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OpinionIsrael at War

Even before the guns fall silent: Israel’s political debates reawaken

Though the end of the war is not yet in sight, the country is witnessing re-awakened political debate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog attend a plenary session at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog attend a plenary session at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

As 2024 began, the Israeli war effort in the Gaza Strip changed in nature (see Israel Shifts Tactics in Gaza), with the focus shifting to the battles in the central and southern areas and to special forces operations against Hamas’s immense tunnel system. But the hostage situation remained unresolved, with 136 still held according to Israel’s count. The faces of the fallen continue to be at every Israeli doorstep and computer screen with the morning news.

Morale in the ranks of the fighting forces remains high, and the recognition that Hamas must be dismantled is still prevalent among the public at large. But at the same time, questions continue to be raised—in public and private discourse, in the traditional media, let alone in the busy and often bruising social networks—as to the ultimate purpose of the war and the direction in which the country is headed.

As a result, even though the end of the war is not yet in sight, the country is witnessing re-awakened political debates about the legitimacy of the present government, about the proper priorities in pursuing the war and about the “day after” in Gaza. And ultimately, about the need to translate both the bitter lessons of Oct. 7, and the remarkable resilience shown by Israeli society in response, into a new national covenant and a transformed political reality.

Quite early on in the war, there were calls for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to take full responsibility for the catastrophic failure of Oct. 7 and step down—which he refuses to do. Moreover, in late October he attempted to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the military and the intelligence services—for which he was forced to apologize. But his loyalists keep up the attacks on the “Deep State” (the military as well as the courts). For instance, one Likud Knesset member alleged that the IDF high command admitted to a terrible mistake in the Gaza war, in which three hostages were accidentally killed by Israeli forces, with the deliberate intent of demoralizing the public and bringing about the end of the fighting.

As these tensions persist, they feed an ongoing rift between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. In March 2023, Netanyahu fired Gallant when he warned against growing security dangers, only to be reinstated due to massive public pressure. Continuing tensions between the two impede the formulation of long-term policy toward the Gaza Strip and “the day after.” In early January, Gallant briefed the media about his own ideas—an end to Hamas rule, a “multinational task force” and coalition for reconstruction, local Palestinian authorities playing a role, and Israel free to act to foil terrorist activities. A leaked clarification from the Prime Minister’s Office swiftly followed: No such plans have been taken up, let alone approved, by the Cabinet. 

For Netanyahu, moreover, the political danger is that any plan which implies that Gaza will not be under Israeli control would run afoul of his right-wing coalition partners, who openly advocate the migration of the present population and the rebuilding of Jewish settlements in Gaza. The underlying political rivalry thus becomes a direct obstacle to the adoption of any coherent plan capable of countering the increasing American pressure to bring in the hapless Palestinian Authority as the government in Gaza once the fighting ends.

For this and other reasons, many among those who led the judicial reform protests in the first nine months of 2023 are considering the option of taking to the streets again to force a government change; a few have already done so. This significant political segment of Israeli society—on the left, center, and some even on the right—is sometimes referred to as the “anyone but Bibi” camp (with the Hebrew acronym RLB “Rak Lo Bibi”).

The protesters were initially preoccupied with the war. Some of its leaders, such as Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, went south to fight on Oct. 7. Others, calling themselves “Brothers in Arms,” set up supply centers or worked with those evacuated from their homes. Now some of them are speaking of taking to the streets again. 

Political tensions have also seeped into the debate over the hostage situation. The Hamas leadership, from their shelters underground, demand an end to the war and an Israeli withdrawal, as well as the release of all security prisoners held by Israel—in other words, an Israeli defeat—before the release of the hostages.

Some of Netanyahu’s fiercest detractors are also raising the call—“Bring Them Home Now”—which explains why this, too, has taken on a political coloring, alongside the natural sentiment and sense of pain that all or most Israelis share as the agony of the hostages and their families endures. Some of Israel’s most prominent political commentators write that they suspect that Netanyahu is prolonging the war—and refusing to accept Hamas’s terms—not on the strategic merits of the case but because he wants to put off the day of reckoning that is bound to come once the fighting ends. This accusation ignores the majority public support for the goal, also shared by the American administration, of dismantling Hamas. But reason is not always the driving force, on both sides of the divide, when passions run high, and Netanyahu’s own conduct helped feed them.

What do Netanyahu’s detractors seek? Some are putting forward a demand for an early election, perhaps as early as May 2024 (which would require the Knesset to disband itself soon). They pin their hopes on the persistent polls which give the present coalition 20 seats less in the next Knesset, while Benny Gantz and his centrist party seem set to win and take power. Others would settle—as opposition leader Yair Lapid recently suggested—for the personal replacement of Netanyahu by another Likud leader in the present Knesset. For any of these options to be realized, however, a significant number of Likud MKs would have to join the opposition in voting Netanyahu out. That’s not likely to happen, but the prospect keeps Netanyahu wary of any prominent or semi-independent voices within his own party. 

Meanwhile, tempers are fraying on the right, within Likud as well as among the two hard-right factions that Netanyahu’s majority in the Knesset may depend upon: Religious Zionism, led by Betzalel Smotrich, and Jewish Power, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir (both came under direct criticism from the Biden administration and others around the globe for their advocacy of reducing the present population in Gaza via voluntary emigration). They are also livid about Netanyahu’s decision to appoint former Chief Justice Aharon Barak to serve as the Israeli judge on the panel of the International Court of Justice, which is weighing South Africa’s accusation that the war in Gaza amounts to genocide.

Judge Barak is a bête noire of the right, portrayed as the architect of left-wing judicial activism. For the right, the selection of Barak indicates that Netanyahu has now given up on judicial reform. Indeed, the Supreme Court struck down (by the slim majority of 8 to 7) the one legislative act of the reform package passed thus far by the Knesset—a law forbidding the Supreme Court to use the standard of “reasonableness” in determining the legality of government decisions and appointments. Netanyahu’s response amounted to little more than a sigh, although his right-wing allies and some of his Likud colleagues reacted sharply. 

The court also ruled—by a vote of 12 to 3—on a far-reaching issue of the balance between branches of government. The law banning the reasonableness standard was an amendment to a basic law (the 1994 Basic Law on the Judiciary). Basic Laws are conceived of as building blocks for a future constitution. Thus before reviewing this law, the court took up the general issue of its ability to review basic laws and amendments to them, and decided that it could do so. This ruling further reduces the prospect for judicial changes, thus ending the coalition’s main project before the war broke out.

Do these setbacks at the polls and in the courts mean that the role of the right-wing parties will be marginalized in the post-war reality? Not likely. One indication of continuing strength is this: A large proportion of those killed in battle have come from West Bank settlements. The settlers may not be in a position to dictate policy post-war, but they may be able to mobilize public opinion against any notion of future evacuation of settlements in the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The need for unity as a lesson of Oct. 7 cuts both ways.

Originally published by The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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