Things About Israel Worth Taking Into Account

Last month I spoke about the growing gap in perceptions that has developed between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Among other things, I attributed that development to the fact that because they have undergone different experiences, their political systems and social environments have had to change, and to change in different ways. Therefore their ways of thinking and acting have also evolved differently.


The differences that are easiest to observe are the different public and private ceremonies that the two groups participate in.


From the Zionist enterprise’s inception, the underlying assumption of its leaders has been that if the Jews who are resident in their own homeland appear to behave like the citizens of other nations who are living in their homelands, the new Jewish enterprise will be given the same legitimacy that all the other countries that behave similarly have been awarded.


Zionism came into existence at the very moment when the old system of monarchies, theocracies and church/state power sharers was being undermined by the movement towards democracy. It was only natural, therefore, that the leaders of the nascent movement for Jewish independence should have wanted to base their case for national equality on their desire to create a democratic republic. In so doing, they have also wanted to emulate many of the tactics and techniques that other democracies had employed successfully.


The new Western, democratic governments had found that in order to create social glue, they had to find replacements for some of the ceremonies that had served the monarchies and theocracies so well. So, for example, instead of reciting a catechism, Americans invented the Pledge of Allegiance. Saints days were replaced by Presidents’ Days. And monarchs’ birthdays were replaced by a national holiday.


In other words, democracies and non-religious autocracies found that it was useful to adopt many facets of religious behavior because, stripped of their god-related aspects, these outward expressions of belief and belonging served important social and national purposes.


It was only natural that Israelis would have also sought out similar anchors for themselves as well. In the pre-State period, some ceremonials, such as May Day, were imported, while others such as the kibbutzim’s invention of a modern Shavuoth harvest holiday were local creations.


But that effort to become “like all other nations” began to break down once the state was founded. Undoubtedly the best example is the fact that, despite some major efforts by the secular political parties to write a constitution, these parties were unable to overcome the opposition to such a project by the country’s orthodox religious groups.


It isn’t that Israelis don’t understand the value of having a constitution. Most Israeli political thinkers recognize the power that an agreed-upon constitution can have on a nation. However, Israel’s secular leaders were unwilling to engage in the equivalent of a non-violent civil war with those who believe that no system of man-made law should supersede Halacha. So, for much of the past 65 years Israelis have had to rely on other ways to provide political and social continuity and to bind the citizenry together.


One tack has been the adoption of certain unique ceremonials.


Americans, as part of their socialization processes hold their hand over their heart when singing the national anthem. Israelis don’t. But Israeli males accomplish much the same thing of openly pledging allegiance to their country by changing into olive drab clothes in front of their families and then trotting off to do reserve military duty.


One of the major points I tried to make last month was that some public Israeli ceremonies, such as the appearance of middle-aged men travelling on public busses, dressed in ugly, shapeless uniforms may be fairly well-known to foreigners interested in the Middle East. However, most of the ways that Israelis have adapted to their environment or that they use to express deeply-felt emotions are totally unknown or misunderstood by those who do not take part in these activities.


For example, the heads of foreign companies that buy Israeli start-ups often feel insulted when their Israeli workers interrupt them and question them while they are speaking. In American culture such behavior is considered to be disrespectful, while in Israeli culture it is believed to be a sign of commitment and caring on the part of the workers.


The subject of cultural differences is an enormous one. But tonight I would like to narrow it down and focus primarily on how and why those same kinds of misunderstandings arise when Israelis engage in political activism that isn’t sponsored by political parties.


As democracy began to spread in the 19th century, the new, secularist political parties found that it was easier to rally the masses to their side if they adopted a comprehensive, coherent outlook on life and politics that could be assembled into a written, guiding ideology that could have the same impact as a holy book. In effect, political parties in many democratic secular countries ended up behaving as though they were secular religions.


The Zionist movement ended up creating several such secular religions—Labour Zionism and Revisionism being the two most notable ones.


The Zionists’ adherence to secular religions remained strong up until the 1970s. However, a series of traumas including the Yom Kippur and the First Lebanese wars, and hyperinflation eventually led many Israelis to abandon the ideologies that they had previously held in high esteem.


When that happened, and because the country’s politicians were left with no new ideas on how to cope with the problems the country was facing, political debates often degenerated into pointless arguments that were characterized only by harsh and personalized rhetoric. One end product of that use of verbal artillery was the street demonstrations by neo-nationalists immediately prior to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.


By the end of the millennium, ordinary Israelis were left with a conundrum. Their personal lives had changed because the economy had changed. And with the fall of the Soviet Union and the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, their country’s place in the world had also been altered beyond recognition.


Nonetheless, one thing had not changed. The public was still being taught by its political leaders not to like each other and even to fear each other.


That then created an existential problem for the average Israeli because it is a truism that countries cannot survive unless their citizens have someone or something in which or in whom they routinely place their trust and use as an anchor in troubled times.


In the old days, in Israel, ideologically-based political parties were the primary social anchors. Every city and town had a party clubhouse, where the ordinary citizen could go to find sociable like-minds, to pour out their grievances, and to ask for help. Up to the early 1980s, many Israelis still referred to the political party they belonged to as their “home.”


But then, as I have already noted, the parties’ ideologies began to collapse.


The first major party to experience a major upheaval was the National Religious Party, which, after the Yom Kippur War, went from being a moderate, judicious, religiously-based party concerned with a wide variety of social issues to a narrowly-focused and increasingly insular, increasingly dogmatic body fixated almost exclusively on its members’ religious practice and a mystic belief in the value of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. In other words, it began ignoring so many aspects of its old ideology that all it was left with was a set of narrow dogmas.


Soon after, Labour too lost its way completely and could no longer cobble together even the appearance of having a coherent platform of dogmas or suggestions to offer it members and potential voters—other than a stated, single-minded determination to join any coalition government that would have them.


The Likud’s ideological decline from a devout belief in the revisionist, liberal philosophy of Zeev Jabotinsky to today’s single-minded neo-nationalism took longer, but was no less intellectually disemboweling. The final deathbed convulsions came when, during the last Likud primaries, revisionist stalwarts such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan were denied realistic seats on the party list.


To make things worse, not only were Israel’s political parties in decline and disarray, so too were some of the country’s most important ideologically-based national institutions.


By the 1990s, the national trade union, the Histadrut, which had been the owner of the country’s biggest industrial and financial conglomerate, had gone bankrupt. Along the way, thousands of people had lost their jobs when Histadrut-owned companies were sold off and reorganized. And tens of thousands would have lost their pensions had the government not moved in to prop up the Histadrut-run pension funds.


As a result of all these events, and more, by the turn of the millennium, Israelis found themselves bereft, as some of the great secular social institutions, which had played critical roles in the foundation of the state, had collapsed. Among the detritus was the faith people had placed in the country’s political structure; and there was nothing immediately available to replace it.


That created a deep national political vacuum, and enormous internal, personal tensions. On the one hand Israelis came to believe that they had no choice but to become more individualistic and rely more on themselves, rather than the government, in order to survive.


However, the geopolitical realities they were being forced to cope with, together with the historical Jewish baggage they were carrying with them limited what might have otherwise been a natural tendency to adopt an American-like belief in the rugged individual who rises or falls based on his own entrepreneurial efforts and hard work.


In particular, the sense of national belonging was simply too strong a social bond. A Gallup poll of 64 countries, taken at about the same time as all this ferment was bubbling up, found that Israelis were the most nationalistic people in the world. For a majority of Israelis, the act of retaining their Israeli citizenship and not emigrating, despite all the vicissitudes they were facing, had become a statement of faith and a social anchor. According to this poll, sixty percent of the county’s citizens were taking being Israeli as their primary source of identity. In Egypt, by comparison, which has probably got the longest continuous record of a national identity within the same borders of any country in the world, only a tiny 2 percent said that their primary identity is “Egyptian.”


Coupled with that sense of identification was an increasing search for historical precedents that Israelis could routinely use as guides and markers for the immediate, existential issues they were facing. One deep-seated belief that came to the fore during this period was the conviction that the Jewish people had only survived as a nation because they had adhered to a policy of group responsibility. For that reason, for example, the act of “ransoming the prisoner,” which had evolved into what was virtually the eleventh commandment during the medieval period, was canonized anew. To the surprise of almost all other countries, the modern Israeli interpretation of the term “group responsibility” has now resulted in the routine release of thousands of Arab prisoners for every Israeli soldier and civilian taken prisoner by the Arabs.


As the ennui of the post-Yom Kippur period deepened, the disappointment in the existing political system took many forms. An increasing number of Zionist, Orthodox Jews sought shelter in the belief that there was a religious imperative that would eventually enable the whole nation not only to escape from the situation the country’s citizens were in, but also to find redemption. That imperative demanded that Jews undertake the task of routinely and ceremoniously resettling the Biblical Land of Israel. The religious adherents to this belief were not alone. They found extensive moral, political and financial support from many secular Revisionists and Labour Party supporters. Although these three groups, when taken together, could still count on the support of only a minority of Israelis, their devotion to this cause and their steadfastness enabled them to routinely extract both promises and money from successive governments.


However, their passion also had a major drawback. Their continuing feeling of vulnerability because they remained a minority led them over time to isolate themselves as a form of self defence.


Those secular Israelis for whom messianic land settlement was an uninviting dogma took a different path—even if they didn’t realize that they were doing so. In retrospect we can see that they seem to have come to the realization that in order to survive as a people, Israeli Jews would have to find a format for routinely making joint, existential decisions without the use of—or at least without the need to rely on—governments, political institutions, or a guiding ideology.


That meant finding an alternative someone or something in whom to put their trust. Some then sought out the services of a “strong leader.” This led to the elections of former generals Yitzchak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon as prime minister.


However, at the same time, an even greater number took part in a totally non-organized, “wisdom of crowds” process that has led to a revolution in Israeli national political and social behavior, which most foreigners, Jewish and otherwise, have failed to comprehend.


This turnaround in Israeli politics has gone almost totally unnoticed. But it has been profound. Over time, the majority of Israelis appear to have learned that even though, in the past, they were encouraged by their political leaders to despise each other for not accepting the political ideology their favourite politician preached, they would now have to learn how to routinely trust each other.


That was not an easy process. In fact, Israelis first had to overcome an image they had of themselves, which had been fostered both by the politicians and the media.


Here is how that scenario played itself out.


Fear of and intolerance of “others” had accompanied and been endemic to the Zionist experiment from its very beginnings. At the turn of the 20th century, European immigrants were favoured over the Yemenites, who had arrived previously but who were looked down on. In the 1930s, the newly-arrived “Yekkes,” or German Jews were looked down on by the Poles and Russians, who had consolidated their position, in part, at the expense of the Yemenites. In the 1950s, the arrival of “Jewish Arabs” from Iraq and Morocco elicited a new wave of fear and loathing that Israel might become “Arabized.” Similarly, when the wave of Russian immigration began in the 1990s, the media began playing up stories about the “Russification” of Israeli society and the spread of vodka drunkenness.


A Gallup study of 140 countries has found that the result of these verbal trashings has been that Israel is now the third least tolerant country among 35 advanced nations. Only 36 percent of Israelis were found to be tolerant of minorities—which, because of the myriad social, economic, ethnic and religious divisions in the state means, in effect, everyone else in the country. By comparison, 84 percent of Canadians and 76 percent of Americans are tolerant of minorities.


That same Gallup poll, though, found that, contrary to the image of the country’s citizenry, as portrayed in the local media, Israelis exhibit the second least amount of anti-social behavior among the residents of industrialized countries—things like muggings, thefts and other disruptive acts like those. And they are also in fifteenth place in pro-social behavior—acts such as helping strangers, reading to a child or volunteering—well ahead of countries such as Sweden, Belgium, France and Japan.


In other words, there were already a whole series of deeply-embedded, socially-positive behaviour patterns that, if they could somehow be collated and publicized, they could then act as an agreed-upon, unwritten, anchoring codex of social and political behavior—a modern, secular Israeli Mishna if you will.


Without any formal organization taking place, the crowd, apparently totally oblivious to what it was doing, set about doing precisely that. Simply by placing their faith in their own already-existing behaviour patterns, hundreds of thousands of individuals were able to find the social anchor they were seeking—a belief that, in extreme situations, other Israelis would behave as they would.


And so, a carefully cultivated political and social trend that had lasted for almost a century was undermined. In growing numbers, Israelis came to trust each other more and more. According to the International Social Survey, the largest study of its kind, Israel is now the 8th most trusting place on earth—well ahead of the UK, Germany and the US. Amazingly, the level of mutual trust within the country has more than doubled in the past 30 years, and it is now increasing at the rate of 1.4 percentage points per year—far faster than almost anywhere else. The highly-respected Legatum Institute, and the OECD in their latest annual surveys of international prosperity found that 90.3 percent of Israelis believe that they can rely on others in time of need.


In other words, as things now stand, four times as many Israelis trust each other—even as strangers—to do the right thing than trust their elected officials.


Put slightly differently, Israelis may still not be able to tolerate each other, but they have come to believe that, in a crunch, they can routinely count on all those other Israelis in their position to do the right thing by everybody.


The politicians, even if they can’t understand what is going on, appear to have sensed that they are under threat from these underground upwellings. After all, what else can explain the recent all-out assault by the neo-nationalists on the country’s judicial system? Even stranger, what can explain the alliance forged between the ultra-Orthodox, convicted criminal Arieh Deri and the ultra-Orthodox-hating, Avigdor Liberman in their attempt to foist a Givatayim-resident, party hack of no real distinction, Moshe Leon, on the citizens of Jerusalem as their mayor?


The only thing that unites them all is a sense that the old political system of back-room negotiations, where minority groups believed that they had to leverage their way into deals that gave them benefits that were totally disproportionate to their numbers, is in disrepair and may be under mortal threat. The old-time politicians feel naked without their ability to call upon their constituents’ loyalty to a concept of group uniqueness.


If one examines all the political movements that are currently under way and views them as a whole, rather than as discrete, isolated processes, it is possible to then understand not just why the political leaders of minority parties in Israel are having hairy fits, but also why Diaspora Jewry is clueless about what is happening in Israel, and why the American government has made so many mistakes in its dealings with successive Israeli governments.


Amazingly, without any formal deliberation Israelis are showing all the signs of reverting to using a successful, proven, atavistic, uniquely-Jewish system of governance that obviates the need to rely on governments to make existential decisions.


“Kehillah” (community) governance was a format that Jews had adopted and refined in the Diaspora. It was based on the principle of rule by mass consensus; and the use of the wisdom of crowds as a replacement for a hierarchical leadership, hereditary rule and a fixed political ideology.


Born out of the destruction of the Jewish state by the Romans, and nurtured for two millennia, Kehillah governance eventually became the single most successful form of self-governance in human history. In fact, it is still the form of self-rule most used by Jewish Diaspora communities.


Kehillah governance has been under attack by different groups for centuries, but it has always been revived because it appears to be the only system that works for Jews. One of the most notable attacks  has been by Hassidim who favour rule by hereditary rabbinical dynasties.


Kehillah governance was abandoned by the early Zionists because it was considered to be incapable of coping with the competition engendered by ideologically-based political parties, and the complexities of the modern, secular, nation-state. However, it is now undergoing yet another revival.


As was the case with the settlement movement, the foundations for a revival of national Kehillah government in modern Israel were first laid in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. At the very moment when the political system was beginning its collapse, and at the moment when the guiding national dogma of the absolute need for group political solidarity had exploded and been replaced by the new sense of individual, personal freedom, a mass of individuals came together, and by consensus, demanded that the government take responsibility for its actions or its failure to act prior to the war. A precedent was set. For the first time in Israeli history, the masses seized their right to act between elections. Henceforth, individual citizens’ responsibility for national well-being no longer ended as soon as the individual had left the polling booth. When used for the first time in a modern nation-state, consensus-driven mass action forced the resignation of a prime minister, Golda Meir.


Since that time, mass consensus-building directed at forcing a change in a government’s policy, has taken place at least once every decade. In the 1980s, the subject was hyperinflation and the economic collapse. In the 1990s, the debates focused on the Oslo Accords and the perceived need to withdraw from Southern Lebanon after an 18 year occupation there. Following the turn of the millennium, the public demanded that a security fence be built in the West Bank and ended up supporting Ariel Sharon’s proposal for a withdrawal from Gaza. And, in the last two years, precisely because the Netanyahu governments have been is so deeply distrusted, two items have been under national debate at the same time—whether to bomb Iran and how to save the country’s middle class from financial collapse.

That doesn’t mean that Kehillah governance, in its modern form, is problem-free. First and foremost, consensus-building takes time and an extraordinary amount of effort.


For that reason, one technique for inducing change more quickly than is possible when consensus decision-making is used has been to take the decision-making process to the non-political Supreme Court. One of the salient features of the Israeli system of governance—an aspect of social life that exits  nowhere else—is that the Supreme Court also sits as the High Court of Justice; and so it acts as the court of first and last instance in cases involving the government’s denial of rights to the country’s citizens.


Therefore, unlike the system in other democratic countries, where the high court focuses primarily on assuring the rights of minorities, in Israel, the Supreme Court, very often is forced to act to assure the rights of the majority when they are under threat from the predations of minorities represented in the cabinet. The recent final decision of the Supreme Court (after more than a decade of debate), that the blanket exemptions from compulsory military service that had been handed out to the ultra-Orthodox for 65 years are unconstitutional, is but one case in point.


As an alternate body to which the citizenry can apply for redress, the Court invariably has become the target for vicious criticism by those politicians who wish to see a monopoly on decision-making remain in the hands of the political parties.


The de facto cooptation of the Supreme Court as a third and equal branch of government has meant that, effectively, if not formally, Israel’s system of governance routinely works as follows: The Knesset and the political parties have been left to deal with day-to-day matters and to write laws for which a consensus already exists or can be formed quickly.


However, if the elected politicians fail to adopt policies acceptable to the majority, redress is then sought through appeals to the Supreme Court. Because it publishes its decisions and because those decisions are accompanied by all the arguments for and against the decision, the Court, in effect, also acts as the collator and publicist of what is becoming the country’s codex of established, acceptable and accepted behavior patterns.


It has also played a major role in helping to clarify the grey area separating what is illegal from what is merely inappropriate.


If, however, the Court declares that a resolution of the issue at hand is beyond its mandate or capabilities, a mass public effort to build a consensus behind a publicly-acceptable solution is then undertaken.


The professional political class, which is dependent on the old, pre-Yom Kippur War status quo being maintained, has fought bitterly to prevent the changes it sees taking place around it from becoming permanent. For example, many members of this caste, especially those who are members of minority groups that have benefitted from the old order, are now railing against the Supreme Court, and have tried to undermine its popular status and legitimacy. Among other things, they have tried to gain allies by introducing legislation that they know is popular, but which they also know will be declared unconstitutional by the court. One recent example was the law allowing illegal African entrants into the country to be imprisoned without the use of due process.


Another tack has been to try to change the make-up of the court.


But the central problem remains. Israeli governments simply do not function in a predictable manner because it is never clear what the negotiations between the various minority parties will produce. The best recent example was the absurd set of dealings between Bibi and Yair Lapid that preceded the appointment of Karnit Flug as Governor of the Bank of Israel.


This past year, however, may have been a turning point in the evolution of Israeli governance. Unless Diaspora Jews and foreign diplomats and academics recognize the changes that are underway they are liable once again to misinterpret events taking place here.


The turning point was the decision by the government to call early elections a year ago.


Those elections were called because it had become obvious to all those serving in the government that the government was going to have to raise taxes significantly in order to cover the costs of its profligate spending. At this point, the Shas party made an enormous strategic error—not its first, but quite possibly, one of its most serious.


Since the Haredim decided in the early 1980s to enter coalition governments, the two main Haredi parties had had an extraordinarily successful run. By the turn of the millennium, the Ashkenazi, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party appeared to have succeeded in forming a solid working relationship between it rival Hassdic and “Litvak” halves, and was in a position to grow steadily as its huge body of potential voters came to voting age. By the time early elections were called this time, the Mizrahi Shas party had also gone from 4 Knesset members at the time of its founding, to two digit representation in the country’s parliament.


But, as Tzippi Livni’s period as the leader of Kadima showed, electoral success and success in promoting Knesset legislation are two different things.


Both of the main Haredi parties became legislative powerhouses precisely because they never had any interest in leading a government. What they wanted was acceptance of and financing for their claims to exceptionalism. And as I have just noted, what they were able to do enormously successfully was to leverage their status as the balance of power in the otherwise evenly-divided Knesset so that they were able to determine whether the Likud-led bloc or the Labour-led bloc would lead the coalition. In return for having bestowed the right to rule, they were able to extract, from the titular coalition leader, concessions and funding that were totally disproportionate to their number of their constituents.


The Haredi parties would support cabinet votes that the other minorities favoured but were of little or no interest to the Haredim themselves. In return, the Haredi parties would demand that the other minorities support proposals that were of very great concern to the Haredim. In this way, the relatively tiny Haredi presence in the Knesset was able enact laws or prevent the enaction of laws that had an enormous impact on the population as a whole. The resulting federalist decision-making system bore a remarkable resemblance to pyramid ownership structures in the economic marketplace. A small political holding company was able to control the behaviour of larger political bodies, and in this way it could exert power and influence that exceeded its electoral strength by several measures.


It was clear to everyone what this system of rule was doing to successive Israeli governments’ capacity to rule fairly and, even more importantly, to produce long-term policies. Nonetheless, every attempt at reforming the system from within came to naught. In the first decade of the new millennium, the Israel Democracy Institute, made an enormous effort to find a new system governance that would be acceptable to all the main political players in the Knesset. However, it was clear from the IDI’s final report that they had gotten nowhere. The system of government appeared to have become impervious to change.


One major fault in the IDI report was that it focused almost entirely on trying to find ways that strengthen the government and make it less vulnerable to the demands of the minority parties. For that reason, for example, it wrestled with the question of whether to raise the minimum percentage of votes a party has to receive in order for it to take a seat in the Knesset. The threshold has already been raised twice. But that has not affected the Haredi parties. In fact, all it has done is to exclude anti-Haredi gadflies such as Uri Avneri and Shulamit Aloni, who had at times acted as the only effective opposition in the Knesset.


The IDI, which views itself as part of the country’s political elite, made the same mistake that all the elitists who have tried to change the political system have also made. It is the very same error the Labour party made many years ago. For decades, even after it had lost the public’s support Labour continued to believe that it could only function properly—and the country could only function properly—if it was a member of the reigning coalition. The idea that it might become the leader of the opposition was totally abhorrent to it.


Similarly, the IDI focused its study almost entirely on the government and what might make the government work better. It totally ignored the opposition and the role it can play as a competitor to the government (and thus force the government to function better), as a consensus-builder behind alternate legislation, and as a place where alternative prime ministers can be trained.


In effect, the IDI ignored the growth of a trust-based citizenry, where the opposition is considered to be worthy of the honorific “loyal opposition.”


Surprisingly, the IDI seemed to have taken no notice of what the Likud had already done. That party, after Aril Sharon had formed the Kadima party, was in a position similar to that of Labour. In the 2006 elections it fell to only 12 Knesset seats. However, unlike Labour, it used the opportunity to act as an opposition, to rebuild and, eventually, to recover.


One reason why the Haredi parties had succeeded so well under the old system of rule was that it enabled them to avoid taking responsibility for or being penalized for any injury their actions or inactions had caused to the majority. UTJ did so by refusing to accept formal responsibility for any cabinet position. Instead, at its request, it was usually given a ministry to control via a deputy ministership in any coalition it had joined.


That deputy ministership was useful, but the party’s real power came from invariably receiving the chairmanship of the Knesset’s finance committee. That position is a godsend to the party that controls it. Unlike ministries, the committee is not subject to intense media coverage. More importantly, no authorization to spend money or to save money or to tax can escape the need for its chairman’s approval. The moment he or she wants to spend even one agora, every minister, no matter how supposedly powerful, becomes totally dependent on the whims, likes and dislikes of the finance committee chairman. What makes the chairman’s position all the more imperial is that the UTJ chairmen have always exercised their fiscal power quietly, opaquely, routinely, ceremoniously, soporifically, and with an exquisite political sense of how far the other parties can be pushed.


Shas was less circumspect in its political dealings than the UTJ. At one time in the late 1990s, fully a third of those who had served as Knesset members under its auspices, had been found guilty of or were being investigated by the police for fraud and corruption. Nonetheless, at one point, in 1999, it managed to gain 17 Knesset seats by playing the exceptionalist, ethnic card.


Whenever there was a public outcry against something Shas had done or failed to do, whether it was ending daylight saving time a month or more early so that those praying on Yom Kippur could feel as though they were fasting one hour less, or failing to fund the fire department adequately—which led to the destruction of the largest forest in the country—Shas just sat out the controversy, feeling secure that the federation of minority parties that was running the government would protect it.


But then came the widespread demonstrations by the middle class in 2011, in protest against the cost of living. Remember: the Kehillah system of consensus government had become routinized by that time.


The demonstrations brought as many as 500,000 people into the streets. Virtually none of the protesters wore kippot, even though the protests were about issues that should have been of immediate concern to religious as well as secular citizens. That was because the religious Zionists, fixated by their self-image as exceptionalists, and lacking trust in the majority, perceived that this would lead to cuts in spending for settlement in the West Bank and for yeshivas.


All those in power seemed relieved when autumn arrived, the students returned to the universities and colleges, and the protest appeared to die. What none of them, not even the participants, seemed to have realized was that because the protest had already taken on all the characteristics of a classic Israeli majoritarian, Kehilla-style, consensus-driven revolt, the underlying dynamic could not be stopped.


Members of the Netanyahu-led government then proceeded to totally misread what was happening.


The country had just survived being swallowed up by the world economic recession. The world economy, upon which Israel’s high-tech, export economy had become dependent, was still shaky. Nonetheless, the government decided to accede to the most expensive demand that the protesters had made—free pre-school education— because the Haredim would benefit from it more than anyone else.

The result was a huge budgetary gap that could not be filled without both huge increases in taxes and huge cuts in other spending. What had made the situation even worse was that the government had also just spent billions of shekels preparing to attack Iran.


As was their wont, the Haredim refused to approve cuts in spending for their institutions. Even more importantly, Shas, in particular, believed that it could once again ride out the fiscal crisis by waiting long enough. As a result, in a fit of hubris, instead of facing the crisis head on, Shas refused to approve a new budget, and new elections were called.


How lasting a change those elections have had—especially whether the so-called “centrist parties” such as Yesh Atid, Hatenuah and Kadima will survive—is still unknown.


In the past, when the country was divided into pro-Labour and anti-Labour or pro-Likud and anti-Likud camps, major protest parties, such as DASH, Shinui or the Center party did emerge on a regular basis. But they didn’t last very long because they were usually led by former generals who found it difficult to work in an environment in which people were reluctant to obey orders, or they had egos that were so mammoth that they destroyed their party from within.


The new parties are bringing something different to the political landscape. Instead of pretending to be an alternative to the leading party Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Tzippi Livni’s Hatenuah party, and the new, modernized faction within the Labour party have in fact divvied up the elements that make up a successful opposition party between them, but support each other on most issues under discussion. Lapid ran not as a protest candidate, but, in what looked like a parody of the existing political system, as the leader of another federalist minority party—representing the middle class. Livni, a refugee from the Likud and the reason why Kadima collapsed, ran as a single issue peace candidate. And Shelly Yachmivich blew Labour party stalwarts’ minds by running as a true, European-style social democrat with a full-blown social agenda—an alternative to Netanyahu’s devotion to pure capitalism.


The results shook up the political system completely. Because this new form of majority rule has evolved slowly, through trial and error, it demonstrates some remarkable characteristics that any foreign body seeking to influence it, must take into account.

For example, unlike the dogma-based parties, these parties appear to be adopting what an INSS poll is showing is a greater tendency among secular Israelis. They are now making a very clear distinction between what they believe is desirable, what is possible, and what is possible under current circumstances.


This form of intellectual or decision-making triage means that anyone who wishes to pique the interest of the majority must be able to present this group with ideas or issues or subjects for immediate debate that are more inviting or more pressing than those that are under discussion at the time.


What this means in practical terms is that when the settler-supporting minority and their foreign Jewish Diaspora backers call for Israelis to ignore American suggestions or pleas on matters that could affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, they will be ignored by the majority.


On the other hand, when the Peace Now minority and its Diaspora backers call for immediate concessions to “provide momentum” for these same peace talks, they are likely to find a similar lack of interest on the part of the majority.


It would appear that the latest US-initiated peace talks are now reaching a crisis point. John Kerry would do well to consider this huge change in the nature of the Israeli body-politic before proceeding any further.


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