I can’t recall having seen such a tumultuous first 60 days of any new Israeli government.
Ironically, after numerous inconclusive election results, which at the time were described as causing instability, the current situation with a majority coalition has seen instability increase.
The demonstrations are indeed large, but not unprecedented.
In 1982, for example, when Israel’s population was only around 3.8 million—and without the benefit of social media—it was estimated that some 400,000 people demonstrated in regards to the Lebanon war and Sabra and Shatila.
We have also been through wrenching crises before and come out the other side.
The 2005 Disengagement from Gaza comes to mind.
That is, of course, not to diminish the seriousness of the current situation.
Both the government and the opposition claim to be motivated by the ‘saving of democracy’.
This goes to the relationship between the Knesset and the High Court after some decades of judicial activism, the method of appointment of judges and just what sort of checks and balances are appropriate in Israel’s one house parliamentary system. Even more so in the absence of a constitution.
As President Herzog stated in his address to the nation, there is merit on both sides.
Such is the level of distrust on all sides, however, that nothing an opponent says or does can be good, or is even to be considered.
One example that tests the ‘What is democracy?’ proposition is the current proposal of a 61-seat majority being sufficient, or otherwise, to override the High Court.
As always, each side justifies their own actions as to when a vote of 61 is ‘democratic’. Or when it constitutes the ‘tyranny of the majority’?
Rabin steered through arguably one of the largest Israeli policy shifts with the Oslo I agreement in 1993.
He won the no-confidence vote in the Knesset by 61 to 50 MKs and felt justified in going ahead.
Two years later, after increasing concern in Israel about Arafat’s manipulations and behaviour, the vote on Oslo II was even closer.
Just 61 to 59. It, too, went ahead.
In the end, it was not whether Rabin technically had the right to do so or not.
The lesson learnt, or which should have been learnt but seemingly has not, was that to drive such important change legislation through, when virtually half the country was opposed, was so divisive and lacking in consensus, that Israel was left desperately torn.
The rhetoric and demonisation by both sides reached fever pitch and out of the atmosphere created, one tragedy we saw was the previously inconceivable act of the assassination of Rabin himself.
To add to the current instability, it is also becoming clearer that the government coalition, whilst more united on judicial reform, is increasingly divided internally on other priorities.
Netanyahu’s main game being to focus on the dangers of Iran and hence to be concentrating on keeping Israel’s allies on side, whilst his coalition partners Smotrich and Ben Gvir are looking at reshaping Israel’s relationship vis-à-vis Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, wanting to deliver to their perceived electorate, with a devil-may-care attitude to Netanyahu’s target market.
Judicial reform is also rebounding on Netanyahu’s relations with Israel’s allies, but not nearly as much as say, the settlements.
Smotrich and Ben Gvir proudly state that Israel does not need to seek the permission of others.
Indeed, it should not have to. But there is also the world of realpolitik.
Netanyahu, in dealing with Iran, would prefer the diplomatic cover, intelligence support and military capability which depends on allies generally and the USA in particular.
For example, at the end of January, we saw the biggest joint military air force exercise ever, by Israel and the USA.
His coalition partners Smotrich and Ben Gvir are looking to prove to their constituents that they can deliver on internal ideological issues that for Netanyahu and the bulk of the population, are currently of secondary importance.
An interesting development is that many leaders of the religious Zionist community including the Tzohar rabbis and some prominent settlement leaders are, if not directly coming out against the judicial reforms, urging a slowdown in the process and stressing the need for greater consensus and civility and respect. This group, who Smotrich and Ben Gvir seek the support of, is not monolithic, nor necessarily universally supportive of them at all.
While there is a lot of heat being generated on the matter of settlements, in effect, nothing that much has really changed. At least not yet.
On the one hand, in these first 60 days, and yes, it is early days, not a single new settlement has been successfully erected. In fact, despite three attempts to do so, Netanyahu and Gallant have torn them down.
On the other, there are big announcements about settlement building and legalising previously unauthorised outposts. Inevitably, the government then postpones some or all of these moves. Once again generating heat and criticism for minimal benefit to date.
Supporters of Smotrich and Ben Gvir talk about the increased focus on demolishing illegal Arab buildings in Area C.
In parallel and contradistinction, Netanyahu has gone to the High Court to once again ask for a four-month delay in the Court ordered removal of the illegal Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Ahmar.
The UAE, being perhaps the warmest partner of the Abraham Accords, is also now a member of the United Nations Security Council. Yet it was the UAE, of all countries, that this week was driving a very severe UNSC resolution to condemn Israel for these settlement announcements.
The Biden Administration is both protecting Israel from the most extreme UNSC resolutions, whilst publicly joining in on criticising Israel’s settlement policies.
All of these elements together are having a corrosive effect, eating away further at the matrix of Israeli society, whilst the primary focus remains on the main game—democracy.
What endangers Israeli society in the first place is not the debate per se, but rather the way in which it is being conducted and in this, there is much blame to be laid on all sides. For the extreme language and once again, the demonisation.
Adding to the coalition’s woes are that its internal divisions just further enhance the extremist image, deserved or not, that parts of the government project, giving Netanyahu an even more difficult time keeping allies and Diaspora Jewry onside.
Pushing through highly controversial legislation by small majorities is not the most desirable outcome, neither for the legislation’s broader success, nor its acceptance.
It’s far better if the consensus is larger and with the temperature lower.
All of these divisions hurt.
There are many faultlines and they often overlap.
Israel’s secret weapon is the resilience of its citizens.
That depends on the population understanding what they are defending and feeling that it is worth the price.
For the moment, that is being questioned.
We are in dangerous times and they are of our own making.
Whatever damages the resilience of the Israeli people, harms us all.
However, past experience tells us that this resilience is strong and will stand the test of time.