Israel's "cold civil war" is suddenly heating up—and things are feeling ominously like a past that still haunts us
Before leaving for the US, the PM accused the protest movement of treason. The rage he unleashed has spread everywhere and shows no signs of dissipating. Where it will lead is far from clear.
This past week, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a segment on the Israeli protest movement, in which Leslie Stahl said—quite rightly—that Israel is going through its “worst domestic crisis ever”; and she called what we are witnessing a “cold civil war.”
Stahl’s segment, though, was filmed before PM Netanyahu left for the United States, where he met with Elon Musk—who is threatening to sue the ADL and who has allowed a massive uptick of anti-semitic posting on X (formerly Twitter). But while Musk invited Bibi to the Tesla plant, Biden did not invite him to the White House. So it was a somewhat humiliating trip even before it started.
Netanyahu, obviously aware that he would be greeted by massive protests of Israelis living in the US (about 1,000,000 Israelis are now estimated to reside in North America), took a swipe at them and at the movement writ large.
They have crossed all borders. They have made it so that blocking roads is [ostensibly] a normal thing, that violently harassing public figures is a normal thing, that refusal [to serve in the military and in the reserves] is a normal thing. And therefore, when they defame Israel before the nations of the world, it seems normal to them. I don’t regard it as normal. When I was the head of the opposition, I never did that. … But this time, we see demonstrations against Israel by people that are joining forces with the PLO, with Iran, and with others.
The Netanyahu of old—crafty but politically astute—would have known not to cross that line. One can accuse the pilots who won’t fly of doing damage to the Air Force. One can argue that foreign money is supporting the protests (as it did the work of Kohelet, the Forum that helped write the judicial reform in the first place). One can argue that blocking highways is no mere civil disobedience. Reasonable minds can—and do—differ on all of those.
But, when the protests are being led by women and men who have served in combat units in the IDF and continue to do so, to say that they are aligned with the PLO and Iran crosses a line that Bibi must have known almost instantaneously he had been reckless to cross.
The outcry was universal.
So Netanyahu tried to walk it back, saying that he meant that the Israeli protesters outside the UN would be standing alongside other protesters who support the PLO and Iran (equally ludicrous, of course, since those protesters would hardly join a sea of Israeli flags), but to no avail. He’d done himself significant damage.
Some members of his coalition, though, instead of trying to hide, sought to ride the wave all the way to shore. Dodi Amsalam, consistently one of the most-unglued MK’s in this government, about who we’ll have much to say in a future column, said as follows (Chrome-generated translation from a Hebrew website):
Keep in mind that phrase “dragging the entire nation of Israel into the abyss.” That phrase has a lot of resonance in Israeli society, and its use has led Israel to violence. We’ll see more on that below.
Back to 60 Minutes
The 60 Minutes episode unleashed a storm, but not because of the content of the broadcast. Instead, the storm was unleashed by several Netanyahu-supporting journalists knowingly misrepresenting what some of the people on the program had said.
Three of the people interviewed on Stahl’s episode are members of “Brothers and Sisters in Arms,” veterans who oppose the judicial reform (and by now, pretty much everything the government stands for). Of the three, two were men, one was a woman named Shira Eting. Eting (full disclosure—I happen to know her) is one of those people who radiates talent. She has a Masters from Oxford, has worked at McKinsey & Company, is now a principal at an Israeli Investment fund, and—and this is they key—was for five years a combat helicopter pilot in the IAF.
As part of the discussion with Stahl, Eting stressed why it is so critical that pilots have confidence in the moral caliber of their political leaders. After all, the orders they are expected to execute always run the risk of collateral death.
Here is the transcript from the 60 Minutes website:
Shira Eting: If you want pilots to be able to fly and shoot bombs and missiles into houses knowing they might be killing children, they must have the strongest confidence in the people making those decisions.
Ron Scherf: In the moral values of them.
Shira Eting: Exactly.
It’s a pretty clear comment, not really open to much interpretation. But that didn’t stop the Netanyahu brigade from intentionally misrepresenting what Eting had said, and then, calling her a “liar.”
Here’s Caroline Glick, for example, but one of many examples:
But of course, Shira Eting never said that the IDF “orders or permits bombing children.” She said that it happens; about that, sadly, there is also nothing to discuss. Here’s a Times of Israel headline from just this past May:
It’s horrible, and it’s unintentional, but it happens. And when it does, it’s people like Shira Eting, who have the courage to take to the air and defend the country, who have to live with their consciences.
By virtue of what does someone sitting behind a keyboard—and not in a cockpit—get to say that someone who told the absolute truth is a “liar”?
Now that Netanyahu has said that the protesters are supporting Iran and the PLO, the value of truth—as in just the basic facts, which are the bedrock of any functioning society—has vanished.
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The gloves are off regarding the Haredim, too:
For decades, most Haredi men have gotten a pass on being drafted by the army, but it’s always been based on deals with whatever government was in power. Now, sensing opportunity with Israel’s most right-wing government ever, the Haredim decided to demand a Basic Law (of constitutional status) permanently exempting their sons from military service.
With pilots and officers under attack for having a conscience, Israelis have had more than enough. The Haredim over-reached, and the backlash has been harsh at times. (It’s hard to imagine that Bibi will try to pass that law; if he does, the streets will erupt, but if he doesn’t, the Haredim have threatened to bring down his government.)
The first major incident came in May when Galit Gutman, a well known Israeli TV personality, accused the Haredim of “sucking the blood” of the rest of society. The comment came at a moment when the Haredim were squeezing the government budget for unprecedented support for their schools and communities—all while refusing to serve the state—so many people agreed, but also understood that her language had perhaps crossed the “edgy” line.
The video went viral in Israel, so we’ve added English subtitles for our readers.
Gutman was forced to apologize (though no one thought she was actually sorry).
But widely held sentiment has a way of bubbling to the surface time and again. This week, is was Ran Kofman, a well-known radio personality, who dropped the “blood sucking” metaphor and went instead for the totally outrageous “cancer” image.
Here, too, we’ve added subtitles for our readers.
(Listen not only to his rant, but to the stammering of the woman with whom he’s speaking, who can’t figure out how to respond to that.)
Kofman, too, was forced to apologize, but as with Gutman, no one thought he was sorry. You just say it, then you apologize. But because most people agree with you, on we go …
So the government is attacking the protesters as traitors, the mainstream is attacking the Haredim as “blood suckers” and “cancer.”
But those are hardly the only signs of a rapidly fraying social contract. As we’ll now see, Bibi is about to become the first sitting Prime Minister not to attend the official ceremony in memory of Yitzchak Rabin (for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment), AND, just as many Israelis have lost all confidence in the truth-telling of the government, the Knesset is moving forward with legislation that would permit the use of face-recognition software all over the country, like they have in China, for example.
Let’s start with why Bibi will miss the Rabin Memorial Ceremony. Which will also give us an opportunity to see what Dodi Amsalem was referring to above when he mentioned “the abyss.”
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