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Challenging the Israeli Social Contract

11 Jun 2021
By Avishay Ben Sasson-Gordis
Naftali Bennett speaks at the 2015 Saban Forum. Source: Ralph Alswang/Brookings Institution

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, will likely swear in the first government in 12 years not headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. His replacement, Naftali Bennett, is the head of a small right-wing party whose coalition includes the representatives of the center, left, and the Islamic Movement.

Israelis under the age of 30 will never have voted in an election in which Netanyahu isn’t the incumbent. The unlikely turn of events leading to a Bennet-headed government marks the end of a two-year political crisis instigated by Netanyahu’s legal troubles and attempts to hold on to power at the cost of many democratic norms. As the establishment of a unity government signals the end of one crisis, the new government faces fallout from multiple other simultaneous domestic crises in Israel. To tackle these challenges, the new government may have to rewrite Israel’s outdated social contract.

The latest conflict in Gaza notwithstanding, the past few months in Israel have been unusually tumultuous even for a political system accustomed to volatility. Less than six months ago, Netanyahu used a loophole in coalition agreements to call an early election, violating a rotation agreement he signed with his centrist rival, Benny Gantz. And the success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign obscures a series of governance failures, particularly in the governments’ lack of will or power to equally enforce pandemic restrictions on Ultra-Orthodox communities. The question of rule of law vis-à-vis the Ultra-Orthodox was starkly highlighted at the end of April when, during a mass pilgrimage during the holiday of Lag-Ba’Omer, poorly regulated conditions led to one of Israel’s worst-ever civil disasters, in which 45 people were killed and over a 100 injured in a stampede at a holy site. Almost all of those killed were Ultra-Orthodox. Ultra-Orthodox politicians had protested limiting attendance at the event, and subsequently prevented the formation of an official inquiry into the disaster. Public outrage only subsided when the conflict in Jerusalem and Gaza overshadowed the tragedy.

The events in Gaza and Jerusalem, although not quite domestic, did their share to bring to the fore another domestic crisis of neglect. As violence in Gaza and Jerusalem flared, so did conflict in other cities in which there are sizable Jewish and Arab populations. Jewish Israelis consist about 80 percent of Israeli population and Arabs, mostly Muslim, roughly 20 percent. Generally speaking, Jews and Arabs do not live in the same towns, apart from several cities, sometimes called “the mixed cities.” Even in these cities, , some of Israel’s most disadvantaged, Jews and Arabs tend to reside in separate neighborhoods.  Jewish and Arab youth rioted in the mixed cities, in certain cases lynching members of the other community. Such widespread inter-group violence has not been seen in Israel since the state declared its independence in 1948.

Public figures on the right naturally interpreted the events as proof that cooperation with Arab politicians is a still a long way off. Arab politicians, public figures, and left-leaning NGOs, on the other hand, pointed at the culpability of the state, and its years of neglect of law and order in Arab towns, as having created a class of disaffected youth who seemed to have played a crucial part in the violence. On the other side of the conflict, Jewish residents of the mixed cities felt abandoned by the police and have organised their own protective militias, following years of similar claims of neglect and organisation by residents of Israel’s vast and poorly governed Negev Area.

The through line of these various crises is the absence of the state and its institutions from many of its geographical, social, and substantive areas. This is partially due to a decline in institutional efficacy and trust that has taken place in many countries since the 1970s. But the Israeli state has long failed to assert power over communities outside the traditional social core of the country.

Israel’s original unwritten social contract established a social core and periphery. At the core were Zionists – all Jewish, mostly Ashkenazi, and largely secular. Zionists prided themselves on their contribution to society in the form of military service. Over time, other groups were permitted to join the core, most notably religious Zionists, often through the legitimating mechanism of military service. Meanwhile, non-Zionists, Arabs, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews took part in this arrangement mostly as beneficiaries of a patronage system, where in exchange for their political support they were given a degree of communal autonomy, exemption from military service, and state resources. Arabs benefited from this system less and the Ultra-Orthodox more, but so long as their numbers and political influence were limited, the Zionist majority tolerated this arrangement.

As the share of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis grew to about 13 percent of the population, the question of their participation in military service and the labor market grew more urgent. Concurrently, Israeli society moved to the political right in a process driven by the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians, the growing share of religious voters, and an anti-left campaign by central political figures accompanied by the strengthening of Jewish ethno-nationalist sentiment. The old social contract could no longer hold. Zionists serving in the military and participating in the labor market have increasingly felt exploited. Social cohesion within the Zionist public itself is frayed due to increasing polarisation. The non-Zionist groups have become simultaneously the target of hate and more crucial to Israel’s future wellbeing than ever as they increase in relative size. State weakness in the periphery, in the past a matter of little concern, grew in importance as the periphery’s significance rose, and with the occurrence of events necessitating strong coordinated state action, such as the COVID-19 crisis. Throughout this, Israel has failed to produce a new social contract to replace its outdated one.

The incoming government presents an opportunity in this respect. Its composition, representing most major social groups in society apart from the Ultra-Orthodox will force it to generate policies geared towards a political coalition more diverse than ever before. If the magnitude of governance challenges doesn’t convince the various parties to work towards a minimal consensus, their own desire for survival might do the trick. The choice by Ultra-Orthodox parties to remain outside the government, and the exclusion of the secular Arab parties, will make formulating a truly inclusive Israeli identity less likely. The fact that members of the coalition speak less derisively of these communities than in the past leaves me hopeful that the path towards such an identity is nevertheless possible.

Avishay Ben Sasson-Gordis is a PhD researcher in the Department of Government at Harvard University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.