Amichai Cohen

Do as we say, not as we do: Israel’s government on partisan politics

The coalition blames the protesters for dividing the country, when it's putting forward legislation that it knows will polarize the public
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government near Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, May 11, 2024. (Itai Ron/ Flash90)
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government near Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, May 11, 2024. (Itai Ron/ Flash90)

“We must not revert to the discourse of October 6th” is perhaps the expression most commonly presented as the chief lesson of the “Swords of Iron” war. Divisive discourse certainly was a central characteristic of Israeli society in the period leading up to the war.

The war, forced upon us by a cruel enemy, and our continued inability to bring the hostages home from Gaza, certainly demand greater solidarity and a closing of ranks. All sides of the internal disputes that rage in Israel should come together at this time to face the external threat and refrain from demonizing their domestic rivals.

But lowering the flames of public discourse is just one part of this internal consolidation. National unity requires not only unifying speech, but also unifying actions, and in this regard, the ball is largely in the court of the governing regime that can decide whether or not to pursue divisive courses of action.

It is the government that controls the budgets, approvals, and decisions that are at the heart of the current political argument. If we truly need to join forces against an external enemy, then it is the government that needs to act in a way that does not polarize and does not alienate.

With the outbreak of the current war, it seemed that the coalition understood the duty incumbent on it. The judicial overhaul initiatives that had so divided the Israeli people were set aside, and a broader government was formed with the participation of the National Unity party. The new coalition agreement even stated explicitly that no legislation would be advanced in the Knesset without the agreement of all coalition partners.

But the restrictions that the coalition placed on itself in terms of actions, and not just speech, were soon abandoned. We have seen some of the most divisive political issues pushed by this government for the benefit of their coalition partners. For example, the Haredi parties demanded, and received, extensive additional funding for their educational institutions and for yeshiva students who do not serve in the IDF. Additional examples include, among others, the distribution of weapons, consolidation of power in the police, prison services, and government ministries, attempting to make the Haredi exemption from the IDF permanent, and the expansion of settlements.

Such divisive actions are happening under the leadership of the very people who pay lip service to ending polarized discourse. In practice, then, the demand to cease division has become one-sided: The government is entitled to advance the interests of the parties in the coalition, yet any criticism of its actions is deemed divisive, and those voicing such criticism are accused of “reverting to October 6.” The result is a regime that is immune from criticism.

Israel is not a dictatorship, and the enemies it faces are not imagined. But the path on which Israel is now embarking, of silencing internal criticism, constitutes a real danger to Israeli democracy. Demands to lower the flames of criticism cannot legitimately be made by a government taking actions driven by narrow political interests.

If the current government does not want, or is unable, to act in a non-partisan fashion in the interests of the public as a whole, then it loses the political and moral standing to demand that those who hold different views should not do everything they can – by speech, demonstrations, and any other legal method – to resist political action that they do not support.

About the Author
Prof. Amichai Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, where he serves as the Director of the Amnon Lipkin-Shahak Program on National Security and Democracy, and is a lecturer in the faculty of law at Ono Academic College.
Related Topics
Related Posts