“This could have ended in murder,” Sara Netanyahu said last week after being besieged for several hours at her Tel Aviv hairdresser by left-wing protesters. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, notorious for a Marie Antoinette attitude towards the help and, some believe, the country, was unquestionably and rightfully terrified, though it seems doubtful that the mob would actually have killed her.
Nonetheless, her remark struck me as painfully ironic, because something identical was said the last time Israel was roiled by comparable civil unrest.
Thirty years ago, it was the right that set the streets aflame, marching in their hundreds of thousands against the Oslo Accords and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s peace gambit with the PLO and Yasser Arafat. The incitement against Rabin was overwhelming, branding him a traitor and a murderer, and according to Ehud Barak’s autobiography, at one point then-Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer pounded on the cabinet room table and bellowed, “This will end in a murder!”
He turned out to be right, of course. It “ended” in Rabin’s murder by a right-wing extremist.
Today, the irony of this is almost unbearable. Rabin’s assassin was an admirer of Baruch Goldstein, the Kahanist who committed the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994. Now an admirer (or former admirer) of Goldstein, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, is at the heights of power.
The masses in the streets are no longer right-wing activists like Ben-Gvir himself once was, but the stolid middle-class left, which has been largely dormant for the past 20 years—with the one exception of the 2011 social justice protests, which were officially apolitical.
And it is the wife of the most successful right-wing politician in Israeli history who is pounding on the table and declaring that it will all end in a murder.
All of this gives the impression that Israel has come full circle.
History is driven by irony, and so now it is the right—rather than the Labor left—that is the establishment and the natural party of government, having ruled Israel for most of the last three decades.
In Rabin’s government, the extremist parties pushing for radical change in Israeli society were post-Zionists like Meretz. Today, it is the religious right in the persons of Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.
The object of the street’s rage is not a venerable Labor Party stalwart, but the prince of Revisionist Zionism, who himself led the opposition to Rabin’s peace efforts and, some believe, went too far in doing so.
All of this is undoubtedly worrisome. The last time Israel was so passionately divided and the streets riven by the outraged, a prime minister was murdered. We should pray that Sara Netanyahu is wrong, but nonetheless, the general impression is that Israel’s social fabric is badly frayed and threatens to fly apart.
Indeed, I recently asked a left-wing friend of mine what would happen if the judicial reforms go through. He shrugged and said, “Maybe we’ll split.”
In other words, secular, moderate, middle-class Israel, the Israel of the Start-Up Nation and those who huddle behind the Green Line, will simply break away from the disputed territories and leave them to the national-religious Israelis who want to settle and annex them. Thus, there will be a secular-democratic State of Israel alongside some kind of “State of Judea” ruled by Torah law.
This fantasy was striking, not so much because it was unrealistic but rather because of my friend’s indifference to the possibility. Let them go their own way, he was saying. As long as they leave us alone, who cares?
Things have reached the point, in other words, that one side of the Israeli divide is relatively sanguine about seceding from the other side, and that other side may well see things the same way. There are now two kinds of Israelis, and perhaps they cannot live together, so an amicable divorce may be preferable to a potential civil war.
Yet, at least from my perspective in famously left-wing Tel Aviv—where people should be angriest—Israel does not feel like it is on the verge of such a rupture. On a quotidian level, the country is still working, people are still interacting without much rancor and the daily toil of existence goes on.
When the political situation is brought up, one usually encounters a long, drawn-out Jewish sigh and a wave of the hand: Best not to talk about it. It feels as if the Israeli silent majority simply wants the two sides to sit down, hammer out a compromise and be done with it, but also knows that this is supremely unlikely to happen.
We must live, then, with irony. The last time this happened it resulted in terrible things, but Israeli society stood the test and survived. Today, something similar is happening, with all the roles reversed, and it could well result in terrible things, but Israeli society seems to be standing the test once again.
Perhaps, if we are lucky, this will end not in a murder but a return to some kind of sanity. The left and right may accept a mutual compromise on judicial reform. Unable to govern due to domestic chaos and his rogue coalition partners, Netanyahu may resign and usher in a new Likud leader who will be able to work with the opposition. The protest movement may simply fizzle out, exhausted by its own outrage.
There are many possibilities in an Israel come full circle, but let us pray that, this time, things do not end the same way.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.
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