Israel’s Existential Crisis

8 minute read
Keret is an Israeli writer known for his short stories and screenwriting. His books include Fly Already: Stories, The Seven Good Years, and several others.

In June, Israel’s Minister of Public Diplomacy shared with her Twitter followers a moving encounter from her recent visit to New York: “I walked out of the hotel and stood there drinking coffee while I waited for my car. The hotel doorman stood next to me and we had a chat. He knew I was an Israeli minister. And he said something very nice to me. He said, ‘You know what? You guys don’t need us anymore—we need you.’ When a New York hotel doorman tells me, ‘We need Israel for so many things—technology, intelligence, cyber, innovation’—if we’ve reached the point where a hotel doorman sees things that way, well, that means Israel is positioned in the American mindset as a mini-superpower.”

Personally, I’m pretty suspicious of geopolitical analyses offered by tip-hungry hotel doormen. I’d rather hear the opinions of presidents and vice presidents, even if they’re not such a great boost for my country. But that’s just me. The current messianic Israeli government, led by settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, has a different view of reality. The way they see it, Israel is not just a tiny state enjoying its brilliant branding as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” but “a light unto the nations.” And the inhabitants of Israel are not merely another nation—they are the chosen people, whom God loves more than anyone. More than even America and Donald Trump. That’s why at pro-government rallies in Israel you’ll find signs proclaiming “Fuck America!’ and “Fuck Biden!” and hear the Israeli Foreign Minister condescending to Kamala Harris as he explains that the Vice President of the United States doesn’t really understand the Israeli government’s anti-democratic judicial reform. Generally speaking, Israel’s peculiar government, with its through-the-looking-glass view of the world, sees the Biden Administration as little more than a hotel doorman whose job is to serve the chosen people while they wait for their ride to the Third Temple. After all, when the Messiah eventually does arrive, it’ll be the Israeli salvation government sitting beside him.

Nine months ago, on election night, Israelis were granted yet another right-wing government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Most of them believed it would be much like his previous ones, but they woke up the next morning to a barely coherent reality.

As Minister of National Security, which includes oversight of the police, Netanyahu appointed Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man with eight criminal convictions, including inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, and on whose wall hung a picture of the mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein, who carried out one of the most horrific hate crime in Israeli history. Ben-Gvir is now calling for more violent means to quell the anti-government protests, and yet he seems happy to defend the Jewish settlers who carried out a pogrom in a Palestinian village, where they burned houses and cars, insisting that “most of them are sweet children.” When the government minister in charge of the police guarantees his support, it’s no wonder that illegal settlement outposts and hate crimes against Palestinians are spreading like wildfire.

Netanyahu chose a familiar face for the position of Minister of Interior: Aryeh Deri, a veteran ultra-Orthodox politician who was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and sentenced to a three-year prison term. Last year he was handed down another conviction, this time for tax crimes. His ministerial appointment was ultimately revoked by the Supreme Court.

As soon as it was formed, the belligerent government’s members each set about promoting their respective outrageous agendas, few of which would stand up to the Declaration of Independence (the closest thing Israel has to a constitution) or the Supreme Court rulings. But never worry: the government has a handy solution for that impediment, too.

Protests against Netanyahu's judicial reform continue in the 32nd week
An aerial view shows Israeli protesters gather to march 'for judicial independence' at Kaplan street, after the coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed the controversial 'judicial reform' law in parliament in Tel Aviv, Israel on August 12, 2023. Protests started 32 weeks ago nationwide. Yair Palti-Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The coup being advanced by the government as a “reform” would establish a castrated judiciary in which judges are appointed solely by the sitting government. Absent a constitution, which is unlikely to suddenly appear, this would not be a genuine democracy, and would be powerless to hold back the messianic rightwing parties’ attempt to legislate a series of racist, homophobic, corrupt laws and to dominate the majority. Here is a partial list of laws that have been proposed: business owners who do not wish to serve LGBTQI+ or Arab customers because it goes against their faith will be allowed to refuse service. A woman who walks near the Western Wall wearing short sleeves will be subject to six months in prison. A person who tries to persuade a Jew to convert to a different religion will similarly be subject to a prison sentence. Bottom line: The foundations of the Third Temple and a Jewish theocracy are being laid by this government. The building of this temple will most likely be accompanied by a civil war and an exile of sorts. Judging by the first two temples, that's the default.

This government—Netanyahu’s sixth since he first took office in 1996—is a completely different creature than his previous ones. Currently standing trial for three separate cases of bribery and breach of trust, Netanyahu limped into this term in a vulnerable state, and no one is more shrewd than the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox when it comes to exploiting a weak spot. And so, instead of establishing policies and leading the way, Netanyahu is now more of a slippery salesman, struggling in vain to shed a sane light on the deranged decisions of his government. He gives interview after interview to media around the world, confidently proclaiming what the free world wants to hear—all of which is essentially the opposite of the current Israeli condition.

Netanyahu clearly knows that the greatest existential threat to Israel is the Iranian nuclear program, and that in order to contend with it effectively, Israel must strengthen its ties with the West and with other states in the Middle East. But this is challenging when your government ministers issue racist statements and vocally encourage—or at best, silently turn a blind eye to—the burning of Palestinian villages and the wholesale legitimization of illegal Jewish outposts in Palestine. How do you convince your Jordanian neighbors that we’re a peace-seeking country when your Minister of Finance delivers an official speech while a map beside him displays the Biblical Land of Israel, with parts of Jordan annexed?

Iran will have to wait while the Jewish-supremacy government continues to oppress hundreds of thousands of protestors who have been taking to the streets for six months straight, and systematically incites against the courts, the army, the police, the media, academia, and anyone else it dislikes.

The way it looks now, Netanyahu has lost control. His messianic partners are in charge now in control and they are doing everything in their power to keep this bitterly-divided country burning: violent demonstrations by Druze residents in the north of the country; an ongoing plague of homicides among the Arab citizens of Israel, with more than a hundred victims this year; raging inflation and a sky-high cost of living; chaos and lack of governability in occupied Palestine; and a prime minister who continues to explain to the foreign press, in perfect English, that everything is hunky dory and there’s nothing to worry about.

This is Israel’s moment of truth—no less than that. If until recently people could delude themselves into thinking this is just a family feud, that will be resolved in a friendly way, Netanyahu's government has made sure it will turn into an all-out war. The first law to pass as part of the reform, limiting the power of the supreme court, sent hundreds of thousands protesters to the street and prompted hundreds of reserve-duty pilots and special units soldiers to suspended their service. The government, on the other side, keeps their zero tolerance and zero empathy attitude, pushing the police to respond aggressively and violently, and consistently inciting against anyone who stands in their way. In Jewish history two temples were burnt because of internal wars among Jews. I would advise our current messianic fundamentalist regime to start building the third one quickly, until then we'll have to settle for the burning of Israel's democratic future.

Within months, the country could find itself living under a political system lacking any checks and balances, where elected officials in the ruling coalition can do whatever grabs their fancy, with no judicial authority or constitution that has the power to curb them. In this time of crisis, any self-proclaimed “friend of Israel” must ask themself what sort of country they wish to support: a democratic Israel striving for equality and freedom, or a corrupt, racist, homophobic Israel aiming to establish the Third Temple.

-Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

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