Israel's biggest issues are settlers, haredi birthrate, liberals leaving - opinion

This scenario is too horrifying to contemplate, so most Israelis do not. Yet Israel has the classic characteristics of societies that are at risk of civil war.

 IDF SOLDIERS STAND close to the scene of an attack by a Palestinian assailant near Neve Tzuf, in the West Bank, on Tuesday.  (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
IDF SOLDIERS STAND close to the scene of an attack by a Palestinian assailant near Neve Tzuf, in the West Bank, on Tuesday.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

One useful thing about the current government is that it voluntarily ripped off the mask that for years enabled level-headed and moderate Israelis to support the Right without much hesitation. Now that there is clarity about where the Right is headed, it may be possible to engage Israelis, many of whom have been living in denial, in a discussion about the real options facing them.

Though the current protest movement – and its ability to draw in some right-wingers – is about saving liberal democracy from its attackers, there is a bigger backstory. The effort to weaken the court system and eliminate judicial oversight has two key motivations that have little to do with the machinations around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial and the Right’s subsequent attack on the judiciary.

First, there is the Right’s historic project of welding Israel to the West Bank through ever-larger Jewish settlement. Liberal Israel hates this both for the moral turpitude of oppressing millions of Palestinians, and because of the demographic outcome of diluting Israel’s Jewish majority (a Zionist consideration that in a rational world might also trouble the nationalist Right).

The Right, or at least the unapologetic far-Right, wants to annex the land without offering citizenship to the people and needs the courts out of the way to enable such a benighted arrangement. I make no excuse for the Palestinian maximalism and shortsightedness that caused their leadership to squander opportunities for peace – but down this way lies madness.

Second, there is the issue of the haredim, who now comprise almost a fifth of the country. They are expanding all the time, with an average of seven children per family; refusing to teach youngsters math, science, and English; expecting the secular state to pay the masses of yeshiva students stipends; and refusing to serve in the military. The court potentially stands in the way of the haredi special dispensations on grounds of equality, and the Right does not have, and never has had, a majority without the haredi parties – and so the court must go.

 HAREDIM SCUFFLE with police at the Kotel, in protest of Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh prayer service, March 4. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
HAREDIM SCUFFLE with police at the Kotel, in protest of Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh prayer service, March 4. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Thus, the past years’ false propaganda about the outrageously liberal court that supposedly appoints its own members and must be democratized.

All this far transcends the realm of politics familiar from the democracies that arose in the past century or so. Because of the spectacular (and reckless) haredi birthrate, and the community’s determination to continue as it is, there is a clear danger to Israel’s viability as a modern society and viable economy. We are looking at a highly combustible culture war, and on the secular side, after decades of denial, because of the government’s antics there is a psychology of complete and total emergency.

Considering that the liberal and secular Israelis have woken up at last, and at least some people on the soft Right are considering their options, it may be useful to outline the scenarios before the country.

Demographic victory for the Right

This is the scenario many people expect: that because of the haredi birthrate, the forces of religious authoritarianism will prevail, and liberal Israel will succumb in resignation, allowing the country to become a religion-dominated autocracy and bastion of Jewish supremacy shunned by the West. In the classic scenario, the broadly-defined liberals accept their status as a minority, and fight for the occasional pub license in Tel Aviv.

I think this scenario has almost no chance of happening. That is not because of any confidence in a liberal victory but because of the extremely high plausibility of the next scenario.

Mass emigration of the liberals

These liberals, who are at least half and perhaps somewhat more than half of the 10 million population, will not agree to live in a country that is undemocratic (because of a permanent oppression of the Palestinians), and increasingly resembles Iran (because of the haredim and allied nationalist-religious extremists).

If none of their efforts succeed, they will abandon the country, exploiting their employability abroad and plausibility as digital nomads. Already about a fifth of Israelis have foreign passports, and the number is rising all the time as people prepare, quietly, for this contingency. My guess is that the rump, religious, impoverished Israel that remains, which would retain little of the excellence of Israel today, will eventually be overrun by the Palestinians.

A split in the right that changes the game

But there are also scenarios that enable classic Zionism to be saved. The most desirable one, from the perspective of those yearning to preserve Israel as it is, is for a significant proportion of the one-quarter of Israelis who support Likud to seek to break their alliance with the haredim and the far-Right.

There are some modest signs of this happening as a result of the current government’s policies. If that continues, it could enable a strong non-Right government to take action to save the country: ending settlement of the West Bank and carefully seeking partition, and upending the arrangement with the haredim that incentivizes the current dynamic.

This would mean a gradual end to the child subsidies, yeshiva salaries, funding to schools that do not teach a core curriculum, make-work “jobs” in the religious bureaucracy, and myriad special dispensations.

Partition into a Western liberal state and  a religious-authoritarian state 

The coastal strip from the Tel Aviv area to the Haifa area contains half the population and would be an overwhelmingly liberal, secular, Western-oriented, highly prosperous, and almost totally Jewish state. It accounts for the overwhelming majority of the GDP, and it is carrying the other parts of the country with which it is in increasingly bitter conflict.

This could happen in a moderate option, involving federalization or cantonization – but I can also imagine genuine partition. Were it not for the difficulty of defending such a smaller country from attack, it is almost a no-brainer that the coast needs to break off from the rest of the country. The people in Jerusalem and the periphery would be free to be just as “conservative” as they want, and good luck with the Palestinians.

Civil war

This scenario is too horrifying to contemplate, so most Israelis do not. Yet Israel has the classic characteristics of societies that are at risk of civil war: lack of a consensus on power-sharing arrangements, deep-seated ethnic and religious divisions, and regional and sectarian tensions.

There is a constant movement of people from the right to the center, in direct proportion to the Right’s drift away from democracy and liberalism, but that is matched by the constant birthrate-driven expansion of the religious sectors, maintaining something of a political deadlock. This dynamic, should it continue, means that in the end, it will be the secular (including many “traditional” Mizrahim) versus the religious, and their visions of the world are not compatible. This is more likely than people think. And it could be the way partition happens.

Military coup

For decades, the security establishment has been far more dovish than politicians and the public. That is not a conspiracy – it’s because the military, Mossad, Shin Bet, and even the police are, to date, meritocracies, and their intelligent leaders (none haredi, most secular) know the facts on the ground. Their understanding aligns with that of their equivalents in the business, scientific, academic, and media elites.

If the Right stays in power, we can expect this to change as it begins to appoint loyalist officers, indifferent to the damage to Israel’s security. But for now, the security services are led by people who are clearly distressed at the country’s direction. If the government takes Israel to a place where it can no longer be considered a democracy, that eliminates the main argument against a military coup. It’s a low-probability scenario because the ranks of the military are of course split – but I would not consider it impossible, given the extreme nature of the danger to Israel and the sheer level of democratic dysfunction.

And by the way: Even without the Netanyahu government installing authoritarianism, a country in which a quarter of the effective population – the West Bank Palestinians – cannot vote and has no citizens’ rights is simply not a democracy.

It gives me no pleasure to paint so dark a landscape. Since the Right has a built-in advantage and has been in charge about three-quarters of the time since 1977, it would be great if its vision for the country were not catastrophic. But I have spent my professional life in unsentimental pursuits like technology and international journalism. It makes you look at the numbers and the facts.

So I urge everyone to consider the scenarios above, and choose which would they like. Or at least dislike the least.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East Editor and London-based Europe/Africa Editor of the Associated Press. He served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is the managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at