As Israel’s far-right fascist government ushers in a new era of hardship for the Palestinian people, it’s also causing massive divisions in both Israel’s Jewish society and the regime’s political & military leaderships. Such is the state of Israeli politics that former minister of war, Benny Gantz, has warned of civil war.
An ongoing feud between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and both the Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid and former war minister, Benny Gantz, is leading to concerns amongst Israelis that a civil-war of words, could escalate into a real civil war between Israeli citizens in the streets.
From the outset, Israeli PM Netanyahu has faced significant pushback on two primary aspects of his extremist government; first, his intention to overhaul the Israeli high court and introduce sweeping legislative reforms; second, the issue of who is in control of Israeli “security”. In response to the Israeli PM’s unapologetic rhetoric surrounding goals to push through legal changes to the system and unsubstantiated claims of seeking to gather a broad consensus for them, Benny Gantz said to Netanyahu that
“If you continue on the path you are on, the responsibility for starting the civil war brewing in Israeli society will be on you.”
Israel’s former military chief, Aviv Kochavi, stated that the Israeli coalition will not be able to achieve getting the Israeli military to listen to extremist Religious Zionism party politicians. The two leading figures of Religious Zionism; Bezalel Smotrich, the new finance minister, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, have been granted special oversight into West Bank policy. Ben-Gvir specifically has been granted partial control over the Israeli border police. The Israeli Knesset voted on a special bill which gave him this authority and Smotrich was given authority to appoint generals as the “hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT)”, specifically designed to deal with West Bank policy.
It is clear that a segment of the Israeli political and military elite are genuinely unhappy with the strategy of the extremists in Netanyahu’s government, which threatens provoking a third Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in the West Bank. Former Israeli PM, Yair Lapid, has even threatened that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich could end up causing harm to the seemingly unbreakable US-Israeli relationship, even on the security level he stressed. Although the US Biden administration maintains a strong bond with Benjamin Netanyahu, it is clear that Lapid was their favorite in the lead up to Israel’s November election.
Just under half of Israel’s population are allegedly worried that what they call their “democracy” is in grave danger, due to the Netanyahu government’s new hardline coalition and its policies. Coupled with this reported worry has been a number of protests, one which numbered in the tens of thousands just last week. In the demonstrations, it is notable that the protesters were largely from the center right and center, politically speaking, in addition to fringe groups from the Zionist left who participated, albeit in smaller numbers. In response to a small number of these protesters having raised Palestinian flags, they were condemned by the Israeli far-right and now the Israeli national security minister has issued an order completely banning the Palestinian flag as an alleged “terrorist symbol”. Itamar Ben-Gvir also warned that anti-government protesters would be combated by water cannons, signaling that heavy handed tactics will begin to be used for their peaceful street protests.
Both sides of the aisle in Israeli politics argue that they are fighting for Israeli democracy, which, according to both narratives, is being threatened by the other side that seeks to undertake a coup. The pro-government camp states that the people have spoken and that the opposition wants to use protests to overthrow the democratic vote. On the opposition side they are arguing that the dramatic legal reforms threaten to upend Israeli democracy and that they must go to the streets to stop the government from performing a coup to change the nature of Israeli liberal democracy. It is hard to miss the overlaps with the current US political dynamic.
The opposition camp, however, seem to have the backing of the United States government in its approach. It was clear when former PM Yair Lapid was in office that he was growing closer with the Biden administration, even speaking before the UN General Assembly and mentioning the two-state solution as a possibility for the first time in around a decade. Although there is no evidence on the record, regarding any US role in backing the Yair Lapid-Benny Gantz alliance, it is clear that the White House is uncomfortable with the trajectory of the new Israeli government and that the Gantz-Lapid opposition aligns perfectly with the traditional US policy positions on Palestine-Israel. Washington never truly stands up to Tel Aviv when it violates US policy — such is the case when illegal settlements are expanded or warcrimes are committed — but it seeks the veneer of respectability with which a Gantz or Lapid covers their crimes.
After Biden’s first visit to the Middle East in July of last year, he met Yair Lapid and his administration was able to attend a dialogue with him whilst he was interim-PM in the run up to the November election. Less than a month later, Israel carried out an unprovoked military operation against the besieged Gaza Strip, killing 52 people in three days. It was clear that Lapid lacked any kind of military credibility at the time, as his background was as a TV personality, instead of the traditional Israeli politician’s path of being a leading military figure before heading into politics. The quick, calculated, unprovoked attack was executed quickly and provided Yair Lapid with a large boost in the polls at the time. Due to the proximity of the attack to the Biden visit, it could be concluded that Washington had coordinated on the Gaza assault to benefit Lapid, although it must be understood clearly that there is no public evidence of this.
The US Biden administration has already condemned the action of Itamar Ben-Gvir storming al-Aqsa mosque and did not protect Tel Aviv at a convened UN Security Council meeting that was called to address the issue. Looking at this from a purely US perspective, the new Israeli regime threatens not only to rob President Joe Biden of his desired Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, but also may cause a splintering of relations with Arab regimes that have already normalized ties. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will most likely be forced to cut ties officially, or at the very least withdraw its ambassador, if the status quo at the Al-Aqsa mosque is threatened, because this also impacts Jordanian custodianship over the site. In addition to this, Amman may feel threatened if the Palestinian Authority is disbanded or the West Bank is annexed.
When prominent Israeli politicians in the opposition side of the Knesset are openly calling on people to demonstrate, organize, and are warning of civil war, when former Israeli military officials are also raising concerns about the damage that is being done to Israeli security due to the extremist anti-Palestinian policies, then it may signal that a real threat is being posed by the new fascist government. Although the Israeli regime is always horrible to Palestinians and has never stopped persecuting them, although it has been and remains an Apartheid regime, the current Israeli coalition poses a different kind of threat. It says the quiet part out loud, just as Donald Trump did in the US, except, in Israel’s case, the Netanyahu government is actually restructuring the state’s legal system to benefit itself. This has clearly got to be a concern for the US Biden administration, and if there was ever a time that Washington was going to interfere in Israeli internal politics, it is now.