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Israel on the brink of civil war?

by Friedrich Steinfeld
This time, the existential threat to Israel does not come from outside (e.g., from Iran), as has been and is repeatedly invoked inside and outside Israel. It comes from within Israeli society itself, because the new extremist government is also resolutely committed to confrontation in the conflict with the Palestinians. A new spiral of violence has begun:
Israel on the brink of civil war?
by Friedrich Steinfeld
Further Crisis of Statehood in the Middle East
[This article posted on 4/2/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, Israel vor einem Bürgerkrieg?]

While the Western states, in reaction to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, fancy themselves as "liberal democracies" in the global struggle against authoritarian and aggressive regimes, Israel - the "only democracy in the Middle East" - is being shaken by a massive domestic political earthquake triggered by the extremist government under Netanyahu.

Mass protests and general strike against Netanyahu's judicial coup

Based on the results of Israel's November 2022 parliamentary elections[1] - the fifth in 3½ years - Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing nationalist Likud party he leads could only return to governing power in Israel by forming a far-right governing coalition with five extreme religious and extreme nationalist parties.

In addition to an even tougher stance toward Palestinians* in the Israeli-occupied territories, this government is seeking a fundamental change in the relationship between the powers domestically, centered on judicial reform. The planned reform would massively expand the powers of parliament. With a majority vote, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, could in the future overturn decisions of the supreme court. And with the bill to change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee, the government would have complete control over the nomination process for judges on the Supreme Court and all other courts. The coalition would thus dominate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Thus, the "only democracy in the Middle East" would no longer be one.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets for weeks against this government coup. They have blocked highways and airports, and strikes have paralyzed large parts of the country. Israel is currently experiencing a political state of emergency. Many reservists in the Israeli army have also opposed this reform and have put their status on the line in case it is implemented. Initially, the coalition was not impressed by these protests. Nor was it impressed by a compromise proposal put forward by President Yitzchak Herzog.

In the meantime, Herzog appealed on Twitter to all leaders of the Knesset factions, coalition and opposition alike, to put the citizens* of the country above everything. "Come to your senses!" He added that this was a moment of leadership and responsibility, not a political moment. Earlier, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (Likud) had spoken of a threat to Israeli security due to the massive opposition of reservists* and called for the Security Cabinet to be convened. As a result, he was dismissed by Netanyahu.

Other ministers also pleaded for a postponement of the reform, others for a follow-through. Some Likud deputies also advocated postponement, but a real rebellion by Netanyahu's party is not yet in sight. However, the first signs of dissolution within the governing coalition are appearing, making clear how tense the political situation is.

Israeli trade unions sided with the opponents of reform on Monday (3/27-23). The head of the powerful trade union confederation, Arnon Bar-David, announced a general strike if the plan was not suspended. A strike broke out at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. The doctors' union and other unions joined the strike, bringing large parts of public life to a standstill. All of this illustrates the enormous breadth that the mass protests against judicial reform have now gained.

Supporters of the government camp also demonstrated to show their support for the judicial reform, including "La Familia," the ultra-right fan group of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, which is associated with racism and violence. Clashes broke out with opponents of the reform.

In view of the ongoing massive domestic pressure, a general strike, the counter-demonstration by the right-wing and a possible escalation of the protests, Netanyahu pulled the emergency brake and announced the temporary freezing of the proposed law. The aim was to prevent a "civil war" into which an "extremist minority" among the opponents of reform wanted to drive the country.

The far-right Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir ("Jewish Strength"),[2] threatened to quit the coalition if the judicial reform was suspended, but agreed to a delay of a few months in exchange for Netanyahu's promise to take over the leadership of the National Guard. This is a paramilitary force for combating internal unrest. In the hands of this violence-prone and racist minister, it could be used to quell the mass protests, which he considers "anarchy," which would effectively mean civil war.

The umbrella organization of the protest movement called Netanyahu's offered "true dialogue" on judicial reform a "theatrical performance" because the government shows no interest in constructive conflict resolution. The head of government himself does not want to give up the reform at all; his extremist coalition partners will prevent him from doing so. He is merely trying to buy time for tempers to cool so that he can then push through this project.

The mass protests will therefore probably continue. Israeli society is facing an escalation of conflict in which civil war-like conditions cannot be ruled out if the government does not find its way back to a minimum of political reason, for which there is currently no sign.

The rise of extremist forces in the government

Proponents of judicial reform see it as a means of curbing the excessive influence of a judicial elite that was not democratically elected, while opponents fear that the separation of powers, which is constitutive of a democracy, will be abolished. The Supreme Court is the only authority that can prevent the excesses of the executive branch and safeguard the fundamental rights of all citizens.

The position of the proponents points to a "serious anomaly" in the Israeli legal system, because "many questions of this kind have never been resolved," noted the constitutional law expert Menachem Mautner (FAZ, 27.3.23). For example, Israel has neither a second chamber of parliament nor a constitution in which fundamental rights are enshrined. One of the "anomalies" is that up to now there has been no legal regulation at all that clearly defines the powers of parliament and the Supreme Court. "Today, the Knesset could theoretically overrule a Supreme Court decision with a majority of one to zero. And by the same majority, it could enact 'basic laws' that constitute the Israeli constitution." (Ibid.)

However, Mautner argues that the proposal of a mere parliamentary majority (61 out of 120 deputies) to overrule Supreme Court decisions is not convincing because it would allow any majority government to enact basic laws. Mautner therefore argues for a broad majority of 80 deputies to be able to enact basic laws. Otherwise, he argues, the current liberal-democratic system of government could be transformed in a direction "that would lean much more toward Jewish traditions and Jewish religious law, which do not necessarily embody liberal-democratic values." (Ibid.)

Yet that is precisely the goal of the current coalition. Netanyahu has already encouraged such a development in previous coalitions with the ultra-Orthodox, so that even before the current government, a parallel world dangerous to democracy could form, for example in the education system. The shift in the balance of power toward the extreme right took place as a slow, everyday process below the radar of public perception until it has now come to a head with civil society.

The Likud Party, the largest governing party, is a right-wing nationalist party, but it is not an ultra-religious party; at least some parts of it are secular. The fact that it nevertheless forms a coalition with five extremist parties is directly related to Netanyahu. He has been on trial for corruption in three cases for the past three years; if convicted, he has a strong personal interest in limiting the power of the courts.

However, Likud's political alliance with the extreme right also shows that there are clear overlaps with it, which is why it is politically untenable to draw a line between the extreme right and ultra-religious. Netanyahu and the Likud party are not only the driving force behind an extreme religious-nationalist development, but also the actors in this disastrous political process.

For radicalization has also taken place within Likud, as Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology and anthropology who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, among other places, points out: "In 2004, for example, 22 Likud deputies voted in favor of a bill that would allow towns and villages to be legally reserved for certain ethnic or national groups, i.e., that would introduce the legal category of a 'purely Jewish' town. The bill was introduced by a member of the National Union list connection, supported by several other religious parties, and narrowly failed in the Knesset - with 38 votes in favor and 40 against. In cases like these, Likud's ideological program was profoundly reoriented toward religious positions insisting on a radical, irreconcilable division between Jews and non-Jews, believers and non-believers, pure and impure ways of life."[3]

Since Likud won the 1977 elections, this right-wing nationalist party has been in government 40 out of 45 years. The anti-Netanyahu alliance of the penultimate coalition lasted just over a year, showing that at least currently there is hardly a viable alternative. And the left has almost completely disappeared from the political scene.

Decline of the Israeli left and division of society

For the Israeli left, the last election result in November 2022 was not only a debacle, but sealed its final political downfall:

The Labor Party, led by Merav Michaeli, an avowed feminist, won four seats, its worst result in history. Once the dominant political force in the country, the Labor Party has been in steady decline since the 1990s, when its chairman and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and the second intifada raged.

The left-wing Meretz party, the political home of the beleaguered peace movement, failed to make it into the Knesset for the first time since its founding 30 years ago.

The fact that the Labor Party, the party of the state's founders, has almost completely disappeared from the political landscape is partly its own fault. After all, it was the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion, who allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to live their anti-democratic values apart from the state education system and the labor market - e.g. in their own schools, which teach no mathematics, no English, no computer skills, but are fully financed by the state (according to Meron Mendel, Israeli-German professor of social work and director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt a.M., in his article "They call him King of Israel" in the FAZ of 3.11.2022). Thus, for decades, hatred against liberal values and against the Palestinians was able to spread in segregated communities of Jerusalem and in the Jewish settlements.

It was "also the prime ministers of the Labor Party who wanted to keep the occupied territories in the West Bank after the 1967 war. The settlement project in the West Bank began while the Labor Party was still in power." (Ibid.) The advice of philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz at the time to withdraw from the occupied territories after a few months following the spectacular war, otherwise the Zionist idea would be sacrificed to the "delusion of the great Israel," was thrown to the wind.

Immediately after the last parliamentary election, Meron Mendel pointed out in the FAZ article just cited that this delusion was now becoming reality in the form of an all-inclusive package that threatened democracy: "dismantling of the rule of law and the judiciary, dismantling of civil society, and the end of all hope for equal coexistence with the Palestinian citizens of Israel and a peaceful solution with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza." (Ibid.) A society, he concludes, cannot permanently suppress the human rights of Palestinians* without itself suffering harm. The unresolved question of equal coexistence with the Palestinian population is also one of the core problems of Israeli society.

The increasing development of the right is also related to a multiple division within Israeli society:

The citizens of the "Tel-Aviv state" include primarily secular Ashkenazim, i.e. Jews originating from Europe who live in the cosmopolitan metropolis or in the kibbutzim. They have an above-average level of education, maintain contacts abroad and see themselves as part of the Western world.

The majority of the citizens of the "Jerusalem state" are Mizrahim, i.e. Jews of Arab origin (often expelled from Egypt or Iraq), residents of small Israeli towns on the periphery or of settlements in the West Bank. In the discrimination of these Jews - according to historian Tom Segev in an interview with Christian Meyer ("Alle instrumentalisieren den Holocaust", in: FAZ, 7.1.2023) - an important reason for the development of the right is seen. "Many say: these Ashkenazi elites in Tel Aviv no longer represent us." In such a situation, there also remains no room for "feeling responsible for the Palestinian tragedy." (Ibid.) It was only thanks to Oriental Jews that Likud had become the strongest force for the first time in 1977.

Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews represent another crucial population group in the "Jerusalem state." Among them, the average birth rate has been constant for years at 6.7 children per family, far above the average birth rate of about two children among secular Ashkenazim.

Certainly, as a result of their substantial political weakening, the leftist forces-the "Tel Aviv state"-also shifted some of their activities to the Supreme Court in order to be able to impose liberal values in this way. And certainly political problems cannot be solved through the courts. So it is not solely a matter of unresolved constitutional issues in the current eruptions and Israeli state crisis. The extremist government is simply trying to exploit the state's legal "anomalies" for its broader political purposes - as the culmination of a longstanding trend with the massive strengthening of far-right forces all the way into the government.

The Dwindling Separation of State and Religion

Eva Illouz relates the explosive ideological brew of nationalist, religious fundamentalist, patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic and racist ingredients to a radicalized version of the Jewish purity commandment: "Poison, garbage, abominations, stench, beasts, snakes, animals, murderers, a depraved mind, wickedness together form a matrix to characterize Arabs and secular Jews as the epitome of a pollution that can arouse nothing but disgust. Arabs and seculars represent the impure core that infects other groups: leftists, homosexuals - the Hebrew term for homosexuality contains the word to'eva, something abhorrent - and feminists. People who meet, touch, like, love members of these groups, or who read their books, become infected by the 'vermin'. These are all undoubtedly extreme views, propagated by a certain group of rabbis and not shared in their cruelty by the majority of Jewish Israelis.

Yet such views are echoed in Israel's crucial secular institutions: in the army, which is used quite deliberately and most conspicuously in the West Bank to enforce separation between Jews and Arabs, but now also in the government. And in this way, the new radicals have the power to permanently shift the norms of Israeli discourse."[4]

The decisive political-civilizational advance of the bourgeois-liberal state based on the capitalist mode of production consists, as Marx worked out with clarity in "On the Jewish Question," in the fact that society is not liberated from religion, but that citizens* are given freedom of religion. However, the bourgeois state can only guarantee this privatization of religion if it itself remains atheistic in its core, if there is no longer any state religion. But the moment a certain religion tries to subordinate itself to the state again, it must come to a political catastrophe, as Marx explicitly points out.

This political encroachment of a radicalized religious current, which is now also openly apparent in Israel, and which is merging with nationalism, is by no means an Israeli peculiarity. Such fundamentalizations and radicalizations have taken place in recent decades within all major religions: from the radicalized currents within Christianity in the U.S. (evangelicals and "Christian Right") to Hindu nationalism in India to the radicalized currents within Islam."[5]

New spiral of violence also in the conflict with the Palestinians*.

This time, the existential threat to Israel does not come from outside (e.g., from Iran), as has been and is repeatedly invoked inside and outside Israel. It comes from within Israeli society itself, because the new extremist government is also resolutely committed to confrontation in the conflict with the Palestinians. A new spiral of violence has begun: Since November, Israel has again been bombarded with rockets from the Gaza Strip, which are usually intercepted in the air. Israel responded with airstrikes on Gaza and is taking military action against underground facilities that Islamist Hamas uses to manufacture rockets.

In 2023, dozens of Palestinians* have already died in connection with military operations or attacks of their own. For example, at least ten Palestinians* were killed and at least 20 injured during an Israeli army operation in the Jenin refugee camp on January 26, 2023. Israel justified the raid by citing an imminent terrorist attack. Following the incident, the Palestinian Authority terminated cooperation with Israel on security issues.

In Huwara, pogrom-like riots by hundreds of Jewish settler*s against Palestinian*s erupted after the killing of two Israeli*s, resulting in one death and hundreds of injuries, as well as immense property damage. According to media reports, the Israeli army let the Jewish settlers go ahead. A violence-glorifying Twitter entry, according to which Huwara should be wiped out, was given a "like" by the far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich ("Religious Zionism"). He insisted only that the erasure of the site should not be done by private individuals: "I think it should be the state of Israel that erases it."

Geo-political implications

Far from being confined to Israel and the occupied territories, however, the grave internal crisis has significant implications for the entire explosive mix in the Middle East, hitting the country at a sensitive moment in foreign policy. Recently, for example, arch-enemy Iran signed a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, which has long been friendly to Jerusalem.

After years of hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the countries rivaling for regional supremacy made a surprise announcement that they would resume diplomatic relations in the short term, which they had severed in 2016. The political thaw also increases the chances of a peace deal in the proxy war in Yemen.

The easing of tensions was made possible by China's mediation; the relevant agreement between Riyadh and Tehran was signed in Beijing, and is changing the balance of power in the Middle East and beyond. Saudi Arabia has long ceased to be an (unofficial) star on the U.S. flag. The U.S., as the leading power of the West, is visibly losing influence in the Gulf region, which it once dominated almost at will.

The state crisis in Israel is also extremely inconvenient for the U.S., having already been significantly disrupted by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine in its focus on economic and military containment of China. The Biden administration will therefore try at all costs to bring the extremist Netanyahu government to a compromise solution with the opponents of reform.

Whether it will succeed in doing so, however, has to be met with considerable question marks. Israel's Security Minister Ben-Gvir has already made it clear that Israel, too, is "not another star on the U.S. flag." And Netanyahu knows, of course, that a new president will be elected in the United States in less than two years. If this new president is again Trump or another candidate from his camp, the extremist right in Israel can look forward to a strong new tailwind from the leading Western power. A new alliance of the despisers of liberal values could emerge within the "free" West.


[1] See in more detail: Friedrich Steinfeld, King "Bibi" is back, in: Sozialismus.deAktuell of 7.11.2022.

[2] Ben Gwir has long been known for his extremist views and racist agitation. He has already been charged in court several times for this and convicted in two cases. The 46-year-old lawyer is considered a former supporter of the far-right rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU and the United States. Just before the last parliamentary elections, Ben-Gwir had drawn a gun in a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem and called on police to shoot Palestinian stone-throwers. He also called for the deportation of Arab-Israeli MPs. He advocates an aggressive policy not only toward Palestinians in the occupied territories but also toward Palestinian Israelis. The Jews would have to be "the masters in the house again."

[3] Eva Illouz, Politics with Abhorrence. The New Israeli Right and the Fueled Fear of Defilement, in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 4/2023.

[4] Illouz op. cit.

[5] See in more detail: Friedrich Steinfeld (2016): Religious and Political Fundamentalism on the Rise. The longing for identity, Hamburg.
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