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Naomi Chazan

To restart, not repeat – that’s what Israel needs now

Do those calling for consensus think the electorate is blind?! The country must grapple with its issues and reboot altogether
Demonstrators are sprayed with water cannons by riot police during a protest against the government's judicial reform plan in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Demonstrators are sprayed with water cannons by riot police during a protest against the government's judicial reform plan in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Israel is abuzz with talks of achieving a broad consensus on the issues that have torn the country apart in recent months. The call is emanating primarily from the ruling coalition — now that it has passed the first hurdle in its plan to control the judiciary, with the passage of the prohibition against using the “unreasonableness” argument to strike down government decisions. The quest for compromise has support in large segments of the country, weary of the daily upheavals in their already strained existence, and alarmed at the economic, political, security, social, and international effects of recent government actions. This trend is now enjoying a strong backwind in the media and the social networks. It does not make it any more convincing, relevant, or useful in tackling the crisis currently enveloping the country.

The first problem with the search for a quick fix is that it is superficial, if not downright simplistic and specious. It assumes that the majority of citizens — as well as some opposition leaders — are willing to ignore the moves already undertaken to hem in the independence of the judiciary (most notably the complete makeover of the rules for the incapacitation of elected officials), or belittle the other parts of the judicial overhaul already in the legislative pipeline (including changes in the composition of the judicial appointments committee, redefinition of the role of legal advisers in government ministries, abolition of the seniority principle in the selection of the president of the Supreme Court, and changes in the authority and position of the attorney-general). This approach completely underestimates the intelligence of the electorate and its close familiarity with the dynamics of the current upheaval and its intricacies.

Even more ludicrous is the widespread effort in government circles – specifically, within the Likud — to admit to a temporary lapse in recent months and to vow that they will not repeat the same mistake in the future. An already suspicious population has no reason whatsoever to take such promises at face value, especially since they have been burned by similar assurances in the past.

Most distressing is the suggestion that it is possible to recover from the ill-effects of the last few months by simply slowing down — as if today’s turmoil is just a matter of pace. Besides hinting that Israeli citizens are oblivious to the amount of damage that can accrue during yet another hiatus, this claim is also thoroughly insulting: it presumes that the electorate is blind to the substance of what is taking place and to its impact on their daily lives.

A second set of explanations for the quest for a broad consensus is as misleading as it is misinformed. It stems from an attempt to create an illusion that the reasonableness clause and its corollaries are only a temporary blip that can easily be rectified by dialogue and mutual understanding. But there is nothing ephemeral in the present conundrum.

It has been planned, engineered, and implemented with a clear agenda in mind by specific people in the government, their advisors, and their civil society offshoots. Those who claim that it is possible to put a still ill-defined yet acceptable trajectory back on course expect people to believe that it lacked design or coherence. Given the experience of 2023 alone, it is unlikely that many will succumb to such a spurious contention, especially given the fact that Israel’s transition to illiberalism did not begin seven months ago. The present, stepped-up, phase of the country’s democratic backsliding is part of a process that has been going on for the past two decades — if not more. It cannot be overturned overnight.

Perhaps more unnerving is the claim that some common understanding on immediate next steps would have a much-needed stabilizing effect that will silence critics both at home and abroad. Yet little effort is being expended on defining the notion of a broad consensus (surely not a matter of numbers, but agreement on matters related to the structure and limits of power), let alone on what compromises can be achieved — if any — and their consequences. This is not a task for the faint-hearted; it cannot be completed in one fell swoop.

Common to these arguments is an underestimation of the nature, scope, and factors underlying the present conundrum. Nobody today really believes that the unrest sweeping the country — and by extension the region, world Jewry, and the international community — can be neatly reduced to a squabble over judicial “reform”. Indeed, on a third and most basic level, the search for a heuristic compromise is, above everything, terrifyingly dangerous because it neglects the essence of the problem. And by misrepresenting the challenges, it inevitably impedes progress towards their resolution.

Israel is currently undergoing a multi-faceted systemic crisis, of which the judicial question is just one component. The first element of the crisis relates to the relationship between the state and its citizens. It involves not only the curtailment of institutional checks and balances, but also the systematic accumulation of power, resources, and associated perks by particular interests currently in power — leading almost inexorably to corruption, cronyism, and growing inefficiency — while evoking a popular backlash of unprecedented magnitude. The result is pervasive governmental dysfunctionality and subsequent widespread civilian alienation.

The second aspect of the crisis is social. Israel is not only severely (some say almost irrevocably) polarized, it is also extremely fragmented. Social relations — based on overlapping national, ethnic, religious, geographic, and socioeconomic impulses that have been festering since the creation of the state — are reaching a breaking point. Fueled constantly by political actors on all sides of the ideological spectrum and further amplified in the press and progressively noxious social networks, these have now reached a boiling point.

The third facet of the crisis is normative. In the absence of common foundational values, a chasm has emerged between Jewish nationalist supremacists drawing on a religiously-derived fundamentalism and liberals and progressives who place basic universal values (with varying degrees of Jewish roots) at the heart of their worldview. In these circumstances, there is hardly agreement on the rules of the game, not to speak of societal solidarity.

These conjoined crises magnify Israel’s reluctance to confront some of its most persistent and deep-rooted anomalies. The most critical consist of the contradictions inherent in the clash between national identity and civic statehood, between religion and state, between religiosity and free will, and, more than ever before, between democratic aspirations and Israel’s ongoing rule over another people against their will and in defiance of their most basic individual and collective rights.

These problems will not simply disappear of their own accord. They must be confronted, starting now, in what is nothing less than a massive undertaking over the long haul. It is by now a truism that those who are incapable of coming to terms with their past are doomed to repeat it, with a vengeance. What is at stake is the very existence of the country and the safety of its residents.

Israel requires a complete rebooting, not efforts to recapture an untenable past. If it does not begin to address this reality, it runs the risk of self-imploding. In the interim, those who hold human values, equality, and justice dear to their hearts — the majority of the country who consistently support the democratic uprising — would do well to start this monumental job of reconfiguration. They need to unpack and specify the vision, norms, and institutions that could provide a framework that will enable all Israel’s citizens to work out their disagreements peacefully and with mutual respect. This is a vision well worth not only the fight, but also the wait. It is not subject to compromise.

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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