What in the World Is Happening in Israel?
A week of reporting from Israel and the West Bank has left me feeling that the prospect for a two-state solution has all but vanished. But no one wants to formally declare it dead and buried — because categorically ruling it out would have enormous ramifications. So, diplomats, politicians and liberal Jewish organizations pretend that it still has a faint heartbeat. I do as well. But we all know that the two-state option is not in hospital. It’s in hospice. Only a miracle cure could save it now.
Alas, though, just because the two-state concept is vanishing doesn’t mean the one-state solution — with Israel alone controlling the West Bank, Jerusalem and pre-1967 Israel forever — automatically becomes the easy default. Not at all. The more you examine closely how Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have been living together between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea the more you realize three important things:
First, you realize that, despite episodic blowups, these highly diverse, often antagonistic, but deeply intertwined communities have been kept in rough equilibrium since the 1993 Oslo Accords, thanks to a combination of Israel’s security clampdowns, the workings of the Palestinian Authority, economic growth and a whole lot of pragmatic compromises and self-restraint exercised by all sides every day.
But you also realize that a variety of long-developing demographic, technological, political and social changes are reaching tipping points that are stressing all the balances between Jews and Jews, Jews and Israeli Arabs, Jews and Palestinians and Palestinians and Palestinians that have kept this place reasonably stable.
By that I am referring to the fading of the peace process and prospects of a two-state solution, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the corruption and breakdown of the Palestinian Authority and the prevalence of TikTok and other social media. In the past year alone, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, roughly 20 Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians have died in violent incidents.
I don’t think a day passed on this trip when I did not read about or see TikTok or other videos of a Palestinian shot by Israeli soldiers or Israelis rammed into or attacked with knives by individual Palestinians. This conflict porn is new, it’s pervasive and it is incredibly effective at instilling hate in 15-second bites that keep everyone in a permanent state of fear and rage.
And all this was before Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow victory in Israel’s recent election, leading to what soon will be the most ultranationalist, ultrareligious governing coalition in the country’s history. (My rule: Any party that invites the prefix “ultra” before its name is not a good thing around here.)
All of that drives the realization that Israel will need to practice a lot of self-discipline to preserve stability. All of the parties do — but Israel is the effective sovereign over this whole realm. Without self-restraint, the result will not be a stable one-state solution, with the mosaic of Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinian citizens and Palestinians of the West Bank all living in harmony. No, without self-restraint, Netanyahu and his coalition partners could bury the two-state solution and the one-state solution in the same grave.
That would just leave us with the One Big Mess Solution.
If you ask me, that is now the most likely outcome — a total mess that will leave Israel no longer being a bedrock of stability for the region and for its American ally, but instead, a cauldron of instability and a source of anxiety for the U.S. government.
Why such a worry? Because Netanyahu’s new partners stand for the exact opposite of self-restraint. Four of the top five party leaders of the incoming coalition government — Netanyahu, Aryeh Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir — have either been arrested, indicted, convicted or served prison time on charges of corruption or incitement to racism. These are not people known for stopping at red lights.
Moreover, Netanyahu is expected to name the ultranationalist, anti-Arab Ben-Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, as his minister of national security. He is giving Ben-Gvir oversight not only over the Israeli Police but also over other law enforcement agencies, including the Border Police, which are very active in the occupied West Bank. Ben-Gvir would easily be able to weaponize these agencies against the Israeli Arab and Palestinian populations.
Netanyahu is also expected to make Smotrich minister of finance and also intends to give him and his party, Religious Zionism, responsibility over the Civil Administration, which has always been held by Israel’s Defense Ministry. The Civil Administration has power to expand Jewish settlements, to restrict Palestinian daily life and to enforce the law, including house demolitions.
Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are religious zealots who promote Jewish presence on Temple Mount, which is also holy to Muslims. The policing of Temple Mount is carried out by the Israeli Police, which Ben-Gvir is about to get control of. You get the picture?
Netanyahu has been basically telling American officials, American Jews and Israel’s Arab allies that although he’s putting foxes in charge of hen houses and distributing matches and gasoline to pyromaniacs, his personal power and savvy will be able to replace institutional checks and keep his extremist partners from taking Israel over a cliff.
We’ll just have to see. Color me dubious. In the meantime, allow me to take you on a quick tour of the political landscape and show you just how many equilibria are being stressed and why Israel today desperately needs the most pragmatic, restrained government it could possibly produce — but is getting just the opposite.
One of my first stops on this trip was the Jewish community in the heart of the Palestinian area of Hebron, near the tomb of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. A few days before my visit, several controversial encounters unfolded there between Israeli soldiers, who clearly identified with the new right-wing government, and left-wing Israeli Jews who traveled to Hebron to show solidarity with Palestinians under occupation, The Times of Israel reported,
In one encounter, caught on video, a soldier tackled a Jewish demonstrator and punched him in the face. In a separate video, a soldier confronting other protesters is heard to say: “Ben-Gvir is going to sort things out in this place. That’s it. You guys have lost. … The fun is over.”
That boasting soldier, the newspaper added, “was wearing a patch velcroed to the back of his military vest that read: ‘One shot. One kill. No remorse. I decide.’ Patches other than those showing the logo of a military unit or an Israeli flag are against military regulations.”
What happened next, though, is where the story between Jews and Jews gets complicated. The Israeli Army sentenced the soldier who taunted the protesters to 10 days in military prison. The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said the soldiers caught in the video had acted “contrary to the values of the Israeli military.”
This prompted Ben-Gvir to criticize the army for sending a “harmful message” to soldiers. “We must not let the anarchists who slander us endlessly win,” he tweeted. Kochavi then issued a statement: “We will not allow any politician from either the right or the left to interfere in command decisions, or the use of the army to promote a political agenda.”
In the midst of all this — I’m not making this up — Netanyahu’s own son, Yair, retweeted a post calling on Kochavi to push “your disgraceful letter and its feigned governmentalese far up your ass.” The elder Netanyahu stayed silent for a couple days, before finally issuing a declaration backing up the army.
I was shown around Hebron by the spokesman for the Jewish community there, Yishai Fleisher, a couple days after the incident. He expressed his relief that hard-line Jews, like Ben-Gvir, were coming back to power, replacing what he deemed as weak ones. Or, as he put it to me: “The Israel we knew is back — that is, the badass Jewish state that protects the Jewish ethnic minority in this region has returned.”
I simply cannot imagine how this new relationship between Ben-Gvir, the Israeli military, the Israeli Police and both Jewish and Palestinian activists will find equilibrium.
Next, think about the complexity today in relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Start here: In 2019, an Israeli Arab, Samer Haj-Yehia, was appointed chairman of Bank Leumi, Israel’s biggest bank by market value. Yes, you read that right. The head of Israel’s most important bank is an Israeli Arab — with a doctorate in economics from M.I.T. and degrees in accounting and law from Hebrew University.
I find that pretty amazing — and it truly speaks well of Israel as a democracy. Israeli Arabs are 21 percent of Israel’s population, nearly 20 percent of its doctors, about 25 percent of its nurses and almost half its pharmacists — and at the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T., more than 20 percent of the students are Israeli Arabs.
All good news. But here’s the rub. As more and more Israeli Arabs join the middle and upper classes economically, more are moving out of their traditional Arab towns and neighborhoods and into Jewish-dominated places, like Tel Aviv and Herzliya, which have much better schools, roads and housing. But this also is a new source of tension, as the two communities meet more often in more contexts.
For example, it is much more common for Jews to hear Arabic spoken in their nearby pharmacy or store. Two weeks ago, an Israeli influencer suggested to her followers to walk out of a store in Israel if the clerks are speaking to one another in Arabic — not Hebrew.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens “are integrated more, working more, contributing more and demanding more,” explained Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit promoting Jewish-Arab understanding, headquartered in Lod. Israeli Arabs “are everywhere now. … There are now tens of thousands of meeting points” between Israeli Jews and Arabs, “and they can become explosive or celebrating of diversity.”
In May 2021 — during another military clash between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza, which erupted following Jewish and Arab demonstrations in Jerusalem and the Israeli Police’s taking over the Temple Mount — these tensions exploded. Arab residents of mixed Jewish-Arab cities, like Lod and Acre, attacked Jews and burned Jewish property, including several synagogues.
In retaliation, Jewish right-wing extremists fought with both Arab residents and the Israeli Police. In the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, a mob of right-wing Jewish extremists dragged an Arab driver from his car and beat him viciously.
This violence, particularly the burning of synagogues in a Jewish state, undoubtedly prompted a considerable number of Israeli Jews from the center-right to shift to the ultranationalist far right, giving Ben-Gvir the power that he now has.
Nevertheless, when I sat with several of Abu Rass’s Israeli Arab colleagues, they all made clear, as he put it, that “the duality of identity is becoming normal — ‘I am a Palestinian living in Israel. This is my state and my homeland, too. I have a sense of belonging and ownership.’”
In other words, this accelerating integration of Israeli Arabs — not just their episodic violent protests — is also driving the rise of Israel’s chauvinistic right wing. Which is why Ben-Gvir’s campaign ads were so effective in mobilizing his ultra-nationalist supporters and so discouraging to Israel’s Arabs. It just had his picture next to the question: “Mi Po Ba’alei HaBayit? — Who are the landlords here?”
That question is getting sharper by the day. If you take Israel, the West Bank and Gaza together, “Jewish people make up less than 47 percent of all those living west of the Jordan River,” The Times of Israel reported in August, citing a prominent Israeli demographer who warned, as the newspaper put it, “of the democratic peril the country is sliding into by possibly becoming a ruling minority in the area.”
In short, remaining Ba’alei HaBayit, namely the landlords, will become more and more difficult for Israeli Jews. And because the ultranationalist parties in Israel refuse to share power with Israeli Arabs or West Bank Palestinians, I increasingly believe that the alternative to the two-state solution will not be a stable one-state solution. It will be the One Big Mess Solution.
But there is one major institutional barrier to Ben-Gvir’s and Smotrich’s intentions of becoming the sole Ba’alei HaBayit. It is Israel’s Supreme Court and independent attorneys general, which have long been held in high regard all over the world, and their ability to limit the government’s excesses. In their quest to impose ultranationalist Jewish political agendas and ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious agendas over all other secular Jewish and Arab communities in the country, these ultranationalists need to diminish the power of the courts. Here, their interests are aligned with Netanyahu, who wants to stop his ongoing trial on corruption charges.
That is why the coming government is expected to vote in a new law to allow a simple majority of the 120 members of Parliament to overrule the courts, giving the executive branch superiority over the judiciary.
This possibility led Israel’s attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, to declare on Thursday: “Without judicial oversight and independent legal advice, we will be left with just the principle of majority rule, and nothing else. Democracy in name, but not in essence.”
This possibility also led one of America’s most important Jewish leaders, Abe Foxman, former director of the Anti-Defamation League, to say to The Jerusalem Post, “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it,” adding, “If Israel becomes a fundamentalist religious state, a theocratic nationalism state, it will cut Israel off from 70 percent of world Jewry.”
Adding to all this complexity is the unfortunate fact that, for every Israeli Arab who is making it in modern Israel, another is being left behind. This is particularly true among the Bedouin communities in the south, where infrastructure and public schools have long been neglected.
For too many years, the government failed to advance planning and zoning in Israeli Arab areas, so not a single new Arab city has been built, compared with dozens of new Jewish communities. Therefore, illegal construction is prevalent everywhere. In addition, the government seems to have taken the view that Arabs killing Arabs in their towns — over issues of honor or other disputes — is their internal issue, so Arab communities have been massively underpoliced.
As a result, in the south, where some of the poorest Bedouin Arab communities are, weapons smuggled from Jordan are readily available and criminal gangs run protection rackets to extort Israeli farmers, and Israeli Jewish girls are regularly harassed in malls. Murders of Arab citizens by Arab criminals and shootings are reported almost weekly.
But these Israeli Arabs have company at the bottom of the education ladder here. A huge number of ultra-Orthodox Jews are also poor and unable to participate in Israel’s advanced economy. It’s because their rabbis refuse to let them get properly educated in math, science and English — only religious studies of the Torah.
Which is why, explains Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economist, who heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, half of Israel’s population — mostly ultra-orthodox Jews and Arabs — are too poor and unproductive to pay taxes.
“In 2020,” Ben-David notes on his website, “22 percent of the first graders were Arab Israelis. This group’s most recent international test scores in math, science and reading (PISA 2018) were not just low: Arab Israelis scored below nine of the 10 predominantly Muslim countries that participated in the exam.”
Meanwhile, 21 percent of Israel’s first graders are ultra-Orthodox Jews, a vast majority of whom grow up with limited education. And the share of the ultra-Orthodox in the country’s population “has roughly doubled from one generation to the next.”
Some 90 percent of all income taxes collected by the Israeli government in 2017 came from just 20 percent of the population — who are largely secular and have modern educations. This is also the community that carries much of the burden of military service.
Despite all of those perils, to win support for his government from ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu agreed to substantially boost public funding for ultra-Orthodox institutions that don’t teach core secular subjects such as math and English and to dilute all initiatives for a more equal burden of military service.
In short, given the increased power of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s government, some of the least economically productive parts of Israeli society will more and more be telling the most productive parts how to live in more and more realms.
If that goes to extreme, says Ben-David, “you will have an increasing share of educated and skilled people — the kind that we need the most — who will decide not to remain here.”
Finally, there is the issue of the West Bank Palestinians at the bottom of the power stack and their relations with one another and Israeli Jews. It, too, is being transformed.
One reason so many Israelis have been able to ignore the West Bank, with its roughly three million Palestinian residents under occupation, is that the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas there is funded by external donors and Palestinian tax receipts — and because the P.A. security services have worked hand and glove with Israeli security services to curb Palestinian attacks on Israeli settlers and inside Israel.
That is all unraveling. Abbas is elderly — he recently celebrated his 87th birthday — and his administration is riddled with corruption. The P.A. security forces are fraying and, lately, some of their members have just taken off their uniforms and joined resistance groups against Israel. As a result, Israel’s ability to maintain security control in the West Bank at a relatively low cost is diminishing. Israeli military units almost every night now have to shoot their way into and out of towns like Jenin and Nablus to capture or kill Palestinians whom Israel claims were involved in planning or actual attacks on Jews.
Meanwhile, guns — smuggled in from Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon, or sold on the black market to Palestinians, after being stolen from Israeli Army bases — are everywhere. Over lunch in Ramallah, a Palestinian businessman said to me, “I can buy you a gun right now easier than I can hire a plumber to come and fix something.”
As the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki explained it to me, there has been “a big change in Palestinian society in the last five years among 15- to 25-year-olds — a radicalization in ways we have never seen before. They are completely different from their parents and grandparents. They no longer trust the P.A. They see them as collaborators, and they believe that the only thing the Israelis understand is the language of force.”
This young generation, who are not religious, live on social media, particularly TikTok. They share videos there of Israeli forces brutalizing and sometimes killing Palestinians, become enraged in 15 seconds, and then go out as individuals or in small groups and attack an Israeli. And now they often arrange in advance to record themselves on video doing it. Two or three Palestinian youth get killed this way multiple times a month, feeding a growing online library of rage-inducing videos.
At the same time, a fascinating counter-trend is unfolding among Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians are now working in Israel every day, and many of their businesses are dependent on access to Israeli markets. More Gazan workers than ever are reportedly studying Hebrew in classes held in Gaza!
Ramallah-based Palestinian business consultant Sam Bahour put it to me like this: Every day more and more Palestinian youth see “more and more Israeli aggression, and more and more settlements and say to themselves: ‘Maybe it is time for our generation to say to Israelis: ‘Congratulations — you won. You get East Jerusalem, all the water, and all the land, and do you know what else you get? Us! Now, where do I pick up my Israeli health insurance card?’ That is totally in our power to do.”
Indeed, if or when the P.A. collapses, there will be no small number of West Bank Palestinians inclined to prefer to become part of a prosperous Israel with equal rights, like their Israeli Arab cousins, rather than a failed Palestinian quasi-state.
Who knows? This group may not object to Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s annexing the West Bank — but then they, too, will insist on being Ba’alei HaBayit.
In sum, I had not been to Israel since 2019, and I was stunned by the explosion of skyscrapers I found in Tel Aviv — all built with human creativity around science, medicine, agriculture and technology, not fossil fuels. Israel has much to be proud of and to preserve.
But preserving its prosperity and stability, as it veers to the far right politically, will get harder and harder. Because that requires a wisdom and moderation that doesn’t seek to prove “who is the landlord” but seeks to make this diverse society work for everyone.
It has a role model in an Israeli politician with whom Netanyahu is quite familiar. Of all the interviews I did on this trip, the one that stays with me most was with Mansour Abbas, who represents the Israeli Arab Islamist party, which became the first Israeli Arab party to become a full-fledged partner in an Israeli Jewish-led ruling coalition, the national unity government formed in June 2021, headed by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, which Netanyahu just toppled.
Mansour Abbas has openly declared, “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and it will remain one.”
Before Lapid and Bennett formed their government, Netanyahu tried to get Abbas to support his coalition, but his ultranationalist partners said they would not serve with an Israeli Arab Muslim in the same cabinet. So, in the latest election, Netanyahu reversed course and used Abbas’s presence in the Bennett-Lapid cabinet to inflame anti-Arab sentiments among Israeli Jews, which helped him win at the ballot box.
Abbas said to me: “I asked Bibi, ‘Why you are accusing me that I am a Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist?” He said Netanyahu told him it was political. He needed to get votes.
Abbas is a keen observer of the Israel scene. He explained that he grew up as part of the Muslim minority in a predominantly Christian-Druze Arab village, where he learned early on that in Israel, “diversity exists not just between Arabs and Jews, but inside the Arab sector and Jewish sector, too.”
As a result, he said, he came to believe that “all of us have a lot of identities — religious and national. We can live together with our identities, if we try. I call it ‘a civil approach’ based on values. … I studied political science at Haifa University. I learned the term ‘how to manage a conflict.’ But there is another term — ‘how to manage a partnership.’ I prefer conflict inside partnership and not outside of it.”
So, he added, “I do partnership — and hope then there will be change.”
I can’t think of a more fitting way to end a piece about the true complexity of the situation in Israel than to quote an Israeli Palestinian Islamist telling Israeli Jews about the spirit of partnership needed to preserve Israel as a Jewish homeland and a democracy for all of its citizens — whether it’s in two states or one.
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