Federalism, From the River to the Sea

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan

Law Professor Ruth Gavison has barely been interviewed since she became the perpetual Supreme Court candidate, but she does not hide what she has to say. Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak said he objected to appointing her because of "Ruthie's agenda," and thus created a special interest in the views of Gavison, known to be a fierce opponent of Barak's judicial activism. Gavison recently published a position paper entitled, "The necessity of strategic thinking: A constitutive vision for Israel and its implications," under the auspices of the Samuel Neaman Institute at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. In the 150-page document, she explains her stances on a series of issues relevant to the Supreme Court and the entire Israeli public.

Numerous ideas have been presented for changing the system of government, but Gavison's proposal is undoubtedly the most surprising and original. She suggests moving to a "federal or semi-federal regime based on cantons." This type of solution would enable granting the Arab public cultural autonomy "without threatening majority-minority relations." Under this system, there would be two houses of legislation. One would be nationally elected, as the Knesset is today, and the second would be elected under a regional system. Gavison also warns that ignoring the Arab-Jewish rift could lead to an uncontrollable outbreak of violence.

Gavison supports a federal system as a long-term solution. She believes that to maintain a robust Jewish majority, Israel must be ready "to create coherent regional and national autonomies. Israel must use its forces to plan regional divisions of this kind. It is important to ensure that there are not too many territories inside the State of Israel in which the dispersion of Jews and Arabs prevents communal autonomy."

To prepare for her plan, Gavison says the official status of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund must be cancelled. These should return to being private tools of the Jewish people, allowing them to discriminate in favor of Jews. This would settle the claim that Israel discriminates against its Arab minority via these institutions.

Further into the future, Gavison proposes that the federal system be incorporated from the Jordan River to the sea. She says that currently there is no practical solution aside from dividing the land into two states, but "I agree that if the region settles down, enabling Jews and Palestinians to maintain independent communities without a political agreement, this arrangement would be preferable to political self-determination ... It may be possible to live here under a confederation, and in the future, perhaps a federation." All of this would come about "only after a prolonged process of stabilization and appeasement." The establishment of a Palestinian state, Gavison continues, does not mean that all Jews must be evacuated from the area, or all that the Jewish settlements must be dismantled.

"It is not true that 'the occupation is not legal' and that Israel has an obligation under international law to withdraw from the territories ... International law recognizes there is an 'occupation.'" The occupation, she says, must end in an agreement, but Gavison writes: "I must admit that I am not among those who are optimistic about peace with the Palestinians. In this regard, the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, even though they constituted big achievements for Israel, were short-sighted in retrospect. A separate solution with every country leaves the Jewish-Palestinian problem in an impossible trap, since in the solutions under consideration, the territorial problem boils down to Palestine/the western Land of Israel." She says that even during the British mandate, "it seemed that this territory alone could not contain the conflict ... The situation simply worsened over the years."

She is pessimistic about the chances of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the foreseeable future. "The distance between the stances of substantial parts of both peoples is too big ... In this respect, I share the view of Nobel Prize winner Israel Auman, who says that anyone who chases peace and is too keen to attain it, will not achieve it in the end."


A major taboo in Israeli politics is changing the Law of Return, which grants Jews, their descendants through the third generation, and their spouses the right to immigrate to Israel. The current law clearly has its problems - such as the paragraph regarding grandchildren, which permits the immigration of people with no cultural connection to Judaism. But the fear is that if the law starts being changed, the process will become unstoppable - and in the end the law will be revoked.

Gavison says the taboo must be broken, and the law's scope must be limited: "It is not appropriate to grant this right to someone who has no interest in Jewish life, and who sometimes is even an observant member of another religion." These remarks apparently refer to the Falashmura, as well as to many of the non-Jews from the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, Gavison stresses that a person can live a full Jewish life without being a Jew under halakha.

Gavison also suggests considering limits to Jewish immigration. She says people often refuse to address the question of whether potential immigrants would be able to integrate economically speaking into a modern, developed country. "Israel is a densely populated country," she says, "and we may need to re-examine some of the basic assumptions of the Law of Return. Even someone who could integrate into the Jewish aspects of society may have difficulty integrating into Israeli society's modernism and economic development ... We must devote a great deal more thought to the immigration of large groups of people from another culture," she states, clarifying: "The difficulties accompanying the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants made this abundantly clear."

Gavison says: "The desire to complete the ingathering of the exiles is counterpoised with the state's interest in maintaining the wellbeing of all its citizens. A responsible country should not volunteer to absorb groups of people with little chances of being absorbed and who are likely to live on the fringes of society in anger and frustration."

The main problem regarding the immigration policy and family reunification for those not eligible under the Law of Return is whether an Israeli citizen may live here with his partner. Many of the Supreme Court justices believe this is his right. Gavison believes the state has the right to refuse to receive the partner, or to set conditions for family reunification.

"When the state refuses, it is upon the Israeli citizen to move to his partner's country, or to another country. Any other interpretation gives every citizen the option of dictating who the state must nationalize."

Gavison notes, inter alia, that "in a period of war or conflict, it is accepted practice not to give entry or status to a citizen of a hostile state ... The state should not volunteer to bring in people who feel hostile toward it." Regarding family reunification with residents of the Palestinian Authority, she writes: "It is legitimate for the state to examine the demographic aspects of the phenomenon, and their influence on the constant erosion of the Jewish majority in Israel."



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