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The Altalena Affair: Is Israel heading towards a civil war?

June 25, 2024 at 8:52 am

Thousands holding banners and Israeli flags gather during a demonstration at Likud Party HQ to demand a hostage swap deal with Gaza and the dismissal of the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel on June 22, 2024 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on 18 June, “There will be no civil war [in Israel],” he might be wrong. Netanyahu’s statement was made in the context of the growing popular protests in Israel, especially following the long-anticipated resignations of several War Cabinet Ministers, including Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, both of whom are former chiefs of staff in the Israeli army.

These resignations did not necessarily isolate Netanyahu, as the man’s popularity rests almost entirely on the support of the right and the far right. However, the move further illustrated deep and growing rifts in Israeli society, which could ultimately take the country from political upheaval to an actual civil war.

Divisions in Israel cannot be viewed in the same way as other political polarisations currently rife within Western democracies.

This assertion is not necessarily linked to the legitimate view that, at its core, Israel is not an actual democracy but, rather, due to the fact that Israel’s political formation is unique.

The story began long before the current Gaza war. In February 2019, the leaders of three Israeli parties formed a coalition, Kahol Lavan, or “Blue and White”. Two of the coalition’s founders, Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon, were also military men, respected widely among the country’s powerful military establishment, and thus society at large. Despite their relative electoral successes, though, they still failed to dislodge Netanyahu from office. So, they took to the streets.

Taking the conflict to the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities was a decision not taken lightly. It followed the collapse of a strange government coalition, cobbled up by all of Netanyahu’s enemies, unified around the single objective of ending the right and far-right rule over the country. Naftali Bennet’s failure in this was simply the last straw.

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The terms “right” and “far-right” may give the impression that the political conflict in Israel is essentially ideological. Although ideology does play a role in Israeli politics, anger at Netanyahu and his allies is largely motivated by the feeling that the new right in Israel is attempting to reconfigure the political nature of the country.

So, starting in January 2023, hundreds of thousands of Israelis launched unprecedented mass protests that lasted until the start of the Israeli war on Gaza. The initial collective demand of the protesters, supported by Gantz and a who’s who of the Israeli military and liberal elites, was to prevent Netanyahu from altering the political balances of power that have governed Israeli society for the past 75 years. With time, the demands, however, turned into the collective chant for regime change.

The issue was largely discussed in the media as a political rift resulting from Netanyahu’s wishes to marginalise Israel’s judicial institution for personal reasons, but its roots, which threatened a civil war, were quite different.

The story of the potential Israeli civil war is as old as the Israeli state itself, and recent comments by Netanyahu suggesting otherwise, are yet another false claim by the prime minister. Indeed, on 16 June, Netanyahu lashed out at rebellious military generals, stating that, “We have a country with an army and not an army with a country.” In truth, though, Israel was founded through armed conflict, and has been sustained through armed conflict.

From the very beginnings of the state, the Israeli military has had a special status in Israeli society.

There has been an unwritten contract that gave army generals a special and often a central seat in political decision-making. The likes of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and others, including the main founder of Israel, David Ben Gurion, all reached the helm of Israeli politics because of their military affiliations.

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However, Netanyahu changed all of this when he began to restructure Israel’s political institutions to keep the military marginal and politically disempowered. In doing so, he basically violated the main pillar of Israel’s political balance, which started in 1948.

Even before Israel finished the task of ethnically cleansing the Palestinian people during the Nakba, the nascent country almost immediately began a civil war. As Ben Gurion issued an order regarding the formation of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) on 26 May, 1948, some Zionist militias, including the Irgun and Lehi (the Stern Gang), fought to preserve a degree of political independence.

That was the start of the so-called Altalena Affair, when the Haganah-dominated IDF tried to block a shipment of weapons on board the cargo vessel the Altalena intended for the Irgun, then under the leadership of Menachem Begin who, in 1967, became Israel’s prime minister. The confrontation was deadly. It resulted in the killing of many members of the Irgun, mass arrests and the shelling of the ship itself.

References to the Altalena Affair are heard quite frequently in Israeli media debates these days, as the Israeli war on Gaza is splintering an already divided society. This division is compelling the military to abandon the historical balance that was achieved following that mini-civil war, which could have ended Israel’s future as a state only days after its formation.

The internal Israeli conflict over Gaza is, indeed, not just about Gaza, Hamas or Hezbollah, but the future of Israel itself. If the Israeli army finds itself scapegoated for 7 October and the assured failed military campaigns that followed, it will have to decide between accepting its indefinite marginalisation or clashing with the political institution. If the latter is the option chosen, a civil war might be a real possibility.

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