On Tuesday night Israel will begin celebrating its 75th Independence Day.
Fireworks at the traditional state ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem (named after Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism) will be followed on Wednesday by parties and barbecues across the country. However, for many Israelis this year the joy will be mixed with trepidation due to a real fear that the “only democracy in the Middle East” – as Israeli leaders never tire of mentioning- may not be a robust democracy for much longer.
Israel has always had divisions – those related to the never-ending conflict with the Palestinians are a case in point – but the judicial overhaul planned by the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, and the ongoing mass protests have created an unprecedented rift that threatens to tear the country apart.
This crisis doesn’t take away from Israel’s achievements, which border on the remarkable.
From 600,000 residents in 1948, many of them traumatised Holocaust survivors from war-torn Europe, the Jewish state has grown into a strong and prosperous country of more than nine million.
From a socialist-based economy lacking natural resources, struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from Europe and across the Arab world in its early years of statehood, Israel has developed into the start-up nation with a per-capita income surpassing many advanced European countries.
From a makeshift militia battling against enormous odds, it has developed into a regional military superpower.
Miri Regev, the minister responsible for the Mount Herzl state ceremony, urged the government’s opponents to put differences aside and celebrate together.
“Both sides have things that pain and bother them. Do you want to protest? To voice your criticism? Don’t do that at state ceremonies. Let’s set aside our differences, conclude the ceremonies, unite, speak and reach understandings,” she urged. “Come, let’s show the Israeli people that we can be united during these holy days.”
But the head of the opposition, former prime minister Yair Lapid, decided to boycott the state ceremony.
“Minister Regev, my seat at the torch-lighting ceremony will remain empty because you [plural] haven’t left me any choice,” he said. “I love the country to the depths of my soul, but for the past three months you have torn Israeli society apart, and no phoney fireworks performance can cover that up. If public unity was so important to you, you wouldn’t have dismantled our democracy and you would go to work on behalf of Israel’s citizens.”
Yossi Verter, a columnist for the liberal Ha’aretz daily newspaper, said every public figure who opposes the so-called judicial reform and the continuing debasement of proper governance must stay away from the Independence Day ceremony this year.
“It’s unfortunate, but this is the price of reality. The sugary and kitschy torch-lighting ceremony is an extraordinary Israeli consensus. But even the extraordinary is going sour this year,” he wrote. “Along the way, the coalition that is holding democracy hostage and is threatening to destroy it has also taken the national ceremony and disgraced it even before a single frame has been broadcast.”
The judicial overhaul legislation is on hold while negotiations between the coalition and the main opposition parties take place under the auspices of president Yitzhak Herzog, who last month urged the government to halt the legislation, warning that Israel was “on the edge of the abyss”.
The Labour party withdrew from the negotiations, with party leader Merav Michaeli saying: “If it looks like a regime revolution, sounds like a regime revolution and acts like a regime revolution – it isn’t dialogue, it’s deceit. [National Unity party leader Benny] Gantz, don’t bask in the polls; Lapid, don’t be frightened by the polls – don’t lend a hand to this proposal.”
This month, citing the planned judicial reform, Moody’s credit rating agency lowered Israel’s outlook to stable from positive
Mr Herzog’s compromise proposals were initially rejected by the government as a starting point for a dialogue to reach a compromise. In a joint statement the coalition parties described his proposals as “one-sided” and “unacceptable”.
Mr Netanyahu’s U-turn in agreeing to send coalition representatives to the dialogue at the president’s residence was interpreted by some commentators as a sign that he may be seeking a ladder to climb down after realising the damage the judicial overhaul was causing, both to the country and to his government’s popularity.
This month, citing the planned judicial reform, Moody’s credit ratings agency lowered Israel’s outlook to stable from positive. The decision followed a series of warnings from senior economists, including finance ministry and Bank of Israel officials, making it clear that the economy would take a significant hit if the judicial overhaul were to become law: foreign investors are likely to seek more attractive alternatives, and the shekel, one of the strongest currencies in the world in recent years, will continue to fall.
A few weeks ago, clashes between police and Muslim worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City were followed by rocket fire from Gaza into the south, from Lebanon into the Galilee and from Syria into the Golan Heights. And three members of a British-Israeli family were killed in a West Bank shooting while an Italian tourist was killed in a Tel Aviv car ramming.
Security officials warned of the possibility of a multiple-arena conflict breaking out, and the opposition accused the government of weakening Israel’s deterrence by pushing ahead with the judicial reform, which prompted hundreds of reserve soldiers – including pilots and intelligence unit troops – to warn that they would refuse to serve.
In a rare diplomatic snub from Israel’s closet ally, US president Joe Biden has made it clear that Mr Netanyahu will not be invited the White House any time soon. Another casualty was Mr Netanyahu’s plan to expand the regional circle of peace in the framework of the Abraham Accords and persuade Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations.
Most Israelis, fiercely patriotic, will be celebrating 75 years of independence next week. But, at the same time, many will be anxious over what the future holds.