Whither Israel: A tale of two cities?
The most existential news from Israel thus far in 2023 is not about ongoing tit-for-tat violence between Israelis and Palestinians; instead, it is about the Netanyahu government’s proposed “judicial reform” legislation, which appears to have two goals: to prevent Israel’s judiciary from serving as a check on the Knesset’s (Israel’s parliament) power and to ensure Prime Minister Netanyahu’s corruption trial does not disqualify him from holding office.
The “judicial reform” legislation has been met with strong opposition in and out of the Knesset. Over the last two months, tens of thousands of demonstrators have protested almost daily against the proposed legislation. Israel’s President has expressed growing alarm about the legislation, saying recently he feared it might cause a civil war in the country. Most recently, members of Israel’s military reserves have taken steps to demonstrate their opposition to the proposed “reforms.”
Israelis on both sides of the issue claim the legislation as being potentially pivotal to the country’s future. Those supporting the government believe the Supreme Court has been too liberal and needs to be reined in so it cannot challenge government efforts to deal with challenges they believe face the country. Those opposed to the legislation claim it will undermine Israel’s future as a democracy and be a death knell for minority rights.
To an outsider who has visited the country from time to time for more than four decades, Israel’s present is a tale of two very different cities: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If Israel is approaching a pivotal point in its history, the question is will that pivot lead to a future more in the direction of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?
To a visitor in the early 1980s, Tel Aviv was a modest, low-rise town, which seemed rather sleepy. Today, it is a bright, Mediterranean city that has grown up and out. It hums with vitality, ideas, and business. It is home to the offices of global and local tech, venture capital, and professional services firms. Tel Aviv is also the center of Israel’s scientific and high-tech research and home to a lively arts scene. Tel Aviv’s well-developed hospitality industry attracts a global clientele to its hotels, restaurants, museums, galleries, and beaches.
Tel Aviv’s dynamism, tolerance, and opportunities attract talented young people from Israel, Europe, America, and even parts of Asia and the Middle East. They come to work, innovate, and hang out. Tel Aviv has nurtured an entrepreneurial sector that produces startups by Jewish-Israelis, as well as some Arab-Israelis and new immigrants. As a result, the city and its larger coastal region are generating an increasing amount of Israel’s exports, innovations, and wealth.
Tel Aviv’s present is literally shaping — and being shaped by — the future.
In contrast, Jerusalem’s present seems to be shaped by past grievances and concerns, whether in the Knesset or among religious groups in and around the Old City.
Where Tel Aviv is bright and optimistic, Jerusalem is a city where the predominant color seems to be the black worn by those who practice the most orthodox forms of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The weight of history seems more easily felt in Jerusalem than optimism about either the present or the future. And innovation is more likely to be in service of political or religious goals or advantage — for example, by occupying a little more space in an old neighborhood, or the proposed “reforms” to the Israeli judiciary — than producing tangible benefits for the average citizen.
Tel Aviv’s politics are generally somewhat left of center and oriented to a future shaped by business, science, technology and tolerance. Interactions in Tel Aviv tend to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. For example, Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli entrepreneurs know and occasionally work with one another, and the city is widely seen as supportive of Israel’s LGBT community and visitors.
Jerusalem’s political orientation tends to be right of center and oriented towards short-term political actions — or crises. Interactions in Jerusalem are more tribal than in Tel Aviv, tending to be shaped by identity, rather than inclusion, particularly among those linked to politics or religious groups.
Netanyahu’s government’s proposed “judicial reforms” exemplify the difference between the orientations of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The so-called reforms risk a long-term national and global asset (Israel’s democracy) for a short-term political goal (e.g., ensuring Netanyahu can remain prime minister, despite a looming corruption trial).
In contrast, and consistent with a Tel Aviv orientation, a number of economists assess the proposed “reforms” will hurt the Israeli economy; high-tech professionals and businesses have been among those demonstrating vigorously against Netanyahu’s proposal, and Israel’s friends abroad are expressing alarm.
Israel has a history of rough-and-tumble democratic politics that has successfully balanced the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv mindsets. But Netanyahu’s efforts to sideline the Supreme Court as the referee of Israel’s democracy, suggest he wants to lock in the political advantage his far-right coalition currently enjoys.
That would be a mistake domestically — and also internationally.
Israel’s democracy is central to the political and other support it receives from countries and communities around the world. Additionally, globally, Israel hits above its weight economically precisely because of the success of it tech and entrepreneurial sectors, which reflect a Tel Aviv orientation, not a Jerusalem mindset. And it is precisely the future oriented character of those sectors that is allowing the country to build relationships with other countries in the Middle East, before and particularly after the Abraham Accord agreements.
Netanyahu is hearing from the United States and other friendly governments that he needs to find a constructive compromise on this issue that safeguards Israel’s democracy and defuses a polarizing issue. The same message is coming from private citizens who are long time supporters of Israel in America and many other countries. These messages from abroad echo what demonstrators in Israel, and even the President of Israel, are saying.
The Netanyahu government would do well to listen to its international friends — and its citizens — on this issue.
If it presses ahead with its current Jerusalem-mindset approach to “judicial reform,” Israel could become just another Middle Eastern country ruled by a government that cares more about power and how to hold on to it than about the rights of its people — and the long-term strength and prosperity that comes from a democratic society with a Tel Aviv-mindset will diminish.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an Ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
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