Naftali Bennett and the Myth of the Status Quo

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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An ultra-Orthodox man is arrested while protesting the new light rail in Jerusalem
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Let’s begin with a little story. An extremist faction in Jerusalem recently decided to wage all-out war against the passage of the light rail system through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Why? Because the train, it turns out, is an “abomination” that conflicts with the “Haredi character” of the neighborhood. They insist that it pass underground.

Why is a train immodest and a bus isn’t? Is this related to the findings of Freud, and will its underground burial restore it to the subconscious? Even TV Channel 12 reporter Yair Sherki, who tried to extract an explanation from Haredi demonstrators, did not completely understand the reasons. But the real reason was clear: “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah.” For certain groups that borrowed this phrase out of its original context, the status quo in all walks of life is sacred.

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The term “status quo” has become entrenched in Israel mainly in relation to issues of state and religion. Since its origins are in old arrangements between different segments of the population, it seems to express some ultimate compromise reached in the past, with every change upending some supposedly ideal balance that was found back then. But every Israeli knows that the status quo is definitely not an ideal compromise, but rather a cleaving to an existing situation and an entrenchment of a power balance that was perpetuated over time, even if this is something that was mistaken to begin with.

It’s not just that a status quo always perpetuates a power balance. In contrast to prevailing opinions that it freezes time, it also allows the side that profits from it to deepen the arrangement that benefits it, and to promote it, while the losing side is limited in what it can do. Israelis are well aware of this when, in the name of the status quo, they are deprived of the use of public transportation on Shabbat, but they prefer to forget the concept when it comes to Israel’s polices in the occupied territories.

For many years now the preferred government policy toward the Palestinians has been to maintain the status quo, without the headache of negotiations and breakthroughs; maintaining what already exists, and that’s all. Military occupation forever. Benjamin Netanyahu turned this idea into his flagship policy. Naftali Bennett, it now turns out, intends to leverage this approach even more forcefully. In an interview with the New York Times this week, he described how his government would maintain a “balance”: on one hand not annexing, on the other hand not allowing a Palestinian state to be established.

A freeze that benefits everyone? Certainly not. The situation on the ground serves only the opponents of a two-state solution. Proof of this could be found in Bennett’s own words, when he said that along with the supposed freeze, Israel will continue to expand settlements in the name of “natural growth.” Palestinians allegedly will also be allowed to build in “existing towns and villages,” meaning Israel will continue its illegal expansion, since that is what already exists, and the Palestinians will remain in their own domain.

In contrast to Netanyahu, who based his policy of an absence of policy on right-wing governments and settlers, Bennett is using the diversity of his coalition to justify his policy. “What I’m doing is finding the middle ground,” he said, “focusing on what we agree on.”

The existing situation that allows the deepening of the occupation and a creeping annexation along with an expansion of settlements is in no way the “middle ground.” The left wing of the coalition knows this full well, but is allowing the perpetuation of this thesis, enabling Bennett to use them as his excuse.

Under the myth/deception of a status quo that is a balanced compromise, manufactured by centrist politics that cleave to an imaginary “will of the people,” the Bennett government will advance more than ever the perpetuation of the existing situation, entrenching the current balance of power in the territories for generations, making the possibility of a two-state solution more remote than ever – and all of this courtesy of its left wing. Because anything new is forbidden by the Torah, the main thing is that the train of peace never passes this way.

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