resort, when discussion fails to yield results.
Nahshon: Of course there is a problem: People feel that whatever they earn is insufficient. I understand that. The cost of living is quite high, rents are high. But what I find remarkable is that the people express their frustrations by peaceful means. There is always dialogue, nobody is each other’s enemy. The same people that are protesting today will go and vote in the next election. This is not left versus right, Jews versus Arabs, secular against religious. You can see that the protests encompass the whole population and the whole country.

The European: The numbers really speak to that claim. According to a recent poll, 85 percent of the population supports the protests. But they also feel that the government has not been doing enough. Why does the majority of the population not share your optimism?
Nahshon: When you protest, you have a very strong feeling regarding here and now. You don’t necessarily analyze the long-term processes. Of course we have to correct the course. I am an employee of the state myself, I can sympathize with the protesters. A purely liberal and capitalist economy does not work. Traditionally, we have had a strong element of social democracy. Perhaps in the last few years, not enough emphasis has been put on caring for the weaker elements of society. We need to change that.

The European: Do you think that politics has become too divorced from the concerns of the younger generation and too concerned with itself and its own power?
Nahshon: Yes, I would agree with that. Politics should be more open, there is a lack in dialogue between politicians and the younger generation. The protests are a call for more discussion. We are currently seeing the emergence of a new generation of Israeli leaders who are focused on social issues and who are demanding to be heard. In the past decade, Israel has been very preoccupied with security challenges. It would not surprise me if we looked back today and realized that social policy has been neglected as a result of those security concerns.

The European: Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign famously embraced the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” Are the domestic protests a bigger challenge to the Israeli government than foreign policy and security issues?
Nahshon: The protests are not a challenge to the government’s legitimacy. Any democratic government is an expression of the will of the people. Tension and dialogue are normal wherever you have divergent interests. The peaceful protests are a compliment to our democracy that we view with great pride. I believe that Europe envies the vibrant dialogue we have. Nobody in Jerusalem is burning cars; this is the ancient polis coming to life. These protesters are the best minds of their generation.

The European: We can already see that some protests broaden their thematic base to include calls for a change in foreign policy as well. If those “best minds” rise to the top, don’t you think that their politics would differ significantly from what we are seeing today?
Nahshon: That is not impossible. But the basic premises will remain steady: We are a democracy in the middle of a volatile region. We are surrounded by countries that challenge our existence. Naturally, that makes security our top priority. But what I hope to see is a change in our approach to social issues: We have to strike a balance between the egotistical and materialistic pursuit of happiness – I would call it a pursuit of money – and the strong basis of social solidarity. If you work hard, you deserve to be well off. But we should always pay attention to those who struggle. Without social solidarity, we undermine the core of our identity.

The European: You want a kind of nationalism based on social cohesion?
Nahshon: We have always defined ourselves as a Jewish Democracy. The Jewish nature is steeped in social solidarity. We have lived in diasporas for the past two thousand years, we have learned to care for each other.

The European: Around twenty percent of the Israeli population is of Arab descent. How do you extend that solidarity to them?
Nahshon: We are all Israelis. Whatever concept of social solidarity we agree on, it must encompass all Israelis. The Jewish element of caring is racially blind. It is irrelevant whether someone is Jewish or not. That’s what we can see even today: There are protests in the Negev desert, there are Arab protests that form part of the national dialogue.

The European: Your government did not always hold that view. Recently, there was talk about requiring Arab Israelis to pledge special allegiance to the state of Israel.
Nahshon: It did not happen for a good reason. We don’t need policies that have a negative and disparate impact on one part of the population.

The European: We have talked a lot about Israeli democracy now. Why has your country not thrown its weight behind the democratic movements in the Middle East?
Nahshon: Israel has been instrumentalized and demonized since the 1940s by Arab regimes. We are everything that they hate. The fear democracy, they fear a liberal economy, they fear transparency. That message has filtered down to a majority of the Arab population. They see us as the Zionist enemy lurking in the shadows. If you hear that often enough, you might begin to believe it. Because of that, public statements from the Israeli government in support of democratic groups in other countries would be the kiss of death for those groups. It would completely delegitimize their agenda within their respective country. We don’t need to get involved in the internal affairs of other Arab countries. Whether or not the Arab world will become democratic has nothing to do with Israel.

The European: Yet from the outside, it appears as if everyone has moved and shifted – only Israel is trying to maintain the status quo long after it has disappeared.
Nahshon: I find that a little naïve. It is easy and tempting to sit in Berlin or London or Paris and say to us: “Look at the changes around you. Why don’t you change?” Yet the revolutions in the Arab world are not aiming at democracy in the European sense. This is not 1989; there is not Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. It is much too early to say where we are heading. What will happen to Yemen or Libya? We don’t know. They are failed states. They were created artificially and still struggle with their identities. We are still dealing with the aftermath of World War I.

The European: 2011 as the end of the Ottoman Empire?
Nahshon: Of course. We are in 2011 and simultaneously we are in 1918. The state of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians are indirect outcomes of World War I. There is a legitimate frustration in the Arab population about the underdeveloped economy and the elite control of power. Every year, more books are published in Israel than in the entire Arab world. We have fifty times as many high-tech companies as the entire Arab world. So this is about much more than democracy. Facebook and Twitter are external triggers, but there are deeply rooted internal factors as well: No regime can expect to lock away fifty percent of the population – the women – without creating social problems.

The European: As you said, Israel cannot be divorced from these regional developments. Isn’t that an argument to get involved, to play your cards carefully because you cannot help but be a part of the game?
Nahshon: “Talk softly and carry a big stick”, as Theodore Roosevelt said. This is not the moment to take big risks and jeopardize or challenge the basic premises of Israel’s security. There are many open questions and very few answers. We are a small island of democracy in the middle of an ocean of change, so the best thing to do is to sit and wait. No because it is fashionable and fun, but because it is our best bet. We are working very hard to preserve existing peace agreements despite the changes. We want good relations with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey to protect ourselves and to stabilize the region.

The European: Let us apply the lens of change to the peace process. The traditional wisdom was that Israel would gain leverage as time passed. The “Palestine Papers” speak to that strategy. But is that still an option, given the sweeping changes in the region and Palestinian plans for UN recognition?
Nahshon: The Israeli policy is very clear: We are in favor of a two-state-solution, period. The discussion has already happened, we have made far-reaching and painful concessions. But did we have a partner on the other side? No. We fulfilled almost all their demands but could not reach an agreement.

The European: When we talked to the Palestinian representative a few months ago, he gave almost exactly the same answer: ‘The discussion has happened, we have made painful concessions, but we did not have a receptive partner.’ You agree to disagree on settlement construction, on the refugee question, on Jerusalem, on the borders. What comes next?
Nahshon: We must define our objectives very clearly. We must be process-oriented and results-oriented. It is good to talk, even if the talks yield further disagreement. But we also have to look farther into the future. For the Israeli government, it would be much simpler if we could come to an agreement with the Palestinians about the ultimate goals. We simply want the end of the conflict. We need to be certain that any agreement does not weaken Israel before a new outbreak of conflict. We need lasting peace, and we need the acceptance of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Our legitimacy cannot be challenged. But the Palestinians and the PLO are not able to commit to that.

The European: Can you give me some concrete examples of that?
Nahshon: I will not rehearse the negotiations here. We should leave the tactics to the negotiators. My argument is very simple: It has to be clear that the Palestinian refugees will not be resettled within the boundaries of Israel, and that the agreement will be lasting instead of tactical. No state can be expected to make far-reaching concessions without those securities. I don’t think that the Palestinians are serious about ending the conflict.

The European: You talk about each other with so much animosity, so much skepticism. Would you not agree that a first step towards compromise is the willingness to understand the arguments of the other side even if you disagree with them?
Nahshon: When the Oslo agreements were signed 18 years ago, everybody was more optimistic. We have learned to be realistic now. I hope that we will not need more violence, even though the Palestinians have used it in the past as a political instrument. There is simply no alternative to a peaceful solution. My daughter is almost sixteen years old. If we had talked when she was born, I would have told you that she would be doing her military service after high school during a time of peace. I still hope for that.

The European: People in Germany follow the peace process very closely. Yet it sometimes seems that the voices that are most supportive of Israel are also voices that prize populist rhetoric over reasoned discussion. Do you have the wrong allies?
Nahshon: Sometimes we sin in looking for criticism where criticism is not necessary. Maybe that is a European reflex: a constant self-reflection to find flaws within oneself. When someone writes that Israeli democracy is an example of reasoned discourse, we do not need to add a criticism to that statement because it would not be objective anymore. We hear criticism from the German government when it is necessary, but we keep it out of the media. That is a wise choice. Mrs. Merkel might be our closest political ally in the world, so we tend to listen to her.

The European: Do you think that Israel is unfairly criticized for its policies in Germany?
Nahshon: There is a great interest in Germany in anything related to Israel, almost every paper or TV station has a correspondent in Israel. And they want to do a good job, so they file all these stories that you would never see about other countries. People in Israel sometimes say: Why are the Germans so critical, why do they not look at Sudan or Libya instead? Well, I really don’t want to be compared to Sudan or Libya or any other wonderful African country. Okay, so the special interest is a fact of life. The same is true for the Israeli media: We have a lot of headline stories about small developments in Germany. When your politician admitted his affair with a 16-year old, that story made headlines also in Israel.

The European: Where do you draw the line between criticism and anti-Semitic slander?
Nahshon: Anti-Semitism is always an issue. You have it on the Left, on the Right or within Muslim communities. And you also have bourgeois anti-Semitism from people who say that they love Jews but would probably commit suicide rather than marry their daughter to a Jewish man. I am asking myself whether anti-Semitism is inherent to Christianity. Is it worse than in other countries? I don’t think so. And Germans are particularly courageous when it comes to dealing with their past. There are some other European nations who participated willingly in the Shoa and now portray themselves as victims. That does not make me very happy. Our goal now is to build a common future. We have much to give to each other and to learn from each other. Anything that contributes to that is a good thing. And at the heart of it is the dialogue between young people. And dialogue cannot happen without criticism. When we are worried, it is normal to express those worries. Germany and Israel are condemned to have a special link for eternity, and we should use that link to engage in open discussion.

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