Last week, I pondered upon the current rupture in Israeli society over the government’s proposed judicial reforms. I wondered whether we have come full circle, back to the rollercoaster of the early 1990s, when the controversy over the Oslo Accords split Israel in two.
Putting aside the more obvious ironies of this return of the repressed—mainly the stunningly exact reversal of roles between left and right—there is one that may point us towards an understanding of how we got here.
If anything sparked the violent polarization of the Oslo era it was the fact that Yitzhak Rabin and fellow architect Shimon Peres forewent one of the most important aspects of the art of politics: They sought to enact a major, indeed epochal change without bothering to build a wide consensus in support of it.
Indeed, the original sin of the Oslo Accords was that they were negotiated in secret and then, quite suddenly, made not only public but ironclad policy, impossible to change without massive damage to Israel’s diplomatic standing.
In effect, Israelis went to bed one evening believing that Yasser Arafat and the PLO were mortal enemies and woke up to be told that they were now friends and partners. That this resulted in no small amount of discord should not have been a surprise. It is not much of an exaggeration to say it was as if Americans waking up on Sept. 11, 2002 were told that the Bush administration had reached a peace agreement with Osama bin Laden according to which he and al-Qaeda would receive half of Ohio.
This resulted in an Israel split down the middle, with half the country convinced that the Jewish state had suffered a mortal, self-inflicted wound and the other convinced that peace, harmony and a “new Middle East” were now at hand. On the extreme right, this took on horrific dimensions, culminating in Rabin’s assassination by an ideological fanatic.
Rabin and Peres’ failure to build a consensus in support of the accords, which would have been difficult but not impossible, was not the reason the accords failed. The credit for that lies solely with Yasser Arafat and his decision to refuse peace and a Palestinian state in 2000 and then launch a war of terrorist atrocities.
Nonetheless, their indifference to consensus furnishes an object lesson in how important it is when a government seeks to implement major changes: Had Rabin and Peres attempted to build such a consensus, the division, rancor and violence that followed might have been avoided.
That lesson is no less relevant today. One may support or oppose the proposed judicial reforms, but there is no doubt that they constitute an attempt to change Israeli society, and that change is not a small one. It will completely rearrange the balance of power, or lack of it, between the legislative and judicial branches of government, with far-reaching implications for every aspect of society.
It should go without saying that a change of such magnitude must command a broad consensus if it is not to tear the country to pieces. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his legendary political acumen, has built no such consensus. Nor, surprisingly, has he made any attempt to do so. He appears to have simply taken his election victory as proof that a consensus exists.
But Netanyahu was and is wrong. His right-religious bloc did win a majority in a free and fair election, but a majority of four seats is not nearly enough to constitute a national consensus. More or less half of Israel voted against his bloc, and the fact that they constitute 49% rather than 51% of the public does not mean they carry no political weight whatsoever.
Perhaps like Margaret Thatcher in her later years, Netanyahu’s long tenure in power has cursed him with the type of self-destructive hubris that often afflicts extremely successful politicians. A man as intelligent as he is should have known that in any society, let alone one as polarized as Israel, an attempt at such a change in the absence of a consensus could only result in controversy, conflict and, in the end, continuing unrest.
Instead of consensus, however, Netanyahu and the rest of his right-religious bloc chose to overreach. The result was inevitable and foreseeable: Israeli society has been split in two. Such a rent in the social fabric benefits no one. That, if nothing else, should give a politician as gifted and pragmatic as Netanyahu some pause.
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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