Unity is among the most cherished qualities for the Jewish nation, so much so that it was the hallmark of, and perhaps even the condition precedent for, the Revelation at Sinai. “’And Israel encamped opposite the mountain,’ like one man with one heart” (Rashi, Shmot 19:2). The harmony of Sinai contrasts sharply with the acrimony and discord associated with most of our sojourn in the wilderness. So, if unity is a virtue, why are reasonable people anxious about Israel’s “unity” government?
Several reasons suggest, the first being a distrust, or at least apprehension, of the motives and future plans of the current Prime Minister that is symptomatic of the dysfunction of Israel’s political system. Simply put, no person has a clue as to the intentions of his government, short-term or long-term. His ministers are largely at cross purposes. PM Netanyahu – wisely, from a political perspective – rarely gives interviews, and when he does, or speaks publicly, he talks in clichés, platitudes and bromides that can mean different things to different people. Often, he will embrace right-wing rhetoric to mollify one segment of his coalition while allowing ministers to implement policies that are the antithesis of that rhetoric and hostile to the concepts of land and peace. Then he will embrace left-wing rhetoric to keep the media off his back but petrify the right-wing. His core principles remain a mystery. His words are belied by his deeds, but his words provide cover to the gullible voters for his party and members of his coalition.
Thus, Kadima’s new chieftain Shaul Mofaz called Netanyahu a “liar” and “incompetent” whose government he would never join – just weeks before he joined that very government. Certainly, Mofaz realized that his party and career ambitions would be devastated by imminent elections, with polls showing Kadima losing some 75% of its mandates. In the grand tradition of Israeli politics, his personal fate played the leading role in the unfolding political drama of today.
That underscores another reason for the anxiety engendered by this government – the utter disarray of Israel’s political system. It is impossible to take seriously any statement made by any party during any campaign. It is almost impossible to match any party’s platform with its actual policies or performance once elected. Politicians often lie – usually whenever their lips are moving – but the disconnect between Israel’s political parties and their policies is staggering. There is no real opposition – vital to any democracy – because the defeated parties hope to dine on the spoils of power anyway, in some subordinate role. Kadima “won” the last election (more seats than Likud) but lost power when Netanyahu made a deal with the National Union party, a natural ally with Likud (one would have thought). Once designated to form a government, Netanyahu immediately reneged on that deal to make a new deal with the leftist Labor Party installing Ehud Barak, the failed prime minister of a decade ago, as Defense Minister. Consider this: how much support would Netanyahu have lost among Likud voters has they known during the campaign that the Defense Minister in a Likud government would be Ehud Barak, sworn enemy of the residents of Judea and Samaria? Suffice it to say, he would not be prime minister today.
And this deal with Labor followed Netanyahu’s arrangement with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party, avowed antagonists to Labor’s leftist policies – and Lieberman agreed, only to be effectively marginalized in his Foreign Minister post while awaiting indictment on political matters that date back many years. Shas and Aguda, k’darkam bakodesh, sell their souls for money and their parochial needs that they conflate with the glory of Torah, even as they are junior (and now unneeded) partners in an enterprise whose future course is completely unknown to them and likely hostile to their interests. The “Jewish Home” party –brought in because the “National Union” was considered too outspoken and unreliable a coalition partner – has actually acquitted itself well, and may be the first domino to fall from this government, even as its real strength is non-existent. At least it has principles to which it adheres.
The flip side of the government’s political stability is its unpredictability, and that volatility can shake Israel’s core to its foundations. Witness the current imbroglio over outpost construction in various parts of Samaria that many elements in the government, and the High Court, want to see destroyed. The leftist High Court operates from a presumption that the land in question is “Palestinian” land, and renders its decision based on that presumption even though there is a scarcity of hard (or soft) evidence adduced to prove it. As bizarre as it sounds, an Arab will come forward – usually at the initiative of Peace Now or some similar group – and assert that the land has been in his family for generations without a shred of evidence, documentary or otherwise. This is the story in Migron, for example, in which Peace Now withdrew the Arab claim to the land – which prompted the High Court, nonetheless, to rule that the homes in Migron must be dismantled. Undoubtedly, these confrontations and planned expulsions are designed to intimidate the settlers and apprise them to look at the handwriting on the wall, for they serve no other rational purpose.
A unity government, in theory, could accomplish much for Israel’s polity. It could unify the disparate parties in the event that an attack on Iran is deemed necessary (much like the unity government that preceded the Six-Day War – but no other war in Israel’s history, and prompting much of the bitterness of the last 30 years);
- it could take unilateral measures like annexing Judea and Samaria while giving autonomy to the Arab residents of that region;
- it could secure Israel’s borders and respond forcefully to attacks on its citizens without concern for the sniping of political opponents;
- it could declare the Oslo Accords a failure, renounce its provisions, acknowledge the impossibility of peace in our time and focus on maximizing Israel’s strengths and assets;
- it could further move Israel away from the economic legacies of the Socialist welfare state that hampered its development for decades and from which the State is emerging to become an economic powerhouse;
- it could refine the protocol for appointing Supreme Court justices so they are not almost uniformly secular leftists from north Tel Aviv;
- it could declare halacha the official law of the land of Israel;
- it could even come to some workable arrangement regarding military or national service for all citizens – religious and non-religious, Jew and Arab.
That would assume that the values of the leaders are fixed and resolute. What typifies this government, though, is the wall-to-wall secularism (right and left) of the majority of its participants which never bodes well for long-term statecraft. As one distinguished Rosh Yeshiva once explained to me, if one could achieve the same result (he meant, in context, love for the land of Israel) through the Torah and not-through-the-Torah, then you would not need the Torah. Hence, a secular love for Israel will cease at a certain point, the left before the right, but both will eventually cease. There is a palpable and realistic fear that such is on the horizon, in pursuit of the same fantasies and chimeras that produced the Oslo debacle.
A secular national unity government, legitimized by the presence of a group of beards and hats feeding at the public trough and who thereby grant the kashrut supervision to all activities, can do untold damage. Some possibilities have already been floated – e.g., another “unilateral withdrawal,” this time from much of Judea and Samaria in order to “take advantage of the lack of a peace partner” and thereby “move the peace process forward.” (If the preceding sentence makes no sense to you, then that is a good sign that your brain is still functioning.) A unity government unencumbered by a vibrant opposition can basically do anything – unravel the social fabric with anti-Torah legislation that seeks to weaken the study of Torah, recklessly throw open the Treasury in order to reward supporters, punish opponents and buy votes, dilute the Torah by amending the laws of conversion, the qualifications for rabbis and the definition of Jewishness. They could even vote to make Shabbat come on Friday or Sunday, not that religious Jews would listen. They could so secularize the country as to make it unrecognizable to the Jewish people – and not pay any political price for it.
A democracy without a functioning opposition looks more like an elected dictatorship but actually operates as an oligarchy of the powerful. And elections in which no political party is held accountable by the voters for gross deviations from its platforms and stated purposes is more akin to the voting on reality-entertainment shows than to elections that produce serious governance. Ultimately, countries get the leaders they deserve. So do people – a message to Israel’s religious Jews, perhaps a third of the country – who routinely vote for secular parties and assume that only a secular Jew of the right, left or center can guide the nation properly. This is a tragic error that lingers in the Israeli electorate which specializes in recycling discarded and failed leaders of the past.
As the Gemara (Sanhedrin 26a) states in a different context “a confederacy of the wicked is not counted.” Confederations are esteemed, and unity is a treasured goal in Jewish life. But sometimes the benefits of creative conflict and thoughtful opposition outweigh even those of a contrived unity. While we should not leap to label Israel’s current government a “confederacy of the wicked,” its capacity to do good or to commit mischief is almost unlimited. Hence the trepidation, as we await the true unity of the future when all Israel will be “like one bond to fulfill Your will with a complete heart.”