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Will a civil war break out in Israel?

January 17, 2023 at 2:55 pm

People gather to stage a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to ‘weaken the judiciary’ and its far-right policies at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on January 14, 2023 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

Senior Israeli figures have warned recently of the possibility of a civil war, or what they call a “fratricidal war” between Jews. The catalyst for this is believed to be the growing strength of the extreme religious right-wing led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, Avi Maoz and the political hard-liner from the Likud, Justice Minister Yariv Levin. These extremists are in office after wringing substantial concessions from the Likud leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in return for their support for his coalition government. They hold extreme positions on issues of religion, the state, the army, society, politics, the judicial system, the identity of the state and the relationship with the Palestinians.

Do their statements and positions pose a real threat of civil war in Israel? Or are they nothing more than political posturing in the context of the defeat of the centre-left camp in Israel? Or is there something else behind it all?

Former Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence Benny Gantz is probably the most prominent figure to warn of the possibility of a fratricidal war. He made his comments in the wake of the announcement of judicial reform by the Netanyahu government. Law Professor and former President of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak said that if Levin’s plan for the judiciary is implemented fully, it will be “the beginning of the end of the third Temple”. There have also been statements by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Yedioth Ahronoth.

READ: Netanyahu ignores tens of thousands of protesters criticising his judicial overhaul

Meanwhile, a senior figure in the Otzma Yehudit party headed by Ben-Gvir, Brigadier General Zvika Fogel, called for the arrest of four opposition figures: former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Gantz, Yair Golan and Moshe Ya’alon. Netanyahu responded by saying, “In a democratic country, we do not arrest the heads of the opposition, just as we do not call ministers Nazis and a Jewish government the Third Reich; nor do we encourage civil disobedience among citizens.”

The current aggressive public discourse and debate taking place in Israel and the proposed fundamental judicial changes are the result of the deep practical and political changes that began more than two decades ago. The right-wing and far-right radical religious nationalists are on the rise in the government and the cabinet. However, they cannot deviate from the rules of the political system, which were established by the founding fathers of the occupation state, most of whom were secularists from the centre-left camp, led by David Ben-Gurion.

The right-wing sees its clear victory in the latest General Election as an opportunity to make profound changes in these rules, taking advantage of the election stalemates over the past few years and Netanyahu’s weakness. Although the chances of the right-wing bringing about important changes may seem high, they may not necessarily be as profound as the extremists want.

The next few months will be critical as far as the extent of the changes are concerned. In the meantime, the understanding between Netanyahu and his partners may not be fully operational. Nevertheless, even if they are partially implemented, they will be important.

Israel's newly appointed National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir stormed the courtyards of Al-Aqsa Mosque - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Israel’s newly appointed National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir stormed the courtyards of Al-Aqsa Mosque – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Strong statements about a “fratricidal war” between Jews have shocking connotations. They reflect the tension, verbal and physical aggression, and unprecedented polarisation between the secularists, including the centre-left and part of the right and liberal-right, and most of the religious parties, including the radical religious Zionists. We are witnessing a peak of the traditional rifts and splits in Israel between the secular and the religious, and the right and the left, but it does not mean that there is a serious likelihood of civil war, armed or otherwise. Saturday’s demonstration organised by the centre-left in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv may be one of the most important indicators of the direction and development of affairs in Israel.

READ: Gantz accuses Netanyahu of ‘coup d’état’ and pushing towards ‘civil war’

The expectation that there will be no “fratricidal war” and the likelihood that the political rift will intensify does not diminish the importance of what is happening and the effect on society, politics and the army, not least because the most likely outcome will be that some decisions and coalition agreements will be eased. In particular, this will affect the judicial reforms which are hostile to the courts, and changes in the government’s relationship with the army and policies with an international impact.

In any case, though, the occupation state and its deep contradictions will continue to be eroded unless serious changes are made, or the forces of liberation and democracy in Palestine and their supporters around the world seize this opportunity to be strengthened and expose further the mentality of the occupation state and its inherent racism. Doing so will deal harsh blows to Israel’s local, regional and international status.

Translated from Arabi21  Arabi21, 15 January 2023



The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.