Many of you have written or called me recently expressing varying degrees of concern, some bordering on shock and horror, about our recent elections. Some of you are regular visitors to Israel, others are filtering your awareness of Israel through the prism of the American media, particularly The New York Times.
In any event, there has been a lack of context, and, perhaps inevitably, a tendency to regard the elections here as a function of the sensibilities of what you believe Israel should reflect and represent.
Let me get to the point at the outset: Israel is in no great moral existential danger. We have not become a nation other than what you believe or aspire us to be. Democracy is alive and well here, perhaps too alive. And, the religious representation of half the coalition notwithstanding, we are not headed down a sectarian, exclusionist path.
So, now let’s zoom out for some of that elusive context. Like many in America, Israelis have become increasingly concerned about crime and internal violence. It is not the same random violence that has been rising in America; it is the violence of deliberate one-off or serial terrorist attacks.
In addition, there has been lingering anxiety about the status of the mixed Jewish-Arab cities growing out of the traumatic riots of May 2021. Simply stated, the worry is that these are ticking time bombs, waiting to erupt again.
The bottom-line concern here is a desire for order, for the expression of Israeli control and sovereignty, and for the application of one set of laws that apply to all, Jew and Arab alike.
Basically, the election was the representation of what we used to say in New York: a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.
Israelis feel that they are being mugged, whether it’s by actual terrorist attacks, or illegal land seizures, or extortion rackets in the North and South. So, many Israelis voted for whom they thought could serve as a new sheriff in town.
Now let’s look at the sheriffs. Having doubled their votes from just a year ago, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Religious Zionist Party have become the focus of concern, largely based on an ossified portrait of who they are and what they represent.
Ironically, the two are considered dangerous for reasons that one would think that Americans would applaud: they are concerned about issues. They are not just looking to fill ministerial seats; they are looking to make policy changes in order to address glaring issues in need of redress.
In Ben-Gvir’s case, public safety looms large. As he has stated on numerous occasions, he is not looking to deport Arabs, he is looking to have Arabs abide by the same set of laws that apply to Jews. This should not be a controversial position, and indeed it is what motivated a great many Israelis to support him.
Smotrich is a smart and principled legislator who proved to be adept as a transportation minister. He has demonstrated his adherence to principles, such as refusing to acquiesce to bringing the Ra’am party into a prospective Netanyahu government, in distinction to the Bennett/Lapid government, which was dependent on Ra’am for its viability.
Like the US, cabinet members here are often political appointees who offer little in the way of expertise for the positions they are filling. Avigdor Liberman as foreign minister is a great example of this.
SO THERE is a lot of jockeying for positions now, and a torrent of demands for changes that are presented as preconditions for joining a new coalition. There is a simple logic to these demands: Smotrich, Ben-Gvir as well as the other religious partners from Shas and United Torah Judaism know that left to his own devices, Netanyahu will not agree nor acquiesce to many of their policies, so they need to use their leverage now at this pivotal time.
The prospect of having the Knesset pass an “override” law – whereby certain decisions of the Supreme Court could be reversed by a majority vote in the Knesset – is one such issue that the new coalition parties are united in favor of.
On its face, it looks like a bald-faced attempt to eviscerate the Supreme Court, and there has been a hue and cry about this from those who see the court at great risk. Again, context is missing.
The Supreme Court has morphed into the most powerful and intrusive judicial body in the West, since the Aharon Barak judicial “revolution” that started in 1995. It has effectively become an uber-legislature, regularly tossing out enacted laws that it believes are unreasonable.
The epitome of this far and wide reach is reflected in the decision last year concerning the Nation-State Law, which was enacted as a Basic Law. Basic Laws are foundational here, and are regarded as the closest thing Israel has to a written constitution.
The Supreme Court did not opine on the law, but said it had the latitude to do so. That would be the equivalent of the US Supreme Court saying that they had the right to declare clauses or articles of the US Constitution to be unconstitutional.
There are a great many here who see the need for reining in the unlimited discretion of the court. Attempts to change the judicial selection process have been unsuccessful, leaving the override idea as a logical, though draconian, alternative.
There has been no hue and cry in the US about Israeli Supreme Court overreach because it is a left-wing dominated body, which appeals to the sensibilities of most American Jews. But if it were more like what the US Supreme Court has become, I suspect there would be no concern about addressing judicial overreach.
THIS LEADS me to my last point. Are your concerns principled or are they political? In other words, are you upset because duly elected officials will seek to implement policies that you disagree with? Or are you seeing these policies as a true threat to Israel as a humane Jewish state that is intimately concerned with providing rights to all its citizens, regardless of religion?
In this regard, I think it’s important to step back and be willing to assess the players for who they are and what they say now, not who they were and what they said 30 years ago.
Like our own children, like ourselves, public figures evolve, mature and grow from what they were in their youth. Liberal Americans have had no difficulty reassessing the likes of Bill Ayres from the Weather Underground, a bona fide terrorist group, or Angela Davis, an apologist for revolution.
Yet, you are willing and eager to freeze-frame Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as ineffable products of their youth. That is simply unfair, wrong and not astute. These are men who care deeply about this country, and handed the levers of control, they will not seek to dismantle that which they cherish.
There are many things that I oppose about what the new government leaders advocate. But at the end of the day, I believe that they will seek to act on behalf of the nation.
As Ariel Sharon famously said when he became prime minister: “What you see from here, you don’t see from there.”
Friends, thank you for your concern. But I hope you can relent in your fears. Israel will manage, we will find our way, and you all might be surprised by how truly to your liking that way turns out to be.
The author is the chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu, and a director of B’yadenu and the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]