The last several days have made Israel appear increasingly chaotic. Massive protests against judicial reforms on Wednesday came amid comments by the government and opposition that show the country is deeply divided. The rhetoric is increasing on both sides, and at the same time there have been more and more shooting attacks in the West Bank, and concerns about revenge attacks by settlers after the rampage in Huwara. This has also led to the US State Department spokesperson slamming comments by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.
The overall trend appears to be chaos. On the other hand, in many parts of Israel life continues as normal. A very hot week brought massive numbers of Israelis to the beach, as winter appears to have transitioned to summer, without spring in between. This means that while some think Israel could face a new intifada and civil conflict at the same time, the overall status quo continues in many sectors.
But there are looming clouds, such as concerns in the economic and tech sector about the judicial reforms. All of this occurs as Iran’s regime pays close attention to Israel. It thinks that the country is deeply divided, which may change Tehran’s calculations.
So what is really going on? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not new to politics. He has seen the US express concerns about various extremists in Israeli politics and actions by Israelis in the past. He has also seen conflicts with the Palestinians come and go. Considering the chaos that erupted after Netanyahu formed a new government late last year, is it plausible to conclude that all this is taking place by accident and spontaneously?
Is it possible that Israel’s continued slouching toward chaos is part of a wider ‘doctrine’? Netanyahu is reputed to be a student of history. History provides some insight into the method of governance in which chaos plays a role. Throughout history, various theorists such as Niccolo Machiavelli have proposed methods for governance, such as he spelled out in “The Prince.” Machiavelli saw chaos everywhere around Italy in his time.
Thinkers such as Sun Tzu also wrote influential works on military strategy. A quote attributed to Sun Tzu says that “in the middle of chaos, there is also opportunity.” French Revolution figure George Danton is well known for his quote “Il nous faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace,” essentially meaning “audacity, audacity and more audacity.”
Permanent chaos, no changes
THROUGHOUT THE last decade of Netanyahu’s rule, only interrupted by a year in which the opposition came to power, there has been a tendency toward both status quo and chaos. What that means is that the overall status quo remains, such as a divided Palestinian polity, no grand schemes by the government, Israel’s inaction in the Syrian civil war, and slow confrontation with Iran but no major conflict.
Around that status quo there has always hovered various crises. There were wars in Gaza in 2012, 2014, 2021, and a stabbing intifada, and also the crisis over the metal detectors and the Temple Mount; and even the crises over annexation. It’s always something: whether it is Khan al-Ahmar, or Masafir Yatta, Sheikh Jarrah, Susiya or some other place, some other controversy such as El Araqib or the Prawer plan or the Western Wall; the ICC or the EU, UNESCO or some other controversy.
However, when one looks back, what really changes? We all recall “annexation” when Israel was supposedly going to annex parts of the West Bank during the Trump era. Then suddenly there was no annexation. It’s almost as if all of it is a kind of circus act, designed to get part of the public distracted about some kind of controversy, and then quietly remove the controversy from the table. For instance, every time Khan al Ahmar, the Beduin community on the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, is about to supposedly be relocated, nothing happens.
In fact, nothing really happens in Israel in the grand scheme of things. While Israel continues to build new highways and rail lines, and new towers go up in Tel Aviv and surrounding areas, on the big questions, nothing really changes. The judicial reform looks like one of those redlines that some people will not stand for. Maybe it will end up like the Nation-State law, or maybe not.
Is there a doctrine of chaos?
THE QUESTION is whether the governance pattern of Netanyahu’s governments is primarily underpinned by a doctrine of chaos. Is chaos the symptom or the goal? This is not the only government that appears to practice this doctrine. The Trump administration was also underpinned by seemingly endless chaos. The Erdogan regime’s multi-decade rule in Turkey has been essentially a regime of chaos in which it creates a crisis every few months to feed off and distract people just long enough to get to the next crisis, the next election, the next “military operation” or “terrorist threat” that it needs to overcome.
Back in 2008, before Netanyahu’s return to power, Ynet News ran an article about Netanyahu. The article noted the following story: “‘Hannibal was a military commander who lived more than 2,000 years ago and defeated the Romans in several battles,’ Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Knesset cafeteria last week. ‘For hundreds of years, mothers in Rome would use him to scare children who wouldn’t eat. They would tell them: ‘If you don’t eat, Hannibal will come for you.’ Now, Hannibal is back. I’m Hannibal.”
It’s not the only article that has noted Netanyahu’s interest in the Carthaginian general. Hannibal became a commander at a young age, around 26 years old, and spent from 221-202 BCE at war with Rome, marching across what is now the modern-day states of Spain, France, Italy and Tunisia. Hannibal then spent years as a statesman and eventually spent time in exile, often involved in various intrigues.
Israel isn't in decline
THE POINT of the Hannibal story is that this was a period of chaos, not a period of peace. Netanyahu’s time in power has generally been one of economic prosperity and relative peace in Israel. This is the irony of the chaos doctrine, if such a doctrine exists: that the chaos enables some kind of status quo, that enables prosperity.
For instance, on large trends Israel is not a declining power. Israel does not have the demographic problems that China, South Korea and Japan currently face, where birth rates are falling to the point where many families have only one child. Israel has not faced the immigration crisis or rising crime rates of some countries.
However, for those who are concerned that the country is slouching towards authoritarianism and is increasingly being exploited or dominated by religious fanatics, the chaos doctrine indeed ends with a country that is irreversibly changed from what it was two decades ago. This is the same state of affairs that the opposition in Turkey finds themselves after decades of AKP rule.
For Israel’s key adversary today, the Iranian regime, the chaos inside Israel appears to embolden the regime. But to what end? The regime is enriching uranium, but the enrichment leads to an unclear future. Iran still has to weaponize its nuclear program.
For the Palestinians, the chaos in Israel hasn’t led them to any sort of success in Gaza or the West Bank. An aging Palestinian leadership has seen its power eroding and Hamas hasn’t brought Gaza anything but isolation and failure.
The Netanyahu doctrine of chaos and status quo has also ostensibly brought Israel better relations with much of the region. This is his vision of peace through strength. However, that doctrine generally didn’t bring Israel warm ties; it was under the Lapid-Bennett era that Israel had an unprecedented number of meetings with countries in the region, including developing concepts like the Negev Forum.
This mixed record leaves judgment of the chaos doctrine up to historians. Hannibal’s long war against Rome failed. Israel’s long chaos and status quo will need to lead to better results, if it is to prosper.