In the looming civil war, the Israeli right has the upper hand

While the government can rely on national-religious identity to mobilise supporters, the opposition’s counternarrative suffers a serious weakness

By Menachem Klein  on 24 July 2023. This article originally appeared in the Israeli +972 magazine

The brewing “civil war” we are witnessing in Israel is not a flashing spectacle, but rather a long-running process. Contrary to how the far right has tried to bombastically portray the mass opposition to its judicial overhaul, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Shin Bet Director Ronan Bar did not ride on tanks to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to announce to the nation that they are taking over the government for a transitional period until democracy is restored. Thousands of reservists in the Israel Air Force and other elite army units, who have ‘vowed not to show up’ for duty, did not land helicopters near the Knesset in the early hours of the morning after neutralising the Knesset guard. On the contrary, as today’s Knesset vote showed, the judicial overhaul is continuing apace.

This civil strife is still only in its infant stages. The rival camps are still forming. The revolutionaries on the right rely on their Knesset majority only when it comes to votes on legislation; in an actual civil war, they will need a broad and mobilised public. Their backbone is religious populations of all kinds, from the ’Hardalim’ to the Haredim to the mainstream national-religious.

This religious public is deeply communitarian. It is organised around synagogues, settlements, distinct neighbourhoods, youth movements, and an education system controlled by religiously and nationalistically hardline ideologues. The government’s hardcore supporters consume sectorial, non-pluralistic media that heavily feature nationalist-religious preaching. Those in the community who feel uncomfortable with such an ideology, and try to consider what is beyond, are subjected to intense social pressure, and in practice often remain in the community’s ranks despite their reservations.

However, the religious community is too small to win a civil war by itself. It must recruit members from the traditional base that supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, often middle and working-class Mizrahim (Jews with origins in Arab and/or Muslim countries). This public — marginalised by the more affluent and established Ashkenazim, and excluded from the closed communities of the Haredim and national religious — largely lives in Israel’s socioeconomic and political periphery, far from the levers of power.

Netanyahu and Likud gain the support of these peripheral voters through a campaign of grievances, creating an imagined community constantly facing persecution and oppression (even though the Likud has been the main force in power for several decades). This campaign plays out to a great deal on social media and is presented as a class struggle of a new elite against an old elite, the disadvantaged against the privileged, who refuse to give way.

Identity politics vs. rights discourse

Most Israeli opponents of the judicial overhaul, in contrast, are far more individualistic than community-oriented, and spend most of their time with their inner circles of the nuclear family, close friends and coworkers. Their most defined imagined community is the military unit in which they served. It is no coincidence that the most prominent organisations representing the overhaul opponents revolve around the military; after that are groups based on geography, profession, and education level.

There are few organisations in the protest movement that are based on ideological lines, such as the “anti-occupation bloc.” As such, opponents of the overhaul will have to work much harder than its supporters — not only because the latter are in power, but because of the former’s social fragmentation and the fact that the women and men in this camp do not live in organic communities.

That said, the opponents are trying to consolidate their community through WhatsApp groups, Zoom lectures and particularly through demonstrations. The demonstrations help to build and preserve the camp, either by ignoring the issues that could split its followers, or by providing the space and right to express all the different reasons for rejecting this government.

The announcements of the number of protesters on the streets every Saturday night is not only intended to warn the government, but also to preserve the opposition’s momentum and internal unification. The weakest links in the camp are the “soft” religious-nationalist and secular-nationalist right, both of which disapprove of the radicalism of the judicial overhaul on the one hand, but also of the “extreme left” and the army reservists’ refusal to serve on the other.

The government’s proponents thus resort to identity politics. They justify the judicial overhaul with the need to preserve the Jewish identity of the state and Jewish supremacy over non-Jews, whether the latter are citizens, permanent residents or subjects of the regime. By contrast, the opponents of the overhaul speak in a discourse of rights: they claim to fight for the rights of women, minorities and the LGBTQ. This is what undergirds what they regard as their democratic-liberal identity, which they want to protect or re-establish.

Palestinian Israelis stand on the sidelines

Identity politics helps the Israeli right explain to its followers why Jews should remain in control over non-Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But the opposition’s rights-based discourse faces a double problem, since its leaders refrain from delineating the limits of the collective for whom they speak. Does it include Palestinian national identity? And what do they mean when they talk about a Jewish state? They have no clear answers.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are fully aware that the supporters of the overhaul will deal with them first, because their identity is different, if not contradictory, to the vision of Jewish supremacy. Yet Palestinian citizens, for their part, are standing on the sidelines, watching as the camps form; some join the demonstrations, but as a collective, they are not part of the protest movement.

The Palestinian citizens are also reluctant to participate in an imagined community in which military ties are dominant, and there is no tradition of widespread participation by Israeli Jews in Arab society’s protests. At the same time, the Palestinian citizens are not organising their own anti-government demonstrations to present their own reasons for opposing the judicial coup. All the same, without the participation of the Palestinians in Israel, the opposition will find it nearly impossible to win the civil war.

Alternatively, the opponents of the overhaul could try to split the weakest link in the government’s base — the traditional, middle-class supporters of Netanyahu and the Likud. They will find it difficult to achieve this without developing an identity-based discourse different from that of the national-religious right, and without expressing sincere empathy and adopting a non-patronising attitude toward these voters.

Israel’s looming civil war is, undoubtedly, connected to the Palestinian national struggle. For the judicial overhaul supporters, without Jewish supremacy anchored in law it will be impossible to annex the settlements and permanently close off the Palestinians in autonomous West Bank enclaves, with or without permanent resident status, similar to the regime imposed on Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

At this point, the Israeli opposition has failed to present an answer to this challenge. Rather, it mutters something about support for “managing the conflict” with the Palestinians, and a return to the illusion of a “Jewish and democratic” state that “temporarily” holds Palestinians under a brutal military regime.

However, even if the opposition fails to say plainly that there is a direct and harmful connection between the overhaul and control over the Palestinians, it has another struggle that will have major long-term consequences: erasing the identification between the army and the nation.

Until now, army refusal had been seen as a departure from the Israeli national collective. In recent months and days, however, we have seen more and more Israelis come to view the army more as a necessary, technical governmental mechanism, but not a value in itself — and certainly not a supreme value. This gradual shift occurring inside Israeli society is essential to move from a suspicious, war-mongering society that lusts for control over the Palestinians to one that supports peace and justice.

Menachem Klein is professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University. He was an advisor to the Israeli delegation in negotiations with the PLO in 2000 and was one of the leaders of the Geneva Initiative. His new book, Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed, was just published by Hurst London and Oxford University Press New York.

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