Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.
This week, the Knesset passed its first contentious judicial overhaul bill into law, despite almost 30 weeks of widespread grassroots protests in Israel’s streets. So, six months after getting philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman’s perspective in our inaugural What Matters Now episode, I went back for more.
“Two constitutional instincts have been unleashed and are clashing with each other: The Israelis who want to be empowered through government versus the Israelis who want to be protected from government. I think that’s what’s happening in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and all over Israel as we’re talking,” says Goodman, the author of the best-selling “Catch-67” and “The Wondering Jew.” And in June, his book, “The Last Words of Moses” hit shelves in English.
For much of the past six months, Goodman has been performing a unique kind of “reserve duty”: speaking with people from all sides of the judicial overhaul conflict, from teams of politicians during the negotiations at the President’s Residence — at the request of President Isaac Herzog — to squadrons of pilots who are on the brink of refusing service, again, at the request of the IDF.
In keeping with Tisha B’Av this week, this is an in-depth and quite sober conversation. But, as you will hear, Goodman is, as always, a dedicated optimist.
“I think the cynics will determine what happens tomorrow and next week, but I think it’s the optimists who will determine what will happen next year and two years from now,” he says.
So this week, we ask philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman, what matters now.
The following transcript has been lightly edited.
The Times of Israel: Micah, thank you so much for joining me today.
Dr. Micah Goodman: It’s a pleasure to be here, Amanda.
In this very contentious week, in a week in which we see the Knesset passing the first judicial overhaul law, and we’re seeing tens of thousands of soldiers who are refusing duty — or at least stating they’re refusing duty — I ask you Micah, what matters now?
Avoiding the deterioration of Israel into civil war and chaos.
Civil war is often or mostly related to, of course, the taking up of arms. And I know that you have been speaking to soldiers who are on the brink of possibly refusing service. Can you tell us a little bit about this process? What have you been up to here?
So my position from the very beginning was the following position: I’m against the judicial reform, if it’s done without a massive majority and great consent. At the same time, I’m against using the army as a weapon or a vehicle to create political gains. And I think, by the way, this is the position held by most Israelis.
The majority of Israelis are against this reform as long as it’s done without a massive majority, and the majority of the Israelis think we should keep the army out of this debate. Now, that position of the majority of Israelis is not materializing and not becoming a reality because, against the will of most Israelis, the first step of the reform has passed. And against the will of the majority of Israelis, pilots and soldiers and reserves have declared that if this passes, they’re not showing up. So right now, the majority of Israelis have a minority of the power, regarding these issues.
You’ve been actively going out and speaking with pilots and other soldiers. And first of all, what are you hearing from them?
A lot of pain, a lot of anxiety. A tremendous amount of anxiety. Real fear that what happened this week is step one, and step one, on a slippery slope, that on the other side, Israel doesn’t have an autonomous, independent judicial system, and Israel won’t be a liberal democracy anymore. And that’s not the Israel they’re willing to fight for. And that’s the anxiety. That’s the level of anxiety, of rage, that I’m bumping into speaking to these pilots, speaking to these soldiers, speaking to these, I must say, Israeli heroes — who, I think, are making a big, big mistake — and I still have a lot of respect for them.
You think they’re making a big mistake by weaponizing their position in the army?
Yes, I think one of the greatest achievements of this protest movement is it managed to be against the government and for the country. Very patriotic, very passionately against this extreme, narrow government, and at the same time passionately expressing love for our country.
This act where they’re saying, well, we’re not showing up to our duty, we’re not showing up to the air force, we’re not showing up to reserves. This act could be interpreted by many Israelis as an act where now they’re not only against the government, they’re against Israel. That’s not their narrative. That’s not their intention. They have good intentions. They’re experiencing it as an act of patriotism, and they’re fighting for the country.
But one of the greatest achievements of this protest movement is that it got roughly 50 percent of Likud voters to sympathize with the protest. And I’m afraid that this massive achievement of the protest will be swallowed by this very radical move.
So, of course, one of the major forces in the anti-judicial overhaul protests are Brothers in Arms, the reservists, who are refusing duty. And it’s fascinating what you’re saying about the patriotism of the protesters. And of course, they’ve adopted the flag, and every protest includes “Hatikva,” the national anthem. But this use of the reservists is precedent-building, wouldn’t you say?
Yes. When I tell the reservists and the pilots, and these are amazing people, by the way. And I salute them and I admire them. But I think they’re making a mistake with unintended consequences. And one of the unintended consequences is the following — this was never done before.
We’ve seen strikes in Israel. Teachers strike, unions strike, civilian pilots strike. But the military never went on strike. That never happened. This is unprecedented, and it’s very obvious why it never happened. I mean, look around. Look at Hezbollah. Look at Hamas. Look at Iran. This is not something that Israelis do.
Israel now will have four branches of government, not three: government, Knesset, Supreme Court, and the military
But once it’s done, there is a precedent. It will be very attractive to replicate this precedent in the future because this action, this very extreme action, is being normalized in Israel. The mainstream media is sympathizing with this step. Three former chiefs of staff are embracing this step. So this very extreme step is experienced as something very not extreme, very normal and legitimized, and it’s also very effective. And that combination, Amanda, of a step that’s experienced as legitimate and effective, I think will change Israel for years to come.
I’ll just give you an example. Let’s say two, three years from now, God willing, we’ll have a national unity government with Likud, with [Blue and White head Benny] Gantz, with [Yesh Atid head Yair] Lapid, with [Jewish Home head Avigdor] Lieberman, a national unity government, that’s what we need. And this government will decide that we need to take real steps to shrink the conflict with the Palestinians. And that means creating, without peace on the ground, territorial contiguity for Palestinians. And for that, we have to uproot 20 illegal outposts of settlers in the West Bank, maybe 35 illegal outposts.
What are the chances that right-wing religious soldiers will say, we refuse to do that, we’re going on strike ourselves? What are the chances that they’ll do that? Well, I think the better question is, what are the chances that they won’t do that? Because now there’s a precedent and it’s legitimate and it’s effective, and that would mean that we will not be able to create territorial contiguity for Palestinians, which means we won’t be able to shrink the amount of control, the amount of occupation that Palestinians are suffering from.
And wouldn’t it be weird, Amanda, in five years now people were asking: “Why is nothing changing in Yehuda and Shomron, or the West Bank?” Or choose your terminology. “Why is nothing changing there?” And the reason will be: “Oh, because of the pilot’s strike in 2023.”
That is a law of unintended consequences. And here’s the thing, once the army has the power to veto decisions of the government — and it’s not the army officially, it’s just large groups within the army — so once it has that power, I would think it’s fair to say that Israeli governments cannot execute controversial decisions because every side will veto it using their reserves and the military, their people in the military.
And because big decisions are almost always controversial by definition, I think this probably means that Israeli governments cannot make big decisions anymore. Israel is becoming a country that can’t do great things anymore. That is the law of unintended consequences. This is what I was trying to explain to these Israeli patriots. And because while they’re trying to stop a regime change, they are unintentionally creating a regime change.
It’s like Israel now will have four branches of government, not three: government, Knesset, Supreme Court, and the military. And every decision has to pass the government, be legislated in the Knesset, not be struck down by the Supreme Court. And now from now on, also not be struck down by different groups within the military.
So I was telling these pilots, listen, you’re trying to stop a regime change and unintentionally creating a regime change. Maybe for now at least, this is not a good idea. By the way, all my attempts to try to explain, I failed, we all failed. This happened, and now we have to somehow soften the repercussions of what happened this week.
Let’s talk about how we got here. Obviously, we were just talking about the elites of the army, but there are a lot on the judicial reform side that view the anti-judicial reform side as the elitists, as those who are out of touch, out of step with the common man. How did this come about?
Israel is divided into two camps. Every camp has a different constitutional instinct
I think we have here a tremendous historical moment in Israel. And by the way, this might have great outcomes in the end — I’ll try to explain this later on. And I think people are hoping for Israel to collapse now, and our enemies are waiting for us to really destroy each other instead of them, and being weak enough for them to attack. By the way, Amanda, if I had money, I would invest in the shekel these days and invest in the stock market in Tel Aviv these days because Israel will bounce back. I’ll try to explain why, but this is a long journey.
I think just like how great sacred texts, according to Jewish tradition, have layers, there is the pshat — that’s the most transparent layer of the text — there are deeper layers, like the drash, and then there is the deepest layer of the sod. So I think just like great texts have layers, also great events have layers. And I think it’ll be interesting for us to try to peel these layers. I think these events have three layers.
Layer number one is the following: Israel is divided into two camps. Every camp has a different constitutional instinct. And I want to try to listen with sympathy to the right, okay? And then we listen to the left with sympathy and empathy. But I just want to note that it’s not right versus left, because in the anti-reform camp, it’s not just left-wingers, it’s left-wingers, centrists, right-wingers. It’s a very diverse camp. But the pro-reform is only the right.
So every one of these camps has a different constitutional instinct. And the instinct of the right is the following: When political power moves, relocates itself, and it moves from the political branch of government to branches of government that are not political in the sense that they’re not elected. So this is a process that Israel has been going through ever since the beginning of 1980s. This is not just something of [former Supreme Court head] Aharon Barak in the 90s. In the early 1980s, this is a process that starts, and I think we discussed this a little bit on the last time we met, I think half a year ago.
That’s right, six months ago.
Six months ago. And how power has been shifting from the political branch of government to a non-elected branch of government. For so many Israelis, this is how they experience that shift of power. They woke up and they realized, well, when a lot of power is located in unelected branches of government, like the Supreme Court, so they experience that as a problem, because when a non-elected branch of government has a lot of influence on my life, well, it’s a problem because I don’t have influence on that institution. And when I can’t influence the institution that can influence my life, I feel disempowered.
On the other hand, politicians, when they have a lot of power and they influence my life, I feel empowered because I could influence politicians. Because we’re a democracy, we get to fire them, we get to hire them. The moment of firing and hiring our bosses, our politicians, is the day of elections. So when politicians have power in their hands, it’s a situation where the institution that influences my life is an institution that I can influence. And as a result, I feel like I have some control of my life.
So as a result, power shifting from the political branch of government to the non-elected branch of government is experienced as a sense of disempowerment. Power now is located where I have no influence over it.
What is this reform about? We want power back from the judicial system, to the political branch of government. We want the power to be where we can influence it. In other words, we want to be in control of our lives. We want to be empowered through the power of government.
Which explains the Judicial Selection Committee emphasis, which explains basically every single slice of the salami.
Every slice of this salami is about Israelis wanting the power back. On the other side, which is very much passionately against this judicial overhaul, there’s a different constitutional instinct, and it’s very unique to Israel.
Israel is suffering from a built-in democracy deficit. Israel is suffering from a deficit in checks and balances, for many reasons. I think we went into them last time. Israel was just created very, very quickly, and we didn’t put much thought into this, and we didn’t create a very massive, intense system of checks and balances. And as a result, we have no vertical checks and balances.
For example, there’s no institution larger than Israel that could strike down decisions of the government of Israel, like the European Union. And we have no autonomous institutions that are smaller than the Israeli governments, like Texas, right, that has autonomy, and the White House cannot completely control what’s going on in Texas because Texas has a governor and has its own legislature.
Well, in Israel, we have no autonomous political bodies that are smaller than the government and no political bodies that are larger than the government. So there’s zero vertical checks and balances.
Now we talk about horizontal checks and balances. They also barely exist in Israel because I’m sure our listeners know that the Knesset, our parliament, is not a check, does not block the power of government. It’s kind of like the extension of the government, because every government, by definition, has an automatic majority of the Knesset, because it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t have a majority of the Knesset. And the Knesset itself, there’s nothing to balance it. We don’t have a House of Lords or a Senate.
So the only body, the only branch of government that could block the power of our government is the Supreme Court. And if this reform or judicial overhaul would have passed, there would be nothing there to protect Israelis from the power of government, deciding to use its power against its citizens, against minorities, against individuals. There is nothing there to stop us, besides the goodwill of the people in government.
The only body, the only branch of government that could block the power of our government is the Supreme Court
That I think is so important to emphasize. Because if you think about the founders of our nation, they all knew each other really deeply, fought alongside each other, maybe with each other, too, but they trusted each other for the most part, and this seems to be the real deficit.
Well, if you want to understand the collective panic attack in Israel, that’s the double deficit, right? Deficit in checks and balances and then deficit in trust that creates the panic attack. Why? Because after this reform passes and the Supreme Court cannot protect me from the power of government, all that’s left is, I have to trust the people sitting in government.
Let’s take a closer look, and I see who’s sitting there in government and who do I see? Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich. And that combination, Amanda, where there’s no institution to protect me besides those ministers? So that’s a panic attack.
And they’re out on the streets fighting — and by the way, I support them fighting against this judicial overhaul. And here’s the thing, and this is very important: I want to sympathize for one minute with both sides, because the people on the right, their constitutional instinct is that they want to be empowered through government. The people against the judicial overhaul, they want to be protected from the government, from the power of government. I think there we have it. I think that’s the pshat. That’s the first layer.
Two constitutional instincts have been unleashed and clashing with each other. The Israelis who want to be empowered through government versus the Israelis who want to be protected from government. I think that’s what’s happening in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and all over Israel as we’re talking. That’s the pshat. That’s the constitutional clash that’s happening in Israel.
But I think there’s a deeper layer here. There’s a deeper layer here because I’ve been having conversations with Israelis on both sides in the past half a year. And if we start with Israelis on the right, this is how a conversation will sound like: In the first few minutes they’ll be speaking about the Supreme Court overstepping, and being too activist and striking down decisions of government and Knesset and taking power away from the people. All that constitutional lingo. But it’ll take about three, four minutes when that rhetoric is over, and they move into the real pain.
And they’ll mention the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, on Tisha B’Av. And then someone mentioned Oslo. And then many will mention the maabarot [tent camps] of the 1950s, when North African Jews came to Israel, when Mizrahi Jews came to Israel, and their experience and their narrative, and it’s not disconnected from reality. They were treated as second-class citizens, thrown into refugee camps, living in tents in maabarot, and suddenly that’s back. And from some people, you hear the Altalena. The Altalena when Begin bought guns from France to Israel, in the middle of the War of Independence. And it’s a very, very complicated story, but the end of the story is that David Ben-Gurion gave an order to stop that boat at all costs, including shooting at the boat, and the boat was sunk, and 16 people from Begin’s camp died. Suddenly, the Altalena is back.
So you scratch your head and ask yourself, why are you bringing the Altalena back to life? And the maabarot of the 50s? Why are all our bruises opening up now? And it hit me, that’s what’s happening now — built-up frustration. Frustrations that have been built up for 75 years are unleashed now, as we’re talking. And that’s, I would say, what’s happening.
For example, there is a narrative that while right-wingers were fighting the disengagement in 2005, so 14-year-old teenage girls were protesting. I think they were trying to block roads. Sounds familiar?
And they were thrown in jail for weeks. And as a friend of mine, an Israeli journalist, Amit Segal, said: “When 14-year-old girls were in jail, we called up Bagatz, the High Court. We called Bagatz on our phones. No one answered. No one was at home.” This is a sense of the sentiment on the right that for 75 years, we were mistreated.
On the left, there’s something else going on. And again, it’s not left. It’s left and center and right, other people against the judicial overhaul. And there it’s a different narrative. It sounds like this: We’re looking at the future of Israel, and if demography is destiny, how does Israel look demographically in 2040? Very ultra-orthodox, very right-wing, very messianic. By 2050, 2060, the liberal secular community will be a very, very weak minority. And then we look at this government, and we’re getting a glimpse into the dark future that we have, and it’s a panic attack. This panic attack wasn’t created by the judicial reform. It was triggered by the judicial reform.
We look at this government, and we’re getting a glimpse into the dark future that we may have, and it’s a panic attack
This is, I think, the deeper layer, the emotional layer. Not the constitutional instincts clashing, but something deeper. From the right, we have frustration. From the left, we have anxiety. 2023 was the year where the frustration of the right started clashing with the built-up anxiety of the left.
But it’s more than that and deeper than that, because the frustration of the right, where does it come from? It’s been building up ever since 1948. It’s frustration that’s been accumulating for 75 years. It’s a frustration from our past. The anxiety of the other camp is not anxiety that’s a result of our past. It’s directed at our future.
It’s when anxiety clashes with frustration, and it’s where future clashes with past. That’s I think those are the real raw emotional materials that are being unleashed as we’re talking in the streets of Israel. But I think there’s also a deeper layer. If we’ll dig deeper.
We look at the polls and we look at the serious polls, like done by, a very impressive new think tank in Israel called Tachlith.
And when you look at the polls, you see something very surprising. You see that most Israelis agree with each other. How shocking is that? That, while we hate each other more than we’ve ever hated each other before, just because of politics, at this high moment of hate, there’s still a critical mass of agreement. So this is the paradox of this moment, that Israelis hate each other, emotionally speaking, and agree with each other, policy-speaking.
And this is how the polls look, while I just gave you a binary picture of Israel, right? People that are for the reform, people that are against the revolution, people that feel built-up frustration from the past, people that have anxiety from the future. And by the way, we could add more stereotypes to this binary description of Israel. We could say people that are for the reform, they are also for Bibi, people that are against, also hate Bibi, people that are for the reform, also conservative. People that are against, are liberal. People that are for Jerusalem, people that are against Tel Aviv. People that are for are religious, people that are against are secular — and all our stereotypes of Israel, we could spill into this very neat binary organization of Israel.
So we have this Israel that’s such a neat binary. First Israel versus Second. Ashkenazi Israel versus Mizrahi Israel. All their stereotypes are spilled into this attempt to organize Israel using this dichotomy. But we look at the polls and realize this is a false dichotomy. Because according to the polls, we’re not divided into two parts. We are actually divided into three parts.
According to the polls, we’re not divided into two parts. We are actually divided into three parts
This is what it looks like: Try to imagine there is a small group on the left. Their position is not one inch, not one change, no reform, no matter what. We’re not changing the constitutional status quo of Israel. We are conservatives. This is the left. We want to conserve the status quo. On the right, and it’s not a small group, but it’s not a very big group, this is a group that says we want a radical reform and we want it now. And we think we have the legitimacy to do it with the majority we received in the last elections, with the accidental majority we had. So on the left, no reform; in the center, far-right, radical reform now with a regular majority.
But then in the center, you have a group of between 60% to 70% of Israelis. This is what they say: “We want the reform, we need to fix the system, but not this reform.” The reform we need has to have two components if I’m reading the polls correctly. One, it has to be a balanced reform. What does balanced mean? We’re not buying this binary stuff. We’re not saying either I’m empowered through the government or I’m protected from the government. We want them both. We want our politicians to have power. And decisions about public policy should be made by the public and the Supreme Court shouldn’t strike them down.
At the same time, we have to be protected and guaranteed that the government can’t use that power against us, against minorities, against individuals, against us. And the thing is that’s achievable outside of the politically heated debates. The academic types — this is something that is broadly known from right and from left — the constitutional geeks of Israel have managed, in different settings, to reach a balanced compromise. It’s there. We all know what it is, even, and we want it balanced and not radical. That’s one.
Two, more importantly, any change in the judicial system has to be done with a large majority. What is a large majority? Larger than the majority a government received in its elections. Okay, so this is the invisible Israeli consensus. There is a minority that wants radical reform. There’s a minority that wants no reform. And most Israelis want a balanced reform that passes with a large majority. That’s us. That’s 60% to 70% of Israelis.
By the way, something very interesting. You know how the metaphors “on right and left” were created in the French Revolution and the National Assembly? People that sat to the right were for status quo and against change. People that sat to the left were for change. What is radical? Radical, radix in Latin is a “root.” So radical change is to change something from its root. So it’s very interesting that in Israel, the left is for the status quo and the right is for radical change.
So you ask yourself what happens when right-wingers start to think like left-wingers and left-wingers think like right-wingers? What happens? Well, what happens, is that’s Israel today, welcome to Israel.
But most Israelis, 60-something percent of Israelis, want change, not a radical change, a balanced change and a change that will be passed by a real serious majority. That’s the Israeli consensus.
So if we try to map out these three layers of what’s really happening in Israel we see two constitutional instincts clashing. We see two sets of emotions clashing frustration with anxiety, past versus future. And then beneath that, we realize that most of us agree, so we hate each other at the same time we agree with each other. And we’re not aware of this paradox. This would mean, Amanda, that if Israel does spiral into civil war, it would be the weirdest civil war in the history of civil wars. It’ll be a civil war between civilians that agree with each other. How bizarre is that?
Here’s, by the way, this is how a friend of mine, my colleague, Efrat Shapira Rosenberg, we have a podcast, Mifleget HaMachshavot, this is how she puts it: “Emotionally, we’re divided into two. Intellectually, we’re divided into three, right? Our emotional divide, frustration versus anxiety. That’s two Israeli camps. But intellectually, regarding our opinions about policies, we’re divided into three. And in the middle, there is the largest part of Israel.”
Are we going to be hating each other and fighting each other or tapping into the invisible Israeli broad consensus and start healing the divide?
So here’s the big question: Where is the energy going to be coming from? From the illusion that we’re divided into two or from the reality that we’re divided into three? From these binary emotions or from our opinion? And there, there’s actually a critical mass of agreement. And this is going to be the biggest question that’s going to define the future of Israel. Are we going to be divided into two or into three? Are we going to be hating each other and fighting each other or tapping into the invisible Israeli broad consensus and start healing the divide and reorganizing the judicial system and healing other problems in Israel?
Micah, don’t you think that there is a “one” that you’re not talking about here, perhaps as much as he deserves, and that is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arguably could stop the wheels that are in motion, who could renavigate.
He can. Sadly, Netanyahu this week, I think, made a very, very poor decision. This was my analysis of Bibi’s decision to support this first step of the judicial overhaul and not to compromise. He was presented with the following dilemma: If the law passes, Israel as a country goes into three different risks. Economic risk. There is a risk that investors will leave Israel, there is a risk that the credit rating will go down. I don’t know if that risk will materialize, but there is a risk there. A second risk is a security risk. That pilots won’t show up, that our military will start collapsing. I don’t know if that risk will materialize. But the risk is there. A third risk is a diplomatic risk with President Biden, with the White House, with the world, that we might go into a diplomatic crisis. President Biden asked Bibi not to do this, and he did it anyway. So by enabling this to pass, he was willing to accept a triple risk on his country.
So why did he let it pass? Because if he would have stopped the legislation or accepted a compromise of the opposition, his government would have been put to risk.
I don’t know if that risk would have materialized, and I assume his government would have survived this. But he was afraid because [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin would have resigned. It’s possible that Ben Gvir would have left the government and the government would have collapsed and he would lose his power.
So here was Bibi in an amazing dilemma. There’s going to be a risk. The question is where is going to be the placement of the risk? Are you going to place the risk on your country by passing the law or are you going to take away the risk from the country and place it on your government? So what are you willing to risk, Bibi, your country or your government?
And I don’t think this is a real dilemma. I think that for true leaders, there’s no dilemma here. There’s absolutely none. There’s only one right decision. If you have to choose where to place the risk, you risk your government and not your country. The life of your political career, and not the life of Zionism, not the life of your country. And sadly, he made the wrong decision.
Now I hope now that our country is at risk economically, militarily and diplomatically, I hope these risks won’t materialize. So Netanyahu, right now, sadly, I’m saying. I have a deep appreciation for Netanyahu. Sadly, I’m saying he made a bad decision. He chose to put his country at risk. And I could just share with you something that I said on the Israeli radio that day: Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli hero, he was willing to risk his life in service of our country. His brother was asked to risk his political life in service of our country. At this moment, Bibi turned his back on Yoni, at this moment in time. I still believe that Bibi could come back, Bibi that is Yoni’s brother could come back and take political risks to save our country, just like he did in 2003, by the way, when he took political risks to save our economy, when he was the Minister of Finance. But that’s not the Bibi we’re seeing yet. I hope he’ll reappear. I believe he can appear, but we can’t count on that.
You and I both lost brothers who are very young, way too young, just like Netanyahu. If somebody had said that to you about your brother, obviously, you would act. But I think we’re seeing a Netanyahu who is divorced from the thinking, feeling Netanyahu that we’ve seen in the past and instead, he’s being surrounded by this extremist echo chamber. And so the question becomes, in the current reality that we live in, not in this hypothetical, wonderful world that I hope will materialize in the future — which you’ll tell us about in a second — how do we move beyond the Netanyahu who has basically created this storm that we are now in the eye of?
So I don’t really know how you move forward tomorrow, but I do think I have some ideas about a year from now how this works. Everything now is too close, too painful to understand. I don’t have enough distance to understand what’s happening tomorrow. And I think the cynics will determine what will happen tomorrow and next week. But I think it’s the optimists who will determine what will happen next year and two years from now.
So this government, I don’t know how much more life it has in it, but I still think it has another year or two, but this government is going to end. And how does Israel look like, not day after these events, but the day after this government, which has two characteristics. It’s a very narrow government and it’s a very extreme government. And that combination, turns out, is a poisonous combination. So, when we think about the future and how the present shapes the future, I think we should be thinking about not one thing, but two things. There are the events of the present that shape the future, but it’s also the memories of these events that shape the future.
And what has more influence on the future? What happened, or the memories of what happened now? Many times it’s the memories of the present that shape the future more than the present itself. And how will this present be remembered?
So I want to share with you a theory I’m developing. This government, this very extreme right-wing government was for many years a fantasy in Israel among circles of the right. This fantasy has a name in Hebrew, “memshelet yamin al-male.” Basically, a pure right-wing government. And this fantasy was very helpful for the Right because it was a great answer to a question when you would ask people, you’re in government for 40 years. Why isn’t Israel the paradise you promised us it’s going to be? Why is there still a lack of security, traffic jams? Security issues, economic issues.
So you know what the answer is? Well, we were never really in power, the Right. We always had a centrist or a liberal there to neutralize our power, to block us, to stop us from doing what we know, what we think we should do. People like Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz and Ehud Barak, there was always a liberal centrist, a leftist there. There was a stain on our government, and we didn’t have a pure right-wing government. One day we’ll get what we want. One day we’ll have a massive majority. We won’t have to join any centrist or coalition. We’ll have a pure right-wing government, and then you’ll see what Israel will look like. That’s the road to utopia.
Well, Amanda, you know, what’s the best way to ruin a fantasy?
To make it a reality.
The best way to destroy a fantasy is to implement it. And now we’re living the fantasy, we’re living the dream. And many people, what’s important, including on the right, including religious Zionists, including Likud voters, not small amounts, large amounts are looking around. And this does not look to them like a utopia. This looks to them like a dystopia. This fantasy is being destroyed as we’re talking. The day after this government is over, Amanda, the idea of a pure extreme right-wing government will not be a fantasy. It will be a bad memory.
Meaning the status of this idea has transformed from a fantasy regarding the future to a very bad memory in the past that we don’t want to replicate. That’s a big deal, that many people on the right will not want to replicate this experiment, the destruction of this fantasy.
The idea of a pure extreme right-wing government will not be a fantasy. It will be a bad memory
Now we know what this looks like because Israelis went through something similar before. In the 90s, we had left-wing governments that tried to implement a pure left-wing ideology. And here is a problem with idealism in general: When you fall in love with an idea, you become blind to reality. You love the ideology. You’re impressed by the ideology, and you really want it to become a reality. So you don’t listen to reality itself. So when Barak goes to Camp David to implement the perfect left-wing ideology, two-state solution, end of conflict, peace. So when the intelligence says: “Listen, don’t offer [Palestinian Authority leader Yassir] Arafat everything, it won’t end well.”
And when different experts were trying to represent reality, the prime minister was listening to ideology, trying to impose the ideology on reality. But then reality rebels against the ideology. The Second Intifada breaks. One thousand Israelis are murdered. And the left has never recovered before. Has never recovered ever since. You know why? Because Israelis are carrying trauma from the left.
Here’s my prediction, Amanda, and we are recorded. So I’m stuck with this.
I’m putting it in a bottle, burying it in my backyard.
Okay, here’s my prediction, it’s that what we’re experiencing now in Israel, what the Second Intifada did to the left, these events are going to do to the right, creating a trauma. But let me be more accurate, to a coalition with the extreme right. Meaning after this is all said and done, and over, Israel, Israelis will be graduates of two traumas. One trauma in the trauma from pure left-wing ideology, the attempt to implement pure left-wing ideology. And we’re traumatized from that. But now we have another trauma added to that, that balances. The trauma from a pure right-wing ideology.
Don’t you think there’s a third trauma, the trauma of a national unity government such as under Ariel Sharon when he was able to carry out the disengagement?
Actually, I think the other way around. I think what Israeli history shows us is that national unity governments are very successful governments. If we look at the history of Israel we see that our greatest moments were led by national unity governments. I’m sure most of our listeners don’t know this, but the Six Day War, one of Israel’s greatest victories, was led by a national unity government. Levi Eshkol, the great prime minister we had, I’m sure most of our listeners don’t know his name because part of his greatness was that he didn’t take credit for the Six Day War. Moshe Dayan, that joined the government, I think, five days before the war, took all the credit for the victory and Levi Eshkol who really built the military that won the war, he’s not remembered and I think it’s part of the reason why he was a great leader. He gave credit, he didn’t steal credits. And his large soul enabled him to create a national unity government. Meaning, before the war began, he asked Menachem Begin to join the government and Rafi, a certain branch on the left, to join the government to create a national unity government. And that’s the government that won the war.
Between 1984 and 1988, Israel was in deep trouble. More than 400% inflation a year. And Israel was deep in our version of Vietnam in Lebanon. [Yitzhak] Shamir and [Shimon] Peres united in a very tough national unity government and shrank inflation. They brought it down from 400% to like normal numbers and took us out of Lebanon.
Finally, the Second Intifada broke out. A national unity government is created led by the two titans of Israel: Arik Sharon, big Arik Sharon, and Shimon Peres. And Sharon and Peres together, go on Operation Defensive Shield and destroy the Second Intifada.
This is a law of Israeli history that we haven’t noticed yet: Narrow governments tend to fail. National broad national unity governments tend to succeed. This government has two sins to it. It’s very narrow and it’s very extreme. That’s a very poisonous combination. But I think if we look at Israeli history, we will now be graduates of two traumas, and that’s pushing us towards a center that might be pushing us towards a national unity government. And if stable, large national unity governments will be created in the future, we will look backward and say these were created not because of events that happened in the past, but because of the way we remembered the past when there was a pure-right wing, a left-wing ideology that led to the Second Intifada, pure right-wing ideology is leading to an “internal intifada.” I mean that metaphorically, yes, an internal chaos.
And I think these two traumas might channel the energy of Israeli history towards the center, towards centrist governments, moderate governments that tap into that invisible consensus that enable us to move from the false dichotomy of pro-Bibi, anti-Bibi. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv. Conservative, liberal. Pro-reform, anti-reform. That false dichotomy moves from there, to the invisible agreement where 60-70% of Israelis agree on almost all issues.
Our ability to tap into the invisible consensus of Israel depends on us forming broad nationality governments. I think the trauma from this government will give energy to Israeli history to move in that direction.
Micah, we’ve taken up too much of your time already, but it is Tisha B’Av this week and I wonder if you could give us a little insight into your new book, “The Last Words of Moses,” that just came out in English.
So this is highly linked to Tisha B’av and highly linked to these chaotic moments we’re experiencing in Israel. Because his last speech, in the book of Deuteronomy, is the last speech of Moses right before the people of Israel enter the Land of Israel. And it’s actually a shift of the people of Israel, it’s a political shift. In the desert, they were powerless. When they enter Eretz Canaan, they become powerful. And his last speech is about how do you manage the greatest challenge of all times — being powerful — and how can power not corrupt you? And Moshe says to them that if power will corrupt them, their sovereignty will collapse and they’ll be exiled from the land.
The interesting thing about this speech is that it’s out of context. In the following, we need to imagine the speech being delivered to the people of Israel and they have anxiety. They’re about to enter Israel, to conquer Israel, to build a kingdom, to build a monarchy. And Moshe does not discuss the challenges of war, of conquering Israel, of building Israel. He’s discussing a different challenge: how after you built everything, how do you keep it going? And he says, if you don’t be careful, the whole thing will collapse, you’ll be exiled.
How weird is it, Amanda? And how interesting is it, that what troubles Moshe is not the challenge of entering Israel and fighting to build Israel, but the challenge of keeping it alive and not losing Israel. Because Moshe thinks that for Jews, it’s easier to build the country, it’s harder to keep it going.
In our first attempt at sovereignty, we lost it. Our kingdom was split in our eighth decade. That’s in the time of David and Solomon. Our second attempt at sovereignty, in the time of the Hashmonaim, the kingdom was split and then destroyed in the eighth decade.
Now we have our third attempt. Will we outsmart ourselves? This is, I think, the biggest question. Will we outsmart ourselves? Will we be able to listen to the last words of Moses, to our ancient wisdom, the wisdom of our past that will guide us, how not to replicate the pathology of our own past.
Micah, thank you so much.
Thank you, Amanda.
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