An historic crisis shakes Israeli society

Weekly mass protests in Tel Aviv, settler violence in the West Bank, increasing Israeli state repression of Palestinians, AMNON COHEN analyses an unprecedented crisis for the Israeli ruling class.

On Sunday 26 February, hundreds of ultra-right Israeli settlers rampaged through the West Bank town of Hawarwa, torching homes and cars and killing one Palestinian – in what the Israeli press correctly described as a pogrom.

Tens of thousands of Israelis are demonstrating every week against the new ultra-right Israeli government and its ‘judicial reforms’. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the pro-democracy demonstrators as ‘anarchists’. The police have used mounted police, water cannon and percussion grenades and arrests in an attempt to intimidate the demonstrators into staying at home. But the number of demonstrators has only increased further, with 200,000 coming out on 11 March – one of the biggest protests in Israeli history. And while Netanyahu has a narrow majority in the Knesset, polls show only 35% of the public support his ‘reforms’.

Many Israeli establishment figures have joined or are leading the demonstrations, including capitalist politicians, economists, hi-tech CEOs, retired generals, and former secret service heads. Israeli corporations are moving their cash abroad, causing a fall in the value of the shekel, and several billion-dollar tech firms are making plans to move their operations overseas. Former prime ministers and generals have called for civil disobedience. Pilots and military reservists in the intelligence and special operations units have threatened to refuse to serve the army if the government’s reforms are enacted. This unprecedented crisis has surprised many on the left, and the media, who have viewed Israel as a homogenous bloc, and ignored the enormous contradictions in Israeli society.

The Israeli capitalist class have lost control of the situation. Their traditional party of government, the misnamed Israeli Labour Party, which dominated Israeli politics for decades, has been reduced to a rump, and was almost wiped out in the 2022 elections. The Israeli Labour Party first lost power in 1977, but a main cause for its demise were the neoliberal economic reforms instituted by Shimon Peres in the 1980s, ending the previously existing relatively egalitarian social democratic regime. In a process parallel to the demise of PASOK in Greece and the Socialist Party in France, this undermined the economic basis of its popular support.

In order to create a reliable vehicle for their rule, the capitalists attempted to set up a succession of ‘centre’ parties, usually led by ‘white-knight’ personalities, with no political experience – mostly former generals or media personalities who had not yet had a chance to discredit themselves. These included the Centre Party, New Way, Kadima, One Israel, Kahol Lavan and Yesh Atid. These parties were all based on the interests of the capitalists, offering nothing to ordinary Israeli workers, and they rapidly discredited themselves.

The Likud is a right-populist party, with first Menachem Begin and now Netanyahu playing a similar role to Donald Trump in the USA, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; directing the anger of some of the more downtrodden sections of the working class – the Mizrachi Jews – against the ‘Ashkenazi elite’. The Ashkenazis – Jews who emigrated from Europe – form the bulk of the Israeli middle class and capitalists, while the Mizrachi Jews – whose ancestors immigrated from the Middle East and North Africa and suffered racist treatment at the hands of successive Labour governments – form a large section of the working class. The use of these methods of identity politics serves to divert the justified class anger of sections of the working class into backing the pro-capitalist Likud party. In a situation of permanent warfare, Netanyahu also uses rhetoric against Arabs, Palestinians, and Iranians to whip up support. This rhetoric does resonate in Israeli society, because of the intensity of the national conflict, and the failure of the so-called left to provide any alternative.

Oslo accords

In 1993, Labour prime minister Yizhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Yassir Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – a peace treaty which was supposed to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The CWI was almost alone on the left in resisting the wave of euphoria which swept both Israeli and Palestinian society, explaining that this accord provided no solutions to any of the key issues underlying the conflict and, because it was based on the capitalist system, would not bring freedom or decent lives to the Palestinians, and so would fail. Unfortunately, the CWI analysis was proven correct by events. The Oslo accords did not create a Palestinian state, but ‘Buntestans’ – mainly unconnected enclaves – with a Palestinian Authority (PA) in some areas operating 14 security agencies which serve to repress the Palestinians, and which are ultimately controlled by the Israeli state. The Palestinian security forces employ around 30,000 people. None of these attempted to intervene during the five hours that 400 settlers carried out their pogrom in Hawarwa. This illustrates the rotten role of the PA, which has led to a collapse in support for the ruling Fatah party, and the rise of Hamas, which won the last PA general election in 2006 and has subsequently ruled in Gaza.

The Oslo agreement did not bring peace to Israelis either. Hundreds have been killed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombs, and the firing of missiles into southern Israel is a common occurrence. Before the Oslo agreement, the conflict took the form of Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, and Israeli soldiers responding by using clubs to break demonstrators’ bones. After Oslo, there were suicide bombings and missile attacks from Hamas, and ‘precision bombings’, targeted assassinations, and casual killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces, while Gaza has been under siege since 2007.

The failure of the Oslo agreement has discredited the idea of a negotiated settlement between the governments in Israel and the PA, which is still the policy of the so-called left. Against the discredited policy of negotiations between capitalist politicians, the Israeli right wing’s policy of intensifying the war against the Palestinians does get an echo from many Israeli workers, who have given up on the hope of a peaceful solution, and who feel that if they need to fight a war, this should be carried out with whatever ruthlessness is required to win.

This mood was further sharpened by the elements of intercommunal civil war which developed during the eruption of the conflict in May 2021. This especially affected the rundown working-class mixed towns in Israel – with Arabs and Jews – such as Lod, Ramle and Jaffa. An uneasy calm has since been restored in these towns, but renewed conflict could erupt at any time. And without any prospect of a settlement, the ‘solution’ of ethnic cleansing – advocated by ultra-nationalist, semi-fascistic groups led by Ittamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – have gained an echo, turning their fringe parties into the third-largest electoral alliance in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and giving them the role of king-makers.

Under both ‘left’ and right governments, the Israeli state has allowed messianic religious settlers to be an auxiliary force for terrorising Palestinians in the West Bank, and act as a cutting edge of the Israeli occupation. These irregular forces play a similar role to that played by the KKK, the Blackshirts, and Trump’s Capitol rioters. They are heavily armed and funded by the state. The Israeli army largely protects them. But as civilians they are not under the orders of the Israeli state, and so in this way the state absolves itself of direct responsibility for their actions. Driven by a messianic religious ideology, they routinely carry out small-scale pogroms, harassment, and acts of vandalism against their Palestinian neighbours. And they regularly carry out what they call ‘price tag’ attacks – arson and murders to avenge terror attacks or government decisions which they consider too soft on the Palestinians. They illegally seize hilltops and set up outposts, which are often then defended by the Israeli army, and many of these eventually get turned into settlements.

The pogrom in Hawarwa illustrates the methods of these settlers. They were allowed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to enter Hawarwa and terrorise its inhabitants for five hours. When a few hundred Israeli peace activists subsequently attempted to visit Hawarwa to express their solidarity with the victims of the pogrom, they were stopped, detained, and manhandled by the IDF. These semi-fascistic elements are no longer beyond the fringes of official Israeli politics. Ben Gvir is minister of national security, and Smotrich is minister of finance and deputy defence minister with responsibility for the West Bank.

Ruling class splits

Having lost control, the Israeli ruling class are horrified by the direction of the new government. The capitalists in the past have been quite comfortable with repression of the Palestinians. Some of the famous Israeli tech start-ups developed through devising technical means of surveillance and repression used against the Palestinians. But they are terrified that the new government’s provocation of the Palestinians will cause an eruption of conflict, disrupting their operations and trashing the value of their investments. Many are moving their cash reserves abroad, halting investment in Israel, and making plans to move their operations to Cyprus, Greece or Spain.

The Biden administration has attempted to reign in the new government, dispatching Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and Bill Burns of the CIA to Israel. They convened a summit of Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian government representatives alongside the Palestinian Authority, in Aqaba, to try to stabilise the situation. The summit agreed on an eightpoint communique, including an agreement by the Israelis to refrain from discussing new settlements for four months. But within hours the ultra-right ministers were disavowing the accord, and Netanyahu himself announced that there will be no halt in settlement construction.

Netanyahu is, incredibly, the more ‘moderate’ wing of the new coalition – in many ways a hostage to the semi-fascistic elements he himself encouraged. He has an impossible position of trying to reconcile the interests of capitalism with ultra-right zealots, whose actions threaten to ignite the region and destroy the capitalists’ investments. He and his family are becoming increasingly frenzied. Netanyahu’s son tweeted that the Shin Bet security services were plotting a coup against his father, and that its leaders should be put on trial and thrown in jail for many years. Netanyahu’s wife claimed that she could have been lynched by pro-democracy demonstrators who gathered outside a salon in a swanky part of Tel Aviv, where she was having her hair done – at public expense. A large contingent of riot police ‘rescued’ her.

Jewish community establishments across the world have traditionally acted as an Israeli fan club and PR machine. In 2018, in Britain, official Jewish community organisations were mobilised against then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. But the new Israeli government has cracked this alliance. British historian Simon Schama has called for UK Jews to combat Israel’s “terrifying” shift to the far right. The British Board of Deputies condemned Smotrich for calling for Hawarwa to be wiped out. The US Jewish community has gone further, with the T’ruah organisation, which represents 2,300 Rabbis, calling for the US state department to cancel Smotrich’s visa and deny him entry into the US.

Capitalist state

The protest movement is the biggest since the social movement in Israel in 2011. But it has a cross-class character. By far the biggest demonstrations have been in the predominantly middle-class commercial capital of Tel Aviv, with tech workers forming a large proportion of the demonstrations. The Israel capitalist establishment has seized the leadership. Yair Lapid is one of the main leaders. His government killed more Palestinians in the West Bank in 2022 than had been killed in any year in the previous decade. The government survived only 18 months because it had no way out of the national conflict or the cost-of-living crisis facing ordinary Israelis.

These establishment figures limit their demands to halting the government’s ‘judicial reform’, which will emasculate the High Court and make it subservient to the government. The capitalists see the High Court as an important guardrail which can be used to curb the excesses of the government and hold it back from carrying out dangerous actions against the interests of the capitalists. Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut said that the legal reforms are a “fatal blow” to Israeli democracy, nullifying the rule of law and legal protections for individual rights,

But in Israel, as elsewhere, the Supreme Court is an instrument of the capitalist state. It acts as a safety valve, directing conflicts into the safe containment of its court rooms, but ultimately acts in the interests of the capitalist class, giving its legal stamp of approval to Palestinian house demolitions, internment without trial, collective punishments, land confiscations, targeted assassinations, and all the trappings of apartheid in the West Bank. The courts regularly ban strikes, and in some cases imprison strike leaders. Supreme Court judge Aharon Barak provoked outrage amongst Sephardic Israelis after racist remarks about Moroccans he made in an interview. The demand to defend what is seen as an elitist institution will not win working-class Israelis to the opposition. This would require a programme that linked democratic trade union and community control of the judiciary, to economic demands that defend working-class interests.

The main chant of the demonstrators is ‘demokratia’. But there is no real explanation of what this ‘democracy’ means. For the capitalist leaders it means a return to the status quo – a continuation of the apartheid regime in the territories, continued discrimination against Palestinians in Israel proper, and the ongoing assault on the conditions of the working class in Israel. Marxists have explained that bourgeois democracy is intended to give the working class the illusion that they rule, while leaving the real levers of power in the hands of the capitalist class – through capitalist politicians, the security apparatus, the permanent civil service, bankers, judges etc. Different forms of capitalist regimes exist, but the capitalists prefer bourgeois democracy, as it gives the illusion of rule by consent, saves the expense of maintaining the machinery of a police state, and acts as a check on government corruption.

However, in periods of crisis, when the contradictions of society can no longer be contained within the confines of parliamentary democracy, the capitalists will move to a more authoritarian form of rule, or even a police state – as they did in Chile in 1973. Capitalism globally is in crisis, and this is reflected in the attempts to roll back democratic rights, including in the more developed capitalists states, such as in Britain, with the criminal justice bill, and voter suppression in the US. Defence of democratic rights, which Marxists are the best fighters for, cannot be separated from a struggle against capitalism and for its replacement by a socialist society.

The Israeli state is a hybrid state, which has traditionally had large elements of bourgeois democracy applied to the Jewish population, with a vicious police state imposed on the Palestinians in the West Bank. The Palestinians within Israel’s pre-1967 borders formally enjoy democratic rights, but are discriminated against in nearly every aspect of their lives, and were subject to military rule between 1948 and 1966. The Israeli state maintains the machinery of a police state in the form of the Emergency Regulations, which were inherited from the British Mandate, and have been kept on the statue books by every Israeli government since. These allow the state to impose curfews, declare closed military zones, and place people in administrative detention (internment without trial).

A key weakness of the protest movement is its lack of a political alternative to Netanyahu, other than a repeat of something like the defeated Lapid government, which paved the way for the rapid return of Netanyahu. The massive protest movement is showing the limits of the power of Netanyahu’s reaction. But it needs to break away from the leadership of the capitalists whose system has brought Israeli society to this crisis. The working class needs to assert its leadership of the movement. This requires a workers’ party which unites the workers, secular and religious, Jewish and Arab, and which mobilises the power of the working class for a socialist programme of ending national repression and solving the cost-of-living crisis.

It is hard to predict how this crisis will unfold. It is possible that Netanyahu’s narrow coalition will collapse under the pressure of the movement, and that he will be compelled to change direction, or even be forced out of government, and possibly even end up in jail. But none of this in itself will stop the advance of right authoritarianism and escalation of the national conflict. The crisis in Israeli society is not the result of Netanyahu’s personality. It is an endemic crisis that is the result of the inability of capitalism itself to solve the national question, or provide decent living standards for more than a narrow section of the population.