Israel is going through a season of proclamations and legislative proposals that remind me of American campaigns about prayer in schools, abortions, and gay marriage.
The equivalents here are a proposals to outlaw the mourning of Israel's existence (Nakba) by the country's Arabs, jail sentences for those who deny the Jewish character of the country, and rabbinical demands that soldiers refuse orders to remove settlements.
What links these Israeli and American issues is their capacity to inflame marginal issues with religious fanaticism.
I will let those closest to the American scene ponder their pros and cons. The Israeli cases are enough to worry me.
The holiday of Shavuot may be adding to the efforts of religious activists. It commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Religious Jews mark it by studying the law, including rabbinical interpretations delivered from then until now, all night long. Commentators are emphasizing the Lord's grant of the land to Israel.
Another impetus to this flurry of activity is the election of a right wing government, whose components include Jewish approximations to Christian conservatives who expected action from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu made his own contribution when he said that Palestinian representatives must recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for moving forward on bi-lateral negotiations.
Netanyahu has a point in the context of Palestinian demands that Israel remove Jews from the territory that should become their state, and that Palestinian refugees be given the right of return to what became Israel. Mahmoud Abbas is saying on the eve of his visit to Washington that he has no intention of flooding Israel with five million refugees. It would help if he said that, in Arabic, to his own population. The Hamas leadership, in control of Gaza and perhaps the most powerful party in the West Bank, is describing Abbas as an illegitimate claimant whose term expired in January, and who cannot speak for the Palestinian people.
We can argue if Netanyahu's demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is just, superfluous, or just a clever way to avoid serious negotiations. Whatever he intends, he has lowered the barrier against other issues that are inflammatory with respect to the delicate balance between Jews and Arabs within Israel, as well as between religious and secular Jews.
Although tense, and occasionally violent, relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs have been managed with some success. It helps that there are opportunities for nationalist expression, usually checked only when religious or political figures cross the boundaries against overt incitement to violence, or give aid to an enemy state. There is considerable freedom of instruction in Arab language schools. Arab members of Knesset visit enemy countries and suffer no more than rebuke from their Jewish colleagues and interrogation by security personnel upon their return. MK Azmi Beshara has not been in Israel since he was said to violate the rules by supporting military action against Israel while in Lebanon during the 2006 War, and provided to the enemy sensitive information about Israeli forces.
It may offend Jews when Arab citizens mourn the state's creation each year on May 15th. However, outlawing the occasion or insisting on explicit expressions of loyalty may cause more trouble by driving nationalism underground, and adding to its intensity.
A prominent safety valve for the feelings of Israeli Arabs are the speeches given by their representatives in the Knesset. The Arab parties do not get much more than the opportunity to speak. Resources allocated to Arab constituents do not match those allocated to Jews. The situation is similar in Jerusalem, where almost all Arabs boycott local elections on the claim that Israel has illegally occupied Arab neighborhoods.
One can debate the fairness or the wisdom of allocations to Arabs by national and local governments. They would change if Arabs used their voting potential to bargain for tangible benefits. It is easy to dismiss claims of injustice by noting that Arab politicians give greater priority to persistent criticism than to obtaining more services for their people.
Whenever authorities ratchet up their courage and embark on a process of removing small and "illegal" settlements from the West Bank, we can expect some rabbis to say that soldiers should disobey orders that violate the supreme law of the Torah. We also expect counter expressions, from religious Jews and rabbis, that military discipline is essential to Jewish survival.
The military is seeking to avoid responsibility for removing settlers. The head of the general staff says that the police are more suitable for such work. The police is a force composed of volunteers, trained for the non-lethal control of hostile civilians. They are not troubled by highly motivated religious draftees, who make excellent soldiers when sent against Israel's enemies, but are vulnerable to the calls of extremist rabbis who may have been among their teachers.
Involved in the flurry of rhetoric concerning settlements is what we could have expected from the prime minister. He returned from Washington with assuring statements that he and President Obama agreed on all the essentials. He said there would be no freeze in settlements. Natural growth would be allowed, in the building of housing for settlers' offspring, as would expansions already agreed by Israeli planning authorities. There would be negotiations about removing some illegal settlements, or making them legal by fusing them with nearby communities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton countered by saying that American policy remains opposition to all settlement activity, of any kind.
The current flurries of excitement may disappear without lasting impact. This is not the first time that MK's have garnered support for laws requiring Arab expressions of loyalty. As in the past, they may not find their way out of Knesset committees. If they do become law, they will have to pass an inevitable appeal to the Supreme Court, likely to be tilted against them. If they pass that hurdle, they may meet delay or dilution in the process of implementation.
The Labor Party's principal representative in the government, the Defense Minister, has been exercising his responsibility for the West Bank by removing some of the smallest and most isolated of the settlements considered to be illegal. The process has not touched the areas of greatest sensitivity, and it is not yet clear if the settlers removed are again setting up tents on the disputed sites.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science