Israel’s Political Stalemate

It looks like Israel will be heading to a third election. It seems both sides, Netanyahu’s right and Gantz’s left-center cannot get the 61 votes needed to get a majority in the Knesset. There is one villain in this, and one victor.

The reason Netanyahu could not get a victory is that Avigdor Lieberman refuses to throw his weight behind a Netanyahu coalition, unless the special privileges tendered to the religious right are done away with. For years, the religious right have wrested a lot of concessions from the Israeli state, such as draft exemptions and control of marriage.

Secular Israelis complain that Haredim take advantage of social welfare but do not contribute to the military or the economy. - The Conversation

And then there are the marriage laws:

The Israeli government has granted authority over marriage only to the Orthodox rabbinate, not Reform, Conservative or any other more liberal denomination. And the Orthodox rabbinate’s strict rules bar many secular and Reform Jews from getting married at all. - Washington Post

The attitude of some of the Orthodox Rabbis towards the non-Orthodox can be incomprehensible. Israel’s Chief Rabbi would not refer to the Pittsburgh synagogue – where the massacre occurred last year – as a synagogue, as it was not Orthodox.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Sunday condemned the killing of 11 American Jews in the Conservative Tree of Life Synagogue, but seemed to equivocate on calling the house of worship a synagogue, instead terming it “a place of clear Jewish character.” - Times of Israel

The secular Israelis are getting fed up of this. Finally, Avigdor Lieberman is standing up to this insanity, but in doing so, he has made a right-wing coalition impossible. However, the religious feel they have a divinely inspired obligation to hold fast. No compromise is possible.

The long-predicted conflict between religious and secular Jews has now started.

The Blue and White (left-center) alliance cannot form a coalition for analogous reasons. A unity gov’t of both coalitions has been refused by Gantz, who refuses to work with Netanyahu.

The “villain” in this is the intransigence of the religious parties who refuse to budge. They will not yield on religious law. This is nothing new. In 1947, Ben Gurion made deep concessions to the religious for fear that they would sink Israel’s case in the UN. What is amazing is that the religious were willing to do so.

Going back to 1917:

Weitzman was afraid they might boycott the elections and create a political body of their own, which, Weitzman wrote, “cannot but have a negative effect on the negotiations between the Zionist Organization and the British Government, and on the opinion of politicians throughout the world.” - Strangeside: Israel’s Status Quo Agreement

The “victor” in this disaster are the Arab parties.

Neither side in Israeli politics wants to make a coalition government with the Arab Joint List, as the party is non-Zionist. No Zionist party – left or right – has ever formed a formal coalition with Arab parties (though individual Arabs have served with Labor or Likud, and some Christian Arabs have taken a Zionist view).

The Arabs have claimed that this historical refusal to consider Arabs for a coalition is evidence that Israeli “democracy” is a total sham. But truth be known, there is no way that a Zionist state could incorporate anti-Zionists into the government leadership; and vice-versa, no way that an Arab would want to be associated with any Israeli administration pressing a pro-Zionist agenda.

As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved and Israel is periodically involved in military operations against Palestinian targets  or other terrorist targets such as Hezbollah — be they in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank or Lebanon — no Israeli-Arab politician can be expected to accept the ministerial responsibility that comes with belonging to the cabinet. - Ha’aretz

So, historically, the Arab citizens have seen the futility of voting, since no matter who wins, the Arab parties will be outside of real power, and will be relegated to token seats in the Knesset. Israel has not had to worry about them that much. Those few who do serve in the Knesset are trotted out as evidence that Israeli is a democracy – with little explanation that their influence is limited.

No longer!

After the first election this year failed to produce a result, the Arab parties finally impressed upon the Arab-Israeli voters that now they had a chance to make a change. Now was the time to vote.

… Israel’s Arab citizens [are] closer to the center of power than ever before and strengthen their ability to influence the national agenda. (snip)

The increased turnout among Arab voters propelled the bloc to a strong showing and may have denied Netanyahu the right-wing coalition he had desperately sought. - Associated Press

Now that the Arab Joint List smells blood, a third election may only make the situation worse, as the reluctant Arabs finally realize their votes do count.

The Arab are close to a position where they can permanently paralyze the Israeli government. The Israeli right wing has feared this for a long time, and has tried taking measures to stop this by having some of the Arab politicians barred from running. Their Supreme Court has overruled this.

The next election will only fare worse. I suspect a third election will only increase the Arab turnout.

There is a famous historical precedent for this, and it does not bode well for Israeli Zionists.

In 1801, Britain annexed a rather hostile Ireland. In doing so, they thought they would solve the Irish problem by agreeing to give the Irish proper representation. The prior autonomous Irish parliament was top heavy with anti-Catholic members – thanks to the Penal Laws - and the British thought they might pacify things by finally giving Irish Catholics some rights in a Union.

But the Irish didn’t want equal rights per se, they wanted Britain out of their country.

It did not take long for the Irish to realize that they could paralyze the British Parliament with an Irish voting bloc. Irish Parliamentarians like Daniel O’Connell, and Charles Parnell became famous in the history of 19th century politics, so much so that the fame of Irish politicking made it to America. Here in the USA, Irish machine politics ran New York, Boston and Chicago well into the 20th century.

In America, as early as 1854, the ignorant Irish hod-carrier ... made it apparent to all that he must be politically reckoned with; yet fifteen years before that we hardly knew what an Irishman looked like. - Twain: Concerning The Jews

Until JFK, maybe an Irish Catholic could not be elected president, but the machine(s) were powerful enough to determine who could and who could not be president. In the 1920s, William MacAdoo – who was friendly to the KKK - was denied a nomination to run as the Democratic candidate, thanks to the Catholic vote.

What distinguishes Irish machine politics from Israeli Arab politics is that they set limited goals. Tammany Hall wanted equality, not to overthrow the system. Tammany was quite ready to encourage assimilation into the American system. In the UK, the Irish wanted to separate Ireland from Britain; they never denied Britain’s right to exist.

This is not so with a lot of Israeli-Arabs, who harbor anti-Zionist opinions.

Nor is the Israeli system set up in the absorbing way that America is. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, and Jews have historically been against assimilation. So, the options of intermarriage and assimilation that solved these issues in America are not available to Israel.

The religious right will not compromise on this. This is a religious matter to them. The secular have had enough of Orthodox and Haredi extremism. As the observant and Haredic population grows in Israel, this will only get worse.

A change from a parliamentary system to a presidential system might slow things down, but only for a while.

The Arab Joint List has walked into the breach. Unlike America, where assimilation is key, Israel does not have the tools to deal with this.

Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish better in high school, lo those many decades ago.  He runs a website, Latin Arabia, about the Christian Arab community in South America.

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