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How Israel's political crisis is fanning the flames of civil war

Experts warn that violent internal strife is more likely than many would like to believe
Protesters confront Israeli police at a demonstration in Tel Aviv on 1 March 2023 (Reuters)
Protesters confront Israeli police at a demonstration in Tel Aviv on 1 March 2023 (Reuters)
By Lily Galili in Tel Aviv, Israel

"Civil war" is probably the term most heard in Israeli discourse today, and it is not just a figure of speech.

It is an expression of overwhelming and unprecedented anxiety like nothing Israelis have experienced before.

It sounds even more ominous in Hebrew when the alternative term to "civil war" is "brothers' war" in a country that prides itself on internal solidarity to the level that people call each other "brother".

But for many Israelis that fraternal feeling has now gone and has been openly replaced by hate, contempt, and plain horror. 

'The only solution is civil war. Sephardi Jews against Ashkenazi Jews, left against right, the rich against the poor, religious against secular'

- Israeli TV comedy show

What started as opposition to a controversial judicial overhaul in the form of "civil disobedience" is now snowballing into something much bigger.

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For over two months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been participating in weekly protests and strikes against the judiciary changes, viewed as "reforms" by the government and a "coup" by opponents.

The plan - pushed by the country's right-wing, ultranationalist government - could effectively erode checks and balances on the government and allow the country to slip further towards authoritarianism.

But while the government remains undeterred by the protests, the resentment grows bigger on both sides. 

Now the "civil war" alarm bells are being rung by politicians, an ex-intelligence chief, pundits, and even noticed by the state's arch-foes.

The blame game of who started it has already begun. Nobody knows for sure if or when this scenario will materialise, but simply talking about it is dangerous enough.

Long time coming 

The toxic atmosphere in Israel today has been here longer than many dare to admit.

In March 2021, after the fourth non-conclusive round of parliamentary elections in less than two years, a popular satirical show "Eretz Nehederet" aired a breathtaking comedy sketch in which a street-smart Israeli gives his solution to the political deadlock. 

"Enough is enough", says the character named Shauli.

"It does not work, this nation lacks chemistry between the citizens. Let's put an end to it," Shauli explained. 

"The only solution is civil war. Sephardi Jews against Ashkenazi Jews, left against right, the rich against the poor, religious against secular. It doesn't matter. Just not the Arabs... If they choose, let them fight later against the winner.

"It is simple. It's not even a war you have to declare, and we are well-equipped. Everybody here served in the army and has some weapons left at home." 

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Back then the monologue resonated with Israeli audiences because they found it funny. But listening to it today, the sketch feels like a creepy prophecy now coming true. 

More recently Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel's internal intelligence service, the Shin Bet, issued a warning. 

In October last year, days before the election that brought the current ultranationalist government into power, Diskin wrote an article in the Yediot Ahronot daily titled "On the brink of civil war".

He predicted what was to come, basing his analysis on the disintegration of internal social cohesion that he argued was already underway.

Many were shocked by his directness at the time and rushed to rebuke him and try to prove him wrong.

Six months later, polls show one-third of Israelis now agree with him. 

A survey published in February conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that a third of respondents think a violent civil war is likely to break out. The percentage is higher amongst the protesters polled, reaching more than 50 percent. 

Mounted police are deployed as Israelis block a main road to protest the government's judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on a March 2023 (AP)
Mounted police are deployed in Tel Aviv in early 2023 as Israelis block a main road to protest the government's judicial overhaul plan (AP)

Beyond the threat of physical violence, the war of words is already unfolding. 

Protesters are comparing the government to Nazis, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refers to them as "anarchists" in the "other camp".

In the latest large protest last week, police also changed the strategy of restraint they have adopted since the start of the demonstrations. Participants were violently dispersed by mounted officers, stun grenades and water cannons, which were at times used arbitrarily. Dozens were wounded or arrested. 

On the other side, protesters were criticised by government and opposition MPs for blocking Sarah Netanyahu, the PM's wife, from exiting a beauty salon last week. Yair Netanyahu, her son, called it a "lynching" attempt by "terrorists". 

The roots of where Israeli society finds itself today, however, might be found back in 1995, when left-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by far-right activist Yigal Amir. 

Experts say civil wars historically start with high-profile assassinations but take time to develop into all-out conflict. Has Israel arrived at that moment? 

Two Israels 

Gad Barzilai, a professor at the University of Haifa, has done extensive research on the indicators of civil wars. He predicts Israel might be heading in that direction now.

"People carry a wrong image of what a civil war has to be," Barzilai told Middle East Eye. "It's not a painting of people slashing each other's throat with an axe, it can take different forms."

The law and political science teacher explained what those can be: a failure to communicate between state elites, lack of central figures and institutions to negotiate with competing sides, or constitutional disagreement like in the American Civil War (1861-1865).

"The American Civil War did not happen over slavery only," said Barzilai. 

"Between 1830-1860, there were attempts to negotiate between the south and the north… For years, both sides failed to reach a constitutional understanding which eventually led to the war. This is where I see Israel now, in that kind of a crisis."

'People carry a wrong image of what a civil war has to be... It's not a painting of people slashing each other's throat with an axe, it can take different forms'

- Gad Barzilai, law and politics  professor

Barzilai's concerns are confirmed by what he sees as "social indicators" that normally precede a civil war, which he argues exist in Israel today.

Chief among those are financial troubles, which have been felt in recent months due to the ongoing political crisis.

The gap between the rich and poor is already widening in Israel. In a society already loaded with ethnic tensions between Mizrahi Jews (of Middle Eastern and North African descent) and Ashkenazis (of European descent), economic trouble could fuel even more socio-economic friction.

But the danger of civil war does not come from the grassroots, Barzilai argued, but rather from competing authorities. 

"Just think of a situation when judges of the high court refuse to cooperate with the judges nominated by this government, considering them 'political judges'. What if hundreds of judges refuse to sit with them? What will the Israeli bar association do?" he said.

"What if settlers establish a new illegal outpost in the occupied West Bank and the army is not allowed to evacuate it?"

This will lead to "two Israels" with a "divided sovereignty", the signs of which are already emerging, according to Barzilai. 

This rhetoric of the "two Israels" - the liberal-secular one and the theocratic other - has now become more popular. They are two separate entities; Israel and Yehuda, or Judea, like in ancient times.

This divide does not necessarily spell civil war, but it does encapsulate the deeply-felt inability between rival Jewish camps to coexist in one country.

Al-Aqsa, not democracy 

David Passig, a futurist and associate professor at Bar-Ilan University, has been predicting a civil war in Israel for years.

He believes, however, that the "casus belli" (a Latin term referring to the event or act used to justify war) will happen at al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem, and not over democracy, the core issue of the current tensions and mass protest in Israel.

Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam and is seen as a symbol of Islamic and Palestinian culture. 

It's referred to as the Temple Mount in Judaism and is holy to Jews. 

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands at the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem's Old City overlooking the Dome of the Rock in al-Aqsa Mosque on 12 February 2023 (AFP)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands at the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem's Old City overlooking the Dome of the Rock in al-Aqsa Mosque on 12 February 2023 (AFP)

The site is currently being governed by an international status quo agreement that stipulates that only Muslims can pray at the site. Israeli settler groups, backed by ministers and MPs, have been advocating for a change to the status quo for years, and have frequently performed prayers on the site backed by Israeli troops, in violation of the agreement.

"Temple Mount is for many Jews in Israel the embodiment of what the Jewish State is. Without it, the state loses what is for them its very raison d'etre [purpose or reason of existence]," Passig told MEE.  

"I'm not sure democracy holds the same meaning. Unless - and there is a disclaimer - democracy turns into religion and not just a system of governance that can be reformed. It is not utterly impossible, but I don't see it happening now."

Another factor that makes Passig sceptical that current protests could lead to a civil war is the lack of equal appetite for a mass confrontation on both sides of the struggle. 

So far only pro-democracy demonstrators feel they are in the fight of their lives to save their nation, he argued, while the worst-case scenario for the other side is dropping the judicial overhaul plan. 

"I doubt 'the other side' can be lured into the streets over judicial reforms," Passing said. 

However, if Palestinian citizens of Israel join the protest movement, then that could be a turning point, he added. 

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Palestinian citizens of Israel make up nearly 20 percent of the total population. They are a minority indigenous group that avoided violent displacement by Zionist militias in 1948 and remained in their homeland, which later became Israel. 

Rights groups say they have been marginalised and discriminated against in Israel for decades, including by state institutions that current protests want to save, like the Supreme Court.  

Though they will likely be the first victims of the government's "reforms", they have largely boycotted the overtly Jewish Zionist demonstrations. Some Palestinian citizens say they have been banned or excluded from the protests.

Their conspicuous absence serves as a shield against right-wing violence. So far, there are built-in restraints on Jews fighting Jews.

"If Arab masses join the protest that might be a game changer in the nature of the confrontation," says Passig. 

"Their presence would raise the anger of the radical right, and we find ourselves in a new ball game. Same with some physical, even unintentional harm to a leader. That will obviously bring the other side to the streets, there are many factors we cannot control nor predict."

Most Israelis still do not believe civil war is an option or are reluctant to admit to themselves it's a valid possibility. 

Fear prevails, and so does venom. Old social wounds nurture the new confrontation. 

Yet with so many variables out of control, and a self-centred leadership dominating politics, all assessments and predictions are subject to change.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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