On 28 December 2022, I wrote an opinion piece titled “The Israeli Question”. The article’s primary perspective is grounded in the “Palestinian issue”, from which the dynamics between Arabs and Israelis emerge. It drew heavily from a New York Times piece titled “What in the world is happening in Israel?” in which the author described the multifaceted dynamics at play in the territory spanning the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, categorizing them into four groups: Jewish-Jewish, Israeli-Arab Jewish, Jewish-Palestinian, and Palestinian-Palestinian.
Surprisingly, our article focused on the last three interactions, but the first one between Jews and Jews shows the heart of the “Israeli issue” that came up in recent weeks when the Israeli arena exploded with protests against the Israeli government’s attempt to limit the Supreme Court’s powers so that it is under the control of the legislature (the Knesset) and thus the majority enjoyed by the current government coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
After nearly two months of demonstrations in which over 600,000 people took part, we learn that the Israeli public could not find a “democratic” way to express its rejection of the Netanyahu government’s attempt to subjugate the Supreme Court to the authority of the Knesset other than to take to the streets. Obviously, the government sought to do this in order to prevent recourse to a higher authority in the event of a violation of the country’s fundamental laws by creating a huge power disparity between the executive branch, which holds the majority in parliament, and the judiciary.
Here, we discover that Israel’s lack of a constitution is the fundamental problem. Instead of a constitution, the country has a kind of basic law that was enacted upon the founding of the state and is based on a temporary agreement on fundamental principles that uphold secularism. The religious group in the government wants to change this by switching from human law to the Jewish “Sharia”. The Israeli division prompted references to “civil war” and parallels between Israel and Lebanon. After striking and protesting reached a fever pitch and the defense minister was fired, Netanyahu conceded to postpone a vote on the judicial reform plan.
The current crisis has its origins in 2018, when Israel suddenly declared itself to be “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” a claim which was subsequently ratified by the Knesset. This move was connected to others, such as the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or the rapid growth of settlements on land bordering the West Bank. A quarter-century ago, let alone seven decades ago, it was inconceivable that the Hebrew state would take these steps.
This situation illustrates the Israeli imperial audacity that drives it to pursue religious aspirations that were previously dismissed as illogical. What turns these into more than pipe dreams is the existence of a network of ultraconservative currents from which no country is immune. More importantly, these currents continue to generate fresh ideas that will soon join their predecessors in the mainstream of Israeli politics, including primarily the annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights to Israel, as well as the annexation of the West Bank lands used for Israeli settlements, as a step toward annexing the vast majority of the West Bank’s lands, which are designated as Area C. These actions stem from the core beliefs of Israeli Salafism, which advocates basing Israeli law on the biblical Sharia in dealing with the state and its over 21 percent Arab population.
Those who have been keeping tabs on the Hebrew state ever since its inception know that there are schisms within the country, the most common one being between Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Sephardic Jews from Arab and Middle Eastern countries, a schism that is based on ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and politics.
There was also a schism between the Labor and Likud parties, representing the left and right, as well as between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, or, in short, between liberals and conservatives. The state’s secularism and basic law had nothing to do with these schisms, but in the last decade or so, a third sect entered the fray: Salafists, who view Israel through the lens of the Torah, which claims all land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as Jewish property, making peace with the Palestinians impossible.
More importantly, the Jewish people who live in this region must be true Jews according to the strict interpretations of Jewish law. When compared to the Salafist groups that swept the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring, the current government coalition in Israel doesn’t look too different. This time, it manifests in what might be described as the Israeli Spring, which is based on the same customs of meddling in the private lives of citizens regarding their attire, diet, marriages, and funerals.
Perhaps this explains, in large part, the outcry of the parties and Israeli civil society, who believed that the electoral process had produced results that sought to alter the nature of the state in a manner not dissimilar to what transpired in Arab countries after the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies gained control of those countries. Maybe this is the exact reason why the Jews in Washington and the capitals of Europe were so anxious. They were confronted with a form of Jewish Orthodox fundamentalism that was different from the “reformist” current that was dominant among Jews in Europe and America. What is surprising is that the rise of Jewish Salafism in Israel occurred after Arab reformist currents were successful in battling Salafist currents, either by keeping them out of power or by going to war when they evolved into terrorist organizations.
Does this imply that a confrontation between the reformist “demonstrators” and the Israeli administration, which has approved the development of a new militia for the National Guard that can be used domestically and against Israeli citizens, is unavoidable? In fact, at this point in Israeli politics’ evolution, it is challenging to answer this question. Netanyahu’s retreat and temporary acceptance of abandoning his attempt to overthrow the judiciary cannot be ignored anyway.
However, the nature of Jewish Salafism, or even earlier Arab Salafism, could not permit such a brief lull. This situation will probably be used by Netanyahu and the Likud party to evaluate the Salafist faction in the ruling coalition. Netanyahu is not the person who infuriates Jews, American and European governments. Nevertheless, he also has another choice: he could send the entire Israeli political elite back to the polls in the hopes of gaining more popular support that would enable him to carry out his agenda. This might buy more time, and the Arab minority might have a role to play in tipping the scales, but the future will be filled with challenging possibilities.
This article was originally published in Arabic on 5 April 2023 in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.