Israel’s Long War Between the Generals and Extremists is not Going Away – Jonathan Cook 3/29/23


Israel edged closer to civil war over the weekend than at any point in its history. By Monday night, in a bid to avert chaos, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to put a temporary halt to his plans to neuter the Israeli courts.

By then, city centres had been brought to a standstill by angry mass protests. The country’s attorney general had declared Netanyahu to be acting illegally. Crowds had besieged the parliament building in Jerusalem. Public institutions were shuttered, including Israel’s international airport and its embassies abroad, in a general strike. That was on top of a near-mutiny in recent weeks from elite military groups, such as combat pilots and reservists.

The crisis culminated with Netanyahu sacking his defence minister on Sunday evening after Yoav Gallant warned that the legislation was tearing apart the military and threatening Israel’s combat readiness. Gallant’s dismissal only intensified the fury.

The turmoil had been building for weeks as Netanyahu’s so-called “judicial overhaul” moved closer to the statute books.

At the end of last week, he managed to pass a first measure, which shields him from being declared unfit for office – a critical matter given that the prime minister is in the midst of a corruption trial. But the rest of his package has been put on pause. That includes provisions giving his government absolute control over the appointment of senior judges and the power to override Supreme Court rulings.

It is hard to see a simple way out of the impasse. Even as Netanyahu bowed before the weight of the backlash on Monday, the pressure began mounting on his own side.

Far-right groups launched a wave of angry counter-demonstrations, threatening violence against Netanyahu’s opponents. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the police minister and leader of the fascist Jewish Power party, initially vowed to bring down the government if Netanyahu did not press ahead with the legislation.

But in the end, his acquiescence to a delay was bought at a typically steep price: a National Guard will be established under Ben-Gvir’s authority. In practice, the settler leader will get to run his own fascist, anti-Palestinian militias, paid for by the Israeli taxpayer.

Lack of democracy

Fancifully, coverage of the protests continues to frame them simplistically as a battle to save “Israeli democracy” and “the rule of law”. `

“The brutality of what’s happening is overwhelming,” one protester told the BBC. But if the protests were chiefly about democracy in Israel, the large minority of Palestinians living there, a fifth of the population, would have been the first on the streets.

They have a highly degraded form of citizenship, giving them inferior rights to Jews. They overwhelmingly stayed home because the protests weren’t advancing any conception of democracy that embraces equality for them.

Netanyahu has not been trying to destroy ‘Israeli democracy’. He has been richly exploiting the lack of it

Over the years, international human rights groups have slowly come to acknowledge this fundamental lack of democracy, too. They now describe Israel as what it always was: an apartheid state.

In fact, it is only because Israel lacks in-built democratic controls and human rights safeguards that Netanyahu was in any kind of position to bulldoze plans through for the judiciary’s emasculation.

Israel’s political system permits – by design – tyrannical rule by government, without decisive checks or balances. Israel has no bill of rights, or second chamber, or provision for equality, and the government can invariably call on a parliamentary majority.

The lack of oversight and democratic accountability is a feature, not a bug. The intent was to free Israeli officials to persecute Palestinians and steal their land without needing to justify decisions beyond a claim of “national security”.

Netanyahu has not been trying to destroy “Israeli democracy”. He has been richly exploiting the lack of it.

The only flimsy counterweight to government tyranny has been the Supreme Court – and even it has been relatively supine, fearful of weakening its legitimacy through interference and attracting a full-frontal political assault. Now that moment may be just around the corner.

Culture war

A superficial reading of events is that the growing protests are a response to Netanyahu’s weaponising of the law for his own personal benefit: to stop his corruption trial and keep himself in power.

But though that may be his primary motivation, it is not the main reason his far-right coalition partners are so keen to help him get the legislation passed. They want the judicial overhaul as badly as he does.

This is really the culmination of a long-festering culture war that is in danger of tipping into a civil war on two related but separate fronts. One concerns who has ultimate authority to manage the occupation and control the terms of the Palestinians’ dispossession. The second relates to who or what a Jewish society should answer to: infallible divine laws or all-too-human laws.

A burgeoning theocratic, settler community believes it finally has enough muscle to displace the institutionalised power of the military-security elite

There is a reason the streets are awash with Israeli flags, wielded equally fervently whether by Netanayhu’s opponents or his supporters. Each side is fighting over who represents Israel.

It is about which set of Jews get to play tyrant: law by the generals, or law by religious street thugs. …

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