Israel is not the US: Regional administrations — yes, federalism — no

The Knesset-Photo by Raphael Nir on Unsplash

The recently reported in the media plan drafted by Israel’s Minister of Interior, Aryeh Deri, to split the country into units and create regional administrations which will undertake governmental functions, should be applauded in principle. In no State the central government should be allowed to wage the everyday matters of the people in the periphery.

It is commended that a regional administration will decide on issues such as planning and building permissions in the area of its jurisdiction. It is also plausible to imagine that a citizen in Haifa or in Beer Sheva who wants to open a grocery shop or a bakery in these towns, should not have his papers examined by an employee in a government office in Jerusalem. Yet, in no way should the competencies due to pass to these regional administrations contain any matters pertaining to the character of the State.  The question of whether Israel is to be ‘Jewish and democratic’, only ‘Jewish’ or ‘a State for all its citizens’ must be decided in the Knesset and through the national dialogue rather than in regional councils.

Taking into account the large cultural or educational differences that exist around various parts of the country, for example between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, someone can fathom what will happen if these areas get the right to formulate themselves the cultural or educational profile of the people living in their confines. If for example, various regions acquire the discretion to shape even on an auxiliary basis the school curriculum, an Israeli student in Jerusalem will get a fervent religious education in all the school streams, even in the state public schools which are not religious, whereas religious education in Tel Aviv, even in the state religious schools, will fall behind. Or for example, when it comes to cultural issues, a play supporting the settlements will find a welcoming roof in the National Theatre in Jerusalem, whereas it will banned from public institutions in Tel Aviv, ending up being performed-if ever-in a private, neglected stage in the city.

Someone can argue that this is the situation even now. Maybe yes. Yet, we should not transform all the discussion and complaints over the ‘Tel Aviv State’ to a norm. We should try to change the ‘Tel Aviv State’ to a state that cares equally about the financial and security concerns of all its citizens, either in the Galilee, the Negev or in the communities around Gaza. Yet, the solution in abolishing the ‘Tel Aviv state’ is not to create a ‘Jerusalem State’, a ‘Haifa State’ and other regional entities which like mini-kingdoms will start to compete with each other. It is wrong to create cantons in Israel.

The idea of creating regional administrative units should not lead to federalism. Israel is not the U.S. where due to its size, people in one of the U.S. states have to often travel hundreds of miles away to get beyond their state’s jurisdiction and engage with new mindsets and opinions. It is not for sure that a person from a small town in Texas will meet a New Yorker or a Bostoner to debate abortion or refugee rights. The same is true for other federal states which cover a considerable territory, like Russia, Australia and Brazil. On the other hand, the miniature size of Israel makes it certain that people living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem will co-mingle with each other; actually, some commute from one city to the other on a daily basis. In Israel, a federal model creating entities which will give different answers to the metaphysical identity questions tormenting the State from its very inception, cannot exist without running the danger of tearing the State apart.

If for example the regional administrations will have the right to shape the cultural and educational agenda, without the central government being able to intervene in these decisions, in the north, the Israeli Arab society may take a stance which will underline only the injustice caused by Israel towards the Palestinians and promote a standing that will see members of the society becoming gradually more disengaged from the ‘Jewish’ and ‘national’ State and demanding autonomy. Not surprisingly, in the United Kingdom, the devolution of powers to Scotland in the late 90s, contributed to the gradual fostering of nationalistic claims that led to the independence referendum in 2014.

At the same time, the creation of regional administrations can impact negatively on the Jewish and Arab co-existence also when it comes to the Jewish residents of the West Bank. With them being Israeli citizens, and with the government flirting at least with the partial annexation of the territory, these settlers may come to demand that a separate ‘Judea and Samaria’ regional administration is also created. The government may grant their plea, preparing thus the ground for future annexation.

The creation of a ‘Judea and Samaria’ state will not only deeply harm the prospects of the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it will also harm Israel itself. Whereas not all settlers have the same worldview, a ‘Judea and Samaria’ state may end up being governed by people expressing extreme nationalist-even messianic- opinions, which the central government in Jerusalem will find itself many times in the awkward position to justify or explain to the international community.

When the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke about the four tribes in Israel-ultra orthodox, religious, secular and Arabs-he described the situation on the ground. The particular features of each group should of course be respected. Yet, whether this can be done to the expense of the State’s unity, this is-or should be-more debatable.

About the Author
Dr. Solon Solomon is lecturer in law, holding degrees from the Hebrew University and King's College London and in the past has served in the Knesset Legal Department on international and constitutional issues
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