Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Why so many elections? Because Israelis agree on too much. And why you shouldn't worry about a Kahanist running for Knesset

Why so many elections? Because Israelis agree on too much. And why you shouldn't worry about a Kahanist running for Knesset

Dr. Einat Wilf, former MK and Israeli public intellectual, with a few views that will surprise you
Dr. Einat Wilf (Courtesy)

Dr. Einat Wilf is a leading thinker on Israel, Zionism, foreign policy and education. She was a member of the Israeli Parliament from 2010 to 2013, where she served as Chair of the Education Committee and Member of the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Born and raised in Israel, Dr. Wilf served as an Intelligence Officer in the Israel Defense Forces, Foreign Policy Advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a strategic consultant with McKinsey & Company.

Dr. Wilf has a BA from Harvard, an MBA from INSEAD in France, and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cambridge. She was the Goldman Visiting Professor at Georgetown University and is a lecturer at Reichman University in Israel.

Given the election season into which Israel is now headed (once again), our podcast this Wednesday will feature a conversation with Dr. Wilf on why responsibility for the enduring conflict with the Palestinians lays primarily with what she calls “Western indulgence,” a view about which you can read more in her two most recent books, The War of Return and We Should All Be Zionists.

Given how much attention the candidacy of Itamar Ben-Gvir, commonly called a Kahanist, is receiving (outside of Israel especially), we are making available to all our readers a portion of Wednesday’s conversation. It’s not the main part of Dr. Wilf’s conversation with us, but it does include views that you may find surprising. Dr. Wilf explains why she’s not all that worried about Ben-Gvir, and as for why we’re having so many elections, it’s not because Israel’s so divided, but rather, because Israel is not divided enough!

Listen in … Dr. Wilf is fascinating and learned, and you’ll think about what she says for a long time. For those who prefer to read, a machine-generated transcript is below. The full conversation with Dr. Wilf will be posted on Wednesday, as usual, for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.

We have the pleasure today of speaking with a person who I find to be extraordinarily creative and kind of a contra conventional thinker, Dr. Einat Wilf, who has a political background, an intellectual background, and is the author of numerous books. Dr. Wilf has a BA from Harvard, an MBA from INSEAD in France and a PhD from Cambridge in political science. She's also served as a visiting professor at Georgetown University. She's the co-author of numerous books. We're going to talk about two of them today. The next to most recent one is called The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace and a more recent book of essays called We Should All Be Zionists: Essays on the Jewish State and the Path to Peace. Dr. Wilf was born and raised in Israel. She served as an intelligence officer in the IDF, a foreign policy advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and also worked for McKinsey & Company for a while. So, first of all, Dr. Wilf, thank you very much for joining us for this conversation.

My pleasure. Thank you…

…Israel by American standards is a very left-wing socialist society all the way into the Likud. So, I think for me, what my criticism is for my people of the left is that what they fail to do today is they fail to speak Jewishly, and they fail to speak “Zionistly”, if you can say that. So, when they promote their liberal values, they're doing it in the name of imported ideals. Most of the time they fail to speak to it as Zionist ideals, as Jewish ideals. This is why I think the whole idea of Jewish versus democratic is a tragedy of the left. Because the left is basically saying Jewish is everything that's bad, that's fascist, and democratic is everything that's good. And I'm sure, as you know, in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, I always like to use that example, the word “Jew” and “Jewish” appears about 20 times and the word democracy never. And because what they say is that the Jewish state will uphold values of equality and justice based on the vision of the Hebrew prophets. So, there's this notion that when we talk about the values of who we are, we do it from our civilization. We speak from within Jewish life, from Jewish texts, from Jewish history and from Zionist thinking and history. And I think the tragedy of my camp is that they've abandoned that.

Just to point out, in Naftali Bennett, we had Israel's first Orthodox prime minister. Begin was traditional, but he was far from being an Orthodox Jew. So, in Bennett we had the first Orthodox prime minister and in Yair Lapid we actually have the first prime minister who's been a member of a Reform congregation, which is actually a fascinating thing and I think most people have no idea we went from the first Orthodox prime minister to the first openly engaged or embracing of Reform Judaism. You said if we took Bibi out of the picture, then a lot of things would happen. That's 1000% true. But Bibi is very much not out of the picture.

He's not out of the picture in running the Likud and he's not out of the picture in terms of doing anything that he can to try to get reelected, which includes bringing in and giving a certain hechsher to parties like Otzma Yehudit with Itamar Ben Gvir, who is the person, I think, in Israeli politics about whom the word fascist gets used the most, about whom it is said very often that he's a Kahanist. So now the Dr. Wilf, who is trained in political theory and political thought, who is in my mind one of the most insightful observers of what's going on in Israel, how worried should we be about this phenomenon of Itamar Ben Gvir encroaching into the right? How much does he really represent a significant part of Israeli society? Is this dangerous? Is this a passing phase? Is it going to burn itself out?

So, I'm always hesitant to tell Jews not to worry. But I will give my kind of my view.... I'm just analyzing my visceral reaction. And you are correct, a lot of Israelis don't see it as a very worrying phenomenon. So, I have a few explanations for that. So, the first is that I have a theory that entry into Israeli society is from the right and generally exit is from the left. So, what does it mean that entry into Israeli society is from the right? If you are a marginalized voice, Haredim, Mizrahi Jews, etc., if you are a marginalized voice, your entry into Israeli society, the building of your legitimacy and politics, is almost always from the right.

That's fascinating. It's true of the Russians also, by the way.

And I think by now I have enough of a perspective to see that once they have entered Israeli society, they feel more legitimate, they feel more that they are homeowners, that this is their place. Like the woman I met who said she agreed with me but is in Likud. They basically moderate their position. So, one explanation I have is that Ben Gvir now is channeling especially the Haredi voices from the right. So, Haredi Jews have historically been anti-Zionist. Now you're beginning to have the Haredim, who are very right wing, but I'm viewing it as actually their entry into Israeli society. And Ben Gvir is channeling a lot of that energy. So that's one of the reasons that I find it hard to get worked up about it because I've seen that process over generations. The other is that, and it's related to this, I've lived enough to see demons come and go. I grew up in a family, society, neighborhood that as soon as Begin was elected, it was the end of the state of Israel. But now everyone says, “Oh, Begin was so mamlachti, and Begin was so democrat. And where are the days of Begin?” This is what you're hearing from the left. I'm old enough to remember when Begin was the huge demon that would destroy the state of Israel. I remember Arik Sharon, and the people who promised to immigrate out of Israel if Ariel Sharon would be elected. We all remember that. And look where he went. Look what Begin did. Look what Ariel Sharon did. Naftali Bennett is a fairly recent demon. Naftali Bennett was a demon for quite a while and then he became this very moderate prime minister. So, by now I have enough of a history of demons that again, I find it difficult to get worked up.

And you talked a bit also about the differing perspectives. We have a recent example when supposedly annexation was on the agenda. You know how many panels and Zooms I participated in where people said Israel is becoming this annexationist, land grabbing monster. And I kept on telling them, no, seriously, most Israelis don't care. This is not on the agenda of most Israelis. And again, all you had to do was to have the Emiratis say, “Hey guys, you want direct flights to Dubai?” And Israelis were so happy to get rid of this annexation. Smotrich was this huge demon, and then he became part of the government and he was an excellent minister of transportation.

In what way is the left the point of exit? What did you mean by that?

The left is the point of exit. I think historically that's where you see, for example, people mostly on the left sociologically are often third and fourth generation to the founders of Israel. They don't need to prove anything. This is their country as far as they're concerned. So, they're often the ones who are more likely to basically kind of say, you know, I don't need it anymore. There's this famous joke in Israel, I'm sure you know about the guy who was thrown out of training for the air force, and he immediately asks to enlist in anti-aircraft. And when he's asked why? He says, “if I don't fly, nobody does.” So sometimes I find that 3rd, 4th generation Israelis, you know, the ones again, the margin, but it's interesting who become anti-Zionist. It's the kind of attitude that says, if it's not my kind of Israel, if it's not the kibbutznik Israel, it has all these Mizrahis and Haredim and I don't know who all these people are, then I don't want this. And this is not a country that I'm interested in it and I'm checking out mentally, if not physically. So, I think there's a bit of that sociological element of like, this is us. We didn't have to prove ourselves. We didn't have to prove that we belong here. So, there's a more casual attitude of like, we can also just let it go.

I just want to make sure that I understand you correctly and to make sure that if you're saying what I think you're saying that our listeners picked this up. If Israel has another election on November 1 that ends up in a tie of some sort, the overwhelming response is going to be, “Look how divided Israel is election after election. They just can't even elect a government, they're so divided”. And if I understand correctly,  Einat Wilf is saying, “We're stuck again precisely because we're not divided.” We're stuck again because it's a matter of personalities. But the vision of what Israel should be is shared by some 70, 80% of the people. And again, in Israel, the political issues are not immigration and they're not economics. They are security, security, and security. And then they are religion, freedom of religion, that kind of thing. It's a very different can of worms. But is that correct? If we end up with a tie on November 1 or something close to it, it's not because we're so deeply divided, but it's because we are actually so united.

Let me put it this way. We are barely divided on anything that is a matter of policy. Like on issues of policy, there are very few. I mean, there's no divisions, there's different ideas, but there are no divisions that divide left and right on policy.

I do think that the fundamental division and this is why Netanyahu is such a key figure here, is what we talked about. Who does Israel belong to? Does it belong to supposedly the newcomers who by now have been here for 70 years, or does it belong to its founders, what Avishay Ben Haim called first Israel or Second Israel? And I think it's much more visceral at this level. And this is why the battle is going on. This is why I think we're going on to multiple elections because this is a battle basically more about who owns Israel, who feels that this is their country, their home, and this is where we are divided so, call it more a matter of identity, but it's not about policy. On issues of policies, there's almost no divisions today between traditionally the left and right in Israel.

Impossible Takes Longer, which addresses some of the above themes, will be published this April. It’s available now for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

With the holidays coming up and many of them falling on Mondays (our column day) and Yom Kippur on Wednesday (podcast day), here is the tentative schedule for Israel from the Inside for the weeks of the holidays:

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