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What Matters Now to Haviv Rettig Gur: Taking advantage of this ‘moment of decisions’

This week in What Matters Now, ToI’s senior analyst explains why PM Benjamin Netanyahu must see the judicial overhaul through to stay in power – but still finds room for optimism

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a new weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

On Wednesday, stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons and horse-mounted police were deployed against Israelis protesting the judicial overhaul. Images of a wall of citizens of all ages holding Israeli flags, standing defiantly opposite a line of mounted armed law enforcement, were spotlighted in Israeli media and seen all over the world.

These images are galvanizing, and to many, terrifyingly indicative of what will follow once the government’s reforms are passed. Because despite the massive protests, according to many experts including The Times of Israel’s senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, they’re sure to go through.

This became more clear when, on Wednesday night, Israelis who had seen liberal Tel Aviv in turmoil that day, tuned in to primetime news at 8 p.m. to see whether this increased violence and chaos on the streets was a watershed moment. Would it prompt Prime Minister Netanyahu to slow down the judicial overhaul that was rocketing through the Knesset even as tear gas was deployed against Israeli citizens?

Netanyahu, like a father chiding his wayward children, compared the anti-overhaul protesters, who stopped traffic and disrupted the nation, to those rampaging Israelis who had torched the Arab village of Huwara on Sunday night.

Netanyahu is clearly determined to charge ahead with the overhaul package — even while parts of Israel are burning. So this week, we ask Rettig Gur how did we get here, and What Matters Now?

The following transcript has been lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: It’s another very packed Wednesday, with protests everywhere throughout the country, with legislation being pushed through in the Knesset, and with many, many leaders calling for and against the judicial overhaul.

Before we begin, I just want to quote what the former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said this week at a high-level conference — that essentially we are experiencing a regime coup, not so-called legal reform. And that it is the founding fathers of the nation’s desire that the attorney general and the High Court of Justice are the two lines of defense to protect democratic liberty. And essentially, he said that it is the High Court’s duty to strike down all of this judicial overhaul.

At the same time, we also reported that European diplomats are surprised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived inability to rein in his far-right coalition partners. And so, Haviv, I ask you, what matters now?

Haviv Rettig Gur: I think, Amanda, that we’re seeing a country tilting into a kind of, certainly, an emotional civil war. Whether violence actually erupts in the streets is something we don’t know yet. I hope not. We weathered the Disengagement, which was very painful, and the Oslo process, the Rabin assassination. We’re not a country that easily descends into civil war, even when the political rhetoric feels that way. But we’re in that political rhetoric, and I think that’s what matters now.

Mounted police are deployed as Israelis block a main road to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 1, 2023. (AP/Oded Balilty)

It’s not so much the substance. There are really two debates happening in Israel today. There’s a debate about the substance of the judicial reform, and then there’s a deeper debate about the intent and about the identity war, the culture war. The Israeli left feels that it is under siege and that the country is going to very, very quickly be taken from it. The Israeli right feels that it finally has a chance to correct a historic wrong that has reined it in undemocratically for two generations. And it’s been talking that way for two generations. And so everything is very, very visceral, and it’s very difficult to imagine any kind of dialogue that might create a better reform, the reform that a majority of the country really wants.

Now, Haviv, you have a very interesting hypothesis that even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to halt this train that is chugging right ahead, of a judicial overhaul, he actually cannot stay in power. So why do you say that?

I think there are two elements. The first element is the emotional one, and the second is the way that Israeli coalitions work. The emotional element is that when the Israeli political right — Yariv Levin, the Justice Minister; Simcha Rothman, the Religious Zionism Party member of Knesset, who chairs the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee — when they began pushing this legislation forward, they did so, in legislative terms with brutality. I mean, they scheduled the votes very, very quickly. They presented the bills one after the other in this kind of blitz. And these are dramatic, really dramatic reforms that go very, very far. And even many on the right have suggested we need a compromise. But they want to have a compromise the moment before it’s passed so that they’re in a favorable position to have the final result be closer to what they want.

But the result of those tactics has been to let half the country feel that there’s really a war against it. The fear on the left is very, very palpable. The problem with the emotional state generated by that political behavior is that it makes it very hard to dialogue. If the base is frightened, the political leadership has to show that it is standing up for the base. And when you’re standing up for the base and declaring this a war on democracy, it’s awfully hard to compromise.

And so we are seeing on both left and right — the right because the left won’t come to the table to compromise — the right is now left having to do the compromise itself and realizing that it itself doesn’t have the political window to do that, the political maneuvering room on the right-wing base. And so we’re actually in a position where both sides have climbed up these ladders that they can’t come down from.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (C) and MK Simcha Rothman during a vote in the Knesset, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The other problem is the coalition itself. The Netanyahu government is composed of different parts. They’re fairly uniform in their overall agenda, but they still are very different parties that represent different constituencies, and each constituency needs to pass a different part of the reform.

That is very interesting. Let’s just break it down very simply into each party that makes up the coalition and what they need and what they cannot let go of. So let’s start with Shas.

Shas has had a very interesting position on two points that it really can’t compromise on. The first point has to do with Basic Laws. Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, is a man who has been a serial indictee and convicted on corruption charges. 30 years ago, his corruption trial came to the Supreme Court, which required him in 1993 to be fired from the Rabin government. Destabilizing in many ways: the Rabin government actually slowing down the Oslo process, and in the eyes of many on the right, delegitimizing it, because Shas leaving the Rabin coalition cost the Oslo peace agreement a Jewish majority in the Knesset, which is very symbolic, certainly on the right.

And so 30 years ago, the question of Aryeh Deri’s corruption trial forcing him out of the cabinet was one of the moments when the Israeli Supreme Court really began what we now see as 30 years of just huge inflation of activism. Just the court filling every available space and really ruling on policy and just becoming this incredibly activist court the likes of which doesn’t really exist in the rest of the developed world. And now, of course, a couple of months ago, the Israeli Supreme Court, 30 years later, once again ruled that Aryeh Deri, because he is an ex-con, cannot sit in the cabinet.

And so Shas is now advancing an amendment to the Israeli Basic Laws that is personal. It’s an amendment to our constitutional laws that allows specifically for Aryeh Deri to be a minister in the cabinet. I happen to personally believe that the Supreme Court shouldn’t rule on who’s in the cabinet. That’s a decision that is so deeply political and so deeply part of the structure of politics that it should be something that the Knesset determines and that the government determines, and that this idea that it’s inappropriate or would somehow cheapen government or cause people to turn away from government in disgust is not a legal reasoning.

Aryeh Deri speaks during a Shas party faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s not that I disagree with the substance of the rights argument, that the court overstepped. It’s that Shas is using Basic Laws in ways that call into question the intent of the reform. One major plank of this reform is to make Basic Laws immune to judicial review. As Simcha Rothman has argued, Basic Laws are constitutional. That’s what the court has been saying for 30 years. Well, there’s no court on earth that can judicially review the constitution, that can declare the constitution unconstitutional. And the Israeli supreme court has claimed the right in principle — it’s never actually done it — but it’s claimed the right in principle, in other rulings, to declare a Basic Law unconstitutional. What the heck is that?

And so he [Rothman] wants to make Basic Laws immune to judicial review. That’s a piece of legislation that is part of this reform. And Shas needs that and demands it. It’s the only way to get Aryeh Deri into government. There’s just one problem: This reform does not include what they call rigidity, which is making a Basic Law difficult to overturn.

Israeli Basic Laws can pass any laws with simple majorities in the Knesset. And so you have a situation in which the Knesset, if Basic Laws are immune to judicial review, which again, I think they really should be, but because there’s no rigidity, you’re going to be able to pass the Basic Law for anything at any time. You’re just going to slap the words Basic Law at the top. And anything can become part of the constitution within a week, within a week of a little bit of voting in the plenum, any coalition by any majority.

And so this is something that Shas requires, they can’t compromise on, and they also can’t make Basic Laws into a real constitution that’s hard to change: Force the Knesset to change the Basic Law by 80 votes out of 120, and then the government has to reach over the aisle and get the opposition in, and then it’s hard to change Basic Laws.

Folks, this is not theoretical. Basic Laws have been amended in Israel 22 times in the last five years. In other words, the Knesset itself doesn’t treat the Basic Laws as a constitution, but it’s elevating their status to constitutional status only when it comes to judicial review. So the reform that’s needed, and that just won’t allow it to happen, is to make Basic Laws immune, but also make them hard to change.

MK Moshe Gafni, right, and MK Yitzhak Goldknopf speak during a meeting of the United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Okay, so in the meantime, the Deri bill has not passed forward from committee — this week at least, but we’ll see. To be continued. Let’s take another party. Let’s take United Torah Judaism. What do they need?

Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism has been very explicit about this. The Likud and Religious Zionism have been talking about appointing conservative justices to the court. That’s their priority. So they want the part of this reform that’s very important to them, the committee to appoint judges, the Judicial Selection Committee. They want to reform that and change that fundamentally.

But Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party says, what do I care if the judges are Meretz judges from far left, so to speak, or Likud-appointed judges? None of those judges might leave intact some of the legislation that I think are fundamental to my way of life. For example, a blanket exemption to the military draft or any national service draft for ultra-Orthodox men. For example, a strengthening of the Israeli state rabbinate, which is unequal. In other words, if you go before a religious court in Israel, you do not have a situation of equality, not between men and women, not between different faiths. There is a Jewish Orthodox rabbinical court. There’s a Sharia court for Muslims. There’s a Catholic canon law court. And that whole religious system, which exists in a great deal of the Middle East: it exists in Lebanon, we inherited it from the Ottomans. That is something the ultra-Orthodox are very invested in, but the rest of Israel doesn’t like. And a Supreme Court, even of conservative judges, might think that there are problems. There are problems of equality, problems of basic due process. And so Gafni says, to protect the things that are most sacred to me, I need an override.

Part of this reform is the power given to the Knesset to override a Supreme Court decision by 61 votes. In other words, the minimum votes a government must anyway have in the Knesset just to be the government. And so any government will have 61 votes to overturn any declaration by the Supreme Court of any decision or any legislation as unconstitutional or unfair or unequal or any of those standards that they might employ. Any government will just be able to say to the Supreme Court, that was a very nice opinion you just wrote. We’re going to treat it as an opinion. You can go away. Right? Just completely ignore the Supreme Court.

And Gafni says, it doesn’t matter to me who the judges are. It doesn’t matter to me what you call your Basic Laws. There is an old saying by Deri and by other ultra-Orthodox MKs over the last 20 years, I wouldn’t legislate the Ten Commandments as a Basic Law because it has nothing to do with what’s in the law, it’s how the Court will interpret it.

So they can compromise on the Basic Laws. They can compromise on the identities and the appointments of judges. They can’t compromise on giving the Knesset coalition the ability to override any Supreme Court decision because they can force a coalition to vote with them. They can’t force a court, even a conservative court.

As opposed to that, we have Religious Zionism, which is basically, at least in my understanding, all about the judicial appointments, right?

Religious Zionism and Likud, or more specifically, Simcha Rothman from Religious Zionism and Yariv Levin from Likud are basically a single camp. There are a few minor differences between some of the bills that Rothman proposed versus those Levin proposed. But their focus — and this is something that’s been noted by many, many journalists who have spoken with them, and they themselves will never admit that they were open for compromise on the other issues — but quietly behind closed doors, they are telling people that the key for them is conservative judges.

Religious Zionism party chief Betzalel Smotrich and party members in Efrat in the West Bank, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Part of the reform says that we’re going to cancel the court’s ability to use the reasonableness test, right. Ruling that a government decision or piece of legislation is unreasonable and thereby canceling it. Well, they’re going to cancel the reasonableness test. So the court can’t rule things as being unreasonable. But that’s not something that either Yariv Levin or Simcha Rothman think is essential to the reform because judges are very, very good with words. Lawyers generally are very good with words. And if they are no longer allowed to throw something out because it’s unreasonable, then they’ll throw it out because it’s disproportionate, or they’ll find other legal tests and legal principles and legal words. And so you haven’t really limited the court by saying they can’t do reasonableness.

The one thing they need is to actually appoint conservative judges. Those judges actually have to be people who they choose because of their belief in judicial restraint. And so for them, the fundamental reform, the part of the reform that is the red line, the thing that for them defines the reform is this change to the judicial selection committee that they’re advancing in which the coalition will have a majority and be able to appoint without the opposition, without any other institution — the bar association, the Supreme Court justices, delegation on the committee — without any other institution, be able to appoint any judge they see fit to the Supreme Court. That is their red line.

We have these different camps that somehow, these different cats, were herded into the coalition, and now they’re all in some kind of sack that our prime minister needs to keep together and not let unravel. We are seeing, I don’t know, maybe signs of it unraveling already, when this week, two members of the government maybe quit. And I’m talking, of course, about Noam head Avi Maoz and the Minister for the Meron Pilgrimage Meir Porush from the United Torah Judaism party. Do you see this as some kind of sign of the coalition unraveling at all?

No, I think at this particular stage, these are threats. Avi Maoz, his issue is fighting a culture war against gender theory and against gay rights and against the whole new sort of the last 30 years of the flourishing of the whole gay rights movement. He believes that that is the end of Western civilization, and that is the one issue of his political party. And he was appointed a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office. And one of his top priorities was to change “parent one” and “parent two” in state forms to father and mother so that we don’t accidentally have two fathers or two mothers put their names on a form that any child needs to register for school or whatever. And apparently, the government bureaucracy doesn’t want to enact that change, maybe due to the ideology of some bureaucrats, maybe just because it’s hard to do it on the computer and maybe because nobody cares what he thinks. He’s a deputy minister without a specific job title in the prime minister’s office, not even a ministry. So he is very angry. And he published a statement yesterday that said, I haven’t been able to change anything, including this question of what’s written on government forms; parent one, parent two, or father, mother and if I can’t, I’ll just be in the Knesset. I don’t need to be in the government.

The annual Tel Aviv Pride parade. (Courtesy: LGBTQ Center Tel Aviv)

Now, that’s a great idea. He should be in the Knesset and not in the government just because he doesn’t have a real job in the government. But that’s true of many ministers, of course. But he has 48 hours by law from when he announces his resignation to when he has actually resigned. That’s tonight. Many, many, many observers believe that this is a maneuver. He is threatening Netanyahu. He has already, by the way, just to not terrify his own base, he has already said, I will be a loyal member of the coalition in the Knesset. So even if he resigns, nothing really changed. And Netanyahu might give him some kind of powers that he already gave him but was lying about, was pretending, and now he’ll give it to him for real maybe.

Meir Porush is in a slightly more complex situation because the Meron pilgrimage every year, of course, was the site of a catastrophic disaster [in April 2021] with dozens dead. And the ultra-Orthodox parties have said, we have to build this properly. A lot of the other agencies of the state that have responsibility for safety on that site want to also have the power to actually manage it, because the police are absolutely frightened that certain ministers, certain agency infighting, will create a new disaster. And everyone will come to the police and say, you’re ultimately responsible for safety at big public events. And so the police have actually been difficult to work with because they want the power to be able to . . . since they’re going to have public responsibility, they want the power to also make sure it’s safe. And Porush feels that he hasn’t been able to work with all these different institutions. And so he resigned, which again is as much a threat as Avi Maoz.

Shas has already announced that Religious Affairs Minister Michael Malchieli will already take over. So maybe it’s a real resignation, maybe not. It solves no problem, and he’s not leaving the coalition.

So these are minor bumps on the road. Not anything serious, with, by the way, minor players dealing with minor issues, tragic issues in the case of Meron, but very, very secondary issues.

But on judicial reform, the threats are very real. Gafni said before entering the coalition back in the coalition negotiating days, if I don’t have an override, that’s the condition for United Toward Judaism entering the coalition in the first place. Yariv Levin has told Netanyahu and then told the press that he told Netanyahu, that if he doesn’t get the substance of this reform passed, the major substance, if that’s lost in any negotiating process Netanyahu triggers, he resigns, which is a terrible blow to Netanyahu in his base, in his party.

And so there is a threat, even if it’s not necessarily signaled by these sort of bit players right now who are making noise.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset plenum, February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

So essentially what you’re saying is that this overhaul will likely go through because there’s no sign that Netanyahu wants to step down from power. So is it the end of the world? Should we all be taking our money out of the country like so many people I know are doing already. Should we be buying our apartments in Greece to get our golden visa and to get an entree into the European Union? Is it the end of the world here?

The simple answer is no. The simple answer is not at all. Not even close. Basically, Netanyahu’s situation is exactly like you said, every party needs a different piece of this reform. And so there isn’t a lot of room to compromise for Netanyahu or for the coalition generally, even though each political party’s separate part of the coalition is talking about all the things they can compromise on, but because they’re all different things, pieces of the overall reform, the overall reform actually cannot be reined in too much by the politics of the coalition itself. And so what we’re likely to see is in the next six weeks or so depending on some of the scheduling, but basically in the next six to eight weeks, this version of this reform, the version that has terrified half the country, actually pass into law. That is a very, very likely scenario. I would even say it’s more likely than not.

We’re seeing already chaos in the streets today. In particular, we’re recording on Wednesday, and there are public disturbances throughout the country. But even earlier in the week, of course, we saw in the aftermath of the killing of the two brothers that there was, I would call it a pogrom that took place in an Arab village in which, dare we say it, the Otzma Yehudit electorate stormed an Arab town and torched it. And one man died from that. What can Netanyahu do now? Does he have any credibility now that he’s, I don’t know, sold part of his principles in order to push through this overhaul?

He has handed a lot of the specific control of the West Bank, including law enforcement in the West Bank, to [Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotoich, who for the 12 hours during and after the attack on Huwara were just completely missing between the two of them. They put out a single Tweet and then Netanyahu at midnight — the attack began at 06:00 p.m. — at midnight, Netanyahu convened his own security briefing with the heads of the security services and essentially took over the situation. Since then, Likud has been briefing reporters about anger at Ben Gvir especially, and his behavior. Otzma Yehudit and Likud are right now very angry at each other. Otzma Yehudit didn’t show up for an important coalition vote yesterday in the Knesset as a statement to Likud that they’re upset. And so Huwara really did step in, sort of cut into the coalition and begin to sort of pry apart a little bit. There’s a lot of mutual recriminations happening a little bit behind the scenes inside the coalition.

But there is a sense, and a lot of it is Ben Gvir and Smotritch and certainly around the West Bank, but also on the question of the judicial reform, that Netanyahu is not the strong party here. He is not able to, as you said, herd cats. It feels like herding cats and he’s failing to do so.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir in the Tel Aviv police command center, during demonstrations in the city against the coalition’s judicial overhaul, March 1, 2023. (via Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

We have a state budget now that has just ballooned and by tens of billions of shekels in the middle of an inflationary period and against the warnings of the Bank of Israel and the treasury and, frankly, global banks and investment firms. And so there is a sense that the coalition, the tail is wagging the dog, so to speak, and the prime minister is not fully in charge. That is a sense on the right. You hear that in Likud. You don’t just hear that from [opposition leader] Yair Lapid, who’s supposed to say that no matter what’s happening, right?

Look, I think one of the great questions that Israelis are asking is how do we separate out the human folly and chaos from genuine danger? Is the country about to lose its democracy? Because whether Netanyahu has firm control of his coalition or not, there have been chaotic governments in the past. Right? But is this judicial reform going to leave us without any checks and balances? Are we really, in a moment of absolute historic danger?

Should the Supreme Court, as Mandelblit said, consider it its duty to force a constitutional crisis? Are we at “revolution time”?

I think that if it tries to do that, then that will be a terrible tactical mistake. It’ll also be a principled mistake. Let me frame it the way I’m thinking about it and why I am calm, even as the entire country isn’t. And maybe it’s because I’m the idiot, which is entirely possible.

But every single issue that is now burning on the Israeli agenda, that is now tearing the Israeli people apart, isn’t new. Nothing that’s happening now is new. The Supreme Court fight and the debate and the screaming and the shouting and the questioning of whether we have a democracy and where it’s going, all of it is very, very old. And the question of the West Bank, is it a disaster that there was this massive attack and burning of a Palestinian village while the ministers who have been screaming about how they’re in control of the West Bank for the last two months disappeared in the middle of the crisis? Is that a disaster or is it finally a reckoning?

In other words, it put the West Bank and the Palestinian situation on the agenda in a way that it hadn’t been on the agenda before. We have 13 Israelis murdered in terror attacks over the last month, and that has caused a lot of anger at this government, including on the right, asking, where are you? How are you reining in this terror? How are you cracking down on it? And there is a sense that the government isn’t doing that well. When there were terror attacks under the Bennett-Lapid government, the first person to scream at every terror attack about how the government was collaborating with terrorists was Benjamin Netanyahu. And now the Israeli right is saying 13 dead in a month is something the government maybe should get on right and take care of.

Settlers pray the evening service, as cars and homes torched by settlers burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

But Huwara also showcased the Jewish side of that. There is lawlessness in the West Bank, especially in certain parts of the settlement movement, and a leadership now in the coalition that has Netanyahu essentially on these questions hostage. He can’t do much to rein them in. And they support — tacitly or implicitly — a lot of the political forces on the ground. The settlement movement, that branch, that very radical branch of the settlement movement that is engaging in this violence, and now that this violence has spiked in that very big and dramatic and photogenic way that every Israeli saw that on television, and there’s a Palestinian town burning literally in the night while the Israeli rampagers are praying their evening prayer in the burning town, people are having a new conversation.

Every single question about the West Bank, about the Palestinians, questions that Smotritch has no answers. Not for the Palestinians and not for the rest of the Israelis. Where are we going in the West Bank? There have been a couple of interviews of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotritch over the last month or so, where they just were asked point blank: Do you guys want to annex the West Bank? Do you want to take it all over? There’s no Palestinian people. We don’t have to worry about Palestinian statehood or separation of any kind, not even in the Trump plan version, certainly not in a 1967 lines version that maybe Meretz wants. You just don’t want to talk about a Palestinian state of any kind or Palestinian independence of any kind. So what happens to Palestinians? What happens to the 3 million Palestinians that we rule over in the West Bank? And they were unable to give an answer, and they’re sitting there hemming and hawing on television, and these videos circulate in the Israeli social media space.

And so there are these big questions about the court. This is a court that is massively powerful, overpowerful, incredibly activist, and the reform to limit it is so extreme that it essentially neuters it completely. The Knesset will simply be able to utterly ignore the court and will no longer have a court of any kind, not on the American scale, not on the British scale. We’ll have a court that really can’t step in and be a check in any way on the Knesset.

A general view of the Supreme Court hall during a ceremony for outgoing Supreme Court Judge Uri Shoham in Jerusalem on August 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

All of these big questions that have been real are now coming to a head. This is a moment of decisions — that’s not a bad thing. Moments of decision are painful, but they’re not bad. One of the worst parts of this budget that was presented to the Knesset yesterday was that a lot of the subsidies for Haredi men so that they cannot work have been expanded. We’re going to be spending billions on ensuring my taxes are going to ensure that other people in this country don’t have to work for a living, and I’m going to have to work to pay for that. That is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable morally. It’s not sustainable politically. I’m a little bit angry about this budget. I, an ordinary Israeli, who pays high taxes. But also it’s not sustainable numerically: Mathematically, Haredim used to be 5% of the population. We could afford it. They’re 15% now and they’re growing faster than the rest. We can’t afford it pretty soon.

The Haredi community in Israel has gotten used to irresponsibility. They have no responsibility for its national security, no responsibility for running a serious economy, for fiscal restraint, for thinking carefully about the future of the welfare state. They’re growing too big to be irresponsible. Is that a terrible thing? Is that a disaster or is that a moment of decision? And so on all these questions on the West Bank, on the Supreme Court, on separation of powers, on our Constitution generally, which we never sat down and thought carefully about and never made a decision about, on the Haredi society that has grown too big to remain a question mark. Israel is reaching a point of decision, and I think it will come through.

You think Israel will come through? Everything you’re describing is a chaotic dust storm of terribleness, and yet you’re an optimistic person, and so am I, of course. Anyone who has multiple children in this country, we are optimistic people. But is our Zionism dying? Are we watching it go up in flames? And are the real Zionists, those who are leaving, fleeing?

First of all, I don’t know if the numbers are at all serious, are at all large. Israelis are — it’s very strange because we are a country in a permanent state of constant crisis, and right now those crises are really at a head and everyone feels them very viscerally — they’re also one of the happiest peoples on earth, according to UN well-being indices that are published every year. I mean, literally the top 10 countries in the world, I think the top four are all Scandinavian. The highest-ranked country on that list, I believe number six, if I’m remembering right, from two months ago, the highest country on the list that isn’t Northern European is Israel.

Israelis have strong, tight-knit communities and families, which is not true of most of the west. Most of the west is very mobile. Most people don’t live with their parents and grandparents. Most grandparents don’t help raise kids. And so families are smaller. And this is just what sociologists call social capital in Israel, which is enormous. Jews and Arabs alike, large, tight-knit, traditional families, plus a half of the country that’s very liberal. And you can live in Tel Aviv and be as liberal as any Western country. And more traditional parts, more traditional areas of the country and communities. Israel is very diverse, and Israel is incredibly strong and happy, and that’s measurable scientifically.

Ultra-Orthodox men, dressed in costumes to celebrate Purim, pictured in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, on February 28, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

And we’re going through these terrible crises. And so you have to ask yourself, are we collapsing, like some of these people say, or parts of the chattering classes. Or, are we reaching again these points of decision in which this country has to make these choices, and those choices are going to be painful. Growing up is painful. Taking responsibility is agony. The worst thing that ever happened to me was growing up.

But the point is that doesn’t make it not critical and not a source of real deep happiness, even if it’s hard. There’s a wonderful Israeli Anglophone essayist and writer Hillel Halkin, who recently wrote all of his anxieties in this amazing essay in the Jewish Review of Books, in which he argued that Israel is actually facing collapse. And a lot of people wrote that, no, he’s wrong, and you should be more optimistic. But he’s a man with a deep sense of the deeper sort of currents of Israeli culture and of Jewish culture. And in his response essay to the optimists, he said something that I thought was really interesting because it’s kind of a distilling of optimism — optimism that acknowledges that everything could completely collapse.

By the way, you’re not going to die, right? We’re still going to be here. We’re still going to fight for whatever we think is the best, right? Everything still remains. There is no apocalyptic cliff. There’s always the next morning. The sun always shines, and there’s always good to be fought for, no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on.

And he [Halkin] has this wonderful paragraph that I have here about the sort of radical fringes of the well, not really radical, I mean, about the many protesters who are saying we’re turning into a dictatorship. And he says, “The liquidation of democracy can have horrendous results, but it’s reversible, and it doesn’t spell the end of nations. Argentina survived its junta, Greece its generals and Spain quickly caught up with the rest of Europe after 30 years under Franco. Israel is not, in the worst of cases, about to become a dictatorship.”

He writes this paragraph. Is that optimistic or pessimist? I don’t know. But he writes this paragraph in the middle of an essay when he says, no, actually, this country is turning into something worse than what it was. And a lot of it is religion, and a lot of it is a tilt toward conservatism that is not tolerant and not tolerant of half the country, never mind of Palestinians or never mind of the world. And he’s very worried about this country. And then he says, but you know what? What’s the worst-case scenario? We will survive the worst-case scenario.

Times of Israel Senior Analyst Haviv Rettig Gur. (Ariel Jerozolimski)

There is a famous pop song by Arik Einstein, one of the great singers of Israeli history, called Shir Hashaiyara, the “Song of the Caravan,” about the immigration to the Land of Israel from all the dozens of different countries the Jews fled in the 20th century. And one of the most powerful lines and wonderful lines in that song is she — she, being Israel — is stronger than all of our weaknesses.

We’re going to fight, we’re going to scream. We’re a society that, for all the anxiety and insanity of its public discourse, is measurably, one of the happiest in the world.

I don’t know how that works. Maybe the two are connected. Maybe if Americans were less calm — they’re not calm, they’re divided as well. But we have these incredible strengths alongside these absolute weaknesses and indecision that have lasted generations and from which Israelis have suffered, and, of course, Palestinians have suffered terribly in all of everything everybody knows. And yet we have these strengths that will still be there when we drive ourselves into that brick wall. Maybe it’s time to punch through some brick walls and get to those decisions.

Haviv, thank you very much.

Thanks, Amanda.

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