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Eight Thoughts on Israel’s Political Crisis

The rise of Middle Eastern culture in Israel is to be celebrated. The rise of Middle Eastern politics will make our fate identical to that of our neighbors.

Matti Friedman
December 21, 2022
Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

No. 1: Israel is a society in crisis, and its politics are broken. The last years of repeated elections and political chaos, followed by the constitution of Benjamin Netanyahu’s radical new government, demonstrate that the political system is unable to offer a way for citizens to make progress together, or any kind of unifying vision that makes sense to a majority of people here. The feeling in the country at the moment, and not just on the center and left, is that the political system has finally managed to shatter something important in the bond that has always somehow held the country’s parts together, paying (most of our) taxes and (mostly) serving in the army, despite policies that we might have seen as too right wing or too left wing or just ill-considered.

The winners of this election, the Netanyahu loyalists and sectoral allies who’ve attached themselves to his star, believe themselves to be at war with the losers. “It’s time for the left to get used to the new reality: We don’t care what you think anymore,” one Likud lawmaker tweeted, summing up the general atmosphere. “The left” here includes nearly half of the population that didn’t vote for this coalition, many Israelis who define themselves as right wing, the people who pay most of the country’s taxes and provide most of our soldiers, and a party led by two former army chiefs of staff appointed by Netanyahu. In rhetoric and legislation, the new government is making clear that it’s not out for unity, but for revenge.

Parts of the new state apparatus, including government ministers, believe themselves to be at war with other parts of the state, particularly the judiciary. The primary enemies of this new Israeli government are other Israelis. There have been bad outcomes for the center and left before. Israeli liberals have known disappointment for years. This time feels different.

No. 2: The most important sign of a real break with the past is the decision by incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu to appoint an ideological criminal as the minister in charge of law enforcement. Netanyahu’s reputation in the Israeli mainstream, including among those who’d never vote for him, always rested on the understanding that he’s ultimately careful and adept in matters of security. Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose “Jewish Power” faction has a total of seven seats of 120, is a racist provocateur from the margins of the right who was recently beyond the pale even among Likud voters. His threats to the status quo on the Temple Mount risk our precious new ties with part of the Sunni Muslim world, if not outright bloodshed. His appointment poses a danger to the 9 million citizens, Jews and Arabs, who come under the purview of the Israel police (which includes Jews and Arabs), and it will shatter public trust in an institution without which we can’t function. Netanyahu needs Ben-Gvir and his ideological allies for his attempt to diminish the court system, where Netanyahu faces corruption charges. Security has always been a sacred trust here, and it’s not an exaggeration to say this appointment is the most reckless in the history of the state. If Netanyahu’s ace card was security, it’s gone.

No. 3: Some will try to claim that everything is normal, chief among them Netanyahu, who has embarked on a round of interviews with American journalists while avoiding their counterparts in the country where he actually operates. He knows some Americans might still buy his image as someone who’s basically a familiar conservative, and not a politician whose ego has swelled to such an extent that he can’t take seriously the small country he leads, or distinguish its interests from his own. For Israel’s defenders, there will be a temptation to downplay this crisis as the typical functioning of democracy. This is already the line of our poor Foreign Ministry diplomats, many of whom don’t believe it themselves, and some of whom are quietly weighing other lines of work rather than defending the indefensible. In the past few weeks I’ve spoken to officers in the army reserves who are grappling with similar thoughts: What responsibility do they have to leaders who are irresponsible? The idea that this is normal government behavior is untrue. The Israeli body politic, which has been through a lot, is in grave danger of being sundered for good.

No. 4: Another temptation will be to point out that many other countries are struggling with terrible politics, like France (where 41% voted for Le Pen in the last election), or like the United States. The number of Israelis who voted directly for the far right is just over 10%. That’s true but irrelevant. In Israel there are 6 million Jews. We live in the midst of 300 million Arabs and 1.5 billion Muslims, many of whom are unfortunately devoted to the eradication of our state. Today’s self-engineered crisis is a luxury—the kind of thing people allow themselves when they haven’t experienced an existential catastrophe for a long time, perhaps in the 50 years since the earthquake of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. We can’t afford it, and the politician at the center of the crisis, and who could solve it, is responsible. A leader who cared about his country would step aside after years in power and allow someone else from his party to lead a broad government with the Israeli center, which is willing to serve under Likud but will no longer serve under Netanyahu after being double-crossed too many times. Such a government could be formed within days of Netanyahu’s departure.

No. 5: In the 1990s, Israel succumbed to a Western fantasy in the form of the Oslo accords. The idea was that the world was moving toward stability and democracy, so creating power vacuums in Palestinian territories would create more freedom for them and peace for us. This misunderstanding resulted in waves of terror attacks that killed well over a thousand Israelis and destroyed the left as a political force. At present, part of the electorate is succumbing to a different fantasy, this one from the Middle East: that what we need is more fundamentalist religion and tribal militias freed from the constraints of law.

Israel’s founders, people like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, were people too close to the Holocaust to believe European fantasies, and too European to believe Middle Eastern fantasies. Their grasp of things explains much about the successful state they built. The rise of Middle Eastern culture in Israel is to be celebrated. The rise of Middle Eastern politics will make our fate identical to that of our neighbors.

No. 6: Understanding what’s going on is complicated by the hysterics of Israel’s international opponents and by some of the rhetoric of the Israeli center-left, which has, like some of its American counterparts, begun to see its own political views as “democracy” and their opponents as people opposed to “democracy.” The media outlets of the progressive Western left, whose coverage is now mostly ideological make-believe, have been unfairly painting Israel as an illiberal nightmare for so long, and Netanyahu as an unhinged extremist, that many people sympathetic to Israel are going to simply dismiss news of this crisis as more of the same. This would be a mistake. The crisis is real. It’s not threatening “democracy,” or the “peace process,” which hasn’t existed for more than 20 years. It’s dismantling the ability of Israeli Jews, and possibly the Jewish world as a whole, to act together in our common interests. This is a graver threat to us than any Iranian weapon or any group of Palestinian terrorists. Netanyahu’s opponents have exacerbated things by painting him as a demonic figure, referring to him as “the defendant” and refusing to serve in any government he heads, a political mistake which has helped turn our politics into a circus.

No. 7: The international campaign against Israel, which seeks to criminalize the country and replace it with an Arab state, will be energized by the new government, which in turn will be energized by the increased hostility. Of course the campaign didn’t abate in the term of our last government, which was diverse, liberal, and included an Arab party, and which was branded an apartheid regime nonetheless. People sympathetic to Israel are going to have an increasingly hard time differentiating between kinds of criticism. The way to do so is to ask if a critic is trying to make Israel better, or trying to make it disappear.

No. 8: The crisis is less the results of the election than what our leaders have done with those results. The center-left bloc pulled off a respectable showing in the popular vote, which wasn’t far from an even split. The old issues that used to divide the Israeli left and right, primarily the question of peace with the Palestinians, no longer apply. The vast majority of Israelis have understood since the terror wave of the Second Intifada that our enemies see the conflict as zero-sum, and that no further withdrawals can be risked at present. With different personalities in play, the same election could have resulted in a broad coalition between parties of the Zionist right and center, which would easily have more than 70 seats of 120 and could govern properly for a full term. A solid and sane Israeli majority exists, though it’s battered and confused. It awaits a leadership that deserves the name.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.