Pundits warn that civil war may be coming to Israel. In fact, civil war has already arrived. In just the first 10 weeks of this year, bloody violence in all parts of the country has resulted in nearly a hundred dead and thousands wounded, along with waves of mass civil disobedience and a looming constitutional crisis. All this follows an unprecedentedly tumultuous period in Israeli politics—five indecisive elections in just four years.
But what, exactly, is this war being fought over?
Ask hundreds of thousands of protesters opposing the government’s legislative blitz against the judiciary and they will say it is over whether Israel will remain a democracy or become a dictatorship run by ultranationalists, racists, and fundamentalists.
Ask government officials and they will say it is over whether Israel will be ruled democratically, by the will of the majority of voters, or whether an elite-controlled deep state, protected by weaponized courts, will ride roughshod over the people’s will.
Ask Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and they will say it is over whether the nightmare they are living can be made to include Israeli Jews or whether masses of Arab non-citizens can be bludgeoned into political irrelevance.
Ask rampaging Jewish settlers and they will say it is over whether a Supreme Court of unbelievers can use foreign ideas to keep Jews from settling and redeeming their land.
What is most striking is that although both sides say they are fighting for democracy, no one will publicly acknowledge what this struggle is actually about. Much like white northern elites in the United States during the 1850s who didn’t see that the brewing conflict was fundamentally about equal citizenship rights, few in today’s Israel acknowledge what is at stake in the Israeli context: namely, whether Palestinians will someday be equal citizens of the state in which they live.
There is a good deal of hullabaloo about whether the Jewish state will remain, become, or stop being a genuine democracy, but virtually no discussion of the impossibility of it being both a Jewish state and a democracy when half the country’s inhabitants are Palestinian Arabs.
Approximately 6.8 million Palestinian Arabs live under the actual if not formally declared rule of the government of Israel. If half a million non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union are taken into account, this means there are more Arabs living in Israel than there are Jews.
So what is at stake is not just whether Israel is or will be a democracy (or can get away with calling itself a democracy even if it is not). What is at stake, really, is whether a regime of Jewish supremacy will be established so that the full weight of the state’s laws can be explicitly used to enforce the disenfranchisement and subjugation of half the population.
Indeed, to sustain itself and protect against Jewish-Arab alliances that could end the racist regime it aims to create, the government will need to not only outlaw Arab participation in politics but also ban activity by Jews that might lead to Arab emancipation. That is why, if the Supreme Court of Israel is successfully neutered, the present government will move to outlaw anti-Zionist (i.e., Arab) parties as just another step toward the eventual exclusion of all Palestinians from political life.
Of course, some Israelis know very well what they are fighting for, however reluctant they may be to say so out loud. Among them are Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (who is also, within the Defense Ministry, in charge of civilian affairs in Judea and Samaria) and the settlers, fundamentalist ideologues, and ultranationalist activists he represents. With one another they are candid about their aims, but occasionally they let the cat out of the bag in public, as Smotrich did with his comment about needing to “erase” the Palestinian town of Hawara.
A slice of the Israeli Jewish left also knows what is really at stake, having come to understand that the rights of secular liberal Jews, and their hope to live in a country they can experience as sane, are increasingly dependent on Arab political mobilization and Arab votes. The intellectual elite among West Bank and Gaza Palestinians also know that, in the long run, political equality is the fundamental question that will determine their future.
But none of these groups will speak the truth. Smotrich and his followers prefer not to contradict their claim to be democrats by talking about their plans for the permanent political enslavement of Israel’s Palestinians. Leftists fear that speaking of Arab rights, or including Arabs and Palestinian flags in demonstrations, will damage prospects for a protest movement that currently presents itself as a carnival of blue-and-white patriotic Zionists. And Palestinians who aspire to eventually live in a state that represents all its citizens, whether named Israel or Israel-Palestine, cannot admit to this for fear of retribution from either the Palestinian Authority (committed officially to the now-defunct vision of a separate Palestinian state) or the “resistance”-oriented street, which is intolerant of programs requiring decades of political mobilization.
Most Israelis, however, do not feel the reality of what this struggle is about. On the right, they are focused on specific opportunities the government’s judicial “reforms” open for expanding settlements, ending protections for Arab citizens, increasing ultra-Orthodox subsidies, guaranteeing freedom of ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and expanding religious authority over both personal and public life. Accustomed to viewing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as outside their state, even while living within the domain of its power, they view the Arab problem “through the gunsights” (as the Hebrew expression goes) and see the regime they live in, which privileges Jews over non-Jews, as an unchangeable given in their lives.
In the center and center-left, things are more complex. In Israel, 20 percent of the population, mostly secular Jewish Israelis, pay 80 percent of the taxes. They dominate the high-tech industry and the most sophisticated domains of the Israeli military. By contrast, 150,000 ultra-Orthodox men receive stipends for full-time study of Jewish texts. Less than half of all ultra-Orthodox men ever enter the workforce, and many of those who do hold state-funded, economically unproductive positions as religious functionaries. This will not change anytime soon.
Sixty percent of ultra-Orthodox high school students are given no access to courses in math, science, or English. Only a tiny number serve in the army. Meanwhile, middle- and upper-middle-class secular Israeli Jews—living along the coast, in moshav and kibbutz gated communities, and in some posh Jerusalem neighborhoods—are outraged by their treatment as useful idiots and cannon fodder for corrupt right-wing politicians, wild-eyed settlers, and unreconstructed 17th-century rabbis.
That outrage brings them into the streets, but it is not enough to end the story they tell about themselves: the story of how good Jews can make Israel a cozy, liberal, and democratic country, without allying with Palestinians.
This story probably always was a fairy tale, and certainly is one now. The ultra-Orthodox community now represents 13 percent of all Israelis, including one-third of all Israeli primary school students. Families among the ultra-Orthodox and national religious settlers average seven children, compared to three children in the average Israeli family.
Within the Israeli electorate, as it is presently composed, urban and coastal plain liberals are vastly outnumbered. In the mid-1990s equal numbers of Israeli Jews identified themselves as right-wing and left-wing. In a typical 2022 poll, 62 percent of Israeli Jews identified themselves with the right, compared to just 11 percent who identified with the left. The nationalist, social-democratically oriented Labor Party has performed dismally in recent elections. Although it dominated Israeli politics for the state’s first three decades, it has been reduced to a mere 4 out of 120 seats in the present Knesset. The liberal-dovish Meretz party failed to win any seats at all.
In American parlance, Israel is now a deeply red state. From something like Ohio or Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Israel has become Oklahoma or Idaho. In the long run this can change, but only if Israel democratizes. For the last several elections, center and left Jewish parties have known that they could be partners in a governing coalition only if Arabs voted in large numbers. But even with the help of the almost 2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, it has been nearly a quarter of a century since a center-left coalition has managed to form a government.
Given the spectacular rates of population increase in the communities that have given the present government its hold over parliament, the only way to achieve a firm majority in favor of a “state of all its citizens” is for liberal democratic Jews to ally with Palestinians.
A proper perspective on the crisis in Israel entails understanding it not as the climax of a process but as the beginning of a protracted political war. What is at stake, ultimately, is not only the character of the regime—liberal democratic versus ethnocratic authoritarian—but also the fundamental character of the state ruled by that regime.
Thinking about this crisis as one of identity as well as rights means considering a comparable historical case, in which a country faced civil war over laws that could not be tolerated by half its citizenry—an issue that could only be resolved by transforming fundamental beliefs about what the country was and who belonged in it.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln—then a candidate for the Senate—spoke against the continuing insistence by slave states that slavery be extended to Kansas, Nebraska, and other western territories. Warning of a necessary crisis before the problem would be solved, Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. … It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
Lincoln was speaking of a war he saw coming, a war over whether the United States would be a country in which slavery would eventually be extinguished or a country forever and everywhere marked by enslavement and policies of oppression—policies directed against freed Blacks, of course, but also, eventually, against abolitionist whites.
Instructively, it was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case, that Congress had no authority to ban slavery in some parts of the country, that led to a civil war that ended with the banning of slavery in all parts of the country.
One in 10 Israeli Jews now lives across the 1949 armistice lines that used to demarcate the border of the state of Israel—a boundary no longer registered by official maps of the country. In the single state that now exists between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, all inhabitants—whether they live in the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria, the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, expanded East Jerusalem, or within the 1949 armistice lines—are subject to the decisions of the same government.
In each of these areas, different groups suffer from or enjoy the protection of laws, the effects of policies, and the assistance or consequences of police actions passed, promulgated, and ordered by the same government. If these circumstances are understood for the one-state reality they represent, Lincoln’s analysis can be seen to illuminate Israel’s future today as clearly as it did the future of the United States in the late 1850s.
When civil war first erupted in the United States, few talked of the struggle as being about whether the vast population of stigmatized Black non-citizens would eventually enjoy the same political rights as the white population. Even Lincoln himself spoke of miscegenation as the great threat and of returning freed slaves to Africa as the solution to the nation’s racial problem. We therefore should not expect the real political stakes of a struggle as fundamental as that faced by the United States in the 1850s or by Israel now to be framed explicitly by the contending sides.
What we should expect, however, is that crises that shake and change and destroy regimes can also transform thinking about what a country is, who its rightful inhabitants are, and which identities will be privileged, stigmatized, or honored. The United States’ bloody 1860s were the beginning of generations of change that proved Lincoln correct.
Once U.S. slavery was ended, Jim Crow took its place; but vigilante violence, prejudice, and persecution could not keep democratic politics from eventually opening opportunities for political emancipation and the alliances enabled by it. The Democratic Party, raised on racism and anchored in segregation and southern exclusion of Black Americans from political life, ended up finding electoral salvation in an alliance with Black people and other minorities, uniting with a vision of the country that its political ancestors would have abhorred—had they even been capable of imagining it.
That is the magic of democratic politics, of the onetime arch-segregationist George Wallace winning his fourth term as governor of Alabama in 1982 by kissing Black babies. The result of this long process of struggle, value change, and political realignment was a multicultural, multiracial liberal democracy—flawed, but intact and a world away from what the regime was when Lincoln spoke.
Though unable to speak its own deepest truth, the current Israeli government is committed, above all, to Jewish supremacy and to the transformation of the very partially liberal, not wholly democratic regime that has existed for 75 years into one capable of permanently excluding half the state’s population from the exercise of political rights.
Jewish protesters against the Netanyahu government’s attempted legal putsch are committed, above all, to the protection of their property and prerogatives as Israeli citizens. Not being Arabs, they benefit from the facade of egalitarian liberalism associated with Israel’s self-presentation as a Jewish and democratic state.
The government and its allies are unwilling to declare that an apartheid-style regime, based on explicit, systematic discrimination in favor of Jews, is exactly what the country needs to manage the absorption of the West Bank and Gaza they desire.
Meanwhile, the anti-government demonstrators—still dangerously attached to the idea of a Jewish state and the two-state solution mirage that protects it—are unwilling to acknowledge that they cannot win a struggle to make Israel a liberal democracy without forming an alliance with a large, fully enfranchised, and highly mobilized Palestinian population.
Perhaps the most likely outcome of the current crisis is a reformulation of the judicial reforms sufficient to quiet the protests without bringing on the immediate fall of the government. Such an outcome may result in a temporary political cease-fire.
But as bloodshed, raids, pogroms, rocket attacks, and reprisals associated with Israeli domination of the West Bank and Gaza escalate, the deeper crisis will continue.
When, eventually, masses of Jewish protesters demand equal rights for Palestinians, partly because they will no longer be able to protect their own rights without Palestinian help, then we will know that the decisive battle has begun.
The post What America’s Civil War Can Teach Us About Israel’s appeared first on Foreign Policy.