A Few Observations on Israel’s Spiraling Crisis

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In general, the Israeli protests against the so-called judicial reform package have garnered much less news attention in the U.S. than one might have expected. But these are much more than mass protests of the sort that occur with some regularity across the democratic world. It’s not too much to say that the scale and scope of these protests are without any clear precedent in Israel’s 75-year history. They have gone on for roughly two and half months, and they have continued to gather momentum, expand in scope and grow in intensity. They have increasingly cut into the central institution of Israeli society, the IDF. They have united much of the country’s financial sector in arguing that the reforms threaten the future of the Israeli economy. And today they have spurred a general strike which has brought much of the country to a standstill.

There are so many different dimensions of this story that each time I consider writing about it my effort spirals into something far too unwieldy. So I thought I’d just write out a series of observations.

One: Many Americans continue to view Israeli politics as operating along axes defined by the occupation of the West Bank and the long-moribund “peace process.” That is such a central fact of Israeli life that it’s certainly a latent or implicit factor in almost every political question. But in any direct sense, it’s hard to overstate how little any of that has to do with the current conflict. The “peace process” hasn’t figured, in any real sense, into any of the repeated elections of the last three years, or really for any in the last decade or more. Nothing about the current crisis has anything with any of that in any direct sense.

Two: Fundamentally this conflict is about a basic political division in Israeli society and Israeli politics’ long drift to the right. But in the short- to medium-term time horizon, Israeli society hasn’t moved as far or as quickly to the right as Israeli politics has. And the key factor there is the way in which Benjamin Netanyahu has manipulated the country’s factional politics first to remain in power and then to remain in power and out of prison. To a great degree you now have a governing coalition dominated by far-right nationalists because this is the only coalition that could bring Netanyahu back to power.

Political power in Israel rests on national elections in which parliamentary seats are apportioned on the basis of each party’s percentage of the vote. As many as a dozen parties realistically compete for seats, with each needing to get at least 3.25% of the vote to get any seats at all. That electoral threshold, combined with the fluid emergence and demise of parties, creates immense uncertainty in how overall voting percentages will translate into potential coalition seats. Even in an election in which the nationalist right camp and the center-left camp get roughly the same number of votes, the precise mix of different parties and the mix of ideologies and ethnicities which make them up can spell the difference between a narrow majority and a loss of power.

One reason for Benjamin Netanyahu’s long dominance of Israel politics has been his ability to shape the mix of parties running on the right or even shepherd into existence new parties to maximize his chances of building a majority. On paper, Netanyahu is the leader of the largest right-wing party, Likud, and thus the most logical prime minister in a rightist coalition. But really he’s the head of the right-wing bloc and he’s shaped that bloc to keep himself in power.

Sadly, for those of us who wish Israel’s politics were different, Israel could have had a center-right government without any problem over the last few years. The issue is Netanyahu and the increasing maximalism of the far-right parties. A good bit of the opposition is now center-right. But it’s Netanyahu himself who has incubated and cultivated that right-wing maximalism to keep himself in power.

Three: The morning started with widespread reports that after yesterday’s protests, Netanyahu would announce a pause to the judicial reform package. But that announcement hasn’t come. It’s universally agreed that if he gave up on the central elements of the package his government would collapse more or less immediately. As I write, he finally seems to have gotten sign-off from the most extreme elements of his government for the pause. But this is just a pause. And the strategy behind it is self-evidence. Slow down, make a show of negotiation and hope that the public protest movement will lose steam and focus. Then come back in a few weeks and pass it.

That’s a pretty good strategy — or perhaps better to say, it’s the only viable one Netanyahu has available. The problem is that this has been going on since mid-January and the protests and backlash have only escalated. It’s really, really hard to keep people in the streets for weeks on end. And everyone gets that this is merely a tactical pause. So it’s really not clear this will change anything. As I said, everything here is totally unprecedented. It’s very hard to imagine Netanyahu will relent and drive himself from office or that the extremists he’s made common cause with will give up what they want here. But it’s also hard to imagine that this protest movement, which has already cut into the central institutions of the state, will just get distracted and fade away.

Four: The latest escalation started when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant publicly called for a freeze on the legislation. Netanyahu promptly fired him. This triggered a fairly organic new wave of mass protests. Back in, 2010 Gallant was slated to be made the head of the Israeli army (the IDF). On paper, that’s equivalent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the U.S., but the job has an incomparably more central role in Israeli society. His appointment ended up being scuttled over two separate sets of allegations against him. For present purposes, those controversies aren’t really relevant. What is relevant is that he was among the most senior and revered generals in the IDF.

In the last couple weeks there have been increasing murmurs of dissent from within Netanyahu’s Likud party over the reform package. The gist of these misgivings haven’t necessarily been the package itself but the perception that whatever its merits it threatened to undermine the integrity of the state and the IDF. Gallant has repeatedly warned that the crisis is threatening the readiness of the IDF and thus Israel’s security. Because of his military background and role as defense minister he’s basically seen as speaking for the country’s security establishment, warning about the danger of what’s happening. The situation is so volatile in Israel that I am not in a position to say just why his firing spurred quite such an explosive backlash. But I think a key reason has to be that this was seen as the country’s defense establishment saying this has to stop and Netanyahu saying he didn’t care but would do whatever it takes to remain in power and do whatever is necessary to satisfy the extremists keeping him in power.

The key point is that Gallant is a retired general and very much a man of the Israeli right, though not the far right. There’s really no right/left in this in any conventional sense.

Five: Initial reports suggest that Netanyahu was able to get the support for a pause from Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir by agreeing to create a new national police force directly under his control. Ben-Gvir represents the most extreme party in the governing coalition and he has constantly chafed at the refusal of the actual national police to treat the protestors as something like state enemies rather than in the vast majority of cases peaceful protestors. If this comes to fruition it’s a very ominous development. In a way it recapitulates a central element of the whole drama: whether central societal institutions which have a loyalty to the state over the government of the moment will be put under the direct and unmediated control of that government.

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