As the State of Israel enters its 70s, it is in very good shape: economic growth is sound and steady, and the country is a member of the OECD club (since 2010). In addition, it seems to have overcome its 70 years’ of wearing conflict with the Palestinians – the enemy from within – who finally laid down their weapons on the Hamas side. However, on May 14, a new mass return or Nakba march is scheduled, which has already been staged each Friday since last March 30. This would make it possible to see thousands of Palestinians rallying together to put pressure on the borders, in general, and on the Gaza Strip, in particular. However, Israel is already making plans to minimise human losses (48 Palestinian victims so far) and contain the storming crowd, while it seems unlikely that the latter would get any substantial backing from either the Arab states or the international community. Thus, a great majority of Israelis are convinced that the status quo can be safely maintained without any major disturbances during the years to come. Despite this, many would like Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennet (the leader of the right-wing party The Jewish Home and current Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs) to seize the positive momentum offered by the acquiescent and like-minded Trump administration to annex the settlements and the surrounding area C.
In this sense, Israel is also drawing comfort from various positive signals, such as the relative silence maintained so far by both Palestinians in the West Bank, avoiding any large-scale solidarity protests, and by the 1,771,000 Arab-Israeli citizens (20% of the population) within the Green Line who are denouncing the massive killings that occurred on the Gaza border without resorting to violence and staging mass demonstrations. In fact, Israeli Arabs appeared mostly disillusioned with and withdrawn from the political sphere, gradually losing faith in the ability of the Joint List to pierce the Israeli political arena, as much as alienated from the Palestinian National Authority and their Arab leaders, with the single exception of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, whose members are increasing but are constantly facing the risk of disbandment by the government.
At 70, Israel is a democratic, Western-inspired and economically successful nation-state that has been fully integrated into the international community, despite its geographical location in a turbulent region. Therefore, it can permit itself the privilege of looking inward: with its 8,457,000 inhabitants and a population that is still constantly on the rise (though the Jewish pool of potential new immigrants is almost exhausted), it is a booming and vibrant society that still defines itself as Zionist even though it no longer harks back to the socialist and equalitarian ideals of the first settlers. The ingathering of the (Jewish) exiles, which has so far contributed to the edification of a solid and cohesive society overall, is lately shedding parts, as heterogeneity in the country is deepening. The old-time religious-secular divide is still alive, but the major cleavages in Israeli society stem from other factors now, such as the presence of some 30,000 black Ethiopian Jews who are still discriminated against with respect to wages and religion, and an increasing number of non-Jewish immigrants, which has lately reached 101,000 people, of whom a tiny minority are already second-generation immigrants who were born and raised in the country and whose existence is little acknowledged by public authorities.
In fact, in an inaugural speech on his election in 2014, Rivlin, Israel’s current president, recognised the official existence of the following four major ‘national’ tribes: the secular, the national-religious, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. He later (in 2017) added even the diaspora Jews as a fifth tribe that earnestly keeps tabs on Israel from abroad and can be fully counted as members of the Jewish family on this list. The fifth tribe, however, makes itself heard only in more symbolic debates that revolve around the identity and characteristics of the Jewish state (as the famous ‘Conversion Bill’ in 2017 and the ‘equal prayer controversy’ at the Western Wall pointed out, also in 2017) and they are not concerned as long as domestic interests prevail. Rivlin’s speech was even praised for including the Arabs within the national community: as if he could have ignored their presence, which comprises 21% of the population.
Among the three main Jewish tribes, different political attachments and different understandings of Israeli citizenship exist, and they cannot be perceived as homogenous categories by lumping together Jews of European (Ashkenazim) and of Arab descent (Mizrahim) and Russians in the secular tribe, new Ethiopian immigrants and older Mizrahi immigrants among the religious-nationalists, and a great variety of conflicting streams and doctrines in the ultra-Orthodox camp in which some Hassidic groups are vocally anti-Zionist and neither recognise the state nor abide by its laws, and others, such as the Habad or the so-called ‘Lithuanian Jews’, who revolve around the religious school (yeshiva) Merkaz ha-Rav ha-Kook and are deeply committed to its defence and fully engaged in the West Bank’s settlement movement. In addition, some groups are highly politicised (as ‘Amana’, formerly known as Gush Emunim, pointed out), whereas some are quietists (Hassidim), which makes it difficult to account for the great variety of political positions that exist in the ultra-Orthodox camp. The only element that binds the ultra-Orthodox camp together is opposition to the religious Jews’ military draft bill whose application has been postponed for two years but is supposed to be implemented by 2019. The exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service was judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in September 2017. In an effort to keep his government together, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rules in coalition with religious parties (i.e. the Shas Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri), brokered its deferral for another two years so that religious communities could adjust. However, resentment is smouldering under the ashes, and the population of ultra-Orthodox Jews who now account for 10% of the population are likely to resume the tug-of-war on military service as the date of enforcement approaches, staging a massive campaign of civil disobedience that would be a thorn in the side of Netanyahu’s government.
The government and many political groups in the country are also engaged in curbing the political powers of the Supreme Court and revising its mandate, as they perceive its frequent interventions in defence of the rule of law as counter-beneficial and a bulwark of liberal and Western-inspired values that are no longer in tune with the ethos of the majority of the country. In fact, the Court’s rulings are increasingly perceived as non-democratic, and the government is pushing forward a bill of reform (the ‘Override Clause’) with the aim of curbing the ability of the Court to topple ordinary laws that conflict with the basic laws of the country.
With an eye on Iran, Netanyahu is also pushing for the establishment of a narrow Security Cabinet, which is comprised only of himself and the Minister of Defence (currently, Israel Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman), with the power to declare war on ‘extreme occasions’, despite the Knesset’s still demanding the presence of a quorum from the whole cabinet. Notwithstanding the contingent political context triggering the bill (a potential preventive aerial attack on Iran), if it passes, the process of gradual concentration of power into the hands of the executive will be accomplished and Israel would move a step closer to a presidential rather than a parliamentary democracy and to a majority-led and populist Middle Eastern State rather than an enlightened Israeli Republic comprising all its citizens.