Israel's bitter political divisions of today are nothing new

As Israel’s celebrates its 75th birthday this month, we examine the triumphs and the challenges of an extraordinary nation


A story is told of a memo sent in diplomatic post from the British embassy in Tel Aviv to the Foreign Office in the early 1950s which forecast that the newly-formed Jewish State would soon become a Soviet-leaning dictatorship.

The British diplomat’s reasoning was seemingly sound: the leader, David Ben Gurion, was a charismatic ruler of the sole dominant political party who shared ideological affinity to socialism and was pragmatic enough to engage with Stalin.

The memo described Israel as a closed society based around organised unions and communal living, with a huge immigrant population from countries with no democratic experience or tradition. The country was beset with woes and surrounded by hostile actors. Even its own Arab population was living under military rule.

With hindsight, we now know that Israel thankfully became a beacon of flourishing — albeit fragile and at times dysfunctional — liberal democracy.

At least at the time of writing… Internal strife is nothing new in Israel, with numerous heated, even violent internal feuds over the last 75 years. One of the earliest was precipitated by Ben Gurion spearheading the opening of diplomatic ties with West Germany.

Protests peaked over the question of Israel receiving reparations for the Shoah. The opposition, led by Menachem Begin, argued that no amount of “blood money” could allay German guilt.

As the country grappled with the dilemma, even some of Ben Gurion’s party colleagues disagreed with him and (unlike today) let it be known. The prime minister applied realpolitik, understood the financial injection would be of great benefit to the poor, young state, and — along with his partner West German leader Konrad Adenauer — built a trusted allyship.

On an official visit to Germany in March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proudly noted that nearly eight decades after the Holocaust, Israel is now in a position to sell advanced defensive weapons, based on Israel’s world-leading technology, to Germany.

In the early 1970s, young, disenfranchised Mizrachi youth launched the Black Panthers protest movement, inspired by the black American civil rights group bearing the same name.

Their protest against the Ashkenazi-dominated government of Golda Meir captured the pent-up anger felt by the first generation of Israelis, born to parents from North Africa and the Middle East, who had suffered discrimination since they arrived in the Jewish State.

Although this was a secular movement, this mantra of identity politics arguably continues to be successfully exploited and manipulated by the Shas party, founded a decade later as a result of Ashkenazi, strictly-Orthodox elitism.

Shas continues to play on the so-called ethnic genie.

In the early 1980s, Israel was rocked by protests against the IDF’s ongoing operations inside Lebanon. Following the Kahan Commission, left-wing protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s office to demand the report’s implementation.

Near where some of the current protests are taking place, the activists clashed with right-wing counter-protestors and Emil Grunzweig, a 35-year-old father and former IDF officer, was killed when a right-wing activist threw a grenade into the crowd. Ten others were injured.

A decade later, it was the Rabin government signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat’s PLO that elicited big demonstrations, both for and against. In one of the lowest points in Israeli history, a Jewish terrorist murdered Prime Minister Rabin at a pro-peace rally in November 1995.

In 2005, elements of the right-wing settler movement protested against the disengagement from Gaza as the Ariel Sharon-led Israeli government forcibly evicted 7,000-plus Jewish settlers from their homes inside the Strip and from four settlements in the northern West Bank.

Eighteen years later, the scars of this rupture remain raw for some right-wing settlers. Indeed, their own disenfranchisement from the state can be traced back to this time and the current right-wing coalition is still aiming to cancel the law, with the first stage aimed at resettling the evacuated settlement of Homesh.

In 2011, the country saw its largest nationwide protests, under the catch-all banner of “the people demand social justice”. The issues ranged from the price of cottage cheese (an Israeli breakfast staple) the high apartment rental prices and the difficulty many Israelis face in getting onto the property ladder.

Other issues included the cost of childcare, the low benefits for the disabled and the equal sharing of the burden (especially resentment toward the strictly-Orthodox avoidance of military service). Over the summer months, a range of tent cities popped up all over the country, particularly in city centres.

Prime Minister Netanyahu ultimately took the sting out of the protestors by creating the Trajtenberg Committee, which looked to allocate government funding to meet some of the protesters’ demands.

Netanyahu also changed the agenda by agreeing to a generous exchange of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including many terrorists, in return for the return of the soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity.

In parallel to the 1990s Oslo protests, the era of judicial activism began under the stewardship of Aharon Barak, then President of the Supreme Court. It is this judicial overreach that the current government’s legal zealots, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Committee Chairman Simcha Rothman see as their life’s mission to redress.

The current conflict is the result of a perfect ideological storm: the protesters citing the defence of democracy lean on the importance of the balance of powers between the executive (government), legislature (Knesset), and judiciary (Supreme Court), the latter thought to uphold enlightened platonic values of the noble philosopher kings, who rule benignly in the people’s interest.

Meanwhile, the government argues for a Socratic form of democracy in which the majority and their elected representatives have the right to deliver their chosen agenda.

One hopes it’s not too late to find some middle ground.
In the broad legislative sweep of the approximately 1,300 laws the Knesset has passed in close to 75 years, only 22 have been rejected by the Supreme Court.

Yet a closer look at three of the more controversial rulings highlights the convergence of interests of the current composite parts of the right-wing religious coalition.

Twice, in 2012 and 2017, the court rejected a government compromise over the induction of the strictly Orthodox into the military.

While the governments was to set quotas that the yeshivot must reach, the court rejected the proposals, requiring even more participation by the strictly Orthodox. With a five-year deadline to find a solution extended because of the election cycle, this issue will soon be back on the agenda.

This explains the hostility of strictly-Orthodox politicians towards the court and their demand to insert an override clause to prevent this from reoccurring. It is also why the recently released parameters set out by President Yitzhak Herzog seek to avoid the override issue and deal separately with the substantive challenge of strictly-Orthodox military service or parallel national civilian service, even within their own community.

On three occasions, 2013, 2014 and 2015, the court overruled the Netanyahu government’s decision to hold illegal migrants or asylum seekers from Africa in detention centres, before having them repatriated to a third African country.

For background, in the second decade of this millennium, Israel (the only country with a land border with Africa) found itself the preferred location for tens of thousands of both economic migrants and legitimate refugees fleeing Muslim countries such as Sudan and Eritrea with no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Their settlement, particularly in poorer southern Tel Aviv neighbourhoods, brought increased crime and caused conflict with the local population.

The government’s legislated solution, to prioritise their citizens’ rights, was rejected by the court on the grounds of upholding the universal rights of the (illegal) migrants.
The third issue that antagonised the right wing (which now has its representatives in the government) came when the court overturned the Regulation Law in 2020.

This law sought to retroactively legalise West Bank settlements (those illegal under Israeli law) even if they had been built on private Palestinian land. However, the court overruled the government, backing the rights of Palestinians who claimed ownership of their private land.

These court decisions help explain the residual animosity of the political and religious right and their desire to change the rules of the game. For the current protesters, these decisions mark rare moments when a discretionary body with oversight was able to rein in excesses of government behaviour.

Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s top consigliere, has now been brought in to find a compromise. Just before he became a minister, when he co-hosted a popular podcast, he said that judicial reform should be achieved “with scalpel not sledgehammer”. Let us hope this logic wins out and Israel’s 76th anniversary will see us more united.

Richard Pater is the Chief Executive of BICOM and a political analyst based in Jerusalem

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