Anti-judicial overhaul, demonstration, Knesset
Demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire

Israel on the brink: Peter Beinart delves into ethnonationalism, political unrest, and the fight for democracy’s future.

On this week’s edition of the WhoWhatWhy podcast, Peter Beinart, journalist and author with long-time expertise in Israeli culture and politics, investigates the country’s prevailing political discord. 

The primary concern revolves around the Netanyahu government’s controversial judicial reform bid aimed at curtailing the power of the courts — the only bulwark against government authority. 

In a country with a unicameral legislature and no constitution, the courts adjudicate on a range of issues—from the legality of legislation and military activities to conscription decisions, and may well determine Netanyahu’s personal legal fate.

Beinart underscores the reasons behind this move: the rise of ethnonationalism, the expansion of West Bank settlements, and the burgeoning influence of authoritarian politics. These elements have been steadily reshaping Israel’s political landscape, veering it away from its original vision as a democratic state for all its citizens and towards a form of authoritarianism and apartheid.

Beinart points out why the proposed judicial changes have sparked widespread protests, reflecting years of simmering inter-Jewish discontent and revealing deep-seated flaws in the nation’s founding principles. Beinart offers a nuanced exploration of these issues, painting a complex picture of a nation at a unique crossroads.

Israel now stands on the precipice of a significant decision: to continue down the path of tribalism, or worse, or to evolve into a state that respects the rights and dignity of all its citizens. 

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. As Lincoln once said of the US: “Israel has become a house divided against itself.” Today, many seem surprised by the scale of protests against the Netanyahu government and its plan for judicial castration. The movement might seem sudden to those observing from afar; however, the temperature has been rising for years. The rise of ethnonationalism, the growth of West Bank settlements, and the importation of authoritarian politics on a scale akin to Poland and Hungary have been steadily shaping Israel’s political landscape. At the core of the issue today lies a contentious push for judicial overhaul, eliminating checks and balances in a nation without a constitution and veering far away from the vision of Israel as a state for all of its citizens.

To discuss all of this, we’re joined today by my guest Peter Beinart: a prominent voice who has been shedding light on the challenges faced by the Israeli government. Through his work, Peter has raised thought-provoking questions about the future of Israel’s movement against the current government, emphasizing the significance of understanding its changing political dynamics and changing demographics. Today, we wonder what are the long- and short-term implications of Israel’s acceptance of a kind of ethnonationalism and the increasingly clear need for a holistic approach to its current problems, one that transcends what has become an intra-Jewish struggle between the liberal right and the far-right. For many, the battle juxtaposes a deep attachment to Jewish society with guilt for the suffering Palestinians. Today, Israel stands at a crossroads, teetering between the paths of authoritarian tribalism and a state that embraces all of its citizens.

Our guest Peter Beinart serves as editor-at-large for Jewish Currents. He’s the author of The Beinart Notebook — Substack and a frequent contributor to The New York Times and MSNBC. He holds positions as a professor of journalism and political science at the School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He’s a fellow with the Foundation for Middle East Peace and has authored several influential books on the subject of Israel and the Middle East. It is my pleasure to welcome Peter Beinart here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Peter, thanks so much for joining us.

Peter Beinart: My pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: It is a delight to have you here. Peter, before we go deeper into the current crisis, talk a little bit for those that may not understand this fundamental issue of what’s transpiring with respect to the court and its effort to “reform the judiciary.”

Peter Beinart: So the first thing to understand about Israel’s political system is that Israel has no constitution. A tremendous amount of power is vested in the government of the day because it’s a parliamentary system. So unlike the United States, there’s not a separation between executive and legislative, which is to say, if your coalition of parties controls parliament, you form the government. It’s not like America, where you have a separate election for president and then a separate election for Congress. In addition, Israel is unicameral; it doesn’t have two bodies of Parliament, it only has one. And it doesn’t really have a Federalist system, which is to say that states and localities don’t have a lot of power. So if you compare to the United States, you think about all these different institutions that block the power of the executive in every particular moment. You got the House, the Senate, you got state, localities.

In Israel, none of that exists. So what has happened is that the Supreme Court has taken on these powers in recent decades to become the only real institution that checks the power of the executive. But the Supreme Court is unpopular with the Israeli right for a variety of reasons, and they feel like it has taken too much power. It is preventing them from doing what they want to do. And so that this judicial overhaul is a way of weakening the power of the court, so this government can have more free reign.

Jeff Schechtman: Why now? Why has this become an issue at this time? Certainly, Netanyahu has had many other opportunities over the years as prime minister. What triggered this now?

Peter Beinart: Well, in some ways, he hasn’t had because although Netanyahu has been in power mostly since 2009, he’s never really had an ideologically coherent government. In Israel, you need 61 seats to form a Knesset majority; no party ever gets that. And he has cobbled together coalitions before where he always had some centrist parties in his coalition. He did well enough in the last election that he doesn’t need them, so it’s his first truly right-wing government. And so that gives him the power to push this through, whereas previously he couldn’t have held his whole government together to do it. That’s one reason. The second reason is that there are a number of different interests that have coalesced together to try to weaken the Supreme Court. One of it is that Netanyahu personally fears going to jail, and he feels like if the court is less powerful, it may make it easier for him to manipulate that judicial process. That’s one.

The second is that ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews have a suspicion of the Court because the court ruled a bunch of years ago that their children had to go into the military. This is something that ultra-Orthodox Jews very much resist doing because they feel like they will basically stop not being able to maintain their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, if they go into the military. And the third is that the Israeli political right, which wants essentially to annex the West Bank, which Israel occupied in 1967, if not ethnically cleanse Palestinians from large portions of it. The Supreme Court is hardly a pro-Palestinian institution. It is not a bastion of human rights by any means. But the Supreme Court, which generally follows the lead of the Israeli security services, does sometimes prevent Israeli governments from doing particularly rash and aggressive things towards the Palestinians. And this is really government wants to end that limitation.

Jeff Schechtman: What say does the court have with respect to this legislation itself? Can the court attempt to overrule this legislation that’s been passed?

Peter Beinart: So that’s a great question. So the judicial overhaul was broken out into various different pieces by Netanyahu. One of those pieces has now passed, which concerns something called the reasonableness clause, where the Supreme Court could basically strike down decisions of the government — government actions that it declared to be unreasonable. Now, Netanyahu’s government has eliminated that, and the opposition has immediately filed suit in the court. And the court has to decide whether the government has the right to do this. So the court could strike it down, say, “You don’t have the right to get rid of this power of ours.” And then you’re in a…  You can’t call it a constitutional crisis [laughter] because there is no constitution. It’s in a kind of existential crisis because then the ball is back in Netanyahu’s court. Does he accept the decision of the Supreme Court?

If he accepts the decision of the Supreme Court and basically says, “We give up,” his government would probably collapse. That would be considered raising the white flag by his constituents. If he says to the court: “Screw you,” as Andrew Jackson famously said to the United States Supreme Court: “You made the decision, you enforce it,” then I think the ball goes into the hands, essentially, of the Israeli military and security services. It’s a little bit of Clinton, like what would have happened if Donald Trump had simply barricaded himself in the White House and refused to leave. Ultimately, someone would have called the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say, “Well, you guys have all the guns; who are you going to follow?” And I think the question would be: What do the Israeli security services do? Are they loyal to the court, or they’re loyal to the Netanyahu government? That would be the place that Israel got to.

Jeff Schechtman: Does that assume, though, that the security services would act in a unified way? We’re already hearing about reservists, for example, that might go on strike because they’re so opposed to this.

Peter Beinart: What’s interesting is it seems to be that although the Israeli military as a whole is deeply divided, there are many right-wing settlers and Likud voters, that the elite echelons of the Israeli military tend to be, I would say, politically centrist, and tend to be generally quite opposed to what the Netanyahu government is doing. So I think that there are people in this opposition protest movement, and many of these top former officials from the Israeli Defense Forces, from Israel’s internal and external security services, have publicly denounced the judicial overhaul and even walked in the protest. I think that from the conversations I have, the people in the protest movement are fairly confident that the security services would stick with the Supreme Court and not with Netanyahu, and that would force the government to collapse.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the administrative state in Israel itself, because one of the things it seems that this reform would do would be allow the government to dismiss civil servants that it disliked.

Peter Beinart: Yes, that would be one thing it would allow it to do. One of the issues that is going on, for instance, right now is that there’s a committee to appoint judges, and this is where the government refuses to convene that committee, for instance. Again it’s not entirely different than some of the things Donald Trump is talking about doing is that there is a series of norms that are checks on executive power. The president can’t just come into office and fire every single person in the federal government and put in his friends. And Trump wants to overturn that because he sees “The administrative state is hostile to him,” and he wants basically to have more unencumbered political power. And there’s a version of that which is now happening in Israel too.

Jeff Schechtman: The larger frame for all of this really seems to go back to some of the fundamental issues in Israel itself. This constant tension that seems to have always existed between a Jewish state and a democratic state. And what seems to be happening now is really a kind of unraveling that is moving the country towards an authoritarian state.

Peter Beinart: Yes. Another way that I might put it is that the country has always been an authoritarian state when it comes to Palestinians. But there’s a kind of blowback by which some of that authoritarianism that has been visited on Palestinians since Israel’s creation is now impacting certain groups of Israeli Jews. Israel was only able to be created as a Jewish and democratic state through an act of mass expulsion of Palestinians at Israel’s founding. If there hadn’t been the expulsion of 7,500,000 Palestinians, roughly, there would have been simply too many Palestinians in the country to have a country in which Jews had overwhelming political control. And the Palestinian citizens of Israel, those who remained, who were not expelled, were held under military law from 1949 until 1966. And then Israel conquered the West Bank in Gaza and held all those people in East Jerusalem without giving them citizenship, even though they were under Israeli control, and that remains basically to this day.

So that’s always been this authoritarian face that Israel has shown Palestinians, but I think this is a government that is deeply, deeply influenced by the ideology of religious nationalism and the settler project that has governed Palestinians. So, for instance, on Saturday night, there were these two big dueling protests in Israel: one against judicial overhaul and one for judicial overhaul, one of Netanyahu’s supporters. And someone did look closely at where the buses that took the people to the projudicial overhaul rally were coming from, the ones to support Netanyahu. A huge number of them were coming from settlements in the West Bank. And a lot of the ministers in this government, people like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, live in the West Bank. So, in a way, what I would say you’re seeing is a version of Jewish supremacy that defines Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians is now essentially eroding the liberal democracy that has existed for Jews.

Jeff Schechtman: Where does the public opinion, the majority of public opinion stand in the polling that’s been done about this?

Peter Beinart: Well, so even this question, one has to come with a caveat. Because one has to remember that when you talk about polling people, who are you polling? You poll people who can vote. 80% of the Palestinians under Israeli control can’t vote: those in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. If all the people that Israel controls could vote, things would look radically different.

Jeff Schechtman: It’d be a very different country, right?

Peter Beinart: It would be a fundamentally different country. So, when you talk about public opinion, you’re talking about those people who live inside what’s called the Green Line, Israel proper, and all of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Because the Jews in the West Bank can vote, unlike their Palestinian neighbors. The polling seems to suggest that most Israeli Jews are against this. There’s a significant margin of people who are against it. And the reason is because even the right is not united in favor of it. That there is a slice of the right element or center-right of Israel who, even though they’re generally conservative and might have even voted for Netanyahu, they’re worried about the division and the potential for even civil war that this has created, and so they’re not entirely on board.

Jeff Schechtman: How real is that potential for civil war?

Peter Beinart: I don’t think I can answer that. That seems to me really hard to imagine. What is a civil war? Civil war would mean some kind of fracturing of the military where you literally had different units fighting with one another out on the streets. It doesn’t seem to me… I can’t imagine that. It seems to me more akin to a very, very, very toxic and hostile cultural war in which neither side sees the other side as fundamentally legitimate. Again, of the kind that in a way we also have here in the United States in the sense that Republicans didn’t really see Barack Obama as a legitimate president. That was insane, but they didn’t, really. And Democrats, I think, for better reasons didn’t see Donald Trump as a really legitimate president. And I think Israel is in a version of that dynamic.

Jeff Schechtman: You’ve talked about the inter-Jewish conflict; that in some ways, it’s a battle between the liberal right and the far right. Talk about that.

Peter Beinart: Yes. Well, so, one of the critical questions has to do with the role of religion in the state. So, when Israel was created, although it was created as a Jewish state, it was created by relatively secular people, and the Zionist movement was led by fairly secular people. And those people looked at Orthodox Jews, especially what we call ultra-Orthodox Jews, as a kind of museum piece of the past, whose numbers would dwindle to nothingness. And they were willing to give them a place because they needed, again, to get their assent to the creation of the state, but they didn’t think that they would ever have a chance to wield power. It turns out that they were fundamentally wrong. By the way, in this way, Israel is not so different than a country like Pakistan, which was founded as a Muslim country but by secularists like Jinnah who didn’t really believe that fundamentalist Islam had a future, and he was wrong about that. Ben-Gurion was wrong about that, too.

So, because of the demographic ascendance of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, there is a tremendous hostility and fear among more secular Israeli Jews for a whole variety of reasons. Part of it is because there’s resentment because the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve in the military, so they don’t feel like they’re carrying their weight. They’re also not very economically productive. There’s a joke in Israel that one-third of the people serve in the military, one-third of the people do the work, and one-third of the people pay the taxes, and it’s all the same third. That’s the way that secular Jews feel: that they’re carrying this unproductive, medieval group of people. And it’s not just that — again, from a secular perspective, I’m not saying this is what I believe — from the secular perspective, they’re not only unproductive and medieval, but they’re trying to coerce you.

Israel has, for instance, no civil marriage or civil divorce. Burial, divorce, marriage, all of these things go through the rabbinate. An official rabbinate that is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox. So, if you’re a secular Israeli Jewish couple who wants to get married … First of all, Israel has no legal marriage across religious lines, most people don’t realize that because you have to get married by a cleric of whatever religion. But if you’re a secular person, you literally… Secular Jews either go get married somewhere else or they basically don’t have a real marriage at all because they can’t deal with having to go with these ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Similarly, stores being closed on Shabbat, public transportation on the Jewish Sabbath. So this produces a huge resentment. That’s one very big issue. Another big issue, which I’ll try to be more brief about, is the divide between what are called Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews. Ashkenazi Jews are Jews of European descent, essentially, Mizrahi Jews are Jews from the greater Middle East.

And the country was founded… It was dominated in its founding by Ashkenazi Jews. And there is a deep wellspring of historic resentment by Mizrahi or Eastern Jews towards the way they were treated. And those Mizrahi Jews became the bedrock of the Likud party in the late 1970s because of that resentment against the Ashkenazi-dominated Labour Party. And they remain very resentful of what they perceive as Ashkenazi-dominated elite institutions, like the Supreme Court.

Jeff Schechtman: What do the demographics portend?

Peter Beinart: Well, if one looks at Jews and Palestinians, what you see is that a majority of the people between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river are already Palestinian. And that discrepancy will probably only continue to increase. If you look at the demographics among Jews, what you see is that Mizrahi Jews are roughly 50% of the population, and the ultra-Orthodox population is growing fast. Now, again, demography is not a straight line, something could happen, and that could change this. But if current trends continue, then the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews will be a much larger share of the Israeli Jewish population, and that’s partly what terrifies the secular Jews who tend to dominate this protest movement against judicial overhaul.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the larger connection as you see it between this moment, this protest movement, this battle over the court, and how it plays out with respect to the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict — how it will play out vis-a-vis the West Bank, et cetera.

Peter Beinart: As I mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court is willing to allow the Israeli military to do all kinds of things that I think human rights organizations see as grave violations of Palestinian human rights, but they tend to reflect the perspective of the Israeli security services which essentially want to manage Israel’s apartheid control over Palestinians in the West Bank. I use the term apartheid just to be clear, it’s the term used even by Israel’s own human rights organizations because you have a territory where you have two legal systems: one that gives Jews full rights and the other that denies Palestinians basic rights. So the court places certain roadblocks because it wants to essentially manage the situation. There are forces in this Israeli government that don’t want to manage the situation. They want to push it towards a more some decisive outcome.

That would mean, I think, not just making a Palestinian state impossible, and it probably already is impossible, but I think it would mean putting more and more pressure on Palestinians by demolishing more and more Palestinian homes, by seizing more and more land, by being more and more brutal in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, allowing settlers to commit more violence, essentially with the goal of trying to drive Palestinians out of the territory, and I think they see the court as an impediment to that. The court, for instance, has basically said, “You can’t seize privately owned Palestinian land.” Now, you can play games where you declare Palestinian land is not privately owned, it’s state land, and then give it to settlers, but there are certain hoops that you have to jump through. You can’t just straight-out seize privately owned Palestinian land. This government wants to weaken the court, so it can’t put that impediment in front of them.

Jeff Schechtman: Does the government want to expel the Palestinians from the West Bank?

Peter Beinart: I think that not the government as a whole necessarily, but there are some key figures in the government who have talked in those terms. So, one of them is Bezalel Smotrich who’s the finance minister who also is in charge of civil administration in the West Bank.

In 2017, he put out a document called The Decisive Plan where he basically said, “Listen, we give the Palestinians a choice in the West Bank. They’re not going to have their own country, and they’re not going to have citizenship and any basic rights inside Israel. If they’re fine with that, meaning they don’t protest that apartheid condition, they can stay. If they cause us trouble and they resist that, we’re going to have to figure out a way of trying to get them out of here.” Now, he might have said, “We can do it voluntarily. We can offer people money to leave,” this kind of thing, but it’s not hard to see how that becomes coercion.

And what you’ve also seen Smotrich do is they have stepped up home demolitions of Palestinians. So, for instance, in area C of the West Bank, which is 60% of the West Bank, Israel doesn’t really want Palestinians to be there. It wants to concentrate them in, essentially, ghettos of concentrated Palestinian population centers in what are called area A and B. And so, what Smotrich has done — Palestinians, they can’t get permits to build buildings. So they build illegally because they have no choice, and Israel has demolition orders against a lot of these whole villages. And Smotrich has really accelerated the demolition of these buildings, and now, he’s even talking about demolishing Palestinian buildings in the Palestinian population centers, in area A and B. And when you combine that with massive settler violence, you can see a strategy in which you just make life so unlivable for Palestinians that they go somewhere else.

Jeff Schechtman: How relevant or irrelevant is global opinion of all of this to the Israeli government?

Peter Beinart: Well, if global opinion gets expressed through the policies of governments that have some influence over Israel, then it could matter. But that hasn’t been the case.

Even though public opinion in the Democratic party has been moving in a more pro-Palestinian direction, the United States government — Democrats and Republicans and certainly, Joe Biden — have taken the position that there should be, essentially, unconditional support for Israel, at least in the sense that there will be no tangible consequences for anything Israel does either in terms of US military aid or US diplomatic protection at the International Criminal Court or the UN. And so, in that way, Israel doesn’t have to pay that much attention to American public opinion because the American government, a Democratic president, is not expressing American public opinion. Let’s say Bernie Sanders were president, then it would be quite different because Bernie Sanders would, essentially, reflect some of that progressive sentiment.

And he might say to the Israelis: “Listen, we’re not going to give you a blank check of $3.8 billion anymore, and we’re not necessarily going to stand in the way of the International Criminal Court doing an investigation of your war crimes.” And that would create a political crisis in Israel.

Jeff Schechtman: What impact is it having on the economy of Israel and those that have a stake in the economy; where do they stand in all of this?

Peter Beinart: The business and tech leaders in Israel generally are very, very opposed to the judicial overhaul, which they see as a grave threat to the good operation of the economy and the world’s faith in the Israeli legal system for business purposes. And so, there has been very, very vocal opposition and I think some of a lot of the money behind this protest movement is coming from those sectors. It’s actually a bizarre situation actually that for a Marxist, it would be very hard to understand this, but basically, a lot of prominent Israeli business leaders have been pushing for a general strike by the workers, by the Histadrut, the Labor Federation. The labor unions haven’t been willing to do a general strike because they have a lot of working-class Netanyahu supporters in them, but business has actually been pushing for a general strike.

So, there has been a significant cost to the Israeli economy already. I’m not an economist, so I can’t entirely quantify it. But a lot of talk is really economists and business leaders have said that this is already having a very negative impact and there’s even been talk about companies relocating out of Israel.

Jeff Schechtman: You were there recently. Talk about what the situation appears to be from there on the ground, and how is it different from what we see from here and what the rest of the world sees.

Peter Beinart: I mean, every country is so complicated and multifaceted that I don’t want to claim that having been there that I can give some comprehensive view, and different Americans see different things. I would say that when one goes essentially from Jewish Israel into Palestinian areas, whether that’s in East Jerusalem or in the West Bank or even to some degree, among Palestinian citizens in Israel, you see a different country, or you start to see the way the country looks to people who don’t have equality and in many cases don’t have the most basic rights. And then you begin to understand why it is that a group like Human Rights Watch or the Israeli NGO human rights group B’Tselem would talk about apartheid. One of the things that I really wish is that the American politicians, the Jewish community leaders, and others who go to spend time in Israel would go to see these things as well.

Because I think a lot of times what happens is that even people who go to Israel a lot, they never see that part of Israel, and so they genuinely don’t understand why it is that people would be hurling these accusations. But if they saw some of the things that I saw on my recent trip, again, whole villages where everyone faces expulsion from the village, not because they’ve done anything wrong but just because they’re Palestinians, and as Palestinians, you can’t get building permits in area C of the West Bank, they would understand the gravity of the immorality that’s taking place.

Jeff Schechtman: Can this current protest movement morph into something larger? Can this be the basis for a larger movement and more fundamental change?

Peter Beinart: I don’t know that. I mean, I think there are different schools of thought. I think there’s one school of thought that says that basically what most of the people in this protest really want is essentially a return to the status quo, which would be something like the previous Israeli government of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett which was basically trying to manage the conflict and wasn’t really bothering liberal secular Israelis. There are others who believe that this movement could transform into something else. There’s a wing of this movement, a small wing which is sometimes called the Anti-Occupation Bloc, which is trying to insist that you can’t struggle for democracy without also struggling for democracy for Palestinians. That’s not the majority of people in this protest movement, but sometimes, movements start out with a more modest goal and expand.

I think we’re already seeing that this movement is now moving towards a movement that is going to be about bringing down this government, but could it move from that into being a movement that is truly for equality? This movement has not really invited Palestinians to be part of it, even Palestinian citizens of Israel. And so, that’s one thing that would have to change, if it were to be truly a movement for equality and a movement that tried to represent all the people under Israel’s control.

Jeff Schechtman: It also does seem that one step back is not possible at this point, that going back to a government to just manage the situation seems almost archaic at this point.

Peter Beinart: I don’t know. It might be that the government falls because people are so mobilized. But unfortunately, one has to remember, it was the previous Israeli government that outlawed the major human rights organizations in the West Bank, the Palestinian human rights organizations. Outlawed them, sent Israeli troops to go and basically take all the documents out of their offices and then padlock their doors. It was the Supreme Court that everyone’s defending before Netanyahu’s government took power that green-lighted the demolition of all of the villages in a part of area C called Masafer Yatta. So I hope you are right, but I don’t know.

Jeff Schechtman: Beyond Netanyahu, what is the leadership situation in Israel right now? Are there leaders that can step forward? Are there potential leaders of this movement that have some kind of strong, wide appeal?

Peter Beinart: I think that this protest movement will produce leaders, but I don’t think we know… In terms of people who go into politics, I don’t think we know who they are right now. I mean, right now, generally affiliated with the protest movement are essentially Israel’s centrist politicians. Yehir Lepid, the former prime minister, Benny Gantz, who was his partner in this centrist… Those are basically the prominent opposition leaders. There are people on the right who are angling to succeed Netanyahu when he finally steps down. And there’s a real dearth of political leadership, I would say, right now on the Israeli left.

Jeff Schechtman: Why is that?

Peter Beinart: People will say, “Well, the left was discredited by the end of the Oslo process and the Second Intifada, which showed that Palestinians will never really make peace and never really accept Israel, and that discredited the left Jewish parties.” That’s the conventional wisdom. I mean, there is some truth to that in terms of the way Israeli Jews, many of them, have read that history. I don’t think that’s the right reading of the history, but that narrative is powerful. But I think fundamentally, the problem is that Israel is not a political system in which Palestinian citizens, even the 20% of Palestinians under Israeli control who can vote, are not really integrated into the political system. They can vote, but they have separate political parties, and generally, have not considered legitimate participants in coalition governments.

When you say why is the left weak, it’s almost as if you had to imagine a situation in which the Democratic Party, in which black votes in the United States were not considered fully legitimate, and the Democratic Party could not be a fully multiracial party. If you had essentially just a white left party in the United States, it would be pretty weak. It wouldn’t win very much. And what I hope Israel gets to is a genuine multireligious, multiethnic political party that brings Palestinians and Jews together. And then I think it would have the potential to have some real power and influence. But that doesn’t exist today.

Jeff Schechtman: And is this a pivotal moment? Is this different than some of the moments before some of the battles previously?

Peter Beinart: It does seem like it may well be the greatest intra-Jewish conflict in Israeli history. I mean, there were battles during the Oslo process and others, but I think in terms of a really, really stark public fight about the core nature of the state that both sides see as existential among Jews, I don’t think there’s been another moment like this.

Jeff Schechtman: Peter Beinart, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Peter Beinart: My pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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