Out of the many and conflicting details involving the current Israeli debate about political control over its security services, one fact stands out: This is a debate peculiar to democratic societies. Only societies committed to liberal and humanistic values agonize over such issues.
It was the same for the United States during Watergate and for France during the recent Greenpeace affair. How does a democracy defend itself legitimately against external and internal threats while at the same time maintaining its values and the rule of law?
The details of the Shin Bet affair--in which two Arab terrorists were murdered by Israeli security agents after a bus hijacking two years ago--may haunt Israeli politics for some time, yet no one should lose sight of the simple fact that the very existence of the debate signifies the sturdy and resilient nature of Israeli democacy.
As a democracy under siege by its neighbors for 40 years, Israel has been faced with the challenge of how to remain an Athens and not turn into a Sparta. No modern western democracy has ever had to endure 40 years of war, so we do not know how the United States, England or France would have fared under such conditions. Yet we do know how they fared under a much shorter state of emergency during World War II; and in comparison, Israel appears to pass the test with relatively flying colors.
During World War II, the United States interned its own citizens who were of ethnic Japanese origin; England interned all German nationals (and this included sometimes socialist and Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany); following liberation, France executed suspected Nazi collaborators without trials.
In Israel, on the other hand, a pro-PLO party has two elected representatives in the Knesset. Israeli Arabs, for all the ambivalence of their position in the Jewish state at war with the Arab world, are protected by the rule of law in parliamentary elections and are represented in the Knesset. The mayor of Israel's largest Arab city, Nazareth, is a pro-PLO Communist. Can one imagine a similar situation in any other democratic country at war? Israel should be judged by the standards western democracies in similar conditions. By these standards, on a scale of one to 10, Israel probably deserves an eight.
All this does not mean that there is no room for concern. Some of the recent storms suggest that while Israeli legal institutions and political traditions are strong and healthy, there are elements that give cause for alarm.
These elements are not new. They have been part and parcel of the Israeli scene for decades.
The major division runs along fault lines going back to the two historic camps of the pre-1948 Zionist movement--to the rift between the Liberal and Labor wings of Zionism (headed by Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion) on the one hand, and the Revisionist wing led first by Vladimir Jabotinsky and then by Menachem Begin.
What appears in the current debate are the differences between these two camps--now the Labor alignment and the revisionist Likud respectively--with regard to power. For decades these two camps have disagreed over the issue of the limits of power--under what condition should Zionism, and Israel, have recourse to use force.
The Liberal and Labor wing never subscribed to a Ghandi-like pacifism; in the conditions of the Middle East, and after the Holocaust, this would have been suicidal. But it always felt a great ambivalence over the use of power, preferring not to use force and legitimizing its ultimate use only as a last resort, when all other means--negotiations compromise or accommodations--appear to fail. Its motto with regard to the use of force is ein dreirah ("there is no choice"). This occasionally involves some convoluted decisions and hypocrisy, but it is an effective brake on the use of power.
The Likud position, on the other hand, does not share these moral scruples. It was therefore sometimes less hypocritical and much more straightforward (hence also its greater appeal to some sectors of the Israeli population). Power, for the Likud, was the epitome of natural existence and pride. There is nothing wrong with the use of force for the good of national existence and glory. When Begin became prime minister, Israel launched in Lebanon its first "war of choice," glorified as such by Begin himself. Much of the malaise in Israel during the 1982 Lebanon war had to do with the fact that many Israelis, while feeling the war may be justified, were not convinced that it was absolutely necessary and that all other means had been used before Israel unsheathed its sword.
The historical differences still reverberate in the current debate over the Shin Bet. There is no doubt there will be an inquiry. In a democracy under siege, sometimes institutions themselves may come under siege. But the resilience of the Athenian nature of Israel, as well as the internal morality of the Judaic tradition in Zionist history, will again prove to have the upper hand over Sparta. Israelis could only wish that their Arab neighbors would go through a similar agonizing, but purifying process.