Israeli democracy needs upgrading

Prime Minister Netanyahu's primary concern seems to be to avoid controversy among the parties represented in his cabinet and thereby assure the longevity of his coalition government.

Mofaz and Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mofaz and Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When the editors of Time crowned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “King Bibi” two months ago after he expanded his parliamentary coalition to include 94 of the Knesset’s 120 members, it evidently did not occur to them that his reign would last only two months.
The end came when Netanyahu’s new coalition partner, Shaul Mofaz, chairman of the centrist Kadima Party, pulled out because the “king” refused to close a satisfactory deal with him that would require Israel’s haredim as well as the country’s Arab citizenry to be drafted for military or public service at age 18.
Mofaz immediately won overwhelming support from his party’s Knesset members – 24 out of 28 voted in favor – and the coalition government thereby reverted to its previous (and more conventional) size: 66 MKs.
This development also scuttled the brief opportunity Kadima had to challenge and possibly change Netanyahu’s policies and tactics not as his opponent, but as his partner.
Thus ended a short-lived effort to include the country’s 60,000 haredi yeshiva students and the estimated 80,000 draft-age Arab citizens in the national norm.
In other words, Kadima refused to transform itself into a political ally of the Likud, from which the majority of its members originally defected five years ago.
This is far from being a political situation fit for a “king” Actually, by creating an arithmetically invincible government, Netanyahu undermined Israel’s parliamentary democracy.
Debates that normally would be conducted by Knesset members seated on opposite sides of the aisle had to be internalized and conducted within the respective factions of the Likud and Kadima instead of in public.
According to political insiders, the friction between the Likud leadership and its short-lived partner, Kadima, had become so volatile that it could have compelled Netanyahu to advance the next national election from September 2013 to January 2013. That certainly would not benefit him, if only because it not only would have shortened the current estimate of his government’s longevity, but also risked stiff competition from his diverse opponents, be they inside Likud’s ranks or outside them.
It is hard to understand why Netanyahu was willing to admit Kadima into his political fold just to facilitate formulation of a viable replacement for the “Tal Law” and thereby achieve a more equitable system of conscription for military or public service.
This riddle is compounded by the apparent fact that he did not intend to use Kadima as an ally with which he could free himself from the pressures brought to bear by the ultra- Orthodox parties upon which he was dependent. Completely ignored, it seems, was the possibility that a Likud-Kadima partnership could attain historic dimensions by ending the insufferable and excessive involvement of various haredi rabbis and their respective courts or retinues in the conduct of Israel’s government and the shaping of foreign and domestic policy.
A new coalition without their participation could have benefitted Israel by bringing about a truly democratic government free of exclusive and restrictive pressure from domestic religious entities. In short, this would constitute true separation of church and state modeled on the United States. If the Israeli majority really prefers democracy and abhors religious coercion, it should protest the fact that clerics like Shas’s revered mentor and spiritual leader can play an disproportionate role in the governmental process simply by activating his most obedient Shas party politician, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, or by telling the 11-member Shas faction in the Knesset how it should vote.
The very idea that an elderly rabbi steeped in religious observances and committed to the requirements of ultra-Orthodox religious tradition can control a political party committed to him personally on the basis of religious zeal and loyalty is preposterous.
There is no discussion and certainly no debate within the inner circle of Shas.
What Rabbi Ovadia Yosef says goes.
Yishai consults with him regularly and always emerges with unalterable instructions as to how he and his Knesset colleagues should vote.
One might wonder if Yishai conferred with Rabbi Yosef about the idea of expelling up to 60,000 African “infiltrators” or “asylum-seekers,” and might speculate as to whether the rabbi spelled out his party’s position unequivocally and without any exceptions or conditions (such as assurances that the prospective expellees would be able to reenter their native lands or find alternative countries willing to accept them.
What’s the difference – as long as they go and take their children with them? It doesn’t matter that some of the children were born in this country, have been attending Israeli schools and are fluent in Hebrew (which is virtually their native tongue). This hard-line and virtually inhuman approach does not seem to befit a Jewish spiritual leader of whatever faction or persuasion (including Shas), but that’s the way it is.
After 64 years of independence, during which the influence of the various ultra-Orthodox parties has increased despite the many oddities of their involvement (such as the fact that Agudat Yisrael’s (Rabbi) Ya’acov Litzman serves as deputy minister of health because he and his non-Zionist political party prefer to forgo full-scale ministerial rank in the Zionist government), the time has come to reevaluate this peculiar state of affairs. (Officially, Israel does not have a full-fledged health minister!) There is no justification for government subsidization of the various religious faiths be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is incomprehensible that two chief rabbis (one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardi) as well as senior Christian and Muslim clergy are eligible for regular salaries, the funding for which is provided by the country’s secular majority.
If only to assure itself of a secure and viable future, the government should stop subsidizing yeshivot whose students do not serve in the IDF. They oppose such service on ideological grounds. Despite of this, the government not only funds the respective faculties’ and rabbinical supervisors’ salaries, but also pays for the maintenance of the requisite buildings and other facilities.
As Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pointed out earlier this month, Israel has a unique opportunity to resolve these issues. Failure to do so will allow them to fester for decades to come, he said. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that Liberman’s warning will be taken seriously by a prime minister whose primary concern seems to be to avoid controversy among the parties represented in his cabinet and thereby assure the longevity of his coalition government.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.