To Salvage Its Democracy, Israel Must Be Divided Into Cantons

05/27/2015 09:00 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

It turns out that liberal democracy has its limits; it can't bridge yawning gaps -- even within Israel's Jewish community, for example.

For a number of years I have argued that Israel's internal differences -- not only between Jews and Arabs, but among Jews -- are so large that the country should be divided into cantons linked in a federative structure. Last year, with Haaretz's Judd Yadid, I presented a detailed proposal on how such a cantonal structure could look.

The first weeks of Benjamin Netanyahu's new government show that such a proposal is timelier than ever. Barely sworn in, its statements, policy proposals and steps show that it might use its tenure, brief as it may be, to irreparably damage Israel's democracy.

I'd like to present an unorthodox explanation for why Netanyahu's team is doing this, and why a federative structure might salvage Israel's democracy.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan has taken the Knesset podium to defend his ministry's decision to provide separate buses for Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. But the government halted this plan because it realized the catastrophic international repercussions of a step reeking of apartheid -- even when rationalized by security measures -- not because it considers the move grievously wrong. (Incidentally, the army was strictly against the separate bus policy.)

Likud's Tzipi Hotovely is deputy foreign minister, which, given that there is no foreign minister, means she is acting foreign minister. Hotovely has told the Foreign Ministry staff that Israeli ambassadors should tell foreign governments the truth -- that God gave all of Israel to the Jewish people and therefore it is simply ours by right.

The new culture minister, Miri Regev, has said she does not intend to allow art that harms Israel's image. "If I need to censor something, I will," she said.

And the new justice, minister, Ayelet Shaked, has declared that governance must return to the people's control by working toward the abolition of the Supreme Court's ability to block legislation.

Add to this that Netanyahu, who has kept the Communications Ministry under his personal command, has already taken steps to interfere with the press. For example, he is putting pressure on Channel 10, which he has tried to close down for a while now.

Let me add the cherry from outside the coalition on the icing of this lovely cake: Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who single-handedly forced Netanyahu to form a coalition based on 61 MKs by not joining.

He now attacks his former boss for having scheduled a meeting with Ayman Odeh, the leader of the United Arab List -- a meeting required by democratic etiquette. Lieberman called on Netanyahu to cancel the meeting because it "legitimizes the fifth column operating in the Knesset."

Nothing in this potpourri of events should be surprising. The lamentations by Israeli liberals that the right has become racist and is trying to undermine democracy have been voiced for a long time -- and for good reason.

But lamentations won't help; we need to look at the facts without blinking. Hotovely genuinely believes that God gave all of Israel to the Jews. Regev deeply believes that Israeli liberals harm Israel. And Ben-Dahan has explained his hierarchy of human beings from Jewish men to Jewish women and Jewish gays -- all superior to gentiles.

As for Lieberman, I'm less sure, as he's more of a consummate manipulator than an ideologue. But his rabid attacks questioning Israeli Arabs as legitimate citizens certainly reflect a strong current in Israeli society, which is why he keeps voicing them.

The right vs. 'the white tribe'

As a liberal I am entitled to despise the views of Ben-Dahan, Hotovely, Lieberman and Regev, but I am committed to safeguarding their right to hold them. Incidentally, I assume they despise my views, but they in turn are required to respect my freedom of thought and expression.

Still, differences in core values even among Israel's Jews have become so vast as to make it nearly impossible to live in the same polity. To safeguard Israel's democracy, we need to get a deeper understanding for the reasons the right attacks democratic institutions.

The right feels that these institutions have been used to impose the views of secular liberals, who judging from the composition of the Knesset, are a minority of about one-third of the country as reflected by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni's Zionist Union, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Meretz.

The mainstream press, the judiciary and academia are overwhelmingly liberal, so they are perceived as representing what is called "the white tribe." They therefore no longer see liberal democracy's values and institutions as impartial tools, but as the tools of the liberal Ashkenazi elites to impose their views on the majority.

They do not realize that the liberal tradition since Thomas Hobbes has been devised as a structure that can enable groups with different beliefs to live in coexistence instead of perpetually threatening or fighting one another.

But it turns out that liberal democracy has its limits; it can't bridge yawning gaps between totally different cultures -- and Israel seems to have arrived at such a stage. All groups feel that their way of life is threatened; we liberals have felt since Netanyahu's first government in the 1990s that we must fight for the survival of our core principles. And much has been made of the fact that many young Israeli liberals prefer to live in Berlin because they can't take it here anymore.

But let's not forget that the Hasidic Belz community last year threatened to leave Israel if its youngsters were forced to serve in the army, because this community genuinely feel that its way of life is threatened by military service.

Traditionalist Mizrahim represented by Shas feel that a secular Ashkenazi elite tramples on their culture, beliefs and values. And Israeli Arabs, for very understandable reasons, feel that the country does not accord them a life of dignity and equality.

What then can we do? We can continue Israel's culture wars, wearing us all down and making us miserable. Or we can say it's time to give some breathing space to one another.

How a Federative Structure can Save Israel's Democracy

A federative structure of provinces that roughly reflects Israel's core groups might do exactly that. The cantons should reflect existing cultural groups as well as possible, while as much power and financial resources as possible should be devolved to the regional governments. As in Switzerland, the United States and Germany, the federal government should only be entrusted with what the regional ones can't possibly do on their own.

Such a partition is less outlandish than it sounds. When it comes to education, Israel long ago acknowledged de facto that there is no sufficient common ground for coexistence. Four distinct education systems coexist in Israel: the secular, the religious-Zionist, the ultra-Orthodox (actually two ultra-Orthodox, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi), and the Arab.

In such a federative structure, Regev could fund whatever she wants in her own canton. Liberal artists could move a few kilometers away into the Aviv or Carmel provinces, where they could express themselves freely. Vice versa the many members of Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi who are offended by homosexuality; they could easily move a few kilometers into Yehuda Province, where there would probably be no gay parties or parades.

We could finally stop bickering about which rabbis can conduct weddings legally, whether you need a rabbi at all, whether pigs can be raised and pork sold, and whether you can sell leavened bread during Passover. The provinces would determine these issues based on their majorities; the federation would not be involved.

I know that this proposal has scant chance of being implemented, and I have no illusion that it will solve all of Israel's vast problems. But I mean it very seriously.

Israelis are wary. Not only does Israel face genuine external threats in an environment that becomes more chaotic by the year, but Israelis feel that instead of finding a safe haven in their own country, they need to fight for their identities and way of life. While we can't make the external threats go away, we might at least live and let each other live.