Several headlines of recent days bring to the fore the persistent question of whether Israel is a strong state or a lazy state.
The noisiest commotion has to do with the Bedouin. There have been demonstrations involving thousands, with non-lethal violence in several locations, protesting a government plan to deal with the long simmering issue of the Bedouin spread across the Negev desert, Their tents and shanties have encroached on land that the IDF wants for training with live ammunition, and land that the government wants--sooner or later--for the development of new towns to relieve the pressures of congestion and housing costs in the center of the country.
The Bedouin are a problem not only for Israel. Their Sinai cousins are a major annoyance for Egypt security personnel. Throughout the Middle East they pose the classic clash between urban order and traditional nomads who claim a right to wander where they will, live as they wish, and support themselves with whatever activity is available.
Not all Bedouin are nomadic, with camels, donkeys, goats, sheep, several wives, living rough, and supporting themselves by smuggling. Many have enlisted in the IDF and followed with a career in the police or prison service, moved to the cities, passed through the universities (including one of my own best students), and have joined the mainstream. However, thousands live the traditional life, and many others have gone reluctantly to towns established for them, which remain at the bottom of all socio-economic measures.
Think of Native Americans, the Aborigines of Australia, and the Roma (Gypsies) of Europe.
The government of Israel, like others, wants to settle and regulate such people in defined places with modern concepts of land ownership, education, and other controls.
Israel's current plan to renew and expand the settlement projects for the Bedouin is providing an ideal target for the Jewish left and Palestinian nationalists. Both overlook the costs involved in the continued sprawl of rickety dwellings without clean water or electricity. The non-Bedouin Arabs who wave Palestinian flags in their behalf overlook the status of Bedouin as outcasts in the larger Arab society, their children deemed unfit to marry into proper Arab families, and kept to their own villages and neighborhoods of large Arab towns.
This plan aspires to move thousands of Bedouin into towns, and pay Bedouin families something for land claims even though the courts have generally rejected their suits.
Grandpa may have tended his flocks from here to there, but family memories do not hold up in courts bound by written law and registered deeds.
This is not the first effort to deal with the Bedouin spread, and should not arouse great certainty that it will be the last. What is presently on the table is a revision of an earlier draft, has yet been approved by the government, and has aroused opposition from the Jewish right for being too generous in terms of the compensation offered, and not firm enough to deal with Bedouin resistance and the likelihood that the nomads among them will ignore the whole effort.
Likely to be beyond the aspirations of state officials is the enforcement of laws against polygamy, or a serious crackdown on the Bedouin activities of smuggling illegal drugs, weapons, and women.
In regard to the polygamy of the Bedouin, think of Mormon polygamists who reject state laws and the prohibitions of the LDS Church.
It it not easy for the courts or other governmental bodies of a democratic state to enforce one element of what is called conventional with respect to marriage, when large numbers of articulate young people thumb their noses at other elements of the convention.
Israel overlooks its law against polygamy for the trickle of Jewish immigrants who come from Yemen with their several wives. And it overlooked a family in Jerusalem headed by a man whose title of Rabbi extended only to the walls of his home, his several wives and many children, until indications of abuse became too much to ignore. After years of dithering, the courts acted, and the welfare ministry has taken charge of the younger children.
Politicians assert the right to enact policy that is balanced for the good of all Israelis.
It's easiest to take the lazy approach. Leave the hard work of implementation to later.
Shai Peron may not yet have acquired the international recognition of other Israeli leaders. He is an Orthodox Rabbi, Number #2 on the electoral list of the political party with the second largest contingent in this Knesset (Yesh Atid--There is a Future, led by Yair Lapid), and is Minister of Education.
Like several of his predecessors, Rabbi Peron has produced appealing plans to change the character of Israeli education. Currently in the headlines is a program to shorten the summer vacation, and to replace a substantial portion of what had been student freedom and parental worries about what to do with them with something between a summer camp and serious schooling, with government financial support and additional subsidies for low-income families.
Rabbi Peron introduced the proposal with a speech that recalled elements of the Stanlist aspirations that can be found in the histories of several Israeli political parties. He described the mission of the Education Ministry as complete concern for Israeli children, making up for what parents are unable or unwilling to provide.
Earlier Rabbi Peron shook up teenagers, their parents and teachers by announcing significant changes in the matriculation exams that determine which, if any, university departments each applicant will be able to enter.
Rabbi Peron's intentions are indications of a strong state, or a state that aspires to be strong.
The lazy state may be just around the next corner, with this minister's educational reforms facing those of his predecessors. They all remind me of the blackboards used in the schools of my childhood, where sentences and formula would give way to the erasers, without leaving a trace, and present a clean slate for the next scribblings.
Among the problems of past education ministers likely to be encountered by this one are the teacher unions, unhappy with the financial incentives offered them for altering summer plans, the Finance Ministry not inclined to cooperate with new budget requests, and local authorities, who object to demands that they come up with some of the money without getting increased dollops in their own their budgets from national Ministries of Finance and Interior.
Even before these problems became concrete, the Rabbi's plan for subsidized summer camps came under attack from established camps, both those run for profit, and those run by municipal authorities.
Also beyond Rabbi Peron control is the large sector of education left pretty much to the dictates of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Not for many of them are the rules laid down years ago about the inclusion of secular subjects of Hebrew, English, mathematics and science in the curriculum.
The Haredim resemble the Bedouin in being on--or over--the margins of the lazy Israeli state. Both are easier to ignore than to govern.
Still on the drawing boards, being drafted and re-drafted, are government plans to entice or pull Haredi young men into the IDF or some other kind of national service, and then into the workforce instead of a lifetime of studying sacred texts, making lots of children, and paying no taxes.
A third cluster of headlines in recent days have focused on former Prime Minister Edud Olmert. The topic is not the slow progress of his trial for corruption, that has been in process for years and may have several more to go before the verdict, sentencing (if guilty), and appeals, but his outspoken criticism of the current Prime Minister for challenging the President of the United States. Olmert does not object so much to the substance of Netanyahu's assertions about the dangers of Iran as he does to it being so public, aggressive, and repetitious, and threatening the essential alliance of Israel with the head of the world's most powerful country. In this, Olmert joins and reinforces the worries of many in Israel's chattering class that the Prime Minister has been dangerously extreme in his criticism of the US leadership.
Where Olmert's current story fits into the image of the lazy state is his taking advantage of the state's laziness in not moving to the end of a process that might send him to a place of enforced quiet for several years.
Starting to get attention is yet another indication of strong state/lazy state. The Prime Minister announced that he was freezing any intention to begin planning for several thousand housing units over the 1967 lines, especially those in the sensitive area known as E-1 east of Jerusalem. However, the Ministry of Construction may not have gotten the message. We hear that planning is continuing. The Palestinians have threatened to end the "peace process," and Americans are expressing themselves. Here the indication of laziness is the capacity of the Construction Minister (who may think of himself as Minister in Charge of Promoting Settlements) to assume that the Prime Minister will not press his freeze of the planning process, and allow the production of what may eventually be housing units, streets, and other public facilities. The Prime Minister may be too busy with Iran in order to say "No" to settlers.
For his part, Benyamin Netanyahu has sounded like the big boss of a strong state, promising that Iran will never have nuclear weapons, while bemoaning that Iran is getting closer and closer.
Waiting for answers are Where will the choices fall on the strong or lazy side of the line? and How should the various officials and citizens who may have to act or be acted upon prepare themselves?.
Should we enjoy the benefits of a strong state that enforces its decisions on those who cause it trouble?
Or should we enjoy the freedom of citizens to do what we want, expecting that state officials will be too lazy to enforce the rules they have enacted?
On the table are the cases of the Bedouin; school children, teachers and parents; Israelis wanting or opposing settlement expansion; and those fearful of Iranian nuclear weapons, or fearful of offending the American President.
Israel has no monopoly of governmental laziness. Obama on Iran is a suggestive example. Another is Obama on Affordable Care.
So in the cases before us, yet to be judged is--
Who will be stronger or lazier, the US President or the Israeli Prime Minister?
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Click here to return to Blog home page