Israel’s Upheaval is Palestine’s Opportunity

by Haim Bresheeth-Žabner, published on The Electronic Intifada, June 4, 2023

How are we to understand the incredible events in Israel since January 2023?

On the one hand, there is the amazing invention and deep commitment of the hundreds of thousands who come out weekly to protest proposed judicial reforms – with their witty hand-painted posters, their music and their high morale despite the dire situation.

In some pockets or on the sidelines, one may even spot a few Palestinian flags and hear calls against apartheid and occupation.

Elsewhere, we see the pretend radicalism of generals, who count in the thousands their Palestinian victims, and their hypocritical calls for Jewish democracy and a proper judicial system (because otherwise they might find themselves in the International Criminal Court for the war crimes they committed).

They speak as if the current judicial system is just and democratic. But when has it ever served any form of justice to its Palestinian subjects?

Indeed, the main issue facing this settler-colonial society since at least 1948 is never mentioned by these speakers. It is censored from the speeches of the few Palestinians allowed a voice.

How is one to understand the central role played by Mossad, ex-generals and groups of reservists refusing military service in the name of Israeli patriotism, which for them seems to denote colonial militarism?

The demonstrations have created a real difficulty for Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government. The crisis was reaching a breaking point just before the Passover holiday, when the role of army reservists, as well as retired generals, was reaching a high point.

The usual medicine

Netanyahu was forced to delay implementation of his judicial “reforms” – more accurately described as a coup – by a few weeks.

From his point of view, this was a wise move to take much of the wind out of opposition sails. But the demonstrations have continued, even as some of the leaders of the opposition like Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, have willingly given in and joined “discussions” at the presidential residence, designed to disarm the protests.

As a stronger measure aimed at demonstrators, Netanyahu resorted to traditional medicine – a brutal attack on Gaza. This was used to send many of the protesting reservist pilots to do what they specialize in doing – the mass killing and maiming of civilians.

Many other reservists were also called up, and the Israeli media went into default mode – denial of and lying about civilian casualties, and “uniting the nation” through a broadcasting campaign directed by government hasbara (propaganda).

The reaction of the population immediately seems to have reverted to knee jerk anti-Palestinian adulation of the military – the main force holding Israel’s opposing factions together. The level and numbers of demonstrators have been seriously reduced, though demonstrations continue to disturb the government, though still unable to stop the government’s legal offensive in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Israel even had real problems extricating itself from its Gaza assault – a pattern we have seen increasingly over the years.

Despite the great heaps of journalistic hype, support for, as well as opposition to, this “uprising” against the Netanyahu administration’s judicial reforms – unparalleled in Israel’s history – we have seen little analytical writing worthy of the name, dealing with this extraordinary social upheaval.

Most articles either report events or present opinions, in both cases doing so without a proper theoretical framework or historical background.

The long view

Such paucity of political analysis should not surprise us. It reveals the great weakness of the Israeli (pseudo) left, a spent social force that is unable to present a progressive political program to voters.

This weakness goes back to a period well before 1967, even before 1948. After all, it was David Ben Gurion’s “left,” in 1948 and afterwards, that enacted the Nakba and the military rule imposed on the few remaining Palestinians in what became Israel.

The only ripple in the becalmed sea of leftist action before 1967 was the emergence of Matzpen – a revolutionary socialist movement calling for a regional progressive solution to the Palestine colonial conflict by building a coalition of Middle Eastern socialist administrations.

It was a visionary but unrealistic objective. Real socialism was not evident anywhere in the region, least of all in Jerusalem.

The ineffective opposition appearing after 1967 and the start of the settler colonization of the occupied territories – in Syria, Palestine and Egypt – perceived itself as left-wing, but was nothing of the sort.

It lacked analytical edge or an anti-colonial critique, relying instead on emotional arguments against the occupation. It was concerned with the corrosive effect on the occupiers rather than the terrifying price exacted from Palestinians.

Not for nothing was the movement dubbed Yorim U’Bochim — “they shoot and cry.” The name stuck because it was accurate.

It pointed to the deep hypocrisy embedded in the left Zionist position.

While Peace Now pondered its belly-button, the old Israeli elite (of which the advocacy group was an important part) enacted policies of settler-colonialism – the unlikely paradigm chosen by Theodor Herzl and all who followed him. There was no other method of getting control of Palestine and carrying out large-scale ethnic cleansing.

Theodor Herzl, a right-wing liberal thinker, was, like most of his ilk in the 19th century, a fervent colonialist. He carefully planned the process of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in his secret diary, though not the military means.

He pretended to believe that such population transfer was possible by offering the “paupers” work in what he termed the “transit countries” surrounding Palestine, and denying them entry if they tried to return.

But by 1967, left Zionism itself was on the way out.

It had fulfilled its historic mission and now had to leave the stage to the growing force of liberal-right Zionism. The latter was a social force much closer to Herzlian Zionism, about to upset the apple cart of exclusivist Jewish-only socialism by reinforcing it with a privatized market economy and a right-wing nationalism, which had its historical roots in Prussian nationalism and strong links to Italian fascism.

Coming of age

While many of the articles now published on the “left” oppose Netanyahu and his judicial coup, they do not oppose the occupation and its militarism. Indeed, many of the pieces blame Netanyahu for endangering Israeli cohesion, leading to civil war by pushing through the coup despite the fact that high-ranking military figures are against it, including Yoav Gallant, his defense minister, sacked, then unsacked.

Both sides accuse each other of the same capital crime, undermining national security, while the country is supposedly faced with the threat of an Iranian nuclear project. There is little help for the uninitiated to make sense of the situation in most of this print and broadcast deluge, as there is no left left in the country, to provide proper analysis.

Into this analytical vacuum walks a large and influential Palestinian body – the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – offering the only example of methodical and reasoned analysis of the events, their context, their likely outcomes and influence, as well as the few benefits they may produce to those of a real progressive bent.

In a recent report published by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the events are deconstructed, catalogued and analyzed with great care and attention to detail, in a manner absent from the Israeli side.

Starting with a description of the Huwwara pogrom, the report presents the violence as perpetrated by “fascist Jewish-Israeli militias” quoting its main instigator and ideologue, senior Israeli government minister, Bezalel Smotrich: “I think Huwwara needs to be erased. The state should be the one to do that.”

This pogrom is not seen as exceptional or unusual, but as a ratcheting up of settler colonial violence that was there from the beginning.

Israel’s new far-right government is the most racist, fundamentalist, sexist, corrupt, authoritarian and homophobic ever,” the report states, a situation that has been prepared by decades of increasing hatred, oppression and racism by Israel’s Jewish community, inseparable from the Zionist militarized colonial project.

Democracy (for Jews only) threatened

Each atrocity then becomes normalized, a new zero from which the project advances to a higher, terrifying normal.

While this process is not new, it has a new aspect: The old elite insisted on covering its tracks; the new regime sees no need for such evasion.

Israel’s support is secure, immune to public pressure and international sanctions.

This new trend worries the old elite, the military, the police and the intelligence agencies.

The report finds that these “attacks on a sitting Israeli government from within the Israeli establishment reflect genuine fear that its ‘irrational’ and ‘irresponsible’ plans may expose the true face of Israel’s regime of oppression and unravel fundamental aspects of Israel’s colonial settler democracy.”

Quoting Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the report argues protesters see a danger to their Jewish democracy: “Israel is a ‘Herrenvolk democracy, democracy only for the masters.’”

It is this Herrenvolk democracy, or what Peter Beinart callsliberal democracy for Jews,” that is being undermined.

The authors consider the role played in the “re-inventing of the settler colony” by religionizing the settlements as crucial. The process of judaizing Zionism and the occupation, now advances to judaizing the entire society, threatening the secular Jews of the old elite, thus underlying their opposition to the judicial coup.

Lacking a constitution, a time limit on serving premiers, no upper house to monitor legislation, no constitutionally anchored rights; with apartheid legislation such as the Nation State Law or the Law of Return; and without the many other democratic safeguards used by other states to defend human rights, the changes now proposed to the legal system will offer a clear run for fascists not just for further racist and exclusivist legislation, but for mass expulsions of Palestinians.

With “neo-Nazi ministers,” as per historian Daniel Blatman, in control of the occupation and settlements and the life of millions of Palestinians, including some two million Palestinian citizens of Israel, the few human rights of any Palestinian are clearly on the way out.

The report describes the “unprecedented responses” to the government plans and actions since early January across Israeli Jewish society. The range of civic, military reserves, judicial, media, social and cultural activities against the government, in tandem with a financial crisis, and the drying up of investments, diplomatic pressures seriously affecting exports and profits, and the danger of war, all outline the severity of situation.

Potential for change

An important section of the BNC report deals with the collapse of key military systems and the industries aligned with the military, such as Israel’s military industrial complex and the hi-tech sector.

The special role played by the intelligence community – responsible for Israel’s advanced tools for hacking mobile phones, computers and other digital systems – as well as the collapse of the education and especially the university and college sectors, are all signs of systemic collapse, regardless of Netanyahu’s denials.

The role of solidarity with Palestine, inside Israel and abroad, in this trying and dangerous period, as well as the difficulties for solidarity action in the more favorable atmosphere created by the protests, is given much space.

In its conclusion, the report’s authors try to balance the real dangers with the potential for solidarity activity, putting special stress on the urgency of such action. The upheavals are an opportunity and solidarity activists need to use this window of opportunity to change the parameters of debate from one of Jewish democracy and judicial reform to redressing the great injustices that have been done to Palestine and Palestinians.

What is especially impressive about the report is the depth and breadth of its argumentation and analysis, its realistic and focused nature, its clear-eyed attention to all areas of potential advantage for the Palestine cause, and the fact that it recognizes a radicalization potential within the Israeli protest movement,.

The report should be carefully read by Israelis, solidarity activists, politicians everywhere and all who are interested in a just and peaceful solution to the colonial conflict created by the Zionist project.

Whichever way the conflict between the old and new elites in Israel resolves itself, it cannot resolve the deep and fundamental issues now introduced by the fascist and neo-Nazi factions in government. The debate within the Jewish colonial community will continue to feed a bitter inner conflict for years to come.

But now that Zionism is clearly seen as the problem, even by many Jews in Israel and the diaspora, the solidarity potential for changing hearts and minds has never been greater.

The potential for change comes with a danger of escalation and new and massive ethnic cleansing. It is up to us all to act decisively and positively bring an end to growing Zionist racism, and advance toward a society of Israeli Jews and Palestinians living in peace, justice and equality, between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

That will be the real democracy, not the racist one now defended by a deluded protest movement.

*Featured Image: Israel divided: A supporter of Israel’s judicial reforms holds up a sign equating anti-government airforce pilots refusing service with traitors.    ~Eyal Warshavsky ZUMAPRESS

Haim Bresheeth-Žabner is a professorial research associate at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defence Forces Made a Nation (Verso).

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