Lapid: Doubt The Benefit Of The Doubt

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.

Yair Lapid, the darling-du-jour of Global Israel, is negotiating to enter the government in an ever-tighter alliance with Naftali Bennett, the rightist captain of Greater Israel. Lapid wants, he says, to deal with "equality of burden,"the conscription of Haredim into the army, and keep Haredi parties out of government. Bennett--not one to reject any effort to make the IDF central to Israeli life--is happy to go along. He may well get the Finance Ministry for his troubles.

On its face, this alliance is a betrayal of Lapid's voters--Tel Avivans with cosmopolitan attitudes, and fearing international isolation--who hardly expected the settlers' leadership to be Lapid's soul-mates. But let's give Lapid the benefit of the doubt, at least before we yank it back.

The problem of "equality of burden" is not simply a matter of Haredim becoming subject to the military draft.  That's the tip; the iceberg is the potential loss of a Hebrew-speaking civil society; and the challenge of Haredim is every bit as urgent for democratic life as negotiations to end, or attenuate, the occupation.

Some 30% of Israeli pupils entering the first grade are ultra-Orthodox, and only 57% of Haredi graduates have learned the Ministry of Education's core curriculum, which would prepare them to take their place in any conceivable Israeli workforce. Not coincidentally, the rate of Israeli adult participation in the workforce is about 10% below the OECD average, about 56%.  Currently, only about 30% of Haredi men work, compared with nearly 70% of non-Haredi Jewish men.

Haredi citizens are thus largely on the dole: state family allowances will support a family of ten with somewhere between $3000-$4000 a month. Almost 60,000 young, dependent, married men (called “avrechim”) are getting support both from their Yeshivot and from social insurance and family allowance programs. Men study virtually free-of-charge in Yeshivot, protected religious schools, which are themselves funded largely by the Education Ministry.

Over the past four years Haredi parties have gotten about a billion shekels ($1=3.7 shekels) for their Yeshivot, another billion for general disbursement to retainers, 300 million for "educational networks," 60 million for "cultural activities," and another 60 million for boarding schools. This does not include funding for ministries and rabbinic offices they've controlled. The Haredim are a world apart, and what spins it is public money. Imagine how Philadelphians would feel about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania subsidizing the Amish, whose numbers have consequently ballooned.

When I wrote The Hebrew Republic in 2008some 80,000-90,000 young men were the age of the military draft, not married, yet they still did not serve in the army. That number is higher today. Virtually no women serve. Still, Haredi families are desperately poor, especially with respect to housing.  They rely increasingly on public developments beyond the green line, such as Modiim Ilit, where so much of the friction with Bili'in and Nebe Saleh (documented in "5 Broken Cameras") has erupted into lethal violence. The housing in the E-1 area of Jerusalem is targeted for Haredim.

Oh, and their attitudes towards Arabs and promised land are even more insular and xenophobic than most settlers. Don't be mislead by talk of the Shas Party trying to make itself more coalitionable by agreeing to talks with Palestinians.  They've scuttled governments over the issue; their leaders are proudly racist.

So even as they rely on Israel's middle class (Lapid calls it "their ATM"), most Haredi families have virtually no sense of what Israeli civil society offers. Their rabbis run their lives and are itching to run ours. No democratic state can tolerate this kind of self-segregation and religious atavism funded at public expense. Think Iran, not Williamsburg.

Lapid cultivated his Tel Aviv constituency promising to reverse two generations of policies that (the shrinking secular majority knows) threaten the foundations of the Jewish national home as much as the occupation does. He's held firm in negotiations with Netanyahu, insisting the Haredim stay out of the new government, and proposing electoral changes that will make it more difficult for Haredi parties to compete in the future. He's also promising a long overdue civil marriage bill. Today he's polling somewhere north of 30 seats, suggesting that even if Netanyahu forms a government, the Likud's era is about over.

Why then should Lapid make an alliance with Bennett, of all people, and not with the other center-left leaders: Livni, Yacimovich, and, by implication, even Meretz's Gal-On? This alternative alliance is precisely what Labor's Isaac Herzog and Livni's partner, Amram Mitzne, have been calling for. Then, as I wrote here after the election, he'd have notional control of a bloc of 46 seats, not 31, the foundation for a big-tent Democratic Party, and he wouldn't have to put the settler fox in charge of the financial henhouse. Go down Lapid's list and his key people are almost indistinguishable from Labor's list in terms of background and public commitments. What gives?

Here is where the benefit of the doubt might be doubted. I've talked to people who should know. The sad truth is that the "great man theory" of history has a corollary and Lapid is a case in point; there are times when personalities trump social forces but the man, or person, is petty.

Lapid is telling people that he can't work with Yacimovich because she's a socialist and he's aiming to cut down, precisely, on wards of the state. But if Erel Margalit, the CEO of Jerusalem Venture Partners, can live on Labor's list, Lapid is obviously not looking hard enough. And settlers, for all their army service, are spongers, too.  Lapid will also tell you that Bennett's opposition to negotiations with Palestinians is not worth worrying about because negotiations are hypothetical and will achieve nothing. But that's because he's defined the goal of negotiations pretty much the way Golda Meir did, get Palestinians out of my face, but leave us Jerusalem.

Lapid, in other words, likes the reactionary, neocon side of Bennett rather more than he ever suggested in his campaign--a campaign which, to his credit, was retail politics at its best, and so much built around his personal charisma that none of his list will challenge him. His father, Tommy Lapid of Shinui, was very much in this mode, a Hungarian refugee, secular, "emancipated," but much like Herzl, shaped by anti-Semitism. If he could, he would saw Israel off the Middle East and float it out toward Cypress.  A friend once saw him give a speech in which he said he hopes that, after peace, he'll never have to see another Palestinian again.

Which is just why Bennett works for him. I suggested before the election that Bennett was a phenomenon because he represents a generation that never knew an Israel without Judea and Samaria; represents a less tribal, more fatuous electorate, whose sensibilities bend around recent violence and established facts ("History? Holocaust. Land? Ours. Faith? Rabbis. Values? Army. Moslems? Killers. Palestinians? Fuck 'em. America? Standing ovations"--and so forth.)

Lapid may not share Bennett's ideological coherence but does share his generational sentiments.  The real question remains whether Obama and Kerry will insist on joining Netanyahu's new government too, and insist on a settlement freeze, even in Jerusalem. At this point Bennett will leave and Lapid's education in diplomacy--like that of Olmert, Livni, and others before them--will begin.