Political quagmire in Israel as Netanyahu abandons past pragmatism

Published : Apr 20, 2023 11:00 IST - 16 MINS READ

People holding a banner depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the words “Let my people go” during a demonstration, in Tel Aviv, on April 8.

People holding a banner depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the words “Let my people go” during a demonstration, in Tel Aviv, on April 8. | Photo Credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS

The Israeli Prime Minister succumbed to pressure from his extreme right-wing partners over the proposed judicial reforms.

For several years, Israel, with full support from Western governments and media, projected itself as an island of stability, peace, and democracy in a West Asia convulsed in competitions, confrontations, and conflicts. This facade, tenuous at best, has now been harshly torn apart, exposing the country’s reality in all its ugliness—extremist and bloodthirsty Ministers, a self-centred and self-absorbed Prime Minister desperate to protect himself from criminal charges, and a nation deeply polarised as it seeks an elusive consensus on what constitutes the Israeli identity.

At the root of these contentions lies the original issue that has influenced all matters relating to Israel: how to deal with the large Palestinian population, whose numbers as Israeli citizens (2 million) and those in the occupied territories (6.5 million) taken together far exceed Israel’s Jewish population (7 million). Successive Israeli governments have handled the Palestinian question by denying their identity, even their existence, and subordinating them to Israel’s interests through a combination of racist exclusion, intimidation, and violence.

Quite unexpectedly, a series of governmental follies and miscalculations have, over the past four months or so, gripped the country in popular protests, even as the authorities simultaneously provoked the Palestinians with attacks on the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque, while bloody confrontations have occurred in the West Bank between Israeli settlers and their Palestinian neighbours. How did Israel descend into this quagmire?

Elections of November 2022

Since 2019, Israel has had five elections but the results, reflecting the deeply polarised country, have not yielded a stable government. Divisions have centred on the persona and political fortunes of the 73-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu—Prime Minister for over 15 years, from 1996 to 1999 and then from 2009 to 2021 (with short periods as leader of the opposition)—Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister.

Also Read | The far right rises again in Israel as Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power

Since 2019, neither Netanyahu nor his political opponents have been able to put together a viable coalition. In June 2021, the right-wing politician Naftali Bennett broke away from Netanyahu and formed a coalition that reflected Israel’s political spectrum—right wing, centrist, leftist, and Arab parties. This coalition broke up in June 2022 and set the stage for a general election in November.

Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister.

Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister. | Photo Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP

That election, the commentator Aaron David Miller noted, was “truly existential” for Netanyahu—if he failed to lead a new government and thus postpone or cancel his trial for corruption, fraud, and breach of trust he faced a guilty verdict or, at best, a plea bargain that would shunt him out of politics. The election results gave Netanyahu’s Likud party 32 seats; they also revealed a major swing in favour of extreme right-wing parties: the Religious Zionism party and Otzma Yehudit, made up of Israel’s most extreme right-wing politicians Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, obtained 14 seats. The right-wing coalition, headed by Netanyahu, with 64 seats, thus obtained a majority in the 120-member Knesset, while its centrist-leftist rivals got a mere 51 seats.

To form the government, Netanyahu had to compromise with his extremist colleagues—in the cabinet, Ben-Gvir got the National Security portfolio, while Smotrich became Minister of Finance; he was also given the responsibility of handling the construction of settlements in the West Bank.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, National Security Minister. 

Itamar Ben-Gvir, National Security Minister.  | Photo Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP

“Israel is a nation now shaped more by the right wing—and perhaps its most extreme elements—than at any point in its history,” said Miller. Religious Zionism is made up of three extremist parties that Miller said, “collectively embody a racist, Jewish supremacist, anti-Arab, and homophobic view”.

Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich bring to the government a long record of strongly held extremist positions. Smotrich, himself the resident of an illegal settlement in the West Bank, supports expansion of settlements, opposes the two-state solution for Palestine, articulates deep hatred for Palestinians, seeks their mass expulsion from Israel and the occupied territories, and calls himself a “fascist homophobe”.

Ben-Gvir reflects similar positions: he was associated early in his career with the extremist organisation Kach and now calls for expulsion of Arabs (and also moderate Jews) who are not loyal to Israel. He has led several provocative marches through Muslim neighbourhoods and even the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, while encouraging the expulsion of Palestinians from the Muslim Quarter in East Jerusalem.

Not surprisingly, Bethan McKernan, writing in The Guardian, has described Netanyahu’s cabinet as a “motley crew of racists and criminals”. Their agenda includes: annex the West Bank and expel Palestinians; build more settlements and back the settlers’ movement; consolidate Israel’s control over Jerusalem; provide Jews unrestricted access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque; affirm the second-class status of Israel’s Arab citizens, and pursue tough policies of confrontation and violence towards Palestinians, including shooting of stone throwers.

A significant part of the right-wing agenda is the “reform” of the judicial system: rightist politicians detest the country’s Supreme Court for its perceived bias against the settler movement and the ultra-religious community, its role in restraining the eviction of Palestinians, and its ability to nullify laws passed by the Knesset that are viewed as contrary to the country’s Basic Law.

Power play

In the three odd months it has been in power, the Netanyahu government has confirmed the worst fears of most observers. In a deliberately provocative move, Ben-Gvir, as National Security Minister, walked through the Al-Aqsa compound in January, signalling his intention to change the present arrangements and institutionalise Jewish prayers in the area.

Palestinian Muslim devotees offering prayers outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the holy month of Ramadan on April 8.

Palestinian Muslim devotees offering prayers outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the holy month of Ramadan on April 8. | Photo Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are working together to expand settlements in the West Bank, one providing the funds, the other the security forces; the government has announced plans to add 10,000 housing units in the West Bank and legalise nine illegal outposts. Ben-Gvir has also been demolishing Arab homes in East Jerusalem on the ground that they are “illegal” constructions. Since 1967, about 58,000 Jewish homes have been constructed in East Jerusalem against 600 Palestinian homes.

Also Read | Explained: Why a Jerusalem holy site is in the spotlight once again

Smotrich, during a private visit to Paris in March, asserted that “there is no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”. Two weeks earlier, in response to the killing of two Jewish brothers by Palestinians from Huwara village in the West Bank, Smotrich called for the entire village to be “wiped out”; settlers attacked the village and burnt 35 Palestinian houses.

Sudden protests

While these episodes of provocation and violence evoked few protests in Israel, what caught the government by surprise were the strident popular protests against its proposed legislation to effect changes in the judiciary. Four Bills were introduced in the Knesset: one to protect the Prime Minister from criminal proceedings, clearly aimed at saving Netanyahu from pending charges; two Bills were aimed at amending the Basic Law in order to dilute the judiciary’s right to invalidate laws deemed contrary to the Basic Law; the fourth provided for a greater role for the government in the selection of judges.

Critics saw these changes as a “judicial coup” to subvert the country’s democratic order. From January, thousands of Israelis took to the streets in mass agitations across Israel. The protesters included military reservists, trade unionists, entrepreneurs, and business persons.

Matters came to a head at the end of March when Defence Minister Yoav Gallant publicly criticised the Bills and was swiftly dismissed. Netanyahu blamed him for not quelling the ire of the reservists, but most people saw the action as vindictive and irresponsible, particularly when Israel was facing security challenges. Several former defence and security officials also opposed the proposals publicly. Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against the government. The National Labour Federation, Histadrut, declared a general strike, while military reservists, including those from the air force and elite combat units, said they would not serve unless the judicial changes were rescinded.

Israeli women’s rights activists dressed as characters in the popular television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, protest against the government’s plan to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv on March 11.

Israeli women’s rights activists dressed as characters in the popular television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, protest against the government’s plan to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv on March 11. | Photo Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP

Former Defence Minister and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon said that Netanyahu’s “obsessive plot to overturn Israel’s democracy” constituted a threat to the country’s security.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari said that if the judicial coup was not stopped, “it could set the entire Middle East on fire”. On March 27, Netanyahu announced on national television that there would be a “time-out for dialogue”, even as he criticised an “extremist minority” that is “willing to tear apart our country, who operates violently, who ignites fires, threatens to hurt those elected, incites a civil war”. Israeli reports said that Netanyahu obtained the approval of the extreme right for the postponement by promising Ben-Gvir a national guard force independent of the police. The Prime Minister’s critics believe this militia will be used against protesters to ensure the survival of his government.

The liberal Israeli daily, Haaretz, pointed out in its editorial that “Netanyahu resorts to manipulation, lies, and scheming, and his second nature is to set traps that are discovered only when it is too late”. The paper called on Israelis to “keep up the pressure on Netanyahu” until the proposed laws are scrapped. Israelis appear to be heeding this call: despite the “time-out” relating to the Bills, thousands have continued their demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other major towns.

On March 29, the CNN correspondent Nadeen Ebrahim pointed out that the fragmented country, large sections of which were deeply alienated from the Prime Minister, could be rallied around by a “potential security threat”, particularly from among Palestinians or the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Ebrahim said that Palestinians were concerned that they would “pay the price for Netanyahu’s concessions to right-wing coalition partners”.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister. | Photo Credit: KOBI WOLF/Bloomberg

As predicted, on April 5 Israeli security forces attacked the Al-Aqsa Mosque and arrested 300 Palestinians; Netanyahu blamed “Muslim extremists” for the clashes. This encouraged Hamas to fire rockets into southern Israel, which were followed by immediate Israeli retaliation. Palestinians also killed three foreign tourists in Tel Aviv and the West Bank. In response, Israel carried out limited air strikes on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon and Iranian targets in Syria.

The Guardian’s correspondent in Jerusalem quoted Hebrew media as saying that Israel was under pressure to launch a major military operation “to bolster the coalition’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public”.

National identity in crisis

From the outset, Israel has been schizophrenic—it has struggled to reconcile its Jewish identity with its claim to be a democratic state though it treats its 20 per cent Arab population as second-class citizens. Its early founders, largely from Europe, affiliated the country with the West and projected it as a secular state and a liberal democracy, which its Jewish population absorbed.

But it is important to recall that the mindset and agenda of the extreme right wing in Israel have deep roots in the Zionist movement, whose central credo was, in the words of the scholar Alain Diekhoff, “the Messianic idea of the renewal of the [Jewish] nation on its own land”. This is founded on two principles: one, that the Jewish people have been divinely “chosen” and constitute a unique, distinct, separate “religio-ethnic” community; and two, the Jewish people have a unique link with the Land of Israel—the land promised to them by God, on which they live by divine command.

The settler movement, that forcibly seeks to expand its presence in the occupied West Bank by displacing the resident Arabs, emerges from this messianic ideal: the settlers see themselves as subject only to divine law. This law, in their view, propounds that there is no place for non-Jews on this sacred land; hence, their ultimate expulsion from this land through denial of rights and finally genocide, if necessary, is a matter of divine sanction, given that the non-Jewish “Other” embodies evil, defilement, and moral corruption.

The “sacred” land of Israel remains undefined – its religious leadership dreams of acquiring territories from all its neighbours. Hence Israel has no constitution that would require it to define its sovereign territory.

Though Israel has generally been ruled by right-wing parties since 1967, with its governments fully supporting the settler movement and abridging the rights of Palestinians, the Prime Ministers have tended to be pragmatic politicians who generally restrained the more extreme claims of the zealots.

  • Since 2019, Israel has had five elections but the results, reflecting the deeply polarised country, have not yielded a stable government.
  • A significant part of the right-wing agenda is the “reform” of the judicial system.
  • In a deliberately provocative move, Ben-Gvir, as National Security Minister, walked through the Al-Aqsa compound in January, signalling his intention to institutionalise Jewish prayers in the area.
  • On April 5, Israeli security forces attacked the Al-Aqsa Mosque and arrested 300 Palestinians; Netanyahu blamed “Muslim extremists” for the clashes.

Now, for the first time in Israeli history, Netanyahu’s latest government has abandoned this restraint and provided a licence to its most extreme members.

The liberal ethos, taken for granted for several decades, is now in retreat. Miller has noted that 60 per cent of the Israeli electorate is right wing, with only 12-14 per cent seeing themselves as left wing.

In the November 2022 election, not only did Ben-Gvir do well, he also increased the national turnout by 6 per cent. This is largely due to the increasing presence and influence of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel’s political order and their insistence that the national order be reshaped to accommodate their beliefs and values. These include replacing civil law with “the Law of the Torah”.

The attempt of the Netanyahu government to enforce judicial changes has raised concerns that an emasculated Supreme Court will allow the government to move the country towards a theocracy, with an authoritarian, apartheid state that would annex the West Bank, deny citizenship rights to millions of Arab residents, and encroach on the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

This has set the stage for the ongoing agitations against the proposed changes, separating the “liberal” from the “traditional” and giving Israel an identity crisis.

The Israeli author David Grossmandescribed this divide in Israel thus: “[Despite the facade of national unity] somewhere in the depths of our hearts, we knew that we were not really brothers. We knew that there are vast gaps, and variant yearnings of the heart, with religious people wanting a ‘halachic’ [religious] state, whereas for me, it is an aberration to think of stoning someone over LGBTQ rights or that a non-Jew has a lesser value. All these things hovered in the background, but we thought we had overcome it.”

It is important to note that the ongoing “pro-democracy” agitations have nothing to do with Palestinian aspirations; they reflect the long-standing divide within Israel’s Jewish community between the country’s liberal, secular, educated and middle-class Israelis and the religious, traditional and orthodox citizens who yearn for a national order founded on principles of their faith.

The demonstrators are thus seeking to preserve the country’s liberal order from the religious onslaught; they are seeking this within the existing system that privileges Jewish identity and supremacy and maintains Israel’s control of the occupied territories, and denies the Palestinians any scope for asserting their identity and seeking their own sovereign state.

Also Read | Protests continue in Israel against Netanyahu’s attempt to overhaul judiciary

Outlook for Israel

The approval ratings of Netanyahu and his government have plummeted in the last few weeks: two-thirds of those polled disapprove of Netanyahu’s performance, while, on March 29, 77 per cent said Israel was on the wrong track.

The scale of the opposition to the judicial reforms and Netanyahu’s failure to anticipate the hostility has surprised observers of this wily politician whose career has been marked by shrewdness, risk-averseness, and robust survival instincts. Some commentators believe that his desire to protect himself from criminal proceedings has made him subservient to the far-right agenda. They suggest that, after the elections, he would have preferred a right-of-centre coalition, but, having betrayed earlier agreements on power-sharing with political moderates, nobody is now willing to trust him.

Netanyahu is also perhaps suffused in hubris, a natural malady that afflicts those in power for much too long; they come to believe in their own superior knowledge and wisdom and, over time, surround themselves with yes-men and time-servers. An unnamed senior official told an Israeli commentator that Netanyahu’s “last election victory was one too many” and he was now busy destroying his legacy.

While there is a temporary “pause” in the judicial changes, the laws have not been dropped; they remain dear to Netanyahu’s right-wing colleagues and, possibly, to him as well. Some compromises could be worked out, but it remains unclear if the lure of office will encourage the extremists to become more accommodative, a trait they have not displayed so far. In recent days, Netanyahu appears to be distancing himself from the judicial changes, saying it is being pursued by his two Ministers, and that, in any case, constitutional matters are not his expertise.

Netanyahu will also try to play the security card—build up the demons of Hamas, Hezbollah and, above all, Iran—to rally his country and foreign allies. But sections of the demonstrators have perhaps already seen through this ploy—a placard in Tel Aviv, on April 8, simply said: “Netanyahu is leading us to war”.

If the coalition holds and the extreme right retains its influence, what will it mean for the Palestinian cause? There is little doubt that there will be increased confrontations between settlers and security forces. This could ignite another Intifada with tit-for-tat exchanges and occasional flare-ups that command global attention for a while and then fade from public memory.

Could the global response to Israeli atrocities be different this time? News reports speak of Biden’s disenchantment with Netanyahu and his reluctance to invite him to the White House. But it seems unlikely that the absence of presidential hospitality will give Netanyahu sleepless nights—he will continue to prioritise the survival of his coalition, taking comfort in the thought that he has enough friends among Republicans (and several Democrats) to make up for Biden’s temporary displeasure.

What of the Arab states? As of now, “normalisation” of ties with new Arab states is hardly a serious prospect: the Beijing Accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran has created new political dynamics in West Asia in which there is no place for the continued demonisation of Iran and creating a regional coalition on that basis.

China is the new player on the West Asian landscape, and it focusses on energy, economics, technology, and logistical partnerships, eschewing military interventions and intrusive political pronouncements. It talks the language of “win-win”. With its substantial economic ties across West Asia and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that links all West Asian nations, China presents a new paradigm for regional engagement and cooperation. Could the BRI be the glue to bond various states in this region in benign partnerships, the missing piece here for several decades?

Perhaps we will need a post-Netanyahu order in Israel to see the fruition of new options and opportunities sprouting across West Asia.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. His latest book is West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games (HarperCollins India,2022).

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