Discover more from Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
"It's over," the protesters are saying — and they no longer mean just judicial reform
We may be on the verge of a sea-change; what it will be is far from clear
Why the dinosaurs? What’s about to become extinct?
Listen carefully to the audio of the very brief clip (below) from Saturday night’s protest, and you’ll hear, in part what you’ve been hearing all along. At the very, very end of the clip you hear the protesters—in what was for Jerusalem a massive protest, in Tel Aviv the numbers went from 120,000 to 180,000 on the eve of the Knesset’s returning from its recess—chanting what they’ve been chanting all along. De-Mo-Krat-Ya. You don’t need to speak a lot of Hebrew to know what that means.
But closer to the beginning of the clip, you’ll hear something very different. Listen carefully, and in the midst of the noise you’ll hear, several times, “Napil et ha-shilton”— we’re going to take down the government.
The protesters, who are showing no signs of fatigue in what will likely be a new season of protests and who-knows-what-else (they plan to shut the country down on Thursday), will no longer be satisfied with just pulling back on the judicial reform throttle. Like Levin and Rothman and those who unleashed the judicial reform plan, the opponents of the plan are also in no mood to compromise. They plan to block judicial reform altogether (even as President Herzog and Bibi insist they are working towards a compromise), and now, they want the government gone.
It’s not at all unlikely that within a year, they’ll get what they want. What would replace it? More on that below.
PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long prided himself on being the ultimate Israeli puppet-master who could make his underlings do whatever he wished, has suddenly realized he can control no one. As in, literally no one.
This brief article from the New York Post, which made its way around the Israeli Twitter-sphere the other day, tells a rather different story from what Israeli news sources are reporting. Here, the rumor on the street is that Yair Netanyahu, the PM’s firebrand son, who is according to many rumors a source of profound tension between Bibi and his wife, has not fled to Florida, but rather that he was exiled. Prior to his sudden departure and banishment from social media, Yair was meeting with MKs, tweeting about the meetings, saying rather outrageous things about many members of the government. It got so out of control that the parents-Netanyahu ordered him—or at least so people are saying—off social media and entirely out of the country.
Official channels deny this account, but few people I’ve spoken to believe the denials.
True or not, the very notion of Bibi’s having to exile his own son to keep a semblance of control on things here is a metaphor for a government over which he has no control whatsoever. As Micha Goodman, the Israeli public intellectual we’ve interviewed on our podcast, has been saying recently, “there was only one person who could defeat Bibi, and it was Bibi.”
Not only is judicial reform stuck, because Bibi has no idea how to move it forward in this new Knesset session without leading the protest movement to paralyze the country — teachers’ strikes are planned for this week, against court orders; doctors have struck and could strike again; the Histadrut (the country’s largest labor union) has shut down the airport and could do so again; thousands of protesters could make their way onto highways despite the police’s best efforts to prevent that. Bibi has very few good moves. Rothman and Levin insist that the judicial reform legislation must move forward, the protest movement is in no mood to compromise, and in the meantime, everything else is hemorrhaging.
The sharks smell the blood, and everywhere one turns, the government is being pilloried. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the man the army refused to draft because he was considered damaged goods but who is still waiting for “his militia” to be approved, is in theory responsible for restoring some law and order to the country.
But as headlines have been noting in the past few days, that hasn’t exactly worked out so well:
Ben-Gvir has been relentlessly critical of Israel’s police (itself not a challenging position to defend) and now, some of them are beginning to fire back. Retired Police Superintendent Aryeh Amit gave an interview this week in which he called Ben-Gvir a “savage” who is making matters much worse. The screen shot below, taken using Google’s not-yet-flawless translation feature (because I could find the story only in the Hebrew press), provides an inelegant (it didn’t even get Ben-Gvir’s name quite right) but still clear sense:
“We’re in an unprecedented situation” doesn’t quite mean “unprecedented.” It means, more accurately, “intolerable” and “unsustainable.”
So, Bibi’s son is banished, his security-focused minister has done anything but restore security, and in the meantime, he and his party are tanking in the polls.
As the article notes today:
“Three separate opinion polls released on Sunday all showed that the current government would lose its parliamentary majority if elections were held today, although the surveys differed significantly on the overall predicted outcome …”
“The big winner across all three polls was predicted to be National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, whose party was slated to receive 28-30 seats, more than double its current 12. The Channel 13 poll showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party dropping to 22 seats [DG — from the 32 which it presently has], while Kan predicted 25 seats …”
In a truly astonishing comment, “All three polls predicted that the left-wing Labor would not pass the electoral threshold at all…” The party that founded the country—the party of David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and others—will be extinct. A new country may be about to emerge from this upheaval.
Finally, note that “Sunday’s polls continued a trend seen in such surveys over the past month, which predict a surge in support for National Unity, as it appears to pull significant support from Likud amid the national turmoil over the ruling party’s efforts to curtail the powers of the judiciary.”
That last comment is particularly noteworthy. The American-Jewish neo-con movement, beside itself with an inability to comprehend what is happening, is busy arguing (strenuously to make up for its anemic logic) that “Had the situation been reversed—had rightists taken to the streets against a legitimately elected left-of-center government—everyone from Haaretz’s anti-Zionists to [Daniel] Gordis would have been awash in outrage at the attempt to interfere with proper democratic processes. … These protests are not righteous. They are self-righteous.”
Note that the shift in the polls is due to the fact that longstanding Likud voters are abandoning the Likud and shifting their votes not to other parties on the right, but from the right to the center. (The left, as we saw above, is about to be officially dead.) Are these Likud voters, now abandoning their party, also “self-righteous”? Or might they just not want the country to go down the drain? One cannot help but wonder: will anyone in that US Jewish neo-con crowd actually begin to think? (If the above pablum doesn’t satisfy your appetite for inanity, there’s also this.)
Actually, we don’t really need to wonder too much.
Right before Passover, a friend of mine who’s very involved in the President’s attempts to forge some sort of compromise on Judicial Reform, went to the home of one of the leading Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Knesset factions, sat with the man and his wife, and said, “I hope you understand that you are about to make tens of thousands of Haredi children poor and hungry.” The MK looked dismissive at first, but listened.
“The rage against the Haredim,” my friend told this MK, “has reached unprecedented levels. And the center-left is going to come back into power. It may be this year. It may be next year. It may be a few years after that. But it is going to happen. And when it does—they are going to put a complete stop to the subsidies for your schools, the hot meals your kids get, every shekel your community depends on. It’s all going to end. And it’s going to be your fault. Just know that.”
The Haredi MK, my friend told me, was silent—and white as a sheet.
The Haredim have now begun to understand the depth of their vulnerability. That is why a leading Haredi newspaper told its readers not to go near last Thursday’s PRO-overhaul protest. No need to further enrage the center, which is already beyond irate at Haredi attempts to pass a law making exemption from military service a permanent promise.
The budget is a huge issue, because if the Knesset cannot pass a budget before May 29, just four weeks away, the government automatically dissolves. Bibi can probably get the budget passed, but only with massive Haredi concessions, meaning that they’ll have gotten little from the government they need to keep in power, even as they’ve outraged those who may well make up the next government.
It’s not an enviable place to be.
All of which brings us back to the above-pictured dinosaurs who joined the Jerusalem protest this past Saturday night. The signs the “dinosaurs” were holding said “Don’t let our democracy become extinct,” but the truth is, there are many things here that face the danger of extinction:
The Labor Party, if you believe the polls, is about to be extinct.
Bibi’s government, if you believe the polls, is very close to the precipice.
Judicial reform is no longer something you’d want to bet a lot of money on.
Haredi power is so tenuous that they’ve given up on the one thing they’d said was non-negotiable, their army exemptions.
The Center (remember, the Left is extinct) is now saying that business as usual with the Haredim is done. “It’s over,” numerous headlines said here. Zeh Nigmar. Done. Over. Finished. (See the screen shot immediately above.) Is it possible that Bibi’s government is the worst thing that has happened to the Haredim in a long time? They’re clearly wondering the same thing.
It was pretty late this past Thursday when we were getting ready to return to Jerusalem after babysitting our Tel Aviv grandson for the day. Because my wife had offered to drive home, I found myself surfing my phone as we made our way back. I was deep into reading the news when she said to me, “Look up, check out the sign.”
I saw it, and took a quick photo through the windshield.
It was the text of the Shema, with the phrase “The Nation of Israel is United” above it. I’ve got no idea who paid to put up the sign, or what their agenda is.
But it was pretty cool, and to me, very moving.
Suddenly, this country is feeling much more united than it did a couple of months ago. We are in for some very turbulent weeks or months, violence is not out of the question, there is no room for complacency and the more cornered Bibi and his government get, the more desperately they will play every card they have. This is far, far from over, and it could play out in numerous ways, some good, some terrible.
But as the Center, the (remnants of the) Left and those on the Right abandoning the Likud ship seem to be bonding together, it’s possible that this country is about to change dramatically. Just not in the way that Levin and Rothman had expected.
In the end, it may be said, this government did succeed in radically changing this country—it’s just that the changes were precisely the opposite of what it had intended. As Micha Goodman, quoted above, still says, “There was only one person who could beat Bibi.
And it was Bibi.”
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As we’ve noted above, Israel is going through a sea-change—politically, demographically, and culturally. At the end of the day, this is not about Left-Right, Secular-Religious, or any of the standard divides. This is about long-simmering fissures in Israeli society, some of them along Ashkenazi-Mizrahi lines, which we’ve been pointing to over the past weeks and months.
In this weeks’s podcast, to be posted on Wednesday, we speak with Mishael Zion, one of the most interesting interpreters of Israeli culture I know. What is really happening in Israel, how has culture provided “warning signs,” what is unfolding now, and what does the future hold, if one reads the “cultural tea leaves”?
Zion, the author of one of the world’s most popular Haggadot and a faculty member at the Mandel Leadership Institute, guides us through contemporary Israeli culture and what it reveals about these divides. Join us on Wednesday to hear what he has to say.
We have, on several occasions, pointed to the work of Toldot Yisrael, a Jerusalem based nonprofit dedicated to recording and sharing the firsthand testimonies of the men and women who helped found the State of Israel. Since 2007, Toldot Yisrael has been interviewing the members of Israel’s 1948 generation in order to capture and preserve the epic story of Israel's founding before it is too late. So far, they have interviewed more than 1,200 of Israel's founders and recorded over 4,000 hours of powerful and unique footage.
Toldot Yisrael recently made much of their footage publicly available. Their English page is here, and I urge you to check out some of the extraordinary material they have gathered. My wife and I are proud to be among their supporters, and if you are inclined to join, you can make even more of their work possible.
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