Outside observers looking at the inconclusive results from a fourth Israeli election in two years could be excused for concluding that the Jewish state has disintegrated into a deeply fragmented tribal society with little holding it together.
How else to interpret results showing 120 Knesset seats spread out unevenly among 13 different parties, the largest number of parties to enter the Knesset since 2003, and the most parties since the electoral threshold was raised from 2% to 3.25% before the 2015 election.
The results will be interpreted as a reflection of a society broken down into rival religious, ethnic and cultural groups with little cementing them together: Jews vs Arabs, secular vs ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazim vs Mizrahim, Right vs Left, the Center vs the periphery.
That narrative – that the results show a badly splintered society which seems more a federation of tribes than a unified nation – dovetails neatly with another narrative of Israel that has gained traction since the country was battered by the coronavirus pandemic: that “semiautonomous” regions have sprung up that feel neither connected to the country nor bound by its rules.
Add it all together – the fragmentation manifest in the plethora of parties, the political dysfunction manifest in a failure to get a clear result after four elections, and the semiautonomous zones seen in certain haredi and Arab communities over the past year – and the result could look rather dismal. Deep fragmentation together with political dysfunction does not a pretty picture make.
Do not be surprised, therefore, if in another month’s time, when Israel celebrates its 73rd birthday, learned essays will appear asking whether, given all of the above, Israel can survive.
BUT THAT picture is distorted.
In 2015, during his first year in office, President Reuven Rivlin gave a speech at the Herzliya Conference breaking Israel down into four tribes: the secular, religious Zionists, ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.
Moshe Hellinger, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and author of the book Whereto the State of Israel? – which is scheduled to be adapted and translated into English next year – said Rivlin forgot an important tribe: traditional Mizrahim, who make up the bulk of the Likud’s support.
But he argued that those tribes are not at each other’s throats, nor does the current political impasse represent a life-and-death struggle for Israel’s future.
Forget the tribes, Hellinger advised, and look instead at the current political impasse through the prism of two camps: the pro-Benjamin Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu camps.
Why is that distinction important? Because within each camp there is a mixture of Rivlin’s tribes.
Furthermore, the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, which the election results showed were pretty evenly split, are not only divided over whether the prime minister is innocent or guilty of what he has been charged, but also over questions having to do with the judiciary, Supreme Court and legal activism.
Those in the anti-Netanyahu camp will say that any effort to touch the legal system is nothing less than an effort to weaken the courts and an attack on democracy itself. And those in the pro-Netanyahu camp argue that the legal system itself has kidnapped Israeli democracy and is trying to prevent the majority from ruling.
The significance of dividing the country into the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, rather than into various tribes and subtribes, is that once Netanyahu exits the stage, the main issue separating those two camps will fade away as well.
And when that happens, said Hellinger, what will be revealed are some positive processes that have actually led to a reduction – not increase – in the gaps between the various tribes that make up Israel.
“In many areas, the gaps between the tribes have gotten smaller,” Hellinger said. “You can’t see this now, because of the disagreement over Netanyahu, but, for example, the majority of the Jewish public in Israel is religious and secular in varying degrees – not religious or secular.”
What this means, he explained, is that the members of a large part of the population that defines itself as religious actually conduct their lives in many ways in a secular manner, in ways such as how they spend their leisure time and what they choose to study.
This, Hellinger said, is especially true of a large percentage of those who classify themselves as religious Zionists, especially among the youth, many of whom are what is called religious-lite. Among these youth, he said, many observe Shabbat and kashrut, but are not punctilious in other areas of life, such as refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex before marriage and praying three times a day in a minyan.
By the same token, he said, a large part of the population that defines itself as secular “is not really secular according to sociological definitions used, say, in America. By American definitions, the majority of the Jewish public in Israel is traditional.”
Hellinger said there are Ashkenazim who celebrate the Passover Seder and Hanukkah; have a mezuzah on their homes; want a Jewish state; circumcise their sons; yet because of anger toward the religious establishment in Israel, they do not define themselves as traditional. But if you look at their practices and beliefs, they would not be defined as secular.
“Most of the Jewish public believes in God,” he said, “most believe in a World to Come, most observe some religious ceremonies because of an emotional attachment to them. So it is impossible to define them as secular in the regular sense of the word.”
What is emerging, he said, is an Israeli identity that has elements of religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi. And this is a phenomenon of the last 30 years that blurs the lines between the tribes.
For instance, there is today hardly an Ashkenazi wedding where a big part of the playlist is not Mizrahi music, he said.
While that may seem banal, it isn’t, because it shows that the tribal lines are fading and the walls surrounding the country’s tribes are not as high or impenetrable as those predicting that Israel is on the path to tribal warfare would argue.
Furthermore, he added, “Most of the Jewish public in Israel is not in favor of annexing Judea and Samaria without giving rights to the Palestinians, and most of the Jewish public does not really believe that a Palestinian state will be created that will make peace and enable Israel to go back to the 1967 lines.
“In other words, the gaps between the Right and Left have become much narrower in that regard,” he said. “Underneath the outer layer where two large camps see things differently when looking at Netanyahu and the legal system, regarding views toward many other areas a common Israeli identity is being created.”
Hellinger said this is also evident in the haredi and Arab sectors. Over the years the haredim have undergone a growing modernization process and integration into Israeli society, with more and more on the Internet and joining the workforce, he said, and this is also evident among Arabs, where more and more people want greater integration into Israeli society.
The emergence of Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am Party and the kingmaker role it is expected to play in the formation of the new government, is a case in point.
“They [Arabs] view themselves as Palestinian, but also want to be a part of Israel,” Hellinger said.
David Leiser, dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences at Netanya Academic College, said that the Ra’am phenomenon is positive, and approximates a dynamic that took place in the haredi community not that long ago.
“Think back to the situation that existed with the haredim 30 years ago when they did not want to vote for the Knesset and did not want to be ministers, and when they said this is not their state and they have no connection to it,” he said. “That changed.”
Today Arab society is undergoing a similar process, something he described as a welcome development and a manifestation of tribal walls crumbling, not being erected. It is Netanyahu, Hellinger said, who has given a push to this process by his outreach to Mansour Abbas and Arab voters.
“It was once clear here that if you wanted to be elected, you would have to say that you would not count on, or lean on, the Arab parties,” he said. “Netanyahu has now changed that.”
In the long term, Hellinger said, deep-seated processes are under way that – with the help of the right leaders – could lead to the creation of a much wider Israeli common denominator. He said that today it is even encouraging to see the leaders of different groups – Gideon Sa’ar, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Meirav Michaeli – express a willingness to work together and not ruling out talking or working with one another.
He said the problem is that in an era where everyone either loves or hates Netanyahu – with those who hate him unable to see his achievements, and those who love him unable to see his faults – “that overpowers and camouflages everything else, and does not let other processes come to the fore.”