A sharp internecine struggle has erupted within the Israeli ruling class. Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu has only been back in office a couple of months, and he is determined to ram a raft of judicial reforms through Israel’s Knesset (parliament). In doing so, he has enraged the majority of the big capitalists, who have taken the unusual step of backing the mobilisation of enormous crowds on the streets. When the ruling class descends into open conflict like this, it carries, for them, the danger of dropping the façade that in ‘normal’ times conceals the real machinations of their rule. The present conflict is no exception.
The present situation has deep roots stretching back through decades in which the entire ruling class of Israel (its conservative and so-called ‘liberal’ wings alike) has deployed a brutal and methodical policy of occupation, land grabs, settlements, and discrimination against Palestinians. And it has used the hatred and fear that its own policy has whipped up between Jews and Arabs to corral Jewish Israeli workers around the state.
Every government has helped foster this same siege mentality. But just as the monster that Dr Frankenstein conjured up slipped from his control, so the Israeli ruling class has created an uncontrollable, fanatical movement of far-right Zionists and Ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists, particularly deeply rooted in the settler movement in the West Bank. They have increasingly assumed the role of kingmakers, pushing their representatives to top positions in the political establishment, barging their way in with no regard for the priorities of this establishment.
Now – after the brief 18-month interlude of the Bennett-Lapid ‘everyone but Netanyahu’ coalition, and partly thanks to them – Netanyahu is back in power. This time, he heads a coalition of far-right parties including the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party led by Itamar Ben-Gvir (now Minister of National Security) that stands for the complete annexation of the West Bank and the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, and the Religious Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich (now Minister of Finance), a man who once said of himself, “I’m a fascist homophobe, but I’m a man of my word.”
No sooner had they arrived in power than they rolled out a legislative agenda that set the government up for a clash with the bulk of the ruling class. They set themselves the aim of ‘reforming’ the judiciary, such that the Supreme Court would be unable to overrule legislation, whilst a simple majority in the Knesset would be enough to appoint judges.
Each party in the coalition has its own motivations. The far-right fanatics in the cabinet see the courts as a bastion of Bolshevism, determined to frustrate their dream of reconquering the whole of Eretz Israel exclusively for God’s chosen people. For Netanyahu, more personal and worldly factors are involved, as he attempts to dodge numerous charges for corruption, bribery and fraud. But to maintain himself in power, he is forced to rest on more and more reactionary forces, forces that are far from being under his control.
Bibi vs. the bourgeoisie
These reforms have sparked an open revolt by a big part of the capitalist class. Simply put, the capitalist class as a whole demands the separation of powers under a capitalist ‘democracy’, so that no one individual or group of individuals from among their class can tip the system in their favour. This is what all the talk of ‘democracy’ and ‘independence of the judiciary’ amounts to on the part of the capitalists. They worry that Netanyahu and his clique will use their control over the state ‘unfairly’ to favour themselves.
And the capitalist class aren’t really hiding that this is their real motivation. The Times of Israel explains this fact, in black and white, in an article that is worth quoting at length:
“In recent weeks, tech companies, moneymakers, business organisations, policymakers, and prominent economists have repeatedly warned that the judicial overhaul plan, which they say threatens democracy, will hurt Israel’s standing as a stable hub for investments.
“The fear is that a weakening of the judiciary system will create uncertainty and scare away foreign investors from injecting funds into companies in Israel. This in turn could force local and international businesses to leave and set up shop elsewhere.
“A number of Israeli unicorns [companies valued at over $1 billion — BC] have already announced that they are pulling significant funds from Israeli bank accounts and placing them abroad due to pressure from concerned foreign investors.
“Israeli cybersecurity firm Wiz, valued at a staggering $6 billion and backed by US investment firms Insight Partners and Greenoaks Capital, confirmed last week that it is moving tens of millions of dollars out of Israeli banks to diversify investor funds.”
U.S. Ambassador Thomas Nides added his concerns: “You’re doing something right, okay? The judicial system has been in place for a long time, which has allowed a flourishing of innovation, technology, money-making, quality – that’s happened.”
“Money-making” – that’s what it’s all about! Why rock the boat when we are making so much money?
Protests started with a flurry of petitions from business. HSBC and JP Morgan both issued warnings. The international rating agency S&P has taken the very unusual step of threatening a cut to Israel’s credit rating. Many have warned that this could all trigger a freefall market collapse, as Liz Truss’ little experiment did in Britain last autumn.
But when the petitions didn’t work, the bulk of the capitalist class decided that the gloves had to come off.
The main media outlets have ramped up their rhetoric, referring to Netanyahu’s move in quite startling language: beyond an “attack on democracy”, they are calling it a “revolution”, a “coup”, and even “regime change”.
Each Saturday since January, the bosses have thrown their weight behind ‘pro-democracy’ protests in the streets that continue to grow.
The tech sector has played a particularly significant role within this strange ‘activism’. It has special cause for concern, given that it is a relative newcomer to Israeli shores and lacks influence in the governing coalition. A large employer among the more socially liberal urban layers, it is about as far removed as it is possible to be from the fundamentalist Haredim on whom Netanyahu rests, with their rejection of secular education.
“Save our startup nation,” declared one banner at the 21 January march, at the front of a bloc representing these same tech startup companies. On 13 February, a day of ‘strike action’ was organised, not by the Histadrut trade union federation but rather by a group of 300 tech companies and venture capital funds.
The protests have been addressed by CEOs, former generals, and former prime ministers. Even the former chief of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, has been along, striking a note of dread in one press interview: “There is a deep anxiety that we are approaching the abyss,” he told Haaretz. Similar feelings were expressed by the right-wing former prime minister Naftali Bennett, who warned of “civil war in Israel”.
With the full-throated support of the majority of the media and the full weight of business, these protests, ‘strikes’ and road blockades have grown and grown, with some organisers estimating that as many 500,000 have participated in the latest weekend of action.
Even the army has been affected. 8 February saw a march of Israeli Defence Force (IDF) reservists. This has now escalated to 350 officers and soldiers signing a petition declaring that they would refuse to serve as reservists if the judicial reform continued to press ahead. Splits at the top of the state are extending all the way down to the very bottom. In one incident, a whole squadron of over 40 pilots refused to turn up for training, and other squadrons have threatened to follow suit.
Normally, the Israeli ruling class and the media would spit poison at such ‘refuseniks’, damning them as traitors, as they have done every time Israeli soldiers have refused to support oppression of Palestinians. Now they hum in sympathy with their cause – although, we might add, they may live to regret encouraging this dangerous precedent.
A very interesting article in Haaretz
On 16 February, Israel’s liberal daily newspaper, Haaretz, published a remarkable little article, titled, “Bibi’s Blunder: He’s Made Enemies With Israel’s Elite”.
What makes it remarkable is its frankness in laying out exactly what capitalist ‘democracy’ is supposed to be about. We quote it here at some length because, in its rare frankness, it tells us a lot not just about how bourgeois democracy works in Israel, but everywhere else too:
“…even in modern democracies where each and every adult is entitled to one vote, the social and political reality is that some voters have more power than others, which they can and do use long after the polls have closed.
“A high-tech investor and the CEO of a large company has only one vote when he goes into the polling place but he has a lot more ‘votes,’ or more precisely has much more political clout, by virtue of his ability to create jobs and power the economy. The same applies to leading political activists, journalists, scientists, engineers and intellectuals, who also get no more one vote on election day but whose contribution to the economy and society make their opinions consequential.
“They are the people who have made Israel the powerful, prosperous and technologically innovative country that it is today. For sure, not all of this elite opposes the judicial overhaul. But the poll numbers offer a glimpse of the socioeconomic divide between the supporters and opponents of the changes.”
Bear in mind that this newspaper fully supports the ‘pro-democracy’ movement, and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about ‘the elite’ using the extra ‘votes’ that their class position grants them. We should not be surprised, however, as this is how bourgeois democracy works everywhere. Under the freest democracy, the mass of the people enjoy equal voting rights – on paper. But as soon as the interests of the capitalist class are threatened – by a faction or individual of their own class or, more dangerous still, by a left-wing government supported by the working class – then we see who really has the power. The article continues:
“…therein lies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s problem: The election gave him and his allies of the religious and right a clear Knesset majority, but he doesn’t have the support for judicial reform among the people who basically make Israel run. Netanyahu could ignore the rallies in Tel Aviv, but when the high-tech leaders, bankers, economists and business people express their opposition, it’s time for him to worry.”
In other words, you don’t get to carry out your policies under capitalism just because the ‘democratic process’ grants you a parliamentary majority. Fundamentally, any government requires the consent of those who really make society run: “the high-tech leaders, bankers, economists and business people”! And, as the piece points out, Netanyahu is no doubt painfully aware of this fact:
“His far right and ultra-Orthodox partners are more concerned with promoting their ideological visions and serving their constituencies. But Netanyahu isn’t that kind of ideologue. He is more concerned by creating a militarily and economically powerful country.
“Settlers don’t attract billions of dollars in foreign investment every year, Haredim don’t have the education and skills to serve in the army’s elite high-tech units and Saudi Arabia won’t normalise relations with Israel because it hankers for the products turned out by Israel’s low-tech industries.”
These are the real interests behind this movement for so-called ‘democracy’. In fact, although this movement has certainly mobilised thousands of workers, the leadership of neither side in this conflict stands for the interests of Israeli workers or the Palestinian masses.
Indeed, a question raised by some left commentators (in disappointment and confusion) has been: why hasn’t the movement raised slogans against the real travesty against democracy committed by the state of Israel: the oppression of the Palestinians and the occupation of their land? But this ‘pro-democracy’ wing of the ruling class has every interest in continuing the oppression of the Palestinians, as it has done for decades. The main concern of the big capitalists is that, by pushing this policy to its extreme for his narrow individual interests, Netanyahu is unleashing forces that are impossible to control, and this policy can ricochet against their own interests.
Far from raising demands that might bring Palestinians into the movement, some of Netanyahu’s opponents in the right-wing press have explained how dwindling support for the government in the army, the economic damage of his judicial reform, and the way the government is alienating US imperialism “will prevent Netanyahu from annexing land in the West Bank and probably prevent any unilateral military action against Iran”! In other words, they pose as the real and serious defenders of an aggressive, Zionist policy!
That is abundantly clear to the Palestinian masses, who are almost entirely absent from this movement, despite their deep-seated hatred for Netanyahu. How can they seriously come out in defence of the same judicial system that approved the Jewish Nation-State Law, that locks up thousands of their young people, that regularly rules in favour of Palestinian evictions like at Sheikh Jarrah, and of new settlements?
And yet, it is worth the effort of revolutionaries in Israel-Palestine to study this split in the ruling class carefully, as it is full of instructive lessons for workers in the region and far beyond.
How will this end?
The crisis is likely to deepen before it reaches a crescendo. If Bibi blinks, it could prove to be his downfall. But no one else is able to form a coalition, and election after election have failed to break the impasse in the crisis-ridden Knesset.
If Bibi doesn’t blink, the ruling class are warning of “the mother of all constitutional crises” should the judicial reforms pass.
What will happen when the Supreme Court rules against the very laws passed precisely to clip its wings? And the point may arrive when the security services are forced to choose between conflicting orders coming from the prime minister on the one hand and the attorney general on the other. In short, Israel is heading into uncharted territory.
In the past, when cornered, Netanyahu has consistently sought to divert attention with new murderous wars on the Palestinians, as in Gaza in 2021. It cannot be ruled out that he would not do so again, with atrocious consequences. The government is already ramping up its aggression towards the Palestinians, approving new settlements, and locking down and raiding Palestinian towns in the West Bank.
In the two months of the year so far, 67 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli state security forces, compared to 170 killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2022. We should also note that 2022 saw almost twice as many Palestinians killed in the West Bank as in 2021, making it the most deadly year since 2005 – and that was under the Bennett-Lapid government.
But the presence of far-right parties in government has certainly now encouraged fanatical settlers seeking direct confrontations with Palestinians. Hundreds rampaged through the Palestinian town of Huwara on 26 February, burning out dozens of cars and homes and killing one person in what was termed a “pogrom” by one senior Israeli General. Smotrich, charming fellow that he is, responded to these events by calling for Huwara to be “wiped out”.
This incessant brutalisation of Palestinians is creating a sense of desperation, particularly among the youth. The rotten leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which collaborates day in, day out with the occupation has become utterly discredited. A large majority of Palestinians now want to see the back of the president of the PA Mahmoud Abbas, whilst 59 percent of Palestinians see the PA as simply a burden on their back. This was clearly expressed in the ‘Unity Intifada’, the massive unified Palestinian general strike in May 2021.
A big vacuum of leadership exists, whilst the pressure constantly piles up on the Palestinian people. With no alternative lead emerging from the mass movement of the ‘Unity Intifada’, young people are taking things into their own hands, arming themselves in groups in Jenin, in Nablus with the ‘Lion’s Den’ group, and elsewhere with the aim of fighting back whilst the PA sits on its hands. Whilst the mass movement has been growing in Israel, we’ve also seen two general strikes of Palestinians since the start of the year – in East Jerusalem against increased Israeli police presence, and across Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem against the raids to assassinate young armed militants by the IDF in Nablus.
Whilst individual revenge attacks against Israeli security forces are wholly understandable – and perhaps inevitable given the brutalisation of the Palestinians – what is necessary is to develop mass armed self-defence groups connected to a mass movement with clear revolutionary aims as an alternative to all the rotten factions of the Palestinian leadership.
The status quo ante is no solution
Returning to the severe splits dividing the capitalist class of Israel, history shows us that such divisions in the ruling class are often the moment that the working class seizes the opportunity to burst onto the scene with its own demands. In fact, only an independent, revolutionary, working-class alternative could cut across the barbarism we see, for which all wings of the Israeli ruling class are co-responsible.
In the context of a deep crisis of capitalism, a massive housing crisis and numerous other social crises wracking Israeli society, there certainly exists potential for such a movement. The very fact that these protests are able to mobilise on such a scale – half a million represents an enormous mobilisation in a country of 9 million – indicates a deep ferment in society, and especially the middle classes. This is an important symptom, even if the protests have a generally reactionary character. Netanyahu, who was in power from 2009 to 2021, is the hated face of the austerity and instability of the whole past period.
Whilst the bourgeois leadership has given these protests their main political colouration, with the sham slogan of ‘democracy’ merely concealing their aim of getting power out of Netanyahu’s hands and into their own, that’s not how the bulk of protesters see things. Whilst the platform speakers have said very little or nothing at all about the occupation and the brutalisation of Palestinians, slogans of disgust against the Huwara pogrom have been raised spontaneously in some protests. And a ‘radical bloc’ and ‘anti-occupation bloc’ have participated since the beginning and have modestly grown with the weeks – although it should be noted that, whilst they have reported getting some positive responses, particularly from young people, they have also reported consistently being harassed by many others.
The point is precisely to break these protests down along class lines through an independent, working-class mobilisation, raising class questions. But to this there exists a major stumbling block: the lack of an alternative leadership to the different bourgeois factions. In Israel, the ‘Labour’ and trade union leaders have for decades dragged like a long tail behind the Zionist ruling class.
The question must be addressed of creating a Marxist organisation that can unite the workers and oppressed on a genuine revolutionary programme, which can fight for the overthrow of capitalism throughout the region and for the formation of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. This alone would be capable of providing a future in which Israelis and Palestinians could live alongside one another in peace. This, and not a return to the status quo ante, is what the International Marxist Tendency fights for.