Aluf Benn is regarded as one of Israel’s most incisive journalists. He covered the last six Israeli prime ministers and, in addition to his position as editor-at-large and editorial page editor for Ha’aretz, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek and The Guardian. Benn, 45, is a graduate of Tel Aviv University and has an M.B.A. degree from Northwestern University in Chicago.
Q. What is the most urgent challenge facing Israel today?
A. Social change. Israeli society has always experienced waves of social change, but these were traditionally driven by aliya. Sefardic Jews from the Arab countries followed by a million Jews from the former Soviet Union and some from Ethiopia. But today, the demographic change is driven from within Israel by our two fastest growing communities: the Israeli Arabs and the Orthodox Jewish community. Almost half of all first-year elementary school students are either Israeli Arab or ultra-Orthodox. These numbers are growing while the relative numbers of secular kids are shrinking.
Q. Why does demography top your list?
A. These communities have two characteristics that distinguish them from the mainstream population. They are exempt from military service and are underrepresented in the work force. By and large, ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women don’t work. Without change, within a decade or two a smaller base of tax-paying people will be protecting and providing for a growing population of welfare seekers. This is not sustainable. To survive and develop economically, Israel must integrate these two groups into society. But [integration] comes with a price. In the past, when a new group of immigrants came to Israel, they spoke a different language and had a hard time pushing their foot in the door. They never challenged the system. They said, O.K., you came before us, you got the better jobs, the better housing, you got this and you got that. Now it’s our turn.
Q. Can you cite an example?
A. Look at the success of the Russian immigrants. You have the foreign minister, the minister of tourism and the chairman of the Jewish Agency, all from the former U.S.S.R. They speak with accents, but they have the best jobs public service can offer. The same is true in the previous generation with the Sefardic Jews. They wanted their slice of the pie. With the Arab and the Orthodox communities it is different. They don’t want a slice of the same pie. They want a different pie, they want to change the recipe. The Arab political leadership in Israel demands Israel be a pluralistic democratic state, while the ultra-Orthodox want it to be more religiously traditional. Pushes for change inevitably create backlash, and it is this force which drives the political debate in Israel today.
Q. How does this conflict play out in the public arena? A. The rise of the Arab Israeli voice led to the counter-rise of [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman, which led to the counter-counter-rise of more Arab leaders elected to the Knesset. So today there is a noisy debate about loyalty laws and new laws forbidding Arabs from living in small Jewish towns and so on. Twenty years ago, you saw very few Israeli Arab citizens in predominantly Jewish workplaces—in banks, in pharmacies, in hospitals. You saw them either employed in their own communities or doing low-level construction jobs. Today it’s different.
Q. And with the haredim? A. They have considerable political power but also want more voice in mainstream society. Again, this leads to backlash. Whenever the Shas Party secures any gain, you see immediate backlash and public anger.
Q. So two growing groups—with not much in common. What does that mean for the future?
A. Given the disconnect between haredim and Arabs, the mainstream can rest assured that they will forever be in power even as their [relative] numbers shrink.
Q. Aren’t more haredim integrating into Israeli society? A. More do indeed enter the IDF. Some…acquire technical skills from computer programming to aircraft maintenance and then they get a job. There are also many more ultra-Orthodox kids who go to universities. Many Orthodox women work in what were predominantly secular workplaces before. There is a change in the haredi society, and not everyone who wants to practice religion or tradition wants to live in poverty or live off welfare.
Q. Where can we most clearly see the change happening? A. Haredi women are leading the way, breaking into good high-tech and other positions in Tel Aviv, only a half hour away from their homes in Modi’in Ilit or Ramat Bet Shemesh. The best example with the Arabs is pharmacies, where very few were trained and hired until recent years. One large pharmacy chain wanted to open on Shabbatot but was not allowed to hire Jews for this, so they started recruiting Arabs, not to mention non-Jewish Russians.Q. You are one of few Israeli observers who has covered the last six prime ministers. How do you compare them?
A. Each…governed under different circumstances. Each acted well under pressure. The larger question was their ability to radiate a sense of leadership. [My] amazing conclusion is that the answer is in direct correlation to age and experience.
Q. Who were the top two?
A. [Ariel] Sharon was the eldest, and he was by far the strongest leader. He was extremely popular, so much so that he could change his policy 180 degrees, removing the very same settlements he once built in Gaza. He controlled his coalition and remained firmly in power. He was in total control for five years and could have easily won a third election had his physical condition permitted. His close second was Yitzhak Rabin, [who] was no less controversial. He was assassinated as a result of his policies. Yet he was always seen as a national father figure. In his last year…the suicide bombings undermined his position and [Benjamin] Netanyahu was rising in the polls near the end. Nobody doubted Rabin had the final say on everything.
Q. And the other prime ministers? A. I have no real recollection of [Shimon] Peres…when he succeeded Rabin. He was a very weak leader and lost the election [in 1996]. [Ehud] Olmert was a powerful politician. He was very popular among the public and politicians feared him. But then came the Second Lebanon War. It was a disaster. He lost support [because of] Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Q. What about Ehud Barak?
A. He made a pledge before his election to withdraw from Lebanon within a year, and he kept it. That is uncommon. Obviously, when it is unilateral you don’t need to rely or depend on some other partner, and that is easier than signing a deal that forces someone to make compromises and to negotiate with you. But it didn’t help him. He was extremely unpopular.
Q. Wasn’t Netanyahu, who served as prime minister twice, different each time?
A. Bibi is different today. He was miserable in his first term. The past two years have shown him capable of holding together a coalition while remaining popular despite the many challenges. First of all, he is older, and…I believe this helps one become wiser. Before the last election I…asked him, ‘You have been saying the same things since ’93 and ’94. So what has changed?’ He said [to paraphrase], My positions haven’t changed…but two other factors have. The public is more willing to listen to me because my first time there lingered the illusion of Oslo and the belief that I was its spoiler….
Q. The second new factor?
A. He told me he had learned to be a politician. He had watched Olmert and Sharon and saw how they treated other politicians and realized that politics is about people and attention and not just ideas and policies. Today he is more willing to listen to people…. I must admit he was right. He is a better politician. Of course he has problems. His key political rival is his own foreign minister. Bibi needs to translate his position into that of wise national father if he wants to cement his future political role.