Savir's Corner: In need of a new system

If we wish to rescue our basic fundamental values, and Israel as a Jewish democratic state, we have to save the existing balances and create new ones – between the government and those represented by civil society.

Knesset vote 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset vote 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While I have a deep disdain for the latest right-wing legislation efforts of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s special troops in the Knesset – MKs Yariv Levin, Ze’ev Elkin, Haim Katz, David Rotem, etc. – in relation to the composition and authority of the Supreme Court, and their McCarthy-like campaign against left-leaning NGOs – I must admit that I respect their energy and the efforts they are willing to invest to promote their distorted view of the world.
Tragically, these are met with a hesitant passivity by the political Left, the so-called Israeli opposition. I believe that Israel’s democracy has seldom in our history been under such danger as it is today, for reasons related to our policy positions; the right wing’s drive to populistic, sometimes even racist, legislation; and the apathy, even fear, of the Left.
Israel’s democracy is our most important asset, a vibrant society that has made the Zionist vision come true.
Today this democracy is in danger, due to the following elements: • Israel is still in control of much of the West Bank. We interfere constantly in the daily lives of the Palestinians, and are running a nondemocratic system there which resonates into our own society.
• The lack of a political solution to the Palestinian issue based on a two-state solution makes the demographic reality into a time bomb in our democratic system.
• West of the Jordan river live 6 million Jews and 4 million Arabs, without equal rights, undeniably in the case of the Palestinians but also of Israeli Arabs, who are second-class citizens in their own country, in education, employment opportunities and other fields. If this reality continues, or demographically even further deteriorates as it certainly will, then Israel as a Jewish, democratic state will be no more than a slogan.
• Political violence in the country, which came to a climax with the assassination of a prime minister, continues with a new form of Jewish terrorism, “price tag,” the terrorizing of Arab communities and Jewish individuals as a means of intimidation and revenge.
This phenomenon, most often “Made in Settlements,” has not brought about any significant arrests.
• Messianic preachings of yeshiva rabbis such as those in Yitzhar call for a state based on biblical law and on killing “goyim.”
• Racist legislation led by Israel Beiteinu on issues such as the “Loyalty Bill” or legislation attempting to rule out Arabs from the legitimate Israeli political process, are in direct and dangerous opposition of our Declaration of Independence.
• The new wave of McCarthy-like legislation, as mentioned, attempting to damage the necessary balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Most recently the government efforts to curtail free media as expressed in the push to close Channel 10 and Kol Hashalom radio; the apparent political control of the public broadcaster and the spread of Bibi’s freesheet, Israel HaYom.
• A weak and populist government and prime minister, in which only a small minority of conscientious politicians such as Ministers Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin are attempting to halt this dangerous undemocratic wave.
• A weak, almost nonexistent opposition, that at such moments of crises does not orchestrate a vibrant, popular outcry and responds in a hesitant, stuttering manner, from Kadima head Tzipi Livni through Labor chairman Shelly Yacimovich to National Student Association President Itzik Shmuli.
As I believe that historically, it was not right-wing assaults on democracies which brought them down, but rather the weakness of the Left which allowed it to happen, I will focus on this nonexistent opposition.
The Kadima Party is weakened, split and all-absorbed in the leadership struggle between Livni and MK Shaul Mofaz, rather than standing as a strong dam halting the anti-democratic tidal wave.
Kadima was unable to join the outburst of the Israeli young generation demanding social justice, sometimes even warning of socialism rather than attempting to represent the middle class.
The situation seems no better in the Labor Party, under the new leadership of Yacimovich. Yacimovich did, unlike Livni, succeed in riding the wave of social justice, as she always represented a coherent social-democratic agenda.
Yet, it seems that this “New Labor” has become a single-issue party. Its leader evades, almost in principle, espousing a peace-policy agenda; thus, a successor to Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres she is not. Furthermore, in today’s battle for democracy you would expect the head of the Labor movement to lead an uncompromising struggle for the rescue of Israel’s democracy, in the country’s public squares.
Those who almost succeeded were the protest movement activists, who brought 400,000 Israelis to the streets chanting for social justice. They committed, however, a major strategic error by expressing a one-track consensual position in order to enlist the Right’s support. They should have made clear, once they finally had the nation’s ear, that there can be no social justice without peace and democracy. That would have left them with somewhat smaller numbers, but greater staying power.
With the government evading social justice, fearful of making courageous decisions on peace and giving a green light to a legislative onslaught on democracy, along with the almost nonexistent opposition not fighting for our most fundamental interests and values, Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state is in danger. This is a historical process, related to the growing gap between our society and our political leadership.
Israel as a society has had tremendous achievements in education, culture, becoming a hi-tech superpower, showing compassion for new immigrants and the needy, and in motivating the young. This expresses itself very prominently in our civil society – all that isn’t touched by government – as there are thousands of nongovernmental organizations dedicated to social good and to peace.
We are at a critical crossroads; balances are being shaken – between the legislative, judicial and executive branches; between the coalition and the opposition; and finally between the government and the people.
If we wish to rescue our basic fundamental values, and Israel as a Jewish democratic state, we have to save the existing balances and create new ones – between the government and those represented by civil society.
Such a national dialogue about our fundamental values and interests, between government, opposition and civil society, must begin before it is too late. This is primarily the prime minister’s responsibility at this critical hour.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.