It is difficult to remember the last time an Israeli government raised such widespread opposition and resistance before it was even sworn in. Incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new, extreme-right coalition has led to dozens of mayors across the country saying they will not cooperate with the ultra-religious, blatantly homophobic Knesset member Avi Maoz, who is slated to lead the unit responsible for extra-curricular classes, and who seems to be gearing up to block educational programs aimed at teaching liberal values, gender equality, and tolerance toward minority groups.
Gadi Eizenkot, the Israeli army’s former chief of staff, has called for mass protests in the streets, as has outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid, who pledged to “protect the courts, the IDF, and the schools.” The head of the Israel Bar Association similarly said the public should “take to the streets” to stop the government from implementing its plans to curb the authority of the courts and to allow politicians to determine judicial appointments. The outgoing chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, was quoted in closed conversations on Monday that he will not permit any politician — except the defense minister — to appoint senior military officers, nor to move responsibility for the West Bank Border Police away from the military. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, said that judges won’t be able to “fulfill their duty” should the independence of the legal system be jeopardized.
As Netanyahu hands out top ministerial portfolios to the most extreme elements of his coalition, the term “civil disobedience” has become a near-battle cry for people who form the beating heart of the Israeli establishment. The seeds of this new resistance were planted not only in response to the written terms of the new coalition agreements, but also as a result of the initiatives that do not appear in print.
While the coalition’s plans cover various issues in Israeli political life, they can be summarized into two main themes: first, handing over all “Palestinian affairs” on both sides of the Green Line to the racist settler right, while promoting annexation and formalized apartheid; and second, enforcing an unabashedly anti-liberal vision of Judaism on the Israeli public while defanging Israel’s already-enfeebled democratic institutions, especially the judiciary.
The attempt to strengthen annexation and apartheid in the occupied territories can immediately be seen in Netanyahu’s consent to giving control of the Civil Administration and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which run the day-to-day affairs of millions of Palestinians under occupation, to Bezalel Smotrich, and to reallocating the Border Police to the authority of Itamar Ben Gvir as the new “national security minister.”
These moves have not only been met with strong responses from the radical left and human rights groups, but also from members of the Israeli security establishment, who fear this new ownership could change the occupation’s status quo and lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority as Israel’s security subcontractor. Add to that the moves to implement anti-liberal and anti-democratic measures, and you see large parts of the secular-liberal public, and even some Likud supporters, joining the fray. These two strains of resistance are now merging to form something the likes we have not seen in decades.
An antidote to old paradigms
One must wonder, then, why Netanyahu decided to conjoin his coalition’s anti-Palestinian and anti-liberal initiatives so vigorously. The incoming prime minister surely understands that his greatest threat from within Israeli society comes precisely from those who oppose the incoming government’s designs against both secularism and the courts. Given this, is placing someone like Avi Maoz in charge of external educational programs simply a distraction to allow anti-Palestinian policies to fly under the radar, as some claim? Or is it truly part of a full package that cannot be broken down into the sum of its parts?
To understand how we got to this point — in which two of the most avowedly racist Knesset members who support a “second Nakba” as the preferred solution are now in charge of Palestinian affairs — we must go back to the 1990s, when Israel adopted the Oslo Accords as a path to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Oslo idea believed that through the establishment of a Palestinian state — or some kind of entity that could be labeled a “state” — in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel could go back to being “Jewish and democratic,” as its founders ostensibly dreamed of. This process was also based on separating the military occupation of 1967, which Israeli officials believed could be brought to an end, from the Nakba of 1948, which caused the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland and the refusal to let them return, and which Israel saw as a done deal. Thirty years after Oslo’s birth, it is clear that this strategy has failed.
Then came the brutal violence of the Second Intifada, which encouraged the belief that Israel could end the conflict, or at least bring it down to a minimum, through unilateral moves. The establishment of the separation barrier inside the West Bank and the disengagement from Gaza were the two most prominent outcomes of this strategy. The idea of “shrinking the conflict,” which has guided the thinking of Israel’s political echelon ever since, may not have disappeared, but even its biggest champions do not claim it will resolve the conflict.
Since returning to power in 2009, Netanyahu has enhanced the idea of maintaining the “status quo.” But this status quo was anything but stagnant: successive Israeli governments pursued creeping annexation and the slow, behind-the-scenes building of an apartheid regime. But at the center of Netanyahu’s strategy is the belief that Israel can blossom and thrive while removing the Palestinian question from the public agenda. In other words, the road to a beautiful new future is paved by rendering the Palestinian story uninteresting and irrelevant.
This policy generally succeeded, and the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel sign normalization treaties with several Arab states, were supposed to be the final nail in the coffin. But the events of May 2021, and the eruption of violence in Israel’s so-called “mixed cities,” reminded the Jewish public of what Palestinians have always known: the conflict is not going anywhere, and it still dictates the lives of all Jews and Palestinians between the river and the sea.
Ben Gvir and Smotrich are proposing an antidote to this situation in which both the Oslo and status quo paradigms are crumbling before our eyes. Both politicians seek to force the Palestinians to kneel by giving them two options: either a complete surrender and the acceptance of Jewish supremacy throughout Greater Israel, or emigration. Smotrich’s detailed plan for Palestinian surrender, published in 2017, includes a clause for Israeli security forces to treat anyone who opposes those two options “with greater force than we use today and under more favorable conditions for us.” In short, a new Nakba.
This, too, is what lies at the basis of Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s coalition deals with Netanyahu. Ben Gvir seeks to control the police not in order to decrease crime in Arab society in Israel, since doing so would bring about the last thing he desires: allowing Palestinian citizens to live in peace and security in their communities. If crime decreases, the national cause will likely return to the center of the stage, which is precisely what Ben Gvir wants to prevent. The incoming national security minister wants a full-frontal collision between Palestinian citizens and the authorities, and plans to use the Border Police in the West Bank for the same purpose: to escalate the conflict.
Similarly, Smotrich wants to control the Civil Administration and COGAT not just because it will benefit the settlers. His top priority is to bring about the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, in the hopes of sowing chaos in the West Bank’s urban centers. Such chaos will require the intervention of the Israeli army, and Smotrich and Ben Gvir hope that such intervention will lead to the decisive moment in which Palestinians either come to heel or are expelled.
Separating democracy from colonialism
This moment, dangerous as it is, has roots that go far deeper than this relatively new crop of fundamentalists. A state that was born out of ethnic cleansing in 1948 and that has held millions of people under military rule for over half a century cannot be considered a democracy. And yet, it is imperative to understand precisely why the right has expedited its anti-liberal and anti-democratic crusade now.
Like other settler societies, Zionism sought to establish a “model society” that would be democratic — for the settlers alone. Israel’s settler colonialism isn’t especially unique in this sense; similar patterns could be seen in the United States, South Africa, and Australia. This “model society” was necessary for internally unifying the Jewish settlers who arrived in Palestine to establish a safe home for themselves, yet who found themselves facing a justifiably resistant native society.
What makes Zionism stand out from other settler colonial societies, though, is that the conditions for admission into the settler society are based on both ethnicity and religion. The first settlers in what would become the United States were whites who arrived from Europe, but American society found ways to fold settlers from Asia, South America, Ireland, and others into its colonial ambitions vis-a-vis Native Americans. In Israel, with its ethno-religious exclusivity, this is impossible. And while in North America, the indigenous population was almost completely wiped out through genocide, in Israel-Palestine, the indigenous Palestinians have remained en masse, putting further strains on the settler state.
However, over the last years, the Jewish-Israeli social contract which allowed for internal Jewish unity and cohesion has withered away. In the eyes of many Israeli Jews, the ideal of a democratic model society has lost its magic, and they now prefer a different version of the regime in which Judaism as a religion — from the Haredi version put forth by Shas and United Torah Judaism, to the nationalist-religious visions of Smotrich and Ben Gvir — is placed above the secular institutions that were built by Zionism’s forefathers.
The reasons for this crisis are manifold. As Avi-ram Tzoreff explained on these pages, this is in great part a result of the settler society’s “redistribution” of the fruits of colonization between the old Ashkenazi elite, which reaped the benefits of the Nakba and the 1967 war, and the mostly Mizrahi middle and working classes, which want a bigger piece of the pie.
These trends have been strengthened by several other factors, among them: that Zionism never truly decided whether it is based on a national or religious definition, which has led to the weakening of the secular camp in Israel; changing demographics in favor of the Haredi and national-religious populations; and Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, and the way in which he has done everything he can to undermine the legal system. Above all, however, is the fact that Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line refuse to accept Jewish supremacy as the law of the land, openly challenging the regime time and time again.
The incoming government’s opposition to the Ancien Régime is, at its core, opposition to the old social contract that formed the foundation of the secular Zionism that birthed the State of Israel. To change the regime, it will need to subordinate the courts and legal advisors to the whims of the coalition while adding a strong, religious fundamentalist flavor to its new policies, such as changing the criteria for the Law of Return so that only “pure blood” Jews can move to Israel.
More than that, it seems that the far right sees the remnants of the old regime, which preserves a “kinder” version of Jewish supremacy palatable to the Western world, as an obstacle to the project of defeating the Palestinians. Thus, only their version of a Jewish state — theocratic and staunchly anti-liberal, where racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities of all kinds are subjugated — can bring about Israel’s ultimate victory. In this sense, there is an intimate connection between the right’s anti-Palestinian and anti-secular ambitions. Without a messianic fundamentalism undergirding it, colonial logic alone simply won’t get the job done.
It is very possible that Ben Gvir and Smotrich fear that secular liberalism may undermine the entire colonial structure, crack it open, and destroy it from within. Ben Gvir’s election slogan, in which he vowed to remind Israeli citizens — and specifically Palestinian citizens — who are the real “lords of the land,” indicates a concern that the liberal-progressive logic, which the right claims has taken over the Israeli mainstream, may endanger the Jewish monopoly over power in the country. In this way, the new lords of the land aren’t only coming for Palestinians — they are coming for the wrong kind of Jews as well.
The fact that there are a multitude of voices in Israel opposing this new government, however, shouldn’t hide the deep ideological connections that still exist between many of them. While opposition to the overt institutionalization of apartheid concerns Israel’s regime of Jewish supremacy, much of the opposition to the attack on the legal system and the secular public in fact still seeks to preserve Jewish supremacy, albeit in a more moderate way. And while the domestic resistance is currently far broader than anyone expected, and likely to swell, the vast majority of those calling for Israelis to hit the streets are not asking questions about the occupation or Jewish supremacy. For them, the question of democracy remains separate from the question of colonialism.
It is difficult to know where these struggles against the new government will lead, and whether they will connect to the struggle against annexation, apartheid, and another mass expulsion of Palestinians. But one cannot deny that we have arrived at a moment in which all the contradictions inherent to Zionism from its earliest days have become clearer and more consequential than ever.
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.