(This is a revised version of the story that appeared in this week’s Chronicle, and contains the names of the sponsors of the program)
You might think, given the title of Gershom Gorenberg’s upcoming speech in Pittsburgh, “Israeli Democracy: What Threatens it and How to Save it,” that he wasn’t happy with the outcome of the recent election in Israel.
“Actually, I think the recent election was a very small, but very important step in the right direction — ambiguous as always,” the Israeli author and journalist told the Chronicle.
The title of his speech, which he will give Sunday, Feb. 10, 7 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation, refers to “a longer term analysis of trends in Israel.”
The event is sponsored by J Street Pittsburgh and co-sponsored by Congregation Dor Hadash, Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and the Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice of Temple Sinai.
He cites a series of policies that were carried out by the last government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which create “a long-term threat to democracy.”
He addresses those policies, and how to change them, in his new book, “The Unmaking of Israel,” which argues that as settlements expand and the occupation becomes more permanent, Israel’s democratic character and Jewish nature are eroding.
He proposes three “essential steps” to renew Israeli democracy:
• Reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. While he understands that negotiations are a two–way street, “I argue that the goal of Israeli policy should be reaching that agreement. … That certainly has not been the policy of the Netanyahu government in recent years.”
• Make a separation of state and synagogue. “I say this as a religious Jew,” Gorenberg said. “I think the current entanglement … is bad for both sides. On one hand it creates certain obvious violations of civil rights [such as] the case the rabbinate has control over marriage in the state, but there are wider implications.”
• Create equal rights for the Arab minority in Israel. “I certainly see Israel as a Jewish state; the public square is certainly a Jewish square,” Gorenberg said, “but that must be balanced with individual rights of other people in society.”
All of which brings him back to the recent election results, which Gorenberg says the media misinterpreted.
For one thing, he said too much attention was given to Naftali Bennett, lead of the right-wing Jewish Homeland party.
“What Bennett managed to do was take the rebranded National Religious Party back to historic strength, [but] he did not break out of that constituency,” Gorenberg said.
For another thing, the rise of the centrist bloc in the Knesset has been overstated.
“If you look closely at the results, you will see Yair Lapid’s success actually did not increase the size of the centrist bloc in the Knesset,” Gorenberg said.
The critical effects of the election were that the Likud bloc lost seats while two left-wing parties, Meretz and Avoda, made increases, both of which dispel the notion that Israel is a country lurching to the political right.
Gorenberg, a former associate editor of The Jerusalem Report, criticized the way the center and left parties ran their campaigns, calling them “extremely disorganized and fragmented.”
Now that Israeli President Shimon Peres has asked Netanyahu to form the next government, Gorenberg said the PM has two choices:
He could try to form a coalition with his 61-seat bloc “which would increase Israel’s international isolation,” or he could create a coalition with the parties of the center.
The question mark behind a centrist coalition is Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, whom Gorenberg called “the least qualified politician” on the party’s list.
“He hasn’t done anything yet except to show he can host a TV show,” Gorenberg said of Lapid, who was a TV journalist before entering politics.
He said Lapid is moving in the right direction on two critical issues, peace talks and synagogue-state separation. As for rights of Arabs in Israeli society, “Lapid has shown himself so far to be pretty deaf on that issue, so I certainly think treating Yair Lapid as the messiah is wrong on two counts. He is totally lacking in experience as a political figure, and the changes he wants to make are steps in the right direction, but they are not going far enough.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)