Tipping Point: Israel on the Brink
Fractured Identities and a Divided Israel
The Death of the Old Man
On June 14, 2022, A. B. Yehoshua, Israel’s last of the generation of writers who began publishing after the formation of Israel in 1948, passed away. Around 250 friends and dignitaries attended his funeral at the secular cemetery on the outskirts of the kibbutz Ein Carmel.
A.B. Yehoshua, like his fellow writers Amos Oz and Yehoshua Kenaz, was born in the 1930s under the British colonial Mandate. Their childhood spent during World War II and the battles of the War of Independence, the foundation of the state, the years of enforcement of the military administration’s laws on Israeli Arabs, the signing of the reparation agreement with Germany, the unchallenged rule of the socialist Mapai, the predecessor of the Labor Party with its leader, “the old man” David Ben Gurion.
For the Israeli Jewish public, Yehoshua represented a voice of the post-exile, post-independence hegemonic Israeli: as opposed to the previous generation—the “48 Generation,” whose stories happened on battlefields against the British and the “Arabs” and whose heroes were busy settling in the new, mosquito drenched, barren land, Yehoshua’s characters, like the one in his first collection, The Death of the Old Man from 1957, were preoccupied with their personal lives, the small stories happening within the confines of four walls; from the romantic telling of the revival of Israel to people in a state, with all its bureaucracies, private pleasures and pains, a personal moral world instead of a universal—nay, national one. The world outside deteriorates and becomes violent and hostile to the lone, thinking person.
Despite his aesthetic aspirations, Yehoshua said that his work is subordinate to his political and moral agenda. He was one of the first public figures to oppose the occupation in an open letter from December 1967 titled “yes to peace and security—no to annexation,” which he signed with other educators and writers. He was a member of various left political parties and called for a two-state solution.
Yehoshua became the voice of the secular Ashkenazi Israeli center (even though his lineage can be traced back to Thessaloniki and Mogador). This hegemonic force ruled Israel for its first decades. His persona was ubiquitous, and his books appeared in high school final exams.
But this force began to crumble in the late 1970s and collapsed after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the failure of Oslo, and the Second Intifada.
The period after the early 2000s can be equated to an inescapable drought: If young men and women throughout the history of Israel had yearned to be swept up in a wave of change, there were no demonstrations, no outcries over the incessant violence. People were retreating into themselves, their eyes averted as if they could be spared by not looking. Then, a retreat into nationalism: the sons and daughters of those who survived the Holocaust, who fled from Iraq and Algeria, Yemen, and Syria, cheering for the destruction and annihilation of those who don’t have a place to escape to. And the cycle of hate intensified over the years.
Witnessing this crumbling of the old order, Yehoshua wrote a two-part essay in April 2018 about giving up on the idea of a two-state solution and instead embracing a single state; the future of the Palestinians would be the single horrible state with protection for minorities to minimize their suffering. Two months later, the Israeli parliament passed The Nation-State Law, which officially defines Israel as the exclusive national homeland of the Jewish people. Since its passing, the law has increasingly been used to dispossess Palestinian citizens, exclude their language and culture from Israeli society, and further radically define Judaism as a political entity rather than a religious one.
Yehoshua’s death isn’t only symbolic; it’s palpable. It marks the passing of the old hegemonic public intellectuals, the “old men” of letters who could be a moral compass and have the ear of the leaders and the public. He was the last pan-Israeli public intellectual before the new guard—with Man Booker Prize winner, writer David Grossman as its representative—already dismissed as Tel Aviv elite leftists.
Beyond his literary greatness, Yehoshua was one of the sharpest articulators of the elusive term “Israeliness.” Yehoshua wondered all his life about her nature, criticized her weaknesses, and sought to strengthen its qualities. For Yehoshua, Judaism’s future was tethered to Israeliness as a living religion, its character changing from the life of a people on its land, from pedestrian issues to moral ones. Fundamentalist religion and orthodoxy aren’t suited for a nation-state because they lack the critical muscle crucial in a civil society.
Over the years, Israel has become a more religious country, where the power of religious parties and leaders has gone from strength to strength. If in the founding years of Israel, the religious parties were small and happy to sit with any government so long as they got budgets for their sector, religious leaders have since taken on more prominent roles in government and beyond. Political leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu managed to capture this growing public becoming more powerful and nationalistic.
If 250 people showed up to Yehoshua’s funeral, then the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky—one of Israel’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis—who died three months before, upward of a quarter million people came, blocking the main arteries of Tel Aviv and its neighboring cities.
Yes, every person of those 250 attendees is much more influential, has more say, and represents a larger swath of Israeli society, from former President Ruvi Rivlin to Grossman. But those quarter of a million people who came out to show their sadness and admiration for the old rabbi show a shift in how Israel sees itself and what is vital to its citizens. Along with the advent of social media and the increasing religiosity of the Israeli public sphere, the old, secular, socialist guard has made way for a conservative, jingoistic one. It seems to me people in Israel still read, but fewer novels, less prose, more news, more self-help, and more religious texts.
Israel lost its Zionist-socialist-secular center, which was held by force and inertia for decades. Today Israel is fractured, sectorial, and sectarian; its fringes are talking in polyphonic voices over each other. Then again, if Yehoshua’s death is the death of the ancient Israeli identity, one must question what made it disintegrate—and how real and strong it was.
A Chronicle of Failure Foretold
One of the clearest examples of the fracturing of Israeli society, its lack of center, is the recent government, which fell in late June. This government was the first one for twelve years without Netanyahu at the helm. Its formation came after four election cycles, a war with Hamas, and a wave of interfaith violence that swept the streets of Israel after a wave of interfaith violence.
Naftali Bennett, leader of right-wing Yamina and former spokesperson of the Judea and Samaria Council, became prime minister—the first to be religious orthodox. Bennet and his partner, Yair Lapid, led a patchwork coalition called the ‘Change Coalition,’ which included parties from the hard-right to Ra’am, a conservative Islamist party, and the first Arab party to be a part of an Israeli government since the Six-Day War.
The government ran on ousting Netanyahu and reinstating the political status quo. But in Israel, where the sins of occupation and expulsion are still happening, the status quo is extreme. They may have ousted a corrupt prime minister, but the system in place, which was here before Netanyahu, is morally and ethically corrupt. This ‘Change Coalition’ didn’t bring much change to Israel but highlighted society’s fracturing and the absurdity of Israeli politics.
The coalition was teetering from the start. It’s one thing to have a nationalist party like Yemina sitting with a left-wing party like Meretz, but even within the “left” side of the coalition, there are gaps: Ra’am is a conservative Islamist party that ran on an anti-LGBTQ platform, which goes against the basic tenants of a party like Meretz.
Regardless, the government managed to pass a budget, a feat in Israel—a national budget hadn’t passed in more than three years. What’s interesting about this government is that it reflected Israeli society perfectly. Israel is made up of sectors all vying for their space and power, but there’s no escaping one another in such a small society. These challenges and increasing international criticism forced members of the government to deal with anything that arose because they wouldn't’t have the power to brush it under the rug. That was also its downfall.
Just a few weeks before, two Arab members of the coalition, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi from left-wing party Meretz and Mazen Ghanaim from Ra’am, voted against a directive giving Israel legal jurisdiction over Israelis living in the West Bank, a measure that has been approved every five years since 1967. Without this measure, the “legal” apparatus in the occupied territories expires, and with it measures extending Israeli criminal law and civil laws to Israelis living in the West Bank. Though Israel has not officially annexed the West Bank, these measures ensure that settlers receive the same protections Israelis within the Green Line do, without extending those same legal protections to Palestinians. Ironically, in a cynical move, the opposition, including Netanyahu’s Likud and the settler party, voted with the two defectors against their constituents. For the right-wing, every move is kosher if it gets them closer to power again.
The coalition hung by a thread with more defectors, left and right, announced every day. Then, the heads of the coalition decided to preemptively dissolve it. Now the scent of a fifth election cycle in four years is in the air. Its provisional date is October 25.
There is little doubt that if the elections were held sooner, the front favorite would be Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking a sixth term in office, all while standing trial for corruption and bribery. His government, if sworn in, would be the most extreme right Israel has ever known. Yes, there have always been extremist elements in the Israeli political sphere, but they have always been outcasts. When Meir Kahane got elected, MK tried to impeach him, and when he spoke at the Knesset, MKs would leave the plenum in protest.
But over the past few years, in order to consolidate his power, Netanyahu hasn’t only failed to condemn right-wing extremism but worked to strengthen it, to endorse it, taking its place in the halls of the Knesset, to let its members, like Itamar Ben-Gvir, an MK who was convicted on terror charges, incite there. Netanyahu effectively provided the most violent elements in Israeli society political immunity. When they take power, they will exact revenge on the left, Arab citizens of Israel, and Palestinians.
It’s not that the Israelis are inherently right-wing or racist—no public is. The public is, at its core, complacent, especially when current events turn in its favor. Under Netanyahu’s reign, voices on the left were marginalized, attacked, and muzzled. The Palestinian Authority, weakened and corrupt, hasn’t been able to gain international support. Thus, the public lost its vocabulary to express how it could end the occupation and oppression of Palestinians. Like yellowing “Free Tibet” stickers, the Palestinian question—especially after The Abraham Accords, which established “peace” between the Gulf States and Israel, especially with the threat of Iran—is bound to fizzle out.
The despair isn’t hidden, even by Arab leaders. When asked how his party was going to address the Palestinian conflict in government, Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas said, “What hasn’t been resolved in seventy-three years probably won’t be solved in the next four.”
Upon the government’s demise, the press ran articles with the headline, “the experiment failed.” It seems like they weren’t referring only to the current coalition but to a broader civic coalition where disparate sectors of society can sit around the same table and find common ground. The national identity of Israeli society was slowly developing during its first twenty years. It was the Six-Day War in June 1967 that pushed it into warp speed, the consequences of which we are still living with today.
The Longest Six Days
In the early 1960s, Israel was a leader in developing and manufacturing cement and other building materials. Too poor to rely on imports and short on a workforce, Israeli engineers calculated that it would be economical to develop building materials and techniques in a controlled setting. The national civil engineering company Solel Boneh and the Nesher Cement factory financed engineers who researched new ways to make cement stronger. The company not only single-handedly “built” Israel but was involved in projects worldwide, most notably in post-colonial African countries.
The faltering economic state of affairs in Israel changed overnight—or six days—with the astonishing and overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The victory led to a feverish euphoria in the country and seismic shifts in how Israel was structured—with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Suddenly Israel had three times the land it had before; new roads and buildings needed to be built.
On the flip side, Israel has unprecedented access to cheap, non-unionized labor. Hiring Palestinian workers was much more affordable than buying and developing new machinery and technologies. Ironically, early Zionists didn’t want to be overseers of Arab workers. Thus, Jewish collective institutions in the 1920s relied on “Jewish labor” to build their cities and towns. Now, it was Palestinians who were building settlements in and out of the Green Line. Throughout the ’70s, Palestinians became the backbone of the Israeli building industry.
The occupation also meant that Israel doubled its size and population, causing its defense spending to skyrocket from ten percent in 1966 to thirty percent in 1973 after the debacle of the Yom Kippur War.
Settlements started to pop up in the West Bank and Gaza in the late 1970s, slowly becoming towns, slowly becoming cities. In 1987 the First Intifada erupted, a popular uprising of Palestinians, in which Israeli Jews could witness for the first time since the occupation began the rage of everyday Palestinians. No more cheap shopping in the Nablus Casbah—more checkpoint inspections for Palestinian workers entering Israel to work.
The settlement project was endorsed by both left-wing and right-wing governments, argued by some that it was a bargaining chip to be later used in a peace negotiation with the Palestinians. All that went up in smoke in the early 2000s, after the Camp David summit failure, when then Prime Minister Ehud Barak stated “there’s no partner for peace,” and PLO leader Yasser Arafat triggered the Second Intifada.
After the Second Intifada and the withdrawal from Gaza, Israeli building companies are less reliant on Palestinian workers. Instead, they import workers from China, Romania, and the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, Palestinians have smuggled into Israel proper and parts of the West Bank to find work, an act that could be a death sentence.
The maintenance and development of the settlement project have become the center of Israel’s project, which most Israelis would like to admit. In order to expand the settlements, more territory is needed. Thus, seizing of land and expulsion of Palestinians have become essential tactics. One of the most egregious recent examples is the expulsion of Palestinians from Masafer Yata, a collection of small encampments in South Hebron Hills. In May 2022, the Israeli Supreme Court approved paving the way for the expulsion of 1,000 residents to establish a “fire zone” for the IDF, where it could conduct practices. This would be the largest deportation of Palestinians since the 1970s.
More so, the alignment of the IDF and the settler movement has become entwined. While sending his soldiers to quash protests around Joseph’s Tomb near Hebron,
Roi Zweig, the Shomron Regional Brigade Commander, said “In this location, the land was promised to Abraham, as is written: ‘To your descendants I give this land’ … and we’re operating today with force, as did our forefathers … not like thieves in the night but as sons of kings.’”
He also later said that the army and settlements are “one and the same.” If the IDF was once a breeding ground for the secular elites, today the religious-Zionists are claiming more positions of power within the army leadership: close to 40 percent of IDF officers come from a religious Zionist background. In essence, the settlements are exactly what the kibbutzim were for Israel in the first decades of the state.
These expulsions come along with daily violence against Palestinians and left-wing activists. On many occasions, IDF officers have looked on as settlers hurl stones or brandish weapons. If the casual victim of the everyday clash isn’t a notable figure, like journalist Shirin Abu Aqla, their case isn’t investigated, and leaders don’t feel the need to give answers.
Recognizing this, in recent years, a new doctrine from some of the center-right parties in Israel has again made headlines—“shrinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Proponents of this concept, which is based on the writing of the writer Micha Goodman, a resident of the Kfar Adumim settlement, argue that the conflict cannot be resolved and should therefore be managed more effectively.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, who once called Palestinians a “thorn in the butt,” is a big supporter of this doctrine, along with an increasing number of leaders at the center of the political map.
The stated goals, which were lined out by Goodman in The Atlantic, were improving the quality of life of Palestinians and maximizing the economic efficiency of the occupation. At the heart of this concept is a proposal to establish separate regimes for Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to neutralize Palestinian resistance to the occupation. There will be no national rights for Palestinians, only civil rights.
Not only is this perception not new, but its origins can be traced back to the British Mandate and the efforts of the British Empire to suppress Palestinian opposition to British colonialism and Zionist settlement through the construction of infrastructure. The bypass roads built by the British to bypass the arteries controlled by Palestinian fighters did not reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rather laid the foundations for its escalation. There is no way to “shrink” or bypass an existential issue; there’s only ignoring or suppressing it. The head-on collision will still happen down the road.
The wrongs of 1948 and War and the occupation could be argued by some to be born from complex historical confluences that were imposed upon Israel: The Holocaust, the crumbling of Britain’s shameful colonial rule, Palestinian refusal to recognize the partition plan, and the invasion of the Arab nation in 1948 and 1967. However, for generations who were born after peace with Egypt, the Oslo Accords, and the Second Intifada, the reality of inequality and the reality of occupation seems to be premeditated, cruel, and immoral. Despite its standoff with Iran, Israel isn’t facing an immediate existential threat. The Palestinian Authority has weakened over the past decades, and its only raison d’être seems to be an arena for corrupt politicians.
It seems that after fifty-five years of occupation, which are three-quarters of the total years of existence of the State of Israel, we have reached the point in which the temporary has become permanent. The vision and resourcefulness of pre-67 Israel have made way for a cumbersome, bureaucratic, and cruel system of power.
Those expecting radical change to happen any time, disappointment awaits. At the end of February, the world was shocked by the images of Russian tanks blowing by Ukrainian border crossings. What made this move so horrifying wasn’t only the sheer audacity of this move but also the realization that not one of the world’s superpowers could do anything about it made the invasion. For the past two decades, Putin was trying, testing the limits of his powers in Chechnya, Georgia, then Crimea, until, on lousy intel, he decided this was the opportune time to launch a full-scale invasion; economic diplomatic, the price be what may. That day was a marker not only in Russian history but in the way world powers are seen by their public.
The possibility of a full-scale annexation isn’t far-fetched. Given the right circumstances, like another Trump win in 2024, along with strengthening ties with the Gulf states against Iran, Israel might take over more and more areas in the West Bank, isolate Gaza even more, and make it known to Palestinians and those wishing and fighting within Israel for an agreement that no resolution is coming, that the status quo will remain, that the Israeli government will continue to conquer and divide.
The occupation, marking its 55th year, isn’t going away, because both sides cannot imagine a different reality. The old guards in Israel and Palestine are still holding on to their seats of power, still relying on some American miracle to either support annexation or pressure Israel to withdraw. Both sides are sitting on the brink, imagining the next step won’t be even more horrifying. And it just might be.
Cement and people come cheap at the price of expanding Israel’s rule.
What Is Israel
The Tel Aviv Central Bus Station: a maze of comings and goings. It was built already obsolete: a four-block, four-story concrete behemoth in the south of Tel Aviv was already condemned, and a new “New Central Bus Station” is already in the works.
In the bus station, worlds upon worlds tucked in windowless halls where, on Sundays, the echoing hymns of the Ethiopian Church can be heard; empty waiting halls where asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan sit and talk about what was, knowing not what will be; a synagogue open to all, where homeless people can find a bench and a prayer; IDF sleeping on their rucksack on the dirty floors waiting for a bus; Yeshiva kids smoke cigarettes in dark stairwells; a Russian bookstore; clothing boutiques with names like “Luxus” and “Hi-Fashion” selling disposable clothes to disposable people; a Yemenite restaurant that serves stewed beef and rice where taxi drivers fill their bellies before continuing their endless drive.
Even in the most westernized city in Israel and one of the most expensive in the world, this kaleidoscope emerges to contrast to the notion that the country resides on a pure ideological plane, that its inhabitants—Jews or Palestinians—are fully enlisted to a grand historical debate. Israel is a place of close quarters, sections of society, where immigrants and children of immigrants rub shoulders against each other and against those who have been living on this land for centuries.
The reality that finds Arabs living next door to immigrants from Ethiopia, ex-Soviet countries, Morocco, Canada, who all live across from a yeshiva that’s just next door to a techno club, defies the common assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just a microcosm of the clash between West and East, colonizer and colonized. What this reality does is raise more question marks, leading those who live in it and trying to make sense of down different hallways. If this building called modern Israel is already condemned, no one knows. Yet we still have a chance to open the doors to this place, to let light in these dim hallways in order to see each other’s faces.