A divided Israel stands at a perilous crossroads on its 75th birthday
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When Israel declared independence in 1948, in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, Tel Aviv was a small city of low-level dwellings.
Today, where once there were sand dunes, there are now skyscrapers hosting some of the world’s richest high-tech companies.
And the small, scrappy army that improbably fended off much larger Arab forces during the ensuing wars is now considered one of the more sophisticated militaries in the world.
But although Israel’s rise has been dramatic, on its 75th anniversary the country also feels like it stands on the brink of a chasm, a crisis of identity, even as it continues to face ever-present external threats.
“The fierce debate over Israel’s direction in recent months is a striking example of the ways that alienation between different groups, and polarization that festers for years, becomes corrosive. And weakens the pillars that hold our nation together,” Israel’s President Isaac Herzog warned this week in a speech to Jewish groups.
“I am convinced that there is no greater existential threat to our people than the one that comes from within: our own polarization and alienation from one another.”
The polarization Herzog described is most visible in the unprecedented divisions between supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to reshape the balance of power between parliament and the judicial system.
The legislation has plunged Israel into the largest and longest protest movement in the country’s history.
For months now, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets week after week to protest the government’s plan to give politicians in the Knesset, or parliament, new powers over the courts and the appointment of judges.
Israel’s lack of a constitution is cited as one of the reasons for the current political crisis.
When the state was founded, there was an intention to write a constitution, but disagreements delayed the process. Seventy-five years later, it’s still delayed: Instead of a written constitution, Israel has what it calls some Basic Laws that have a constitutional status.
Governments have always been able to tinker with those Basic Laws, but this government’s judicial overhaul – described by its advocates as a necessary reform to rein in an over-reaching, unelected judiciary – is on a scale rarely, if ever, seen before.
And although Netanyahu announced a temporary pause on the legislative process last month, the protest movement has maintained much of its momentum, morphing into a general movement against the government itself, the most religious and right-wing in Israeli history, led by the first sitting prime minister to remain in office while facing an ongoing corruption trial.
The intensity of anti-government feeling was evident on Israel’s Memorial Day on Tuesday, a day when Israelis normally rise above politics and join together in mourning those killed in wars or in terrorist attacks.
Protesters shouted at one of the more extreme members of the government, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, when he spoke at a military cemetery, and scuffles broke out between mourners. Other government ministers also faced smaller disruptions, and a few chose not to speak at all on Memorial Day rather than give demonstrators a chance to make scenes.
Nearly every sector of Israel has been dragged into the political crisis. Even the typically apolitical Israeli high-tech sector has gotten involved, as start-ups keep investments out of the country and companies encourage their employees to participate in protests.
High-tech entrepreneur and Chairman of Jerusalem Venture Partners Erel Margalit told CNN that unlike previous years, this Independence Day is not solely a time for celebration.
“[I]t’s also a time to say what we want the character the state to be: We want a democratic state, we want a pluralistic state, and we want a creative society where there is more than one voice. We want Israel to use its technology and its strength, not to isolate itself from the world but to connect it.”
“Many on the right and left are looking at the social contract that we have here, and saying we must put democracy front and center. Yes, we say Israel is 75-year-old miracle, but it is a democratic miracle that needs to stay free and needs to stay ready for the next chapter, the next 75 years and beyond,” he added.
But as Israel celebrates 75 years since its founding with fanfare, Palestinians mark the same event with mourning. It was during the Jewish state’s creation that more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes in what is now Israel. Almost eight decades on, they lament that event as the Nakba, or catastrophe, with no solution in sight for the millions of stateless Palestinians today, or a peace agreement with Israel. (Palestinians formally mark Nakba Day on May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s founding in the Gregorian calendar.)
Any meaningful peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has been frozen for years, and the situation on the ground is at its most precarious since the end of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, at the beginning of the century.
The number of Palestinians, militants and civilians, killed in the occupied West Bank by Israeli forces is at its highest in nearly two decades. The same is true of Israelis and foreigners – most of them civilians – killed in Palestinian attacks. New militant groups have emerged or re-emerged in the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin. The new generation is adept on social media, and capturing disillusioned youth who see the Palestinian Authority and its aging leader Mahmoud Abbas as a corrupt force that has done little to shake off the occupation or bring about an independent Palestinian state.
Israeli police incursions into the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan this year have threatened Israel’s new and valuable partnerships with Arab states forged under the Abraham Accords.
Police say they were forced to enter the site – holy to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount – after hundreds of youths barricaded themselves inside, throwing stones and launching fireworks at Israeli forces. But scenes of police beating Palestinians inside the mosque drew widespread condemnations.
Israeli officials dismiss the idea that their new partnerships are under threat. But Netanyahu’s quest for a formal peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, the holy grail of Arab normalization, seems as far away as ever.
Israel has been waging what it calls the “war between wars” for years now, striking strategic targets, usually Iranian-backed groups in places like Syria.
But recent events suggest that the next major war may be coming.
After the Israeli incursions into the al-Aqsa mosque, Palestinian militant groups not only fired rockets from the Hamas stronghold in Gaza, but also from Lebanon and Syria. The volley from Lebanon was the largest from there since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.
The rockets from the north were most alarming for Israeli security officials, who have long feared a war with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group that controls southern Lebanon and which has a much more powerful arsenal of missiles than Hamas holds.
Although Israeli officials, perhaps seeking to contain the conflict, said it was Palestinian militant groups and not Hezbollah that fired the rockets from Lebanon, leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah have been holding public meetings to discuss “the readiness of the axis of resistance.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told reporters in a briefing last week that Israel will soon have to face a multi-front conflict.
“This is the end of the era of limited conflicts,” Gallant told reporters, according to the Times of Israel. “We are facing a new security era in which there may be a real threat to all arenas at the same time.”
Gallant specifically pointed the finger at Iran, which he said was the driving force and source of funding behind most of Israel’s threats.
And although a return to the Iranian nuclear deal does not seem to be on the table, Israel is still trying to push the United States to use more direct means to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
“Iran is closer than ever to a military nuclear capability. In the face of this threat, [we] must act in one of two ways, military action or a credible military threat,” Gallant urged. “Iran feels increasing self-confidence in its view that the West is deterred and lacks effective tools against it and that Israel is busy dealing with Iran’s emissaries.”
For the past 75 years, Israel has succeeded in facing down its external enemies and managing its internal conflicts. But never before has the state faced so many different crises at once, and as it celebrated its Independence Day under perfect blue skies on Wednesday, the future seems more uncertain than ever before.