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Passports, protests, and politics

The massive backlog in providing basic services to citizens is a quintessential lack of governance
Israelis line up outside the Ministry of Interior Affairs, to renew their passports, in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ FLASH90)
Israelis line up outside the Ministry of Interior Affairs, to renew their passports, in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ FLASH90)

Five days of targeted airstrikes, missile attacks, death, destruction, and human misery came to yet another predictable end with a ceasefire that will hold until it flares up yet again. Within hours, attention has refocused on the critical next two weeks, punctuated by a series of red flag security events (the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba, the Flag March, marking the 1967 Israeli control of Jerusalem day, the reconfigured Arab League conference), and by successive efforts at pacifying conflicting coalition interests culminating in the May 29th vote on the budget — the do-or-die deadline of the present coalition.

Yet the headlines of the first post-“Operation Shield and Arrow” day focused on what appeared to be something else entirely: endless lines of people waiting for hours at four designated Population Authority centers in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Beersheba, and Jerusalem to renew their passports. This sight should surprise no one: it captures in a nutshell much of the roots, reactions, dynamics, and trajectory of Israel’s ongoing political crisis.

Literally millions of Israelis have discovered in the past year that the seemingly prosaic task of replacing an expired passport or issuing a new one has become virtually impossible. Slots for this less-than-10-minute process in all the Population Authority offices throughout the country were filled almost before they were released. People registered for openings in places hours away from their homes in order to shorten the waiting time from nine months to six months. Those wanting or needing to travel have spent a small fortune on temporary travel documents for one year at the airport, while simultaneously scheduling appointments for their reissue months after their return. The chaos surrounding this subject has fast become emblematic of the growing bureaucratic morass in the country.

Officials at the Ministry of Interior in both the previous and present government point to the fact that a similar “post-COVID rush” is happening in other countries as well, as travel has been renewed and citizens realize that their passports have expired. But in Israel, the renewal of international travel compounded a backlog built up for quite some time. In 2014, in line with a new (and not uncontroversial) policy, Israel began to issue biometric identification cards and passports. Since it did not have the wherewithal to produce these documents locally, it contracted with a German firm to carry out this process, while arrangements could be made to obtain the necessary expertise and equipment to do so at home. Before the pandemic, it was already apparent that the 5,000-6,000 documents printed daily could not keep up with the demand, even though the contract with the external provider was set to end in 2019. Delays in finding a replacement predated the outbreak of the coronavirus and its amelioration only escalated the problem.

This is just one of multiple examples of the bureaucratic foot-dragging, inefficiency, and incompetence that have come to characterize state operations in recent years. Inevitably, it has unsavory byproducts, such as cronyism (finding that second cousin twice removed whose neighbor works at the Population Authority) and commercialization (companies operating bots that grabbed all the precious appointments the second they were posted and sold them to the highest bidder), rendering the unconnected or the impoverished increasingly helpless and fuming.

The incapacity to provide a basic service equitably to all citizens is the essence of the lack of governance. It creates frustration and alienation and reduces trust in state institutions and those who stand at their helm. When similar problems arise in other areas — from housing and social services to adequate education, access to healthcare, and guarantees of personal security — then discontent becomes rampant.

The current passport mania represents something more. In many respects, it is a very human reaction to the intensity of life in this country, to the constant movement from crisis to crisis — indeed, to the rising level of uncertainty that is sweeping the country. This unpredictability contains palpable dangers and also presents opportunities. A passport is a means of dealing with both.

A valid passport has become a way for many Israelis to temporarily escape the tensions of daily life amid growing political turmoil. They are traveling in quest of a respite, “to breathe.” But a passport is also viewed as an insurance policy — especially for those who have not been able to wrangle a foreign passport (their numbers are growing constantly). Most people are happy to simply possess one. Others are beginning to contemplate using it. Just as corporations have moved their headquarters and their finances out of the country, so too more Israelis are “relocating” in search of greener pastures.

Far more seriously, some are moving in search of a freer environment. The present government’s assault on Israel’s democratic underpinnings (which go far beyond its attack on the independence of the judiciary) and its efforts to entrench its concept of Jewish supremacy is antithetical to the values of a majority of Israelis. Many are mobilized to prevent their realization, participating in the massive protests that have continued unabated since the installation of the current government. But some are despairing. For them, an unjust Israel is the collapse of their dreams. They are leaving physically because — like many political refugees — they cannot bring themselves to be a part of a regime that contradicts their beliefs, and they are not willing to bring up their children in a country where criticism is viewed as a form of betrayal.

Whatever the underlying motive, the passport rage is in full swing. The government’s solution to the heightened demand is, however, nothing short of problematic. For the next month, the Population Authority is instructed to deal only with the issuance of passports. It has effectively put all other services on hold. Not everyone wants a passport or can afford one. But everyone must have an identification card in this country. They will have to wait. So will foreigners in need of work permits or people seeking temporary residency. Israelis married to foreign citizens have to bide their time for permission to live here; some will just stay away. And the already precarious situation of asylum-seekers will be further challenged.

These inequities are the direct outcome of short-term tactical moves that have come to replace official policy. They serve the immediate needs of those in power. This tunnel vision strengthens their political base while consolidating their domination. Yet it fuels social tensions, creates even more inequities, and prevents the design of a workable strategy based on the principle of equality so necessary for rectifying profound imbalances.

It is unclear how and when the passport backlog will be cleared up. It is even less evident how it can contend with that mixture of authoritarianism and anarchy that results from the purposeful erosion of its democratic foundations which lies at its root. What is apparent is that continuing on this course is thoroughly destructive. Only a paradigmatic change can extricate the land and its residents from this predicament.

This means the construction of a revised democratic order in the liberal sense by specifying the rules of the game based on the values of equality, justice, and freedom that enable its diverse communities to live together. This is not about left, right, or center, but about building the institutions and norms that enable their proponents to interact and thrive. Democratic renewal also entails the elaboration of a substantive democracy based not on domination, but on inclusion of all its inhabitants in a framework that ensures individual and communal liberty, peaceful interchange, and consequently greater governmental efficacy and fairness. Passports in such a context will then be readily available to all.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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