Power is addictive. The more you have, the more you want. It’s as simple as that. Had Bibi Netanyahu left politics deep into the cycle of constant elections in 2021, as Israeli commentators keep pointing out, then he would have been remembered as the man who brought home the Abraham Accords and oversaw a doubling of the nation’s economy. Instead, he will be recalled as the man who had to push it further, bringing Israel’s contradictions to a head.
This is a double crisis. First, there is the Bibi crisis, in which a politician has created a repellant vortex around himself, meaning that straightforward coalitions with politicians like Avigdor Liberman or Benny Gantz cannot be formed. This has triggered the sociological crisis. Bibi’s magic-trick politics, finding and rewarding ever more extreme politicians to save him, has snapped the fraying social peace.
Israel, former President Rivlin warned in 2015, has become a society divided into four tribes: secular Jews (generally on the left), religious Zionists (generally on the right), Charedim and Arabs. Obviously there are large exceptions, such as those who are right-wing and secular. But this, for Rivlin, is about majorities.
Crudely put, Bibi’s attempt at a legal coup that would empower settlers and Charedim, at the expense and deep disgust of a majority of secular Jews, has sparked a backlash. A simmering society has boiled over. Emotions that were building up for years, as demographics tipped in favour of the settlers and Charedim, have burst forth.
Two possible theories could explain what is happening in Israel. The first is the Central European one. Bibi, the theory goes, is attempting to gut democracy with a power grab on the Supreme Court, to build a kind of Hungary.
There may be a lot of truth to this. But at the same time, it is not just about one man. Two of the tribes, the settlers and the Charedim, are standing four square behind Netanyahu, as well as the sizable minority of secular Jews on the right.
This is why I find the second theory, the Middle Eastern one, more compelling overall. Judaism and Islam, it argues, do not “render unto Ceasar the things that are Ceasar’s” as easily as Christianity. The Torah and Quran both envision states based on a religious framework, which much of the observant population are always going to be inclined to enact. And with religion involved, the stakes are so high that both sides play dirty to get what they want.
Turkey has been riven by this battle since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular revolution. And Egypt’s revolution, which empowered the Muslim Brotherhood, ultimately led a large swathe of secular society to support the return of a non-religious military dictatorship. From Iran to Tunisia, this pattern can be seen playing out across the region. Israel is no exception.
Itamar Ben-Gvir is a profoundly Middle Eastern politician. This is not about his part-Iraqi roots. It’s about the fact that his desire for empowered messianic clerics could easily be found in the Iraq or Iran of today.
His vision for the West Bank of village-to-village reprisals recalls the ethos of the Lebanese Forces more than anything in Hungary or Poland. His new ideological National Guard also chimes with other countries in the region.
The mass protests rippling through a secular-dominated army, wrapped in the national flag, are also profoundly Middle Eastern. There are faint but noticeable echoes of how secular Turkey mobilises itself. The military is becoming a theatre of politics beyond the constitution, with Westernised populations fearing how a messianic theocracy may curtail their liberties.
This is why this is so much bigger than Bibi. Right now it looks as if the Israeli right has made a big mistake, believing its own propaganda about demographic displacement and its rivals’ lack of attachment to the fight.
There are plenty of periods of modern Middle Eastern history in which the secular side wins. And there are a lot more secular people in Israel than elsewhere in the region.
But there are other more painful examples. Israel’s religious camp doesn’t have the numbers to make the country a theocracy, either now or in our lifetimes. But stretched out over several decades, the ungovernable entity called Israel and the Palestinian territories could start to feel similar to its neighbour to the north, Lebanon. There, there were never enough Maronite Christians to rule the greater country. And there has never been enough agreement between anyone since the civil war to run a functioning state.
This is an extreme example. But we should not forget than when our ancestors compiled the Babylonian Talmud by the Euphrates, their parables blamed not the Romans but the Jews themselves, for betraying each other.
There is a crime being committed here: an assault on the Supreme Court. But we should remember what cost us our holiest object. We cannot make hell for each other in our house, or there will again be wide rivers of tears.