Issues which could shorten the Israeli coalition government. Opinion piece: Dec. 2022

Suddenly, there are two issues that have arisen which have the potential to shorten the life of the Israeli coalition government.

The first relates to Mansour Abbas’ four-seat Ra’am party.

Abbas himself is treading a fine line between dampening ideological fissures, in exchange for very practical gains for Israeli Arabs.

In late December he made a landmark statement, significantly also in Arabic, where he said that: “the State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and it will remain one.”

He continued, that the issue to be resolved “is the status of the Arab citizen in the Jewish State of Israel.”

The statement was groundbreaking and carries huge implications.

It is nothing short of a revolution in Israeli Arab thinking.

Even more so as it comes from an Islamist.

The important and as yet unanswered question for Israel is whether Abbas is alone or can even carry his own party along this path in the first instance.

Secondly, whether enough Israeli Arabs back him in the next election, showing that they too support this sea change.

That is why what is happening in the Negev is particularly dangerous.

Abbas’ political strength is concentrated amongst the Bedouins in the south of Israel.

Government legalizes 3 unrecognized Bedouin towns, fulfilling Ra'am's  pledge | The Times of Israel
credit: Times of Israel

Many of these Negev Bedouins live in unrecognised towns spread over the southern desert.

As part of the Israeli government coalition agreement, three previously illegal Bedouin villages have now been recognised.

However, this only touches the surface with tens of thousands of Bedouin still living in illegal/unrecognised towns and villages in an issue which has been growing over decades and which successive governments have been unable to resolve.

This all led to an unexpected flashpoint around the planting of trees on land Israel says is State land and the Bedouins claim is their private property.

The Israeli courts have not found Bedouin claims to be proven, as they are based on possession or squatters’ rights, rather than formal titles.

Tree planting is an ongoing practice and this is the first time in years that Bedouins have been rioting in such numbers and with such violence.

Of course, two additional forces are at play here – and they both centre on trying to diminish Mansour Abbas’ political strength and credibility.

Hamas is encouraging the violence as they feel particularly betrayed by Abbas’ ideological moves coming as they do, from common roots.

And the other Israeli Arab parties sitting in opposition, are also trying to undermine Mansour Abbas’ gains and are inciting the Southern Bedouins as well.

Both groups are trying to make Mansour Abbas look like someone who has sold his soul for little gain.

Abbas, who has achieved many gains for Israeli Arabs in a very short space of time, is now threatening the coalition’s future by pushing for an additional twelve unrecognised townships to become fully legitimate.

This of course is an anathema to the right-wing more nationalistic elements of the coalition – hence the threat to the coalition’s stability.

The second issue of potential trouble for the government coalition is the rumours swirling around a plea bargain deal between Netanyahu and the Attorney General.

In fairness, these rumours are always circulating. However, they seem particularly more plausible currently, simply by the way they fill the Israeli press on a daily basis and are more time urgent, with the imminent end of the current Attorney General’s term.

Should a plea deal arise that sees Netanyahu removed from politics, any incoming Likud leader will immediately seek to form a new government by bringing in likeminded members of the current coalition.

A task that would not really be all that difficult as there are those in government opposing Likud right now, not so because of political differences, but simply because they refuse to sit in any government led by Netanyahu himself.

Turning to matters concerning Israel and the Diaspora, two trends are interesting.

After an almost universal outcry by Diaspora leaders about Israel’s ban, for even a short time, on Jewish entry to Israel, many Israel based organisations dealing with the Israel/Diaspora relationship, as well as a growing number of MK’s are working towards some sort of modus operandi so that this should not recur in the future.

It is fair to say that there was nothing deliberate about the ban and that it was merely an unintended consequence of efforts to protect the health of Israeli citizens.

But it is equally fair to say that the effects of this ban were not initially fully appreciated in Israel, nor considered central to decision making.

On the other hand in a parallel and similar way, both inside and outside Israel is the new and growing trend in the method of how to count Jews.

For some years United States Jewry has been dealing with the question of how to define the spouses of ‘out marriage’, where the partner, previously regarded as ‘non Jewish’, however, identifies with and/or supports the family unit’s Jewish identity.

This has led to some demographers claiming that contrary to previously accepted trends, United States Jewry is not only stable but even growing.

Without debating the pros and cons of this, what is interesting is also what is happening in Israel in a somewhat parallel way. Somewhat.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics confirmed last year, that Israel is facing a downward trend in her Jewish majority from approximately 80% at a point in the past, to last year’s official CBS announced 73.9%.

Most of this fall results from a rise in a category called “Other”.

The “Other” category does not include Israeli Arabs or Druze who have their own identity, but does cover many people who live in Israel and who consider themselves Jewish, but are not recognised as such by Halacha. Quite a number are the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

For the first time in Israel’s history the CBS has created a new category – “Extended Jewish Population” – which covers a large a majority of the people in the “Other” category.

So now, combining the Jewish population figure of just under 7 million, together with the new Extended Jewish population figure of roughly another 500,000, brings us back to the 80% of Israel’s population being considered Jewish.

MK Elazar Stern, a prime mover behind the change in CBS counting policy writes; “Because of their strong Jewish identity, we need to find language that embraces and incorporates these people, and which makes them realize that Israel includes them in the Jewish nation, even if they are not, before formal conversion, fully recognized as Jewish. They are our partners, and we should use positive and inclusive language rather than the language of exclusion.”

Addressing the situation in the United States he says: “We also must look to the future. The last great reservoir of potential aliyah is from North America. In the event that increasing numbers of North Americans ever seek to make aliyah, Israel will surely see an influx of those who are intermarried, or are the children of intermarriage. As statistics make abundantly clear, the majority of (US) Jews today and the overwhelming majority of (US) Jews in the future, will not marry other Jews.”

Stern continues: “As an Orthodox Jew, I am strongly in favour of Jewish intra-marriage, but as a politician, it is my job to find solutions to challenges — and not ignore them in the hope that they will go away.

The first trend showing the rift between the two elements of Israel and the Diaspora.

And the second showing that after all, we are indeed all in it together.

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Ron Weiser is the Honorary Life Member ZFA Executive and Honorary Life President, ZC of NSW

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