A look at the tough scenarios facing Israel, where like in Poland, Hungary and Turkey there is a major assault happening on liberal democracy
In a reflection of the still-special relationship between the United States and Israel, a Joint Session of Congress will convene today to hear a speech by Israel’s President Yitzhak Hertzog. This head of state, a well-meaning liberal apparatchik, should not be confused with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government is currently endangering that relationship by trying to ram through enact authoritarian reforms against massive street opposition.
Indeed, this week’s New York Times featured one of those columns by Tom Friedman in which an American president deploys implausible deniability by saying the unsayable through a third party. Friedman wrote that Biden summoned him to the White House to tell him Netanyahu must stop the reform train or face a rupture with the United States: “Don’t pass anything this important without a broad consensus, or you are going to break something (in) your relationship with America’s democracy, and you may never be able to get it back.” Let’s just say that Israel does need the United States.
Israel’s civil society, which has filled the streets weekly with hundreds of thousands of protesters since the plans were announced in January, can be rightly accused of trying to compel foreign pressure against the government. You do what you have to when your house is burning to the ground, but that kind of move never plays well in Peoria.
Still, it is useful for Israeli voters to know the consequences of decisions. As I wrote a few weeks ago in the context of Uganda’s law essentially outlawing homosexuality: Countries may have the right to do what they want, but other countries also have the right to withhold friendship and collaboration. So it was good of Biden to clarify.
In his US visit, Herzog issued the usual platitudes about how the protests show Israel is a vibrant democracy and as such shares values with the United States. That is true, but it is also a democracy at a crossroads.
It has a culture war between liberalism and illiberalism as toxic as the one in the United States, without the same constitutional safeguards and with a government trying to engineer unchecked power. The right wing is dragging it over a cliff by melding the country (through Jewish settlement) to the West Bank’s millions of Palestinians and encouraging the rapid growth of a religious autonomy internally when many students do not study math or science and emerge unemployable.
This dynamic is also placing Israel at odds with the younger generation in the United States, with the Democratic Party, and even with most US Jews — an overwhelming majority of whom are liberal.
It may shock some people to even read about the scenarios that could emerge, but here’s a rundown about what they realistically are (friends of Israel may need a stiff drink before).
Demographic victory for the religious right. This is the scenario many people expect: that because of the tremendous birthrate of Israel’s ultra-religious Haredim (a fifth of the country now, averaging seven children per family) the forces of religious authoritarianism will prevail, and liberal Israel will succumb in resignation, allowing the country to become a religion-dominated autocracy and bastion of Jewish supremacy shunned by the West. In the classic scenario the broadly-defined liberals accept their status as a minority and fight for the occasional pub license in Tel Aviv. I think this scenario has little chance of happening — if only because of the liklihood of the next scenario.
Mass emigration of the liberals. These liberals, who are at least half and perhaps somewhat more than half of the 10 million population, will not agree to live in a country that is not democratic (because of a permanent oppression of the Palestinians) and increasingly resembles Iran (because of the Haredim and allied nationalist-religious extremists). If none of their efforts succeed, they will abandon the country, exploiting their employability abroad and plausibility as digital nomads. Already about a fifth of Israelis have foreign passports, and the number is rising all the time as people prepare, quietly, for this contingency. My guess is that the rump, religious, impoverished Israel that remains, which would retain little of the excellence of Israel today, will eventually be overrun by the Palestinians.
A split in the right that changes the game. But there are also scenarios that enable classic Zionism to be saved. The most desirable one, from the perspective of those yearning to preserve Israel as it is, is for a significant proportion of the one-quarter of Israelis who support Netanyahu’s Likud to seek to break their alliance with the Haredim and the far-right. There are some modest signs of this happening as a result of the current government’s policies. If that continues, it could enable a strong non-right government to take action to save the country: ending settlement of the West Bank and carefully seeking partition, and upending the arrangement with the Haredim that incentivizes the current dynamic. This would mean an end to child subsidies, salaries for studying religion, funding to schools that do not teach a core curriculum, make-work “jobs” in the religious bureaucracy and myriad dispensations.
Partition into a Western liberal state and a religious-authoritarian state. The coastal strip from the Tel Aviv area to the Haifa area contains half the population and would be an overwhelmingly liberal, secular, Western-oriented, highly prosperous and almost totally Jewish state. It accounts for the overwhelming majority of the GDP, and it is carrying the other parts of the country with which it is in increasingly bitter conflict. This could happen in a moderate option, involving federalization or cantonization — but I can also imagine genuine partition. Were it not for the difficulty of defending such a smaller country from attack, it is almost a no-brainer that the coast needs to break off from the rest of the country. The people in Jerusalem and the periphery would be free to be just as “conservative” as they want, and good luck with the Palestinians.
Civil war. This scenario is too horrifying to contemplate, so most Israelis do not. Yet Israel has the classic characteristics of societies that are at risk of civil war: lack of a consensus on power-sharing arrangements, deep-seated ethnic and religious divisions, and regional and sectarian tensions. There is a constant drift of people from the right to the center, in direct proportion to the right’s drift away from democracy and liberalism, but that is matched by the constant birthrate-driven expansion of the religious sectors, maintaining something of a political deadlock. This dynamic, should it continue, means that in the end it will be almost purely the secular versus the religious, and their visions of the world are not compatible. This is more likely than people think. And it could be the way partition happens.
Military coup. For decades, the security establishment has been far more dovish than politicians and the public. That is not a conspiracy — it’s because the military, Mossad, Shin Bet and even the police are to date meritocracies and their intelligent leaders (none Haredi, most secular) know the facts on the ground. Their understanding aligns with that of their equivalents in the business, scientific, academic, and media elite. If the right-religious alliance stays together and remains in power, we can expect this to change as it begins to appoint loyalist officers, indifferent to the damage to Israel’s security. But for now, the security services are led by people who are clearly distressed at the country’s direction. If the government takes Israel to a place in which it can no longer be considered a democracy, that eliminates a main argument against a military coup. It’s a low probability scenario, because the ranks of the military are of course split — but I would not consider it impossible, given the extreme nature of the danger to Israel and the sheer level of democratic dysfunction.
And by the way: Even without the Netanyahu government installing authoritarianism, a country in which a quarter of the effective population — the West Bank Palestinians — cannot vote and has no citizens’ rights is simply not a democracy.
It gives me no pleasure to paint so dark a landscape. Since the right has a built-in advantage and has been in charge about three-quarters of the time since 1977, it would be great if its vision for the country were not catastrophic. But I have spent my professional life in unsentimental pursuits like technology and international journalism. It makes you look at the numbers and the facts.
So I urge all Israelis and all friends of Israel, whether or not they serve in the US Congress, to survey the scenarios above and choose which they dislike the least.