Naomi Chazan
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Reckoning, responsibility, and reform

The prime minister who has done a good deal to divide Israeli society can do a good deal to put it back together
Arab-Israeli MK Ayman Odeh films Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu with his phone in protest at the proposed law to allow cameras in polling stations (BICOM via Jewish News)
Arab-Israeli MK Ayman Odeh films Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu with his phone in protest at the proposed law to allow cameras in polling stations (BICOM via Jewish News)

These High Holy Days, the most common greeting heard in Israel is the wish for a better year: one of a bit more predictability, a bit more order, a bit more consensus, a bit more normality and, yes, a bit more faith in the viability of the public domain. Asking for something a little better is the most resounding testimony to the collective dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of the outgoing year. During these final Days of Awe, just before the period of assessment, introspection and remorse culminates in charting the course for what lies ahead, a national self-inspection can no longer be avoided.

As Israelis review the past 12 months, they can hardly escape the central role played by their prime minister in the unfolding situation. Even those who rarely subscribe to a personal interpretation of history, even those who are avid fans of Mr. Netanyahu, even those who believe deeply in the direction he has taken the country, even those who swear by his leadership, can scarcely ignore his involvement in shaping the main characteristics of the Israeli polity at the outset of the Jewish year of 5780. These, to put it bluntly, are disconcerting.

The first, and most obvious, feature of public life in Israel today is deadlock. The decision to bring forward the national elections (originally scheduled to be held in November of this year) was intended to grant Benjamin Netanyahu popular legitimacy in the face of a series of criminal charges for bribery, graft and breach of trust. From his perspective and that of his followers, the ballot box was viewed as the best mechanism of maintaining power while circumventing prosecution. The April 9th elections, however, did not produce the desired results. Unable to form a coalition and unwilling to return the mandate to the president, Netanyahu engineered the dispersal of the Knesset in the hope that repeat elections would give him an outright majority. The outcome of the September 17th rerun only reaffirmed what had become obvious: the system is in complete stalemate, with no capacity to create a government under present circumstances.

When the institutions of government are stuck, uncertainty prevails. It has become increasingly unclear what security risks face the country and which have been manufactured or blown out of proportion to serve those in office (the foiled attempt to launch a Gaza operation on the eve of the September ballot it one example; another is the increasing talk of a military engagement with Iran). The lack of predictability extends to domestic matters: to the economy, to the health system, to education and, notably, to personal security. This uncertainty is further compounded by a sense of instability: by the knowledge that no position, policy or person is more than temporary until some stasis prevails.

Deadlock therefore comes together with governmental paralysis at best, or, at worse, with constant gyrations and flip-flops. These are the most salient expressions of problems of governability. Some instances drawn from the last week alone highlight these dangers: the Arab community’s outcry for greater protection against rising violence; yet another murder of a woman, compounding a pattern of gender insecurity in the country. Increasingly, the capacity to make decisions and implement them is impaired by the inability to break the political stalemate.

Opinions differ on the extent of Binyamin Netanyahu’s responsibility for the prevailing deadlock. Yet even his greatest proponents find it difficult to overlook his error in judgment in calling for repeated elections and its numbing consequences. The prime minister, however adept in putting the blame for widespread paralysis on his political opponents and their purported allies in the media and the judiciary, may convince his backers that he has no cause for remorse. But he does bear direct responsibility for what is taking place. In effect, by not acknowledging his own role, he is not only holding the entire country hostage to his personal whims, he is also weakening his own camp.

Behind the current governmental paralysis lies a second, more profound, characteristic of Israel today: polarization. The country, it is widely acknowledged, is heavily split politically. Two camps — a predominantly democratic one and a predominantly Jewish one — are vying with each other not only for political power, but also for the right to define Israel’s identity and trajectory. Israelis are, indeed, heavily divided along ideological lines. But never has the confrontation between political worldviews been so buttressed by sociological divisions as it is today. A veritable chasm exists between Arabs and Jews in the public sphere; the rift between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim has grown exponentially; gender gaps continue to grow despite substantial advances in the status of women; the LGBTQ community is more accepted and more openly harassed than in the past; and newcomers from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union still suffer systematic discrimination.

It is not entirely clear what has transformed Israel’s multicultural society into a heavily polarized one. Abundant evidence, however, exists to substantiate the claim that the present ruling coalition has used its power to drive a further wedge between the various groups that make up Israel’s heterogeneous population. To this very day, Prime Minister Netanyahu has consistently struck out against the Arab citizens of the country, against the established elites (even though he is one of their most notable scions), and, to be sure, against anyone who has dared question his leadership and his policies (loosely dubbing these rivals “left” and bunching them together into a suspect social category of questionable loyalty to the state). He carries direct responsibility for fueling divisions and amplifying differences. The result is that what’s left of Israeli solidarity is unraveling and the mainstays of Israeli identity are becoming increasingly blurred.

Many Israelis from divergent backgrounds and a variety of political persuasions are now looking for some common denominators; they are actively seeking points of consensus which would provide an adhesive in what has become an extremely bifurcated environment. Even as an increasing number of Israelis are looking for a minimum of consensus on certain issues, the prime minister continues to fan the flames of sectarianism and mutual suspicion. Nothing could be more damaging to the essential fabric of Israeli society. And nothing could be more anti-Israeli than promoting divisions in order to strengthen one group and vantage point at the expense of others. When the inclusiveness of Israeli society is assailed, its foundations are almost irretrievably shattered.

Deadlock and polarization underline the third, most essential, feature of Israel’s current conundrum: the growing loss of confidence in the system. Two sets of intense and highly emotional elections have yielded naught, raising the level of frustration and, in some instances, downright anger with politicians of whatever ilk. Too many have tuned out of public affairs, while others are pointedly opting out. They are simply fed up with the continuous disregard for the rules of the game and the breaking of the remnants of the norms that have governed official behavior over the years. Suspicion, mistrust and skepticism have replaced belief in the system. These sentiments, inevitably, are a precursor to the loss of legitimacy. And without a firm belief in the system, no democracy can last for long.

Once again, it is difficult to apportion responsibility for these developments. Nevertheless, the process of eroding trust has intensified in recent years under Binyamin Netanyahu’s watch. Even if he does not assume responsibility—and therefore is unwilling to admit to some mistakes — he should not expect absolution. His actions and inactions have rattled Israel’s democratic system and rehabilitating these girders will take quite a bit of time and even more ingenuity.

The troubling manifestations of instability, societal division and alienation are therefore not solely the result of long-standing processes. They are the outcome of a guiding hand bent on using the system to secure political survival. Mr. Netanyahu is highly intelligent and extremely experienced: the maneuvers he has instigated to remain in office, to bind his followers to him personally, and to link the state to his own political destiny are far from happenstance. In these last hours of personal and national reckoning, although everyone bears some responsibility for what is taking place, it behooves him to demonstrate his leadership colors. He can go a long way in setting Israel on a more certain, consensual, manageable course by elegantly bowing out before he does any more harm to the state he claims to hold so dear and to the citizens he is supposed to serve. That is the first step in setting in motion new beginnings. A better new year 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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