Israel in Turmoil: Why and What Next?

Suzi Weissman interviews Yoav Peled

Posted April 29, 2023

Yoav Peled

THIS INTERVIEW WITH Yoav Peled was conducted April 5, 2023 by Suzi Weissman for Jacobin Radio, broadcast on KPFK radio in Los Angeles. It has been edited for publication here. As protests and polarization continue, updates on the evolving Israeli political crisis and events in Israel-Palestine are available at the valuable online publication +972.

Suzi Weissman: Half of Israel took to the streets, shutting down their workplaces on Monday, March 27. This was a spontaneous protest in response to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement of firing his defense minister the previous day, for noting that Netanyahu’s impending destruction of judicial independence was causing a large chunk of the nation’s military to go AWOL. [In the subsequent turmoil, it appears that the firing hasn’t actually been carried out – ed.]

The uproar at his sacking compelled Netanyahu to put his court-crushing offensive on temporary hold. Clearly the population did not buy Netanyahu’s argument — probably borrowed from the example of Viktor Orban in Hungary — that diminishing the judiciary strengthened democracy.

New polling has shown that roughly two thirds of Israelis oppose the firing and a majority favors forming a new government composed of many opposition parties. Netanyahu was compelled by public outrage to put his reforms on hold and begin negotiations until the Knesset returns from a several week recess. He pacified the far-right parties to which he’s beholden for his parliamentary majority by promising Hamar Ben Gvir he could establish and run a National Guard. Ben-Gvir heads the far-right party of Palestinian-hating settlers.

We’re fortunate to have Yoav Peled back with us to give the bigger picture of the current crises in Israeli politics. He is professor emeritus of political science at Tel Aviv University. He is co-author with Orit Herman Peled of The Religionization of Israeli Society and co-editor with John Ehrenberg of Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood.

Peled co-authored with Gershon Shafir Being Israeli, The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship. They won the 2002 Albert Hourani Award given by the Middle East Studies Association in North America for the best book in Middle East Studies published that year. Yoav specializes in inter-ethnic relations and citizenship in Israel; he’s now writing on the rise of populism.

I understand that you were in the streets, so I’d like to get your sense of the anger against Netanyahu’s anti-democratic moves. What do these protests represent?

Yoav Peled: It’s important to note that half of the people in the country were protesting. Fully half of the people were opposing Bibi’s moves while the other half supported them.

What you really have here is a clash between two classes. And since in Israel there is a great proximity between class and ethnicity, inter Jewish ethnicity, the clash is between the mostly Ashkenazi middle and upper-middle class who are relatively secular, and the mostly religious Mizrahi lower middle and working class.

Until now, there was no violence between the two camps. This changed last night — and the violence could escalate.

SW: Was this violence from the police or between the sectors of the society?

YP: There’s only one sector attacking the other, with the police trying to stop it. It’s hard to tell how seriously police try to stop it.

As in every other aspect of Israeli society, there’s a difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The police in Tel Aviv are much more liberal. That’s why Ben-Gvir fired the chief of police in Tel Aviv. This firing was halted by the government’s legal counsel, but In this case he had no authority to do so. You know how these things go at the end.

In Jerusalem, it’s something else. The chief there is much more aggressive towards the demonstrations. Demonstrations in front of Netanyahu’s official residence, the so-called Balfour demonstrations, have been going on for a long time so I guess this chief’s patience was already pretty short.

SW: How important is it that some of the military is opposed to what Netanyahu was doing?

YP: We’re talking about reservists. Most importantly, these are fighter pilots who have to train every week, otherwise they lose their capacity. Many said they were not going to come in for weekly flights under a non-democratic government. And the defense minister, who is a right winger, saw the military crumbling.

Netanyahu said he was firing him but he never sent him the letter. So far, he’s still the defense minister.

SW: It’s pretty incredible that the largely reservist military is opposed. We’ve also seen various IDF (Israel Defense Forces) officers commenting in the international press that they’re opposed to these moves.

Netanyahu is the supreme politician who’s always been deft at maneuvering and getting his way. But he’s under indictment. While he’s in office he’s immune but the indictment hasn’t gone away. What is Netanyahu trying to do in curbing the power of the judiciary? How much does this curbing of the judiciary’s power have to do with his personal legal battles?

YP: It has everything to do with it. It’s going on for a long time and it’s going surprisingly slow now. Anybody can guess why.

There’s several ways in which Netanyahu can get out of it, and all would require legislation (proposed to give Netanyahu immunity while in office — ed.). If such legislation can be reviewed by the High Court of Justice, which is the Supreme Court functioning as a constitutional court, then this legislation can be cancelled.

To make sure the indictment is quashed, he would need a “nevertheless” clause saying that if the Supreme Court strikes down a law, the Knesset can reenact it with a simple majority. That would be 61 votes out of 120, or less than the current government has. This is the first item on the government’s agenda.

Secondly, Netanyahu wants to reshape and reconstruct the committee that selects all judges, including Supreme Court justices. That would give the executive branch control over this committee, which it doesn’t have now. Then Netanyahu can nominate justices who will not strike down a law that lets him out of a trial.

SW: How does that go down in Israeli society? Obviously, Netanyahu was elected, but he was elected by creating a coalition with the far right, giving the small far-right parties much more power than they otherwise would have.

As you’re describing it, he has to get legislation curbing the judiciary and changing the way judges are appointed. In the United States, they didn’t have to change any laws — once the Republicans were in power, they used the Senate as their mechanism for appointing a batch of right wingers as judges.

YP: By the way, they point to how the United States appoints federal judges and say: “What’s wrong with that? We’re not even going that far.” There will still be Supreme Court justices on that selection committee. But power will be with the committee’s political element. They will be able to do whatever they want.

SW: It sounds pretty cynical, all to prevent Netanyahu from going to jail.

What about Ben-Gvir? What does his party represent, how much power does he have whatever Netanyahu is or is not doing?

YP: There is another element here, which is Netanyahu’s family. Everybody says his wife and son are powerful influences. They push him in the direction of being more extreme. The combination of Netanyahu’s trial and the family pressure apparently made Thomas Friedman write (in The New York Times) that he’s not acting rationally.

Political and Ethnic Divides

SW: Can you talk about the divisions that you outlined in your book The Religionization of Israeli Society?

YP: First of all, I made a sociological generalization. Although you will find many Mizrahim in the liberal camp and many Ashkenazim in the anti-liberal camp, if you look at the overall substantial numbers the generalization is valid.

We argue in our book that there is no such thing as secular Jews in Israel, but let’s say they are more or less secular — Ashkenazi middle and upper classes against the more or less religious Mizrahi middle and working class.

In my work on populism, I argue that the second camp — the more religious, more Mizrahi camp — are the constituency of the populist political forces. They are largely responsible for this government.

SW: What motivates them besides religion? Terrible inequalities have grown as Israel became more and more neoliberal. Has the gap has begun to shrink?

YP: When we talk about neoliberalism in Israel, it’s really a misnomer because the “neo” in neoliberalism means going back to a liberal system. There was never a liberal (traditional free-market – ed.) economic system to go back to.

The transition (in 1990s Israel – ed.) was from a corporatist economy to a liberal economy that initially hurt many of the lower classes. But it opened up many opportunities for small entrepreneurship, many of them Mizrahi.

After ten years of this liberal policy, they began to do better economically. That’s why the income gap between the Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is diminishing. Today the share of the Mizrahim in the top 10% of income earners is equal to their share of the population, which is between 20 and 25% of the Jewish population.

Why do many of them support populism? They are not really left behind, and in most countries it’s usually those left behind who support populism. There are a number of factors, one of which is the historical resentment against how their parents and grandparents were treated.

Second is a fear of Palestinians, including economic competition with Palestinians. This economic fear used to be primarily within the working class, but now there’s an emerging Palestinian middle class so the economic fear has grown.

Overall, the period of economic improvement for the Mizrahim was Netanyahu’s period. He gets credit for that.

SW: In much of Europe and the United States, the anger of those who no longer support what they call the liberal elite is focused on their anti-immigrant politics. They feel that somehow immigrants are taking their place and they are left behind.

This has a lot to do with the restructuring of industrialization, which has led to massive displacement. But you’re saying that in Israel it’s different. Is the division between whether you’re Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, so that the division is based on where your family came from?

YP: Yes. The division is based on the resentment over the treatment that the parents or grandparents received from the “absorbing establishment,” which was the Labor Zionist establishment. Some people even say there’s hatred of Zionism among many of the Mizrahim, even of the third generation.

But economically, things have been getting better overall. That’s true for the Mizrahim, and for those people who support the populist parties.

SW: Do Mizrahim feel more insecure because of the conflict with Palestinians?

YP: I don’t think they feel more insecure — everybody here feels insecure — but when you add that to all the other factors, it pushes them in a populist direction.

SW: Would you say that most Mizrahim support Likud or do they support more other far-right parties?

YP: If we look at the populist bloc, three political parties – Likud (Netanyahu’s party), Shas (Mizrahi-based Orthodox party) and this Religious Zionism (a bloc of far-right groups encouraged by Netanyahu to run jointly) — they consistently get between 60 and 70% of the Mizrahi vote.

The lowest third often vote for the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party. The middle third vote for Likud. And the upper third vote just like the Ashkenazim. for the so-called center-left parties.

The 60 to 70% vote for the populist bloc comes from the serious studies by an economist by the name of Momy Dayan, who studies inequality and its political effects. It is completely consonant with what I’ve been saying.

SW: Does religion divide Ashkenazi and Mizrahi?

YP: There are the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox (Haredim – ed.) in the anti-liberal camp, but they are not populists. As far as the non-ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi, many of them think of themselves as secular. They are not really secular, but they are much more so than the Mizrahim.

It used to be said that they were traditionalists. A traditionalist is someone who goes to synagogue Friday night and drives to a soccer game on Saturday. Israeli Judaism and Jewish nationalism in Israel are one and the same — and the more religious, the more nationalist. It adds to all the other factors we mentioned.

Crisis and the Future

SW: For a long time you’ve been saying that the so-called peace movement is dead and that almost all of Israel has moved to the right on the question of Palestine. It does seem that Netanyahu and his government is completely tone deaf on Palestinian rights. or don’t consider it so important anymore.

Given that, how do you evaluate the current crisis? Would you call it a constitutional crisis or a wider social crisis? How do you view the anger in the streets? Is it more of the division that we saw in the elections, or something deeper? Where does it go from here?

YP: It’s hard to tell where it goes demographically. Of course, the anti-liberal camp is growing. There is a saying that if you see an ambulance passing by, it’s either a Likud voter being born or a Labour voter dying.

There’s no comparison between how many kids the ultra-Orthodox, both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi are having, and the less than two children the secular, largely Ashkenazim have. The future is theirs.

But at this moment it’s hard to tell because the liberal camp still holds many powerful positions in Israeli society — not in the political system per se but in society, as when all the military reservists said they wouldn’t come.

After the announced firing of the defense minister, the Histadrut, the big AFL-CIO of Israel, sitting together in the same room with the employers’ association, declared the general strike. This was the first time ever that these employer association leaders were in the Histadrut’s building. That’s the situation right now, but it’s not clear how it will turn out.

SW: Would you speculate that Netanyahu will somehow come out of this and create a way to move forward?

YP: I think that’s the more likely outcome. Nobody believes that anything will come out of the negotiations that just began after they paused the legislative blitz. If I had to bet, I would bet that the constitutional counter-revolution will continue. Netanyahu will survive and the government will pass whatever legislation is needed to get him out of his trial.

SW: Will Netanyahu be able to restructure the way the courts are appointed? Will he be able to curb the power of the judiciary?

YP: The restructuring will give parliament more power — but in Israel, the parliament is controlled by the executive. So it’s really one and the same.

Although the situation is in flux, but if I had to bet, I would bet that they will get their way for the simple reason that they have 64 members of the Knesset out of 120. It’s very hard to fight that situation.

SW: Even if Likud is voted out of power in the next election, is it possible to overturn what Netanyahu’s done? Or do you see this as the new configuration of Israeli politics?

YP: Right now, the polls are very much in favor of the liberal camp, but that’s now. We don’t have an election coming anytime soon. By the time the election comes in four or four-and-a-half years, unless the government falls for some reason, so many things can and will happen that it’s doubtful that what the polls show has any meaning for when the elections will actually take place.

SW: I want to thank you for talking with us about the divisions within portions of Israeli society. Yoav Peled is a professor emeritus of political science at Tel Aviv University.

YP: Thank you very much for having me and great to talk to you.

[Yoav Peled’s article is “From Safe Haven to Messianic Redemption: The Ascendance of Religious-Zionism” (2022).]