Academics take a back seat

June 14, 1996

One of the side effects of Binyamin Netanyahu's election victory in Israel is a marked drop in the role of academics in political life. The outgoing government included three law professors in the cabinet and several top academics in the civil service. Mr Netanyahu's new government looks as if the professors will be largely conspicuous by their absence.

Academics are very active in Israeli political life. Shlomo Ben-Ami, professor of history at Tel Aviv University and previously Israel's first ambassador to Spain, who has won a Knesset seat on the Labour List. He says the reason that so many professors go into political life is that Israel "never had a legitimate concept of an ivory tower, although Israel is an intellectual type of society.

"The issues in Israel are always perceived as being so dramatic and existential, that everyone seems to be involved. It is a Mediterranean phenomenon - the intellectuals in Mediterranean society are highly politicised - which is not the case in Britain or the United States."

Professor Ben-Ami has made a name for himself as an expert on European history. He also served as head of the council for social and economic affairs of the prime minister's office in 1984, as ambassador to Spain between 1987-91, and in 1992 headed Israel's delegation to the multilateral talks on refugees. For Professor Ben-Ami, Israel is a society "still in formation. It's not a constituted society . . . academics might have a impact".

However, Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University, and a former director-general of Israel's foreign ministry, does not believe that "decision-making is influenced by the input of intellectuals"; he does not believe it will make a difference if there are fewer intellectuals in the ruling clique. Nevertheless, he agrees with Professor Ben-Ami that "intellectuals have always played a large role in the Zionist movement. Revolutions are always led by intellectuals . . . Intellectuals and academics are far more likely to get involved in politics here".

Professor Avineri entered Israel's foreign ministry in 1976 when one of the main tasks was to "combat Palestinian propaganda". He had "an overview of the Palestinian issue . . . the question was how to address the problem". He feels that academics entering politics bring a more "theoretical approach, a more reasoned approach . . . and a wider perspective".

He cited the example of Amnon Rubinstein, who as a professor of constitutional law, came into political life with "general concepts of legal, constitutional, and civil rights. He is not just a politician. In most western societies, professors view themselves as having a public responsibility, but the difference in Israel is that these issues affect people's daily lives," Professor Avineri said.

Outgoing education minister Amnon Rubinstein, former dean of Tel Aviv University's law faculty, founded his own party, Shinui, with colleagues from the university, as a response to the Yom Kippur war. He tried to bring "intellectual discipline" into his role as education minister, and was involved in drafting bills to change several laws, including that for the direct election of the prime minister.

However, not all of the academics in Israeli public life are on the left. Dore Gold of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Centre of Strategic Studies has just been appointed as Mr Netanyahu's political adviser. Moshe Arens, a former professor of aeronautical engineering at the Technion in Haifa, was defence minister in Yitzhak Shamir's Likud government in the mid 1980s. And even further to the right, Yuval Ne'eman, a world-famous theoretical physicist at Tel Aviv University, was the founder of the far right Tehiya party and science minister in two Likud governments.

Alex Lubotsky, chairman of the Hebrew University's mathematics department, was motivated to enter politics after the death of Yitzhak Rabin. He ran for a seat in the Third Way party, which supports the peace process except for any compromise over the Golan Heights.

Although it is not common for scientists and mathematicians to enter political life, for Professor Lubotsky, an Orthodox Jew and a settler from the West Bank town of Efrat, it was a natural progression.

He explained that after the Oslo Accords, a group of friends, who agreed neither with the accords nor with the opposition view, got together and decided to study it. This "group of moderate settlers", despite its total lack of political experience, managed in a few weeks to meet the prime minister, the president and top ministers to lobby them.

Academics also play an important part in the professional function of government. Yitzhak Galnoor, who teaches political science and public administration at the Hebrew University, was named civil service commissioner by Yitzhak Rabin several years ago.

The governor of the Bank of Israel since 1991 is Tel Aviv University economics professor Yaakov Frankel, previously vice president of the International Monetary Fund. He replaced Hebrew University economics professor Michael Bruno who went to Washington as vice president of the World Bank.

Two distinguished Hebrew University law professors are Supreme Court justices, Aharon Barak and Yitzhak Zamir, coincidently both former attorneys general. Professors are also serving as ambassadors in Washington, Moscow and Amman, although they are likely to be replaced.

According to Professor Galnoor, members of the incoming government have a "different attitude. They're professional people: lawyers, accountants, rather than academics. What may be lacking is a more general view of the task at hand. Academics would have a comparative approach to a specific mission."

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