Israel’s Spring and the Long Road to Recovery

18 March 2021

Mere days away from Israel’s fourth Knesset election in the span of two years, everyone in Israel is talking about its potential outcomes. Who will be the next prime minister? Will the incumbent – Benjamin Netanyahu – on trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust – be able to do what he has been unable to achieve in the previous three rolls of the electoral dice and assemble a far-right government willing to pass a special law he can use as a (literal) get-out-of-jail free card – a so-called immunity law? Will the small parties hovering at the edge of the electoral threshold cross it, or fall below it and out of parliament altogether? Will the anti-Netanyahu bloc led by Yair Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar cobble together an unlikely alliance of parties from all points on the ideological spectrum – from center-left to far-right— and achieve the 61 Knesset seats necessary to form a government? Or will Israel’s weary electorate be forced to return to the polls for a fifth – yes, that’s right, a fifth – time? If so, what does that mean for Israel’s troubled democratic process?

These are questions in the air even as the seasons begin to change – and as Israelis of all stripes come out of, what our own President Joe Biden called a “dark winter” – and into full-blown post-vaccination spring.

Yes, Israel, by all measures, is reopening. While it is far too soon to say that the coronavirus has been vanquished, as Israelis return to patronize restaurants and bars, and revel in the simple act of going to a movie theater, this is cause for celebration. A measure of normalcy is returning to a society that has, like our own, suffered immeasurably in this year of pandemic. In Israel as in all countries, the damage wrought by the pandemic falls disproportionately on already marginalized communities. And this damage will not go away with the advent of the vaccine. Healing these wounds will take a determined effort to ensure an inclusive and just long-term policy response.

Take just one example: the disproportionate impact of the crisis on women. The Adva Center is an NIF grantee and Israel’s leading progressive research institution monitoring social and economic development. In the wake of COVID-19, Adva reports that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women threatens to roll back advances in gender equality in the areas of higher education, gender-based violence and equity in the job market. In fact, according to official Government Employment Office statistics, 70% of those placed on unpaid leave during the pandemic, were women. Yulia Eitan, head of the Labor Ministry’s Diversity in Employment Administration for Special Populations, told Haaretz, “We’re afraid of going years backward, that all the progress achieved in recent decades will be nullified.”

These long-lasting effects will linger on long after the immediate crisis has passed and even as a semblance of normalcy returns to daily life. Addressing them will require a dedicated commitment by Israeli society. It’s the role of Israel’s civil society to ensure that happens.

That’s why NIF put our Crisis Action Plan in place at the start of the pandemic to guide our strategic grantmaking to meet the multiple challenges to individual wellbeing, social equality and democracy posed by the pandemic – and to ensure an equitable response in its wake. We will continue to work for a just and inclusive long-term response to the gaps exacerbated by this terrible year of crisis.

During the worst months of pandemic, NIF grantees and partners sought to address the pressing needs of Israel’s most marginalized communities. We delivered rapid response grants to Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), ASSAF, and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants to fund medical care, translation services, direct aid, and legal assistance for asylum-seekers, who, having been denied immigration status, were excluded from Israel’s social safety net. Grants to the Berl Katznerlson Foundation, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Omdim Beychad (Standing Together) helped advance progressive economic policies to ensure an equitable and inclusive policy response.

Through our action arm Shatil’s partnership with the Alliance for Israel’s Future, a new project called Crisis Experts brings the expertise of both Jewish and Arab thought leaders to bear on addressing the education gaps which widened during COVID-19, the role of Arab women in countering crime and violence, police brutality and negligence in Arab communities, widening wealth inequality in Israel, and discrimination in Israel’s emergency response. Crisis Experts not only aims to normalize the idea that Jewish-Arab partnership is essential for ensuring an inclusive response to the crisis, but to introduce forward-thinking, concrete policy proposals designed to ensure that the government’s response to this crisis – both now and over the long-term – includes everyone, and especially those with the most pressing needs.

Yet, even as Israeli civil society begins to grapple with the challenges to equality and democracy that will remain so prominent in a future, even in a post-vaccine pandemic landscape, one can hardly avoid the glaring, massive gap in access to the right to health: that which exists between Israeli citizens and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, who overwhelmingly lack access to the vaccine.

As longtime New York Times Jerusalem correspondent, Isabel Kushner said on the paper’s The Daily podcast, “This has been a huge issue that has accompanied this whole period: the fact that Israel has secured itself this steady, plentiful supply of vaccines, just underscored the fact that the Palestinians didn’t have any,” she said. “It became a big question and debate about responsibilities and obligations.” While Israeli officials made the case that Israel was absolved of any legal obligations by the signing of the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s—in other words, that the “Palestinian Authority’s problem,” few in the international human rights community accept the view that Israel’s interim agreement (meant to last a few years and now in its third decade) supersedes its ultimate responsibility as an occupying power under the Geneva Conventions.

Israel’s civil society, including NIF grantees working on behalf of human rights in the Occupied Territories, have urged Israel’s government to fulfill those obligations – and its own moral duty – to provide equitable access to a supply of vaccines to Palestinians.

Indeed, even as Israel begins to turn to its post-pandemic future, Palestinians in the West Bank are facing a significant increase in new cases and deaths. Physicians for Human Rights research and investigations fellow Joseph Leone and Dana Moss, international advocacy coordinator at the NIF grantee, Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), jointly wrote last week that “Although Israel has been praised for rapidly vaccinating a significant percentage of its citizens, it has failed to fulfill its legal and moral obligations to provide COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.” They point out that Palestinians live under “a separate and unequal system that leaves them exposed to infection and death while Israeli citizens develop immunity, amid the worst global health crisis in a century.”

As Israelis slowly emerge from this dark chapter of global history, they face choices. Yes, most immediately at the ballot box. But they also face more fundamental choices about what kind of society Israel will be: whether Israel will be a society truly provides for the equality and dignity, health and safety to all who live under its control.

If Israel is to choose the road that leads to a more just future, it will be along a path blazed by Israel’s civil society. You can rest assured that NIF will be there to help light the way.