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A Federation, Cantons, Autonomous Regions? Suddenly Everyone Is Talking About Dividing Israel

Israel and Judah? Swiss-style autonomous provinces? As the protest movement surges, some think it’s impossible to continue in the same way as before. New initiatives to partition the country abound

Credit: Masha Zur Glozman

By Itay Mashiach, Haaretz, May 5, 2023

It comes up in private conversations, it’s whispered between demonstrators in the anti-coup protest movement, it’s floating in the social media: “The time has come for separation.” Israel and Judea, Texas and California, “us here and them there,” the Israeli Brexit. The general frustration over the tense political stalemate appears to be driving increasing numbers of Israelis to think that the rift in the air needs to be transformed into the real thing on the ground: partition of the country.

At first it may have sounded like a surrender to despair, or an attempt just to provoke. Below the surface, however, a broad and colorful panorama of initiatives is developing. They aim less to break up society than to reassemble its pieces: to divide the country on the basis of a federative model, so that it can remain whole. If you will, division for the sake of unity.

The idea of a federalist solution for Israel is not new. A century ago, Itamar Ben-Avi – the journalist son of modern-Hebrew pioneer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – called for the adoption of the Swiss model: Jewish cantons alongside Arab cantons. Similar ideas have been put forward from time to time since then. A notable example in recent years was the proposal of the late psychologist and philosopher Carlo Strenger. In 2014, he and the journalist Judd Yadid published an article in Haaretz urging the “cantonization” of Israel. “The secular-religious chasm is deepening by the day, as Israel’s secular majority dwindles to a plurality, and the religionization of state and society gathers steam,” they wrote. “Call it tactical retreat, call it surrender to reality – the only solution is a sub-national one.” That chasm has broadened considerably since then, giving rise to a new wave of ideas about how to bridge it.

Indeed, the sheer number of such plans will come as a surprise to those who are still thinking inside the unitary box. Partition notions are cropping up everywhere, filling PowerPoint presentations with blueprints and maps. One of them might even be implemented; or maybe none of them. But all of them attest to the powerful urge of many Israelis to disentangle the mess they find themselves in. Some of the initiatives focus on the religious-secular divide, others spring from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are those that advocate separate provinces, or the buttressing of local governments, and there are solutions that pay no heed to geography at all.

What the supporters of division and decentralization have in common, above all, is that they themselves are divided and decentralized. Over the past few weeks Haaretz spoke to federalists from the radical left and from the deep right, with settlers from the religious Zionist movement and with secular folks from Tel Aviv, with a Palestinian professor and with a Haredi rabbi. If in the past the idea of partition was a marginal subject that engaged the attention of few people, it has been a hot topic since the onset of the current crisis, set off by the government’s attempt to overhaul the judicial system. The ideas are discussed in respected forums, studied by former high-ranking officials, supported by leading figures from the Israeli mainstream. “There is no conference today in which the topic isn’t addressed,” says one of them. A thought-experiment game? Perhaps. But one that can no longer be ignored.

Maoz Aviv, a bastion of the secular tribe, and part of any future Tel Aviv canton. Dr. Sagi Elbaz, a political scientist and the founder of an organization that promotes secular culture, is suddenly deluged with requests from people who want to talk to him. His new Hebrew-language book, “Emergency Exit: From Tribalism to Federation, the Path to Healing Israeli Society,” published in March, drew so many responses that Elbaz says he is considering how to translate an academic project into a popular movement. “When I began writing the book, more than a year ago, I was afraid that it would be perceived as extremist,” he says. “But then reality started to close the gap.”

The book’s point of departure is that the melting pot failed, and that multiculturalism as a model for shared life is no longer practical for this country. The bulk of the book is devoted to a survey of Israeli society’s ailments, most of which derive, according to Elbaz, from the secular-religious rift. The book concludes by proposing federation as the medicine to heal all of the existing system’s ills.

“The way to prevent the dissolution of Israeli society is to enable every group to live according to its views and beliefs,” Elbaz avers. “I don’t think there is a more liberal and noble idea than that.” He doesn’t yet have a detailed plan, but the foundation is a geographical division into autonomous provinces, which will have the power and responsibility of levying most of the taxes.

In the absence of existing political institutions pushing the idea, the proponents of partition are advancing their ideas through diverse independent actions. Through newspaper columns – such as those by the adman Udi Pridan (“It’s time for a divorce”), the journalist Ben Caspit (“We need to start thinking about a federation of autonomous districts”) and the film director Isaac Zepel Yeshurun (“The schism is becoming irreversible”); in parlor meetings across the country and in private groups. Dr. Yariv Mohar, a sociologist and the program director of Amnesty International Israel, manages the Facebook group “Federation for Israel – Autonomy for Communities.” “I come from civil society,” he says, “so my idea is to spur political persons to get involved.”

Dr. Nicham Ross, a scholar of modern Jewish thought at Ben-Gurion University, manages a small but particularly active Whatsapp group of 185 members called, “Establishing a Liberal, Democratic Autonomous Region.” The participants think together about how to spread the federation idea and how to promote it in local politics. Similarly, Oren Tokatly, a lawyer, economist and media expert, has also contemplated forming a group to consider the subject. “It’s a burning issue for me,” he says. “We need to join forces, to turn it into a public bloc that will also be political.”

Indeed, it’s politics that hovers above all these initiatives. Would any existing political party dare to run the canton idea up the flagpole? And if not, will we see a party emerge in the near future that will promote the idea? And if not in national politics, then at the level of local authorities? Some of the federalists we spoke to are eyeing the local-government elections scheduled for this coming fall.

“Initially, we need to act to create an autonomous secular region in the Tel Aviv area,” writes Sagi Elbaz, “on the assumption that it will serve as an example for other sectors and districts, and will lead gradually to

Israel’s transformation into a federation.” As he sees it, Tel Aviv must do all it can to expand its independence in such realms as education and transportation, to create facts on the ground and not be afraid to clash with the state government, which currently controls the purse strings. For example, it must “guarantee civil marriage registration for everyone who wishes it, even if the marriage is valid only in Tel Aviv.” Afterward, the city must demand revisions in taxation and sweep in its wake neighboring cities and create territorial continuities.

Elbaz doesn’t explain how these guerrilla actions might be compatible with the law, and it’s not clear how far they might go.

“Municipal law contains clauses that are amenable to limitless interpretation, for which the final interpreter is the court,” explains Issachar Rosen-Zvi, a professor of law at Tel Aviv University. “Accordingly, a mayor who wishes to advance a liberal agenda – such as not granting a business permit to a body that discriminates against LGBTQ people – raises a question that no one has [previously] asked. They can try to make creative use of their powers and see what the court will say. If they try to promote certain things, such as marriage of gay couples, they will probably hit a stone wall, but between that and the powers that are clearly set forth lies a vast gray area.”

Elbaz and other advocates of autonomous regions are pinning great hopes on that amorphous zone, but its limitations need to be acknowledged, too, says Rosen-Zvi. The project of public transportation on Shabbat adopted by Tel Aviv and other nearby local authorities is definitely pioneering and impressive, but it’s only legal as long as it’s free. Intervention in the educational realm is possible, but only through programs that are supplemental to the mandatory curricula determined at the national level. And so forth.

In any event, the issue of federalism is no longer confined solely to academic discussion. Of late, key individuals from the heart of the Israeli establishment have laid aside the political discourse about “connection,” “dialogue” and “integration,” and have started to address the question of separation. At present, Ehud Prawer is putting together a new research initiative dealing with a spectrum of solutions in the field. Prawer, who formerly headed the policy planning unit in the Prime Minister’s Office, and whose name may be familiar from the controversial “Prawer Plan” for Bedouin resettlement in the Negev, is spearheading the project within the framework of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.

“Some of the solutions are based on a new definition of the balance between local government and the central government,” he says, and elaborates: “From ways to preserve the shared framework, to far-reaching solutions such as cantons. What they all have in common is the deep structural change they call for, encompassing even a change in the form of government in Israel.”

Prawer is in contact with various individuals and organizations, providing “an envelope of clarification and research” for their proposals. “We want these ideas to come into the world after they’ve gone through a stage of discussion and deeper thought, so that they are crystallized by the time they enter public discourse, with everyone grasping the practical implications,” Prawer says.

Open gallery view

According to a number of sources, Prof. Eugene Kandel, former head of the National Economic Council, is also occupied with the federation issue. At the end of February, Kandel joined his colleague from the Hebrew University’s economics department, Prof. Eyal Winter, in co-moderating a discussion on “Israel’s Future from the Economic Angle: How Might It Be Possible to Help the State Make It to Its 120th Birthday?” The moderators’ answer was: partition.

“I started to deal with the subject out of a feeling that something has to be done,” Winter says, “and also following conversations with Kandel, who in a certain sense was responsible for drawing me into the subject.” The only way to avert economic collapse in the wake of the demographic changes Israel is undergoing, Winter maintains, is to redefine the relations between secular and religious, particularly in regard to the budget.

“It’s not a question of right and left,” he argues. “There are all kinds of federation and canton models. What’s important is for the fiscal system in Israel to be completely different from what it is today. The basic idea is for a far larger share of taxation to be levied and allocated by the regions or the cantons, and not by the central government.”

In the end, you want the Haredim to enter the job market, and to achieve that you are promoting a far-reaching regime change.

Winter: “That change is a means that’s aimed at preventing the collapse of the State of Israel, and at the moment I see no other solution. If something dramatic should happen suddenly, and all the rabbis were to call on the yeshiva students to get jobs and to enlist in the army, we might not need that.”

Winter sees additional advantages in a federation. He refers to studies showing that people in homogeneous societies are more prepared to pay taxes, because they don’t feel that the money is being used for purposes with which they don’t identify. “In a federation, a larger share of your taxes goes to your community,” he says. “The major obstacle is political. Neither Likud nor the Haredim will agree to any such move.”

The Sanhedria neighborhood, in the northern part of a future Jerusalem canton. Rabbi Shmuel Jakobovits opens the door, dressed in an elegant suit. For 25 years, Jakobovits, who is the son of the late, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom Immanuel Jakobovits, has supported the idea of an Israeli federation that would consist of two communities, one religiously observant, the other pluralistic. He has presented his plan to President Isaac Herzog and has also been received by rabbinical leaders. His pitch is that the two communities will manage themselves independently and will cooperate only on matters where it’s necessary, such as foreign affairs and security.

Jakobovits likens the country’s situation today to a case in which a Haredi child decides to live a non-religious life. “If the family is smart, it creates an arrangement in which [in a figurative sense,] the child stays within the house, but is allowed to do as he wishes in his room,” he says. “He is brought closer, he is loved. That’s the sort of arrangement I have in mind. If in our everyday life we find ourselves quarreling all the time, then sometimes there’s a need to separate. But the fraternity must be preserved, like two rooms in one house.”

Jakobovits sees logic in the way things have worked out to date, such that Jewish identity has been preserved. “Shabbat, laws of ‘family purity,’ marriage. Those matters have been preserved by legislation, and it succeeded,” he says. “The majority of Israel’s Jews could not forget that they are Jews, right? Now, with the growth of the religious camp, we have arrived at a new situation. If we succeed in putting forward a respectable alternative, intervention will not be necessary. It will be challenged by the very presence of the alternative. There will no longer be a need for coercion.”

Yes, until now it hasn’t been done by pleasant means.

Jakobovits: “Pleasant means could not fulfill the need to uphold ‘Who is a Jew,’ of marriage and divorce. Look, I can’t know what would happen in the pluralistic community if my idea were to be accepted. But I presume that that community will not abandon the Jewish faith.”

According to Jakobovits, Rabbi Eliezer Schach (1899-2001), a longtime leader of the non-Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Jewry, played a part in his turn toward the federation idea, which would include an independent religious community. “My father, who was the chief rabbi of Britain, once met with Rabbi Schach. He told him that as a result of the birth rate, the religious public in Israel would [eventually] become the majority, and he wondered how we would manage the country if we didn’t give our children a general and professional education. The rabbi [Schach] replied that when the Zionists embarked on their path, they too did not have the appropriate people [to run a state], and they got along. When the time comes, we too will develop.” When the Haredi community becomes independent, Jakobovits says, its involvement in practical affairs will grow and it will be able to provide for itself.

Jakobovits presented his plan to Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, who was then the president of the Council of Sages of the Degel Hatorah party (who responded, “Can you do anything with the High Court of Justice?”). Previously he had broached the idea to Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, who succeeded Schach as the leader of non-Hasidic, “Lithuanian,” Jewry in Israel. Elyashiv did not rule out the idea, only raised doubts about “the surety we have for all of the Jewish people that they will uphold the Torah.”

Would any existing political party dare to run the canton idea up the flagpole? And if not, will we see a party emerge in the near future that will promote the idea?

In all your visits to Haredi leaders, you never encountered shocked reactions?

“No, on the contrary. Some rabbis very much identified with the idea. The ambivalence stemmed mainly from the question of whether it was practical, if we would be able to provide for ourselves, and if we wanted to develop such broad involvement in the practical realm.”

According to Jakobovits, “Haredi society is an astonishing success story in the life of Torah and precepts. It’s absolutely a miracle how that public rose up after the Holocaust. Quantitatively, it’s possible that there was never a generation with so many Torah students. That public did not wish to develop in matters of ‘settling the world’ [engaging in productive, worldly occupations], because if it had developed there it would not have developed in the field of the Torah. It was necessary. The question is whether it must continue [in this manner]. Integrating into work and into education needs to be done within an independent framework.”

Different plans reference the Swiss model, a federation of 26 cantons under which are more than 2,000 local authorities, almost 10 times as many as in Israel. There are three ethnic minorities, four official languages – and a pulsating democracy. (The country’s population is close to 9 million.) Israel, though, is not Switzerland. According to veteran federalists, such a move would need also to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some of them are skeptical about adapting the Swiss model to the local reality.

“There is a long history of looking at partition as a solution, but actually it is not a solution,” says Dr. Limor Yehuda, a legal scholar from the Hebrew University who specializes in international human rights, and also studies peace processes. She flinches from the contemporary cantonization discourse and warns about the illusion of a solution that it creates. “Cantonization is one element, albeit substantive, of the Swiss system,” she says. “But it possesses certain [additional] balances and has its own advantages and drawbacks.”

The Swiss model is based on a concept that is very different from the Israeli notion of democracy, Yehuda explains. It’s a democracy based on deep partnership in governing. “It is not a majority democracy of winners and losers. Everyone is part of the government, not only in parliament.” In this model, all the population groups take part in decision making, and one group cannot run roughshod over another. The different groups have veto power, irrespective of their size.

“If these principles are adopted, I am in favor,” she says. “I will say more than that: It’s a system that is far more appropriate for us than the place we have gone to, which is a cruel majority democracy, and it is also a lot healthier for society.”

Arrangements that allow for partnership in government are considered an essential tool for peacemaking in ruptured societies. They have proved themselves in agreements in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, Yehuda notes. She adds that, “in conflict situations like these, a majority democracy doesn’t work, because you don’t have the basic trust that the Other will look out for you.”

Yehuda leads a group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute that is looking at the subject of a “partnership-based Jewish-Palestinian peace,” and is active in the A Land for All organization, which promotes a confederative solution to the conflict. In contrast to a federation, a confederation consists of sovereign states that maintain a certain partnership between them, like the partnership between the member-states of the European Union.

“My point of departure is that the solution must be based on collective equality, meaning equality between collectives, and on a type of partnership,” she says. “But whereas in regard to the Palestinians, federative relations would constitute progress, with regard to Israeli society, we are liable to generate a regression.”