Home inFocus Trials & Triumphs: Israel at 75 (Spring 2023) Crossroad for Israelis: Society and Government

Crossroad for Israelis: Society and Government

Arlene Kushner Spring 2023
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2023 press conference. (Photo: Kobi Gideon)

As the modern State of Israel approaches her 75th anniversary, little is being said about the fact that the nation is an historical anomaly. Yet this reality is critical to an understanding of who the Israelis are. No other people, banished from its land for an extended period, has ever returned with identity intact.

As the process of “ingathering” proceeded, Jews came from an astonishing 70 different lands. They returned from different cultures, speaking different languages. But they came knowing that they were Jews and that they were returning to the land of their ancestors. This understanding is what bound them together. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was a secular Jew; yet he was well versed in Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and knew that the land belonged to the Jews from ancient times.

This primary recognition was reflected clearly in the Declaration of Independence:

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance…

It is the self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation, as all other nations, in its own sovereign state.

The melding of Jews from different lands into one Israeli people, one Israeli culture, has been a complex process. Today we are looking in the main at the second and third generation, and we can see the blending, as yet imperfect, of those different cultures into a new, and vibrant Israeli culture. One of its hallmarks, at least until recently, has been a sense of unity during times of difficulty. Israelis have been ranked by social scientists as among the happiest of people; we have been told that this happiness, despite multiple difficulties, is fostered by feelings of purpose and of belonging.

Today Israel is at a crossroad that is intrinsically tied to these issues of purpose and belonging. The path that the nation takes at this critical juncture will have enormous impact going forward.

At the heart of the matter are basic issues of national identity. But these issues did not arise suddenly now; we can trace their roots and a slow erosion of Israel’s founding identity back thirty years. Today, attitudes have shifted, and the matter has come to the fore.

The Oslo Accords

In 1993, the first agreement of the Oslo Accords was signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This agreement and a subsequent one two years later embraced the left-wing notion that Palestinian Arabs living in Judea and Samaria (renamed the West Bank by Jordan during Jordanian its 1949 – 1967 occupation) had a legitimate claim to that land and the right to establish a state or autonomy there and in the Gaza Strip. For years, left-wing Israeli governments were devoted to fostering a peace process that was in fact a chimera.

The PLO, headed by the unrepentant terrorist Yasser Arafat, was never going to make peace. An honest examination of PLO documents and policies made it eminently clear that what the Palestinian Arabs intended was an incremental weakening of Israel, while never abandoning terrorism, until such time as defeating her entirely was possible. But the left preferred to ignore the evidence and continue to embrace a deceitful Arafat – and subsequently his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel was losing her way. Israelis on the right were aggrieved and angry, with reason: The Mandate for Palestine of 1922 was an article of international law that allocated all of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea to the Jews for a homeland. Uti possidetis juris is an article of customary international law that recognizes the boundaries of a newly established state to be the last boundaries the territory had prior to the state’s establishment. In the case of the State of Israel, the last legal boundaries were those of the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine, granted to Great Britain to administer after World War I and continued by the United Nations after World War II. What is more, the region envisioned for a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria was precisely the heart of the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) where the Jewish people were established in ancient times: Hebron, Shilo, Beit El. Surrender of this land would represent an unacceptable surrender of ancient Jewish heritage.

Add to this challenge the fact that within Israel there are Arab citizens who claim that they are denied the rights due them because Israel is a Jewish state. They demand that Israel become a “state of all its citizens.” It must be emphasized that Israeli Arabs already have full civil rights. They can vote, receive access to all government services (health, pensions, etc.), can petition the court, and so forth. But they do not have national rights.

What they are seeking is the elimination of Jewish symbols and policies favorable to Jews: no Jewish star on the flag, no Hatikva as the national anthem, no right of return just for Jews, etc. The goal, far more than giving “equal rights” to Arab citizens, is destroying Israel as a Jewish state.

Areas A, B and C

The Oslo Accords divided Judea and Samaria into three regions, with Area C under the complete civil and security control of Israel. Palestinian Arabs, who would have more than adequate room in Areas A and B under PA control, have encroached upon Area C to an alarming degree, erecting thousands of buildings illegally with EU funding. Although the goal of the building project is a de facto Palestinian state that interferes with Israeli contiguity, successive Israeli governments have failed to demolish the illegal building.

The Court

While Oslo was set in place, Aharon Barak became president of the Israeli Supreme Court. He unilaterally changed rules of the court, thereby providing it with unprecedented power and establishing a process for selecting new justices that put control in the hands of the court. Barak’s court was left-wing; this process enabled continuous and unimpeded selection of new left-wing justices. Time and again this court, sitting as the High Court of Justice (to hear appeals against other government bodies or appeals tribunals), has found in favor of Palestinian Arabs and otherwise blocked right-wing initiatives.

Politics and Elections

Over the course of the last several years there has been a discernable shift to the right in the Israeli electorate. This is with regard to matters of tradition and politics, particularly where Israeli national rights are concerned. This movement rightward is particularly noteworthy because it is occurring at a time of growing progressive, left-wing sentiment internationally. The progressive viewpoint is universalist, while the Israeli populace is increasingly nationalist.

Despite this public movement rightward, from 2019 through 2021 a major electoral instability prevailed (with “anti-Bibi” sentiment regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu playing a role); there was a series of four elections in short order. Following the election in 2021, Naftali Bennett (the Yamina party) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) agreed to establish a joint coalition as a matter of political expediency.

To secure sufficient mandates, Bennett and Lapid broke with tradition and brought in the Ra’am party, headed by Mansour Abbas. The problem here is not that it is an Arab party, but that it is an anti-Zionist party, the political arm of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. This crossed a red line, moving some in the electorate more decisively to the right.

Bennett and Lapid agreed upon a rotation government, with Bennett serving as prime minister for the first two years. After one year, however, he called for a vote to dissolve the Knesset, and stepped down. Lapid then became interim prime minister until the next election.

November 1, 2022

Elections for the 25th Knesset were held on Nov. 1, 2022, and this time there was a decisive win for Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party. The electorate had spoken. By December 21, Netanyahu had succeeded in forging a majority coalition of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, including Religious Zionists (Bezalel Smotrich), Otzma Yehudit (Itamar Ben Gvir), Shas (Aryeh Deri, whose position is currently on hold), UTJ (United Torah Judaism-Yitzhak Goldknopf). Ben Gvir did exceedingly well; his tough stance on terrorism was eagerly embraced by many.

The government laid out goals, with judicial reform and development of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria at the top of the list. Additional issues of high priority included taking a strong stand against terrorism and stopping illegal Palestinian Arab building. After a struggle, Smotrich secured a ministerial position within the Defense Ministry, which had been promised to him in the coalition agreement. The post gave him authority over civil affairs in Judea and Samaria. Ben Gvir assumed the role of public security minister, which gave him authority over the police and provided him with the opportunity to respond with a strong hand regarding unrest by Israeli Arabs.

Right-wing members of the electorate were jubilant and saw this as the beginning of a new era in Israel, an era that would reinstate founding values. This may still come to pass; the correctives that are being projected are exceedingly important. But the way is proving to be exceedingly difficult. While the coalition – including many members of Likud – are right-wing, Prime Minister Netanyahu himself is centrist.

Judicial Reform

The biggest problem confronting the government now, as it moves to actualize important judicial reforms, is the hysteria that has been generated on the left. Major protests, ostensibly against reforms that will destroy democracy, are being incited by Yair Lapid, who does not seem to be willing to accept the results of the election. According to several reliable reports, these protests are being funded by foreign sources.

Ironically, some individuals involved in the protest supported these reforms until very recently. Although several members of the government, including Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, have invited Lapid to negotiate adjustments in the reforms, he has refused. Lapid’s rabble-rousing is shameful and destructive. Many outside Israel are prepared to accept his criticism of the proposed reforms with insufficient understanding of the issues.

Proposed changes in the composition of the committee that selects justices of the Supreme Court, for example, would render the process more democratic, not less. A severe limitation on the concept of “reasonableness,” which was instituted during Barak’s presidency, is also in order. As matters stand, the court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, does not have to base decisions on law – but can apply the justices’ sense of what is “reasonable.” This is a dangerous business, affording the court excessive power.

Terrorism and Response

Lastly, there is the matter of the way the government is handling terrorism. This is a critical issue, as Israel is now dealing with major attacks: early this year 14 innocent Israelis were killed by terrorists in just weeks. The double murder of two brothers, Hallel and Yagal Yaniv, who were on their way to their yeshivas, sent the nation reeling. They were shot on Route 60, a major thoroughfare that runs through the Palestinian Arab town of Huwara, which has a history of fomenting terrorism. Because of despair at the mounting deaths, and frustration at the fact that no official action was taken inside Huwara, dozens of Israelis entered the town on a destructive rampage. Vigilantism cannot be condoned, but it is important to understand what happened here.

Minister Ben Gvir, while not overtly praising this action, spoke about being at war. This caused an uproar, but his comments must be placed in context. A week prior to this incident, the Israel Defense Forces had conducted a major operation in Nablus, taking out terrorist members of the vicious, recently formed Lions’ Den group. In the course of the operation, a number of Palestinian non-combatants were wounded, bringing international criticism against Israel.

The United States and Egypt prevailed upon Netanyahu to send a delegation to Jordan to meet with Palestinian Authority officials to find ways to calm the situation. Reports then circulated from the United States and Egypt, saying that Israel had agreed to reduce anti-terror operations – limiting them to “smoking gun” instances. Ben Gvir, who had not been informed of this meeting before it happened, was livid. Backing off is precisely the wrong stance to take and signals weakness.

The question now is whether a true right-wing position on counterterrorism will prevail. Anything less would be regrettable, by virtue of being ineffective.

Arlene Kushner is an investigative journalist, author of books on the PLO and Ethiopian Jews, and co-founder of the Legal Grounds Campaign, which provides courses for law students on Israel’s legal rights in the land of Israel.