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Has Israel Reached a Tipping Point?

Article

Has Israel Reached a Tipping Point?

The Middle East nation is in full-on political, cultural and religious gridlock.

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Israel’s September 17 national election stripped away the usual talking points. The Palestinian issue was almost completely off the agenda, along with a general consensus about security challenges. With those swept aside, the vote laid bare bitter, growing rifts in the nation.

First off, it was the second national election after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who has been in office since 2009—failed to form a government after a vote in April.

Instead of bringing clarity to the direction of the nation, the latest trip to the polls ended in another political stalemate.

Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party took 31 seats. Chief rival Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White political alliance secured 33 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Both party leaders quickly expressed the need for “unity” following the inconclusive election.

“There is no choice but to form a broad unity government,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video statement. “We cannot and there is no reason to go to third elections.”

“The people chose unity, the people want Israel to come before everything, and therefore, Blue and White under my leadership won the elections,” said Mr. Gantz, a former military chief of staff.

Sixty-one seats are needed to form a majority coalition government. And any hopes for the two largest parties to work together quickly evaporated.

After preliminary meetings between Likud and Blue and White bore no fruit, President Reuven Rivlin gave Mr. Netanyahu the first stab at forming his own coalition starting September 25. The prime minister failed, and Mr. Gantz was tasked with forming a government on October 23. If he is also unsuccessful, there will likely be an unprecedented third set of snap elections.

The simple solution would be for the two largest parties to work together. It is simple math: 33 seats plus 31 equals 64—easily surpassing the needed number.

Yet deep differences between the two political groups indicate the country could be headed for a long and contentious period of uncertainty.

Mr. Gantz has said he will not partner with Likud if Mr. Netanyahu is at the helm, citing the prime minister’s legal problems. Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging the prime minister with a series of corruption-related charges.

Also, Mr. Netanyahu has signed a deal with his smaller allies, including ultra-Orthodox parties, to negotiate as a bloc.

These alliances make the prime minister’s task even harder. It also reveals how much outsized power smaller parties can wield in the nation. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, refuses to work with the ultra-Orthodox amid growing public frustration against the minority among the secular population. Mr. Lieberman controls eight seats and is instead demanding the prime minister and Mr. Gantz join him in a broad, secular unity government that excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties—who are Likud’s longtime partners.

Mr. Lieberman’s stance demonstrates the shifting political sands in Israel. He was a former aide and ally of Mr. Netanyahu—yet forced the September 17 repeat vote by refusing to join the prime minister’s coalition and robbing him of his parliamentary majority.

Along with his supporters, Mr. Lieberman objects to what he calls excessive influence by the religious parties.

Even if Mr. Gantz cobbles together a coalition, the dual snap elections exposed a nation at a series of tipping points. Should the nation be more religious or secular? Conservative or liberal? How much of a voice should Arab parties have in the so-called Jewish state?

At its core, this is a crisis of national identity. Israel is currently rent in two.

Secular Pushback

In Israel’s secular heartland, religion played a central role in the deadlocked September election. For many, a vote for the opposition was driven by a desire to keep rabbis out of their schools, businesses and relationships.

Yamit Dulberg considers herself a traditional Israeli woman with right-wing views who would usually vote for Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party. Yet the 37-year-old mother of two cast her ballot for his main rival. Her main reason? The prime minister’s ties to ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and what she sees as a disproportionate power over daily life.

“Something has changed in recent years, the coercion has gone overboard,” said Mrs. Dulberg, who runs a small family-run jewelry business. “We are a Jewish state, but not a religious state.”

Secular leaders from the left and center have pulled away from Mr. Netanyahu. The New York Times stated such people “say that the mushrooming ultra-Orthodox population, with its unemployed religious students and large families subsidized by the state, is imposing excessive fiscal and social burdens on other Israelis. They are demanding more pluralistic options for marriages and conversions.”

Yet the “ultra-Orthodox parties insist that they are simply defending a status quo that dates to Israel’s founding and is meant to preserve study of the Torah by its most pious devotees. A compromise with Israel’s then-fledgling religious community gave Orthodox rabbis control over family and dietary laws, among other things, in exchange for their support for the new state.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties represent about a 10th of the population, but larger parties have historically relied on them to assemble majority coalitions. This gives these groups incredible clout to ensure the needs of ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews.

“This country is split down the middle and no one should force anything on the other,” Mrs. Dulberg said. “Just like I wouldn’t drive a car through their neighborhood on the Sabbath and park in front of their synagogue, they should stay out of my life.”

She said her husband, who was a leftist, even considered voting for the nationalist Mr. Lieberman because of the ultra-Orthodox. But eventually they both settled on Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, which has also promised to advocate for the secular.

“My opinions are right-wing, but that’s not the issue anymore,” she said, seated outside City Hall in Kfar Saba, a midsized city northeast of Tel Aviv. “The world has changed but religion hasn’t. That’s a problem.”

“This time the agenda was different,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “Israelis voted more on religion and state as a result of the political growth and appetite of the ultra-Orthodox parties.”

Many feel the cloistered communities of the ultra-Orthodox are being left behind by modern society, creating a culture of poverty that threatens the future well-being of the entire country. Yet the ultra-Orthodox disagree. While 53 percent of the minority group do fall below the poverty line (it is 9 percent for non-Haredi Jews), just 8 percent report feeling poor.

On top of carrying the military and financial burden, many in the secular majority resent having the ultra-religious encroach upon their lifestyle and civil liberties. The ultra-Orthodox establishment prevents public transportation and most commerce on the Sabbath and wields a monopoly over matters of marriage, burials and conversions. In recent years, they have also delayed infrastructure projects and archaeological digs over religious concerns.

Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Jewish People Policy Institute in Israel, said Mr. Lieberman’s rise showed that many right-wing Israelis are tired of their elected officials being so tightly bound to the ultra-religious.

“There is a large group of regular Israelis in the middle,” he wrote in the Maariv newspaper. “This is what they said for the second consecutive time: we want normalcy.”

Doubling Down

Leading up to the September election, Mr. Netanyahu worked to bolster his base of religious and nationalistic voters. This strategy came with a list of conservative promises.

The prime minister chose to open the new school year in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Elkana, where he reaffirmed his pledge to annex Jewish settlements and never allow them to be removed again.

“We are building new homes here,” he said to first-grade students. “God willing, we will impose Israeli sovereignty in all the communities as part of the land of Israel and the state of Israel.”

Such a move would be a sharp departure from long-standing Israeli government policy, which has been to not annex settlements even while expanding them in hopes of progress in negotiations with Palestine.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as the heartland for a future independent state. The international community considers all settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to be illegal, though the Trump administration has signaled that it might accept Israeli annexation of some West Bank land.

Mr. Netanyahu had made a similar pledge to begin annexing part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank on the eve of April elections this year but did not act on it.

A New Voice

While Mr. Netanyahu’s and Mr. Gantz’s parties took center stage after the election, another group gained ground. The Arab Joint List coalition could emerge as the main opposition bloc, a historic first that would grant a new platform to a long-marginalized minority.

Joint List won 13 seats in the 120-member assembly, coming third after Blue and White and Likud. In absolute terms, the Arab bloc has repeated its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats.

But this time around, due to the shifting constellation of Israeli politics, it is well-placed to lead the opposition if a national unity government of the two largest parties is formed.

That would put a representative of Israel’s Arab citizens closer to the center of power than ever before and strengthen their ability to influence the national agenda.

Israel’s Arab minority makes up about 20 percent of the population of 9 million and is descended from Palestinians who stayed in Israel after it was established as a state in 1948. They enjoy full citizenship, including the right to vote.

Decades of marginalization have bred voter apathy, and in April’s elections more than half the Arab electorate stayed home. This time around, Arab leaders joined forces and mobilized turnout, vowing to topple Mr. Netanyahu and push for improvements in public services.

Arab citizens have close family, cultural and historical ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with the Palestinian cause. That has led many Israelis to view them as a security threat.

The Joint List is unlikely to sit in any Israeli government because that would entail endorsing military operations against the Palestinians. Many Jewish-majority parties still refuse to sit with Arabs as political partners.

But the Arab parties’ increased clout could allow them to block right-wing legislation like the law narrowly passed last year defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. An informal alliance supporting the ruling coalition from the outside could also help deliver legislation to improve housing, education and law enforcement in Arab communities.

The Arab bloc is also expected to advocate for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians at a time when none of Israel’s main parties have made the peace process a priority.

If and when a broad unity government is established, Joint List would emerge as the largest alliance outside the government and make its leader Ayman Odeh Israel’s first-ever Arab opposition leader.

In his official duties as opposition leader, Mr. Odeh would hold monthly consultations with the prime minister and meet with visiting dignitaries. He would be granted a state-funded bodyguard, access to high-level security briefings and an official platform to rebut the prime minister’s speeches in parliament.

“This is a very significant, unprecedented level for us,” Mr. Odeh told Army Radio. “When presidents from around the world come they’ll meet with us as well.” He has described the prospect of an Arab leader receiving security briefings as “interesting.”

Mr. Odeh says his bloc also mobilized support from Israeli Jews, some of whom welcomed its success.

Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist with Israel’s main daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said the Joint List’s achievement should be measured not in the number of seats it won but in “its ability to build bridges to the mainstream of Israeli politics and society.”

“It is unthinkable to continue to exclude and to humiliate forever 20% of the electorate,” he wrote. “Their expectations in all that pertains to integration, influence and respect all emanate from the ground up. Those expectations have to be met somehow.”

On top of being the potential opposition party, a group of Arab parties added yet another complication to the coalition Rubik’s Cube.

After the September 17 poll results, they broke with custom by endorsing Mr. Gantz. It was the first time they had recommended a candidate since 1992. Arab parties have usually refrained from an endorsement, not wanting to be seen as legitimizing Israeli policies they consider discriminatory or hostile toward their Palestinian brethren.

Arab leaders said the decision was aimed at toppling Mr. Netanyahu. All of this was good news for Mr. Gantz.

Soon after, however, three Arab lawmakers said they were withdrawing their recommendations for Mr. Gantz, trimming his support to below Mr. Netanyahu’s. The former now has 54 seats of support and the latter 55.

Global Tipping Point

Let’s restate the questions from the start of this article: Will Israel continue catering to ultra-Orthodox Jews or move toward more secular society? Should the nation expand Jewish settlements or go back to the table with the Palestinians for a two-state solution?

In a sense, voters answered these questions by giving Mr. Netanyahu 31 seats and Mr. Gantz 33. Nearly split down the middle.

For Arabs, will they ultimately relent and help form a majority coalition? This would mean more directly supporting Israel’s national defense, which includes airstrikes on fellow Arabs. Yet being allied with the prime minister would mean more attention to Palestinian issues. Another seemingly impossible situation.

Given a few years, the Israeli political and cultural landscape would likely tip one way or another on all of these issues. Today, it must settle for gridlock.

But stop. Israel is not the only nation in flux—deciding its identity for the future. There is a vicious battle between left and right in the United States. Brexit has Britain tearing itself in two. In Canada’s October 12 election, the Liberals narrowly held onto power, but the nation’s prime minister will now operate a minority government.

While Israel is not located in the West, it has more in common with these nations than those in the Middle East. And they have all reached significant tipping points in regard to national identity.

Yet uncertain identity is nothing new for these peoples. And a great common factor between them all shows why.

Ask: What is the greatest similarity between Israel, the U.S., Britain and Canada? All have them have foundations based on the Bible, though the Jews stick with just the Old Testament. Think Judeo-Christian values.

Now, many in these nations are distancing themselves from religion altogether, yet scriptural principles are part of each nation’s DNA. Even more, the Bible itself reveals an even greater commonality between these peoples—and strikes at the heart of their collective identity crisis.

Ancient Israel had 12 tribes, which makes the modern nation of Israel somewhat of a misnomer. The majority of those who live there are Jews, descended from the tribe of Judah. The children of Benjamin have also dwelt with Judah over the millennia. That leaves 10 more tribes.

Cutting to the chase, the U.S., UK and Canada are all of Israelitish stock. They are the descendants of the tribes Manasseh and Ephraim. Copious evidence in God’s Word and the record of history make this clear. Many other Real Truth articles demonstrate this. Also, our book America and Britain in Prophecy proves this without a doubt.

These nations do not know their true identities. Much of today’s confusion stems from this alone!

Yet God does not want modern Israel and its brother nations to be left in confusion. Here is how He describes the current generation in the book of Isaiah: “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel does not know, My people does not consider” (1:3).

Realize what this is saying. Those in the U.S., Britain, et al, do not know their God!

Verses 4 and 5 continue: “Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters…Why should you be stricken any more? You will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.”

Think of the overall political, religious and societal landscape in all these nations. God’s words in Isaiah cry out now: “Why should you be stricken any more?”

Thankfully, these words will soon be delivered directly to these peoples. Read America and Britain in Prophecy to learn how.

This article contains information from The Associated Press. 


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