HomeMarch 2013Crucible for Change

Crucible for Change

A Lesson in Political Science

Here’s a tale of two democracies.

In one, a Presidential election has been held every four years for more than 200 years.  Normally, the winner of the election, who represents one of two parties, serves his full term and possibly another.  The inaugural ceremony happens like clockwork every four years, around January 20.  In the lifetime of every single OCJL reader, the only abnormalities have been one outbreak of pregnant chads on the ballot that delayed the outcome, one resignation followed by a short-term pinch hitter, one four-term President during wartime and two unfortunate deaths in office.  The U.S. political system is a remarkable model of stability.

In the other – namely Israel – the about-to-be-65-year-old government is a parliamentary system in which voters cast ballots for parties, not individual candidates.  Because no party has ever won a majority of parliamentary (Knesset) seats, the country has always been governed by coalitions full of disparate elements.  The party that wins the largest number of seats gets to form a governing alliance coalition by negotiating with other parties on the basis of promising cabinet posts and policy concessions.

While the Israeli prime minister’s term is normally four years, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu would have been the first in more than two decades to go all the way, had he decided to hold elections at the normally scheduled time of October 2013.  For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was an attempted show of strength to the U.S. after its own election, Netanyahu called for early elections in Israel.  Instead of the cake walk he expected, Netanyahu is now cobbling together a coalition of diverse parties seeking large-scale social, economic and political changes.

How did Bibi get blindsided, and what is he going to do about it?  Clearly, Israelis are asking for change.

An Unexpected Result

When the January 22 election results were in, Netanyahu’s right-centrist Likud/Yisrael Beitenu dropped 25 percent from its 42 combined seats in the 18th Knesset to 31 combined seats in the 19th Knesset.  As Likud focused its efforts on opposing the Labor party, Yair Lapid’s upstart and centrist-left-leaning Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party got 19 seats in the Knesset, much higher than predicted.  While Likud attacked Naftali Bennett and the hard-right Bayit Yehudi (Israel Home) party, both personally and politically, many voters dissatisfied with both alternatives also chose Yesh Atid.  Meanwhile, Bayit Yehudi’s 12-seat count in the Knesset quadrupled the representation of the national religious public since the last election.

Why?  What were voters seeking?  Why did they find it in such seemingly disparate places?

A Matter of Issues

While Israelis want peace, many are skeptical of the chance for achieving it in the near term, given the number of unstable regimes in the region in the aftermath of “Arab Spring” and the ongoing problem of Palestinian leaders who would rather walk away from the negotiating table than acknowledge Israel’s existence and legitimacy.  Most politicians in Israel agree upon the nature of existential threats and the need for security, and Israeli voters know that.  The election results spoke volumes about economic and social problems inside of the country and the philosophical differences about how to solve them.

According to Caroline Glick, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, there is a “sea change occurring in Israeli society.”  She believes that “Israelis are becoming more nationalist, more capitalist, more individualistic and more interested in their Judaism.  This is particularly the case among Israelis under 40 years old.  Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett both appealed to this target demographic and for the same reasons.”

“Many Israelis see Lapid as the voice of the recent ‘Cottage Cheese Revolution’ over economic inequality,” explained Asaf Romirowsky, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writing in Forbes Magazine.  “Lapid’s Zionist view, oriented towards fairer domestic economic and social arrangements, is different than that of Netanyahu’s ‘old school’ security-centric approach.  But both are required to lead the Israel of today…Lapid’s surge symbolizes an attempt to find a new balance or ‘normality’ within the Israeli middle class.”

“Lapid and Netanyahu may have their disagreements over the economic issues that helped propel Yesh Atid to second place in the vote,” said Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary Magazine.  “But they appear willing to work together along with Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party (which is to the right of the Likud on peace issues) to craft new legislation that would end the ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions that anger the rest of the country.”

Now What?

Likud-Beitenu recently unveiled a new proposal for drafting ultra-Orthodox men to the army.  Not requiring yeshivas to set quotas for the number of students who would be able to remain studying Torah instead of joining the IDF, the proposal calls for a gradual and significant increase in the numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and anticipates drafting as much as 60 percent of the ultra-Orthodox population of enlistment age within five to six years, approaching numbers equal to those of the general population.  Likud-Beitenu would set the enlistment age between 18 and 26 with economic incentives for enlisting at a younger age.  There would also be economic incentives for ultra-Orthodox men who chose to enter the workforce following their military service.

Yesh Atid’s plan is to set the age of enlistment for ultra-Orthodox men at 18, as in the rest of the general population and allow exemptions for only 400 exemplary yeshiva students every year.  In the first five years the plan would offer full exemptions to ultra-Orthodox students requesting them, to provide a gradual increase in ultra-Orthodox conscription.

Meanwhile, Likud officials met with representatives of ultra-Orthodox parties and the national Zionist Bayit Yehudi to reach a consensus on new enlistment laws that do not set yeshiva quotas, which could be a problem in forming an agreement.  Bennett believes that Bayit Yehudi is the right party for bridging the gaps between the hareidim and Yesh Atid on hareidi enlistment, “because of our familiarity with both the military world and the Torah world.”

Laws regarding the draft are especially important for many reasons.  Most Israelis want to see fairness in who is required to serve the country.  Additionally, many Israelis receive job training or the road to future employment based on their roles in military service.  Finally, the economic burden of supporting a large cadre of full-time yeshiva students has been crippling to the Israeli economy.

Still, more negotiating needs to take place.  According to the Jerusalem Post, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has rejected an offer from Likud Beitenu of the Education Ministry, a top socioeconomic portfolio, and a deputy defense minister who would deal with settlements.  Bayit Yehudi officials said they would only deal with portfolios once they received answers on key ideological questions.  Likud officials have expressed cautious optimism that the difficulties can be overcome.

Yesh Atid seems to be a willing partner as long as there is real change in “business as usual.”  In Yair Lapid’s words, “We have ultra-Orthodox and religious and secular Jews, Christians and Muslims, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, old and new immigrants…Rather than what unites us defining us, we are defined today by what divides us.  {Instead of becoming} a source of cultural vitality and social alertness, {our leaders} have caused paralysis of governance and political impotence.”

Lapid, in a recent speech insisted that, “We are not here to create a rift, but to overcome it.  The rift is already there.   We are torn apart in schools, torn apart in the recruitment office, torn apart in the job market.  It’’s time to admit that a gaping wound exists in the heart of Israeli society.  It’s time to heal.”

In 2005 Israeli citizens were forcibly evicted from their homes in the Gush Katif, the area now known as Gaza.  According to Yedidya Harush, Jewish National Fund liaison to the Halutza community that was relocated from the Gush Katif to the Negev, today, almost eight years later, 80 percent reside in permanent homes, while 20 percent are in temporary housing.  They live in 15 different communities throughout Israel.  Sixty percent have jobs while 40 percent are unemployed.

“Some families didn’t recover and still struggle,” Harush said.  He decided to do something about it, becoming part of a government- and JNF-sponsored effort to bring people, primarily those displaced from the Gush Katif, to live in the Negev.

What motivated you to get involved in this program? I was born in the Gush Katif.  In 2005 the prime minister decided to disengage from Gaza.  As a 16-year-old boy, I said goodbye to my house and watched a bulldozer destroy it in 3 minutes.  My sister wanted to walk on the same sidewalk on her wedding day as she walked on when she went to kindergarten.
I decided that I could choose to not be part of my country anymore or to be part of it.  After going to school on scholarship in the US, I went back to Israel, joined the IDF, got married, became a father and got involved in the Halutza program.

What does the program entail? We are resettling people in an area of the Negev between Egypt and Gaza.  At least six villages are planned for the area.  It is anticipated that more than 20,000 people will eventually live in the area.  The idea is not to make it feel like an isolated place or a refugee camp.  We want to take an undeveloped area and make it sustainable, to make it a real home for the residents.   We have incorporated green planning into its infrastructure development and will use recycled water to grow organic crops.

What are the challenges? We need infrastructure for transportation and other amenities.  The area has a high crime rate, immigration problems and terrorist threats from Gaza.  We’re completing a fence to stop immigration and smuggling.  Also, the area is far from everywhere, so we need to build medical centers. We’re also building an elementary school and an entrance way.

Why was this area chosen? The Negev is 60 percent of Israel’s land area and 5 percent of its population.  We’re realizing David Ben Gurion’s dream for the Negev, just like the pioneers in Israel’s early days.

Why is this a gratifying experience? We’re building for the next generation.  We’re sacrificing comfort and convenience like the early pioneers, but we’re making progress, so that we need a bigger school, a bigger shul and a bigger park.  Israelis are a small country with a big vision, and we’re moving faster than we thought. Visit www.halutza.org.


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