Jordan Himel
In search of peace in our times

The Fall of Israeli Democracy

Richard the Lionheart at British Parliament in London.
Richard the Lionheart at British Parliament in London.

Is Israel a failing democracy or has it already fallen? This elected government knows full well that as soon as the war has ended or a truce, however temporary it may be, is agreed, its leaders will be pushed face first out of office. The pressure to take accountability for its failure to protect Israel from the very sort of harm meted by Hamas on that fateful, horrific day, is enormous. Israel is a pressure cooker with steam whistling at an ever-louder volume, its people ready to burst onto the streets to call for the figurative decapitation of this unrepresentative government.

It is entirely possible that there is an alternative reality in which war escalates and  an emergency government persists in wielding its unpopular authority. It may be Netanyahu’s intent to conflagrate the war by provoking Hezbollah and Iran and in doing so drag America and other aligned states, such as Saudi Arabia, into an expanding regional conflict.

Should the path of war be this government’s choice, can the people do anything about it? Many, if not the majority within the religious right believe that conflict will precede the coming of the Messiah. The fact that the settlers may be willing to trigger a civil war if forced to vacate their homes under terms of a two-state solution adds a layer of complexity and risk that could render the Biden Doctrine moot. In all democracies, some voices will always be more influential than others, but Israel suffers more acutely from that form of democratic deficit owing to its centralization of authority and a broken electoral system that consistently yields warped results. For these and many more reasons, Israel presents more difficulties than most others countries in terms of solving its political problems.

For Netanyahu, a man who has demonstrated a willingness to put his personal interests above those of the state, choosing peace would be choosing prosecution. His government would fall and he would almost certainly be voted out of office by a centrist coalition. The Supreme Court would not look favourably upon Netanyahu for his attempts to disempower it. Remaining in power would amount to kicking the can down the road, a strategy that Netanyahu has employed to great success for 16 years. For a leader who has succeeded in holding office for so long, why shouldn’t he try? Is this not the most rational path if considering self-interest above all others?

Israel is dangerously close to escalating a war with an adversary in Hezbollah that has the capability of hitting the country with warheads from north to south. With pressure rising from Biden’s camp, Netanyahu may choose, rather than be dragged into a process he philosophically doesn’t agree with, to wage war with Lebanon instead. Under such circumstances, the United States would continue to supply Israel with the armaments it requires at the very time that the demand for arms to be used in Gaza is falling because the job is almost done. The legitimacy of this war in Gaza – a war in which Israel has upped the ante of its doctrine of killing tenfold to killing 25 times the number of Palestinians as Israelis killed on 7 October – is being challenged worldwide. In he does not escalate war in Lebanon, Netanyahu will find his arm twisted behind his back under pressure to make a peace that will cause the collapse of his government and an ignominious end to his reign as Israel’s longest standing leader. There will be no get out of jail free card for Netanyahu.

The question today is whether Israel is still a democratic state insofar as the people’s will can be enforced through moral suasion, demonstration, or political or other methods as the day may bring, or, instead, has Israel become a fledgling autarchy where the keys to the country’s fate are in the hands of a man who sees his role as leading the state through divine privilege. The Rebbe Menachem Shneerson, in what is perceived by many to be prophecy, told Netanyahu that he had a special role to play in ushering in the age of the Messiah. The spirit of this sentiment is commonly shared within his base and is certainly so with his partners in government who believe that it will be in the flames of war and not in the winds of peace that the Messiah will come. Messianism is growing and there is little surprise why: Israel’s very existence is being threatened.

A fundamental problem with democracy is that it happens only periodically. In Israel, the result of elections has always been to hand the keys over to a band of coalition partners with the leader of the largest party in the bloc as driver, and on some occasions a co-driver arrangement is agreed. The hope and expectation is that the vehicle will be driven safely. If, heaven forbid, the people discover that the driver is negligent or that its occupants wish not for orderly government but instead to incite disorder, they can make as much noise and be however strategic and tactically coordinated as they wish and can be, but they cannot take the keys back on demand. Democracy affords the victors the liberty of discretionary rule.

If war with Hezbollah erupts, as long as the missiles rain down on the cities and reservists find themselves called to the northern front, Israel will remain locked in a multi-front war from which it may be difficult to extricate itself. Netanyahu is fighting for his life and may well believe that this is how it was intended. If that is his sentiment, a belief under the bravado that he has a special role to play in the most eventful moment in the history of the Jewish nation, then brace for a war greater than that just waged in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s career, in fact his life, has been a moon shot. Brother of a legendary fallen soldier and favoured son of the Rebbe, he has seen nothing but victory. He is not about to concede to any form of defeat. Why should he if he believes Shneerson’s prophecy, and why would his bloc fracture if the glue that binds the parties together is a common view in the biblical nature of their enterprise?

About the Author
Applying his interests in politics, economics, history and religion, Jordan writes about pathways to peace in Israel and the Middle East by analyzing the forces that motivate the parties to it.
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