Home / General / An Israeli Civil War: From Public Secret to Shared Illusion

An Israeli Civil War: From Public Secret to Shared Illusion

“Israeli Protesters, 24 July 2023,” by Eran Neuman. Used with permission.

This is a guest post by Daniel J. Levine and Daniel Bertrand Monk (yes, that meant emails among three Dans/Daniels). They wrote it for the Duck of Minerva; I thought it would be of interest here. Given that people don’t follow links like they did fifteen years, I’ve decided to just post the whole thing.

For nearly three decades, a pervasive, unspoken fear of civil war created an “ugly stalemate” in Israel, a ‘public secret’ that pervaded its electoral politics and foreign relations. Thanks to the government’s attempted “judicial overhaul,” that fear is now very much in the open, Almost overnight, the Israeli public has developed a shared imaginary in which a civil war is not only thinkable, but familiar.

How did this happen? What does it mean for Israeli politics?

Statism and Revisionism

The recent “stalemate” in Israeli politics reflects longstanding tensions within Zionist ideology. As we noted over a decade ago, “Israel’s political divisions are no longer constituted by the “left/right” ideological divisions familiar to (and taken for granted by) policy intellectuals. The real animating division now lies between statists” and revisionists. 

Statism understands modern Israel “as a pragmatic, worldly solution to the immediate problem of Jewish statelessness and vulnerability.” For statists, the State of Israel has a clear, “legitimate claim to popular loyalty and collective action.” They expect “citizens to coordinate their personal and collective aspirations” with an “understanding of the common good” as embodied in the institutions and precepts of the State of Israel. Statists are, “in this sense… liberal-nationalists.”

Statism generally frames Israel’s “normalization”—acceptance as a sovereign national state by the community of nations—as Zionism’s highest aim. The political moment created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US-led Gulf War of 1990-91 created an opportunity to obtain such acceptance through diplomatic negotiations predicated on territorial concessions. As that opportunity would not last forever, making good on it was an overriding priority. 

Revisionist orientations are most pronounced among settler ultra-nationalists, haredi (‘ultra-orthodox’) Jews, and those Mizrahi citizens who practiced a politics of resentment against Israel’s old European-descended elites. Despite their many differences, revisionists generally place little intrinsic value on the modern State of Israel. They consider it a means to an end; their allegiance is conditioned on the degree that the State serves their purposes. 

Perhaps the most important of these purposes is to extend Jewish paramountcy over the whole of the historic homeland via either the settlement and annexation of the entirety of the Occupied Territories, according full supremacy to Jewish religious-halakhic law and to Israel’s Jewish citizens, or some combination of the two.

The division between statists and revisionists cuts across ideology and party. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud, for example, includes both statists and revisionists; the day after the judicial-reform legislation passed a binding vote in the Knesset, a number of Likud MKs indicated that they would not support further changes in the judiciary without broad-based consensus in the legislature. The very same MKs then voted in tandem with the country’s Kahanist blocks in passing a barely-disguised form of Jim Crow legislation that would permit Jewish municipalities to exclude Palestinian citizens of Israel (euphemized as “unsuitable” residents) from residing within their bounds. 

This divide has itself long constituted a latent or incipient form of war: victory for one would necessarily constitute the ‘existential negation’ of the other. Normalizing relations through peace treaties, for example, would entail territorial concessions that would, in turn, obviate any possibility of the annexation-and-settlement program described above—and so could only lead to a revisionist insurrection. Consider here the mounting protests that culminated in the assassination of an Israeli prime minister in 1995. The imposition of a manifestly illiberal, ethno-theocratic vision would lead to a corresponding revolt among statists—the one that is happening now.  

In the intervening decades, that stalemate has manifested itself in the form of a single imperative: to avoid civil war. Every Israeli government—regardless of its specific combination of parties or ideological commitments—has adjusted, abandoned, or changed its policies to avoid sparking widespread violent conflict between Israeli Jews. Statists and revisionists remained in a tenuous balance. 

Whatever its downsides, paralysis at least had the virtue of avoiding civil war. Save for small, incremental victories by statists or revisionists, that stalemate has persisted—at least, if one ignored the Occupied Territories. 

That is why the judicial overhaul has generated such large, long-standing protests. Most protestors, to judge by their rhetoric, believe they are fighting for nothing less than democracy and the rule of law—and in some respects this is the case. 

Recent polls, however, demonstrate that other fears are at work. An Israeli News 12 poll reported that 54% of voters feared the overhaul would “hurt Israel’s security,” while 56% feared it might spark civil war. 

Consider the failure of efforts by both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to link the current protests to the anti-democratic “elephant in the room”—that is, Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. This is not by chance. Doing so would directly challenge revisionism and thus, for many statist Israelis, make the protests themselves a threat to civil peace (see also the Rothschild Boulevard protests in 2011).

Civil War: From Public Secret to Shared Imaginary

The current crisis reveals, despite the previous taboo against talk of civil war, an emergent public consensus as to how a slide to civil war would play out. 

It starts like this: the Knesset passes a law that constrains judicial review, as it just did. That law is then brought for review before the High Court of Justice (which, for reasons that exceed the present discussion, is also Israel’s Supreme Court).  The High Court of Justice (HCJ) reviews the law and then strikes it down—that is, it does precisely what the statute in question says it cannot do. Part of this scenario has already taken place: the HCJ has received such an appeal and will hear arguments in September. For his part, PM Netanyahu responded by issuing a threat: “the Supreme Court better behave the way I want it to.”

Here, public speculation continues, is where things get really complicated. Should the HCJ strike down the judicial reform law, each and every state agency would have to decide where legitimate authority actually resides. Do they continue to follow orders issues by the government’s revisionist “roundheads,” or do they side with the HCJ’s statist “cavaliers?”  

In the Israeli popular imagination, the security services have been a focus of particular concern. On the day of the Knesset vote to pass a key element of the Judicial reform, Mossad chief David Barnea implied that he would follow the courts, not the PM. These comments were widely covered and discussed. In a forum on News 12 that same day, commentators pointed out that other security services could well “break” for the other side.

Current speculation even extends to the loyalties of specific units within the various security services, including the Israel Defense Forces. Television pundits have openly ruminated about a rift that might emerge between Air Force pilots (many of whom have ‘thrown in’ with the statists) on the one hand, and the mechanics and logistics teams who maintain their aircraft – an analysis that assumes those teams are composed primarily of working-class voters of middle eastern descent who might, therefore, be predisposed to side with revisionists.  

The same pundits asked whether active-duty soldiers in the Airborne and Nahal Brigades (generally said to be more ‘statist’) might break one way, while the (presumptively more ‘revisionist’)  soldiers in Golani and Givati might go the other — to say nothing of those units specifically formed around a core of religious-Zionist or haredi personnel. 

If all of this seems far-fetched, note that such considerations explicitly drove the decisions of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz about which units and soldiers would be ordered to take part in the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005.

Few Israelis wish to take such speculation further. But the way they talk about the slide into civil war already points to a shared “grid of intelligibility”—that is to say, a shared social imaginary—regarding  a further dissolution of the civic-political order that would be marked by some units in the security establishment declaring themselves statists and others revisionists.

That imaginary seems to derive from a conceptual framework that assumes the tactics and practices of Israeli counter-insurgency doctrine, honed for two decades against Palestinians, will eventually be deployed by Israelis against one another.  

All of this begins with the Israeli police deploying “skunk water”—one of a range of nonlethal measures considered in the wake of the Palestinian ‘Al Aqsa’ uprisings of 2000-01—against the current protestors, and beating up some of the young men among them. Interpreters of those actions understand them to be a kind of “leaking of the occupation into Israel proper.” 

Out of familiarity with these tactics, observers like Sebastian Ben-Daniel conclude that Netanyahu’s government and its revisionist supporters will, should they fail to break the will of the statist opposition, escalate their use of violence. 

The recent history of repressing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would likely serve as the doctrinal-operational template for those escalations. The government would rely on a longstanding article of faith in Israeli counterinsurgency circles—that one need only ‘decapitate’ the opposing side’s leadership for the rest of the movement to fall apart. 

Just as revisionists cannot acknowledge that a genuinely collective politics animates Palestinian political action—for to do so would oblige them to acknowledge such politics as kindred to their own – neither would they imagine Israeli statists as anything other than passive followers of anarchists and charismatic intriguers.

The revisionist security apparatus would likely pivot between irregular settler militias and ‘official’ state violence, so as to preserve a measure of plausible deniability for the resulting harm to life and property. Recent actions in the West Bank town of Huwarah, and smaller-scale efforts to terrorize or kill prominent Israelis in the early 2000s (the ‘price tag’ campaigns) can be seen as precedents for this. 

Again, if this seems at all hard to believe, note that Public Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir—a longtime settler ultra-nationalist, now the minister in charge of the national police—is already demonizing the leadership of the protest movement and portraying them as fifth columnists who might be subject to “preemptive measures.”

In this context, there would be mounting public pressure for a restoration of law and order. Statist protestors, civil society actors, and the business establishment would seek a measure of protection from the courts. If the government’s revisionists failed to obey the courts’ orders in this matter as well, the judiciary would have no choice but to turn to ‘statist’ elements in the defense establishment to enforce its rulings.

How might a group of self-proclaimed “statist” officers respond? Operationally, they might observe that considerable geographic segregation exists within Israel, just as it does between Israelis and Palestinians: orthodox Jews largely live apart from secular ones, settlers live well outside the Tel-Aviv “bubble,” and Mizrahi and ex-Soviet/CIS poor have been shunted to peripheral towns. If so, tactics familiar from the Occupied Territories would likely suggest themselves.

The range of those tactics include drone strikes and curfews; economic sanctions, sieges, and territorial incursions; limiting access to water and electricity; deploying broad surveillance/informant networks; and imposing limitations on freedom of movement. In defense of these measure, it will be argued that public order must be maintained, and that these are simply the most “humane,” sustainable, and practical measures for doing so—precisely the same justifications used now with regard to Palestinians.

Familiarity Breeds… Civil War?

To be clear, we are not offering our own predictions. Rather, we have sought to describe the contours of an emergent consensus—a shared imaginary—over what a civil war would look like. The development of this common imaginary has made such a war seem familiar—knowable and tractable—even though it has not happened yet, and may not happen at all. A conflict between statism and revisionism now seems increasingly indistinguishable from one fought over Zionist and Palestinian self-determination. Its very familiarity should serve as an indication of how surreal those intuitions of a civil war really are.

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