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For Israel, It's Either Religious Zionism - or Zionism

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Pro-settlement activists gather in a house in the settlement of Ofra during an operation by Israeli forces to demolish nine homes there, February 28, 2017.
Pro-settlement activists gather in a house in the settlement of Ofra during an operation by Israeli forces to demolish nine homes there, February 28, 2017. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

The fierce political battle now being waged within the Israel Defense Forces, which is escalating from day to day, provides us with an opportunity to peek into the “ideal” Israeli political parallel universe, the one devoid of Arabs.

The Israeli political system is defined by its attitudes toward the Arab “other.” Without his presence, the political map rearranges itself along different axes, which transcend the borders of the traditional ideological camps, as Amos Harel aptly put it in yesterday’s Haaretz.

Gadi Shamni, former head of the IDF’s Central Command, said Moshe Ya’alon’s ouster from his job as defense minister last year was a political assassination, and that Ya’alon’s comments on the case of soldier Elor Azaria were just “a final pretext” for this move. “The process began long before,” he said, when Ya’alon, as defense minister, “decided to insist on enforcing law and order as it should be done” in West Bank settlements, causing the settlers to “make him a marked man.”

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, it seemed he brought him in to quiet the leftists. Back then, there were too many flirtations with ideas about a “left-wing” military coup in the air.

Yet it wasn’t IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot who tried to fight the spread of the ethical code of Middle Eastern gangs within the army, or his deputy, Yair Golan, who warned of budding fascism – and on Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less – who paid with their jobs. The one who was liquidated was Ya’alon.

But even Lieberman surely knows that “the leftists” are the least of the IDF’s problems. The Jewish right, in contrast, is another story.

Religious Israel Defense Force soldiers praying, 2007.Credit: Alex Levac

Lieberman knows that “grassroots” unrest on the right is easy to quiet. Just tell them Elor Azaria is a hero and throw around the word “pardon” and they’re eating out of your hands. Netanyahu taught everyone those tricks.

The real problem is the threat “from above,” meaning from settler representatives in the army who are adhering to their goal of taking over the IDF and the country. And there’s no doubt that the pre-military academies are the most important link in this chain: There the settlers are prepared through political indoctrination and inserted into the army, and from there into all the country’s other power centers.

Lieberman is the only person today who truly threatens the settlers and religious Zionism, both in the army and in everything to do with building in the settlements and dreams of annexation. His threat to shut down the pre-army academy in Eli is dramatic – a declaration of war against religious Zionism. A serious battle is being waged here over Israel’s character between the Jewish public and itself.

Whether due to his ideological fraudulence or the fact that he’s besieged by the police, Netanyahu lacks the strength to do what the country needs today to extricate itself from the quagmire. The settlers are too strong, so he would need a strong coalition against them. But after all the damage he has done to Israeli society and the political system, who would follow him? And who would want to throw him a lifeline when it seems his political end is near?

The political system can’t take it anymore. Israel can’t take it anymore. Even Arye Dery, the interior minister and Shas party chairman, has woken up and called for elections. Netanyahu must go, and his Likud party must decide what it is: Is it still Likud, or is it a new version of the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi?

Lieberman isn’t the issue here, and he also can’t do it alone. The political system must understand that the golem of the settlements has turned on its creators.

There are more than half a million settlers living on stolen land – whether private or "state" land doesn’t really matter – and in desperate need of the application of sovereignty. It’s an interest group that’s dependent on political ideology to achieve its objective. This has long since ceased to be a “pure” strategic/ideological debate, if there even is such a thing.

There’s something about the way immigrants view any society, including Israeli society, that allows them to see its blind spots effortlessly. It’s no accident that it has taken Lieberman less than a year as defense minister to understand what has taken Ya’alon, and most Israelis, their whole lives, and which they still have trouble internalizing: It’s either religious Zionism - or Zionism.

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