J.J. Goldberg has a smart take on Israel’s “nation-state” bill. He begins by stressing how redundant it is for Israel to keep proclaiming itself a Jewish state when the UN recognized it as such in the 1947 partition vote, which the PLO ratified in 1998. The bill’s contribution, he concludes, “is not to define what Jewish statehood includes, but what it excludes: Arabic language, Palestinian national pride, a religion-neutral legal culture”:
It’s no accident that the legislation’s sponsors and main backers are the same right-wing factions, in the Likud and Jewish Home parties, that are fighting hardest against territorial compromise and Palestinian statehood. They’re not worried about international opinion. Their problem is the built-in flaw in their own blueprint for the future. Holding onto the territories, maintaining a single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, means creating a binational state. The advocates face growing pressure — and anger — from the military, academic, arts and legal communities and other sectors, all demanding to know how Israel can absorb two million-plus West Bank Palestinians without losing the Zionist vision of a Jewish state.
Their answer is to ground the state’s Jewish character — its language, calendar, legal culture, national anthem — in a quasi-constitutional basic law that can’t be amended except by a Knesset super-majority. That’s how they intend to defend Jewish statehood: by relegating the culture and values of today’s non-Jewish minority to the sidelines and ensuring they stay there, even if and when they become a majority.
The messy political battle sparked by the bill came to a head yesterday when Netanyahu abruptly fired the bill’s main opponents, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, saying he would “no longer tolerate an opposition within the government”. The move effectively demolished his coalition, forcing new elections that could take place as soon as March. Zack Beauchamp believes the coalition’s collapse was inevitable:
The reason that Livni and Lapid, rather than Bennett and Lieberman, are being dismissed is simple enough:
Netanyahu is a right-wing prime minister leading the right-wing Likud party in a dominantly right-wing coalition. Together, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Jewish Home control almost twice as many seats as Yesh Atid and Hatnua. This put Lapid and Livni’s parties in a bizarre situation. On the one hand, Netanyahu needed to please them, because his government couldn’t achieve a governing majority without their support. On the other hand, the right-wing parties had them so outnumbered that they had huge trouble getting their way on issues like West Bank settlements, taxes, or minority rights. Lapid and Livni ended up, in practice, being centrist fig leaves for a hardline right-wing government.
Viewed in that light, it wasn’t a question of whether this inherently unstable government would collapse: it was a question of when. It turns out the answer was 18 months after forming.
Looking at the latest poll numbers, J.J. observes that Netanyahu could well emerge from these elections with a stronger hand – as is his intention, of course:
The latest opinion poll, published Sunday by Haaretz, showed that if elections were held today for a new Knesset, Likud would rise from 18 seats to 24 in the 120-member body, while Yesh Atid would drop from 19 seats to 11. The party to the right of Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, would rise from 12 to 16. Labor would drop from 15 to 13, Livni’s Hatnuah from 6 to 4 and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu from 13 to 11 and Shas from 11 to 6. …
In all, according to the pollsters, the Dialog group, parties on the right would rise from 61 seats in the current Knesset to 77 seats, while the center, left and Arab-backed parties would drop from 59 to 43. That calculation counts the two Haredi parties, Shas and Torah Judaism, as part of the right, even though they were members of the last two Labor led coalitions under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. In response to the question of who was “most fit” to be Israel’s next prime minister, 35% named Netanyahu and 17% named Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog, while Lieberman, Lapid and Bennett received 8%, 7% and 6% respectively.
Aaron David Miller sees Israel’s diminishing center-left parties as being too weak to pose much of a challenge to the prime minister:
There’s little doubt that Israelis are tired of hapless governance and failed politicians. The very fact that campaigns and elections are being scheduled at a cost of billions of shekels for reasons that are hard to divine or that appear to focus on petty politics and personal rivalries instead of big issues only reinforces the public’s cynicism. At the same time, however, there’s little doubt that Israel’s public has moved to the right (look at the last two elections) and that the current security environment and terrorism threat in Jerusalem will only highlight that anger and concern. If you had a pragmatic, security-credentialed, electable hawk, that is to say a Rabin-like figure whom Israelis trusted, you might even have a real election on some important issues. But right now you don’t.
Meanwhile, in another noteworthy analysis of the controversy over the nation-state bill, Bernard Avishai links it to Israel’s evolution from colony to state:
One should think of Israel as having two competing legal structures: a gradually evolving democratic state and the remnants of the old Zionist settler colony. Think of a nearly completed building encased in scaffolding that was never taken down—that, in effect, has become a rival structure. To incubate Hebrew, and provide refuge, Israel once needed Jewish collectives, whose land was purchased and owned by the Jewish National Fund. It needed to enforce strict regulations against selling J.N.F. property to non-Jews. It needed a Jewish Agency to qualify immigrants—a precursor of the Law of Return—and fund their assimilation into the Yishuv, while building settlements to house them. It needed a paid, official rabbinate to preside over the religious rites of marriage, burial, and divorce. And, given these material privileges, Israel needed an immanently legal definition of a Jewish person.
All of these fixes made sense for an insurgent Zionist colony in the nineteen-thirties. They are grotesque sources of discrimination within a Jewish democracy in 2014.