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Israel on the brink

Israel is teetering on the brink between an authoritarian overhaul to rival Orban's, a popular revolt and an economic implosion. What comes next - and where does it leave the Palestinians?

February 17 2023, 17.18pm

TEL AVIV - Israel is a strange place to visit this sunny February week.

Last Monday, on a clear, warm Jerusalem afternoon, history was taking place.

In a society as sectorian as 1980s Lebanon or Northern Ireland, where political camps tend to overlap tightly with class and cultural identities, anti-government demonstrations tend to be overwhelmingly white, Ashkenazi-Jewish, lower- to upper-middle class, secular and small. On Monday, the demonstrators numbered in the hundreds of thousands, with ample representation for orthodox Jews, national-religious Jews, Jews of Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, or Mizrachi origin, Russian-speaking Jews and both Palestinian and Druze Arabs - the latter a tiny minority, of course: the protest is still overwhelmingly a nationalist Jewish story, more concerned with the majority's liberties than with the minorities most at risk. And strikingly, in a protest where most people would disagree on anything but the most generic slogans, often no slogans were chanted at all: instead, a wave would roll over the immense procession: a wordless scream, punctuated by drums and airhorns: Aaaaaaah!. 

Whether the place the protest would occupy in history is that of a prologue for democratic renewal, an epilogue to the story of Jewish democracy, or a footnote in a rapid descentd toward civil war, remains to be seen. 

To recap: for most of the 2010s, the country was ruled by one of politics’ greatest survivors, far-right prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He survived by playing off extremists and centrists against each other, and by driving out any right-wing leader talented enough to challenge him out of the ruling party. Over the years, this redefined the main divide in Israel as not Left vs Right but pro-Netanyahu or against him. In 2020, weakened by numerous corruption trials, Netanyahu was replaced by the unlikely coalition of everyone he’s alienated or excluded - a motley crew of a centrist former TV host, a far-right settler leader, and an Islamist party. This coalition, in turn, succumbed to its divisions last November, and Netanyahu won first dibs at composing a new government - but with all centrist, leftists and non-Zionist parties now committed to oppose him come what may, he resorted to the furthest of the far-right, pledging himself to an ambitious, often mutually disruptive wish-list of far-right policies. 

The result: The country is now on the brink of the most dramatic evisceration of a western-type democracy we’ve seen this century, with speed and thoroughness putting the likes of Poland and Hungary to shame. If all goes to plan, within a few short weeks, the judiciary will be demolished as an independent entity; the constitutional laws will be downgraded to ordinary laws that the ruling coalition can change at a whim; the editorially independent national broadcasting authority will be shut down; civil society organisations will be effectively barred from receiving foreign funding - a page straight out of Putin’s playbook - and schools will be banned from discussing LGBTQ+ rights. 

And this, mind you, is just the beginning. While Israel’s civil society has failed to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and its celebrated Supreme Court has been instrumental in sustaining it, there is little doubt that all this frenetic activity is ultimately intended to clear the path for a radical reconfiguration of the state of play. We’re no longer talking about slowly entrenching the occupation of 1967; we’re talking about a redrawing of the map on a scale not seen since 1948. 

We’re talking about Crimea-style annexation of the West Bank - which has already begun, both de-facto and de-jure, with the transfer of administration of the occupied territories from the “temporary” military regime to a civilian Israeli minister; we’re talking about a combination of carrots and sticks to push tens of thousands of Palestinians out of their communities and eventually out of Palestine altogether; and we’re talking about the detention, exile, and worse of anyone who attempts to obstruct this, be they Jewish or Palestinian or foreign activists. 

The famous stagnation that succeeded the demise of the peace process for achieving a two-state solution, and the defeat of the Palestinian attempt to achieve independence by (sometimes questionable) force of arms, is at an end. And the candle is burning at both ends: even as Israel is dismantling the machinery that sustained the unequal status quo, a generation of Palestinians too young to remember the crushing of the Second Intifada is gearing up for another round. The new militias springing up across the West Bank are decentralised, painfully young, heavily armed, and are loathe to take orders from anyone, be it from the Palestinian Authority - now widely seen as an enforcer of the Israeli occupation - or even the more veteran Palestinian militant organisations. Fatalities in the conflict are already at their highest since the mid 2000’s - as ever, disproportionately on the Palestinian side (over 30 in 2023 as of the time of writing), but also among Israelis (over 11 in the same period.) 

At the same time, the country feels strangely suspended on the brink - largely thanks to an unprecedentedly wide mobilisation of upper class establishment, civil society, grassroot organising and the opposition parties to stop Netanyahu’s anti-democratic revolution in its tracks. This resistance, so far, includes weekly mass demonstrations dwarfing the ones that eased Netanyahu out of power two years ago; mass walkouts from all sectors in the economy, from unionised healthcare workers to careerist hi-tech programmers; and rank insubordination by the Jerusalem police - not normally known for its soft touch or democratic sympathies - who blithely ignored orders by Netanyahu’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, to block demonstrations in the capital. Most alarmingly for Netanyahu, Israel’s famously robust economy is cracking: “unicorn” tech companies are pulling billions of dollars’ worth of investment out of Israel; would-be investors are getting cold legs; and private citizens are urgently seeking ways to move their savings and other assets abroad. 

And while Netanyahu is busy castigating all this moves as anti-democratic - he did win elections as recently as November, albeit on a vastly different platform - and there are few signs the government will make a meaningful retreat, the ruling coalition already announced the vote on the judicial reform will be delayed by a week, at least. 

In order of likelihood, there are four scenarios on how this will go forward. The first is that the bulk of the reform passes: At home, Netanyahu almost always gets what he wants, and he has the numbers. This could be a total victory, or the rather meaningless compromise offered by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog - arguably Israel’s least principled politician - which would still see the bulk of the reform go through. 

The next likely scenario is that Netanyahu will push through the judicial reform - the part of the package in which he has a keen personal interest, facing a slew of debilitating corruption trials - and then fire the far-right and invite Israel’s most centrist opposition parties to enter government, in a bid to save the country from civil strife and prevent the explosion of a third Intifada, which could also scupper his project of normalising Israel’s status in the Arab Middle East. 

The third scenario is that protest, insubordination and sabotage stall the legislation so much that the coalition collapses into infighting over which part to prioritise, and the same reshuffle ensues. 

And finally, the least likely scenario - but, remarkably, not one that can be totally discounted - is a military coup. This can be soft - systemic insubordination by the armed forces - or hard: the leaders of Israel’s army and security forces asking Netanyahu to step away. The leadership of all armed forces is interested primarily in stability, both military and economic, and some are appointees of the previous, more moderate government. This scenario is neither likely nor necessarily desirable: a military coup is not known to have been contemplated in Israel since 1967, and any such move by the core of the military will risk a mutiny by the rougher elements of Israel’s infantry, who are deeply supportive of Ben Gvir. 

Where it all goes will become obvious in a matter of weeks. But it’s already clear there is no going backwards. Too many taboos have been broken, and too many possibilities have been dangled tantalisingly within reach of too many rogue elements; and besides, there seems little that can be done to prevent a new Palestinian uprising, no matter on whose watch it takes place. For Israelis and Palestinians there’s little choice but to keep on and salvage what they can. For the rest of the world, it’s high time to start laying down some red lines thicker and broader than construction in settlements - beginning with demanding human rights and civil rights be protected for Jews as well as Palestinians, in Israel proper and in the occupied Palestinian territories - because with old structures imploding, there’s nobody, nowhere for whom these can be guaranteed.