Now that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government has expired, all eyes turn to Yair Lapid, to whom President Ruvi Rivlin awarded the mandate yesterday. For a bevy of reasons, I am not optimistic that Lapid and the rest of the pro-change bloc will be successful in their quest to establish a government with Naftali Bennett, but as usual, the intensive focus is on Israeli politics and political gridlock. We are so used to this show after more than two years that it has crowded everything else out. Solving Israel’s political morass is important, but it makes it easy to miss the fact that doing so is not going to solve another crisis that has been constantly unfolding, which is the collapse of any notion of Israel as a state with strong or even workable institutions.
One of the more interesting developments in recent days was the raging debate among prominent rabbis from Israel’s national religious sector that played out in public. The question was ostensibly a political one: is it preferable to form a right-wing government with the support of Arab parties, or is it preferable to form a government that includes left-wing and secular parties so long as it relies only on Jews? Netanyahu was trying his utmost to convince Bezalel Smotrich to drop his objection to forming a government with Ra’am’s support, and to simultaneously convince Bennett that there is a religious imperative not to form a government with secular leftists. National religious politicians such as Bennett and Smotrich have long taken cues from rabbinical spiritual leaders, so the effort to enlist Rabbi Haim Druckman in favor of one position or another was not new. Such a phenomenon is even more familiar in the Haredi sector, where bodies such as the Council of Torah Sages hand down decisions to their UTJ Knesset representatives or where Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s political decisions were treated as the absolute final word.
But what Israelis have come to expect from the Haredi sector is now expanding beyond it. The spectacle of the secular Netanyahu tweeting a video clip of Druckman saying that Bennett should not form a left-wing government with an exhortation that Bennett should listen is a step further. Netanyahu has effectively conceded the idea that he can win over his political or ideological allies through normal politics, policy inducements, or even with appeals to the good of the country. The idea that the ability to form a government or prevent an alternative one is openly dependent on the utterances of unelected religious leaders is a sign not of vigorous politics but of the state’s authority being diminished.
This was tragically far from the most prominent or visible recent example of this dynamic. Israel experienced the worst civilian disaster in its history in the early morning hours of last Friday when overcrowding at the Lag B’Omer festivities at Mount Meron, which is the country’s largest annual religious festival, led to 45 deaths in a stampede. As old state comptroller reports calling for the event to be overhauled and warning of precisely such a catastrophe were immediately unearthed, so too were boasts from Shas leader Aryeh Deri and Haredi rabbis right before the festival that they were able to override and subvert any potential restrictions that the state might place on the event. Alongside them were a bevy of ministers and police officials declaiming blame because everyone knows that the state has no control of the annual festival and couldn’t restrict it even if it tried. Haredi autonomy in this regard reigns supreme, much as it has over the past year when the government has had no ability to enforce COVID-19 restrictions on Haredi schools if rabbinical leaders do not assent. That Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s grandson has more influence and power when it comes to Haredi compliance with state directives than any cabinet minister tells you all you need to know. Again, this is not a new development that cropped up out of nowhere, but the greater integration of Haredim into Israeli society, however haltingly, does not seem to have arrested the trend.
The collapse of state authority is not confined to religious Israelis. One of the biggest contributors to the erosion of state control has been Netanyahu himself. As Netanyahu has tried every trick in the book in order to escape his legal problems and make his corruption trial go away, he has gone well beyond the timeworn tactic of accusing the justice system of bias and casting aspersions on the motivations of prosecutors and judges. After preventing the appointment of a permanent state attorney to replace the one whose term recently expired–and in contravention of the conflict of interests agreement drafted by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that was a condition of Netanyahu continuing to serve as prime minister during his trial–two weeks ago Netanyahu forced a cabinet vote on his handpicked candidate for justice minister despite the fact that the coalition agreement that he signed with Benny Gantz explicitly takes that power out of his hands. When Mandelblit stepped in to prevent the vote from taking place by saying that it was illegal, Netanyahu sneeringly dismissed him and held the vote anyway, only ceding a day later after the Supreme Court froze the appointment and ordered Netanyahu to explain his actions. This all comes amidst constant calls from Netanyahu’s camp to fire Mandelblit, limit the Supreme Court’s oversight, and pass laws granting Netanyahu absolute immunity from prosecution. While much of the focus on Netanyahu the last two years has been on his role in Israel’s interminable political crisis, his real impact has been to steadily erode confidence in the institutions of the state and call into question their ability to operate.
Other examples of state impotence abound. Attacks by settlers on Palestinians and Palestinian property in the West Bank are up this year and well-documented, but state authorities have demonstrated little ability to stop them. Following the terrorist attack on three yeshiva students over the weekend, retaliatory attacks by settlers have been carried out, including burning Palestinian fields, and yet the only arrests are of Palestinians. When police have attempted to arrest Israelis suspected of price tag attacks in the West Bank in recent months, they have often been met with stones or even Molotov cocktails. In Israeli Arab towns and villages, illegal guns and shootings have reached a crisis point, with gun battles between gangs not an irregular occurrence. All of this is portrayed as being beyond the ability of Israel to control, and as something that has to be managed or to which there are no good answers.
There is little question that Israeli politics is in chaos. But the ability of the state to function as it is supposed to is also in chaos in a way that goes beyond Israel’s political gridlock. Should a new government be formed, some of these problems may improve. There is also reason to believe that as Haredim and Arab Israelis continue to become more integrated into wider Israeli politics and society, it will reduce some of the sense that there are pockets of Israelis who are either autonomous or who have no role in Israel. But as everyone now focuses on Lapid and his pro-change bloc, watching and wondering whether Netanyahu will be toppled, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that crises involving politics are more easily overcome and forgotten than crises of the state’s ability to function. If Israelis do not believe in the state’s authority, the question of who is prime minister is secondary.