Can Israel Handle the New Fault Lines in Its Domestic Politics?

Joseph Dana

AFP Photo: Menahem Kahana

One often-overlooked aspect of politics in Israel is the utter lack of unity in the political system. This is a reflection of deep divisions that plague Israeli society. As a country of immigrants from diverse backgrounds and with myriad religious identifications, this confusion should not be a surprise. Even the definition of who is and who isn’t Jewish remains unresolved. Sometimes, these seemingly irreconcilable differences bubble to the surface, as they have yet again with Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to form a government after April’s elections.

After securing a razor-thin victory, Netanyahu set about building a traditional center-right coalition, one that hinged on the support of his former defense minister and the current head of the Israel Our Home party, Avigdor Lieberman. But failing to receive Lieberman’s nod, Netanyahu has not been able to secure a 61-seat majority in parliament and has had no choice but to send Israelis back to the polls. The fallout between the two highlights the new complexion of Israeli politics, whereby matters of national security – such as the Arab-Israeli peace process – take a backseat to domestic challenges that have evaded resolution since the country’s founding.

The issue that caused Lieberman to bail on Netanyahu was military service for ultra-orthodox Israeli citizens, known as Haredim. Around the time that Israel was founded, ultra-orthodox communities in Europe were leery of moving to the new country. In fact, some rejected outright the very notion of a secular Jewish state. Zionist leaders, nevertheless, believed that religious Jews would give their project more legitimacy. So in a grand bargain, they persuaded the ultra-orthodox to immigrate with the promise that they would not have to serve in the military and would receive other benefits that would, in total, allow them to concentrate on their religious studies.

Fast forward to today and Haredi communities now are among the fastest-growing in the country. Projections are that a third of Israel’s population will be Haredi by 2065.

For the general populace, military service is considered of high national importance as it serves as the great leveler of Israeli society. The Haredim, however, claim exceptionalism to the general principle. Over the past decade, calls to enlist Haredi Israelis have reached a fever pitch, prompting Lieberman to jump at the opportunity to make this a wedge issue for Netanyahu.

One reason Haredi communities have been able to continue avoiding military service is because their political representatives have been kingmakers in coalition governments. In exchange for their support of Likud, with which Netanyahu has claimed that the ultra-orthodox have “natural ties,” mainstream politicians have left the draft issue unchanged. Moreover, the military has little interest in conscripting soldiers from ultra-orthodox communities who have deep disrespect for any secular hierarchy.

But why is this now at the forefront of political debate? Lieberman has a checkered history with ultra-orthodox political leaders. Last year, he courted several influential rabbis in Jerusalem, asking them to instruct their followers to vote for his party. As a result, many Israelis believe Lieberman is using the Haredim to act on a “secret vendetta” against Netanyahu, or as a device to gain more power. Regardless, the dynamics of Israeli politics have shifted even further away from issues related to peace and security.

In the past, negotiations over coalitions hinged on issues related to the occupation of the West Bank, settlement growth and the Arab-Israeli peace process. In the April election, left-wing parties – which would have centered attention on these very issues – won only 10 seats. Israelis weren’t interested. Instead, they were focused on the dividing line between the right-wing and the extreme right.

Confident of their position in the region and of their strong economy, Israelis see the status quo in security and peace conditions as a done deal. With Donald Trump in the White House acting as Israel’s primary benefactor, granting any concession it wants, who can blame mainstream society for this? But not only is this new reality, in fact, dangerous for the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians, it is also fraught with the prospect of grave domestic upheaval.

The state’s attempt to craft an “Israeli” identity that supersedes the diverse backgrounds of groups in the country hinges on the presence of an external enemy. Secular Israelis can fight all they want with the ultra-orthodox about the character of the country but when an external enemy is present, the divisions fade away. In a country where rights and privileges are assigned based on religion, but where there is no firm decision on who is a member of the dominant religious group, the need for an external scapegoat is profound. (Hence, the existential dilemma for the Palestinians.)

That is what makes the last election and its rerun so important. Israelis are moving the political debate to issues outside the Palestinian conflict, but it is unclear if Israeli society is ready to face domestic divisions in a serious manner. Can Israel exist peacefully– at least domestically – if Israelis do not feel they are under constant external threat? None of this, of course, even begins to explain what the ramifications are for the Palestinians.

What is clearer is that the messy politics on display over the Haredi draft shows that the currents below the surface are strong indeed.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.