Israel's resolve: Balancing military action and political divisions - analysis

That ability to simultaneously hold two seemingly contradictory emotions is a sign of societal strength.

 An Israeli military helicopter takes off as it carries a wounded soldier just outside Jalamah checkpoint near Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli military helicopter takes off as it carries a wounded soldier just outside Jalamah checkpoint near Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank
(photo credit: REUTERS)

For some, Israel’s split-screen moment on Monday was infuriating.

 On one side of the screen, IDF soldiers were fighting in Jenin, while on the other anti-reform protestors loudly descended on Ben-Gurion Airport and disrupted operations there. 

“How dare they,” some asked. “How could they protest and tangle with the police while the soldiers were fighting in Jenin?”

To which the leaders of the protest movement replied that had Simcha Rothman, who heads the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, postponed discussion of the proposed changes to the judicial reasonableness standard while the fighting was taking place in Jenin, they would have postponed their demonstration. Since he refused, they did so as well.

Israel's corrosive disunity or a healthy society

Some might argue that this revealed the country’s corrosive disunity, that political differences couldn’t even be taken off the burner for 24 hours while its sons and daughters were fighting.

Israeli protesters are seen on Tel Aviv's Kaplan Interchange on July 1, 2023 (credit: GILAD FURST)
Israeli protesters are seen on Tel Aviv's Kaplan Interchange on July 1, 2023 (credit: GILAD FURST)

But there is another way to look at this: that it reflects a healthy society able, as healthy people are capable of doing, to contain different emotions simultaneously. On the one hand, showing support for the soldiers and their actions in Jenin and a realization that what they were doing was crucial for the state’s security, while on the other hand remaining angry at the government and its judicial overhaul efforts.

This not need be an either-or proposition. It is not that either you support the Jenin operation and the judicial reform or you are against the judicial reform and the Jenin operation. You can be for one and not the other, or against one but not the other.

That ability to simultaneously hold two seemingly contradictory emotions — staunch opposition to the government, leading to a willingness to shut down the airport in protest, while also supporting a military action initiated by that same government — is a sign of societal strength.

How so? Because it sends a message to one’s enemies that despite deep differences, there are certain things the country agrees upon and is willing to fight for together: one of those being keeping each other safe.

And that is no small thing.

It is also something that the country’s political leaders, or most of them, made clear.

At the outset of the Jenin operation, National Unity Party head Benny Gantz said: “We all back the security forces and IDF, trust them to carry out the mission, and pray that they come home in peace. We, as a responsible opposition, back the government in its fight against terror.”

Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid said: “Our children are being slaughtered, and Israel has every right on earth to defend itself. We support the IDF and the Israeli government on that matter.”

Even Labor Party’s Merav Michaeli said she supported the security forces fully, though she would not say a good word about the government that sent the soldiers on their mission.

Back in February and March, when the judicial reform was steamrolling ahead in its original form, reservists threatened not to serve if called up. Similar calls were heard last week as the government made it clear it was intent on passing some part of the judicial reform — changes to the reasonableness clause — before the end of the Knesset’s summer session. Some of the country’s enemies may misinterpret those threats as a loss of the will to fight. But the way the country rallied around the soldiers fighting in Jenin shows just how much of a miscalculation that is.

A similar situation was on display in May when Israel, following a rocket barrage from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, took aggressive action inside Gaza, decapitating PIJ’s leaders and those who were to replace them. Then, as now, the country — those who love the judicial reform and those who hate it -- rallied around the IDF operation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaped some political benefits from the May operation in Gaza. His poll numbers, which were in free fall due to the judicial reform and ensuing chaos, started to reverse themselves following that May 9-13 campaign. 

For instance, on May 7, two days before the operation, a Channel 12 poll had Likud at 24 seats, considerably down from the 32 seats it currently has in the Knesset. A survey released by that same television channel on May 14, a day after the operation, showed Likud polling at 27.

While obviously there were other factors at play here, this does support something intuitive: the party in power benefits from a successful military campaign. And what was true in May, may very well be true in July.

That truth, however, leads some to draw the following conclusion: military campaigns are taken because of political considerations. 

Interestingly, however, there was little public discussion this week that political motivations were the main factors behind the government’s decision to launch the operation in Jenin. 

Some argued that it was timed to take place precisely on Monday to take some of the wind out of the sails of the planned protest at Ben-Gurion Airport. Others said that Netanayhu was pressured by his right-wing coalition partners to take strong action. Still, there was little talk that the operation itself was carried out because Netanyahu was looking for a political boost.

There was little talk in that direction because of the country’s deteriorating security situation and a prevailing sense on both sides of this country’s faultline that something more dramatic needed to be done to stem the rising tide of terror.

That Gantz, Lapid, and Michaeli fully supported the operation reflected the wide consensus it had in the country.

Some may lament that the only thing the country can agree on is the need to take military action to ensure security, and wouldn’t it be nice if Israelis from the Right, Left, and center, religious and secular, could find common ground on other issues as well?

There are two replies to that. First, other things do bring the country together, if only momentarily, such as the widespread support exhibited Wednesday evening for the national soccer team in the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championships. Second, it is possible to look at the cup half-full: at least the country can still agree on the justice of taking military action, even aggressive military action, to safeguard its security.

Imagine where the nation would be if it could not agree even on that.