Israel’s turmoil will resolve itself…later
“It has to get worse before it gets better.”
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recognize that mantra of American radicals of the 1960s.
Let’s see how it might apply to Israel of 2023.
The theory is simple, but cruel: If the citizens are willing to put up with bad government, malfeasance, corruption, legislative evil—then the situation has to deteriorate to the point that even the complacent ones jump off the fence into the waiting arms of the opposition, demanding change.
The radicals of the ‘60s, like the protesters of today, disagreed among themselves over the tactics to bring that about.
Sixty years ago there were those who advocated violence and followed through—robbing banks, burning military draft offices, firing on police. Others believed that political action and nonviolent civil disobedience were the way to bring changes.
Today there are “radicals” among the protesters against the Israeli government’s judicial reform package who advocate blocking streets and highways, striking the economy, bringing Israel to a halt.
Others—so far, the majority—believe that mass protests, selected strikes, and just showing that the country cannot function without them because of their numbers will be enough to persuade the government to climb down from its far-reaching proposals.
The experience of the ‘60s was mixed. It did get worse and worse—racial tensions escalated, demonstrations turned violent, and the Vietnam War became a no-win bloodbath for American soldiers and a political quagmire that ended in what amounted to a US surrender.
But that didn’t bring the change the radicals wanted. In fact, their hated President Richard Nixon even won re-election in 1972. Then he brought himself down with his handling of the Watergate break-in scandal.
In Israel, we’ve seen nearly two months of mass demonstrations, cumulatively by far the largest protests in Israel’s history. As the Knesset voted to approve major parts of the judicial reform, a huge outpouring of protesters shut down parts of Jerusalem, blocked some roads, swarmed around the parliament building, and demonstrated inside.
So how bad is it, and can it get worse? Yes, it can, because judicial reform isn’t the only issue here. There are also deep-seated ethnic and tribal loyalties in play.
If you’re in the protest camp, this is the worst government Israel has ever had. Not only is it led by the serially divisive Benjamin Netanyahu, but also, he eagerly welcomed religious extremists and convicted criminals into his coalition and gave them the power to upend basic elements of Israeli society.
If you’re on the government’s side, this is the worst example in Israel’s history of how the Ashkenazi-European elite refuses to accept that the Middle Eastern-origin Israelis, nearly half the people, have the right to make some decisions around here.
Cooler heads on both sides hope that all the uproar will lead to negotiations to temper the proposed reforms. The middle positions are attainable: Instead of allowing the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority of 61 out of the 120 seats in the parliament—increase that to 70, for example. The protesters get that “win,” and the government gets its revamping of judge selection, which objectively is long overdue, anyway. Then work on an actual constitution that could resolve most of the other judicial issues.
It’s essential to point out a fact that gets lost in all the breathless reporting: The Knesset vote was only the first reading. There are two more votes, probably simultaneous, before the reform would become law. From now till then, there will be committee hearings and time to reach a compromise.
The complication is that this isn’t just about judicial reform. It’s about the polarization of Israeli society into camps that despise each other. There's pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu, and there’s European-Ashkenazi and Middle East-Mizrahim. These are tribal affinities, with both religious and secular extremism thrown in.
So it’s already bad, already worse—when does it get better?
Just as in the US, the change is likely to be spurred by an outside event. There it was Watergate. Here, it could be Palestinian violence.
We already had a bitter taste of it. A Palestinian terrorist shot and killed seven Israelis on their way out of their synagogue last month, the worst such terrorist attack in 15 years. Smaller attacks have followed. The government has pledged swift, painful reprisals.
Well, that’s why so many Israelis voted for the religious nationalist extremists—to put the Palestinians in their place, to punish, penalize, deport, destroy. It will become clear that such tactics don’t work any better today than they have in the past. The gung-ho Palestinian crackdown fans will be proven wrong. Again. That might change some minds.
But it won’t be enough. Israel’s fractured electorate will heal itself only after Netanyahu leaves the scene, ending the nonsensical, paralyzing pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu tribal conflict. Then the moderate right can unite with the center, form a stable, reasonable government, and start dealing with the high cost of living, the impossible housing market, the underfunding of the health and education systems—issues just as important, if not more important, than judicial reform.
That would be better.