Israel’s search for a broad consensus
A new slogan is emerging across the massive divides at the root of Israel’s ongoing crisis: the need to carve out a broad domestic consensus. Most of the general public is ripe for such an accommodation. But despite the widespread urge to bridge the widening gaps, there is no unanimity on its shape. If Prime Minister Netanyahu has his way, he will capitalize on prevailing sentiments, devoting the next few months to knitting together a center-right bloc that would recreate his ruling coalitions of yesteryear and, in the process, secure his own political primacy. If the adherents of the civil protest against the present government’s now paused judicial coup stick to their declared goals, many will try to shape a different, avowedly liberal, consensus, while other protesters will search for a new foundation for a more broadly defined consensus of all the inhabitants of the land. How this quest plays out will determine not only Israel’s near future, but also the geopolitics of the region in the years ahead.
The cards now being played by Prime Minister Netanyahu are different than those he held just a few months ago. He sorely miscalculated the level of discontent aroused by his militantly ethnocentric coalition — first around the judicial reforms spurred by his Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, and the chair of the Law, Constitution and Justice Committee of the Knesset, Simcha Rotman, and then around its economic and social byproducts. When his abrupt decision to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant almost paralyzed the country, he quickly backtracked by calling a halt to the judicial modifications and reassessing his options. His (at least temporary) reinstatement of Gallant and switch to a primarily security agenda was intended to signal a quiet backpedaling on the judicial reforms led by his political partners.
This intention has become explicit following Moody’s decision to demote Israel’s economic outlook from A1 positive to A1 stable. Its reasoning is telling: “While mass protests have led the government to pause the legislation and seek dialogue with the opposition, the manner in which the government has attempted to implement a wide-ranging reform without seeking broad consensus points to a weakening of institutional strength and policy predictability.” In his appearance on Channel 14’s talk show, “The Patriots,” Netanyahu openly adopted the report’s language, promising to build “a broad consensus” on key policy issues.
Immediately after the Knesset’s spring break, two main items will occupy the formal agenda: the passage of the 2023-2024 budget, and the forging of an allied agreement that would effectively relieve Haredi men from conscription, while simultaneously augmenting stipends for conscripted combat soldiers. This arrangement, however hotly contested by the opposition, will in all probability pass with the allocation of additional funds to the ultra-Orthodox sector and to settler initiatives. Come summer, the proposed political takeover of the court system will be shelved.
In this manner, it is safe to assume, the reenergized Netanyahu will be able to calm social unrest in his own camp, provide a modicum of economic predictability, pass on further judicial changes, and try to resurrect his standing in Washington and European capitals. The ongoing security threats posed by Iran and its partners in Syria and Lebanon, along with the tightening Iranian-Russian alliance, may prove useful in this regard. If all goes according to plan, then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supremacy will be reasserted without any normative concessions, and the groundwork laid for a government reshuffle should his right-wing fringes (Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionists) prove too unruly.
This scenario, however, does not take into account either the breadth or the depth of the democratic movement that has arisen in recent months. According to all recent polls, were elections to be held in the near future, the current opposition would garner a clear majority and Netanyahu would be voted out of office by a disgruntled electorate that has lost confidence in his leadership. To realize its potential, this majority must simultaneously disrupt the government’s agenda and put in place a workable alternative.
Its capacity to foil the Netanyahu agenda relies on its ongoing mobilizing power. It has proven its viability in recent weeks, despite the commencement of talks under the auspices of President Herzog, increased security threats, Israel’s weakening position in the democratic world, and worsening economic conditions. But once the Knesset reconvenes in early May, it remains at a distinct disadvantage, lacking the numbers to prevent most government initiatives from passing into law.
Under these circumstances, it must offer a vision of a workable alternative and develop the means for its realization. That is no simple task, given the gap between the civil society base of the pro-democracy forces and the more hesitant moves made in recent weeks by the formal leadership of the key opposition parties (Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, which is soaring the polls, and Yair Lapid’s slightly weakened Yesh Atid party). This task is further complicated by differences in economic outlooks (Gantz and Lapid are proponents of the free market, Labor is social-democratic, and the Joint Arab List supports socialist measures), let alone on social issues and responsibility for long-standing ethnic and religiously-based inequities. While the large opposition parties have consistently backed the government on security matters, unrest among reservists may point to a growing distinction between the willingness to fight in defensive wars and a rising reluctance to participate in policing measures that favor Jewish supremacists at the expense of Palestinians.
Given the multiplicity of these nuances, it is hardly surprising that it has proven difficult to find conceptual coherence in this group, although the principles highlighted in Israel’s Declaration of Independence have become a rallying cry for the majority of the pro-democracy movement. In broad strokes, this has come to be interpreted as seeing Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the democratic state of all its citizens. Here, too, however, there are hues and shades of what this means for the standing of Palestinian citizens of Israel and for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, with the traditional two-state solution based on separation between Israel and the Palestinian territories a dominant theme.
This liberal viewpoint is gaining traction not only in traditional opposition circles, but also among some segments of the Likud constituency. The extent to which it can maintain its appeal in these quarters without losing its political cohesion as time progresses is open to question, unless a broad agreement is hammered out around liberal norms — a feat that has yet to be achieved despite multiple efforts. Such an eventuality would depend heavily on the ability of this bloc to thwart the unfolding government agenda, along with an increasing realization that a return to previous understandings may compound the current polarization, while resolving very little.
In this situation, a third possibility is beginning to surface, based on the understanding that both Palestinians and Jews populate the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and that they are here to stay. If they do not learn to find ways to live alongside and with each other, they will mutually implode. Galvanizing around the values of equality, freedom, and justice at the core of the democratic value-set, they are offended both by the institutionalized inequality between Palestinians and Jews that has come with prolonged Israeli control of the land and by concerted efforts to bring about Israel’s destruction. They are looking for a consensus based on rectifying past mistakes and constructing a common tomorrow.
This possibility is being pursued not only through formulating a shared discourse and exploring each other’s narratives and aspirations in frank and often painful dialogue groups, but also through developing new practices in shared spaces and setting the groundwork for non-violent forms of interaction. Such endeavors are sprouting up everywhere: in Jerusalem and throughout the land, in educational institutions, in neighborhoods, in professional associations and in interfaith settings, forging new and shifting coalitions. But the process of establishing a broad value-driven consensus inevitably relies on both the willingness to alter perceptions of the contextual reality and on the relative hold of passionately-held worldviews rooted in historical beliefs and experiences.
In the coming days, the end of the Ramadan and the marking of Israel’s 75th anniversary (and by extension the Palestinian Nakba) will coincide. Proponents of each approach to a “broad consensus” will gather to mourn their dead and recommit to the future. Official Israel will convene at gravesites and together launch the holiday’s festivities. Liberal Israelis will mourn their dead in their own way this year, and offer new settings to celebrate Israel’s creation. And those striving for a shared, respectful, diverse, and egalitarian future will join Palestinian and Israelis of the Forum of Bereaved Families and Combatants for Peace in their ongoing quest for a joint horizon.
What is different this year is that the need for a broad consensus is acknowledged and more pressing than ever.