In the course of the 2015-19 20th Knesset, many members of the coalition complained about the loss of governability. What they were referring to was their belief that the various gate-keepers – especially legal advisers and judges – whom they considered to be left-wing liberals, were obstructing the government’s ability to implement its policies.
Their opponents responded by saying that the job of the gate-keepers is to ensure that the government does not diverge from the principles of liberal democracy, and that the problem was the government’s intention to move Israel to a system of illiberal democracy, rather than an authentic problem of governability.
In my opinion, Israel does have a problem of governability, but that has nothing to do with gate-keepers, but rather with the fact that sections of three major population groups in Israel simply do not accept the full authority of the elected government and of Israel’s non-religious legal system, and are inclined to act autonomously.
The three groups are the ultra-Orthodox population, though to different extents; part of the Arab population, especially the Bedouin in unrecognized villages in the Negev; and certain groups among Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria.
Israel’s 34th Government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, did very little to confront any of these problems – in the case of the ultra-Orthodox it was for political reasons, in the case of the Arabs for nationalist reasons, and in the case of the settlers for ideological reasons. It is yet to be seen if any progress will be made by Israel’s 36th Government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The origins of the problem with the ultra-Orthodox goes back to the 1947 Religious Status Quo agreement between David Ben-Gurion and Agudat Yisrael, the goal of which was to ensure that the latter would not obstruct the establishment of the Zionist state. In 1947, the ultra-Orthodox numbered several thousand at most, they now constitute around 10% of the population. They have their own education system, in which most boys receive very little, if any, lessons in subjects considered part of the core curriculum, which includes mathematics, English, sciences and computers. They refuse to serve in the IDF on principle, even though military service is mandatory in Israel, and they consider continued full-time religious studies for men to be the superior activity, which justifies their avoidance of gainful employment. They consider the laws passed by the Knesset or laid down by non-religious courts to be inferior to the Biblical Law as interpreted by religious leaders and avoid appearing before the non-religious courts whenever possible.
Certain sections of the ultra-Orthodox community are actually willing to resort to violence in order to ensure that their autonomy is not infringed and are not wary of clashes with authorities.
No serious efforts have ever been made by the state to confront this problematic conduct, including during the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when some of the religious leaders chose to ignore the regulations issued by the government, even though all the ultra-Orthodox parties were members of it, and in which MK Yaakov Litzman, from United Torah Judaism, served as Minister of Health.
It will be interesting to see whether the conclusions of the government committee investigating the disaster at Mount Meron during the Lag Ba’omer festivities last year, in which 45 ultra-Orthodox men and boys were killed, after the ultra-Orthodox organizers are said to have refused to accept any safety restrictions recommended by the police and other civilian authorities, will bring some change with regard to religious events.
The disobedience within the Israeli Arab sector, which has turned into a major problem in the last year (even before the change of government), involving violent civilian protests and widespread criminal activities, is a different sort of problem. Its background involves legitimate grievances against systematic discrimination and injustices by the Israeli authorities over the years, activities by Arab crime families, the massive accumulation of illegal weapons and the spreading of random violent crimes within both Arab and Jewish population areas. As well, Palestinian national sentiments are undoubtedly involved to a minor extent.
A growing number of murders and accidental killings of Israeli Arabs by Arabs, which resulted in 126 such deaths in 2021; violence inside Israel, especially in mixed cities such as Lod, Ramle, Jaffa, Haifa and Acre; Operation Guardian of the Walls, involving both Arabs and Jews in May 2021; growing crimes rates and the harassment of Jews involving Bedouin in southern Israel throughout 2021; violent demonstrations by Bedouin in the Negev, against the background of the planting of trees by the JNF on lands to which the Bedouin claim ownership in January, 2022, were among the many violent events involving Israeli Arabs that have occurred in the past year.
No doubt violent lawlessness is a major problem, which must be addressed, by means of much more extensive activity by security forces; increased investment by the government, and increasing the construction of infrastructures and the provision of services to the Arab community. As well, there should be more serious efforts to solve the festering problem of unrecognized Bedouin settlements in the Negev.
The current government seems to be in a much better position to solve some of the problems involved than its predecessors, especially because of the participation of Ra’am in the current coalition. This has resulted in the quantity of funds earmarked for the Arab sector growing significantly, a better balance in using more massive forces to deal with violence and crime, and increased sensitivity to the feelings of frustration within the Arab community.
Among the obstacles the government faces are the attitude of some in the opposition that too much emphasis is being placed on trying to understand the background of the violence; their accusations that the Bedouin are threatening to take over the Negev (even though the territory claimed by the Bedouin is just over 4% of the Negev; their claim that sons of Palestinian women from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, married to Israeli Bedouin, who were not raised as Israelis, constitute a majority of the rioters; and their claim (a total lie) that tens of billions of shekels allotted to the Arab sector in the budget are controlled by the leader of Ra’am personally. The fact that Ra’am and the Joint List are contending with each other, rather than collaborating, is an additional obstacle to success.
As to Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria – in the case of the inhabitants of the unrecognized outposts, who do not accept the Government’s authority to tell them where they can settle and where they cannot, and small groups who commit random acts of violence against innocent Palestinians, and their property, for which they almost never get punished – they certainly should not be referred to as sub-human (as did MK Yair Golan from Meretz several weeks ago). They are simply lawbreakers, and they harm the settlement project as a whole, while disrupting the activity of IDF forces in Judea and Samaria, whom they attack physically whenever the latter try, occasionally, to stop them. The wariness of successive Israeli governments since the late 1990s to deal with them effectively, is certainly a shameful case of Governments conceding governability.
The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to be published in English by Routledge.