The Force that No Longer Guides Israeli Politics

The Force that No Longer Guides Israeli Politics

. 8 min read

Until June 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was perhaps Israel’s most powerful and controversial figure. Despite gaining notoriety for his claims that he de facto put an end to the Oslo Process—the only serious drive for Israeli-Palestinian peace to date—and for his ongoing corruption trial, Netanyahu served as the leader of Israel for five terms. That amounts to nearly twenty years. So why was Netanyahu elected so consistently, and why did his tenure finally come to an end? Understanding the answers to these two questions requires delving into a seemingly unrelated topic—the shifting relationship between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox communities.

While Israel is often depicted as monolithic because of its character as a Jewish state, dynamics between Jewish groups of varying religiosities have polarized the country since its creation. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, intra-religious frictions have remained constant, allowing all sides to ignore or overlook the issue. This is no longer the case. Huge increases in the once negligible ultra-Orthodox population pull Israeli society in one direction, while the increasingly progressive views of secular citizens pull in the other. The demographic shift is a major driving force behind the changes in Israeli politics, and Netanyahu is not its first or last casualty. Needless to say, a reexamination of the status quo between secular and religious Israelis is long overdue.

The Birth of the Status Quo

In June 1947, David Ben-Gurion was at his home in the Negev Desert when he received word that the United Nations had sent a fact-finding committee to survey then-British controlled Palestine. Ben-Gurion and his followers, known as Zionists, believed that the only way for the Jewish people to escape persecution was through the creation of a state. When a major prerequisite—the end of Britain’s Mandate—was announced in February 1947, this dream finally seemed attainable.

In order to form a unified front and quell fears that a Zionist state would be an irreverent and secular one, Ben-Gurion penned an urgent letter to ultra-Orthodox Jewish community leaders. In the proposal, known as the Status Quo Agreement, he asked for the leaders’ support in exchange for incorporating four major principles of Judaism—the day of rest (Shabbat), dietary laws (Kashrut), Marriage, and Education—into the future state’s laws. After an intense debate, the religious factions agreed, and the relationship between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox communities was born. The timing of the acquiescence proved essential, as the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) only stayed in the Middle East for two weeks.

Although the importance of any single action is unknown, the fruits of the Zionists’ efforts were revealed in UNSCOP’s September report, in which the group recommended the creation of an independent Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel came into existence—with David Ben-Gurion at its helm. True to his promise, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion quickly enacted each area of the Status Quo Agreement into law.

The Need for Modernization

Seventy-five years later, the set of four laws—originally forged by necessity—have become vestigial and outdated. While each has become divisive among Israelis, this article focuses specifically on one called the Shabbat (Sabbath) law. The Hours of Work and Rest Law of 1951 states that, “on the prescribed days of rest... the owners of a shop shall not do business in his shop.” The law also states that the prescribed day of rest “in the case of a Jew shall be the sabbath day... [and] in the case of a person other than a Jew, Friday, the Sabbath, or Sunday—whichever is primarily observed by him.” Today, however, these laws effectively prohibit non-essential public businesses or public transportation from operating between Friday and Saturday evening each week.

Several decades ago, the Israeli populace began to realize that this law disproportionately harmed secular and non-Jewish people in Israel's lower socioeconomic tiers—those who need to travel and rely on public transportation. Certainly, David Ben-Gurion did not intend for this consequence. Yet despite this new perspective on the Status Quo laws, updates have arrived slowly and almost exclusively in the form of Supreme Court decisions. Israeli premiers and parliaments alike have deftly avoided the issue for decades—a trend which many secular Jews see as going against the interests of the state and many of its voters.

Part of the reluctance for change is because state observance of Shabbat is well-liked by many Israelis, a majority of whom celebrate the weekly holiday themselves. The tranquility of quiet roads and empty shops provides a brief hiatus from the constant chaos of day-to-day life, and a period of rest gives citizens of any religion time to focus on family, friends, culture, and prayer. Along with these advantages, opponents of change often cite the importance of maintaining Jewish law in a Jewish state.

Many secular Israelis, however, insist that updating the existing laws would retain the Status Quo’s benefits while serving the interest of all of the state’s citizens. Those of this viewpoint argue that far from the forced Romanization of Judaea by Vespasian and Titus, modernization would not decrease the “Jewishness” of Israel—those who would choose to take the bus likely do not keep Shabbat anyways. Israeli Muslims (whose day of rest occurs on Fridays) and secular Jews already drive in the streets each Saturday—so the addition of a small number of public busses will barely be noticed. In this way, changes could protect the rights of the ultra-Orthodox while honoring Israel’s responsibility to care equally for all of its citizens, regardless of religion or orthodoxy.

The debates between conserving the old laws or revising them are starting to lean towards the latter. Indeed, individual cities are beginning to take charge, providing public transportation (only in secular neighborhoods) and reopening some non-essential businesses. Tel Aviv encapsulates this pivot toward local-level policy change. In December 2019, the coastal metropolis launched a public bussing program on Shabbat. The effort was a major success, with every bus filled and a supermajority of Tel Aviv’s citizens supporting the decision. Polls taken later in the month, however, unearthed a stark division between the opinions of the city’s secular and religious citizens. While 91 percent of secular respondents supported the policy change, that figure dropped to 3 percent for the highly religious. The ultra-Orthodox were so opposed, in fact, that five hundred protestors gathered outside the home of Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai. With such obvious division, why did Netanyahu not seek to change the Status Quo to reflect modern Israeli society? The problem is a complex one, but at its core, inaction was the force that Netanyahu (along with each premier before him) leveraged to remain in power.

An Election-Day Advantage

Ultra-Orthodox parties have historically acted as kingmakers in Israeli elections, and many speculate that the demographic’s power is on the rise. Israel’s political system requires a coalition with more than half of all seats in Parliament (the Knesset) to form a government with legislative power, and the leader of the majority coalition usually becomes the Prime Minister. Most Israeli elections are close contests between a left-aligned bloc and a right-aligned bloc, leaving the nation’s ultra-Orthodox parties to tip the scales. Armed with this knowledge, religious parties have historically mandated a “veto [of] any change in the Status Quo [Agreement] and are willing to bring down governments in its defense.” Thus, only leaders who forgo the ability to change the four intra-religious laws can form governments. It should be noted that this trend is not insignificant—every Israeli government in the state’s history, right and left-leaning alike, has included the religious parties.

As a recent example, the Shas party won seven seats in the 2015 Knesset. At the price of the ability to negotiate the Status Quo Agreement, the party offered these decisive seats to Netanyahu, who upon agreeing, captured a single-seat majority and formed a government. This same scene played out in each of Netanyahu’s premierships, with the decision being made that, “the [intra-religious] issue simply isn’t important enough to justify paying the potential price of losing ultra-Orthodox support” and throwing away the chance to form a government.

With approximately one sixth of the seats in the Knesset secured by his religious supporters, it took a coalition of left, right, and center parties to dethrone Netanyahu. While such a group formed on June 2, many question its future. The concern lies in demography—when David Ben-Gurion signed the Status Quo Agreement in 1947, the Jewish State’s inhabitants numbered nearly a million, of which only one percent were ultra-Orthodox. In the last 80 years, their population has grown exponentially.

The staggering growth is best shown by the fact that in 2000, the ultra-Orthodox made up 6 percent of Israel’s entire population. By 2015, that number had climbed to 12 percent. By 2065, estimates suggest that this percentage figure could triple. Thus, high ultra-Orthodox voter turnout amounts to a powerful political force—requiring the change bloc to be increasingly unified in order to secure a majority. Essentially, as the religious bloc gains seats in the Knesset through sheer population growth, their opposition will have to find increasingly broad support among all of Israel’s other citizens.

Deadlocked Polls Foreshadowed Change

Finding the necessary support for the change bloc among Arabs and secular Jews seems not to be an insurmountable problem. Despite the ultra-Orthodox demographic changes, April 2019 elections witnessed the religious coalition fail to form a government. After two more votes resulted in similar stalemates, Israel was, for the first time in its history, forced to appoint two alternating Prime Ministers (of which Netanyahu was one).

For bureaucratic reasons, this government dissolved in December, and the fourth round of elections in two years were slated for March 23. On election day, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud bloc contained his own party as well as three others, all of which were religious. In contrast, opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid amassed a diverse conglomerate of parties—eight in total—representing the left, right, and center. The first sentence of Lapid’s campaign platform on religion spoke to the unfairness of the Status Quo Agreement.

On June 2, Lapid revealed that his coalition had gathered 68 seats in the Knesset, well over the 61 required. On June 13, the Knesset approved Lapid and Naftali Bennett as alternating Prime Ministers. For the first time since 2009, Netanyahu fell from power. For the first time in history, the religious parties were not a part of the winning coalition.

The Scales Tip Secular

The chaotic nature of Israeli politics (with its over 30 political parties, complex domestic situation, and even more complex international situation) makes predictions difficult. Yet in hindsight Netanyahu’s tenure has been in jeopardy for several years—municipal actions of cities like Tel Aviv and four rounds of deadlocked elections indicate as much.

For the religious parties and their champions, however, the future likely looks even more problematic than the present. Demography is a complex business, but percentage-based population change tends to be logistic in nature, meaning that population growth rates resemble a bell curve—rising from zero to some peak, then receding back down to zero as the group approaches its saturation point. For those like Netanyahu, this means that the religious bloc will begin to gain political momentum more and more slowly. As the current elections show, he would need to procure the opposite effect to surpass the growing progressivism of the anti-Status Quo bloc.

Thus, the future looks bright for Yair Lapid and his newly formed change coalition. The scales have tipped away from the ultra-Orthodox—a trend which appears set to continue. The forces that led to a public bussing program in Tel Aviv in 2019, to four sets of elections in three years, and to the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership in 2021 are not yet at rest. Yair Lapid’s party—Yesh Atid—means “there is a future.” How exactly that future will play out remains nebulous, but one thing is certain: the force guiding Israeli politics is no longer the Status Quo Agreement.

Cover photo: Photo by Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.