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The opportunity in Israel’s political crisis

Israel's political crisis offers opportunities to regroup, reboot and set the country on a healthier course

The emerging shape of the revamped coalition has sent shock-waves throughout the Israeli political system, with reactions ranging from alarm to fury and from surprise to outright despair.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest political move may be yet another step in the rapid deterioration of the Israeli polity or, to the contrary, the beginning of a turning point that will halt its dive into a dark abyss. Much depends on how the ever-growing circle of concerned citizens spanning large portions of the political spectrum responds and acts in the coming days and months. The choice is theirs: they can fall into despondency and do nothing, or, alternatively, they can come together and commence the long route towards Israeli democratic revival. Opting for an exit strategy (either physical or mental) means giving up on Israel’s future; raising a common voice for a decent society and making a concerted effort to ensure its realization offers hope for significant change down the road.

There is really nothing surprising at all in the latest round of political shenanigans orchestrated by the prime minister. The impending appointment of Avigdor Liberman as minister of defense (and the subsequent ouster and then resignation of his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon) is yet another stage in the systematic process of the sacrifice of basic Israeli values and interests on the altar of political expediency.

For the past few years, Israeli politics have been driven by three major forces: Netanyahu’s overriding concern with his own political survival; the skillful takeover of the political apparatus by representatives of the settler establishment (including Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Liberman himself); and the failure of the (all-too timid) opposition to courageously carve out and pursue a persuasive political alternative. A divisive and frequently hate-filled discourse — untethered by the ruling establishment — has taken over the airwaves and the social networks, paving the way for discriminatory legislation and policies that have further entrenched an ethno-nationalist mindset in the country.

During the past weeks, the malignant effects of these trends percolated into the heretofore hallowed ground of the Israel Defense Forces in a series of incidents that highlighted the dramatically divergent interpretations of Netanyahu and Ya’alon regarding the military code of ethics and their implications. These spats came to a head in the public disagreement over the right of the upper echelons of the military (in this case, Deputy Chief of Staff General Yair Golan) to openly engage in critical thought. While the ensuing tension facilitated the political deposition of Ya’alon — the stress in civil-military relations will not dissipate as a result — it was not in itself the cause for Netanyahu’s latest political maneuver. What prompted his decision was his obsession with staying in office.

Netanyahu’s move has been viewed — even by his most vociferous opponents — as yet another sign of his political mastery, thus seemingly cementing his reputation as a virtuoso of the highest order — albeit one endowed with large doses of unbridled political cynicism. The emerging conventional wisdom is that the prime minister has once again emerged victorious. That may be true in the very short term. In a broader perspective, Netanyahu stands to emerge as the biggest loser of this manipulation.

He has contracted out every single major portfolio except the Foreign Ministry to coalition members, leaving Defense, Finance, Education, Justice and Interior in the hands of his current partners. He has alienated many in his own Likud party who still adhere to the liberal precepts of Jabotinsky and Begin, thus shrinking his own political base. He has earned the complete disdain of the few parties that were still willing to consider cooperating with him just last week. He has made himself even more susceptible to charges that he lacks any backbone and is easily pliable under pressure. And, significantly, he has forfeited whatever was left of his credibility in the international community.

These aftereffects will not dislodge the Netanyahu dynasty from Balfour Street on their own — nor for that matter will they change the trajectory of Israeli policies or politics. Such changes require action on three levels. The first, and the most obvious, involves patching together a coalition of democratic forces determined to halt the increasingly worrisome brutish trends enveloping the country. The key personalities in this alliance range from Likud stalwarts such as Benny Begin, Gideon Sa’ar, Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan, Silvan Shalom and now Moshe Ya’alon; Yair Lapid and his followers in Yesh Atid; Tzipi Livni and other members of her segment of the Zionist Union; major figures in the Labor Party past and present (including Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak); to, of course, Meretz and the Joint Arab list. They enjoy substantial backing in Israel’s diverse civil society.

These groups — despite the vast differences between them — have in common their immense distaste for the present administration and their profound concern over the unraveling of Israel’s democracy and all that means for its durability. They have it in their power, especially if they succeed in convincing members of the weakest link in the emerging coalition — Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party — to jump ship, to upend the Netanyahu hegemony. Much more importantly, they can reaffirm the rules of the democratic game and renew the legitimacy of disagreement as the key engine of Israel’s ongoing vibrancy.

It is easier to foment a movement for change than it is to supply a viable political alternative, a second and for more complicated level of action. At the moment, the Labor party is in complete disarray and awaits the selection of a new/old leader; Yesh Atid is rising in the polls, but its policies are murky; and the disgruntled elements in Likud have yet to regroup. This may be the time for a major reordering of the party political map. Such a move, however, requires more than just agreement on the destructiveness of the current course. It demands some consensus on substantive social, economic and political issues as well as on future directions. In the months ahead, it is safe to hazard that quite a bit of emphasis will be placed on such efforts (although these are unlikely to totally transform major political divisions).

That is why a third level of activity requires special attention at this juncture, one which addresses the fundamental source of the ongoing splits in Israeli society: Israel’s continuing rule over the Palestinians against their will. In less than two weeks, key foreign ministers will convene in Paris to explore possibilities for reviving the dormant Israeli-Palestinian process — potentially, within a new regional framework. There and in other forums that have been meeting lately behind the scenes, new approaches to addressing a permanent settlement (mostly within a revamped, regionally-based, two-state framework) will be further examined. The Obama administration is set to lay down clear parameters along these lines before the end of its tenure.

A major international effort to resolve the conflict — which has now infiltrated deeply into the heart of Israeli society and adversely affects its viability — is about to commence. The success of these initiatives is not just a matter for what has lately (and wrongly) been dubbed “the radical left”. It is, ultimately, the overriding concern of each and every person concerned about what is taking place in Israel and in the Middle East. Progress on this front, along with the reawakening of democratic forces at home, can alter the current political parameters and offer new horizons which will make possible those political changes necessary to put Israel back on a path of domestic inclusion and tolerance, secure in its position in the region.

So, instead of falling into another round of collective helplessness, the latest political upheaval may yet provide the necessary trigger that will galvanize Israelis to launch a long-awaited political rebooting. Their persistence, commitment and belief in the integral link between societal decency and safety can still divert the present course of decline and ultimate collapse.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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