When peace interferes with Israeli quality of life

“Peace is for rich girls from Tel Aviv!” explains a non-Ashkenazi, non-Tel Aviv male character in one of Amos Oz’s descriptive pieces on Israel.

The character further explains that prior to the annexation of the West Bank, he had been a poorly paid construction laborer, but with Israel’s annexation of a large Arab working class population, he had shifted up to construction contracting, moving from the lowest socioeconomic echelon to a middle one. Only wealthier Israelis, whose economic status would not be jeopardized by the return of the territories, he contended, would ever be in favor of peace and the return of land.

The internal economic argument for the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian peace is one seldom put forward in the American press — Jewish or otherwise. An analysis of the Israeli vote or Israeli poll data is rarely published by income class, yet Israel is more divisively split by class than ever before, with a much-publicized American-like widening in the past decade of the income distance between the lower and upper deciles of the population.

The economic argument also lies at the heart of the successful settlement of the West Bank, under both Labor and Likud administrations, with the majority of the current 200,000-plus Israelis having relocated there not for religious salvation but for quality of life — meaning more square footage, more clean air and more acreage per dollar than within the Green Line. Though many of these settlers claim in polls that they would be willing to resettle within the Green Line if they were paid for their homes, they would have to, in fact, reduce their quality of life for peace; that is, for peace they would be compelled to reduce their living status.

It should certainly be easy for Americans, with our ever-expanding house and car square-footage and commuting distance, to understand how economic considerations like these would be a deterrent to peace.

The liberal programs for peace put forward by the Israeli and American Jewish left do not acknowledge or act upon the internal economic wedge preventing Israeli voters from accepting peace. They, in fact, continue to lure the same liberal, well-heeled voter (the Ashkenazi middle class), whose number unfortunately is not large enough to vote in a peace agenda. Over and over, the peace marches take place in downtown Tel Aviv, but never in the centers of the poor, ethnic voting blocs. Simply put, the working poor, the immigrants and the shaky, nouveau middle class is ignored when it is they who must be sought after.

Hence peace plans must not be merely political in nature — dealing with the swap of land for peace and the right of return of Palestinians — but they must directly face the internal battle of the wallet. How will the Jewish building contractors be able to maintain their status with the removal of West Bank Arabs from the working population? What economic policies will be put in place to help the bottom at the expense of the top? How will an increasingly capitalized and technocratic country reverse income disparity?

Without a wider economic platform that addresses Russians, Ethiopians, the children of the 1950s immigrants, Israeli Arabs and foreign workers, today’s advocates for peace merely continue the Labor Party’s sad historical saga of ignoring the lack of economic opportunities among the lower classes.

Five of my Israeli cousins — non-Ashkenazi — are scattered across America because there was no opportunity in Israel for them at the bottom of the rung, and America beckoned. Today they own stores in Texas, drive limos in Manhattan, own houses in exurbia, send their children to college — all of this unthinkable in the Israel they left behind. Why, I asked one who recently explained she wanted to retire to Israel, had she ever immigrated to the United States in the first place, and without thinking she replied, “we did not have indoor plumbing until the 1950s.”

Forty years ago, she voted with her feet, as still many do today, leaving a country that could promise neither peace nor economic opportunity. But of my cousins who remained, there is not a liberal among them. They vote centrist, and they vote against peace, and they are not rich and they do not live in Tel Aviv.

Daniel Najjar lives in San Francisco and is a data analyst for an HMO.

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