Deterioration of democracy due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government, political polarization and the weakening of Israeli society's resilience pose some of the greatest short-term strategic threats to Israel, an assessment by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) has found.
The report connects the rising polarization and declining resilience in Israeli society to the recent political crisis, and warns that these issues and the threat they pose to Israel's international standing is significant.
Israel currently "has a stronger military and international standing” than its external enemies, Tamir Hayman, the managing director of INSS, stated in the report. However, he warns, "2023 poses a host of challenges liable to upset this balance."
The report then explains that the threat to the system of checks and balances in Israeli democracy and attempts to weaken Israel's judicial system worsen polarization within society, thereby weakening social resilience – "a critical component in Israel's ability to cope with external threats."
The discourse on the right – and that of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in particular – could lead to excessive policing of Arab citizens, which is liable to "weaken Israeli democracy in regard to protecting individual rights and minorities."
"Growing tension between Jews and Arabs in the country as well as nationalist radicalization pose significant, intertwined threats," the report adds, highlighting the risk of citizens "feeling a lack of control and personal insecurity," rendering them liable to "take the law into their own hands and form armed militias."
The far-right discourse and attempts to weaken the judicial system or pass undemocratic laws can also damage Israel's international standing and foreign relations with Western countries, particularly the United States. This, researchers say, puts state security and Western-Israeli regional interests at risk in the short term.
This risk is rooted in increased competition between international superpowers, which the report says could force Israel to "adhere to higher norms of liberal democracy," as the U.S. is expected to be less tolerant of countries that challenge the world order and liberal democratic values.
Researchers see this as the Netanyahu government's most significant political challenge, emphasizing that any damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship would "directly impact Israel's management of other fronts."
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In the U.S., "increasing polarization and radicalization on both sides of the political spectrum" regarding Israel exacerbate this issue and erode the pro-Israel camp, Hayman warns.
"The progressive hold on young people, the delegitimization of Israel and Zionism that perceives [Israel] as an expression of white colonial supremacy – alongside growing antisemitism and racism – challenge the status and legitimacy Israel has enjoyed in the U.S. for many years," Hayman says.
Hayman therefore cautions Israeli politicians against "moves perceived as damaging democracy or changing the relationship with the Palestinians, as well as steps that appear insufficiently aligned with the U.S. and the West pertaining to China and more specifically, Russia."
The institute rates the collapse of the Palestinian Authority as the most urgent threat to Israel – though not the most extreme. "The continued existence of the Palestinian Authority, despite its drawbacks, is clearly in Israel's interest," Hayman says, warning that the lack of a viable solution to "the end of the era of Mahmoud Abbas as PA chairman against a backdrop of growing discontent and frustration among the [Palestinian] youth," can cause a surge in violence.
The most extreme threat Israel faces, according to the report, is Iran. In recent years, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West has paid less attention to the Middle East in favor of Russia and China.
Hayman says the international focus is "expected to shift toward the Indo-Pacific and Europe," adding that researchers have already observed a U.S. attempt to "limit dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat," amid "reduced attention to the fight against terror and the Middle East." This leaves Israel and other countries in the region to tackle the emerging Iranian nuclear threat and subversive attempts – alone.
President Isaac Herzog, who received the report, commented on the findings: “The most worrying front is the one the report refers to as ‘the internal front.’ Israel’s security is closely bound with its national resilience."
Describing a crisis within Israel to cope with "the deepest differences of opinion without giving up faith in ourselves and our ability to live together as one nation," Herzog emphasized that "bridging divides, including political ones, is perhaps the most important step in protecting Israel's security, stability and growth."