Death of the Kibbutznik

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Ephron

The dramatic implications of their political demise in Israel.

Avshalom Vilan has the kind of resume that once exemplified the Israeli elite: born on a kibbutz, served in the military's most prestigious antiterrorism unit, Sayeret Matkal, but also worked to advance peace with the Palestinians. So when he ran for Parliament for the first time in 1999 with the left-wing Meretz Party, Vilan had no trouble getting elected and later reelected. Three of Meretz's 10 members that year were from kibbutzim (the plural of kibbutz), those iconic communal villages that defined the Zionist enterprise going back a century. In the entire 120-member Parliament in 1999, kibbutzniks numbered eight--proportionally more than three times their size in the population.

Vilan, who is 61 and has the rugged good looks of a character in a cowboy movie, will be on the ballot again when Israelis go to the polls next week to choose a new Parliament. But he's unlikely to win this time. In fact, for the first time since Israel's founding in 1948, not a single native kibbutz member is expected to enter the regal building in Jerusalem where Israelis make their laws and trade in power. "I'm still hoping, but I don't think it's going to happen," he tells Newsweek in an interview. "It's a big change in Israel."

For people who still think of Israel as the country it was in the '50s and '60s, the shift is almost incomprehensible. For decades, kibbutz members dominated Israel's most important institutions, including the Army and politics, even as their numbers never grew beyond 6 percent of the population. Many of the country's towering figures, from David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan to Amos Oz and Ehud Barak, were either born on a kibbutz or joined one as adults.

But their disappearance from the political scene is the culmination of a broader trend underway in Israel for some time now: a shifting of power from an old elite to a new one. As the last kibbutzniks leave Parliament later this month, up to 16 residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank will enter the building, either as newly minted lawmakers or returning ones. That's a larger representation for the settlers than at any time since Israel captured the Palestinian territories in 1967 and set about establishing communities there. "We're seeing a decline in the importance of the kibbutz movement and the rise of another group ... that's more nationalistic and more religious," says Efraim Inbar, a poli tical scientist who directs the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "They are the new aristocracy."

Ideologically the two groups couldn't be more different. Kibbutzniks, the vast majority of them, are ardently secular and politically moderate. Most support parties on the center and left, like Labor and Meretz--political entities that have cham pioned peacemaking with the Palestinians. Settlers, by contrast, tend to vote for parties on the right side of the political map, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and the religious factions in Parliament. If the polls are accurate and Netanyahu forms the next government, up to a quarter of his ruling coalition could be composed of settlers.

The implications are potentially dramatic. As Israel prepares to mark 65 years since its founding this year, many of the core questions about its character as a country have yet to be settled. The most urgent one is the status of the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as part of their future state and which a growing number of mainstream Israeli political figures now talk openly about annexing. Almost as pressing is the relationship between religion and state, which is often the subject of heated arguments among Israelis. Even the preeminence of democracy as the country's guiding principle now seems open to debate.

It is conceivable at least that Israel might begin to resolve some of these questions in the coming decade--during a time frame that analysts are increasingly viewing as the era of the settler. …