Diario Judío México - The reason for an election only some five months after the previous one is because the acting prime minister, Netanyahu, was not able to build a majority coalition to form a government. During the April 9 2019 election the two leading parties, Likud headed by Netanyahu and Kajol Lavan headed by Ganz and Lapid each received 35 seats in the 120 seat Knesset (parliament). In order to form a government a majority of at least 61 seats are required. According to Israeli parliamentary tradition the leader of a party which has the best chance of forming a large enough bloc of voters gets the knob from the President to from the government. That leader has several chances of forming a government with several postponements and if he cannot succeed the President (Rivlin) can ask another member of the Knesset to try and form a government. But before the President can do that the leader of the party that controlled the previous government can try and dissolve the parliament thus forcing new elections. Netanyahu simply did not want to give the President the chance of naming someone else to try and form a new coalition and therefore the next elections on September 17 2019. A great deal can be said about the visceral nature of the negotiations during the process of building a new majority trying to cajole members of the political parties to join the leader but at this point I prefer to analyze the issues which will dominate , or should dominate, the political discussions prior to the voting date.
Being such a small country by land size and population Israel is an extremely complex ,,heterogeneous society divided by religion, language, culture, education and world views just about any contemporary theme one can think of from views on sexuality, on male-female relationship, and the role of modern society and the state. The role of civic responsibility in the society is very much still debated in Israel today but perhaps the one almost unique place of Israel in the family of nations is the fact that it still has to justify and protect its existence among the nations of the world. No other country is asked to explain why and how it exists and several countries threaten its existence until today. Given these issues and challenges Israel needs to discuss and debate some of the following before the next elections: What is the role of the occupation, security and war and peace with the Palestinians and the Arab countries; what is the relationship between the secular and the religious sector of the society; what is the role of being a majority Jewish state and role of democracy (a small d) in that state; how should the state handle the brain drain going on today- dealing with education, health and in general labor productivity in Israeli society. Also important is the relationship of world Jewry and Israel’s Jews.
These issue are presented here not necessarily in their order of importance. They are all crucial for Israeli society. As we will proceed with these items we will see that some of them overlap with each other or touch each other’s concerns. Let us begin with the occupation, security and war and peace subjects with the Palestinians and the Arab countries. In the arena of the world stage the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Israel is the occupation by Israel of the West Bank and all that that entails. When thinking about the occupation I often wonder whether the history of why and how it happened is important or not. Is it important to know that the Israeli government asked the Jordanian government not to intervene in the Six Day War so that what happened should not have happened had they stayed out of the war? In the 52 years since the occupation began there have been numerous suggestions as to what to do with the territories vacillating between the more right wing school of thought arguing that for military security reasons we should not retreat from the territories and to a more center-left point of view saying basically that it is outdated to be concerned about ground forces, tank battalions and even organized large terror groups since Israel’s high tech surveillance capabilities are such that no surprise attack can take place coming from the East. After all Israel is a leading power in constructing towers along the border with lots of sensors, radar detectors, night vision, day vision with control centers which provide complete information on all movements. The pressures from the right come from several directions especially from Gush Emunim (bloc of believers) who claim that god had a great deal to do with the conquest of the West Bank and therefore there is no way to go back and from various religious groups and settlers who see a future of the West Bank under some kind of Israeli annexation. From the center-left bloc there are many military generals as well as security professionals and police officers who maintain that keeping the territories is not wise for the future well-being of the state. There are also NGOs who advocate leaving the territories. Those who advocate leaving do maintain that Israel has to keep some military presence along the Jordanian border for some time to come. As time moves on there is growing pressure from the right and from settlers to annex parts of the West Bank. Obviously the Palestinian maintain that any annexation will force them to dissolve the Palestinian Authority police force which cooperates with Israeli forces to prevent as much as possible terrorist acts. In addition any annexation will have to be at the expense of the creation of a Palestinian State. These different positions need to be discussed in public before the election
A major fault line in Israeli society is the religious secular divide. In Israel’s particularistic parliamentary system small political parties have an inordinate amount of political power due to the fact that no one party has been able to receive a simple majority of 61 votes to form a government out of the120 member legislature (Knesset). Every post-election period is saddled with difficult coalition bargaining processes as just happened in the previous elections of April of this year. This time the elected leader of the major party was not able to form a collation and therefore the elections again. The religious parties are small parties who yield amazing powers of bargaining and can therefore dictate to the leader what they want and what they need to join his coalition. The religious sector of the society is governed by the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate which dictates basic life-cycle matters such as birth (circumcision), marriage, death and conversions – there are three major branches of Judaism today: orthodox, conservative and reform Judaism –but in Israel the Orthodox have almost complete control over basic issues and that is one of the major problems in the religious-secular divide. Only about 10% of Israel’s Jewish population is ultra-orthodox and yet they yield power over one of the basic responsibilities of all Israelis- the military draft which all have to undergo. A fundamental issue from the very beginning of the creation of the state was whether to induct young y yeshiva (special schools for studying Jewish Law-Tora) students into the army. The Chief Rabbinate argues that studying Tora is paramount for the good of the Jewish people and therefore, by serving in the army, they have less time to study the Tora and therefore they should not be inducted into the army. In reality some ultra-orthodox young men do join the army but what the orthdox leaders do not want is to put a mandatory clause into the countries’ basic laws. All secular Jews go into the army from between 2-3 years. Therefore this civic responsibility is viewed by the secular segment of the society as universal and should be applied to all.
I addition to the draft there are some other issues which divide the society. The Orthodox separate themselves from the large society by having their own school system, by not prepare themselves for modern society, they ignore math and English subjects in their separate school system, they have very large families which they cannot maintain and they depend on the state to provide them with the funds to sustain their families, they try to prohibit businesses from operating on the Sabbath, they try to prohibit men and women studying and working together, and they do not permit public transportation on the Sabbath. Another divider is the issue of conversions into Judaism. Most of the Jews in the United States, the second largest Jewish population in the world, are either Conservative or Reform Jews and yet the only recognized conversion in Israel is the Orthodox one and that has caused great problems for many Jews. When Israelis get married the Orthodox Rabbinate requires the females undergo a ritual bath (mikve) in order to qualify for the Jewish wedding. Many Israeli women do not want to go through such a bath and so they fly to Cyprus and get married there with their husbands. Many of these issues need to be discussed and debated before the next elections.
A very delicate issue facing Israel is what does it mean to be a Jewish state and a democratic state when 20% of the population is not Jewish? In the Declaration of Independence of Israel of 1948 it was said that Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state where all minorities will be treated equally before the law. Hebrew and Arabic were to be the official languages of the country and this was so until very recently. For the last ten years or so the country has been governed by a right-wing government which has been moving further to the right emphasizing more and more the Jewish character of the country i.e. religious Zionism, and where authoritarian tendencies have become stronger. For the first three or four decades of the state the engine that drove Israel was based on a secular Jewish humanistic democratic socialist state governed by liberal political parties such as Mapai and to a lesser degree Mapam. The collective spirit has been replaced by stark capitalism which has turned into a much more stratified society with more than 20 percent of the population below the poverty line. The economic and technological success of Israel in the last few decades based on the concept of Individual self-improvement at the expanse of the socialistic humanitarian based society has impacted on the outlook of Jewish humanism and liberal political outlook. That this has become so has been shown by government ministers who decided on whether to support economically certain artists based on their political views on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on the role of religion in the society. On the democracy scale the government has been trying to reduce the boundaries between the judiciary branch and the legislative and executive branches by limiting the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down certain laws passed by the Knesset. The Nation-State law passed recently has begun to erode differences between Jewish and Arab residential requirements favoring the Jewish side. Arabic has been demoted to a second level of importance in public discourse. The ability or pacience of the government to tolerate criticism has dimished greatly in the last few years. All of these items need to be argued publically before the elections.
An emerging crucial problem is taking place in Israel- the brain drain. According to a recent study conducted by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, an independent nonpartisan center of research, only about 130,000 people in Israel are instrumental in keeping the healthcare system, the economy and the high tech sector moving ahead out of a population of 9 million people. This relatively small sector pays the most income taxes, make up the staff of the health system and comprises the workforce of the high tech enterprises and provides the teaching staff at the top universities. Particularly striking here is the fact that the high tech sector accounts for 40% of Israel’s exports and yet employs 2.7% of its workforce. Something is very wrong in the balance between the most significant proportion of the productive sector and the rest of the society. The number of academic professionals leaving Israel to live abroad versus the number of academics returning to Israel from abroad is 4.5 to one. The very small size of the productive sector means that emigration of this sector can produce catastrophic consequences for the future of the society. How long can a country rest its successes on the shoulders of the few to sustain the rest of the population?
Within the non-productive sector of society the most important one is the ultra-orthodox group for several reasons. Most important is the educational emphasis of the religious group which does not want their children to have a core education preparing them for modern tasks in the work force-science, math and English. Serving in the army in Israel has become an important vehicle for educational mobility especially in high tech something that the ultra-orthodox do not share.
Emigration on the part of the educational elite also has to do with better opportunities abroad
- In terms of the education of their children, the purchase of a home- Israel is very expensive country to live in- next to London, homes in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem are the most expensive- and in the minds of some of the intellectual emigrants Israel’s health system and Israel’s lack of public transportation are also reasons for leaving. To some of these people, as expressed to the researchers of the Shoresh study, priorities of the government during the past several decades have not changed sufficiently to provide the services and amenities they can see in other countries and therefore the move. The political structure with the plethora of small parties and the frequent elections means that limited funds go to the narrow interests of these groups instead of the things important to the educational elite such as better education, better health services and also better transport systems. The demographics of the small parties and narrow interest groups indicate where the future lies for most of the well-educated mostly secular segment that is causing the brain drain. Quite clearly the themes to be debated before the elections are in front of us.
- Finally another issue that needs attention is the relationship of Israel’s Jews with the Jews of the United States. Historically the government of Israel has steered a bipartisan approach towards the United States for most of its history with the exception in the past 2 and a half years. Netanyahu and Trump have become bosom buddies to the determent of Israel’s relation with the Democratic Party and many of the Jewsih organizations. After all at some point not far into the future the Democratic Party will win the presidency and then it will be more difficult for the government of Israel to regain some of its good relations with the government and the Jewish sector. At least, this is something that needs to be cleared up by debating and discussing Israel’s relations with the United States.
- Here then are the most salient points that need to be aired out before the next elections three months hence. Unfortunately for the well-being of Israeli society during the last elections the level of discussions and debates were extremely of very low level or in fact nonexistent. It was either one was pro Netanyahu or anti Netanyahu with very little discussion on pertinent issues outlined above. In a moment of wishful thinking what would happen if the leaders of the two largest blocs decided to forego personal interests and think this time what is good for the state of Israel and build a consensus government without the smaller parties and decide that for two years Ganz and Lapid will govern and for two years Netanyahu would govern. That may be the only way to try and solve some of the most vexing issues facing the State of Israel and build for a stronger more optimistic future.