Israel in the Wake of the New Coalition Government

I have long held that, with the notable exception of a very few types of natural disaster, events don’t just happen by themselves. They are invariably the product of processes that have been underway for a long time.


Several processes, which have been underway both within Israel and outside it, have now combined to produce the events we have been witnessing recently. Too often, though, these events are being treated as unique occurrences instead of as interim climaxes to existing patterns of human behavior that may continue well into the future.


One reason for our failure to recognize the underlying patterns is the fact that sometimes the events that occur happen so quickly, and in such rapid succession, that it is difficult for anyone to absorb their significance and make sense of their meaning. In other cases, such as the ones we are witnessing now, so many processes may be climaxing at the same time that it is difficult to judge what their ultimate joint import will be and what this then portends for the future.


So, in an attempt to draw some very broad conclusions about where the events we have been witnessing of late may be leading us, I would first like to review some of the events and a few of the processes that have been underway for some time and that have also reached a climax in recent days, months and years.


Many of the events I will review have been reported on extensively in the Israeli media as discrete news items. Many have also raised hackles here and there. However, far more importantly, I have discovered that when these individual items are treated as parts of a jigsaw puzzle and then assembled into a whole, they provide a portrait of Israeli politics and Israeli society that I find to be profoundly discomfiting.


I’ll start with a series of very recent news events that can be roughly grouped together under the rubric of “The evolution of the prime ministership and Israel’s executive branch.”


It is a subject about which I could talk constantly for days, weeks and months without any difficulty…but I will try to be brief.


The recent election and its aftermath have created a fascinating analytical problem that seems to have led to widespread confusion about what Prime Minister Netanyahu is really doing and what he really wants. Put simply, all the factual evidence available points to at least two, seemingly inevitable, rational deductions that are…polar-opposite conclusions. The first is that Bibi Netanyahu is politically weak and therefore subject to the predations of his coalition partners. The second is that he is so politically strong that he can do almost anything he chooses to do.


According to all the laws of logical reasoning, one of those inferences must be patently false. However, at least at this moment, both of these conclusions appear to be true. I’ll come back to these conclusions in a moment.


But even before I address the question of how two diametrically-opposed, logical suppositions can coexist, I must, in all fairness, warn you that I will have to make forays into a part of the political world that most people hate—the unbounded intellectual terrain of nuance and ambiguity, which is often dismissed by critics as the world of “inside ball” or “navel-gazing.”


Here goes.


Although she has no foreign policy experience whatsoever, Tzippi Hotovely has been appointed the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although she only holds the title of deputy minister, Hotovely has stated with total confidence that she has been promised by Prime Minister Netanyahu that she will have the power to act as though she is the actual minister. If that is so, then it would appear, at least on the surface, that Bibi Netanyahu is now perfectly willing to set Israel up for a diplomatic disaster of monumental proportions.


Hotovely has done nothing so far to belay the suspicion that she is, in her purest essence, a diplomatic pyromaniac. Otherwise there is no rational explanation for why she has succeeded so marvelously and so quickly in making Israel’s diplomatic posture in the world far worse than it ever was before.


Her first policy directive to the ministry staff was an instruction that during their contacts with world diplomats they must emphasize Israel’s historical and Biblical ties to the West Bank and thus its right to never have to give up any occupied territory.


It is particularly interesting that she delivered her address in front of the television cameras just prior to the visit to Israel by the head of the EU’s foreign relations department, Federica Mogherini.


I personally cannot think of another moment in the whole of Israeli history when an Israeli official’s remarks were more ill-timed. At that very moment, Mogherini was trying to explore whether or not Netanyahu was for a two-state solution (as he claimed after the election), or dismissive of the idea, (as he explained to voters /during the election campaign).


Furthermore, Israel was in the midst of intensive efforts to kill or at least delay a French initiative that would unileterally lay out the broad terms of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians; and the EU was also in the process of deciding whether to have any and all products imported from the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be labeled as such. To top things off, there was a constant stream of television news reports warning that most European countries were becoming hotbeds of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement.


All these European initiatives have been strengthened in recent weeks because Israel has been unable to convince anyone outside the country that it really both wants a two-state solution that will eventually end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank…and that it is not responsible for the halt in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


Hotovely is a true religious and political believer, but even she must have had difficulty in believing Netanyahu’s promise to her—if, in fact, he has actually made such a promise. After all, when he cobbled together the current government, he supposedly, and I emphasize the word “supposedly,” handed over responsibility for the primary policy-making functions of the foreign ministry to five other ministers—and then appointed his personal honcho, Dore Gold, as the foreign ministry’s director general.


I think that it is clear to any sane observer that this sort of personnel manipulation is the political equivalent of castrating gnats.


Here, in somewhat greater detail, is what we have been told to believe.


Netanyahu’ final cabinet appointment was to anoint Gilad Erdan as the Minister of Internal Security. However, following Erdan’s demand, Netanyahu has supposedly also handed Erdan the additional task of dealing with national strategic affairs, and what is euphemistically called “Public Diplomacy”…(in other words, propaganda).


Earlier, Bibi had appointed Transport Minister Yisrael Katz to also supposedly deal with national intelligence. I have used the word “supposedly” in this case because that announcement was so blatantly counter-factual. Among other things, it was certainly not accompanied by any declaration that the country’s civilian intelligence apparatus, (in other words the Mossad and Shin Bet) is about to leave the confines of the Prime Minister’s Office, where it has been ensconced since Israel was founded. Moreover, there was also no formal notice that the national strategic planning authority, otherwise known as the National Security Council would also be removed from the Prime Minister’s Office or that Military Intelligence would be removed from the purview of the Defence Ministry.


And to top things off, to the best of my knowledge, neither Katz nor Erdan has any background in dealing with either strategic or intelligence issues.


The perennially popular Israeli entertainment trio called “HaGashash HaHiver (The Pale Scouts) needed only two words to elicit howls of laughter when they used to skewer happenings such as this one. The first was their repetitive use of the term “Isra-bluff”—which, I think is a self-evident summation of events such as these. The second was the term “ke’ilu” (which, literally means “as though”)—as in “it’s as though” these ministers had been appointed to actually do something.


But his recent appointments of Katz and Erdan are not the only examples of Netanyahu’s ongoing penchant for engaging in Ke’iluism.


Originally, there actually was a Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Intelligence. In part, it had been carved out of the foreign ministry’s research section and had been sculpted to serve an urgent, highly-important and even existential need. It was created to enable Dan Meridor to gain the status and access necessary so that he could draw up one of the country’s most important policy documents, a national strategic assessment and a national strategic plan for the future.


The last such plan had been prepared by Ben Gurion in the early 1950s and was hopelessly out of date.


Meridor did prepare such a document, but, to the best of my knowledge, it was never presented to the cabinet for debate because it contained material and suggestions that would have apparently made the extreme neo-nationalists in the cabinet go ballistic.


Be that as it may, my main point here is that, according to people in the know, Meridor is believed to have spent half a day every day reading security reports and analyses, in preparation for meetings later in the day with security officials and academics to discuss how this mass of material could be transformed into practical policies. Whether Erdan and Katz will have the time to engage in party politicking, run their huge and important ministries, attend Knesset sessions, and also put in the kind of work that Meridor did is beyond me.


I have emphasized the assignment of the strategic affairs and intelligence portfolios to Erdan and Katz because, like all the examples I want to use here, these acts were part of a much broader and more encompassing political process.


When Meridor was deprived of a safe seat on the Likud party’s slate during the party primaries, the ministry was taken over by Bibi’s favourite acolyte, Yuval Steinitz. Under Steinitz, the ministry had a grand total of 14 staffers including the minister’s driver, the director-general, the minister’s private secretary, the minister’s media advisor and the ministry spokesperson. All these positions are what are called in Israeli political jargon “personal, trusting appointments”—a euphemism for cronyism.


The Ministry, under Steinitz had become such a laughing stock that, following this past election, he had demanded and did finally get what may turn out to be a real portfolio, the Ministry of Water and Energy…that is, if Bibi does not choose to take those matters under his wing and turn that portfolio into a ke’ilu ministry as well. In any case, ke’iluism quite obviously provides those participating in this kind of shadow puppet show with real emotional comforts. Otherwise, there can be no explanation for why Steinitz also persuaded Bibi to supposedly put him in charge of the battle with Iran as well.


But that’s not all.


In another venture in ke’iluism, titular responsibility for Israel’s crucial and critical dialogue with the United States has now been handed to Interior Minister Sylvan Shalom. What relations with the US have to do with the Interior ministry—and what that ministry’s staffers to add to such a dialogue in terms of content—is anybody’ guess.


Shalom’s appointment to take charge of talks with the Americans is said to be a form of compensation to Shalom for the Interior ministry having been stripped of one of its primary functions—national planning…which has been handed to the finance ministry. In this way, Netanyahu seem to have assumed that he could assuage Shalom’s bruised ego by trading an exercise in virtual reality for real reality.


To further compound this foolishness, Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jews—another important responsibility that had once been within the purview and mandate of Israel’s diplomats—has been placed in the hands of Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin. Elkin has performed yeoman service for Netanyahu as a party whip and spokesman, but it is difficult to see how he can relate to North American Jewry that is overwhelmingly Reform or Conservative, and quite left-leaning, when he is Ukrainian-born, has had little or no previous contact with Western Jews, and is both Orthodox and a settler.


To add to all this, it is important to recognize that anything that is really sensitive and important to Netanyahu has always been, and will probably continue to be handled by his closest unelected associates, especially his personal lawyer, Yitzchak Molcho.


With all this in mind, just imagine what now awaits a foreign diplomat who is seeking to understand, for example, how Israel intends to deal with the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement. In its simplest form, any strategy to deal with that problem would have to involve tracing who is running and funding the movement, establishing a clear policy to counteract the effects the movement is having, and deciding how to approach foreign governments and how to mobilize world Jewry to act on Israel’s behalf. As things stand now, that poor diplomat would find it difficult to know who to phone first…or last.


Because of a lack of time, I won’t be able to discuss the many other examples of Netanyahu-style Isra-Bluff, such as the obviously false promises he has made to his non-Likud coalition partners. However, I cannot end off this section without at least briefly referring to another particularly disturbing example of Netanyahu’s penchant for Ke’iluism.


One of the more reasonable conclusions that one can come to in the wake of the recent elections is that the Israeli body politic remains more concerned about existential security issues than it is about existential economic or social issues.


Fair enough. That is a judgment call by the public, which is also, at least titularly, the country’s sovereign.


The thing is, though, that, by law, the existential security issues that Israel faces are supposed to be discussed in the small Cabinet Committee on Defence and Security. By law, this committee has responsibility for such “minor” duties as deciding whether to launch a war, what Israel’s defensive posture should be in the wake of the growth in Islamic jihadist fanaticism, and whether even a bit of the military’s huge annual spending can be diverted to social issues.


Under Netanyahu, however, that committee has been bloated to the point where it now includes half of the members of the cabinet—most of whom are clueless about national security issues. Even more absurdly, one of the few real cabinet experts on security, the Kulanu party’s Yoav Galant, who once was a serious candidate for the post of chief of staff of the IDF, only has the status of being an observer on the committee.


Now we come to another broad, absolutely fascinating subject, which also climaxed during Netanyahu’s latest exercise in coalition building. It is a subject that most certainly cannot be labelled and laughed-off as an “Isra-Bluff” act—which is precisely what makes it particularly worrisome.


Bibi’s first and only absolute demand of all his coalition partners this time around was that they vote strictly according to his instructions on any issue bearing on the media and the telecommunications industry. One reason for this demand was to protect the freebie daily, Yisrael HaYom, which was established by Netanyahu’s good buddy, American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. It is not unfair to say that, on anything related to Bibi, Yisrael HaYom has become the Israeli equivalent of Pravda during the height of the Soviet Union.
During the previous Knesset there was an attempt by some opposition lawmakers to trim Yisrael HaYom’s wings by requiring all Israeli newspapers to charge a sale price. Bibi was horrified and is now making sure that such a thing never comes about—at least not so long as he remains in office.


But that wasn’t all. At the same time, Netanyahu chose to make the cost of keeping Channel 10 alive far greater by reinstalling a huge payment that the television station, which had often been highly critical of Netanyahu, will soon be forced to lay out in return for keeping its license. Netanyahu has already disassembled Kol Ysrael and Channel 1— the public radio and television stations. So, his imposition of the fee, which had earlier been deferred, was a clear warning to both the commercial Channel 10 and Channel 2 stations that he had the ability to turn his displeasure at their news coverage of him into a sword of Damocles that can be held over their heads whenever he chooses.


A third worrying feature of Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister has been his effective disembowelment of the Knesset.


At this moment it is almost impossible to discern what function the newly-elected Knesset will play in policy-making. In theory, one of the Knesset’s primary functions is to oversee the activities of and the policy-making decisions of the cabinet. It supposedly does so by having standing committees review any legislation that is brought to the Knesset for approval.


A general rule of thumb used over the past few decades holds that a Knesset member who is really interested in fulfilling that duty can only effectively do so if he or she is a member of no more than 3 committees. The main reason for this is that it takes time to prepare for such meetings. Among other things, there are statistics that need to be perused, state comptroller reports that have to be read, special, relevant research studies that have to be annotated, and meetings with constituents that have to be held to see how the public is reacting to any particular subject under discussion.


Of course, historically, all Israeli governments have tried strenuously to maintain as much opacity as possible. However, over the years, there were a sufficient number of serious, opposition committee members that one of the primary jobs of committee members who belonged to the governing coalition was to watch and listen carefully to what these gadflies had to say so that the government was not be blind-sided by the opposition.


Under Bibi, though, it appears as though he, like Orthodox religious true believers, fears that his followers might have their brains polluted if they were to even hear what those whom he believes are political heretics have to say.


That may be an unnecessarily-cynical observation, but it is one of the few explanations I can come up with for why some Likud Knesset members have now been appointed to 5 or more committees.


In practical terms, this means that, even if they do show up for a committee meeting (which for many is a rare occurrence), they will only have time to make a prepared statement and vote as they have been told, before moving on to the next meeting that they will have been scheduled to attend.


At this point, having reviewed all these events, I can now address the seeming conundrum that I mentioned at the very beginning.


Israeli pundits have declared that all the acts and factors that I have just reviewed have been the product of two things—Netanyahu’s inherent political weakness, which has been caused by the fact that his coalition has the support of only 61 members of the 120 seat Knesset, and because he made a botch of his negotiations with his coalition partners.


In particular, the commentators have pointed to the seemingly huge concessions that he has made to the ultra-Orthodox, to the fact that he has gutted several ministries in order to meet the demands of some potential ministers, to the many promises he broke, (such as the one in which he promised Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat that there would be no minister of Jerusalem affairs), and to the fact that he has felt obliged to hand over some ministries to people who have no prior experience in that particular ministry’s field of endeavor.


All these observations and the conclusions that have been drawn from them are valid. However, I assert that all these facts can also point to a diametrically different and no less valid conclusion.


If one looks closely at everything Netanyahu has done, it seems obvious to me at least that the end product of all of Netanyahu’s wheeling and dealing is a situation in which the prime minister has managed, by gutting ministries, by buying off coalition partners, by adding new responsibilities to the Prime Ministers Office, and by making promises that he has already shown that he had no intention of keeping, to take almost absolute control over every policy issue that is of interest to him. In other words, his manipulation of the coalition, his weakening of some important ministries, his weakening of the Knesset and the fact that many coalition members are now totally dependent on him keeping his promises if they are to have any successes to show their supporters when the next election rolls around, have enabled him to become the most authoritarian and dictatorial prime minister in Israeli history.


That is scary. But here is another process that is underway that is even more mind-boggling. To be fair, it is one in which Netanyahu is only peripherally involved (although it is one that he took advantage of and manipulated during the last election campaign).


At the beginning of this month, President Rivlin delivered what was obviously a carefully prepared speech that he seems to have intended to use to set out in the clearest manner he could what he believes is one of the central threats facing the nation. He warned that Israel has failed to create a single, unifying, national identity. Instead, it has, by his count, now produced 4 “tribes”—the Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, the national religious and the secular Jews.


Rivlin railed against what he called the “tension, fear and hostility” with which he claimed each tribe viewed the others. What he called “the new Israeli order” had replaced an older order that had been based on the idea that one group, which was made up of a majority of the country’s citizens, could find common ground after they had experienced army service, while the other population groups remained minorities. But now, because of the difference in their birthrates, the 4 tribes were in the process of becoming more or less equal in size, and so the ability to find a set of beliefs and behaviours that could be presented as the view of the majority had been lost.


It is important to recognize that Rivlin was voicing a theme that has been a central one since the country was established, and the ingathering of Jews from the Diaspora began. Initially, in the early 1950s, the country was described by many Israelis as being divided into 2 tribes—the Ashkenazi socialists who ran the Labour party hegemony, and everyone else.


Then, in the late 1960s, the country was said to have been divided into Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Arab and Orthodox Jewish religious tribes.


After that, and for a while during the 1990s, the immigrants who had just arrived following the collapse of the Soviet Union were also viewed as a separate tribe.


Most recently, Israeli pundits have criticized Shas leader Arieh Deri for having tried to revive the idea of a separate Mizrahi tribe.


It is possible that Rivlin’s particular take on tribalism is not so much a warning as an attempt to counteract a very different, but growing public perception of Israel as a tribal society. In other words, he may be saying, in effect, that things may be really terrible, but they are not as horrendous as other make them out to be.


From everything they have said, the folks to whom he could be referring seem to believe that the country has long been divided into geographically-based tribes. If one combines all that they have said publicly, their thesis is that there is an independent state or province called Tel Aviv, which encompasses most of the Dan region and whose capital is said to be the area known as “North Tel Aviv.” According to this analysis, the rest of the country, which is referred to as “the Periphery” is divided into Haredi, Arab and poor Mizrahi counties that are unproductive, produce little in tax revenue, and so prey parasitically on Tel Aviv. Worse still, like Eritreans trying to cross the Mediterranean to get a better life in Europe, the Israeli “Peripherites” export their children to Tel Aviv…thus overburdening the area’s infrastructure and driving up the price of homes.


According to this reading of the political landscape, the West Bank is also divided into two, separate, geographical parts. One is an amorphous assemblage of Arabic-speaking areas about which Jews know little except that these human agglomerations each day disgorge thousands of potential terrorists disguised as construction workers into Tel Aviv Land. The other part of the West Bank is populated by a federation of Jewish settlements, whose residents are engaged in two professions—trying to take over the IDF’s officer corps and plundering the public treasury in order to support their suburban life-style.


In other words, and more seriously, there is now a pervasive belief throughout the country that depending on how you slice and dice the Israeli population, the country is divided into separate, increasingly inter-bred populations whose members live in the same, clearly-defined geographical areas, wear similar clothes, eat similar foods, take part in similar rituals and think similar thoughts.


It was quite clear from his intonation that Rivlin was deeply pained by the tribal picture that he was portraying. But as so often happens when such divisions appear in a society, Rivlin, the same week that he delivered his speech, actually went on to foster such divisions by supporting the demands being made of him by at least one of the tribes that he himself had identified. Like so many other apologists in Israel, he apparently believes that political bravery must be rationed…and to have done otherwise would have been politically inopportune.


To make a long and exasperating story very short, the Israeli Conservative movement had long been involved in a project to prepare disabled youngsters to hold a joint Bar Mitzvah ceremony. This year the Ceremony was supposed to have been held in Rehovot. However, the city had just elected a Haredi mayor who objected to Conservative rabbis taking part in the ceremony. An idea was then broached that the ceremony be held at the President’s Residence and that it be officiated by both a Conservative and an Orthodox rabbi.


In the end, however, Rivlin apparently caved into political pressure from one or more of the Orthodox religious tribes and refused to allow a Conservative rabbi to take part if the ceremony was held at his residence. His spokesperson then had the gall to charge the Conservatives with “obstinacy” for having wanted to officiate within the context of a programme that they had initiated and run for 20 years.


I have spent a considerable amount of time on the issue of modern Israeli tribalism because I believe that Rivlin’s concern is real and the subject is a very important one.


I have long been convinced that one of the primary reasons why the Jews have survived for so long is that, in 721 BCE, Sennacherib conquered the 10 tribes that had formed the Kingdom of Israel. He then dispersed the area’s population throughout the Assyrian empire. At that moment, Hebrew tribalism, which had existed since Jacob’s sons had begun their sojourn in Egypt, was destroyed.


Many Jews have treated the expulsion of the 10 tribes as a great national tragedy.


My take on this event, though, is very different. After the fall of the Israeli capital of Samaria, there were only two tribes left—Judah and tiny Benjamin. For convenience sake, the two tribes came to view themselves as a single family. As a result, eventually, these remaining Hebrews became known as the Judeans, or, later, Jews.


This has great significance for us today because it provides us with a compelling reminder that for thousands of years afterward, when circumstances arose that could have led to major divisions among the survivors of the Assyrian Holocaust, the perception of belonging to a single social and religious entity invariably defeated or at least mitigated otherwise destructive centrifugal tendencies that arose from time to time.


The reappearance of tribalism today, in whichever form it takes, should thus be particularly worrisome to those concerned with Israel’s survival.


And here I am not just talking about things like the Haredim’s refusal to serve in the army. To my mind, of far greater import has been the tribalists’ profligate waste of human and financial national capital in pursuit of their narrow and often selfish interests.


We saw yet another example of this phenomenon during the most recent coalition negotiations. Almost immediately after the latest government was formed, the Education Ministry announced that class sizes in the public school system would be raised from 32 pupils in some schools to the almost unteachable number of 40 students in all schools. The reason? A shortage of funds caused in no small part by coalition partners’ demands for multi-billion shekel payments to their sectoral institutions.


That was the same reason why, during Netanyahu’s term as finance minister (under Sharon) and later as prime minister, the number of hospital beds per capita had dropped by 12 percent, the cleaning staffs in many hospitals were inadequate to deal with the workloads that they had been given, and some hospitals were averaging 100 percent occupancy even during the non-flu months.


One of the side-effects of burgeoning tribalism has been a breakdown in what had once been compelling national norms. This judgment may seem to some to be extreme. However, recently, the news pages have also been full of a whole series of highly-relevant, but seemingly-discrete news items that, individually and collectively, support this proposition.


One series of news items dealt with the both the comptroller’s report and the suit by Netanyahu’s house manager, which focused on many huge personal expenses for things such as thousands of shekels worth of artisanal ice cream that the Netanyahus had charged to the public treasury. These claims for reimbursement were apparently the product of an updated belief by the Netanyahus that l’état c’est nous.


Another seemingly-endless slew of news reports has focused on how corruption has become a contagion that has spread like an epidemic through municipalities, the national civil service and the police force…and had even reached the prime minister’s office during Ehud Olmert’s term in office.


Yet another series of reports has focused on demands by some, including the current justice minister, to circumvent Supreme Court rulings and make even the country’s constitution subservient to short-term political interests.


Finally, the latest series of news items has focused on the declaration by the current culture minister that she is quite willing to withhold public monies from any artist whose political views and interests do not accord with her own.


As I stated at the very beginning, I believe that there is an intellectual cord that ties all these seemingly disparate events together. It is the very same one that I dealt with in a different context a month ago.


Western political thought has come to differentiate between modernism and tribalism by focusing primarily on how the society in question deals with three issues—whether that society believes in and actively supports, equality, freedom for the individual and the rule of law.


History has shown beyond any shadow of a doubt that, as tribalism grows and becomes ever more entrenched within any political entity that once considered itself to be liberal and democratic, the very nature of social intercourse in that entity undergoes major changes and those three subjects of discussion are the first to be affected.


I am not conspiracy theorizing here. Tribes are invariably made up of people who are true believers in certain dogmas. Their belief in those dogmas, especially when those beliefs are is not subject to criticism or other forms of restraint, is what binds each set of tribespeople together. A crucial moment occurs in any society if and when the tribalists choose to emerge from their self-regulated cocoon and enter the public arena. If such an event does take place, the tribalists, from that point onward, then invariably base their all behaviours and actions on two factors—their own priorities (regardless of what the majority may need and want), and assessments they make of what they can practically accomplish.
The assault by fervent neo-nationalists on the existing judicial system in Israel is one excellent example of this dynamic. It began with a full-frontal, dogmatic, verbal attack on the Supreme Court, and then segued into an attempt to introduce legislation that would make the judicial system subject to political whim.


In this way, these reactionaries have essentially launched a full-scale campaign to replace existing national values that were fostered by Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin with political dogmas. As part of that operation, they have now also been trying to insert what they believe are like minds into positions where they can influence how the country relates in practical terms to such subjects as equality, personal freedom and the rule of law. For example, the national religious tribe has now placed one of its members in charge of the justice ministry, while a national religious faction running on a platform to increase the weight given to so-called “Hebrew Law” or Halacha is now vying for election to the governing body of the Bar Association.


As I noted last month, in non-tribal societies, negotiations and deal-making are usually directed at transforming and unifying those societies by finding common ground and creating mutually-acceptable compromises. These discoveries then become norms that can then be and usually are accepted as binding by the vast majority of the population. In the final stage, they become a form of behavioural glue that binds such societies together.


In countries where tribalism predominates, all the deals between the different groups are transactional. In such cases, the intent of each of the parties is not to expand the common weal, but to gain a relative advantage over the other groups.


This latter form of bargaining is precisely the type of deal-making that we witnessed during the most recent coalition negotiations. Few if any of the clauses in the coalition agreement dealt with matters that could unify the body politic. Almost all the deals that were struck dealt with special and often socially-divisive favours that the government would henceforth be obligated to bestow on the sectoral tribes that make up the coalition.


I have spent a lot of time discussing the issue of growing Israeli tribalism because I believe that it presents a greater clear and present danger to Israel than do the Arab armies that surround the country.


As I have mentioned often in the past, tribalism is not a new feature of Zionist politics. The early, socialist, Ashkenazi Zionist leaders were ardent supporters of political tribalism. For example, if you didn’t have a Histadrut red membership booklet, you had difficulty in getting a job that was tied in any way to government spending.


One of the great benefits to the Israeli body politic that arose from the Likud’s defeat of Labour in 1977 was that the tribal stranglehold that Labour had had on Israeli society was finally lifted.


Unfortunately, that same sort of political tribalism is now returning—albeit in a different form.


In the past, Israel’s leading political tribes, such as the Socialists, the Revisionists and the Liberals, were differentiated in the public’s mind by what appeared to be their dissimilar ideologies. The fact is, though, that for all their very real differences, the tribes’ beliefs also had many things in common. Most were based on a belief that secularism should form the basis for modern political activity. And most were the direct product of considerations and thought processes that had emerged during the European Enlightenment.


However, the Israeli public’s fixation with secular Zionist ideologies that were based on Enlightenment teachings waned in the 1970s and early 1980s. When these battles over ideology dissipated, discussions over the values that had underpinned those ideologies also became less frequent.


As time passed, the old belief systems were initially replaced by an American import—a focus on individualism.


However, this new emphasis on individualism could not fill the vacuum that had been left by the sudden disappearance of the value-based beliefs upon which all those old secular ideologies had been based.


If one accepts Rivlin’s thesis that Israel is now made up of four tribes, Arabs, and Haredim, National Religious and secular Jews, then Israelis are no longer both united and divided by intellectually-formed ideals, but by emotionally-based ethnic and religious attachments.


As an aside, I find it particularly fascinating that, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Polish and Russian-born socialist hegemons, in their attempt to preserve their heavy-handed control of Israeli society, tried to instill in the minds of the other Ashkenazis in Israel the fear that Israel might become “Arabized” by the Mizrahi Jews who had been flooding into the country. By “Arabized,” they meant that Israel would soon lose its attachment to European Enlightenment secular ideals, and especially those ideals that focused on fostering modernity, secularism and economic advancement.


I think that there is a delicious twist of history in the fact that that three of the tribes identified by Rivlin have, in fact, been formed by Ashkenazim, not Mizrahim—and that two of the three, the Haredim and the national religious camp, are deeply opposed to the secular, Enlightenment-based ideologies that the majority of Israel’s founders held so dear?


Having said all that, what broad conclusions can one then draw?


If we now combine all the factors and observations I have just mentioned, the end-product is a striking portrait of a nation that is trying to cope with being positioned both geographically and politically between the West and the Arab Moslem world. While in its public posturing it projects itself as a member of the West, increasing evidence points to a very different process that is underway. As I think I have just shown quite clearly, in very many ways, Israel is in the process of becoming a mirror image of the nations that most closely surround it.


In support of that thesis allow me to briefly combine in a few short sentences some of the main points that I have just been making.


Like its neighbours, Israel now has a leader who is becoming increasingly authoritarian. And he, like his neighbouring counterparts, is putting strenuous efforts into controlling the media and into turning the local legislature into a rubber stamp.


At least two Israeli ministers today have come out in favour of restricting freedom of artistic endeavor and thus freedom of speech.


At the same time, the leading religious figures in Israel have been increasingly behaving like tribal chieftains.


Not only that, like the sheikhs in Arab states, the most extreme rabbis have rejected modernism in favour of obscurantism.


Many other leading Jewish religious figures have declared that land, once captured by Jewish-led armies, can never be ceded to others…because it had once been promised to the Jews by God. In this way they very much parallel the imams who declare than any land that had once been captured by Moslem armies automatically became the property in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust.


And, of course, corruption and cronyism in the highest reaches of Israeli society has become endemic, if not yet as bad as it is in Arab states.


I am not saying that one can now equate Israel with its neighbouring Arab states.


However, clearly, there is a process that is currently underway that is moving in that direction; and it has to be recognized and confronted if Israel is to survive as a modern nation.


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