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Adam Gross

Israel needs to think straight

There are many things to be concerned about these days.

The war is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Doing everything possible to support the country, our heroic soldiers and their dependents is the short-term imperative at a time of national crisis.

But it is important also to start thinking straight about the very serious longer-term challenges that Israel is facing.

Fundamental to addressing these challenges is an economic recovery. Without resources, the political priorities of the nation cannot be achieved.

In the short-to-medium term, Israel will need a rapid economic recovery to sustainably fund the long list of national priorities emerging from October 7th and its aftermath: an ongoing military effort, the livelihoods of reservists and evacuees, whatever post-war arrangements in Gaza that are decided, the health and welfare costs for the wounded and traumatised, the rebuilding effort in both the South and the North, and a larger standing military as the country will continue to face mounting and unrelenting aggression from Iran and its proxies on all seven fronts recently enumerated by Yoav Gallant.

Beyond this, a strong economy is required to fulfill the needs across all sectors of society, irrespective of whether this involves the funding of yeshivot, other religious institutions and settlements per the governing coalition’s policy priorities, or the wider funding baskets required to maintain the country’s education, healthcare, welfare, industry, agriculture, infrastructure, utilities, tourism and culture.

Israel is already economically handicapped from ratings downgrades and the shekel’s depreciation, translating into a higher debt burden on the government budget. The war and its aftermath will also lead to shrinkage of the workforce and expand the number of people on welfare dependency, adding further strain.

The factors necessary to drive a recovery are obvious – a stronger enabling environment and improved infrastructure to support business, large and small, so that Israel’s competitiveness is enhanced, innovation further stimulated and accelerated to market, new investment attracted, and the nation’s wealth creators, employers, innovators and investors stay onshore. Serious steps to improve social mobility and inclusiveness will also help.

Unfortunately, whatever one thinks about the political justification for it, so long as the government’s ‘judicial reform’ question remains on the table, economic recovery will be held back.

Even if the worst excesses of the protests and counter-protests can be avoided in light of October 7th, which is questionable, the judicial reform package as currently formulated poses serious questions about the rule of law and the future independence and strength of Israel’s national institutions. In particular, the judicial reform package, the way it is structured, would unavoidably reduce accountability for the political class, opening up the country’s governance to increased cronyism and corruption.

It goes without saying this would negatively impact the enabling environment for business, alienate many of the country’s most important innovators and wealth creators, and deter investors.

For my part, I remain sympathetic to the need for ‘judicial reform’ or, to call it what it actually is, constitutional reform. Many of the observant and traditional sectors of society feel pain and disappointment with an activist judiciary which has unilaterally expanded its constitutional role and often promotes values and outcomes contrary to the country’s emerging majority. Different sectors have different pain points as concerns the Supreme Court’s activism. Some of these pain points, such as the Gaza Disengagement of 2005, will only become more sensitive in light of the War.

And yet despite all this, in fact precisely because of it, Jewish unity must come first.

We can take the non-rationalist step of ploughing on with ‘judicial reform’ as ‘the right thing to do’ (for those that believe this) and trust in Hashem to take care of the rest. However, Jewish teaching tells us of the high price paid by the Jewish people for disunity. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, ‘history shows that the only people that can defeat the Jewish people are the Jewish people’.

Can we be so confident that Hashem will ‘take care of the rest’ when we remain divided with seething hatred between us? While we cannot pretend to know the mind of Hashem, it is fundamental to our belief as Jews that when catastrophes strike, it is a time for reflection. In this vain, the very fact that Hashem permitted something of the magnitude of October 7th to happen at a time when we were in the streets denouncing each other with such venom must give religious-minded people – hopefully all of us – a very serious pause for thought.

So what to do?

First process, second content.

On process, the Government must draw a line by indefinitely suspending its ‘judicial reform package’ and commit to a process of national discussion. This single action – again irrespective of whatever one thinks about the political justification for judicial reform – would provide a massive boost for future investment and economic recovery by ruling out a return to the societal division, institutional decay, economic instability and fraying security of pre-October 7th Israel.

To reiterate, without resources, the political priorities of the nation cannot be achieved.

Ideally, a written constitution should be put in place, but this may be out of reach while society remains so polarized. Instead a new ‘national listening institution’ should be created to hear what different segments of society are saying, to allow different segments of society to speak directly with each other, to allow for robust debate but with strong rules to maintain civility, to formulate methods for restoring national unity, to generate usable evidence, and to innovate creative ways to solve the deep-rooted societal divisions that government must then take into account.

Importantly, this institution must also consider the future relations between Jews and Arabs – both Arab citizens of Israel as well as Palestinian Arabs. While the long-term solutions acceptable to all parties may remain obscured from view, and we cannot pretend the Western reductionism that underpins the ‘classic two state solution’ is acceptable to either Israelis or Palestinians, and while hatred and contempt may regrettably but unavoidably have grown since October 7th, a commitment to dialogue and sharing perspectives and ideas is an important first step out of the abyss in which we find ourselves.

On content, constitutional reform cannot be ignored, but it must become more precise, targeted and consensus-based. There should be a disentanglement of issues with only those reforms moving forward which are based on clear and defensible principles that strengthen the representativeness, civility, stability and governance of the country.

On the one hand, judicial selection must be reformed to ensure the courts more greatly reflect and represent the changing complexion of Israeli society. ‘Reasonableness’ must be  replaced with more clearly defined and objective criteria. And basic laws, to play their intended role as quasi-constitutional building blocks, should require more than a simple majority of the Knesset to be enacted.

On the other hand, any reform should be subject to the basis test of ensuring it would not result in compromising the accountability of any member of the executive or legislature, of the independence and integrity of national institutions, and of the competence, professionalism, fairness, inclusiveness and transparency of governance.

Thinking straight means making hard choices. It means divorcing ourselves from the poison of the past, between Jews, and hopefully between Jews and Arabs as well. It means finding new ways to achieve our goals – as communities, as klal yisrael, and as the component peoples of the State of Israel.

Above all, and before all, it means existentially and irrevocably re-committing to Jewish unity. 

About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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