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The Israeli Struggle Continues
What Israel's liberals have learned from the past year's protests—and what they should do next.
This is the first in a limited series of weekly posts on Israeli politics.
Over the summer, the Israeli government passed the first part of its proposed judicial overhaul—a change to the judicial review process that’s now being challenged in our Supreme Court. The result of that case could prove to be a defining moment in Israel's history. The government continues to refuse to convene the committee to elect judges until they can change its make-up to guarantee they control the selection of the judges. Additional new “reforms” have been unveiled which threaten to give the government control over independent media, grant the coalition control over the powerful election oversight committee, and further weaken the judicial system. And while all this is happening, an equally significant struggle is brewing over blanket exemptions from mandatory national service for young ultra-Orthodox men.
But Israelis have learned some important lessons in the past few months.
First, the government might win some legislative battles along the way, but they will fail in their attempt to fundamentally alter the democratic nature of the country. The citizens of Israel simply refuse to give up on their democracy. They won't accept attempts to dismantle it, and they won't let this moment pass by quietly. The more the government pushes, the more support it loses. Within the coalition there’s increasing discomfort and dissenting voices are starting to be heard. The public consistently and overwhelmingly opposes the government’s course of action.
Second, protests matter. They make a difference. The protests have been smart, committed and consistent. No one should ever again doubt the effectiveness of large-scale protest movements fighting for a just cause. Indeed, the protest movement has played a critical role in curbing the worst excesses of this government. The protests remain crucial, but there must also be political movements that can offer the public an alternative. These two groups, protesters and the political opposition, do not overlap completely—but they do complement one another.
Third, the impact of the attempted overhaul of Israel's democracy has proven devastating to the wider functioning of the government. The government simply cannot manage the country while trying to tear apart its institutions. Herein lies an important lesson for wannabe autocrats everywhere: the right in Israel (and globally) used to take pride in competence, but the current Israeli government has been anything but. By every possible metric, this government is proving to be a disaster for Israel—crime rates are up (especially violent crime in Israel’s Arab communities), the shekel continues to weaken, foreign investments are down, and chaos reigns in almost every government department.
Finally, ideologically homogenous governments with no balance and whose members race to the extremes rather than trying to find the pragmatic center will fail. Any alternative must consider competing voices, balance between them, listen to the concerns of different sections of society, provide space for different ways of life, and guarantee that the majority (whether it is us or someone else) never again tramples over the rights of the minority.
The failures of the current government are painful, but they present Israel's liberal camp with an opportunity to offer a stark contrast. This is a moment to show a coherent, positive, and electorally appealing alternative.
Fortunately, the foundation for this positive case for a liberal Israel already exists. Israel's Declaration of Independence is a fundamentally liberal document which presents a model of liberal patriotism upon which we can build today.
It lays out the basic rights and equalities that are at the heart of a liberal society. It says that Israel must guarantee “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” To that we add the structures of a liberal democratic system of government—separation of powers, an independent judiciary, genuine oversight of the executive branch by the legislative branch, a free media which isn’t afraid to criticize the leadership, basic inalienable rights, and professional national institutions that are loyal to the rule of law.
Those are the foundations upon which we need to build a broad consensus and around which we need to add the distinct Israeli flavor.
Patriotic liberalism must always combine the universal liberal values outlined above with the local national identifying factors. Israel's liberal camp cannot simply copy and paste an American or European model. We need to create an authentic Jewish and Middle Eastern variety.
We have to find a role for Judaism in our liberal identity, we have to find the place for the Arab minority of the country—which makes up 20 percent of the population—in our liberal identity, and we have to find a way to live harmoniously alongside the growing ultra-Orthodox (and non-liberal) population without compromising on our identity or forcing them to compromise on theirs. Those are big challenges.
The solution to Israel's current crisis will come in two stages—the first will be the fall of the current government. There is no other way out of this crisis. This government has proven itself unable or unwilling to build consensus or achieve compromise with the opposition. There may be more attempts, and some may even succeed in achieving short-to-medium term goals, but the bigger crisis won't end until this government is gone.
The second stage will depend heavily on what comes after the next elections in Israel, which will be amongst the most important in our history. Not only will new elections present an opportunity for the moderate, pragmatic, and liberal voices to lead the country, but they will present those leaders with a stark choice.
One approach will be to quietly roll everything back to how it was before: avoid the key challenges, bring a period of quiet and calm, stabilize the economy, quietly rebuild our damaged institutions. That will be initially appealing to many people and easier to implement. But it would be a mistake.
What Israel needs next is a government willing to take on the big challenges the country faces with renewed vigour and a fresh approach. It needs to embrace what the late British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called, “The Politics of Hope.” He wrote that “optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one.”
Rebuilding institutions and rebuilding confidence in the economy will be crucial, but if we ignore the biggest issues Israel faces then we will be doomed to another round of the chaos. If we take on those challenges with hope as an active virtue, we can take Israel forward.
It may seem ambitious, but the next government needs to write a proper constitution for Israel and secure the foundations of liberal democracy. It needs to find a new and sustainable relationship between the Arab minority and the state as well as the ultra-Orthodox minority and the state. Those two groups together make up around 30 percent of the country, and ignoring their problems and their place in society is a recipe for disaster. It needs to secure fundamental rights for women, the LGBT community, and religious minorities. It needs to reengage with our role in the Middle East, including our conflict with the Palestinians. It needs to find the next iteration of the start-up nation so that we don't get left behind.
Politics is the art of the possible. Compromise isn't just inevitable but welcome. Moderation and pragmatism can and should drive the day-to-day work of the government. But to avoid sleepwalking into another crisis, Israel needs a new and ambitious agenda. There is a famous Jewish proverb that says, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” That is certainly the case for the next Israeli government.
Yair Zivan is diplomatic advisor to former Israeli prime minister and current leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid. He has worked with Mr. Lapid since 2014 and previously served as international media spokesperson for Israeli President Shimon Peres.
He writes in his personal capacity and the views expressed here are his alone.