Could civil war break out in Israel?
Not so long ago, the very mention of the possibility of civil war in Israel would have been dismissed in the blink of an eye.
Political violence on some level has occurred throughout the country’s short history, of course, and even before its inception. Nevertheless, even a defining moment such as the assassination of a prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish gunman in the midst of crucial peace negotiations with the Palestinians in 1995, did not lead to fratricidal conflict between the factions of Israeli society, despite the anger mixed with deep sadness that the assassination produced.
However, times are changing, and the term civil war appears quite frequently in current discourse. While the political right in Israel has been employing violent tactics for years, talk among progressive forces about the use of weapons and possible bloodshed in the name of saving Israeli democracy are starting to emerge, too. Some argue that such words are only employed metaphorically but the leap from “so to speak” to resorting to actual violence could be shorter than many would want to believe.
Israel’s system of democratic governance has always been built on less than stable foundations. This is due largely to the absence of any written, liberal-democratic-based constitution, but also to the country’s experience of multiple conflicts with its neighbors and a lack of social cohesion.
In nearly 75 years of independence, the Zionist belief that despite divisions within the Jewish majority, not to mention the large Arab Palestinian minority, there would be sufficient glue to hold the country together has proved to be no more than a pipe dream.
The current constitutional crisis, the worst since the country’s inception, is no flash in the pan. Rather, it is the end result of a failure of nation building, a failure that has produced a fertile environment for divisive, populist political leaders who cynically exploit the divisions to gain power — and no one in the country’s history has done this more unscrupulously, and more successfully, than the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
For the first time there is a strong sense among those who are afraid that Israel’s democratic system is under an existential threat.
What held Israeli society together up until now were the twin pillars of hope and fear. The hope was one of building, after two millennia, an independent Jewish homeland, one that would be both safe and democratic. The pillar of fear had two facets: Firstly, fear of a return to the diaspora, where Jews would live once more under threat and persecution. Secondly, fear of decades of conflict with its neighbors, close and distant.
What is different now is that the line of demarcation between the forces that are determined to weaken the democratic system beyond recognition and those progressive forces who, after years of apathy, are protesting in the streets against them, is clearer than ever.
It can be argued that, in hindsight, this clash was inevitable due to the diametrically opposed views of what it means to be a Jewish democratic state to begin with but, more than that, one that is able to deprive millions of Palestinians of any democratic rights.
For too long, the unresolved, intrinsic paradoxes of Israeli society were swept under the carpet and allowed to fester, creating fertile ground for anti-democratic fundamentalist groups to accumulate power while the majority, instead of nipping the paradoxes in the bud, has shown unwarranted tolerance of right-wing violence.
It is not only about punishing those who carried out the actual acts of violence but, more importantly, clamping down on those who created such a permissive environment for such acts and banishing them from public life.
It is also about the failure of the education system to demonstrate to its students from a very early age that peaceful, healthy disagreement and debate is the sign of a strong society, and to warn that resorting to violence is a slippery slope that leads to social disintegration.
A procession of Likud prime ministers have incited their supporters to violence against their opponents, and against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, creating a toxic atmosphere that led to brutal acts targeting Arabs and peace activists, and to the assassination of Rabin, all by Jewish terrorists.
If such acts of political violence have been more sporadic within Israel proper, albeit currently increasing, they are being carried out almost daily, on some level, by Jewish settlers against their Palestinian neighbors in the occupied West Bank.
Yet it was Prime Minister Netanyahu who, by driving wedges between the different segments, turned the manipulation of Israel’s terribly frail social and political fabric into the darkest of arts. While he always stands one step behind the thugs that inflict the violence, he is constantly in the engine room driving it. And in his current government he has welcomed some of these thugs into the heart of Israel’s decision-making processes.
As if following an organized crime playbook, he has surrounded himself with political allies and advisers who are dragging down the level of debate to its lowest common denominator and, above all, inciting violence against those who do not share their views, while deliberately exacerbating disagreements and tensions between progressives and conservatives, the religious and the secular, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, taking care to push the very basic emotional buttons of fear, jealousy and hate.
However, for the first time there is a strong sense among those who are afraid that Israel’s democratic system is under an existential threat and on a trajectory to oblivion; that this is a battle their society cannot afford to lose. Among them, increasingly and worryingly, there are voices using the terminology of armed resistance and civil war.
So far, the pro-democracy protests have been peaceful and any occasional violence has been mainly committed by right-wing thugs attacking the protesters in an attempt to deliberately fan the flames.
Yet some notable figures in the pro-democracy movement, which so far mainly has been a spontaneous grassroots phenomenon, are using military terminology that increases the likelihood that at some point firearms will be used.
The divide between those who see the Supreme Court as an enemy of the country and those who see it as the last bastion of individual liberties, human rights and the overall defence of the democratic system is now being defined in terms that leave little room for compromise.
In a highly militarized country, where most of the population has military experience, and given the toxicity of the current debate, the possibility of a civil war is no longer negligible.
As it stands on the verge of the 75th anniversary of its independence, Israel might need a crisis to help it redefine what it means to be Jewish and democratic in a very complex political and social ecology — but this must happen in a civilized manner and with respect for the democratic rules.
The question is: Has that train already left the station?
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg