Middle Israel: Better days may soon arrive

A broad government can and should launch a constitutional convention, overhaul mass-transit and introduce civil marriages.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The bad news is that Avigdor Liberman, a major-league political cynic, has seized this election’s wheel. The good news is that it might actually deliver change on three pressing domestic fronts.
To throw an entire country into a tizzy due to personal calculations, as Liberman did, is outrageous. Sensing his own political evaporation, and smelling at the same time Netanyahu’s blood, the 61-year-old Liberman resolved to succeed him, apparently by rejoining the Likud and taking it over from within.
This part of the gamble will fail. Likudniks now perceive him as a traitor. They will never forget the number he did to Netanyahu, especially if it results in his departure.
However, in terms of shaping this unnatural election’s result, Liberman’s gamble has been a work of art. Ultra-Orthodox politicians’ new manipulations surrounding the conscription bill were indeed revolting, and the quest for a broad government without them is both popular and feasible.
THE LEVERAGE Liberman plans to activate next week is what this column advised Moshe Kahlon to do four years ago, when he was in a position to impose a broad government. Kahlon chose to remain loyal to his political roots, and thus lost his opportunity to emerge as a national leader.
Liberman is Kahlon’s inversion in many respects: Kahlon is skinny, Liberman is overweight; Kahlon is soft-spoken, Liberman is bombastic; Kahlon’s family came from Tunisia, Liberman’s from a Yiddish-speaking family in Moldova. In the same spirit, Kahlon’s caution made him avoid Liberman’s gambles.
Now the mother of all political gambles seems ready to pay off. According to any arithmetic, Liberman’s promised insistence to impose a broad government will be impossible to bypass, even for the political maestro it is designed to unseat.
A broad government, to be sure, is not a recipe for good political efficiency.
Left-right coalitions that lacked a clear focus fell apart. That is what happened in 1970, when Menachem Begin’s Gahal bolted Golda Meir’s government when she held talks with the US concerning a possible retreat from Sinai. Similar dynamics resulted in the collapse of the Shamir-Peres government in 1990.
However, when unity governments did have a focus, the results were remarkable, from the military victory of 1967 to the defeats of hyperinflation in 1985 and the suicide terrorism last decade.
The question, therefore, is what should such a broad government do?
Well, there are three long-overdue issues it will be able to tackle, and hopefully will.
THE FIRST of these is constitutional reform.
This will be urgent first of all because of Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal situation, which has brought us to the brink of juridical catastrophe. The prospect of special legislation that would grant immunity to a prime minister suspected of felonies would be a disgrace to the Jewish state’s moral pretensions.
Beyond this circumstantial situation looms the memory of the recent adoption of the Nation-State Law. That trauma calls for reform not because of its problematic substance – which was backed by a majority of the legislature – but because Basic Laws in Israel’s heterogeneous society had never previously been passed by a narrow majority, and should not be again in the future.
Similarly, as argued by senior scholars who do not belong to the Right, such as political scientist Shlomo Avineri and law professors Daniel Friedmann and Amnon Rubinstein, the High Court of Justice has interfered in recent decades in issues that should not be its business.
That is why Israel needs a constitutional convention, a broad forum of lawmakers, jurists, intellectuals and also rabbis that will redefine the High Court’s authority and rewrite the rules of constitutional legislation. Forming such a convention should be the next government’s first order of business.
The second should be a mass-transit master plan.
Israel’s transportation revolution, launched 27 years ago by Yitzhak Rabin’s initiation of highways, interchanges, the Trans-Israel Highway, and the expanded Ben-Gurion Airport, has come of age. Israel is now swamped with private cars that congest highways, costing a fortune in lost work hours, not to mention the frustration of thousands stuck daily in traffic jams.
As with many other things in Israel, its response to this challenge has been piecemeal. Jerusalem’s light rail, for instance, had been fully planned by 1995, but governmental approval took another three years to arrive, construction took another two years to begin, then lasted 11 years instead of the planned six, and over the subsequent eight years was followed by no additional line.
Tel Aviv’s mass transit system will also take decades to complete. Light rails for cities like Beersheba, Ashdod and Netanya will likely arrive no sooner than the Messiah. A broad government would be able to put together a national master plan for overhauling the entire country’s mass transit infrastructure, replete with milestones, deadlines, budgets and fiscal sources.
Without such a master plan and the transparency it would spawn, Israel’s mass transit will remain Third Worldly; with it, we can catch up with the advanced nations within a decade.
Lastly, a broad government can make fundamental changes in religion-state relations.
No, this should not mean public transportation on Shabbat or forced conscription of yeshiva boys. It should, however, mean civil marriages and eased conversions for partially Jewish immigrants.
Halacha never predicted massive demand for conversions, and Middle Israelis can’t stand seeing the Jewish state fail to give a marriage framework for thousands of patriots who went to our schools, speak our Hebrew, serve with us in the army, work with us and pay taxes with us.
Civil marriages, too, can be delivered only by the broad government with which we may emerge this fall.
Should any of this happen, Israel’s 22nd general election may yet produce the happy aftermath of these political days of awe.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.
The broad government this election may produce can be the happy aftermath of these days of awe