Normalizing violence spells the end for Israeli democracy
Israelis are enmeshed in a confrontational cycle of fear and anger just a few short weeks after Benjamin Netanyahu prevailed at the polls, at the head of a nationalist-religious bloc which is still in the process of coalition formation. The victors in the recent elections triumphed on a wave of trepidation prompted by a reality of pervasive violence and perceived impossibility to govern. Their opponents, made up of the other half of the population, are equally afraid of the violence that the incoming government is already promoting through its personal composition and its declared policies. The thread uniting the vying sides is a common preoccupation with the widespread violence in various forms that has metastasized throughout the land.
But here their ways part. They diverge on the causes and the effects of the ongoing violence, just as they differ on its remedies and their consequences. This confusion is the most recent — and terrifying — articulation of the deep contradictions that have been part and parcel of Israeli life since its inception and that now threaten to fragment it irreparably. These must be addressed directly within the historical context in which they have developed. This is the job of any responsible government concerned with the future of the state and the wellbeing of all its citizens.
Examples of the violence permeating the country today are everywhere apparent. The escalation in the number of armed confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in recent months has been nothing short of alarming, both formally and informally. This weekend, an Israeli soldier brutally assaulted a Jewish protestor and another promised more of the same, in a series of scuffles in Hebron that continue to rivet the media and divide the country. The resort to force has been replicated in a variety of ways within Israel, beginning with another spurt of gang-related killings, more instances of brutal gender violence, car burnings, property destruction, street violence, and umpteen cases of bloody road rage. These incidents are perhaps the most concrete expression of an unraveling of the most fundamental rules of the democratic order.
It is almost a truism that democracy and political violence do not go together. The aim of democratic regimes is to find ways to govern by barring violence as a form of acceptable interaction between citizens. This does not mean that democratic states totally renounce its use, but they allow it only to prevent threats to their very existence or to counter violent movements that openly reject the democratic process in pursuit of other goals. When democracies fail to constrain violence, they leave the door open to its spread and, ultimately, to their own self-destruction.
Israel is moving uncomfortably close to such an outcome. As time has progressed, especially after the 1967 assumption of control over Palestinian lands and lives, the line between defense against existential threats and maintaining internal security has become increasingly blurred. Successive governments encouraged the settlement enterprise and established a dual legal system for Jews and Palestinians in these areas. This process was expedited after the coalescence of Netanyahu’s right wing-religious coalition in 2015. And in 2021, just after the fourth round of elections, Israeli-Palestinian violence spilled over into the heart of Israel, and has since been compounded by a spurt of attacks, which were then masterfully manipulated by the Likud and its allies to undermine the diverse Bennett-led government, though the attacks were not easily attributed to any single national, religious, ethnic, or geographic group or location.
The mark of approval granted by the Likud to these blatantly anti-Arab and anti-liberal leaders is a turning point in three major respects. First, it legitimizes groups that deny equal rights to all citizens and those who promote exclusion of their detractors by any means at their disposal. They have not only employed force to challenge the authority of law enforcement bodies within Israel, but have openly defied the IDF when it suited their cause. With the conclusion of some of the coalition agreements — most notably with Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party, set to control an expanded “national security” portfolio, as well as the sensitive Negev and Galilee ministry with expanded authority over a host of enforcement agencies, along with the openly racist, misogynous, and homophobic ultra-right Noam faction headed by Avi Maoz, who is to be appointed a deputy minister in charge of Jewish identity in the Prime Minister’s Office — this transformation is now being institutionalized and will be completed when the negotiations with Smotrich’s trimmed-down Religious Zionist faction are concluded. It will be further entrenched in legislation to give it an aura of respectability.
Second, these results mean that those who have gained political traction by provoking violence are now being empowered to formally exercise it in the name of the state. This is a glaring example of the use of democratic means to forward patently undemocratic goals. Attempts to wrap these moves in democratic terms are both disingenuous and misleading. The claim that the victory at the polls by definition is democratic disregards the threat of the tyranny of any majority which disregards minority rights. It also distorts the most fundamental pillar of democratic government: that individual and collective freedoms can be assured only through the restraint of the abuse of power through a series of checks that prevent its concentration in the hands of any one group or body.
The planned politicization of key institutions (including the judiciary, legal advisers in government authorities, central institutions), along with the emasculation or dismantlement of others (such as progressive civil society groups, governmental watchdogs, portions of the media, and the reconstructed public broadcasting authority) stymies political criticism, but hardly silences dissent. The combined result of these proposed changes leads both to the rupture of institutional checks and balances, and to the decline of public oversight and the unraveling of accountability. This is nothing short of a regime change. No democracy, already seriously enfeebled by control over another people against their will, can survive such measures.
Third, these steps normalize violence in the public sphere by dismissing the foundational precept of democratic states: the non-violent resolution of disagreements as a means of maintaining socio-political cohesion. The severe implications of such a situation for the asymmetrical Israeli-Palestinian relationship are truly incendiary. Its ramifications for state coherence — and especially for the concept of governability so touted by its proponents — are equally disconcerting. Pursuing this course may induce state disintegration, with calamitous repercussions for all involved.
It is possible to avert such a bleak outcome. This depends mostly on Benjamin Netanyahu, who has magnified and legitimized Israel’s racists and religious extremists, granted them undue power over the most delicate aspects of public life, and condoned their recourse to violence as a means of establishing control. If he really cares about Israel and its future, he can refuse their demands and return his mandate to form a government to the president. It depends also, however, on all freedom-seeking Israelis — who must come together to confront their past and forge an alternative path to a shared and equitable future. Failure to do so means that collectively, the winners and the losers of the recent elections will go down in history as the people responsible for Israel’s dismemberment.