Israel is the status quo nation and it isn't sustainable - opinion

What the status quo really does is entrench and fortify the position of the side that benefits from it.

 AN ISRAELI flag with a Magen David on top of it appears in the foreground of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI flag with a Magen David on top of it appears in the foreground of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Sometimes it seems that Israel is all about the status quo.

Earlier this week, for example, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told reporters that Israel was committed to the status quo on the Temple Mount and that the police were under strict orders to preserve that status quo.

“And the status quo means Muslims can pray on the Temple Mount and other religions cannot,” he added.

When it comes to the Palestinian conflict, that is the same approach as articulated recently by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett: “This government set a diplomatic status quo and it is okay that left-wing people like Lapid and [Benny] Gantz support the establishment of a Palestinian state, but my camp opposes it,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a January interview.

The same applies to matters of religion and state in Israel. The “status quo” – as it is also called in transliterated Hebrew – has been in place for decades, dictating a policy that only encourages stagnation and keeps nothing from advancing.

 Man praying alone at the Kotel.  (credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION) Man praying alone at the Kotel. (credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

This was evident in the way the Bennett government walked back support for the Kotel compromise, a deal he previously supported that would have seen the establishment of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the site. “We knew in advance that we cannot advance everything,” he said not long ago. “We will only act with consensus... This government is meant to save the country and bring it back to functioning. It cannot fulfill everyone’s wishes.”

On the three hottest issues – which strike at the core of the state’s Jewish and democratic character – we are stuck in a cycle of status quos. The term itself has been turned by politicians into something that is almost an ambition, as if a policy that does not solve anything or advance issues is something to strive for.

While proponents of the status quo claim that doing so supports compromise and cooperation, what it really does is entrench and fortify the position of the side that benefits from the so-called status quo.

Take the Temple Mount. Israelis were supposed to have control over the holy site – ever since General Motta Gur yelled: “The Temple Mount is in our hands” into the IDF radio during the Six Day War – but that never really happened.

Terrorists shot and killed two policemen on the Temple Mount in 2017 and the government, then led by Benjamin Netanyahu, erected metal detectors at the entrance to the Mount to create a situation similar to when people enter the Kotel compound. But then the Arabs said no, Jordan protested, and Israel reverted back to the good old status quo.

That this situation harms the rights of Jews and Christians who might also want to pray on the Mount makes no difference. It has sadly become normal in the Jewish state that Jews cannot pray in what is the holiest site to the Jewish people. Why? Because of the status quo.

AND THEN there is the conflict with the Palestinians. Here too, Israel prefers treading water as its primary policy. This started under Netanyahu and has been enshrined even more so by Bennett, who, like his predecessor, prefers not to make any real moves or take any real decisions that would lead to advancing toward a real resolution to this decades-old conflict.

And even while there might not be a partner right now to negotiate a peaceful settlement, we cannot honestly believe that the status quo is sustainable, and that the Palestinian people will simply continue to accept living under Israeli military control for decades to come. Is this right for Israel and the Palestinians? Is this what will really benefit future Israeli generations?

There are many sources for the terrorism that has again struck Israel’s streets of late. There is pure hatred for Israel, incitement in the Palestinian Authority, lack of economic opportunity and stagnation on the diplomatic horizon. Can we really believe that zero diplomatic progress has nothing to do with it? Not even a little?

And then there is the religion-and-state status quo that might be the biggest travesty in Israel today. No haredim are in the government, and there is no one who is really stopping this government from implementing genuine reforms that would free Jewish religion from politics once and for all.

But even this government is not courageous enough to do what the country truly needs: a separation of religion and state that would create a marketplace of Judaism, and lead to even more religious engagement. People would be able to find the format and style that fits them instead of being dictated to by the state on how to practice religion.

What do we have instead? A status quo. And while you might be thinking that the government passed a kashrut reform and is working on a conversion reform, these are not real revolutions. All they do is chip away at some of the chief rabbinate’s authority. They do not change reality, and do not allow non-Orthodox rabbis to influence Jewish life in Israel.

It is just more of the status quo.

ALL OF THE above is the reason many people on the right have expressed support for the Bennett-Lapid government, even after it encountered its new political threat with the resignation of Idit Silman from the coalition. These supporters like the idea that there is a government leading Israel that cannot really do anything about the core issues that define our national character. Why? Because when you are in a status quo, there is always one side that benefits more than the other, and that side succeeds in entrenching the arrangement.

This is all worth thinking about ahead of Independence Day next week, when Israel marks 74 years of statehood: does it want to keep living according to status quos, or does it want to finally break free and determine policy, as the Zionist dream professed so many years ago?

Does this mean ignoring geopolitics? Of course not. Israel needs to take into consideration the impact its actions will have, first and foremost, on its citizens, but also on its neighbors, be they the Palestinians, the Jordanians or the Egyptians.

What it means is deciding what we want as a country and not waiting for someone else to tell us what to do, as has been the case with the Palestinians. There were the Clinton parameters, the Bush road map, the Obama plan and Trump’s Peace for Prosperity. Has anyone ever heard of a Bennett plan, a Netanyahu plan or an Olmert plan? Why does it seem that Israel always needs to wait for someone else to tell it what to do on the issue that might be the most strategic for its future sustainability?

The situation is not that much different with religion and state. Regular Israelis rarely care about these issues, and only perk up when the relationship with Diaspora Jewry reaches a tipping point. Otherwise, most people prefer to ignore that approximately 400,000 Israeli citizens cannot get married inside Israel because they are not halachically Jewish, and that Jews from around the world do not have a respectable place to pray here.

Is this sustainable? I don’t think so. This so-called status quo is not only denying citizens the basic right to marry or pray in their country, but is also undermining Israel’s democratic character. Is this really the right policy to enshrine out of some fear of political retribution from haredi MKs?

Lack of progress on many of these issues might have been understandable during Israel’s early years when people did not know if they were going to even make it through the week, when Israel was surrounded by enemies and was outmanned and outgunned.

But that excuse does not hold up anymore. Yes, we have enemies – some like Iran and Hezbollah, which are bent on our destruction – but we have diplomatic, military and economic power that was unimaginable 20 years ago, let alone in 1948.

Israel’s strength provides it with an opportunity today to make decisions that it could not make just 10 years ago. But to do that it has to take one decision before all else: that it is no longer willing to be the status quo nation.