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Israel unrest slows down - and civil war threat grows

After pushing his country to the brink of fratricidal conflict, Netanyahu feints a pause on his constitutional reform project. But none of the laws have been withdrawn, and when protests return, they'll be met by a new pro-government militia. 

April 01 2023, 12.05pm

It was a sight few Israelis can remember witnessing before. On Monday, a night that saw protesters not briefly block roads in daytime but blockade the country’s central arteries overnight with barricades and bonfires; after the federation of trade unions announced a general strike, and after workers shut down the country’s airports and seaports - Netanyahu, the near-perpetual winner of his country’s politics, stood at the podium in a bland press conference room and waved a white flag. He didn’t want to tear the nation apart, he said. He will suspend the controversial judicial reform until the summer. And he called on the opposition leaders to use the interim time for thoughtful, constructive negotiation. 

The trouble is that few in the opposition - a group that now runs the gamut from hard-right leaders alienated by Netanyahu, to fighter pilots, centrists, left-wing activists and Palestinians - see this as anything but a ruse. It’s a tactical retreat to allow a bruised leader to regroup, even as the delay saps urgency and momentum from the street protests. None of the controversial legislation has been dropped, and a new one has been added to the mix: the creation of a “national guard” under the personal command of national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, an ultra-genocidal nationalist with two terrorism convictions.

Ben Gvir has been openly venting his frustration with police for not clamping down harder on the protesters, and there is little doubt who this national guard would be deployed against when talks break down, and the reform resumes in earnest. This is why even as praliamentary opposition leaders duly trooped up to the presidential palace to begin negotiations, the countless ad-hoc groups that make up the opposition movement are doing their best to keep their supporters on the streets. 


How did we get here? Despite obvious parallels with power grabs by leaders like Erdogan and Orban, Netanyahu’s drive to radically reform Israel’s governance stems more from weakness and loss of control than from empowerment. The details of what his trying to do are perhaps anticlimactic to anyone not familiar with Israel’s judicial and political system; even the names given to his projects sound somewhat anaemic to an English reader: the judicial reform, the legislation to restore governability, or - from the opposition - the judicial and/or legislative coup (doubly confusing, because coups aren’t usually carried out by legislation, and the move is aimed against judges, not orchestrated by them.) 

A simpler way to think of what is going on is this: for decades, notwithstanding controlling one population or other by military rule, Israelis saw themselves as an imperfect, but still robust liberal democracy. A keystone of this was a super-interventionist Supreme Court, who used an activist interpretation of special quasi-constitutional laws to strike down more ordinary legislation when it contravened, say, certain human rights.  Justices were appointed by a special committee where the government could never be quite sure of having a clear majority, and the chief justice was appointed by seniority. 

The Israeli far-right has long chafed at the bit, castigating the justices as out-of-touch, unelected liberals not letting the elected majority govern as it will. But they haven’t taken on the judicial reform until now - partly because their majorities were slim, partly because they had other, more pressing concerns. Now, though, Netanyahu is facing numerous criminal trials and faces the very realistic possibility of conviction - which would require him to resign, and to potentially be barred from elected office for life. He is therefore rushing to demolish the Supreme Court and its ability to curb government before this happens (although nominally, he’s barred from participating in the project: a Supreme Court ruling gingerly allowed him to stand for prime minister despite being on trial; he signed an agreement to avoid conflict of interests, such as personally pushing for laws that would allow him to ignore or trounce the conviction.) 

Alongside the components of this particular reform, each party in the far-right coalition he relies upon is pursuing its own pet project: removing LGBT education from schools, for instance, or bread from hospitals on passover (to pick an esoteric but deeply irksome example), to annexing the West Bank. 

Together, these add up to a transformation as profound as those of Poland or Hungary, but in a miniscule period of time - and on more fronts at once than in either country. The shock has wrenched open longstanding cracks and fissures in Israeli society: class and ethnic origin, secularism and religion, centrism and nationalism, liberalism and conservatism. These cracks are now so wide and omnipresent that civil war, which seemed like hyperbole a few short months ago, now seems a possibility. 

In part, this is because the Israelis response to the proposed reforms was as sweeping as the coalition’s project. If as many people in the UK marched against the proposed erosion of the right to protest and to strike as in Israel, London would be swamped by 15 million protesters. Add to that high-tech companies openly moving their capital abroad; investors getting cold feet; universities cancelling conferences (As progressive activists joked in recent weeks, Israelis seem to have discovered the boycott movement overnight, and applied it to themselves with greater success than Palestinians have ever managed.) 

In part, because in a country with a popular draft, where most Jewish male population does reserve service at least two weeks a year, the existential dread about the future of democracy soon spread to the military too. First it was the fighter pilots - notably, the long-range attack squadron that Netanyahu would need to attack Iran. Then the protest spread to infantry and intelligence units. And then Netanyahu was confronted by his own defence minister, Yoav Galant, who warned him last week that if he didn’t stop the reform, he risked irreversibly splintering the IDF - just as a new Palestinian uprising is brewing and an overt clash with Iran is looming once again. 

Netanyahu’s response was to sack him. 

Even to the national security figures relatively unmoved by lofty democratic ideals this signalled that the prime minister lost perspective. And to the opposition, the fact that Netanyahu also announced he will get directly involved in the reform legislation - sidestepping his conflict of interests pledge and making use of a reform element passed just days prior, which makes it effectively impossible for the Supreme Court or the parliament to disaqualify a prime minister - this was about as clear a signal as can be that the masks are coming off, and Netanyahu is fulling stepping into a Putin or Erdogan-like role.

The country exploded. Although protests have been held at least weekly since the reform was announced, they tended to be coordinated with police and relatively constrained, even when roads and highways were ritually blocked, on Sunday night the protesters camped out on the highways and announced they were not going home. On Monday, came the announcement of a general strike and shutdown of ports and airports. On Monday afternoon, after tortuous negotiations with his coalition members, Netanyahu announced the reform will be paused. “There can be no civil war,” he said. “Israeli society is on a dangerous collision course. We are in the midst of a crisis that is endangering the basic unity between us. This crisis requires all of us to act responsibly.” 

There is little doubt that this is far from the end of the matter. Not only did Netanyahu not withdraw any of the reform’s components, but his party continued quietly pushing them through the legislative infrastructure, even if stopping short from trying to pass them into law. Galant is still acting as defense minister, although his sacking hasn’t been withdrawn and Netayanhu is still searching for a replacement; this confusion at the very top of Israel’s defense apparatus amidst the two threats of a local uprising and a regional war hardly inspire confidence. 

And the announcement of a new National Guard, directly and personally answerable to Ben Gvir, can hardly bode well for the protesters. Whether this actually comes to pass or not is an open question; Ben Gvir is already demanding the nascent Guard is endowed with police-like power, while police chiefs are arguing there is absolutely no need for a new police force acting under separate, politicised command. It may well be that this was just another ruse by Netanyahu to prevent the implosion of his goverment there and then - Ben Gvir threatened to walk if his request was not granted. But the risk of civil war does not hinge on this would-be militia alone. 

As the protests peaked between Sunday and Monday night, so did the violence. Protesters blocking roads were pushed, punched, rammed and pepper sprayed by pro-government drivers. On Monday, when an Israeli-Jewish TV reporter finished his reportage from a pro-government counter-protest, he was pushed onto the ground and kicked so hard his ribs were fractured and his spleen was torn; as of the time of writing, he’s still in hospital. Another reporter was mid-broadcast when someone threw a coat over the camera before proceeding to assault him. A third reporter was chased away from a pro-government protests by a mob of hundreds, with police escorting her out of harm’s way.

And the day after, police announced they arrested three young men who streamed a cheerful clip of themselves driving to Jerusalem and showcasing the guns and knives they were bringing along to “fuck up the lefties.” They were later released by a magistrate’s court; first blood being drawn seems a matter of when, not if. 

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