The Neglected Dimension of Israeli Democracy (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- January 17, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Do you mean the Palestinian issue? How can you compare its impact on Israeli democracy to the Netanyahu government’s threat to neutralize the judicial branch in favor of populist rule? That’s the burning issue.

A. The West Bank occupation has eroded away at Israeli democracy for decades. Now, the erosion threatens to become far worse. It would be a grievous error to concentrate only on the threat to the rule of law within Israel and ignore the Palestinian issue--meaning to ignore the double-barreled nature of the current threat to Israeli democracy.

The Palestinian issue threatens Israel’s democracy in a number of different ways. While the internal threat against the judicial branch of government is currently the topic of petitions and mass demonstrations, the threat posed by the Palestinian issue is almost as imminent, far more complex, equally dangerous, and dangerously neglected. It is also grotesquely interlocked with the Israeli domestic threat.

Q. Let’s break that down. Almost as imminent?

A. Here is a shortlist of the prospective scenarios that could, any day and in any combination, place the threat to Israeli democracy posed by the Palestinian issue front and center on the Israeli public agenda. And unlike the threat to Israel’s judicial branch, any and all of the Palestine-related scenarios will also be front and center on the Arab, American and United Nations agendas.

First, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), age 87, could pass from the scene. He has no designated or agreed successor. Anarchy and violence could ensue in the Palestinian Authority. This is the most obvious scenario that would likely oblige Israel, still officially the occupying power, to send in the Israel Defense Forces to reoccupy areas A and B of the West Bank and reestablish military government.

A second factor could be Palestinian-Israeli violence. Last year, 2022, was the most violent year in the West Bank since 2005. Currently, the IDF is killing nearly one Palestinian a day in armed clashes, mostly in the northern West Bank. Escalation is in the air. Warnings of a new, third Intifada abound. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their patron, Iran, are egging the violence on. Another heavy round of conflict like the second Intifada (2000-2005) is almost certain to bring down the PA.

But the Palestinian Authority could soon collapse for additional reasons. Israel’s new Kahanist-fascist-messianic ministers, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, now intend to exercise authority granted them by their coalition agreements in order to empower more West Bank settlers and punish West Bank Palestinians.

The new Netanyahu government is already busy punishing the PA financially in response to the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations to appeal to the International Court of Justice against the occupation. By withholding customs levies collected on behalf of the PA, Israel is hastening the Palestinians’ financial collapse, beginning with mass unemployment due to Ramallah’s inability to pay salaries. Note just how vulnerable economically the PA is: 55 percent of its imports come from Israel; 65 percent of its budget is based on taxes collected by Israel.

Foreign Minister Eli Levi, hardly the most extreme of Netanyahu’s new ministers, declared that withholding Palestinian taxes and additional punitive measures are intended to signal that “Israel will exact a price for every attempt to hurt it in the international arena”. Extreme right-wing minister Smotrich stated that he does not care if the PA collapses.

The additional measures, incidentally, include cancellation of recently granted Palestinian permits to build in Area C, forbidding flying the Palestinian flag anywhere under Israeli control, and preventing senior Palestinian officials from visiting Israel freely. All this, enacted during the government’s first two weeks in office.

Q. Where is the interlock with Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial ‘reform’?

A. If Levin succeeds, judicial accountability will be reduced in Israel. That means that whatever meagre protection granted until now to West Bank Palestinians by virtue of Israel High Court jurisdiction could be reduced, thereby giving the settlers and their supporters an even freer hand.

Then there is the PA’s implicit threat to cancel its own existence--in effect, to willingly go out of business--if any or all of these realities become too oppressing. The almost inevitable corollary to such a step would be a demand among many despairing Palestinians to become a full-fledged part of Israel.

Whether or not, and until, this happens, the IDF, meaning Israel, would become a full-fledged occupying power again: no longer will Jerusalem be able to claim “the Palestinians are autonomous”. If the creation of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords was an achievement for Israeli democracy, what would the PA’s demise amount to?

This, then, is where Netanyahu’s new far-right government comes fully into play: significant parts of it will argue in favor of annexing all or part of the West Bank without giving Palestinians equal rights. Israel would now officially be a bi-national non- democratic state.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to imagine Bezalel Smotrich announcing, ostensibly to calm international, Arab and moderate Israeli sensibilities, that equal rights will be discussed after, say, a 20-year transition period--during which Israel will look for ways to empty the West Bank of Arabs. This is Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s agenda.

Q. But the IDF demonstrated in the pre-Oslo past its capacity, if needed, to manage the West Bank’s Arab population without driving Israel deeper into bi-national status.

A. Under the new coalition agreement, Ben Gvir and Smotrich have been awarded authority over a variety of West Bank functions previously reserved for the IDF. The IDF, now under new Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, disputes these provisions and insists that it and only it can be in charge. We are soon likely to witness considerable discord here that could affect the status of the settlers and West Bank stability, possibly putting the IDF at odds with armed settler groups backed by the Kahanist due.

This is one more factor potentially influencing PA stability and, by extension, Israeli control over West Bank Palestinians. Palestinian violence, settler violence, and the Smotrich-Ben Gvir drive to take over Israel’s administration of the West Bank will provide a severe early test for Chief of Staff Halevi’s stewardship of the IDF and, by extension, for Israeli democracy and governance. Never before has the IDF’s constitutional and international (as occupying power) authority been challenged from within the Israeli system.

Q. Will the Arab world once again bail out the collapsing PA financially? Or will it ‘bail out’ on the Palestinians?

A. The Arabs, Europeans and Americans have all rescued the PA financially in the past. But Europe and the US now have far heavier international priorities: Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran. As for the Arab world, judging by the United Arab Emirates’ willingness last week to host a large Israeli delegation for talks about an even larger Arab-Israel “Negev summit” in the spring in Morocco, it does not intend to punish Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians--beyond lip service and symbolic measures like recently postponing a visit by PM Netanyahu to the UAE.

Indeed, last week Abu Dhabi announced it would soon begin teaching the Holocaust in its school system. Make no mistake, in Arab terms both the content and the timing of this announcement are politically loaded. They say a great deal about Gulf Arab indifference to and frustration with the Palestinians on the one hand, and need for Israel on the other.

Jordan’s response to a prospective PA dilemma is likely to be very different. Financially, Amman is hardly a candidate to aid the PA. Rather, a collapsing Palestinian Authority and/or an Israeli move to extend control over the West Bank in the months ahead are Hashemite Jordan’s nightmare scenario. In Jordanian eyes, they mean (not without reason) the specter of West Bank Palestinians fleeing toward the East Bank, meaning Jordan, and disrupting the demographic-political balance, the economy and security. In short, a catastrophe, to be blamed quite justifiably on Israel.

What West Bank circumstance if any would prompt Arab regimes to act forcefully against Israel? Full-fledged one-state apartheid? Israeli incentives and pressures aimed at forcing a Palestinian West Bank exodus? Certainly, Arab regimes will not care if Israel becomes less democratic and more theocratic, when there is not a single secular democracy (save dysfunctional Lebanon) in the Arab world.

Q. How would the United States react to a collapsed Palestinian Authority that plunges Israel into a bi-national reality?

A. Beyond the obvious danger to the two-state solution that Washington has traditionally supported and to Arab world (particularly Jordan’s) stability, the US would hopefully perceive at an early hour that it is dealing with a double-edged threat to Israel’s future as a democracy: from within Israel (neutralization of the judicial branch) and from across the green line West Bank boundary (the Palestinian issue). Netanyahu has already begun calming American fears with the dispatch to Washington of Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer.

Dermer’s successor as ambassador in Washington, Michael Herzog, is of course already there. Both are pragmatic and reasonable. How they can possibly rationalize the anti-democratic deeds of Levin, Ben Gvir and Smotrich is beyond me.

Q. Bottom line: what are the immediate issues to watch?

A. Look for how new IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi handles his relationship with Ben Gvir and Smotrich and their settler followers in the context of Halevi’s stewardship of the IDF in the West Bank. Keep a close eye on Jordan, which is keeping an even closer eye, for the most patriotic Hashemite-Jordanian reasons, on the fate of West Bank Palestinians.

Look out for the stability of the PA under the weakening administration of Abu Mazen. Watch whether, and at what pace, the security situation in the West Bank deteriorates, and what contribution newly-empowered West Bank settlers make to growing violence and anarchy.

Now imagine if all of this comes to a boil at once and how it negatively affects Israeli democracy--already eroded by Levin’s ‘reforms’.

(Note that this analysis ignores the daunting humanitarian aspects of Israel’s West Bank occupation. At the rate we are going, a less-than-democratic Israel will soon have its own troublesome domestic humanitarian dimension.)