The struggle over the essence and robustness of Israel’s democracy continues apace and its outcome has yet to be determined. The longer the confrontation surrounding its guiding principles remains unresolved, the greater the damage both to the foundations of Israel’s regime and to its governability. In recent weeks, it has become almost impossible to absorb the number and variety of governmental initiatives that impact these very topics. Citizens barely have the energy, let alone the time, to keep up with these moves or reflect upon their consequences for daily life (cost of living, inflation, basic social services, personal security), let alone consider their broader implications. Nevertheless, a clear pattern is emerging – one that does not bode well either for public order or for democratic vibrancy in the foreseeable future.
One example captures the substance of this retrogressive process that is duplicated many times in many fields almost daily. In May, Ayelet Razin Bet-Or was forced to resign from her position as Director of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women and Gender Equality barely 14 months after her appointment to this civil service post for a four-year term, then in the Ministry for Social Equality.
Her background includes extensive training in gender and law and a five-year stint as the legal advisor of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. Her credentials are so stellar and her performance so impressive that there was no opposition to her continuation in this role after the creation of the 37th government, when Amichai Chikli was appointed as the new minister.
All this changed with the establishment of a new Ministry for the Advancement of the Status of Women, specially carved out for Likud Member of Knesset May Golan. One of her first moves was to effectively force Razin Bet-Or’s resignation, claiming that it was her prerogative to fill the position of Director-General of the Ministry with her own appointee, even though there is a clear distinction between the professional appointment of the Head of the Authority and the political appointment of a Director-General of a Ministry. In effect, one of the most accomplished, experienced, innovative, and committed persons ever to fill this role was brusquely shoved aside on the whim of a minister who had previously exhibited next to no interest or activity in the field of her newly created ministry.
The backlash was almost instantaneous. All the major women’s organizations and then some issued a strong statement directed at Minister Golan and Prime Minister Netanyahu protesting the move. They argued that Ayelet Razin Bet-Or’s removal was damaging to all women in the country. They listed her most notable achievements during her short tenure, including her work in coordinating government policy in combating violence against women, inculcating gender mainstreaming procedures in government ministries, promoting women’s leadership on the local and national levels, extending legislation on equal pay for men and women to the private sector, conducting polls on the most pressing issues facing women in Israel, and mobilizing women’s organizations to cooperate with each other and public authorities to better the lives of women. They all lauded her professionalism, good judgment, and dedication to serving all Israeli women, regardless of political, religious, national, or ethnic identity.
The uproar over the displacement of Ayelet Razin Bet-Or has gone far beyond the personal. In almost all reactions on social networks and in the media, emphasis has been placed on the damage caused to social equality in general in light of the tangible decline in the position of women and the rise in gender inequality in recent years. The publication of the Sigi Index last month – which placed Israel at the bottom of all OECD countries in this field – served to drive home this point, highlighting the close connection between gender inequality and entrenched social inequities.
If no good accrues to women or to the country from this move, then why did May Golan make it one of her first acts upon assuming office? It is almost too easy to suggest that, given her record and her anti-establishment temperament, she preferred to press both her agenda and her control (by appointing Merav Stern as Director-General of the new Ministry), as swiftly as possible. Some claim that it was also a way of exacting revenge on women’s organizations and feminist activists with which she has long been at loggerheads; it may also be a method to stunt opposition down the line. In all probability, it is a mixture of all the above. What is equally clear is that it has very little to do with concern over women’s rights and women’s progress, especially in a government that has ousted at least nine women from the position of Director-General of government ministries while appointing only two, boasts only a handful of women ministers in its bloated government, and has already authorized the discrimination of women in public spaces if their presence offends the sensitivities of particular communities (primarily, but not only, the religious and the ultra-Orthodox) and plans to pass further legislation in this vein.
The penchant to control appointments which in themselves belittle the role of women in decision-making circles therefore goes beyond the obvious and the facile. It is taking place in every single government body, including the IDF and the police, in government corporations, in statutory authorities, in key segments of the civil service, in efforts to control judicial nominations and the media, and in the blossoming of the number of political appointees throughout the system.
This pattern is a direct outgrowth of three main factors. First, in a government with some 40 distinct portfolios, 32 ministers (some overseeing more than one ministry), and six deputy ministers, personal standing and political maneuverability is often a function of the capacity to offer jobs to fellow travelers and followers. That is why ministers are vying with each other over authority to make heavily coveted appointments (a few cases in point: David Amsalem over sinecures in state corporations and the Israel Postal Authority, Shlomo Karhi in the Broadcasting Authority and the Army Radio, Miri Regev in the Airport Authority and public transportation, and the list goes on). In this dense human thicket, mediocrity trumps effectiveness, numbers outweigh efficiency, and cronyism reins over frugalness. A culture of milking the system, especially by those who feel slighted historically by the old elites, is spreading like wildfire. Most Israelis are feeling the ill effects of these trends in their pockets.
Second, the need of this far-right coalition to maintain stability despite significant differences has relied on a restructuring of governmental institutions in such a way that basic public functions can either be dispersed or reorganized to suit particular partners, while simultaneously increasing centralization in the hands of the Prime Minister and his inner circle. This helps to explain why David Amsalem, for example, has been put in charge of the Atomic Energy Commission, or why Moshe Arbel serves as both Minister of Interior and Minister of Health in the absence of Shas leader Arye Deri. Betzalel Smotrich, in his capacity as Minister in the Ministry of Defense, has just been given substantial powers to expand settlements without the approval of the Minister of Defense. And Itamar Ben-Gvir, as Minister of National Security, has been allotted billions to establish a National Guard. This restructuring, backed by generous allocations inevitably skews substantive priorities, and fosters increased inequalities – with Arabs, women, and underrepresented minorities suffering the most. This reshaping of public institutions as debates about judicial changes continue is, in fact, the most concrete manifestation of regime change in practice.
Third, all this could not take place without the unraveling of the rules of the game, and especially the decline of the rule of law. If everything is permissible, nobody is accountable, facts have no meaning, and promises are regularly broken, then anything can be done by those who have control – although not very much can be achieved for the common good or for equal rights for all citizens of the country.
The fate of Ayelet Razin Bet-Or is symptomatic of the disorder that permeates Israel today. If this regime remodeling is not halted, the current chaos will not only undermine what is left of Israeli democracy, it will also bring the country to the brink of chaos. If ever there was a reason to fight to keep the Ayelet Razin Bet-Ors of this world in office, this is it.