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Matias Sakkal

2023: The Year that Changed Israel’s History

An Israeli man wearing a prayer shawl prays next to houses destroyed by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, October 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

In Israel, the year will continue to be 2023 even after December 31, when the rest of the world celebrates the start of a new year. Not because the country’s tradition is to abstain from celebrating the Gregorian New Year, but because Israel is stuck in the events of 2023, one of the most dramatic years in the nation’s short history.

The year 2023 began with a new government in Israel. Exactly one year ago, on 29/12, Netanyahu formed a new government, 18 months after losing power following a series of stalled elections with no clear winner.

After five elections in four years, the institutional crisis in Israel seemed resolved with the formation of a “purely right-wing” government, as defined by Netanyahu. The government outlined four priorities in its first cabinet meeting: blocking Iran, restoring security and governance within the State of Israel, addressing the cost of living and housing problem, and expanding the circle of peace (initiated with the Abraham Accords).

However, weeks after taking office, the Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, presented his famous judicial reform program. Remember that? From that day on, Israeli society became experts in constitutional law. Until October 7, the entire Israeli population debated complex theories of constitutional law and political science.

What is the difference between judicial reform and a judicial coup? Can the courts limit the parliament’s will? In what cases? What does the principle of reasonability mean, and who should be part of the judges’ selection committee? Questions that, after October 7, seemed irrelevant.

Israeli society took to the streets. DE-MO-CRA-CY shouted at those who opposed judicial reform, seeing it as an irreversible blow to Israel’s liberal values. Those who supported the reform also took to the streets to defend the popular will against the onslaught of “the privileged elite” seeking to nullify the popular will and hinder the government’s policies.

Israelis protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Although polarization was palpable, the significance of the topics under discussion was no less important. The identity of the state was at stake. For many years, Israel faced existential threats, and priorities were focused on survival rather than delving into the debate on national identity. To discuss the identity of the state, it was first necessary to ensure its existence.

After years of relative calm, where existence was not threatened, Israel began to debate profound questions about its national identity. Heated debates on television, in parliament, and in public spaces became commonplace in a society that was beginning to understand define what a “Jewish and democratic state” means. Finally, it was time to establish clearer rules in the administration of the state and the religion-state relationship. But debate is a luxury only for those whose existence is assured.

In the shadow of polarization were the warnings of political and military leaders whose meaning echoed after October 7.  ‘The clash over judicial reform could consume us all,’ said Herzog, the president of Israel. ‘Judicial reform could cause agency to disintegrate from within’, emphasized former Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman.

Massive protests in the streets, calls to avoid military service, and the controversial dismissal, followed by the subsequent reinstatement, of Yoav Gallant as Israel’s defense minister seemed like a perfect combination for enemies of the country in a region full of threats, where lack of preparedness and any sign of weakness have a very high cost. In this context, Israel found itself without a defense minister for fifteen days, five months before October 7.

October 7.

50 years and 15 hours after the surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel that marked the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, Hamas launched the largest attack against Israel, committing an unprecedented massacre in the history of Israel and the biggest attack against Jews since the Holocaust. The magnitude of the massacre committed by Hamas became known throughout Israel and the world.

Palestinian terrorists kidnap an Israeli civilian, center, later identified as 85-year-old Yaffa Adar, from Kibbutz Kfar Aza into the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023 (AP Photo/ Hatem Ali)

Israeli society and the Jewish diaspora came together in a collective effort of extraordinary proportions. Suddenly, all the polarization before October 7 became irrelevant. Donations flooded all community centers: food, tents, blood, summer gear, winter gear—everything needed to support the soldiers, evacuees, and those affected by the tragedy.

International journalism, which earlier reported on polarization and Israel on the brink of a civil war, witnessed how the most critical groups and government opponents joined forces, regardless of divisions, to assist in the war efforts. “Am Israel Chai” (the people of Israel live) and “Yachad Nenatzeach” (together we will overcome) became mantras of a deeply affected society, but with no time to mourn its dead.

National unity after the Hamas attack was also reflected in politics. Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz and members of his party joined Netanyahu’s coalition, forming a “national emergency government” and highlighting the extent of the shock that the nation has suffered and the degree to which politicians and the entire country have been bewildered by the sudden and grave threat to national security and the state’s existence.

The true face of Israel became evident, as did the magnitude of the war.

As these words are written, 129 hostages are still in Gaza in the hands of Hamas terrorists, 218,000 people are displaced, with no possibility of returning to their homes in the near future, 360,000 reservist soldiers mobilized, and more than 12,500 rockets have been launched towards Israel. At the same time, 1,300 people have been killed by Hamas, 11,594 injured, and 498 soldiers have fallen in defense of the state.

From an expert in constitutional law, Israeli society transitioned to handling concepts such as “military deterrence,” “hostages,” “prisoners,” “war on multiple fronts,” “ceasefire,” and “humanitarian corridor,” and facing geopolitical and strategic questions whose answers are not unanimous, and even experts prefer not to opine.

Eliminating Hamas and bringing all hostages home. Israeli leaders are making an enormous effort to reconcile both objectives that sometimes seem to collide.

Yes, all of this happened in one year. It was the year that, whether by choice after intense internal debates or by external imposition after the attacks, became a crucial turning point in Israel history.

What will happen from here on depends largely on the ability of Israeli society to learn from its mistakes. To demonstrate greater humility, to understand that truth is not only in one place, and that political rivalry is not synonymous with enmity.

Not everything should be determined by political considerations and survey results. The war revealed the existence of fundamental consensuses rooted in Israeli society, immune to political debates, ideological differences, or opportunistic speeches. The existence and defense of Israel, care for others, sensitivity to others’ pain, internal solidarity, and the sense of a common destiny are profound truths that emerge in human interaction among the diverse sectors of Israeli society and also form the basis for national reconstruction.

If, in terms of security, it is unthinkable to return to the situation that existed on October 6, much more so in social and political terms. Going back to the same ways of handling differences implies not having learned from mistakes or, worse, returning to the path that led us to the current situation.

Resilience is a fundamental characteristic of the Jewish people. In this case, its implementation will be largely determined by the leaders’ ability to politically capitalize on these consensuses, giving rise to new leadership that is up to the necessary national reconstruction.

About the Author
Matias Sakkal is a lawyer specialized in international law and the Director of Con Israel y por la paz a public diplomacy project for the Spanish-speaking world.
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