The Impact of Israel's Internal Politics

This is the fourth article in a 5-part series on Middle East peace running this week. For the first three articles, on Obama's new style in the Middle East, the Arab role in making peace, and getting Israel's message across, click here, here, and here.


In the modern era, Jewish sovereignty over the land of our ancestors is a relatively short phenomenon. From the time of the successful Maccabean revolt to the Roman annexation in 63 BC constitutes about 100 years of Jewish rule. Combined with Israel's independence in 1948, this is about 160 years of effective sovereignty. The rest of Jewish history for the past two-thousands years has been one of statelessness and Diaspora. Jewish sovereignty and governance over our ancestral home are, I believe, important goals that every Jew ought to support. But as one prominent Jewish intellectual recently said to me when making this point, "We have to get it right."

While there are many beautiful and commendable facets to present-day Israel, one thing I believe the state is getting wrong is in the style and substance of its domestic political system. Put simply, Israel can't deal with either its pressing internal problems or its existential external issues without an effective democracy. Sadly, the current fractured governing system just doesn't reflect the views of the majority of Israelis.

The principles governing Western democracies, of which Israel rightly considers itself a part, are based on the assurance that everyone has a vote, but also that the minority needs to yield to the wishes of the majority. The protection of minority rights, both Jewish and non-Jewish, should be absolute, but not at the expense of the overall, common good.

Henry Robert's authoritative Rules of Order for any democratic organization explains this principle well: "The great lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win a majority to their views, gracefully to submit and to recognize the action as that of the entire organization, and cheerfully assist in carrying it out, until they can secure its repeal."

These principles are what differentiate - or should differentiate - Israel from its authoritarian Middle Eastern neighbors, where there are neither minority rights nor even majority democratic representation.

There are no easy solutions for Israel's own governance problems. However, certain key reforms should be considered. First among these are what my friend, Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli Ambassador to the US, calls "the separation of church and politics." Israel should always be a Jewish state and the Jewish national home, but in politics, liberal democratic beliefs have to take precedence, not religious faith.

In recent months we have seen the opposite taking place in Israel. Just this past June, thousands of Haredi Jews violently protested against an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in favor of the integration of religious schools. Girls clearly ought to have the right to an education, the same as boys. This incident was only the most recent, however, as in the months prior there were a number of cases where the Haredi community took to the streets in fierce protest against legitimate government decisions. It has to be said that these protests are directed at a state and a governing system which lavishes the Haredi community with massive subsidies; in return they give back not one iota in the form of either national service or economic productivity.

Moreover, the chokehold of the Orthodox chief rabbinate on Judaism in Israel has not only succeeded in alienating the vast majority of secular and liberal Israeli Jews, but it has now begun targeting the Jewish Diaspora as well. The recently proposed conversion bill in the Knesset which would have given the chief rabbinate and the Orthodox community authority over all Jewish conversions, was, quite frankly, insulting to the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide who are Conservative, Reform or even secular. Allowing Orthodox rabbis in Israel to decide the age-old question of "Who is a Jew" has the potential to permanently divide the Jewish people. The bill was thankfully delayed - it should be killed - but the Israeli government would do well to take into account the wishes of the vast majority on this important issue.

The religious Zionist settler movement, too, plays an outsized role in Israel's domestic politics relative to its numbers. With its messianic obsession with the land and the goal of a Greater Israel, this small constituency makes a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible. Relations with the United States, Israel's most important strategic ally, inevitably suffer as a result.
Reforms that would go a long way in resolving the above contradictions have to include the adoption of a constitution and changes to the electoral system. A constitution needs to enshrine the very definitions of the state - Jewish, democratic, and liberal. Although drafting such a document would be difficult, I believe the benefits would be great - at the very least, a proper constitution would effectively place limits on the extremists in the Knesset who raise legislation like the conversion bill mentioned above.

Additionally, the electoral system needs to generate greater stability, which means minimizing the splintering of votes to the smaller, parochial parties. The way to do this would be to allow the head of the largest vote-getting party to become prime minister without a vote of confidence. This would incentivize voters to choose the bigger parties representing the broader national interest, and not the fringe parties with their particularist agendas.

It will ultimately be up to Israelis themselves to decide on the best way forward for their own country. However, for all those who care deeply about the security and well-being of the Jewish state, as I do, it is clear that the present political system is not working. Simply put, Israel's own politics are hindering it from the crucial steps it needs to take for its own survival. Jewish sovereignty in the land of our ancestors has been tried in the past, with varying degrees of success. Just as much as foreign invasion, these past tries were brought down by a corrosive and ineffective internal politics. We have to get it right this time.