The January 22nd election results have handed sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a historic opportunity to reform Israeli society and secure for himself a positive, substantive legacy of social reform. The media and political pundits focusing more on the political intrigue surrounding the coalition negotiations largely seem to be missing the historic gravity of the opportunity that the elections have thrust upon Bibi.
Unfortunately for Bibi, his ‘natural partners,’ the Haredi parties, stand in his way of meeting the call of both the Israeli public and the call of history. Therefore Bibi faces a very simple choice between once more embracing his ‘natural partners’ or embracing the change the Israeli people have mandated by forming a coalition with political newcomers bent on achieving greater equality and fairness within Israeli society. The question while observing the ongoing coalition negotiations should not be, as the media frames it, will Bibi choose Lapid-Bennett or the Haredim? But instead, will Bibi choose social equality over status-quo division? Progress over tradition?
With Obama and his March visit looming large over the on-going coalition negotiations, Netanyahu would be well served to remember one of Obama’s most well used rhetorical devices—referring to the ‘arc of history.’ Obama, while making his argument for the need of greater social justice to the American people in 2008, referred to the ‘arc of history’ to illustrate his point. He appropriated the phrase used by Martin Luther King, who often said in his speeches, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The election results beg to know whether or not Bibi will bend the arc towards the will of the Israeli people, towards social justice and integration, by embracing Lapid-Bennett and moving to draft the Haredi community into the IDF or will Bibi betray the arc and stick to his ‘natural partners.’
Rarely in modern democratic elections is a leader given such a clear mandate for a fundamentally needed reform by the public, both in terms of election results and public opinion surveys. After a bruising electoral result that inspired headlines like ‘Netanyahu loses big with Israeli elections win,’ Bibi simply needs to do both what is just and what is popular to secure his final term as Prime Minister and his place in the annals of history.
Almost two full weeks after the election, the Smith Institute, a left-wing British think tank, published survey results that showed 80% of Israelis favored a civil government supporting religious freedom and universal IDF conscription. The survey also showed 70% of secular Israelis wanting the Haredi parties excluded from the government, included a stunning, slim 51% majority of Likud-Beiteinu voters wanting to see the Haredi parties kept out of the government.
With the electoral strength of newcomers, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, both running on a secular, ‘share the burden’ platform there is little doubt of where the Israeli public stands on the issue of the Haredeem, their currently unequal position in society and the desired reform to enact a universal draft. A reform that has implications far beyond universal military service, as ‘sharing the burden’ will move the most extreme, intolerant and xenophobic elements of Israeli society out of isolation and force them to face the realities of the modern world, benefiting Israeli society as a whole.
When Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, addressed the Knesset last week he clearly laid out the challenges facing Israeli society if the secular and religious communities within Israel are not better reconciled. While insisting there will not be a Civil War within Israel, he said, “Is it too much to imagine that every Haredi child learns English and every secular child would know what a page of Gemara (Talmud) looks like? Is it too much to imagine a state whose internal engine is not the hatred of others?” Speaking a line reminiscent of the before mention Martin Luther King, Lapid speaks in broad terms about the deeper implications of an institutionally segregated Israel—where the Army is the largest institution of all.
Listening to Lapid, it becomes clear he understands that drafting the Haredi community into the IDF is about so much more than military service; it’s about the promise of democracy itself, rule of the majority and the democratic promise of ever expanding rights, equality and social integration. The isolation and semi-privileged status of the Haredi community comes with a higher cost than simply burdening the rest of society by ‘carrying’ the Haredi community—both in terms of national security and economics. The economic argument against continuing the statue-quo may be an even more powerful one than the social argument, but will not be addressed here. Their isolation, while they have political power, perpetuates their worldview, which is not born out of social, political, territorial or demographic realities. This politically powerful, isolated worldview perpetuates the institutional intolerance of secular life, women, other religious groups, gays and lesbians and just about any other minority you can think of within the diverse State of Israel.
Drafting the Haredi community into the IDF will also have a profound effect on any potential peace agreement. Does any current observer of Israeli politics or the conflict truly believe that Israel can disengage from the West Bank today without a potentially violent right-wing revolt? The right in Israel is no softer or less territorial than it was after Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and leaders from the right, both religious and political, incited violence against him. Many within the business of political analysis blame this one the settler movement and its strength. However, the settler movement is not to blame for this fundamental truth, which keeps any two-state solution far out of grasp; the settler movement is a symptom of the problem, not the affliction itself.
The heart of why Israel cannot move forward and embrace the more progressive yearnings of the majority of its citizens is because the religious right remains isolated from the rest of society and lacks exposure and firsthand experience with the demographic, territorial, political and military realities of the conflict. In order for Israel’s leaders to tackle many of the issues facing the state, those leaders first must share a common understanding of the issues, an understanding born out of a common reality and national experience for all citizens.
Bibi is currently uniquely positioned to effectively implement a universal draft. An American political proverb illustrates this point—the saying that ‘only Nixon could go to China.’ There is no doubt that implementing a universal draft in Israel will be difficult—likely resulting in civil unrest, violent protests and many Haredeem choosing jail time over service. However, Bibi’s historic allegiance with the Haredi parties and loyalty to their community gives him the necessary leverage to force the Haredeem to accept a universal draft in a way that a leader from the left or center never could. Just as Nixon had to leverage his anti-Communist credentials against his conservative base in order to end the Vietnam War and open China, Bibi now will have to find the political courage to leverage his past allegiances in order to enact a universal draft. Bibi, as Nixon said of himself, was perhaps born “to give history a nudge”—undeniably a difficult task for Bibi to implement, but a necessary one if Bibi wishes for history to treat him kindly and, more importantly, necessary for the future of an equal and democratic State of Israel.