Donna Robinson Divine

Let’s talk ‘dugri’ about the reforms

Is there any feeling more surprising than optimism regarding Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians when the country is marking its 15th week of turbulence? At the very moment when pundits claim half the population of the country is at war with one another. Or when they see the chaos as simmering warfare between secular and religious Israel because the November election brought religious political parties into Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

But the several religious parties whose leaders now serve as government ministers embrace values and  lifestyles that are hardly reflective of the religious community in Israel: military service, the work force, gender separation on buses and on public spaces illustrate only some of the divides. To note that the judicial reform legislative blitz has not acquired deep reservoirs of support from self-identified religious Jews in Israel is an understatement:  growing numbers of men and women donning head coverings have joined the demonstrations. In fact, what landed in Knesset committees to a tsunami of coalition enthusiasm has fallen in stunning dimensions not only because of the damage it has already inflicted on the economy but also because of their clear and present danger to security.  A sequence of dramatic events in the last weeks has brought Israel to the brink of war with Iran-backed militias in Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.  It isn’t yet clear if Israel has developed a coherent strategy to counter this Iranian effort.

These reforms and the legislative proposals accompanying them have become the animating spirit for a Religious Zionist party determined to cast off well-established foreign policy and security strictures in order to fulfill what they believe is their  Jewish birthright to dwell in the whole land of Israel.

But even as the Religious Zionist Parties are buoyed by their leverage over budget allocations, security services, defense measures for civilians who live on the West Bank, their words and deeds have been shadowed by ongoing brutal terror killings. No one captures the sense of righteousness over the gains as well as the sad acknowledgment of the losses than Minister of National Missions, Irit Strock, who put it this way after the Knesset repealed the clauses of the Disengagement Law banning Israelis from the area where four settlements were dismantled during the country’s withdrawal from Gaza 18 years ago. “I believe that…the sin of the disengagement will be reversed….Sadly, a return to the Gaza Strip will involve many casualties…but ultimately, it is part of the Land of Israel, and a day will come when we will return to it.” How to make sense of such a statement?

The rhetoric reveals the intention to bestow political currency on religious imperatives regardless of how many lives are lost and how many resources expended.  But can this be done with the security forces and material resources currently on hand in the country? Setting up a National Guard, no matter the command structure, has reduced the regular police budget. Israelis traveling to their homes or jobs in legal settlements still have to find their way through a thicket of danger zones on the roads. There is a great deal of scholarship focusing on the long-term demographic dangers to a Jewish state by incorporating the West Bank’s Palestinian population. But few have paid much attention to whether Israel has the material resources to provide adequate security for people building their homes across the expanse of Judea and Samaria.  Bypass roads built quickly are unable to secure even those communities fully recognized as legal. No wonder the planned judicial reforms and accompanying proposed legislation have spun an internal conflict into massive protests and apocalyptic charges.

Israelis have no choice but to reckon with the costs of exercising a right with which, in principle, they may agree but whose implementation cannot be realized without serious damage to state and society.  The Oslo Agreements do not have to be sanctified to see the virtues of sharing the land and the creation of two states for two peoples.  No alternative to the two-state configuration commands comparable global backing although a productive diplomatic dialogue is impossible to imagine at this point. And even the most ambitious work of the mind and heart will come up short against the brutal facts of life framed by contemporary global politics. A pragmatic approach has allowed Israel to win international legitimacy and make real progress toward a prosperous, fairer, and more equal society. Why risk losing it under a new set of priorities driven by the grip of highly contested religious principles.

With more dangers stationed around Israel’s borders, security forces are increasingly deployed over larger areas to safeguard citizens. Where will the government find the money to pay for a larger army and police force? How will those citizens who accept the military burdens necessary for defense feel about a government whose policies increase the demands for security forces while easing the options for exemptions for their ultra-orthodox coalition partners.

Politicians promoting the reforms have reached back to Israel’s Proclamation of Independence to claim the changes are a rightful and appropriate expression of the Jewish state’s sovereignty. But using the word sovereignty does not simplify the matter nor does it resolve the contradictions. Sovereignty has its own complex codes and passwords across borders and democracies.  In Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, the word—ribonut or sovereignty—appears once in the Hebrew version and twice in the English translation an indication of the multiple meanings given the term or perhaps, its lack of clarity. The word—state—appears many more times in what has become a text sacred to the partners in the governing coalition and to those marching in the streets for the past 15 weeks.  But sovereignty does not isolate a country from international relations and politics. The very Proclamation that announces the formation of a Jewish state also declares that it is founded in accordance with international agreements and thus deserving of global support.  Sovereignty is legitimized through the effective operations of a state. The question Israelis must ask is whether this government is advancing legislation that will make state institutions more effective. The answer can be found in the streets of more and more Israeli cities and towns on every Saturday night.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government emerita at Smith College, where she taught a variety of courses on Middle East politics. Able to draw on material in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, her books include Women Living Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives; Politics and Society in Ottoman Palestine: The Arab Struggle for Survival and Power, Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine, and Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.