Can we expect a change to the status quo in Israel? The Israeli election earlier this year generated hope among those who oppose the privileged position of the ultra-Orthodox, the role of religion in defining personal status and regulating the Sabbath, and the lack of progress in the peace process with the Palestinians. The meteoric success of Yair Lapid’s centrist and pro-secular Yesh Atid party, a party whose platform espouses fundamental changes to these issues, as well as Tzipi Livni’s appointment as chief negotiator with the Palestinians, warrant optimism.
The crucial question is whether these hopes are realistic. Will Israel end a 13-year deadlock in its negotiations with the Palestinians and accept the division of the historical Jewish homeland? Can we expect Israel to end 65 years of ultra-Orthodox privilege, extend military conscription and labor market integration, and institute religious freedoms in personal and commercial affairs? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions appears to be “no.” As with other contentious issues — such as the ongoing expansion of settlements and the persistent legal and social discrimination against Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent — change is unlikely.
Change is unrealistic for two reasons: political interests and public fear. Both long-term and short-term political interests significantly reduce the odds of generating meaningful change. Additionally, the Israeli public feels more secure with the familiar, and supposedly safer, status quo. To this end, the Israeli right has been successful in convincing the public that policy changes will increase domestic instability and diminish security. The problem, and what many fail to realize, is that maintaining this status quo does not indicate an absence of action, or a neutral policy, but instead perpetuates particular decisions and actions that constrain future avenues for change. In other words, the decision to “not decide” is, in fact, a decision that carries significant long-term consequences.
Initial evidence that meaningful change is unlikely emerged following the election, when Lapid stated that he would not cooperate with the “Zoabis,”1 a reference to the controversial Palestinian member of Knesset, Hanin Zoabi. The use of her name in plural form indicates both Lapid’s personal disdain for her and his belief in the illegitimacy of including Arab parties in a governing coalition. This approach preserves the status quo that has been maintained since the state’s inception concerning the exclusion of Arab parties from the executive branch. Lapid has also joined forces with Naftali Bennett, head of Jewish Home, a party that advocates annexing much of the West Bank and instituting an apartheid-like regime over the Palestinians.2
In addition, the government has asserted its commitment to reintroduce legislation of the controversial “Israel as a Jewish State” basic law, which seeks to privilege Judaism over democracy.3 Similarly, the government has voted to extend the discriminatory amendment to the citizenship law that denies Arab citizens the right to family reunification by evoking “security” to disguise the amendment’s demographic rationale.4 Additionally, the coalition government is opposed to dividing Jerusalem and halting settlement expansion — as evidenced by the appointment of Uri Ariel, a prominent settler leader, to the Housing Ministry. These actions signal that a resumption of peace talks is unlikely, and they explain the recent decision to institute separate buses for Jews and Arabs in the occupied territories,5 to support public school field trips to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and to reject U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal to resume the peace process.6
On issues of religion and state, significant change also appears doubtful. Although the coalition agreements set a precedent by not including the historical religious status quo clause, the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox will not begin for four years; by that time, the ultra-Orthodox parties may have rejoined the coalition and that would further delay implementation. Additionally, issues such as civil marriage and public transportation on the Sabbath were completely absent from the coalition agreements, despite Lapid’s electoral promises to initiate these reforms.
History teaches us that states initiate change primarily in times of crisis. Though Israel is reaching such a point, its government remains unwilling or unable to alter its trajectory. The current status quo is slowly but steadily transforming Israel into a binational, undemocratic, and theologically motivated state. While the allure of a status quo generally emanates from promises of stability and security, this status quo, in fact, intensifies long-term processes that threaten the very survival of the Jewish and democratic state.
1 Revital Hovel and Jack Khoury, “Israeli MK Hanin Zuabi accuses Yair Lapid of hating Arabs,” Haaretz, 1/25/13, haaretz.com.
2 Amira Hass, “Palestinian ghettos were always the plan,” Haaretz. 1/20/13, haaretz.com.
3 Jonathan Lis, “Coalition pact calls for bill making Israel Jewish first, democratic second,” Haaretz, 3/17/13, haaretz.com.
4 Jonathan Lis, “Israel extends law restricting unification of citizens with spouses from ‘enemy states’,” Haaretz, 4/14/13, haaretz.com. This assertion is based on a personal interview with former Israeli Minister of the Interior Avraham Poraz, who stated that the rationale for enacting the amendment was based solely on demographic reasons and not on security needs. This contradicts the government’s repeated statements that the amendment is primarily security motivated.
5 Chaim Levinson, “As Israel’s separate bus lines start rolling, some Palestinians don’t seem to mind,” Haaretz, 3/4/13, haaretz.com.
6 Barak Ravid, “Israel rejects Kerry proposal for renewing talks with PA,” Haaretz, 4/11/13, haaretz.com.email print