Matti Friedman, the author of today’s essay, is among Israel’s most articulate and insightful writers. Perhaps that’s because the Jewish state is his chosen country.
Friedman immigrated from Canada as a teenager in 1995 and served in the military, as he outlines in his magnificent book Pumpkinflowers. In the years since, in other books and in countless essays—this one was particularly prescient—he has done two things perhaps better than anyone of his generation: defended Israel and deepened our understanding of a young country whose identity is still emergent. His writing tends to cut through the political hysteria that surrounds events in Israel, and suggests context and perspective often lacking elsewhere.
So it is a very rare thing to have him write with such alarm, as he does below, about the Netanyahu government and the country’s spiraling political crisis.
The government’s moves—particularly with regard to the country’s legal system—have driven hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets and has the current president of the country, Isaac Herzog, warning: “I am anxious we are on the brink of an internal struggle that could consume us all.”
This is an important subject—and a contentious one. At the bottom of Matti’s essay, we have further reading from those on all sides of this issue. —BW
It’s not clear at first why the current political situation in Israel feels so different, so much darker. In coverage abroad, events here are being described as an argument about legal reform, which is a bit like describing World War I as a dispute about an archduke.
I moved here from Canada at the age of 17, hoping to find a home in a country I found irresistible, one where I wouldn’t have to live as a minority. In nearly 30 years since then, through controversial peace plans, waves of Palestinian terror attacks, and wars, I’ve seen crises come and go. I’ve been at more protests than I can count. But I’ve never seen politics seep so alarmingly into the psyches and private lives of my friends, or so many people losing sleep, seized by fear that the country they love won’t make it.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister, as he has been for most of the last decade and a half. The peace process is dead, as it has been for more than 20 years. The political left is nearly extinct, the center is amorphous, and neither of those things are new either. So what’s going on?
On one level, what’s going on is simply that we had an election in November. A coalition led by Netanyahu won, and a blitz of right-wing legislation ensued, drawing protests from liberal Israelis.
But what’s actually going on was best expressed this week by a friend of mine, a career army officer, religiously observant and a political centrist. “I’ve had governments I disagreed with,” he said, “but never one that was out to get me.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Israelis are used to being surrounded by enemy states. But right now, for the half of Israel’s citizens who didn’t vote for this government, our own country is starting to feel like one.
Israel has always lived with its extreme elements, but has never before been governed by them. If you saw images this weekend of well over 100,000 people on the streets in Tel Aviv waving blue-and-white flags, with tens of thousands protesting elsewhere in the country, including my family and me, and including many whose politics lie on the right, this is why. And this is why, if you follow events here, you’ve seen petition after petition from economists, jurists, and Nobel Prize winners sounding an unprecedented warning and begging the government to change course. It’s why some army reservists and air force pilots have now signaled—in a shocking move for this country’s most committed citizens—that a leadership of this kind can no longer count on their service.
I’ve never been a Netanyahu voter. But I always assumed that when it came to matters of national security, he could be trusted. When the last election results came in showing a victory for Netanyahu, with about a quarter of the vote, and for his ideological allies, I sighed but didn’t panic. Since coming to power for the second time, in 2009, he led Israel to a period of stability following years of terror attacks, and to economic growth that’s obvious to anyone who lands in the new forest of skyscrapers and cranes in Tel Aviv. He always governed with at least one party to his left, and his reputation abroad as a leader with a quick trigger finger was never deserved.
It didn’t occur to me that any leader of Israel would be irresponsible enough to risk our internal cohesion, economy, international relations, and safety in pursuit of his own interests or extremist fantasies. I was wrong.
Foreign observers are unlikely to have been following the twists and turns over the past few months. Even for Israelis, it can be hard to keep track.
The Netanyahu who reappeared this past November as prime minister after a year and a half in the opposition—during which time we were led by an odd but inspiring coalition that somehow included both settlers and religious Muslims—was changed. Aging, harried, and under indictment for corruption, he seemed like a man who’d been stewing in the swamps of resentment and conspiracy. He was furious at the political opponents who’d temporarily pushed him from power, and at the legal system that dared put him on trial. He was surrounded by the junior yes-men who are his only remaining loyalists. And he was encouraged by the fetid atmosphere of his family, publicly expressed in the far-right internet nuttery of his son, Yair.
Israel’s centrist parties are willing to serve in a coalition with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in charge, and indeed have done so in the past. But they will no longer serve under Netanyahu himself: The prime minister, a master of the political maneuver, has simply lied to too many people too many times.
Given this state of affairs, a responsible leader would have stood aside after the last election and allowed another Likud leader to form a broad Zionist coalition with 74 seats of 120 in Knesset, without extremists or narrow interest groups—the government we desperately need. But Netanyahu seems to have lost any sense of distinction between himself and the state. So instead, he rallied the forces hostile to the Israeli mainstream, and to institutions like the judiciary and police that hold our fractured society together, and unleashed them against his opponents.
In came the ultra-Orthodox politicians dedicated to expanding their taxpayer-funded autonomy, along with the messianic wing of the settler movement and the racists of “Jewish Power.” Netanyahu won the votes of many Israelis of Mizrahi background who’ve supported Likud since the early days of the state, when Menachem Begin led the party. They have a justified sense of exclusion by the elites, and have been on the political and economic margins for too long, to the country’s shame.
With all of this, and with under half of the popular vote, Netanyahu cobbled together the first government we’ve ever had whose enmity is aimed primarily at other Israelis. Those who oppose Netanyahu would now be described as leftists, elitists, and subversives. The institutions that threaten Netanyahu, or suggest a country with an identity larger than his personality, would be neutered or rendered ludicrous.
In one of his first moves, Netanyahu placed a hooligan, Itamar Ben-Gvir, in charge of the police. (Ben-Gvir has criminal convictions for incitement to racism and support for a terror organization, and that’s a partial list.) Then he split the authority of the Defense Ministry between two cabinet ministers, giving part to the fundamentalist hard-liner Betzalel Smotrich, who was also handed the Treasury. Smotrich has called in the past for Israel’s Arab parties to be outlawed, and has said Israel should have “finished the job” at its founding in 1948 by expelling all Arab residents. Last week, following the murder by Palestinians of two Israelis in a West Bank town and a deadly mob attack by settlers in retaliation, he tweeted (before he was forced to hedge) that the entire town should be “wiped out.”
The Justice Ministry was split between the anti-judiciary crusader Yariv Levin and David Amsalem, a Likud lawmaker with the style of a foul-mouthed thug. The latter promptly pronounced in Knesset that the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters were upper-class Israelis in Mercedes and Rolexes; at the time he was wearing a Cartier watch reported to be worth $7,000. The protesters I could see were parents with little kids, grandparents, and normal people in the middle of their lives as well as former army chiefs of staff, police chiefs, and Shin Bet directors once appointed by Netanyahu. (Netanyahu, for his part, has described the protesters as foreign-funded “anarchists.”)
Netanyahu gave the Interior Ministry to Aryeh Deri, twice convicted of corruption. The Communications Ministry went to a politician who described the last government, which was headed by the religious right-winger Naftali Bennett, as “defying the armies of the living God” and “persecuting Torah scholars,” and declared his intention to shut down Israel’s essential public broadcaster. A new law would expand the power of religious courts. Another would seek penalties for women dressed immodestly at the Western Wall. Israelis wake up every morning not to a unifying vision or to reassuring words from their leaders, but to a fresh attack.
America has a written constitution detailing citizens’ rights. It has two legislatures, the House and the Senate, and separate state elections and governments that further buffer citizens from federal power. Israel has none of those things. We have only one legislature, it’s controlled by the governing majority, and the single brake on majority power is the court. This is the only force that can stem the current paroxysm—and so it’s this force that’s now being removed, in what is being misunderstood by some as a simple “legal reform.” What’s actually happening is a takeover of Israel’s independent judiciary by the most extreme government in our history.
There is a good case for reform that would set the limits of court power with broad consent. That’s not what’s happening.
The new system, which is supposed to be set in law by next month, will allow the government to select judges and overrule the court’s decisions. If the reform passes and the government decides that there will now be elections every 10 years, for example, or every 20—there will be no force to rule otherwise. Israel, which has rightly prided itself as being the only democracy in the Middle East, will move closer to the model of Hungary or Turkey than of America.
Israel’s stable and internationally respected court system is one of the reasons for our economic miracle over the past few decades. (Another reason is Netanyahu himself, in his more responsible days). Several billion dollars are already believed to have left the country in the past month, a sign of a trend that could snowball. The tech CEOs of Tel Aviv, who need a liberal social ecosystem and strong courts trusted by foreign investors, are eyeing Palo Alto. There are warnings about our international credit rating, and the shekel has dropped.
Many Israelis have spent their lives serving the country in the military or the civil service, or simply by being good citizens who pay high taxes and live with the punches this place delivers daily. Many have sent their kids to the army, often in the service of governments and policies they didn’t like; some never got those kids back. Some spent years fighting the libel campaign waged by our enemies to demonize this country and make it easier to abandon and destroy. It’s these Israelis who are now watching their government treat them as traitors.
Anyone looking on from the outside, especially those tempted to apply American lenses and judgment, must understand the kind of anguish that is bringing masses of normal people into the streets every week. The protests are an inspiration—a reminder of the unique Israeli energies that become apparent here in moments of crisis. In my most optimistic moments on the streets, I see the glimmer of a new political force that may be viable one day soon. But this force must contend with a government feeding on our divisions, pitting us against each other, and dismantling the solidarity that has always been Israel’s secret weapon.
I’ve defended Israel in the regular infantry and the reserves, and have covered wars as a reporter. I’ve always done my best to explain this country, articulate its fears, and place its many errors in context. I’d like to do that now. But like many of my fellow citizens at this moment, I’m at a loss for words.
For further reading:
Jason Willick in The Washington Post: How Israel’s Culture War Turns America’s Upside Down. Read here for a smart analysis of what reasonable compromise might look like.
Yoav Fromer in Tablet Magazine: Bibi’s New Deal Power Grab. Fromer argues that American conservatives should be aghast at Netanyahu’s judicial reforms. Read here.
David Horovitz, the editor in chief of The Times of Israel, explains the revolt of the Israeli pilots—and what it portends. Read here.
In UnHerd, Lahav Harkov says that Israel’s democracy isn’t actually in peril. Read here.
And Michael B. Mukasey, the former Attorney General, says that Netanyahu’s proposed reforms don’t go far enough.