The Middle East Channel

Was Clinton wrong about Russian-Israelis being 'right'?

Last week, former President Bill Clinton drew some fire for his remarks about Russian-speaking Israelis. Clinton described the over one-million-strong community as more opposed to the two-state solution than most of their compatriots. To add a moral insult to the injury of generalization, the media paraphrased him as saying that Russian Israelis are an obstacle to peace -- not particularly pleasant for anyone to hear about themselves. Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-right party that built itself precisely on the Russian Israeli community's mistrust of the peace process, provided the comic relief of the month by pretending to be mortally offended by the former president's remarks, while neo-con favorite Nathan Sharansky and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in vigorous tut-tutting.

But as generalized as the remarks may have been, they contain a kernel of truth. As a Russian Israeli myself, I can wholeheartedly affirm that the prevailing political culture in the community is distinctly right-wing and highly nationalistic--though it is not necessarily perceived as such by the community's members. The crux of the matter is to understand the contradictions of this outlook.

The community known to native Israelis as "Russians" (not quite accurately, as it is comprised of representatives of all nationalities of the former Soviet Union) is Israel's second largest minority, and enjoys considerable cultural autonomy. Just consider: at the peak of its popularity in the late 1990's, the community's largest newspaper, Vesti, printed 200,000 copies a day; there's a dedicated Russian-Israeli TV channel tellingly running under the motto "We live here"; and there's a vigorous blogosphere, considerably larger and more politicized than the Israeli Hebrew one.

Overwhelmingly, these outlets promote principally right-wing views. For instance, if left-wing activists are invited to the TV channel, they are usually treated with great suspicion and accused of  being on the Hamas payroll (indeed, this is the same channel that once held a theological discussion, on its prime-time current affairs news show, about whether President Obama suffers from a biblical curse condemning all blacks to eternal slavery). 

The code of political correctness (in the name of which the politicians of the community took offense at Clinton's remarks) is routinely mocked and satirized in the printed press; the news analysis is permeated with the conviction that Palestinians dream of nothing but murdering Jews, cannot be trusted, and that their history and national identity is a myth and sham (one commentator memorably referred to them as "zombies" and "bio-robots".)

The mistrust (to put it mildly) of the Palestinians can be explained by some fairly obvious factors. Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz's Washington correspondent who herself hails from the Russian-Israeli community, wrote last week that there is precious little information available to Israel's Russians on Palestinians or even Israeli Arabs, and the community has come to view Palestinians merely through a prism of the political violence of the past two decades.

But more than anti-Arab, much of the Russian-Israeli political mainstream today is anti-left-wing: even Zionist leftists are seen as imbeciles or mentally-ill at best; deliberately treacherous and self-hating at worse.

On the face of it, all of this may seem bewildering. Many of the immigrants come from some background of active or passive dissidence within the USSR, having learned to take a bitterly skeptical view of chauvinist rhetoric, of denial of state atrocities, and even of general expressions of patriotism. It would seem natural that on arrival to Israel, a more open, democratic society where critical debate and information are more readily available, they would have largely retained and even solidified that general disposition. But ironically, most of the criticism and skepticism has instead turned against critics of the government of the adopted country.

The story of 20 years of mutual alienation between the Israeli left and Israeli Russians is many-layered. The great wave of immigration from the disintegrating USSR that began in the 1990's landed in an Israel ruled by a lame-duck Shamir government. When the initial Israeli welcome was quickly replaced by a considerable degree of xenophobia, many immigrants lent their support to Yitzhak Rabin's opposition Labor party, which seemed to offer a break with the  status quo.

However, the left quickly lost its ground among the immigrants on a number of key points. Members of Rabin's government voiced inflammatory opinions of the Russian community, accusing it of bringing "mafia elements" into Israel and of exploiting its welfare benefits. Additionally, the social housing system in Israel was quickly scrapped by the Rabin government, effectively pushing newcomers into West Bank settlements--all while the same government was openly discussing the possibility of evacuating settlements in peace negotiations. This posed a challenge not only to their physical homes, as Clinton correctly identified, but to the identity they were trying to construct in their adopted--or as the Israeli national ethos goes, rightfully restored--homeland.

As sectorial parties dedicated to advancing the concerns of the Russian-Israeli community rose, it became apparent that rightist coalitions not only had better chances of winning elections but were also more open to welcoming immigrants into cabinet. On the latter point, only one leftist government, Ehud Barak's, included an immigrant--and only briefly (Sharansky was Minister of the Interior). By contrast, Benjamin Netanyahu's current governing cabinet has four immigrants. Young politicians from the Russian-Israeli community with talent and ambition for influence thus have little incentive to throw their lot with the left.

But the rhetoric and identity politics go deeper still. Traditional leftist discourse -- brotherhood among nations, pursuit of peace, equality and the undesirability of parochial and national identities -- were closely associated with the oppressive Soviet regime these immigrants had left behind. As such, cynicism and bewilderment became natural reactions to a Labor party (under Rabin and successively) whose political program contained some similar-sounding rhetoric.

As the center-ground shifted to the right and narrowed to a virtual pin-head, Russian-Israeli voters lost interest in Zionist-Leftist parties advocating nationalist politics in liberal clothing, and went for the more 'honest' right-wing parties instead. As it was described in the critical journal From The Other Side in 2005:

Let us consider the last general elections. The solutions to the conflict on offer were as follows: population transfer, separation wall, unilateral withdrawal. Some were pushed by the right, others by the left, but the message was the same: We promise you that if you vote for us, you won't hear or see the Arabs any longer. But the right says it openly and determinately. So who needs the pretenders?

More poignantly than that, patriotism began to be perceived as the last resort of one's dignity. Journalist Michael Dorfman wrote in 2004:

If I don't have the connections, status or chances, thinks the Russian immigrant, I still have my Jewishness! And I'll show them how to love the motherland!...this is why marginal figures like Kahane,  Baruch Goldstein, and Rabin's assassin Yigal Amir, are seen as bigger patriots than Shimon Peres...some may see them as a nightmare, but some may see them as an example of how a weak, unconnected loner can turn an entire society around.

In a political climate in which Israeli governments, in a perceived time of ongoing war, were still using the rhetoric of withdrawal and land-for-peace, this created a massive dissonance with the Russian constituency. In such an atmosphere, moreover, the anti-Zionist left had especially little to offer. Immigration is the process of leaving behind one's surroundings, shedding key parts of one's identity, and acquiring new ones, often through a concentrated effort and struggle to integrate. Yet the deconstructionist discourse of the radical Left, which criticizes and picks apart Zionist mythology and identity, is seen as a direct challenge to the kind of identity and community that these immigrants tried in earnest to cultivate; it was a mark of ultimate betrayal to their condition.

So do the one-million Russian speakers pose an obstacle to the two-state solution? Probably--not because they are uniquely prejudiced about it, but because they've seen very little from either the ongoing peace process or those who lead it. Does it make them an obstacle that needs to be circumvented or broken? Hardly. It reaffirms them as one of several sub-parties to the conflict, with their own particular fears, traumas, and perceived--as well as real--grievances. These will need to be understood and addressed, if the process is to be a real, inclusive and legitimate one.

Dmitry Reider is an Israeli journalist whose work has appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and the Guardian. He blogs at +972.

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The Middle East Channel

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

It was always unlikely that ‘Ayad ‘Allawi would be Iraq's next Prime Minister. This now has been definitively confirmed and, ironically, on a day when Iraq's government formation process became the world's longest exercise in political stalemate. With the announcement of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's selection as the post-electoral Shiite alliance's nominee to be Prime Minister, the action now will shift to divvying up posts in what almost certainly will be a broad-based national unity government. This in itself is no easy task, but at least this announcement gives the process clear direction and will provide a framework for the negotiations to come.

Despite his electoral slate's surprisingly strong showing in last March's parliamentary elections, ‘Allawi's immediate political future was inherently limited due to the sectarian dynamics that continue to shape political discourse in post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi politics. It is certainly true that the ‘Iraqiyya list garnered a respectable nationwide level of cross-sectarian support. However, the dominant political factions in today's Iraq represent points within a spectrum of Shiite Islamist consensus. Unsurprisingly, after years of disenfranchisement and repression, this segment of the political class is hugely defensive of its entitlement to rule the country. The political courtship of ‘Allawi by various figures from the Shiite establishment was more about negotiating leverage within the intra-Shiite contest for power than about real cross-sectarian outreach.

Maliki himself always has been the issue that framed these more narrow coalition negotiations. His emergence in recent years as a strong central authority took many of his peers by surprise, as he originally was selected as a compromise candidate to break the stalemate following the parliamentary elections of January, 2005. With no independent militia backing or power base, Maliki was an acceptable and unthreatening choice when he was launched into the unenviable task of leading a war-stricken country on the eve of a sectarian bloodletting. While by his political rivals' concern over his centralizing tendencies and their unvarnished hostility to his continued rule have been recurring leitmotifs of these coalition negotiations, prior to his launch of the Basra offensive in March, 2008, Maliki was viewed as weak and ineffectual. Stephen Hadley, then President Bush's National Security Advisor, wrote a November, 2006 classified assessment of Maliki that suggested that he was "either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

While the circumstances of Maliki's rise were particularly unlikely, it is questions of trust and fear associated with his increasingly strong grip on power that shaped the laborious and protracted negotiations. Paradoxically, the chaos of Maliki's first term and his initial weakness set the stage for the ad hoc and extra-legal measures taken to shore up his personal power and the stability of his government. Many of these measures, such as the establishment of alternate chains of command running directly to the prime minister, the cultivation of loyalist military units, and selective use of detention, had no legal or constitutional grounding and emerged at a time when the country was consumed by violence. With the security situation stabilizing and the bulk of U.S forces having withdrawn, the incoming government will have a huge role in fortifying the institutional frameworks that will guide Iraq's long-term future. As such, these negotiations have not simply been a reflection of a venal and self-interested political class, which is certainly part of the discussion, but also have included serious deliberations of checks and balances of centralized authority. The outcome of this more technical and legalistic process will be an important marker in the country's political development as its institutions and nascent traditions begin to take on the air of permanence.

The torturous course of this process also should lay to rest the notion of a supine Iraq subject to the predatory designs of its neighbors. Iraq is a weak country and will be for years to come; this inevitably will attract unwanted and meddlesome attention from the region and beyond.  While Iran has reaped immense strategic gains from the overthrow of its primary nemesis and its replacement by a friendly government, cheap talk of grand Iranian designs and a defenseless Iraqi puppet no longer should be understood as anything more than political agitprop in connection with the larger and unfolding regional and global conflict over Iran. The variable, and at times conflicting, outside agendas brought to bear on the Iraqis never were able to dictate the course of the government formation process. It should be clear at this juncture that the wishes of its neighbors and other interested parties, primarily the United States, will not be determinative of Iraqi outcomes. While the eventual U.S.-Iranian-Syrian convergence on Maliki's return boasted his stock and eased his path to nomination, regional actors and the United States responded to Iraqi cues throughout this ongoing process. As such, while outside support will play an important role in shaping outcomes and amplifying existing trends, it will not do so in a fashion that contradicts the core perceived interests of Iraqi actors.

Interestingly, despite isolated reports of fears of a power vacuum as a result of the country's extended stalemate, violence has remained at horrific yet acceptable levels, within the context of contemporary Iraq. While the initial post-electoral optimism has faded, Iraq's relative stability, in spite of further U.S. troop reductions, has not been threatened by the continuing violence and terrorism that is likely to remain a constant factor for years to come. Instead, the government has continued to function consistently, albeit at a dismal level of service provision, but one that is not at all distinct from the preceding pre-election period.

Aside from the intra-Shiite division of spoils, the next stage of the government formation process will hinge on Kurdish demands for inclusion and negotiation of ‘Iraqiyya's role in the incoming government. In some quarters, this type of national unity arrangement has been tarred as unwieldy and ideologically incoherent. However, its manifest drawbacks are outweighed by the destabilizing effects that might be associated with locking out any major political faction from the government. While crude ethno-sectarian paradigms are insufficient categories by which to judge Iraqi politics, the country's recent history certainly has brought such associations to the fore, and questions of political inclusion are often understood in such reductionist terms. No major Iraqi political current or faction as of yet is reconciled to the prospect of sitting in the honorable opposition outside the machinery of ministry patronage. In any event, the major political questions that divide the country do not necessarily break down cleanly and consistently, and their resolution will require tactical parliamentary alliances in any case.

During this transitional period, Iraq's government obviously was not in a position to take on these looming political questions that still divide the country and will determine its long-term future. Resolution of these fundamental questions regarding power, resources, and territory will be the key factor in Iraq's future trajectory and the course of the country's stillborn process of political reconciliation. While these issues will endure, today's announcement is a welcome first step toward forming an Iraqi government to steer the country beyond the present period of outside intervention.   

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.

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