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Israel at a crossroads

In one direction lie chaos and conflict, and in the other, possible reconciliation and peace.

Israelis watch a live screening of a court hearing on petitions against the government's amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Sept. 12, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Israelis watch a live screening of a court hearing on petitions against the government's amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Sept. 12, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Michael Oren
Michael Oren

On this Rosh Hashanah, perhaps more than any before it, Israel stands at a crossroads. In one direction lie chaos and conflict, and in the other, possible reconciliation and peace. Whether it turns away from the former path and follows the latter will depend on Israeli leaders both within and outside the government. Can they overcome their differences and unite to save the country from disaster? Will their love for Israel take precedence over their hatred for one another? Are they capable of avoiding what I’ve come to call the “Arian Principle”?

The principle was born of a question I once posed to the late professor Asher Arian, the American-born founder of the field of Israeli political science. “What is the one rule of Israeli politics that everyone needs to know?” I asked him.

His response was Hillel-esque. “Israeli politicians,” he replied, “always prefer collective to individual suicide.”

Arian was not referring to the Masada Complex once ascribed to Prime Minister Golda Meir, the feeling shared by many Israelis of being perpetually besieged and at risk of annihilation. Rather, the professor was pointing out the tendency of Israel’s leaders to insist on getting their own way or else bringing the government—or even the state itself—down. 

Arian’s response has come to mind almost daily over the past nine months, ever since the new Netanyahu-led coalition sought to hamstring judicial checks on the Knesset, give senior ministerial positions to former criminals and unrepentant racists and confer unprecedented powers upon the ultra-Orthodox parties that contribute little to the state’s economy and almost nothing to its defense.

Opponents of the government have staged multiple mass protests, closed highways and the airport and promoted the refusal of IDF reservists to report for duty. The confrontation has impacted Israel’s diplomatic and financial standing in the world and, according to some senior military sources, impaired its security. 

Now, the Supreme Court is deliberating on whether or not to overturn a Basic Law that denies its judges the right to nullify legislation on the grounds of “unreasonableness”—essentially to find unreasonable a bill that negates its right to do so. 

Though it lacks a constitution, Israel faces a constitutional crisis in which the army, the police and even the Mossad intelligence agency may have to choose between loyalty to the court or to the Knesset. Violence between pro- and anti-government demonstrators, though so far avoided, nevertheless looms. The very fabric of Israeli society is in danger of unraveling. 

Maddeningly, all this is happening at a very moment when Israel is being offered a monumental opportunity for peace. A rare confluence of interests—U.S. President Joe Biden’s need for an historic diplomatic achievement, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s desire for American security guarantees and backing for a domestic nuclear program and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s yearning for a legacy that doesn’t conclude with civil strife and an Iran at nuclear threshold capacity—have converged to produce the possibility of a Saudi-Israeli accord.

Such a breakthrough, potentially bigger than the Egypt-Israel treaty of 1979, promises not only to open the vast Saudi markets to Israel, but also those of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Kuwait. This will be peace between Israel and the entire Sunni world. And while the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Iran conflicts will persist, the Arab-Israeli conflict, for all intents and purposes, will end.  

There are, of course, many obstacles, not the least of which is Riyadh’s insistence that it receive a full treaty, and not just a revocable Executive Order, from the United States, as well as U.S. recognition of a Saudi right to enrich uranium identical to that which the Americans conceded to Iran.

Ratification of such a treaty might be withheld by Democratic senators who insist on linking it to the two-state solution and by Republicans loathe to grant Biden a foreign policy victory on the eve of the 2024 election. The prospect of creating yet another nuclear-enabled Middle Eastern state will likely meet resistance in both Washington and Jerusalem.

Some of the largest impediments to peace, though, arise from Israel’s internal morass. To seal the treaty, Israel must make some meaningful gestures to the Palestinians—freezing settlement building in Judea and Samaria, for example, or transferring parts of the territories to Palestinian control. Such concessions, though, have already been rejected by the coalition’s right-wing partners as well as by members of its Likud majority. Many of the anti-reform protesters will oppose any peace treaty that allows Netanyahu and his government to remain in power. Those demonstrators carrying signs that plead, “Biden—Save us from Bibi,” will not react passively when Biden saves Netanyahu from them.

The only answer is the creation of a national unity government comprising both coalition and opposition parties. Such coalitions have existed in the past and proved highly effective, especially in times of emergency. The national unity government formed in 1967 by Labor Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Rafi Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Gahal leader Menachem Begin successfully navigated Israel through the Six-Day War. The 1984 merging of Labor and Likud enabled Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir to rescue Israel from its suffocating 450% inflation.

Today, a national unity government, built on Israel’s immense center-right and center-left base, could jettison the most radical parties, work to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into Israel’s economy and society and reach a viable compromise on judicial reform. A national unity government could make the concessions necessary to conclude the Saudi deal. Most importantly, a government of national unity can begin the process of healing the numerous rifts—religious vs. secular, Mizrachi vs. Ashkenazi, the country’s affluent center vs. its underdeveloped periphery—that underlie the current controversy. 

Here too, many obstacles arise. Distrust of Netanyahu runs exceedingly deep among opposition heads betrayed by him in the past, and Netanyahu fears being toppled by what he regards as a cabal of corrupt police commanders and judges. Joining a national unity coalition could well incur a loss of popularity among its parties’ constituencies.

Ultimately, though, the highest hurdle will be the Arian Principle, the notion that Israeli leaders would rather see their own government fall—or even their nation disintegrate—rather than pay a personal political price. 

Israel indeed stands at the crossroads between dissolution and reconciliation, internecine violence or international peace. Only love of our country and of our people—only Zionism—will determine which direction Israel takes. This Rosh Hashanah, I ardently hope the Arian Principle will be proven wrong.

Originally published by the Jewish Journal.

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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