The battle for the soul of Israel
Israel is going through a period of torrid soul-searching. At the heart of this upheaval is a struggle, not between left and right, but between the desire to be safe and a longing to be free, to live in a normal, peaceful democracy. It’s a contest for Israel’s soul.
The hard-line coalition led by fifth-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that accruing more power to the state — by hobbling the judiciary and curbing human rights — is necessary to protect Israel from its internal and external enemies.
Tens of thousands of Israelis, bearing rivers of blue and white Star of David flags, have taken to the streets begging to differ. They see the proposed measures as a crude power grab that would undermine the country’s democratic foundations even further.
Long nights of angry protests were made worse by Netanyahu’s decision to fire his Defence Minister Yoav Galant. The latter said the divisions caused by legislation to neuter the judiciary posed “a clear, immediate and real danger” to the state.
Warnings of serious disquiet in the army’s vital reserve units flashed red. (The last time Israeli reservists rose up in protest was after the invasion of Lebanon in 2006). The Israeli Defence Force are lionized as the embodiment of Zionist values. So when the military speaks politicians sit up.
This week Netanyahu has backed off in the face of these unprecedented protests and a stiff warning by President Joe Biden to drop his judicial reform plans. The Israeli leader told the nation “When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue ..I am taking time out for dialogue”. Call this realpolitik or call it breathtaking cynicism: at least it offers a pause in an incendiary situation.
History matters, as always with Israel. The Jewish state was born out of tragedy, forged in conflict and lives on in a state of perpetual apprehension. This restless search for equilibrium – pushed to its very limits by a manipulative, power-hungry Prime Minister — lies at the heart of the extraordinary events of the past few weeks.
This tension, of course, is not exceptional. Weighing up draconian measures to ward off dangers (real or perceived) against individual freedom and human rights is an occupational hazard for any democracy.
But for Israel the predicament is uniquely acute. The country has been in a perpetual state of belligerence since the first Arab-Israeli conflict when the United Nations voted in 1947 to partition the British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish one Arab.
The residual fear of annihilation – a second Holocaust – is what gives its politicians a wide discretion to act, sometimes to overreact. The generation that was part of the founding of the Jewish state out of the embers of the Holocaust has, by and large, backed its government tough line over the years.
But Israel’s martial approach to what it regards as its existential challenges has not always met with approval at home: the permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the aggressive Jewish settlement programme in the occupied territories have all drawn protests.
But this is different. This latest protests, mostly by a younger generation, may turn out to be a defining moment for this young, embattled country. Netanyahu’s coalition of ultra-nationalists, religious leaders and assorted far-Right rabble-rousers want to neuter the Supreme Court by turning justices into political appointees. It also wants the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) to be able override Supreme Court rulings. Britain is not unfamiliar with this impulse.
Israel’s Supreme Court wields significant power. But Israel is a country with a unicameral parliament, no formal constitution, and an increasingly volatile political landscape. There have been 37 governments in the 75 years since Israel’s creation in 1948.
The judiciary plays a crucial checks and balances role. If it’s not there to hold the ring who will? And you have to ask: what is Israel without a robust and independent judiciary? Countries that slide into dictatorship invariably start out by obliterating the independence of their judges. Is this what Israel’s founding fathers had in mind?
Netanyahu is nothing if not skilled in politics. He is a survivor who knows when to big himself up and when to show the necessary humility. The Jerusalem Post describes him as part Rambo part artful dodger. He drives his opponents crazy by being three steps ahead.
In his most recent attempt to cling to power Netanyahu has allied himself to extremists like National Security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. The ultra-Zionist has built a legal career defending Jewish suspects charged with terrorism and hate crimes. He has been indicted more than 50 times for incitement to racial hatred.
His role model and ideological wellspring is the late Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn rabbi who moved to Israel in 1971. During a single term in the Knesset Kahane pushed the moral tenets of the country to the limit.
Kahane argued that “the idea of a democratic Jewish state is nonsense.” In his view – and he was not alone – demographic trends would lead ineluctably to a non-Jewish majority. To Kahane, Arabs were “dogs” who “must sit quietly or get the hell out.”
Leading ultra-Orthodox Rabbis have joined the call for pushing ahead with the coalition’s legal reforms. “By the grace of God, the people of Israel chose a Jewish and nationalistic government that is expected to operate in support of Torah, the people of Israel and the Land of Israel.” This is naked populism by another name. Recent citizenship laws passed by the Knesset methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians and Arab citizens playing to the fear of an eventual Arab majority.
The Israeli leader remains on trial for allegedly providing political favours to tycoons in exchange for personal gifts and positive press coverage—charges he denies. Perhaps he saw these measures as his get-out-of-jail card. Either way “Bibi” has badly misjudged the mood of his country.
Governing Israel – being Israel- is complicated. The story it tells of itself – the socialism of its founding fathers, the kibbutzim, the Holocaust – is essentially a European one.
The reality is more complicated. One fifth of Israel’s citizens are Arab Muslims. But many more – perhaps as many as half – have roots in the Islamic world. They are (like Arabs, Phoenicians, Babylonians) Semites.
Dragging Israel into an exclusively Jewish space where non-Jews are second-class citizens and human rights are sacrificed on the altar of national survival is a recipe for perpetual conflict.
The Palestinian issue has been temporarily silenced. But imagining that it has gone away is foolish and the Israelis are nothing if not realists.
Israelis are united in their desire to keep their country safe. But, perhaps for the first time, they are confronted by the question: at what cost?
This crisis offers a chance to pause and rethink what Israel is and what is stands for. A constitution and a Bill of Rights would go some way to paving the way for a fresh start.
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