Israel’s dysfunctional politics add to the chaos in Gaza

The country’s roots created a democratic system that does not lead to stable government


Israeli police prepare for an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

March 13, 2024 11:27

How did Israel become a democracy? It is something we take for granted today, but in the pre-state years, it was far from a foregone conclusion. After all, before arriving in the country, most of the refugees who helped the state to thrive in the early days had never cast a vote in their lives.

Jews are rarely forced to flee from free societies. Immigrants streamed in from tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and Arab dictatorships from which they had been expelled, like Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Morocco. None brought with them the tradition of liberal political representation.

This question formed part of my discussion with Dan Senor, presenter of the popular Call Me Back podcast, and the Times of Israel senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, at a recent JC event at JW3 in north London. Senor had just published his latest book, The Genius of Israel, which explores the ways in which the country remains a light unto the nations.

In contrast to other Western-style democracies, he explained, the Jewish state is a happy place; the fourth happiest in the world, to be precise, behind three Scandinavian countries, according to the UN happiness index. It is also hugely resilient. Even in October 2023, that most traumatic month, polls revealed that Israelis were more optimistic about the future of the country than they had been before the war.

While other democracies are aging (in Japan, Senor points out, more nappies are sold for the elderly than for babies), the median age in Israel is more than a decade younger than the European average. While other democracies are suffering from epidemics of loneliness, drug addiction and crime, Israel seems immune to these scourges. While other rich countries are individualistic and atomised, Israel retains healthy social bonds. All of this, Senor argues with his co-author Saul Singer, stems from a remarkable sense of national solidarity.

When it comes to politics, however, the country is little short of dysfunctional. With characteristic depth, Rettig Gur argued that the reason Israel became a democracy was because it was composed of competing identity groups, such as Charedim, secular Jews, religious nationalists and Arabs. Setting up a representative system was the only way to hold them all together. But as the job was done in the spirit of improvisation — the idea of a constitution was abandoned amid a Socialist preoccupation with “progress” — various systemic imperfections ended up getting baked in.

At heart, Israel is a Middle Eastern state, and voting patterns often fall along more tribal lines than they do in the west. This tendency is magnified by a political system that is not based on constituencies; citizens vote for the party, not the individual, meaning that Members of Knesset are accountable to their leader rather than to voters.

Adding proportional representation to the mix makes it difficult for any group to gain true ascendency over the others, entrenching the horse trading that accompanies coalition government. The result is a fragile and volatile political settlement in which minor players become kingmakers, holding the rest of the country to ransom based on their fringe interests. The exemption from military service for Charedim — an especially hot potato after October 7 — is one example, not to mention the judicial reforms.

Which brings us to the burgeoning humanitarian problem in Gaza. Dogged by legal action and evaporating popularity, Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself cleaving ever more desperately to the extremists who shamefully prop up his government. As a result, plans for the “day after” the war have been in deadlock.

Any hint of a solution that might enable a Palestinian state in the future threatens to trigger a far-right walkout and the collapse of Bibi’s support. So although various ideas have been floated by the Israeli establishment and international actors, such as secure “humanitarian islands” in which aid is delivered under the protection of Arab or Palestinian Authority troops, or arming local anti-Hamas clans to control distribution, none have been pursued. This has exacerbated the chaos in Gaza, causing the White House to plan a makeshift port.

The Biden administration has changed its position strikingly in recent weeks. At his State of the Union address, the President seemed more concerned about the humanitarian needs of Gazans than achieving victory over Hamas. And in a subsequent interview with MSNBC, he described an Israeli invasion of Rafah — essential to the defeat of the terror group — as a “red line”.

More worryingly, as the US election approaches and progressive Democrats rage against Biden’s support for Israel, the White House seems to be following a new playbook. On the one hand, it opposes the Netanyahu government and its war strategy; on the other, it supposedly remains on the side of the Israeli people.

The problem, of course, is that the Israeli people wish by a two-thirds majority to destroy Hamas. Having tasted October 7 once, they understand what the survival of the group would mean in the long term. So Biden’s new approach, designed to bring progressives back into the fold and give him a clearer runway to a second term in office, betrays both the Israeli government and Israelis themselves, as well as the 80 per cent of Americans who back Israel in the war.

The fading of Biden’s loyalty is disturbing for the Jewish state. He has now hinted that he may halt shipments of arms and ammunition, vowing to always provide Iron Dome missiles but not necessarily warfighting supplies. It doesn’t help that beleagured Bibi has burned his diplomatic bridges with America, which has started courting Benny Gantz. Indeed, on Monday, the US intelligence community assessed Bibi’s “viability as a leader” to be “in jeopardy” in its national security report.

One can’t help but wonder how different the situation would look — whether on the ground in Gaza, in Jerusalem or in Washington DC — if in 1948, the Israeli political system had been geared up to deliver more stable leadership. From its high-tech industry and military prowess to its remarkably strong social fabric, the country is a miracle. If only the same could be said about its politics.

March 13, 2024 11:27

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