Israel, for all its astounding successes, is on a suicide course unlike any country in the world. The current government is not only continuing the process that leads to a binational state by welding Israel to the West Bank, but also doubling down on the dynamic that supports the wild growth and unsustainable insularity of the Haredi community. If nothing changes, Israel will become a failed state.
This government is based on a longstanding alliance (since 1977) that attaches the Likud Party to the ultranationalist far-right and to religious parties dominated by Haredi functionaries determined to maintain the status quo. Because of that dependence, Likud can do little to change course – on neither the Palestinian nor Haredi fronts.
Across the aisle in Israel’s dysfunctional political landscape are a host of parties that variously see themselves as liberal, secularist or serving the Arab sector. Efforts by various politicians to brand themselves as “centrist” – first politicians in the 1990s, then Yair Lapid and now Benny Gantz – have to date failed to break what is close to a tie between the two blocs, with outcomes determined by turnout by Israel’s disparate tribes. Even with the “center-left” is in power, it is too weak to do very much, and its own dependence on the Arab parties does not help.
So Israel continues its suicide march toward two major disasters.
First, by eventually making Israel inseparable from the West Bank (the government just approved another 1,000 self-damaging housing units to teach the Palestinians “a lesson” in the wake of this week’s terror attack) it will drastically weaken Israel’s Jewish majority and turn it into a benighted place where a significant proportion of the population (the Palestinians in the West Bank) have no citizens’ rights and few human rights and are consumed by hatred for the country that effectively rules them (the Palestinian Authority is largely a fiction). Some will say it is already too late to change course; they are in effect giving up on Zionism, and I disagree.
Second, Israel is undermining its own ability to be a modern country and a viable economy by encouraging via child subsidies a reckless Haredi birthrate of about 7 children per family and continuing to tolerate the community’s refusal to introduce math, science and English into most of its schools, and by paying (small) salaries to students in Yeshivas where masses of Haredi men who are far from Torah scholars spend their lives, and through other special dispensations.
At this rate Haredim will be a majority in two or three generations, religious imposition will become the dominant theme of political discourse, and the secularists who are the engine of the economy will flee. What remains of Israel will be impoverished, vulnerable and probably doomed.
To these calamities the current government has added an effort to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy and install an elected authoritarian regime that can rule unchecked, until the collapse.
The question I’d like to address is to the Likud voters. Theirs is a party that once upon a time saw itself as both “national” and “liberal.” Its founder Menachem Begin was staunchly patriotic, but also a proponent of an independent judiciary — indeed they were connected. While proudly Jewish to be sure, and indeed a nationalist, Begin would be horrified at the current direction of things.
So, do rational and secular voters who see themselves as “right-wing” – the ones who are Likud voters, essentially – really want these outcomes? I understand many of them are angry at the left for other reasons. Many are Mizrahi Jews locked in a separate cultural war with the Ashkenazi (and mixed) populations that dominate the “center-left.” But nonetheless, it’s conceivable they might prioritize survival.
Because the most plausible way to save the whole enterprise is to dislodge these voters from their far-right and Haredi allies — either by moving Likud center-ward or abandoning it. That would reshape Israeli politics and perhaps create a new majority for national salvation.
What might that look like?
For starters, it would certainly need to involve a national strategy for partition from the West Bank Palestinians.
A friend recently asked me whether I believed that if Israel halted all the settlements it would get peace with the Palestinians. The answer is no, I am not expecting a peace deal with the Palestinians – though I do want one. Their terms (which still include partitioning Jerusalem, the return of refugees and so forth) are too difficult, they are themselves too divided and they feature too many fanatics (a bit like Israel itself). But the settlements cause damage by definition, by making the West Bank difficult to separate from Israel under any model (including a unilateral or a partial deal, which are the paradigms I do envision).
One might ask why the secular right filled the West Bank with Jewish settlements, designed and located to prevent partition? I have found several models.
- Those who think a pullout is so dangerous (Hamas will take over as in Gaza, more rockets will come from closer to the center of the country, and so on) that even diminishing Israel’s democracy and Jewishness is worth it.
- Non-democrats who simply don’t care about a quarter of the country – the West Bank Palestinians, in what is becoming effectively one country – being denied the right to vote. A cousin of this view is the notion that the Palestinians can simply vote in Jordan – and then, since they vote somewhere, that’s fine. Jordan is not a democracy and Jordan does not govern the West Bank.
- People who think it is inevitable that there will be a cataclysmic war in which the Palestinians are expelled. That is not moral, and it would lead to Israel being ejected from the community of decent countries. ·Optimists who think that Areas A of the West Bank, though they strand the Palestinians in non-contiguous islands surrounded by Israel, can somehow constitute a sufficient separation. Consult the history of Apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans – or just the history of maps. I believe poor Naftali Bennett falls into this category.
I assess it is possible, through reasoned discourse, to diminish the size of each of these groups, in effect creating a wedge between many Likud voters and those on the far right determined to hold onto all of the West Bank. It has to do with distinguishing the bad (the dangers of a pullout) from the fatal (the occupation).
On the religious front, there are more and more people, including on the right, who are starting to understand that Israel risks self-destruction unless the Haredim reduce their birthrate, moderate their ways and join the labor force in reasonable numbers (in positions other than posts in the bloated religious services bureaucracy). The only hope of avoiding this outcome is for voters of the secular right to reassess and reorient themselves toward concrete measures to address the problem – for example, phasing out child subsidies and insisting on a core curriculum for all Israeli children.
There is nothing “anti-Jewish” about this. There is nothing Jewish about the current direction of the Haredi community. Their fellow Haredim in the US are not such welfare cases. Maimonides was a doctor. The current outrage is a purely Israeli invention.
It won’t be easy to bring about change, of course. To enable Likud voters to ease their way into a new mindset, either allying with or simply joining the center-left, Israel would probably have to go slow on the Palestinian front. Perhaps it might suffice for now with merely causing no further damage — adding no settlers, and doing nothing which will complicate a partition one day, when perhaps partition again becomes possible.
There are grand themes at work here. The fact that the rebirth of Israel as an independent nation is endangered now by those who believe they are “nationalists” is one of the striking paradoxes of recent history.
It is said that voting publics get the government they deserve. If enough Jews keep voting for the right, there is no escaping the conclusion that the Jewish people will deserve the end of Zionism which will result.
Yes, people are talking about the end of Zionism, and it is not the “post-Zionists” who are doing so. There is a widespread malaise across the land these days, among its most productive and deeply patriotic sectors, caused by a sense that there is no hope. That the cards have been dealt and that Israel is doomed.
I think that is premature: the hope lies in a real dialogue with the voters of the Likud. Things are not yet preordained.