A classic case of political overreach

A dispatch from the streets of Tel Aviv where a sudden massive protest suggests that the right wing in Israel, drunk on power, has poked a very angry bear

Sunday night is not the best time to file on social media, and this post may fall between the cracks, but I figure there is value to immediacy and truth. Right now I am on the streets of Tel Aviv where tens of thousands of people are streaming out of their homes and have blocked the main highway headed north and to Jerusalem.

They’ve done this because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fired Defense Minister Yoav Galant for stating a day earlier that the government’s authoritarian coup project constitutes “a clear and present danger to security” because much of the military will refuse to obey orders to show up the day after.

The reason so many Israelis are up in arms is that the government, using a somewhat-ill-begotten majority in parliament (for 6% of the opposition vote was foolishly wasted through splits) is trying to pass laws that would eliminate all oversight on its actions, yielding a fake-democracy like Turkey (and maybe even Russia).

And if that is so, it raises a chance, however small, of saving the Zionist enterprise – a fascinating historical project that had appeared headed for spectacular self-destruction.

One can understand the complacency of the right in subjecting the country to an accelerated Putinization process. After all, it has been clear for years that the majority of Israelis will not really fight against the transformation of their country into an undemocratic binational state (through the settlement in the occupied territories). They are quite reasonably afraid of missiles being fired at them from the West Bank, but this justifies the military occupation only, not the mixing of populations with unequal rights. Mostly they’re complacent.

Also, most Israelis have not displayed the presence of mind to spur decisive action to prevent the country from becoming a theocracy. They fear speaking openly about the recklessness of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) birthrate (of almost 7 children per family, or of imposing a core curriculum of math, science and English on Haredi children. Liberals tend to accept the other and don’t much like to fight.

The result is that although the majority of the public as of today does not really want to destroy the modern Jewish state, the right (whose policies almost certainly lead to this) has not been wiped out. My assessment has been that at this rate the Zionist project in its current form would not make it to the centennial celebrations in 2048. The world will abandon Israel, the secular engine of the economy will relocate, and the Palestinians will overwhelm the „Yeshiva students” that remain. If the world is not under nuclear fallout by then, Tel Aviv will change its name to Jaffa, Palestine.

This was the forecast until the last few weeks, when Netanyahu’s government embarked upon a coup designed to mutate Israel into an authoritarian state. As we know, the so-called „judicial reform” will empower the government to appoint judges and prevent even these poodles from any oversight of its actions. Every law could be declared a “basic law” placing it out of bounds, and any ruling it dislikes could be overridden by parliament, by a simple majority.

In the absence of a constitution or a bicameral parliament, and with legislators not elected personally by voters, this would give the prime minister near-total control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Nothing would prevent the executive from canceling elections, shutting down newspapers and arresting Israelis in the middle of the night. It would quite literally be possible to decide  that a vote for the right is equal to two votes for the left.

Something went amiss for Israel’s would-be Putin: the plan ignited a wave of opposition on a scale the country had never known before – not during the debate over reparations from Germany, not after the failure of the Yom Kippur War, not even during the Oslo Agreements and the Gaza withdrawal agitation. It is not just about the mass demonstrations – tens and hundreds of thousands of people each week taking to the streets. Nor is it just the outrage on social media, where hysteria is the rule.  It goes deeper than that: there is deep, overpowering concern, also on the right, for the stability of society. There is a growing understanding of an unacceptable crossing of a Rubicon.

Talk of civil war from people who are usually polite and civilized cannot be ignored. It is impossible to overlook the clear message coming from the financial sector and the high-tech community, which is responsible for one-sixth of Israel’s economy, a quarter of tax revenues and half of exports.

The shekel has lost over 10% of its value as S&P warned that Israel’s credit rating would suffer, former Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frankel fretted that the  achievements of recent decades will be blown up, and companies began withdrawing monies from Israel. All this is a direct blow to average Israelis confidence in continued prosperity.

It is very clear that volunteerism to elite IDF units and even simply to reserve duty will plummet. People are talking about versions of secession of secular areas from the state.

Everything is now on the table: from the automatic US veto in the Security Council to back Israel, to the ability of IDF veterans to travel abroad without fear of arrest, to the annual ticket to Eurovision and the Euroleague.


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