An Israeli civil war?

The genie is out of the bottle, and the fanatics won’t stop until their apocalyptical, messianic redemption is complete, come what may.

Thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem
Thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem, July 22, 2023. Demonstrators entered the last leg of a four-day and nearly 70km (45-mile) trek from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem [Ohad Zwigenberg/AP Photo]

Israel’s decades-long colonial and religious war against the Palestinians has culminated in what appears to be Jewish civil strife bordering on civil war.

As hundreds of thousands continue to march in the street against the government, the president has warned of standing at the edge of an abyss, while leading commentators warn that a civil war has already started.

This heating conflict is mainly between two types of Zionism, the pre and post-1967 Zionism; in other words, between the more liberal and secular Zionism and more fanatic and fascistic Zionism.

While these types of Zionism had managed to reconcile their differences throughout the past five decades, Israel’s deepening occupation-cum-apartheid system of Jewish supremacy has provided huge momentum to the extreme elements within the Israeli society.

It has also culminated in the establishment of a new governing coalition of six parties, five of which are “religious” – either ultra-Orthodox, ultra-Zionist or both.

The government is one of the most extreme and racist elements of Israeli society; one that is determined to transform the Jewish communitarian democracy into a fanatical Jewish autocracy, by subjugating Israel’s judiciary to its parliamentary majority, which in turn paves the way to changing its system of government.

A bit of history may help clarify.

Since its inception in 1948 as a settler colonial state, Israel’s leaders have followed in the footsteps of other settler states like the United States, Canada and Australia, by managing the tensions among its different immigrant communities through legal democratic processes. It was the only way to reconcile the differences between, say Iraqi and Polish, or Moroccan and Russian immigrant communities. Needless to say, that has not applied to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who suffered under direct military control through 1966.

Throughout that period, the secular Ashkenazi elites – concentrated in the Labour movement that created and led the earlier settlement of Palestine – had an advantage over the more conservative Sephardic immigrants and religious groups, and became the masters of the land.

But the 1967 war changed that. The occupation and settlement of East Jerusalem, and the rest of the newly occupied territories, have given vigour and momentum to messianic, fanatical, and hyper-nationalist Israelis ever since.

Their movement rose to power for the first time in 1977, supported by the marginalised Sephardic Jews and more than a few Labour leaders dreaming of a Greater Land of Israel or total control of all of historic Palestine.

From then on, American complicity in the form of economic and military support has provided the radical Israeli Right with much-needed momentum. And lately, Arab and Palestinian appeasement of fanatical Israel further hardened its racism. The Palestinian Authority has been repressing its own people in order to provide protection to Israel’s entrenching apartheid, rendering its survival an Israeli necessity.

Likewise, the willingness of autocratic Arab regimes to ditch the “land for peace” formula, and to sign up for unconditional peace and normalisation with colonial Israel, has provided Netanyahu and his fanatical allies with the legitimacy and the rationale to double down on their fanatical expansionist policies.

As hundreds of thousands of settlers in hundreds of illegal Jewish settlements proliferated throughout Palestine, blurring the lines between Israel and its occupied territories, it was only a matter of time before the ruling fascists turned inwards, and tried to solidify their fanaticism in Israel as in Palestine, come what may.

When supporters of Minister of National Security Itmar Ben-Gvir follow through on his call to carry arms, those weapons will not only be used against Palestinians – but also against secular, liberal Israelis they abhor no less.

This was hardly unexpected.

In fact, more than five decades ago, the late Prof Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of Israel’s leading sages, foresaw how after the 1967 war, racism, violence and hatred originating in a religious-messianic worldview and fuelled by the occupation and settlement enterprise, would lead, in his words, to the “rise of Judeo-Nazis”.

And a decade ago, a leading Israeli writer, the late Amos Oz, called the violent “hill-top” Jewish fanatics, in the occupied territories, who are the hardcore supporter of today’s government ministers and who are carrying pogroms against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, “Hebrew neo-Nazis”.

All of which begs the question, why are the more secular and less fanatical Israelis who are filling the streets unwilling or unable to see the link between the deepening apartheid and rising messianic fascism?

The short answer, many are unwilling and many more are incapable. Those unwilling may worry that linking fascism with apartheid will fracture the movement and weaken its momentum. Those incapable of seeing the link want to continue to have their cake and eat it too; they insist that Israel can and must be secular, liberal and democratic while maintaining its Jewish supremacy and oppressive occupation of Palestine.

Judging by the makeup of the Israeli parliament, the latter camp makes up the majority of the opposition to the government and they have a large following among the military brass and the corporate elites. If it were not for the person of Netanyahu, whom they terribly distrust, the likes of National Unity, Yisrael Beytenu and even Yesh Atid parties might have enthusiastically joined a more secular coalition government led by any other leader of the radical right party, Likud.

These parties may in fact end up reaching a compromise with the coalition government on its proposed legislation to somewhat safeguard the system’s liberality towards Jews while allowing it to push ahead with its racist agenda towards the Palestinians within Israel and in the occupied territories.

This may calm the situation, end the street protest, and restore appearances of normality. For a while anyway. But make no mistake, the genie is out of the bottle, and the fanatics, who have moved from the margins to the centre of power, and who feed on conflict and war, will not stop until their messianic redemption is complete, come what may. Preferably apocalyptical.

I do not know where the flaring secular-religious conflict will eventually lead Israel to. But those in the West determined to stop Iran from going nuclear, need to stop their support for an increasingly fanatical nuclear state – Israel, increasingly at war with itself.