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Shlomo Fischer

Israeli Politics is Undergoing Tectonic Change

The journalist, Raviv Druker recently reported that M.K. Simcha Rotman stated that his assumption is that the right will remain in power for the foreseeable future and that the “judicial reform” (giving near limitless power to the coalition) is based upon this premise. Rotman grounded his forecast in “demographic trends” by which presumably he meant that Haredi and Religious Zionist families have more children than secular ones. A structural change, though, seems to be happening in the Israeli political system, which Rotman seems not to have taken into account.  

The major, though un-remarked upon, occurrence in Israeli politics is that a peace process is not considered by any of the partners to be a realistic option, including the United States. This has had many implications including the upsurge in murderous violence in the West Bank, as the Palestinians realize that there is no longer any point in the Palestinian Authority acting as a sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation. One other implication is that this development is reshaping Israeli politics. The issue that divided and shaped the Israeli political system for the past two generations is becoming irrelevant. This is the issue that had determined who was “left” and who was “right”: being for a peace process and territorial compromise identified one as left and being against a peace process and for the Greater Land of Israel marked one as right. Now that that issue is no longer relevant the very terms left and right and the divides and structures of Israeli politics are being re-thought and re-negotiated. That is the tectonic process underlying the current upheaval.  

What seems to be emerging is that right is being redefined as being for an illiberal populist democracy whereby “the people,” that is, the governing Jewish majority can rule in an untrammeled fashion. Accordingly, the opposition left comprises those who, in one form of another, would like Israel to continue as a liberal democracy, with some regard for human and civil rights,  judicial review, an independent Bank of Israel etc.  

M.K. Rotman seems to think that those who were on the right when it was defined by the issue of Eretz Yisrael are also on the right when it is defined in terms of populist vs. liberal democracy. Especially given the perception that the Supreme Court is leftist and “pro-Arab.”  But that may be a miscalculation and a misreading of the source of Netanyahu’s appeal. It seems that the “Bibi” brand was so successful because it promised to keep Israel as a liberal democracy and as part of the West despite the retention of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the political subjugation of two million Palestinians for over 50 years.   

Bibi was a wizard because he allowed Israel to have its cake and eat it too. Since the Six Day War, Israel has controlled the West Bank. It erected hundreds of settlements while also enjoying all the benefits of being a Western democracy. Israelis traveled to Europe without obtaining a visa and millions of Euros flowed in for scientific and hi-tech research. Of course, hundreds of millions of investment dollars also arrived fueling the hi-tech industry and amazing Israeli economic prosperity. All of these privileges assumed the existence of liberal democratic norms in Israel. But the appreciation of the benefits of liberal democracy were not only extraneous. Many Israelis have had experience with the capricious Israeli bureaucracy and its sometimes corrupt officials.  Recourse to an independent judiciary is something they appreciate.  

The current upheaval may reflect a process of self-clarification. Many Israelis assumed that the hard line taken by Justice Minister Yariv Levine, Rotman, and Netanyahu was mainly a negotiating position and over the course of time an agreed upon compromise would emerge. More and more people are now joining the demonstrations across Israel (among other reasons) because they are starting to realize that the proponents of the judicial reform package really mean it. Many people, including those who voted for the current government, are starting to ask themselves what it is that they really support, and their answer is some form of liberal democracy. The Israeli political system is now in disequilibrium. There are three populations that wholeheartedly support the hardline reform – Haredim, most Religious Zionists, and hardcore Likud populists. Together they constitute a majority of the coalition but not a majority of the electorate. This can be inferred from a  survey conducted by the Madad.com (supervised by Camille Fuchs) which found that among those who define themselves as center-right  (and voted Likud, the  Religious Zionist/Jewish Power List or the Mamlachti Camp) 45% think that the “reform” does more harm than good. (80% of this population supported judicial reform before the elections.)   

Political systems, like physical and chemical ones, tend to return to equilibrium.  

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He taught in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.
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