Categorized | Middle East, Sharkansky_Ira, USA

Bizarre politics in U.S., Israel

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — We should avoid predicting what’s gonna happen or international affairs. There are too many actors and systemic variables (e.g., economics, the choices made by greater powers) to allow any certainty beyond the next few minutes. However, that doesn’t mean that we should avoid consideration of prominent issues, capable of developing in ways that impact us.

Several of them are already this side of our horizon. Any one can affect the questions of who governs, how, and what it’ll mean.

Those especially worthy of consideration are:

  • Donald Trump
  • Criminal processes moving against Israel’s Prime Minister
  • Two Israeli Supreme Court decisions shaking the already tenuous relations between secular and religious Jews

Trump has been all over the international, American, and Israeli media since his election. He’s stayed there due to frequent pronouncements in a style that appeals to his core supporters, but would not get him decent grades from a high school English teacher. He’s also flirted with postures long since relegated to the category of the politically incorrect. Call him a racist or nativist, economic protectionist, holding a bizarre view of global warming, and comments about women that most of us above the bar of average education would avoid.

His election may have come as much from a lousy Democratic campaign than anything he did. Hillary Clinton seemed more concerned to serve Muslims and sexual minorities than the white working class that had been the heart of her party, but which turned out to be the core of Trump’s voters.

His style is less worrying than messages he may have sent to a ruler even less wise and stable. If North Korea moves further toward capacities to produce and deliver nuclear weapons, then we may all suffer from the combination of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Optimists say that Trump is learning to play by the rules of Washington’s game. Dealing with Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress may limit the damage he will do. Yet his tweets and off-hand comments, so far not fully under the control of those he seems to have appointed to teach and control him, may yet produce a disaster that begins in the Far East.

The problems of Sara, Yair, and Bibi Netanyahu have also attracted considerable attention. We still don’t know how close Sara is to a court appearance produced by her indictment, how close the various cases against Bibi are to something similar, and how much damage to the family reputation will derive from the boorish behavior of their oldest son.

Politicians with the power to do so (i.e., MKs of Likud and their partners in the coalition) are still not speaking openly about dumping Bibi, but that and the shocks associated with respect to Israeli politics may come. Currently we’re on the verge of “the holidays.” They begin with two days of Rosh Hashana (New Year), Yom Kippur about a week later, then after another week there is seven days of Succoth plus Simcha Torah. All told, it’ll be a month with companies and public bodies fully or partially closed, lots of Israelis on vacation, the rest of us staying off the roads, and nothing dramatic likely, leaving aside what happened in 1973.

Things against the Netanyahus may escalate after the holidays. How soon? is a question best evaded.

What’ll happen if? is another question without anything close to a clear answer.

Current polls suggest that Likud will remain in the driver’s seat if there is an election without Netanyahu, which means that we may see a dog fight among party activists as they maneuver initially against Bibi and then to select a replacement. Likely contenders include the following Likud Ministers in Bibi’s government who have most often spoken out and acted on major issues: Tzachi Hanegbi, Yisrael Katz, Ze’ev Elkin, Miri Regev, Gilad Erdan, and Yuval Steinitz.

Bibi’s unseating and the choice of a successor will not be free of two recent Supreme Court decisions riling the two ultra-Orthodox parties that together have 13 seats in the Knesset, and without whose cooperation Likud might not hold on to power.

Details are complex, and for this purpose are best described as invalidating existing arrangements under the principle of equality before the law. One challenges a law providing draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students, and another a law granting a monopoly of providing certificates of kashrut to various rabbinical bodies. With respect to the law about exempting ultra-Orthodox young men from the draft, the Court gave the government a year to come up with an acceptable alternative.

Moderates among the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have accused the Court of dangerous meddling in the status quo with respect to kashrut. Less moderate ultra-Orthodox are in verbal warfare and their usual non-fatal violence against the Court’s decision about the military draft. Once again they are screaming that the Supreme Court is anti-Semitic, and does not comprehend the protection given to the country by ultra-Orthodox men devoting years to studying Torah, Talmud, and two millennia of commentaries.

It’s important not to confuse the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. The Orthodox tend to be super patriots, anxious to enter the fighting units of the IDF, and well represented among those who have reached high positions.

The ultra-Orthodox have been suspicious, self-defined as outside, or openly antagonistic to the Israeli State (except for demanding financial support for their schools, as well as housing and discounts on taxes and water for their large families). There are numerous separate congregations, each with their own rabbis, distinctive clothing, and traditions from various places in Europe or the Middle East. However, the label of anti-Zionist has been widely accepted, with a key demand to avoid military service.

An MK of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party (SHAS) recently resigned, under pressure, due to his attendance at a celebration for the single-sex union of a nephew.

There are also those asking if the Court’s stand on equality does not mean that some solution must be found for Israel’s Arab and Muslim minorities, also exempt from conscription (except for Druze and Circassians). Already on the table are proposals that all Israeli citizens face the same options of military service or community service.

The leader of Jewish Home, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, along with his party colleague Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, are drafting a law that would limit the Supreme Court’s capacity to invalidate Knesset actions. Current and retired Justices, are speaking out against the proposal, and we’re probably in for the kind of noisy campaign seen before, with each side claiming to represent what is essential for maintaining Israel’s democracy.

There are reports that a sizable number of Arabs would accept military service and the benefits provided to those who have served. However, their political leaders, like those of the ultra-Orthodox, are well entrenched with arguments against extending to their young people (even men only) any kind of compulsory service in behalf of the Zionist State.

Labor’s newly selected leader may be hopeful, and is viewed as capable to lead the nation. However, polls are not encouraging. Yair Lapid continues to be popular, but his Yesh Atid (there is a future) party would have trouble putting together a coalition.

There are too many imaginable scenarios that may develop from the Trump presidency, maneuvers against Netanyahu, and the maneuvering that will result from Supreme Court decisions. A combination of international and Israeli chaos may be in our future, with intra-Jewish issues making the issue of leadership change even messier than it would have been otherwise.

It should be interesting to a political scientist, more or less like the interaction between several pathologies fascinates a physician.

We’ll hope for the best, without expecting anything that good.

And to you all, שנה טובה
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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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