What Kind of State Will Israel Be?

A speech by President Reuven Rivlin raises troubling questions about the country's identity and stability.

Israeli ultra-orthodox Jewish residents arrive to cast their ballot at a polling station in Bnei Brak, near the city of Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015. Israelis are voting in a close-fought election pitting the centre left against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ruled out a Palestinian state in a last-ditch appeal to the far-right. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN        (Photo credit should read GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli ultra-orthodox Jewish residents arrive to cast their ballot at a polling station in Bnei Brak, near the city of Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015. Israelis are voting in a close-fought election pitting the centre left against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ruled out a Palestinian state in a last-ditch appeal to the far-right. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN (Photo credit should read GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)

If you’re at all interested in the future of the State of Israel, you need to read the speech that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin delivered to the 15th Annual Herziliya Conference in early June on what he termed the “real Israel” — a country he argues is now divided into four tribes growing increasingly apart.

As far as I can tell, the speech received almost no attention in the U.S. media. I follow Israel closely, but I missed it, too. Why? Most likely because when it comes to Israel, the Iranian nuclear issue has sucked up all the available oxygen and maybe because everyone and his brother has been crying wolf on the demographic challenges Israel faces for a very long time.

The Israeli press covered it, though without the intensity one might have imagined given the subject matter and the speaker. Haaretz columnist Asher Schechter noted how remarkable the speech was: “Rivlin told the uncomfortable truth about the country of which he is president. He told its people that the country many of them think they live in does not exist.” On the other hand, an op-ed by Ben-Dror Yemeni in YnetNews took Rivlin to task for failing to recognize that 50 percent of the Ultra Orthodox do identify as Zionists and more than half of Arab youth would like to volunteer for some kind of national service.

As a longtime Likud member and one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals, Rivlin is certainly no dove. And while the position of Israel’s president carries very little real political power, the speech is preternaturally honest and brutally frank for any mainstream politician, powerful or not.

Sudden transformations in politics, governance, and nations are rare and I generally don’t believe in them or the “game-changer” trope that is common in modern politics. But that’s what Rivlin describes — demographics that are creating “a new Israeli order,” what he regards not as some “apocalyptic prophecy” but a reality that’s already arrived.

In his speech, which was delivered in front of Israel’s political and security establishment, Rivlin began mundanely enough by describing the changing composition of a typical Israeli first-grade class. In the 1990s, that class would have comprised a large secular Zionist majority with three accompanying minority groups: national religious Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Israeli Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox). Today, that same class looks radically different, Rivlin said: 38 percent are still secular Israelis, 15 percent are considered “national religious,” 25 percent are Arabs, and nearly the same number is Haredim. The result, the president argued, is that there is no longer a clear Israeli majority. Instead, he sees four population groups or “tribes” different in character but also growing closer in size.

Numbers are always open to question. Birthrates are variable. But the trend lines over time reflect a pretty dramatic change in the character of the stakeholders that comprise Israeli society. According to a 2012 report by Israel’s Central Bureau of statistics, by 2059, Israeli Arabs will make up 23 percent of the population and Haredi Jews 27 percent. Israeli society has been riven by differences since the inception of the state. And those divides have grown and also include differences between left and right, rich and poor, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. But Rivlin’s takeaway is that unlike those divides, the current differences between the four tribes are much harder to bridge.

He asserts:

“Each tribe has its own media platforms, newspapers they read, the television channels they watch. Each tribe also has its own towns, Tel Aviv is the town of one tribe, just as Umm el Fahm is the town of another, as is Efrat, and Bnei Brak. Each represents the town of a different tribe. In the State of Israel the basic systems that form people’s consciousness are tribal and separate, and will most likely remain so. I do not want to oversimplify with rough generalizations. Obviously, this division is neither absolute nor all-embracing. No population sector is in itself a single element, but rather comprises a varied range of members; and there are of course, also common areas between the sectors. However, it is also important we do not ignore, whether through blindness or denial, that it is not the marginal elements of each sector that create the huge gaps between them.”

Rivlin worries that these new divides are fundamentally changing the nature of the country — its politics, economics, morals, security, and identity. “Do we have a shared civil language, a shared ethos?” asked Rivlin. “Do we share a common denominator of values with the power to link all these sectors together in the Jewish and democratic State of Israel?” And while in the past, Rivlin argued, the Israeli military could help create personal bonds and a national identity, today more than half of the population doesn’t serve in uniform.

What to do? Rivlin’s prescription is bold but (perhaps because he’s expected to rise above the political fray) lacking in detailed policy prescription. He describes four pillars on which any effort to remedy the dangers of the new demography must be based: 1) Each tribe must have a sense of security and not have its identity threatened; 2) Each must share a sense of responsibility for the future of the Israeli polity as a whole; 3) Each must have equity and equality; and 4) Each must help in creating a shared Israeli character. Presumably, Rivlin means an identity that preserves Israel’s Jewish and democratic character — but goes beyond it as well.

Rivlin’s solution feels utopian at best. To lay the foundation for such an outcome you’d need leaders of truly uncommon boldness and vision in all Israel’s communities, and a less threatening neighborhood to make this dramatic social experiment even remotely possible. And let’s not forget, this social engineering would have to place within a state that’s also dealing with the challenge of reconciling its own statehood with the challenge of dealing with Palestinian aspirations for their own state.

So, are we to accept Rivlin’s premise that the Israeli enterprise is doomed if it cannot rebuild national consensus? More than 60 years after its creation, neither the borders nor the identity of the Israeli state are fixed in the mind of large numbers of Israelis. Can it reconcile its internal divisions even imperfectly to create some semblance of shared identity and functional community?

In 1843, roughly 67 years after independence, the United States was a very different country than it is today, too. Neither its identity nor borders were fixed, either. African-Americans were slaves; thousands of Native Americans had and would be forcibly removed from their ancestral lands; white males without property had only recently been enfranchised, women were not even close. Nations evolve over time: sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Israel isn’t America. It doesn’t have the luxury of fish for neighbors to its east and west and non-predatory, hostile neighbors to its north and south. Indeed, Israel lacks the size, natural resources, the unique political system, and security that one might assume is necessary to create something akin to a big tent where various groups can interact with an accepted national identity — however imperfectly. The odds for such a transition don’t look good. But then again, the chances of creating the Israeli state in the first place didn’t look that good, either. The challenge for Israel isn’t whether the state will continue to exist. Indeed underestimating Israel’s resilience and capacity to adapt would be a mistake. Israel is here to stay. The challenge is what kind of state and nation it will be.

Image credit: GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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