Yehezkel Dror
Haaretz (Opinion)
March 25, 2008 - 6:08pm

One of the most serious challenges facing the country is a deterioration of statehood. In some crucial ways, Israel can be seen as a weak state that has a difficult time making decisions about controversial issues and implementing them, especially when it faces zealous opposition from Jewish minority groups. It's a dangerous situation to be in, as the enormous achievements of the first 60 years of the state do not in and of themselves guarantee its continued growth, or even its very existence, in the future.

What is meant by "statehood" in this context is the state's monopoly on the use - or threat - of force, both internally and externally, and its ability to enforce lawfully made decisions. To these can be added public trust in the government and the placing of the public good, in a pluralistic sense, above the interests of narrow groups and certainly above the private interests of politicians. All of these are dangerously weak in Israel.

For example, the issue of illegal construction has not been genuinely addressed. The throwing of rocks at passing cars has become widespread. No solution has been found to the problem of the illegal outposts in the West Bank. Efforts to impose a core curriculum on the education system have failed resoundingly. Official tolerance is displayed toward demonstrations (some with permits, some not) that turn violent, with the explanation being that demonstrators needed to "let off steam." Calls for revenge by private actors are tolerated passively, and appeals not to participate in celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the state's founding are not met with the degree of denunciation appropriate to such a blunt rejection of Israel's existence and its founding principles.

"Statehood" has another important dimension: government ethics. On this front, the situation is very bad indeed. This is expressed not only in supposedly minor matters, such as the personal behavior of our politicians, but also in major ones, such as a system-wide lack of accountability and responsibility. In turn, these problems contribute to another symptom characteristic of the deterioration of statehood: a decline in voter participation and the erosion of public trust in the government and political system.

Other countries suffer from similar syndromes, but either to a lesser degree or they are offset by a compensation mechanism in the form of a supra-state framework, such as the European Union. In addition, there is a big difference between the deterioration of statehood in strong, older states - where the phenomenon has its positive aspects - and its deterioration when the state is young and the society lacks a tradition of statehood.

Even more fateful is Israel's unique situation, with great tension between the extreme dangers the state faces, on the one hand, and its ambitions, as well as the opportunity, to be a thriving Jewish state, on the other.

Hence the imperative need to empower, via democratic means, Israel's increasingly diminishing statehood. The great wisdom of David Ben-Gurion's insistence on the need for a strong state was forgotten long ago, as evidenced by the lack of public and political debate about this critical need.

Reinforcing statehood is not an easy task, and it is made more difficult by the post-state winds blowing through Europe and Western culture in general. Therefore, deliberate and purposeful action must be taken to reinforce statehood in Israel. There are ways to do this, including giving more emphasis in civics instruction to the duties - and not only rights - of citizenship; drawing the attention of the national leadership to its continuing role - including as educators - in building the state; stepping up law enforcement without going easy on those who try to use force or "create facts on the ground"; and setting firm boundaries with regard to acceptable behavior for minorities in a democratic state while at the same time advancing their rights.

It is doubtful whether all of this can be done under the current government, and with our present type of regime, with its dependence on weak coalitions, and its instability and weak leadership. Partial improvements that do not focus on the strengthening of statehood as their central goal will not help and may even be damaging. For example, introducing a measure of regional Knesset representation is liable to increase "localness" at the expense of a broader, state-based perspective.

The very principles of the regime should be rethought, in a way that will ensure a concentration of democratic power in order to provide the statehood that is so critical if Israel is to thrive in the years to come.

The writer is founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (established by the Jewish Agency) and professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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