When Benjamin Netanyahu decided to call for new elections last December, he justified the snap move as essential for political stability and governability. Barely five months later, he is about to swear in a patchwork government hanging not only on a tenuous majority of two, but subject to the continuous capriciousness of avaricious political vultures within his party and his new coalition. This situation, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not a result merely of difficulties related to Israel’s electoral system. It is, rather, a profound manifestation of the erosion of the strength of the Israeli state in recent years, best manifest in the gradual whittling away of governmental capacities, social solidarity and binding norms.
For many years, Israel boasted what has generally been considered to be one of the only genuinely robust states in the Middle East (Turkey is another). Strong states possess working institutions capable of formulating and implementing policy, a degree of autonomy from (often competing) social groups which enables the pursuit of a broader public interest, as well as binding norms that provide an adhesive for interaction. For several decades the resilience of the Israeli state has been undermined by constant challenges to its monopoly over the use of force in the territories under its control and by the obvious fact that it lacks clear and internationally-recognized boundaries.
It was only a matter of time before the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would begin to adversely affect the underpinnings of the state itself, especially its social solidarity and consequently its guiding principles and governmental capacities. Nothing demonstrates this progressive enfeeblement more than the processes surrounding the formation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fourth government.
Coalition negotiations are, by definition, a season of intense bargaining, during which potential partners seek to maximize political goods and gain as many plum positions as possible. They are not, however, designed as a closeout sale of state assets to specific groups, unless those at the helm of the state are willing to sacrifice state autonomy in order to retain power. But for some years now, the weeks after general elections have coincided with a deliberate denuding of the general interest of Israeli citizens through a combination of the sectorization and the privatization of the public sphere.
The sellout of large chunks of state resources to particular sectors of Israeli society — at the explicit expense of others — has been particularly blatant following this round of elections. The process started with the agreement between the Likud and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), which not only promised at least NIS 4.5 billion for the restoration of child allowances to large families and stipends for yeshiva students, but also gave the party control of the powerful Finance Committee of the Knesset. Immediately afterwards, Shas secured costly promises for further benefits for its educational institutions (including the removal of state supervision over their curriculum), as well as the unusually lucrative Ministry of Religion. The promise of the cancellation of the VAT on basic goods, together with Aryeh Deri’s impending takeover of the Ministry of the Economy, endows Shas with considerable economic power.
The last-minute wrangling between the Likud and the Jewish Home Party yielded even more rewards than ever imagined by Naftali Bennett’s downsized list: the Ministry of Education with supplementary funds (portions specifically earmarked for Ariel University), the Ministry of Agriculture along with the Settlement Authority (the key source of funding for the settlement enterprise) and, of course, the Ministry of Justice with its control over the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. In these circumstances, the immense economic powers granted to Moshe Kahlon, the incoming Minister of Finance, cannot begin to balance the payouts to the ultra-Orthodox, the national-religious and the settlers — to the detriment of other, especially disadvantaged, groups in Israeli society.
It is hardly surprising that those parties supporting the increasingly ethno-nationalist definition of Israel, led by the Likud which capitalized on the basest form of identity politics during the last days of the 2015 campaign, are set to benefit the most from their electoral victory. It is, however, more than ironic that by unabashedly buying off potential partners and encouraging their predatory tendencies, the ruling party and its leader might be contributing directly to the weakening of their capacity to guide policy in the years ahead.
This is especially true given the Likud’s propensity to promote privatization along with sectorization. While all eyes have been directed at the coalition free-for-all, the government revised its agreement with the gas magnates at the expense of future state revenues. Several high-profile cases, most notably those related to Israel Beytenu and to the latest payoff scandal involving Ronel Fisher and the former Tel Aviv District Attorney Ruth David, which involves powerful interest groups, accentuate the extent to which large segments of the state apparatus (and especially its law enforcement arms) have become riddled with corruption. And, to make matters worse, the main bastion of law and order, the judiciary, is now under attack by incoming minister Ayelet Shaked, who is bent on politicizing one of the last sources of equilibrium in the system.
The porousness of the state machinery and its vulnerability to powerful groups and individuals compromises basic principles of equal access and fair treatment. The outburst of Ethiopian Jews last week may be just a prelude to other reactions to the outrageous systemic discrimination of marginalized groups (such as the Arabs citizens of Israel in general and the Bedouin in particular). At the same time, the working middle class, the backbone of Israel’s economy, is being tested to its limits: its horizons have narrowed, its services constricted and its taxes hiked to meet the bill of the pilferers of the state coffers sitting in the government.
The unravelling of what is left of Israel’s social solidarity as a result of the takeover of the state by particularistic interests reinforces a culture of favoritism and partisan opportunism. It also severely damages the ability of state institutions to govern. No ruling party has been able to design policy, let alone long-term strategy,- for quite some time. Inevitably, government functionality (and hence durability) is constantly challenged and, far more importantly, the cycle of state deterioration is increasingly reinforced.
This pattern has been in the making for quite some time. But it now threatens to corrode the foundations of the edifice that is the Israeli state, making Israel much closer than it believes to many of its neighbors. There are, however, ways to prevent its collapse. First and foremost, any leader must pull back from the particularistic takeover of the state by narrow social interests. This implies the resurrection of universal norms in policy design and resource allocation, especially the principles of equal access and equitable distribution. It also means the utilization of instruments of affirmative action to ensure greater social justice. Second, the fight against corrupt practices at all levels must be pursued relentlessly — with the assistance of a strong and independent judiciary. And third, the habit of hounding Israel’s Arab minority and opposition groups, so detrimental to fostering a common civic culture, must cease.
Above all, however, the maintenance of state cohesion depends, now more than ever before, on the determination of Israel’s borders and on the reassertion of its supremacy within these frontiers. This cannot be achieved without accommodation first with its Palestinian neighbors and then with other states in the region (the Arab Peace Initiative remains the most promising vision in this regard). The realization of this goal is an imperative for the defense of the state not only from external threats, but primarily from the end results of the nibbling away at its roots by groups who lay claim to disproportionate amounts of its material, social and symbolic capital.