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Israel in political impasse: is there a way out?

Quietly, a group of experts is weighing possible alternatives to Israel's embattled form of government. Will any liberal democrats be left in the country by the time they're ready to publicize their proposals?

Is the rift in Israel too large to be overcome? Instead of trying for more unity, should we try a split? That is the question that underlies the idea of creating a federation, or dividing the country into cantons, that is currently being considered by a number of former, very high-ranking government officials. These are people who know how government works and who are occupied with the question of whether a new and functioning structure can be established for Israel. The group is not yet ready to publish the alternatives they are considering, because they are still in the initial stages of formulating them. However, their intention is to generate a public dialogue about possible options to replace the state as it operates today, based on their understanding that, politically, Israel is facing a dead end.

Thus, last month Yuval Noah Harari, the Hebrew University historian who has become an international star, published a doleful opinion piece in Ynet in which he acknowledged that he is considering leaving the country because of the regime coup. “I have few doubts left about what the other side wants: They want to eradicate democracy,” he wrote, noting that the nondemocratic side has become the majority in Israel. “While the government is taking determined steps to eradicate democracy, to date only a minority of Israel’s citizens is displaying genuine resistance. Even if this time the attempt at eradication will not succeed, it’s likely that they will try again in another two years, another five years, another 10 years. The struggle will be long and difficult, and no one can guarantee what the result will be.”

Harari’s disillusionment is painful. He understands the destructive convergence of circumstances: Israel was founded on the basis of a balance between Jewishness and democracy, a balance it’s rapidly losing. The split into what former President Reuven Rivlin termed “four tribes,” and the fact that the two fastest-growing tribes – the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists – provide their children with either no, or very little, education in democratic principles, undermines the basis for Israel’s existence as a liberal-democratic state. (The other two “tribes” are secular Jews and the Arabs.)

Moreover, the rapid demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox – 6.5 children per woman on average, apparently the world’s highest rate of natural increase – and the fact that they get no schooling in the core subjects, don’t pull their weight economically, and use their political clout to extort from the state funds that allow them to exist outside the labor market, all this is leading Israel to an economic decline foretold. By 2060, they are on track to constitute a third of the population, and no state country can continue to thrive when a third of its citizens are supported by allowances instead of by labor.

Leading economists are warning – Prof. Dan Ben-David was the first to do so, in the late 1990s – against the ruinous tendencies that have marked Israel’s path over the past two decades. The warnings, however, have gone unheeded. Instead of taking steps to set the country on a different course, the politicians have only aggravated these deleterious trends.

First among the destroyers is Benjamin Netanyahu, who even now, in his latest term as premier, has upped the budgets of the yeshivas and of the isolationist Haredi school system by 50 percent. Netanyahu is knowingly and deliberately burying Israel’s future, solely for the short-term political benefit of gaining Haredi votes. And now he has been joined in this self-destructive bacchanalia by extremist-messianic right-wing politicians. The writing is scrawled on the wall in giant letters: Israel is not marching to a good place.

Harari’s disenchantment is part of a wider internalization by the public about Israel’s propensity for self-destruction. Even if the judicial overhaul is blocked tomorrow, and even if a government that’s not extremist and messianic is elected, it’s safe to assume that the concerns about Israel’s stability and liberal future are not about to disappear. In complete contrast to the government’s attempt to depict reports about the flight abroad of money as part of a scare campaign, a real fear exists that the truth is the exact opposite.

The Rubicon has been crossed, the damage inflicted on Israel is irreparable. Money that has left the country will not return, and the trend of removing money and the relocation of local businesses abroad, as well as a brain drain, will become permanent, ongoing phenomena.

Just as the economists were the first to discern, all those years ago, the calamitous trends of Haredi demography (though they failed to identify the destructive consequences of the nondemocratic nature of their educational approach), they are also the first to get their act together today. Despair is not a working plan, and just before Harari and with him many other of Israel’s finest brains flee the country, an attempt is underway to examine alternatives to the current organization of our regime.

Those alternatives are of two types. One set of proposals presupposes that the system as it exists today in Israel can survive, if only a series of improvements are undertaken. This is because a large majority of Israel’s citizens continue to support the idea of a “Jewish and democratic” state. We can assume that the Arab population, which constitutes 20 percent of the total, does not support the concept of a Jewish state; and on the other side, the Haredim, 13 percent of the population, apparently hold a negative view of democracy. Religious- Zionist society, representing about 15 percent of the population, is very heterogeneous, its members holding diverse views about the sanctity of Israeli democracy.

On the rough presumption that the Haredi-nationalist, less-democratic pole constitutes about half of that religious-Zionist population, they would constitute about another 7 percent. All told, then, it emerges that there is a majority of 60 percent, if not more, who continue to believe in the values of a “Jewish and democratic” state.

On the basis of that majority, this first alternative being developed reflects a desire to entrench Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. That would necessitate agreement on a constitution, of course, and also the correction of some of the strategic mistakes that were made by David Ben-Gurion at the time of the state’s establishment. Israel’s first prime minister erred in thinking that Israeliness would triumph over Jewishness, and he therefore allowed for the existence of different educational “streams” – state-secular, state-religious, state-Arab and independent-Haredi.

Over time, however, this pluralism led to Israel’s atomization into four tribes, among whom the discord outweighs the concord. With its democratic resources, the state allowed the Haredi community to educate its young people for a life outside the labor market and without inculcation of almost any democratic values; moreover, it allowed the state-religious school system to educate in the spirit of “democracy lite” (basically, majority rule), and to become a political tool for strengthening the right-wing parties.

The division into four separate educational streams, and the autonomy that was granted to the two religious streams, contributed to the unraveling of Israeli society and its democracy. And by the way, Israel is also losing the Arab tribe, with a failed state-Arab educational system. The problem is that even the majority who continue to believe in a Jewish and democratic state is riven and ruptured, consisting of people on the right and on the left, religious and secular. And its leaders, as the past 75 years have shown, are by large petty politicians lacking in vision or inspiration. What are the prospects, then, that we will be able to overcome the deep internal rifts and reach agreement on the need for a constitution – one, no less, that the Haredim, the Arabs and probably a large part of the religious Zionist movement would not reject?

Pay as you go

This brings us to the group that advocates a second alternative, which assumes that we have passed the point of no return and that a split is unavoidable. According to this approach, Israel would break up into a number of states, with the following possibilities: two states (Israel and Judea), three states (Israel, Judea and an Arab-Israeli entity), or perhaps even four (Israel, Judea, Arab-Israeli and Palestinian). Each of these states, or possibly cantons, would be administered separately, both economically and politically; each would determine its laws and will decide how religious or secular it will be.

According to this proposal, the cantons would not need to have territorial contiguity. For example, it can be assumed that Gush Dan (Metropolitan Tel Aviv) would be the capital of the State of Israel canton, but the city of Bnei Brak would undoubtedly choose to be part of the State of Judea canton. This means that Bnei Brak would receive administrative services from the Judea canton, even if it is surrounded by the Israel canton. In this model, each city would decide which canton it belongs to, although it’s not clear what would happen in the case of large cities in which distinctive neighborhoods exist.

Additionally, each canton would be administered separately in the economic sphere, with the great majority of tax revenues remaining within the canton in which it is collected. This would ensure the absence of economic dependence between the cantons, and it is effectively the solution to the threat of having the rate of demographic growth among the Haredim lead to the collapse of Israel’s economy. Henceforth, the Haredim would have to finance independently a way of life that exists outside the labor market – there would no longer be a productive secular majority to pay their way.

According to this proposal, only a minority of the cantons’ tax revenues would go to the federal government, which would be responsible for matters of foreign policy, security and the operation of national infrastructures (electric power, water supply, roads, trains). Military conscription would continue, but some of the cantons – Judea, and likely also the Arab canton – would be granted an exemption. The Israel canton would need to be the body that bears the greatest military burden, in light of the fact that defending the existence of all the cantons is a vital interest.

Lots of questions

How power would be divided within the federal government raises multiple questions. If the parties making up that government are elected by a majority vote, as is the case today, the rule of a national-religious/Haredi majority will again be ensured, and the security and foreign relations policy will be one that the secular-liberal canton will not agree to have imposed on it. Accordingly, it is definitely possible that the division of power in the federal government will be decided in advance and will be equal between the two cantons (in the case of an Arab canton being formed, the two Jewish cantons would be ensured a majority in advance). This, of course, raises equally difficult concerns about paralysis and an inability to arrive at decisions about foreign and security policy. And all this is only the tip of the iceberg in regard to how a structure of this kind will be administered.

For example, what would happen with the Palestinians currently under Israeli occupation, if one canton wants to continue with the occupation, and another canton wants to withdraw from the territories? Would a federal structure like this actually offer a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the form of a proposal to the Palestinians to have a canton of their own? How would national infrastructures be managed? How would their financing be divided. For example, would a train traveling between two cities in the Israel canton that needs to pass through territory of the Judea canton be permitted to operate on the Sabbath? And what would happen if the Judea canton, which would presumably be the poorer one, refuses to participate in funding the army or infrastructure projects: How would the federal government go about collecting debts from them? Indeed, how it is possible to maintain a federal state when such large disparities – social, political and economic – exist between its different component parts?

And finally, the key question: Would it even be possible to arrive at agreement of this sort, on a division into cantons, without experiencing a civil war along the way? In the United States in the 18th century, a federation was created by agreement, and with a common constitution, only to see that same federation plunged into a brutal civil war a century later; Yugoslavia splintered into a number of states after a blood-drenched war; there was a civil war in Lebanon, at the end of which the state remained united – as a failed state; and the request of Catalonia in 2017 to secede from Spain was repulsed forcibly by Madrid, which even arrested those who led the campaign for a referendum on the region’s separation. On the other hand, when Scotland aspired to break away from Britain, the British allowed the Scots the right of choice in a referendum.

It’s no surprise that those working on such ideas in the Israeli context are in no hurry to make them public. The possibilities raise immense difficulties, most of them lacking solutions at present. Yet, the very fact that such a discourse is taking place at all is a breakthrough, revolutionary development, and can in itself serve as an agent for change. It generates hope for those who believe in preservation of a Jewish and democratic state, and could bring about broad agreements about buttressing the values of “Jewish and democratic” so as to obviate the need to split up.

Meirav Arlosoroff