Israel needs a national salvation reboot

Whenever the right wins an Israeli election, the center-left starts agonizing over whether to offer or accept a “unity government” — joining forces with the relatively sane Likud mainstream to keep out “radicals” and “save Israel from itself.” The Economist recommended just this in its current issue.

Opposition to the notion generally stems both from a cynical assumption that everything comes from a crude lust for power, as well as from optimism that if the good guys stay pure they’ll reap a future electoral reward. I mostly sided with the opponents to such moves in the past, to avoid sellouts and also respect the principle that election winners deserves the chance to rule. Not so this time — but with a twist.

My recommendation is not for a normal unity government — a la the Economist and others in Israel itself — but rather for a package deal that will blow up the blocs and probably also the careers of Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. Along the way, though, it will also begin the complicated process of saving the country.

The details will soon follow — but first, an explanation of why this is necessary.

What we are confronting now is the prospect of not just another right-wing government that will destroy its Jewish majority by deepening the West Bank occupation and continue the march toward national suicide with the Haredim (though on both issues the point of no return approaches, and with it a future as an impoverished, non-democratic, binational Jewish theocracy). Now, because of the strength of the super-far-right factions, there is real danger to the survival of Israel in its current form even sooner.

It’s clear that the planned “override clause” will eliminate the separation of powers and judicial oversight by enabling the Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court. But there is actually more at stake than the damage to liberal democracy: the Supreme Court is the only institution that still protects the Palestinians, a little. Its elimination, plus a construction boom in the West Bank and immunity (de facto or de jure) to soldiers operating there, will most likely lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, a third intifada and riots by Israeli Arabs.

One can imagine how a government in which the tone is set by Itamar Ben Gabir — a Minister of Internal Security seen by many as a Jewish terrorist sympathizer — and the religious fanatic Betzalel Smotrich will react: there will be a massacre. Israel will arrive at the next election bleeding, ostracized by the world, at loggerheads with most American Jews, and with Arabs boycotting the polls and again dooming the center-left. The way lies massive emigration of the educated, desperate to escape a war zone that is turning before their eyes into a bi-national fake democracy in which a Haredi majority and general impoverishment await.

I conclude it’s much better to try to separate the Likud from the Haredim and the far-right and establish a national salvation government. Not unity — salvation. A package deal that will change politics, according to the following outlines:

  • Give Netanyahu a pass. He is a habitual liar, a megalomaniac and probably corrupt — but he is also a smart, educated, and secular person who knows how to count. There is a chance to mobilize him for the right moves if the center-left climbs down from the (justified) refusal to join forces with a criminal defendant, does not oppose a plea bargain or other machinations to end his trial, and does not demand a rotation. If this makes one’s blood boil, I suggest viewing it as punishment for the incredible errors of the Lapid crew (including the failure to pass a law banning a defendant from the post of prime minister); I’m not sure Israelis deserve this — but the politicians surely do.
  • Agree to an override clause with a supermajority of 80 in the Knesset. The principle is adopted in order to appease the populist right, but in practice the court’s authority is mostly preserved; annoying, but needed to get to the rest.
  • Offer something reasonable to the Palestinians, this time without Likud opposition: a version of the Trump plan for a state on 70% of the territory, to which Netanyahu has already agreed — with willingness to take unilateral steps and without ending the conflict but instead establishing a 50-year hudna; freezing settlements beyond the Security Barrier line (with a willingness to dismantle them in the future); and willingness to ease the blockade on Gaza in exchange for political overhaul there. I’d add to the Nationality Law the principle of equality, for justice and to calm Israeli Arabs just a little.
  • Fundamentally change the arrangement with the Haredim, which constitutes national suicide because of their astounding birth rate (almost seven children per family) coupled with rejection of modernity. This would involve enshrining budgets in the law in exchange for a core curriculum to allow members of the sector to contribute to the economy and support themselves; reducing child allowances and payments to seminary students (there’s no reason for so many to study all their lives at the expense of others); and absolving them from the military draft for a decade, as long as they go to work. Without this the economy will collapse; with it, the Haredim themselves will benefit as well.

This will more accurately reflect the Israeli collective will, which did not back fanatical ultra-nationalism but split the vote almost exactly down the middle. The right’s majority was purely the result of 7% of the change bloc vote wasted by idiotic splits that ran afoul of the electoral threshold.

It will also create a new and viable center with strong majority support — something that is worth considering in the United States as well.

Nonetheless, many will say such a deal is unrealistic. Let’s examine that.

Yes, Netanyahu will be very hesitant to blow up his bloc, which will never forgive him or trust him again. There will also be opposition in Likud. On the other hand, I assess that Netanyahu secretly agrees with the above. As for the Likud, they’ll follow Bibi’s lead. It’s possible that even he will agree to retire at 77 — this time as an more consensual leader who helped save the country as opposed to living out his days as an Israeli version of the Roman emperor Nero, fiddling while Israel burns.

As for Lapid and Gantz, they will certainly risk fatal electoral injury — but they should accept reality. Public opinion will not easily shift in their favor, even after disasters wrought by the right. Any conceivable future “change government” (with Israel in smoldering ruins) will still be too weak to carry out the needed root canal.

A little modesty wouldn’t hurt. The center-left had a considerable advantage this time: relative calm among the Palestinians (certainly compared to past periods of bloodshed), prosperity and growth (despite global inflation), a position of power and an eloquent and telegenic candidate who knows how to convey a message and convince. Against them ran a candidate hated by half the country and most of the world, on trial for bribery trial, no less. Moreover, on the issues public opinion is on their side: tribal voting patterns aside, most Israelis want neither a theocracy nor to lose the Jewish majority; if presented with a plan, they’d understand.

And what did they do? After failing to fix the loophole allowing defendants to lead the country (as opposed to municipalities or ministries), they utterly bungled the campaign. Lapid refused to lower the electoral threshold (which would have saved him); Gantz recklessly insisted on running against Lapid; parties in the bloc did not make the necessary unions and surplus agreements; no one embraced the Arabs (without whom there is no bloc); and no vision was presented. Many warned them, as well as Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli who refused to establish a left-wing alliance that would have saved masses of now-lost votes. All this was obvious, and would have swung the election the other way — but hubris blinded them.

This fiasco is so unforgivable that it doesn’t much matter if those who led it sacrifice their credibility. Others, less incompetent perhaps, will come. Israel needs a period of political stability, rational steps that will afford the moderate center some hope, and a spectacular Big Bang.

(A version of this article appeared originally in the Jerusalem Post)

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.