Israel in crisis: has Netanyahu lost the plot?
A week ago, on 21 March, Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) issued, in their words, an “unprecedented warning” in the form of a “strategic alert”. The gist of the alert was that the “judicial reforms” proposed by the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his coalition (which includes ultra-nationalist and religious extremists) would “seriously harm the functioning of the IDF” (Israel’s Defense Forces) and the economy, and “endanger relations with the USA”. The reforms would give the Government control over the appointment of judges and weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to undertake judicial review of legislation.
The unprecedented nature of the strategic alert is explained by the unprecedented level and nature of the protests against the proposals, now entering their twelfth week. The numbers taking to the streets in Israel’s cities have been prodigious, with the Jewish crowds predominantly – but not exclusively — drawn from Israel’s professional elites.
The INSS was in particular reacting to the increasing number of IDF reservists joining street protests and threatening not to turn up for military service. In two letters published on 16 March, some 750 Air Force, special forces, Mossad and military intelligence officers warned of imminent threats to stop volunteering for duty. The Likud Party Minister of Defence, Yoav Galant, publicly called for a halt to the reforms and was promptly fired by Netanyahu.
President Biden, throughout his political career, has strongly espoused the view of Israel as a deserving democratic outpost in the Middle East and has acted accordingly. His relationship with Netanyahu has been warm. But Washington is continuing to express “concern” about the proposed drastic judicial curbs. In a telephone call with Netanyahu, Biden expressed his belief that “democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support”. It is some measure of the Biden administration’s former inaction that this modest and diplomatic statement, barely a fraternal admonition, has had such an impact on the INSS.
This current outcry in Israel is new. It is not an extension of existing Jewish protests against violations of the human rights of Arab citizens of Israel, nor of those of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, though some protestors may be supporters of B’Tselem, Yesh Din, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) Israel’s major human rights organisations. Neither do current protests seem a harbinger of calls for a new peace initiative. But there are very good reasons why peace and human rights ought to be on today’s Jewish protestors’ placards.
Whether citizens of Israel, in Gaza or the West Bank, relations between Arab Muslims and Jewish Israelis — with Christians and Druze to a lesser extent — are at boiling point. The May 2021 evictions of Arabs from East Jerusalem and skirmishes around the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount sparked street fighting between Jews and Arabs within Israel itself. This led to a wave of attacks and counterattacks on and from Gaza and the West Bank. 250 Arabs were killed, ten synagogues left in flames, 112 Jewish homes burned, and 13 Jews lost their lives. In October 2022 alone, 32 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed. This continuing high level of violence encourages narratives of the enemy within, which carry with them the ugly prospect of civil war plus a third intifada. To date averting such dangers do not feature prominently amongst the protestors’ demands on Netanyahu.
Since the 1967 war some 450,000 Jewish settlers have moved into the West Bank and 235,000 into East Jerusalem, creating 279 new settlements. I once heard the late Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, speaking passionately about peace in Israel and emphasising repeatedly that “peace is in everyone’s interests”. But the truth of that is called into question if it means, without redress, you lose your land, your home, your olive groves and your schools (currently 44 Palestinian schools are due for demolition), all to make room for Israeli Jewish families. The pre-conditions for a two-State solution have disappeared.
Israel’s former Minister of Defence, Yoav Galant, recently signed an agreement with judicial reforms” proposed by the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, the “adjunct Minister of Defence”, (see TheArticle 12 December 2022), giving Smotrich administrative authority over Area C, that is 60% of the West Bank — an agreement extracted in return for religious Zionist parties’ support for Netanyahu. A little over a year ago the Board of Deputies of British Jews described Smotrich, during a visit to the UK, as having “abominable views and hate-provoking ideology”. “Get back on the plane”, they wrote in a Hebrew tweet “and be remembered as a disgrace forever”. Five years ago Smotrich was advocating flooding the West Bank with settlers. Irrespective of how much control he will be able to exert over the territory, his annexationist intentions are obvious.
The international context is also changing. The bilateral deals that the Trump administration brokered between Israel and the frontline Arab States are fraying. Jordan’s Parliament has voted to expel the Israeli Ambassador, after a typically provocative speech by Smotrich in front of a map showing Jordan as part of “Greater Israel”. In Paris on 19 March, he said: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language.” And China’s unexpected intervention to reduce the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a new move in the Middle East with unknown consequences. Meanwhile Netanyahu has been doing the rounds in Europe to garner support.
Here, Rishi Sunak is echoing Biden’s mild diplomacy, speaking of the importance of “shared democratic values” after meeting Netanyahu last week. In December 2022, Sunak told Conservative Friends of Israel that Britain’s relations with Israel had “never been stronger”. Reading the 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations, signed on 21 March by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel, you can see what he means. It commits to seeking a very wide-ranging partnership including trade, development, defense and security. To say the least, it is unfortunate timing. In this roadmap the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, gives no hint of the cliff edge ahead nor that Israel is — in the INSS’ words — in “a looming crisis”.
After massive national demonstrations in recent days, a general strike with disruption of Tel Aviv airport and shut-down of seaports by striking workers provoked by the Minister of Defense’s sacking, postponing the new legislation — as Netanyahu announced yesterday— is not enough. Ultra-nationalists are counter-demonstrating, with violence threatened. Netanyahu is caught in a trap of his own making. He is making concessions to both anti-reformers, delaying until May and making the legislation less drastic, and pro-reform, granting his extremist National Defense Director Ben Gvir’s demand for a new civil “national guard”.
Netanyahu may continue to push for a decisive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, hoping to close ranks behind his inherently unstable coalition government. Iran is fast moving towards sufficient enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead, and fear of the threat of nuclear proliferation is shared with Western allies. But whatever his next move to prop up his political house of cards – it is unlikely to reduce conflict or to be without consequences for the Middle East.
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