In the War Between Judaism and Democracy in Israel, Anything Is Possible
Bibi is by nature cautious – even timid. His radical ministers, however, are not, Alastair Crooke writes.
Michael Omer-Man writes: Almost exactly 10 years ago, a young star rising in the Likud party, spoke to an audience committed to the outright annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories, laying out his blueprint. A year later, this same speaker set out certain prerequisites to full annexation: Firstly, a shift in the way the Israeli public thinks about a ‘two-state solution’ for Palestine; and secondly, a radical recast of the legal system “that will allow us to take those steps on the ground … that advance sovereignty”.
What was reflected in this statement is the structural dichotomy inherent within the ‘idea’ of ‘Israel’: What then is ‘Israel’? One side holds that Israel was founded as a ‘balance’ between Jewishness and Democracy. The other says ‘nonsense’; it was always the establishment of Israel on the “Land of Israel”.
Ami Pedahzur, a political scientist studying the Israeli Right, explains that the religious Right “has always considered the Israeli Supreme Court to be an abomination”. He points out that the extremist Meir Kahane “once wrote extensively about the tension between Judaism and democracy and the need for a Sanhedrin [a biblical system of judges] instead of the extant Israeli judicial system”.
In Israel’s attempt to balance these opposing visions and interpretations of history, the Israeli Right sees the judiciary as deliberately having been tilted toward democracy (by one part of the Israeli élite). This simmering tension finally exploded with the 1995 Supreme Court claim that it possessed power of judicial review over Knesset (parliamentary) legislation deemed to be in conflict with Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. (An Israeli constitution has been considered since 1949, but never actuated.)
Well, that ‘young star’ of 10 years ago – who asserted so forcefully “We cannot accept … a judicial system that is controlled by a radical leftist, post-Zionist minority that elects itself behind closed doors – dictating to us its own values – today is Israel’s Justice Minister, Yariv Levin.
And with time, Netanyahu has indeed already brought about that first prerequisite (outlined by Levin almost a decade ago): The Israeli public perspective on the two-state Olso formula is radically changed. Political support for that project hovers close to zero in the political sphere.
More than that, today’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu, explicitly shares the same ideology as Levin and his colleagues – namely that Jews have a right to settle in any, and all, parts of the ‘Land of Israel’; he also believes that the very survival of the Jewish people is dependent on the actuation of that divine obligation into practice.
Many on the Israeli Right, Omer-Man suggests, therefore see the Supreme Court as “the central impediment to their ability to fulfil their annexationist dreams, which for them are a combination of messianic and ideological commandments”.
They saw the 1995 Supreme Court ruling as ‘a coup’ that ushered in the judiciary’s supremacy over law and politics. This is a view that is hotly contested – to the point of near civil war – by those who advocate for democracy versus a strict Judaic vision of religious law.
From the perspective of the Right, Ariel Kahana notes that although
“they have continued to win time and again – but they have never held power in the true sense of the word. Through the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the defence establishment, academia, cultural elites, the media, and some of the economic wheelers and dealers, the Left’s doctrine continued to dominate Israel’s power foci. In fact, regardless of who the cabinet ministers were, the old guard has continued with its obstructionist insurgency”.
Today, however, the numbers are with the Right – and we are witnessing the Israeli Right’s counter-coup: a judicial ‘reform’ which would centralize power in the Knesset – precisely by dismantling the legal system’s current checks and balances.
Ostensibly this schism constitutes the crisis bringing hundreds of thousand Israelis on to the street. Prima Facie, in much of the media, at issue is who has the final word: the Knesset or the Supreme Court.
Or, is it? For, beneath the surface, unacknowledged and mostly unsaid, is something deeper: It is the conflict between Realpolitik versus Completion of the Zionist project. Put starkly, the Right says it’s clear: Without Judaism we have no identity; and no reason to be in this land.
The ‘less said’ fact is that much of the electorate actually agrees with the Right in principle, yet opposes the full annexation of the West Bank on pragmatic grounds: “They believe that the status quo of a “temporary” 55-plus-year military occupation is the more strategically prudent”.
“Formally [annexing West Bank] would make it too difficult to convince the world that Israel is not an apartheid regime in which half of the population — Palestinians — are denied basic democratic, civil, and human rights”.
That other unresolved contradiction (that of continuing occupation within ‘democracy’) is also submerged by the prevalent mantra of ‘Right wing Orbánism versus democracy’. Ahmad Tibi, an Palestinian member of the Knesset earlier has wryly noted: “Israel indeed is ‘Jewish and democratic’: It is democratic toward Jews – and Jewish toward Arabs”.
The mass of protestors gathered in Tel Aviv carefully choose to avoid this oxymoron (other than around the kitchen table) – as a Haaretz editorial a few days ago made clear: “Israel’s opposition is for Jews only”.
Thus, the crisis that some are warning could lead to civil war at its crux is that between one group – which is no longer content to wait for the right conditions to arrive to fulfil the Zionist dream of Jewish sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel – versus an outraged opposition that prefers sticking to the political tradition of buying time by “deciding not to decide”, Omer-Man underlines.
And although there are ‘moderates’ amongst the Likud lawmakers, their concerns are eclipsed by the exultant mood at their party’s base:
“Senior Likud officials, led by Netanyahu, have incited Likud voters against the legal system for years, and now the tiger is out of control. It has its trainer in its jaws and threatens to crush him if he makes concessions”.
The flames lick around Netanyahu’s feet. The U.S. wants quiet; It does not want a war with Iran. It does not want a new Palestinian Intifada – and will hold Netanyahu’s feet to the flames until he ‘controls’ his coalition allies and returns to an Hebraic ‘quietism’.
But he can’t. It’s not possible. Netanyahu is held limp in the tiger’s jaws. Events are out of his control.
A prominent member of Likud’s central committee told Haaretz this week:
“I don’t care if I have nothing to eat, if the army falls apart, if everything here is destroyed … The main thing is that they not humiliate us once again, and appoint Ashkenazi judges over us”.
The ‘second Israel’ genres have wailed against ‘the ten Ashkenazai judges’ who discredited their leader (Arye Dery), whilst breaking into a song of praise for the ‘only Sephardic judge’ who was sympathetic to Dery. Yes, the ethnic and tribal schisms form a further part of this crisis. (A bill that effectively would reverse the Supreme Court decision barring Dery from his ministerial position over previous corruption charges is currently making its way through the Knesset).
The appeal of Religious Zionism is often attributed to its growing strength amongst the young – particularly ultra-Orthodox men and traditional Mizrahi voters. What became abundantly clear and unexpected in recent weeks, however, is that the appeal of a racist such as Ben-Gvir, is spreading to the young secular left in Israel. Among young Israelis (ages 18 – 24), more than 70% identify today as Right.
Just to be clear: The Mizrahi ‘underclass’, together with the Settler Right, have ousted the ‘old’ Ashkenazi élite from their hold on power. They have waited many years for this moment; their numbers are there. Power has been rotated. The fuse to today’s particular crisis was lit long ago, not by Netanyahu, but by Ariel Sharon in 2001, with his entry to the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif).
Sharon had earlier perceived that a moment would arrive – with a weakened U.S. – when it might prove propitious for Israel to complete the Zionist project and seize all the ‘Land of Israel’. The plans for this venture have been incubating over two decades. Sharon lit the fuse – and Netanyahu duly took on the task of curating a constituency towards despising Oslo and the judicial system.
The project’s content is explicitly acknowledged: To annex the West Bank and to transfer any political rights of Palestinians remaining there to a new national state to the east of the River Jordan, on the site of what now is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In the confusion and violence which would accompany such a move, Palestinians would be ‘persuaded’ to migrate to the ‘other bank’. As Hussein Ibish warned two weeks ago:
“We’re getting awfully close to the point where the Israeli government, and even Israeli society, could countenance a big annexation – and even expulsion [of Palestinians] – done in the middle of an outbreak of violence, and it would be framed as a painful necessity,” Ibish said. Such a move, he added, would be justified “as the government saying ‘We’ve got to protect Israeli settlers – they are citizens too – and we can’t let this go on anymore. Therefore we have to annex and even expel Palestinians.’”
To be fair, the unspoken fear of many secular protesters in Israel today, is not just that of being politically deposed, and their secular lifestyle circumscribed by religious zealots (though that is a major driver to sentiment), but rather, by the unspoken fear that to implement such a radical project against the Palestinians would lead to Regional war.
And ‘that’ is far from an unreasonable fear.
So there are two existential fears: One, that survival of the Jewish people is contingent on fulfilling the obligation to establish ‘Israel’ as ordained; and two, that to implement the consequent exodus of the Palestinians would likely result in the demise of the Israeli State (through war).
Suddenly and unexpectedly, into this fraught situation – with Netanyahu buffeted by a whirlwind of external and internal pressures – arrived a bombshell: Netanyahu was stripped of his ace card – Iran. In Beijing, China had secretly orchestrated not just the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but laid down the framework for a regional security architecture.
This represents a nightmare for Washington and Netanyahu – particularly for the latter, however.
Since the early 1990s, Iran has served both these parties as the ‘bogey man’, by which to divert attention from Israel and the situation of the Palestinians. It has worked well, with the Europeans acting as enthusiastic collaborators in facilitating (or ‘mitigating’ – as they would see it), Israel’s ‘temporary’, 55-year occupation of the West Bank. The EU even financed it.
But now, that is blown away. Netanyahu may ‘huff and puff’ about Iran, but absent a Saudi and Gulf willingness to lend Arab legitimacy to any military action against Iran (with all the risks that entails), Netanyahu’ s ability to distract from the domestic crisis is severely limited. Any call to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities is an obvious non-starter in the light of the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement.
Netanyahu may not want a show-down with Team Biden, but that’s what is coming. Bibi is by nature cautious – even timid. His radical Ministers, however, are not.
They need a crisis (but only when the ‘prerequisites’ are all lined up). It is clear that the wholesale stripping of Palestinian rights, in tandem with the emasculation of the Supreme Court, is not a project that can be expected to quietly proceed in normal circumstances – especially in the present emotive state across the global sphere.
No doubt, the Israeli Right has been watching how the Lockdown ‘Emergency-crisis fear’ in Europe was used to mobilise a people to accept a compulsion and restrictions to life that in any other circumstance they would never rationally accept.
It won’t be a new pandemic emergency, of course, in the Israeli case. But the new Palestinian Authority-led ‘SWAT-squads’ arresting Palestinian resistance fighters in broad daylight is bringing the West Bank ‘pressure-cooker’ close to blow-out.
Ben Gvir may simply decide to follow in Sharon’s footsteps – to allow and participate in the Passover ceremony of sacrificing a lamb on Al-Aqsa (the Temple Mount) – as a symbol of the commitment to rebuild the ‘Third Temple’, permission for which, hitherto has always been denied.
So what happens next? It is impossible to predict. Will the Israeli military intervene? Will the U.S. intervene? Will one side back-down (unlikely says ex-Head of Israel’s National Security Council, Giora Eiland)? Yet even if the ‘Judicial reform’ is somehow halted, as one exasperated Israeli forecast, “Even if this time the attempt does not succeed, it’s likely that they [the Right] will try again in another two years, another five years, another 10 years. The struggle will be long and difficult, and no one can guarantee what the result will be.”