For a few days in early May, Israel appeared close to establishing a new government. After four elections in two years that failed to produce a decisive result, the country was poised for a surprising partnership of ideologically diverse parties including, for the first time, an independent Arab party — Raam.
Such a government would have been fraught, even shaky, but it would have ended the two years of political chaos and replaced Israel’s right-wing prime minister, a man currently standing trial for corruption.
What happened instead followed a grim pattern: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared yet again. Within days of the start of the military escalation between Hamas and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu that was sparked in Jerusalem and compounded by violence in Israeli cities, the crisis had put political change on hold.
Although many Israelis scoff at the left-wing tendency to blame the occupation for the country’s problems, and Netanyahu has insisted for years that the conflict doesn’t control our lives, reality says otherwise.
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Collapsing under its weight
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominates Israeli politics, muscling out sound policymaking in other critical areas of life. The conflict is suffocating liberal values, eroding Israel’s democratic institutions. Israeli leadership at large is collapsing under its weight.
It is time to accept that it’s not just that Israel controls Palestinians in the conflict. Palestine also controls Israel. The occupation and the festering political conflict since 1948 have permeated every part of our society, political and social institutions, and well-being. If Israel and its supporters can view the situation in this light, they might reach different conclusions about what’s best for the country.
The political system is a key starting point. In Israel, left, centre or right-wing ideology is grounded in attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: support for or opposition to a two-state solution; support for expanding or dismantling colonies and/or land concessions. These attitudes and levels of (Jewish) religious observance strongly predict which ideological camp a voter will choose.
In Israeli elections, it is nearly impossible to woo a significant number of voters across the main ideological political camps with shared problems such as economic concerns, investment in education, LGBTQ rights or even the highly emotional question of disentangling religion and state. While the elections in March demonstrated that some centrists voted for the right-wing parties, right-wing voters in particular almost never move to the left.
There is nothing wrong with voting for parties that reflect one’s ideology. But right-wing parties, especially under Netanyahu, have a longstanding pact with religious parties that share their ideology regarding the conflict. The religious parties block other urgently needed changes in Israeli society, such as laws proposing an end to the longstanding exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from conscription, which is required for all other citizens; civil marriage and widespread access to public transportation on the Sabbath.
Towards a liberal democratic society
At times, Israel has appeared to lay the groundwork for a more a liberal democratic society, which would advance broader progressive values. In the early 1990s, Israel passed two new Basic Laws, guaranteeing a series of basic individual rights and protections. These became a stand-in for a Bill of Rights since Israel has no formal one. An increasingly activist Supreme Court advanced some human rights protections and individual freedoms.
In 1998, Israel passed its first dedicated law against sexual harassment.
Yitzhak Rabin’s government sought to redress discrimination against Palestinian citizens and signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. When Rabin was assassinated in 1995 for his nascent efforts to end the conflict, progressive change on certain social issues continued, but liberal interpretations of the law and the Supreme Court itself would eventually come under intense attacks from the Israeli right wing.
The failure of another peace process in 2000 gave way to a violent second intifada, pushing Israeli society farther to the right and paving the road for Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009.
Netanyahu has worked assiduously to undermine a two-state solution. And he and other right-wing nationalists and populist leaders set about undermining the institutions of Israeli democracy itself.
Since 2009, Netanyahu’s governments have passed discriminatory legislation against Palestinian citizens, laws targeting left-wing political activities and laws constraining civil society. These laws have roots in the conflict over national identity or occupation. They elevate the status of Jews over Palestinians, or they are tailored to constrain criticism of the occupation.
A Jewish-dominated state
The motive for this effort is no mystery: It is aimed at ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish-dominated state, with minimal political opposition. Both would be essential if Israel were to advance West Bank annexation, which would alter the state’s demographic makeup and spark challenges to the character of the state and its undemocratic governance of Palestinians.
The Israeli right’s most ambitious campaign for about a decade has been a sustained attack on the judiciary. Right-wing leaders speak of correcting the balance of power among the branches of government and restoring sovereignty to “the people,” rather than the elites, referring to judges — especially Supreme Court justices.
The chief proponents of this cause are overwhelmingly committed to settlements and annexation. Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party and a former defense and education minister, once served as head of the Yesha settlers’ council.
Ayelet Shaked, justice minister from 2015 to 2019, is outspoken in favor of both aims. Simcha Rothman, a firebrand anti-Supreme Court crusader and a settler from deep inside the West Bank, entered the Knesset in 2021 with the Jewish-ultranationalist Religious Zionist party.
Undermining the judiciary has nothing to do with repairing institutions; it will assist what right-wing leaders call “governability” — a word that also appears in the name of the organization Rothman founded. The term is a euphemism, and a mantra, for government power unrestrained by courts, which enables both continuing rule over the Palestinian territories and an increasingly undemocratic Israel.
Last, the conflict is directly tied to Israel’s chaos of leadership. Netanyahu retains stable support from nearly one-quarter of voters, largely because of his image as the man who won’t make concessions to “Arabs” (many right-wing Israelis avoid the word “Palestinian”).
He used the most recent escalation with Hamas to burnish his image as the master of security. The crisis also persuaded Bennett of the Yamina party to withdraw from negotiations to join the would-be alternative government and revive the option of yet another Netanyahu coalition.
Once again, with help from the conflict, Israel has normalised a leader standing trial for corruption charges in three cases, who refuses to resign. (He has pleaded not guilty).
Since a sufficient number of parties over the past two years have refused to join a government led by Netanyahu, his recalcitrance is the reason Israel has had no permanent government despite four elections. He has also opportunistically joined the attacks on Israel’s judiciary in an effort to undermine the court cases against him.
Decades of Palestinian suffering should have brought Israel’s occupation to an end by now. But the folly of territorial conquest and international realpolitik has been stronger.
Perhaps a clear-eyed view of how the conflict is suffocating Israel can add urgency. There is certainly no easy or ideal solution. But the “stand back” approach, or any “not now” complacency, is definitely the wrong one.
Dahlia Scheindlin is a political strategist and a public opinion expert who has advised eight national campaigns in Israel and worked in 15 other countries.
The New York Times