Unpacking the Civil Strife in Israel

Someone should remind Bibi of the promises he made last November: “to act to lower the flames of public discourse; to heal the rifts… to restore the internal peace within.”
March 21, 2023
Tens of thousands of Israelis attend a demonstration against the government’s judicial plans on February 20, 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Over and over, I’ve heard from friends in Israel that “we’ve never seen anything like this.” By “this” they mean the endless weeks of unprecedented protests against the right-wing government’s judicial overhaul.

The great majority of Israelis agree that reforms are needed. It’s well established that in the absence of a constitution, the pendulum of power swung too far in favor of the Courts. The problem is that the new government has come in like a bulldozer by going too far in the other direction.

Every serious thinker sees merit in a compromise that strikes a proper balance of power between the government and the courts. A number of initiatives have been proposed, most notably by President Isaac Herzog. 

Even among the governing coalition, we’re starting to see cracks. High profile Likud MK’s like Danny Danon and Yuli Edelstein have come out in favor of slowing down the legislation and negotiating a compromise. 

Gedaliah Blum, a settler who voted for Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, wrote on JNS that “it is now clear that internal political disputes are creating division on an unprecedented scale.”

Blum supports right-wing policies, but he has the courage to ask: “What if right-wing policies are being pushed so forcefully that they are causing irreconcilable differences and division among our brothers and sisters? What if the fabric of our society is unraveling before our eyes? What if we call our brothers evil, dehumanize them and turn them into our enemies?”

In the absence of any progress, the civil strife has only gotten worse, turning the crisis into a zero sum battle where ideologues in the coalition are grabbing as much power as they can. If anything, the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of fellow Israelis protesting is a sign not to slow down and compromise but to speed up the legislation.

To defend themselves, the pro-overhaul forces pick extremists within the opposition and use them to undermine the whole opposition. Occasionally they will throw a bone by saying “we’re ready to talk,” but the fact that they refuse to halt the legislation while negotiating shows how unserious they are about compromise.

The acrimony has gone so far that even the conservative think tank that played a key role in drafting the overhaul, the Kohelet Policy Forum (KPF), is now calling for negotiations.

“It is very important to achieve a broad consensus regarding the required changes,” KPF said in a statement, while praising the efforts of President Isaac Herzog and “additional attempts made to reach a compromise.”

Meanwhile, as much of Israeli society boils in rage, the only man with the power to lower the temperature, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is doing the opposite. After hearing President Herzog warn that Israel was “on the brink of the abyss” and that “a civil war is a red line and I will not let that happen,” Bibi responded to the president’s good faith offer with an immediate rejection, adding fuel to the bonfire.

Instead of using Herzog’s proposal as a starting point for negotiation, Bibi slammed it by saying “it does not restore the balance between the different branches of power. This is the sad truth.”

The real sad truth, however, is that, according to press reports, Netanyahu wanted to accept Herzog’s proposal but backed off after Justice Minister Yariv Levin threatened to resign, which would have jeopardized the coalition.

In other words, Bibi is so afraid to lose his position he’s willing to see his country tear itself apart while he clings to the throne he so craves. Someone should remind Bibi of the promises he made last November: “To act to lower the flames of public discourse; to heal the rifts … to restore the internal peace within.”

By making deals with extremists and ideologues, Bibi got trapped by partners who see any compromise as a moral failure and a betrayal of their voters. Of course, ideologues have an excuse for not compromising — that is all they know. Secular pragmatists like Netanyahu have no excuse. They know better. Neglecting his people’s rage while failing to bring healing will be Bibi’s legacy, his mark of shame.

In the past, Bibi could always buy his way out of trouble with religious partners. But because these new partners are ideologues who can’t be bought, and he needs their support to remain in power, he’s left with an agonizing dilemma: If he puts his nation first, he’ll risk losing his throne.

Which one does he love more?

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