Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The A-Z of Israel: On 22 January, Israelis Will Go to the Polls. the World Watches-But How Much Do We Really Know about the Country That Calls Itself "The Sole Bastion of Democracy" in the Middle East?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The A-Z of Israel: On 22 January, Israelis Will Go to the Polls. the World Watches-But How Much Do We Really Know about the Country That Calls Itself "The Sole Bastion of Democracy" in the Middle East?

Article excerpt

A is for Architecture

Tel Aviv is Israel's teeming metropolis--and it is also a haven of modernist architecture. Planned in the early 20th century and built mainly between 1920 and 1945, it began life as an extension of the ancient port city of Jaffa. Jewish immigrants from Europe developed suburban areas to the north, but it was not until the early 1920s that a comprehensive plan for the city was produced by Sir Patrick Geddes. The central 'White City area of Tel Aviv is a full realisation of his observational ideas of town planning which, rather than being led by a fixation on design, seeks to adapt itself to the requirements of the place and the needs of the people who live there.

As Geddes did not prescribe an architectural style in his plan, the buildings in White City were designed by a large number of architects, many of whom had trained and practised in Europe. By the 19305 many Jewish architects, particularly of the Bauhaus school in Germany, were fleeing to Tel Aviv as the Nazi Party grew in power. One such immigrant, Arieh Sharon, built residential areas, public buildings and hospitals incorporating Bauhaus principles of functionality but adapted them to the climate and demands of life in Tel Aviv.

The melding of the Bauhaus style with the ideas of Le Corbusier and the work of the expressionist Erich Mendelsohn resulted in the White City emerging as one of the best and most extensive examples of the international style. In 2003, it was named a Unesco World Heritage site in recognition of its outstanding significance to 20th-century architecture. In more recent years, Israel has pioneered a very different kind of architecture--see W for Wall.

B is for Bibi

Rafael Behr writes: One of the paradoxes of Israel is that, for a country whose identity depends on continuity over millennia, it is very young. None of the first generation of prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Shimon Peres, was born an Israeli. That generation spans the foundation of the state in 1948 to May1996, when Binyamin Netanyahu was first elected.

At 47, Netanyahu was then the country's youngest ever premier and the first to deploy slick, soundbite-driven, American-style campaign strategies. (He studied in the US in the 1970s and, unlike his predecessors, speaks English with a distinctly American accent.) The political old guard, in his own conservative Likud party and on the left, thought his style vulgar and insubstantial. Then they saw how well it worked. Yet the image of the polished performer, lacking in substance, stuck to the man they call "Bibi".

Now he is 63 and no one disputes that he is a political heavyweight. That first period in office was marked by a relative stagnation in the peace process that looks, with hindsight, like the beginning of the end of optimism. He then crashed out of office in1999, surrounded by corruption scandals.

Netanyahu retired briefly from politics, returning in 2003 to serve as finance minister in Ariel Sharon's cabinet. The portfolio allowed him to express a streak of hard economic conservatism in the Thatcherite vein (see P for Protest). He resigned over Sharon's decision in 2004 to withdraw Israeli military forces from Gaza, a gambit that remains the last significant territorial concession made by any Israeli government. Netanyahu's opposition to it indicated an ideological aversion to compromise. It also demonstrated a strategic judgement about the political dividends available to a politician who might tap in to public insecurity and the appetite for intransigence.

He succeeded Sharon as leader of Likud and engineered a reorientation away from the party's position as a pillar of the centre right, courting voters who were gravitating towards more religious and extreme nationalist parties (see U for Ultra-nationalists). Some analysts detect in that shift the influence of his father, a Zionist historian wedded to the territorial vision of a Greater Israel. …

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