Israel at an inflection point after Netanyahu’s Pyrrhic victory

Osama Al-Sharif

Victories, on the battlefield and in political arenas, can often be short-lived or, even worse, they can easily turn out to be Pyrrhic. This is almost certainly what happened on Monday, when the ruling Israeli coalition passed the first item in a controversial judicial overhaul that, critics believe, will undermine the independence and oversight of the judiciary over government policies.
The far-right coalition, led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, scored its first victory after a six-month-long battle to undermine the power of the Israeli Supreme Court and move the 75-year-old state closer to becoming an authoritarian one. This is the opinion of almost half of Israelis, who, in their tens of thousands, have protested against the so-called judicial overhaul since it was first unveiled in January. For outsiders, the legislative quarrel may seem arcane and unfathomable, but for most Israelis, on both sides of the divide, it is a matter of absolute survival: Whatever happens next will decide the identity of the Israeli state. This should matter not only to Israelis, but also to all those who have vehemently supported Israel since its onset.
Israel’s founding fathers envisioned a secular, liberal and socialist state. First Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was quoted as saying: “Since I invoke Torah so often, let me state that … I am not religious, nor were the majority of the early builders of Israel believers. Yet their passion for this land stemmed from the Book of Books … (The Bible is) the single most important book in my life.” One Israeli critic said that Ben-Gurion planted the roots of a secular state but at the same time sowed the seeds of its destruction – the seeds of religious-messianic evil. Another historian wrote in Haaretz that Ben-Gurion was a pragmatic politician and, to realize his life’s ambition, the establishment of the state, he enlisted religious messianism because nationalism alone is an empty shell that needs something juicy inside to muster enthusiasm. He no doubt thought he would be able to control the wild weeds that would grow in his garden. These weeds are now flourishing in the state of Israel. Israel has been hijacked by a coalition of far-right parties, each with its own agenda. A politically affiliated Netanyahu is leading a coalition of fanatics who are certain to take Israel from the secular, liberal and democratic state that it projected itself as to the world for many years into an unknown ultra-Orthodox entity. It will certainly not be liberal, nor will it be democratic. The followers of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have something else in mind. While the two once-fringe politicians may not agree on everything, they both want to see a new Israel: One that is ultranationalist and ultrareligious with an agenda that seeks to recreate a biblical Israel.
Netanyahu, now 73 and with signs of failing health, may have never wanted to lead such a coalition. It is doubtful that he can now rein in his two rebellious partners, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. Most analysts forget that the entire judicial overhaul scheme was concocted by Likud Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is seen by critics “as leaving the indelible impression that he was not seeking to improve the judicial system but to eviscerate it.” For Netanyahu, who has been a political player since the mid-1990s, the main objective is to save his career and himself. He faces a number of serious charges, including bribery and corruption. The judicial overhaul amendments would neutralize the judiciary and provide him with a way out – but at what price?
Pundits believe that Netanyahu has become a hostage to his coalition partners. No one knows what Israel would become if the far-right, ultrareligious, ultranationalist alliance fully sidelined the Supreme Court. Trying to understand what the religious far right wants is tricky. The secularists warn that liberal democracy is in danger. The Haredi influence on Israeli politics has become substantial. Moreover, Israel is a political mosaic, with 12 political parties represented in the Knesset and more than 100 out there in total. The fall of the Soviet Union, leading to the immigration of tens of thousands of Jews to Israel, altered the demographic map of the country.
The most crucial test of Israel’s unity is taking place as we speak. The far right wants to change the nature of the country – from a liberal, secular and openly democratic state to a religious entity that is no different from what Daesh wanted to create. It will be a homophobic, misogynistic, ultranationalist society. This is not what Netanyahu really wanted. But he is being held hostage by a coalition that has an extremist agenda. That includes annexing the West Bank and creating an Eretz Israel, with which Netanyahu agrees. But the price he has to pay for colluding with the extremists may be too high. The impact of Monday’s events will go viral. There will be mass demonstrations and hundreds, if not more, army and air force reservists will stay at home. There is a consensus among the security and senior army cadres that Israel will suffer and that the military establishment may even crumble; something that has never happened before in the history of the state.
The Histadrut, the largest labor union, may soon declare a nationwide strike. Israel is at a juncture. The myth of a liberal democracy is at an inflection point and moving forward will expose the country for what it is – an apartheid state that is normalizing an isolationist, fascist and ultrareligious system.