A five-alarm fire in Israel

Dan Perry
4 min readDec 29, 2022
Image by Dave Hoefler via Unsplash

Israel’s new far-right government is being welcomed the all the joy of a five-alarm fire by half the population and by many of the country’s traditional friends around the world. Its enemies might well rejoice at what looks like a significant step toward self-immolation.

The natural inclination of sober-minded people is to dismiss this type of view as hysteria; anger by a losing side can always be attributed to bad sportsmanship. But this case is different, because Israel is that rare example of a country that faces genuine existential threats (not even counting Iran) and is so deeply divided over how to address them that the issue transcends politics.

To understand the agitation, consider the following:

  • The new coalition is truly seeking to dismantle the edifice of liberal democracy and turn Israel into a version of Hungary. It wants to pass an “override clause” which will enable parliament to cancel decisions of the supreme court (by a simple majority) — the end of judicial oversight and the onset of a dictatorship of the majority in which every individual’s rights are hostage to politicians’ whims. It wants to make key civil servants into political appointees and politicize judicial appointments, and may seek to shutter the journalistically feisty public broadcast company. Down this path lies fake democracy.
  • If Israel does not separate itself from the bulk of the West Bank and its 3 million Palestinians who cannot vote it will become irreversibly a binational country where Jews dominate non-democratically. There are rising expectations of a renewed Palestinian uprising. Rather than keep the door open to peace, the new government will add Jewish settlers and has put an extreme ultranationalist in charge of the effort. Down this path lies an Israeli version of Yugoslavia or Lebanon.
  • The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community now constitutes a fifth of the Jews and has seven children per family — depending on child allowances, refusing to teach its high schoolers math, science and English, and insisting male adults spend their lives in religious study receiving salaries from the taxpayer. Rather than move to reverse the negative incentives to work, as the previous government tried to do, the new one is doubling the stipends for Torah study. The religious parties are also pressing to shut down activity for everyone else on the Sabbath. Down this path lies economic collapse, a flight of the secular Jews, and a Jewish version of Iran.
  • Netanyahu, on trial for bribery, sits atop a Cabinet that features genuine absurdities: the interior minister (Arye Deri) is a serial convict who needed a special law passed to enable his appointment; the national security minister (Itamar Ben-Gvir) is a career brute who has several convictions to his name including on charges of supporting terrorism; the new finance minister (Bezalel Smotrich) has stated that he believes that rather than capitalism or socialism finances should be run by the logic of the Torah. A obsessive homophobe named Avi Maoz, known for his advocacy of gay conversion therapy, is now in charge of extracurricular education; there is serious talk about eliminating legislation that attempts to prevent discrimination, which has the gay community up in arms. Down this path lies a backward banana republic.

Forget about talk that this is democracy.

First, a quarter of the people controlled by Israel’s government are the non-citizen West Bank Palestinians (despite the existence of their toothless and basically municipal Palestinian Authority, it is Israel that rules them). Second, many of the voters of Netanyahu’s Likud do not actually want the above-described scenario. And most critically, one-half of the citizens voted with the new opposition.

The reason why liberal Yair Lapid handed over the reins to Netanyahu today is because of an incompetent campaign. Inter alia, his side somehow allowed two critical splits — in the Joint Arab List and in the Israeli left — that caused two parties to just miss the electoral threshold and ended up wasting 6% of the vote.

The horrified half of Israel’s citizens includes the vast majority of Israeli taxpayers and accounts for almost the entirely of the economic and technological miracle that has been successfully and rightly branded as “Start-Up Nation.” If the current dynamic continues, expect mass emigration.

Lunacy and fanaticism have always featured prominently on the Israeli right, but in the past Netanyahu has been able to suppress his allies’ demands by threatening to instead form a majority coalition with centrist parties. In the past, once centrists lost elections they tended to amenable to forming “unity” governments. The current fire-sale results from the fact that this avenue has been closed off to Netanyahu: the center-left now boycotts him as illegitimate, on account of the corruption and his feverish incitement against the legal system (and basically any opposition).

I suspect, as the flames rise higher all around them in coming months, the resolve of these centrists will be severely tested. Netanyahu himself could hardly be more secular and surely understands the disaster over which he is presiding; he is so clever and cynical that he is probably deliberately fanning these flames in order to create pressure on Lapid to offer to step in and take the place of the far right.

That would be an excruciating compromise, and a Faustian Bargain at best. But then again, the house is on fire, and that has the tendency to focus a rational person’s mind.

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.