There is a great skit that came out last year on Eretz Nehederet, Israel’s version of Saturday Night Live, in which one of the main characters, a tough-talking, rough-around-the-edges-style Israeli named Shauli, is asked on Election Day what the solution is to the country’s ongoing political paralysis.
“We urgently need a civil war,” declares Shauli, played by the talented comic Assi Cohen. “Every country that respects itself went through a civil war. Look at the Americans. What was there before the Civil War? The Wild West and now they allegedly made it to the moon.... Even Syria beat us to a civil war and any moment now they will begin to reap the benefits. Just us, the Jewish people, the official religion of the Bible, are falling behind. We, unlike everyone else, know how to fight. We have all been soldiers and all have – thank God – military equipment at home. We are the only ones who don’t deserve a civil war?”
Shauli goes on to explain that a civil war will actually be Israel’s easiest battle. “Next time a fight breaks out at the pool with plastic chairs being thrown, just don’t get involved; don’t stop it. Let it grow. In the wild, when two zebras fight, does a third come and separate them? No. There is also no need to pack bags and drive in convoys of jeeps and trucks to the front. The war will be right under our houses. That is what’s nice. You can go down and fight in a pair of sweatpants and flip-flops.”
When the video came out, it was mostly amusing. Israel was in the midst of non-stop elections that seemed to pit one part of the country against the other. Then, the issue seemed simpler – were you for Benjamin Netanyahu or against him. Half the country was and half the country wasn’t, a standoff that led to five elections in three and a half years.
After the last week during which a former defense minister warned of a civil war, a former IDF deputy chief of staff threatened mass civil disobedience, the national security minister ordered the police to use force to stop protesters and a member of his party called to arrest leaders of the opposition, this is no longer funny. Something bad is happening in Israel, and if it doesn’t stop now, it could lead to what Shauli once joked about.
A stable government doesn't mean Israel's problems are gone
The thought that no more elections and the establishment of a stable government would simply put an end to Israel’s problems was wrong. What people tend to forget is that five rounds of elections meant endless cycles of mudslinging and name-calling. It created a constant atmosphere in which people were placed in a state of opposition to the other. That does not just disappear overnight. It creates lasting tension.
The standoff right now might appear to be focused on the judicial reforms that Netanyahu and his Justice Minister Yariv Levin are moving forward, but that is just today’s battle. The new government knows that what it does not implement in the coming year, it will likely not succeed in doing. All governments have the first year as a window of opportunity for big change. After that, coalitions start to fight, issues become tense and the work often becomes more about putting out fires than creating them.
For the opposition – Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz – there is not that much they can do to stop Netanyahu. They can help bring out 100,000 people in Tel Aviv on Saturday night but that will not put more than a dent in Netanyahu and Levin’s plans. It will be a formidable display of power that will definitely get people’s attention, but Tel Aviv is a place where people expect demonstrations against the Right.
What they can hope for is that the noise they make will get the Americans and the Europeans to step up, say something and warn Netanyahu that what is happening will have an impact on diplomatic relations. That is where Netanyahu is vulnerable.
For the US, this is not straightforward. On the one hand, it is not standard protocol for the US to criticize a close ally like Israel over domestic political moves that are being done within the framework of the law. Last Friday, the most the State Department could say was that “as a general matter, Israel’s independent institutions are crucial to upholding the country’s thriving democracy, and our shared democratic values are at the heart of our bilateral relationship.”
Lapid and Gantz would prefer to see stronger statements coming from the US although that is not likely. The Biden administration doesn’t need the headache, and anyhow the US is not exactly in a position to lecture other democracies on how parliaments should govern. Just look at the fiasco last week around the election of a new speaker.
Can that change? Yes. If, for example, on Saturday night police rough up protesters and confiscate flags, the domestic story will take on an international scope. The US and Europe will not be able to stay quiet if, God forbid, there is an outbreak of violence.
The question that the opposition has to ask itself though is whether there is more it can do to change the sentiment on the street. It is one thing to protest and help bring out tens of thousands of people to the streets. It is another thing, to address the issues that are really troubling Israel and got them to vote the way they did in the last election.
Itamar Ben-Gvir ran a brilliant campaign in the last election with a simple question – “Who is in charge?” That slogan succinctly summed up the visceral feeling many Israelis had that the state had lost control over parts of the country, primarily within the Arab sector. He was the only person talking about it. Lapid was not talking about it, Gantz was not talking about it and Avigdor Liberman was not talking about it.
So while protesting the legal reforms helps galvanize the opposition ranks, they don’t really create an alternative for the Israeli electorate. All it tells them is what to be opposed to. It doesn’t tell them what they should be in favor of.
This is always a problem for the opposition, which is by nature meant to oppose what the coalition is doing. It is inherently built in to be an opponent. But as we saw in the last election, the yes Bibi, no Bibi conundrum is just one minor issue for voters. There are other issues that the current platforms have nothing to say about.
Talk of a civil war is dangerous. Israel is on the eve of its 75th anniversary and the thought that this latest experiment in Jewish sovereignty in thousands of years will be in jeopardy because of internal discord should shake us all at our core.
Yes, the issues that are being brought up are significant, and the consequences are potentially dire. But we must not take this state for granted. We must protect it, and yes, we must also fight for it.
Does that mean fighting between one another? I hope not. Political differences are fine and they will always exist as they should in a democracy. Protests are everyone’s right and it should never be taken away. But let’s not get carried away. The future of the country is not something to take lightly.