Opinion | Beirut’s Nightmare Could Become Israel’s Future

By Thomas L. Friedman

Opinion Columnist

On Sept. 12, Israel’s Supreme Court will consider whether the judicial power grab by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is legal. Netanyahu has repeatedly refused to commit to abide by an adverse decision, so if the court rules against his coalition, Israel will be in full-blown judicial crisis.

The heads of the military, Mossad, Shin Bet and the police will have to decide to whom they are loyal — a political coalition engaged in a judicial putsch or a Supreme Court that preserves its independence.

But even if the court rules that it is powerless to maintain its authority, Israel will still be in a full-blown crisis. Because Netanyahu and his far-right coalition of Jewish supremacists and ultra-Orthodox Jews have already breached the core social contract that has held Israel together for the last 75 years — “live and let live.”

I know a lot about that principle. I lived in two countries in the Middle East from the late 1970s to the late 1980s — Lebanon and Israel — that maintained their stability for years by respecting that principle. Until they didn’t.

Lebanon and Israel have two big features in common: They are really small in geography and incredibly diverse in population — religiously diverse, ethnically diverse, politically diverse, linguistically diverse, educationally diverse.

When your democracy is really, really small and really, really diverse, there’s only one way to maintain stability — all the diverse actors must respect the principle of “live and let live.” Or, as the Lebanese described it each time some faction there breached that principle, plunged the country into civil war and then had to re-establish balance among sects, “no victor, no vanquished.” Everybody has to respect certain limits on their reach.

Over the last two decades, though, Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Shiite militia, Hezbollah, whose name means “the party of God,” trashed that principle. It used its superiority in arms and warfighters, and the backing of Iran, to impose its authority on all the other Lebanese parties and sects. Instead of “no victor, no vanquished,” Hezbollah imposed the principle often associated with African dictators — “it’s our turn to eat,” meaning democracy be damned, it’s our turn to get more than our fair share of state resources, operating unchecked by any independent authority (such as a judicial system).

For all the many differences between Lebanon and Israel, Netanyahu’s coalition is its own Party of God, and it decided that this was its turn to eat — even though it won last November’s election by a mere 30,000 votes out of 4.7 million cast. So it broke the live-and-let-live principle and immediately began transferring unprecedented amounts of new money to ultra-Orthodox religious schools — without requiring them to teach math, science, English or democratic civics — and appointing ministers with criminal records and pouring government resources into expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank in order to unwind the Oslo peace process. This was all done while trying to neuter the Supreme Court’s ability to stop any of it.

This sort of resource/power grab is unprecedented in Israeli politics, and it is all the more galling when you consider that it is being done, in part, by ultra-Orthodox parties whose members pay the least amount of taxes and serve the least in the military.

Up to now, with occasional exceptions, everyone knew their limits — the secular knew how far to press the Orthodox to open restaurants on the Sabbath, the Orthodox knew how far to press the secular on L.G.B.T.Q. rights. The West Bank settlers hated the Oslo agreement, but they never tried to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank. Even the Supreme Court had become much more ideologically balanced in recent years between conservatives and liberals, despite Netanyahu’s misleading statements to the contrary.

My friend David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, tells the story of how when his son was born in Jerusalem in 1998, David wanted to be at the side of his wife, Varda. Varda’s obstetrician told him that would be fine — as long as the one ultra-Orthodox delivery room nurse, who would object, was not on duty. The doctor checked on his wife throughout her labor, said David, and managed to time the delivery for right after that religious nurse went off duty.

“That’s when the doctor said to Varda, ‘Time to push,’” David recalled. “That’s how I got to be in the delivery room. It was a microcosm of an Israel where people could hold onto principles, but still find creative ways for coexistence.”

In breaking that live-and-let-live balance by sheer force — thanks to a tiny, transitory political advantage in Parliament — Netanyahu and his coalition have broken something much more important than a law. They have broken the unwritten norm holding Israel together. It is hard to see how the country will ever be the same.

If the Supreme Court declares that it doesn’t have the authority to stop Netanyahu’s judicial coup, or if Netanyahu refuses to abide by a ruling against his power grab, the Israeli system — already fracturing because so many army and air force reservists are refusing to serve a government they now consider dictatorial, not democratic — could completely spin out of control.

Here is how Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank (to which I am a donor) put it in a recent essay on the organization’s website:

An elected government just made a potentially far-reaching constitutional change on narrow partisan lines. Whatever one thinks of the amendment in question, a red line has been crossed. … The fact that this executive power grab was carried out in the face of the largest and most sustained protests in the country’s history, against the will of a majority of the public, and notwithstanding severe warnings from security, law and economic experts, has brought home the magnitude of the threat to millions of Israelis.

From this moment forward, Plesner added — in an analysis that has real echoes for America democracy as well — “every time an Israeli citizen goes to the polls, they will do so with the frightening new awareness that the price of defeat could be their way of life. A religious man will place his ballot in fear that a secular-led government could unilaterally undermine the Jewish character of the state if it chose to do so. A secular woman will cast her ballot trembling at the ramifications of a right-wing victory for her rights.”

Moreover, the rights of Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens, for whom the Supreme Court has been a vital protector, could henceforth be totally at the mercy of the Jewish majority if this new law stands. This never, ever should have happened in such a live-and-let-live, diverse nation.

“Elections must not become a winner-takes-all contest, in which the victor seizes everything and the loser risks losing everything,” concluded Plesner. “That is not democracy: It is a recipe for civil war.”

Indeed, I asked the Israeli author and essayist Ari Shavit what he feared most today in his country. It was not, he remarked, that Israel would become “an elective dictatorship — another Hungary, Poland or Russia. That’s because the Jewish-political heritage cannot countenance authority-through-absolutism, and because the radical right in Israel doesn’t have enough power to impose its will on the liberals.”

The true danger, he argued, is that Israel will descend into chaos and disintegrate.

“The looming specter is Lebanon,” Shavit added. “Our neighbor to the north suffered a great rupture when its delicate intertribal order crumbled.” And now, in Israel, “the historic compromise that allowed its highly diverse communities to live together peacefully — with the right controlling political power for most of the last 20 years and the center and left holding sway in the courts, the media and the universities — has collapsed.”

As in the days of the First and Second Temples, Shavit said, “zealotry and factionalism are tearing us apart and threatening to destroy the magnificent nation we built here. So, the nightmare that jolts me awake in the small hours is not Budapest or Warsaw — but Beirut.”

Having personally lived that Beirut nightmare back in the late 1970s, I can confirm that it is all too real a possibility for Israel today. You break it, you lose it — and you can’t get it back.

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman Facebook

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