Noah Slepkov
Noah Slepkov
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Israeli governance: The tyranny of the minority?

JPPI’s Pluralism Index shows a public open to accommodating differences while its elected leaders wage battles blocking any and all compromise
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Results of the March 2021 Israeli elections – the fourth round in two years – provide a relevant framework for summarizing the findings of the just-released Jewish People Policy Institute’s Pluralism Index. These elections ended without a definitive winner on either side of the political map regarding two main questions: Who will be the next prime minister? and How will the next coalition be assembled? 

The difficulty in translating the public agenda and priorities into political action is evident in almost every section of this wide-ranging report, which was written by Shmuel Rosner and myself and is mainly based on a comprehensive public opinion survey.

Along with the feeling of shared destiny with Diaspora Jews, there is a tendency in the political system to ignore decisions (the Kotel arrangement, for example) that reflect this feeling in favor of political considerations. This highlights a paradox already seen in the past. The feeling of closeness to Diaspora Jewry is actually stronger among Israelis who voted for the ruling coalition over the past decade. However, these same Israelis tend to be less supportive of measures with a real potential to bring certain groups of Diaspora Jews, who feel distanced from Israel, closer. The population groups that feel closest to Diaspora Jews also hold positions – some related to religious and cultural pluralism, others related to political matters (peace and security) – that make it difficult to bring the two groups closer together.

An illustration of Natan Sharansky’s proposal, which will expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. (photo credit: Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)

Regarding relations between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, we can discern a recognition among most Israelis that the two groups have a shared future (even if this recognition has not yet translated into a feeling of emotional closeness). This recognition was also evident in the recent elections: an interesting new element was the controversy among Israeli Arabs regarding the scope of cooperation between the Arab political factions and the majority Jewish factions. Even in the parties that represent Jews, including those with major ideological reservations about Israeli-Arab views on national issues, there is a perceptible degree of potential acceptance of Israeli-Arab cooperation in the political arena that has not been seen in the past.

Along with this positive development, we should note that there are still fundamental issues that make cooperation between Jews and non-Jews in Israel difficult. Many Arab representatives claim that Israel takes an exclusionary stance in legislation and resource allocation (passage of the controversial Nation-State Basic Law is cited as a clear illustration of this). On the other hand, many Jews will find it difficult to ignore the fact that along with the clear willingness to cooperate in recent years, there are still prevalent Arab public attitudes on national issues the Jewish majority finds hard to accept. This is both in regard to the state’s Jewishness and other general political issues (the opposition by key Arab representatives to the Abraham Accords highlights the fault line), as well as the Jews’ main cultural narrative, as illustrated in the question related to the Jews’ link to the Temple Mount (only one in five Israeli Arabs recognizes the fact that there was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount).

The tension between the growing willingness to cooperate and the attitudes of both groups on major issues will certainly contribute to the difficulty of turning the positive signs cited in this report into specific governmental political action. However, the very fact that Israel is finding it difficult to extricate itself from the political stalemate and must engage in yet further elections in an attempt to stabilize the government, points to the possibility of breaking down the political and psychological barriers between Jews and Arabs. Cooperation on a practical level just might, in the future, lead to diminishing the remaining ideological gaps.

Intra-Jewish controversy surrounding the very image of the state highlights the difficulty in turning the clear and unequivocal priorities of a substantial majority of the public into practical policy. (This difficulty, to a certain degree, also contributes to political stagnation by leading to secondary conflicts that thwart cooperation between groups otherwise in accord on most issues). And so, despite overwhelming Jewish public support for rescinding the current arrangement that exempts Haredim from military service, the political system has failed to find any solution under the pressure of one group’s uncompromising insistence on continuing this arrangement.

MK Stav Shaffir (to the right of wedding couple) participates in a Reform Jewish wedding ceremony in front of the Knesset, in protest of the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage licensing and the lack of civil marriage in Israel. (Flash90)

Additionally, although there is broad consensus among the Jewish public about the need to permit civil marriage in Israel, the political system, again and again, privileges the minority position and does not attempt to find a solution for this issue. Even with regard to a seemingly simple matter of public transportation on Shabbat, which according to our findings should not present a significant obstacle in reaching an understanding, the government refrains from pursuing any resolution. As with other issues in the past (for instance, businesses opening on Shabbat, which is ostensibly prohibited but is, in fact, fairly widespread), it appears that the government, in hindsight, comes to terms with steps already taken “in the field” instead of taking an orderly policy approach.

All of these examples clearly raise the possibility that the main obstacle to resolving tensions within Israeli society does not derive (in many cases) from profound gaps between groups, but rather from the structure – and even more so the culture – of Israel’s political arena. This arena, which is supposed to be a space for providing practical solutions for complex issues, often appears as a battlefield in which every compromise is interpreted as a defeat, and every issue is decided according to group and faction priorities, and not according to the wishes of the majority of the Israeli public.

About the Author
Noah Slepkov is a Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a managing partner at theMadad.com. Previously, he worked as a Foreign Policy advisor in the Knesset. He holds a master’s degree in diplomacy and conflict resolution from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
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