Most observers discount any possibility of civil war, insisting that there have been stirrings of armed insurrection in nearly every decade of Israel’s existence.

London: When a country has five general elections in less than four years, you know there’s a problem. Last November, the results of Israel’s latest general election were announced, giving a clear victory for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Prime Minister Yair Lapid, even though the voters were divided on whether they wanted Netanyahu back in office. Just like politics in the US, Israel is split down the middle. Unlike former US President Donald Trump, however, who still refuses to accept the decision of the electorate, Yair Lapid acknowledged defeat and congratulated his opponent, saying, “The State of Israel comes before any political consideration. I wish Netanyahu success for the sake of the people of Israel and the State of Israel.” Lapid then instructed his staff to prepare an organised transition of power. Trump should take note.
Because of Israel’s extreme proportional representation, voters choose a Party rather than a candidate, no Party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Its name and the number of its members are based on the “Knesset Hagdola” of the early Second Temple period, and is composed of 120 representatives of different political parties elected every four years. This means that a party needs 61 seats to form a majority, which has never happened since the first Knesset was formed in 1949. The result has always been that the winning party needed to form a coalition to stay in power. Those in favour of Israel’s system argue that it reflects the strong democratic tradition of the State of Israel. Others argue that it is a recipe for chaos, pointing to the recent seemingly perpetual election season.
As always happens in Israel, some extreme haggling took place during the allocated 28 days to form a coalition government. Many recalled the words of Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli prime minister assassinated by a Jewish supremacist 27 years ago: “in every coalition there’s also some co-loathing”. And so it happened. The outcome was a new ultranationalist, hard-right religious coalition government in Jerusalem that includes racist, anti-Arab ministers determined to annex all the Palestinian territories.
Netanyahu’s new government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, stocked with far-right radicals such as 46-year-old Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s Yikud Party. Ben-Gvir has faced charges of hate speech and was convicted of supporting a terrorist group known as Kach, which championed an extremist religious Zionist ideology. Long accused of being a provocateur, Ben-Gvir has called for the expulsion of Arab citizens and, as a lawyer, is known for defending Jewish radicals. He now serves in Netanyahu’s government as Minister of National Security, responsible for public security and law enforcement—a “poacher turned gamekeeper”. Ben-Gvir started by ordering a police crackdown on Israeli anti-government protests, banning Palestinian flags, and paying a deliberately provocative visit to Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.
Another right-wing politician is the new finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist party. In the past he is said to have called for the segregation of Jews and Arabs in maternity wards, lest his wife be forced to give birth next to an “enemy”. One of Smotrich’s first acts was to seize $40 million in Palestinian Authority funds and pay it to the families of “Israeli victims” in retaliation to the PA’s recent successful UN initiative asking the International Court of Justice to form an opinion regarding the legal implications of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As a resident of Kedumim, an illegal Israeli settlement within the Israeli occupied territories of the West Bank, Smotrich opposes Palestinian statehood. Accused of inciting hatred against Arab citizens of Israel, he told Arab lawmakers in October 2021 that “it’s a mistake that former Prime Minister Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948”, even calling himself a “fascist homophobe”, when referring gay pride parades to be “worse than bestiality”.
Many Israelis fear what the new government means for their democracy, alarmed by the plan of Justice Minister Yariv Levin to tame the judiciary, the very same justice system that for the past two years has prosecuted Netanyahu for alleged corruption. Not only does this raise deep suspicions of Levin’s motives, but many Israelis see this as an open attack on judges. They are convinced that if the plan is implemented in full, the Knesset will have the power to override decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court by a simple majority. Not only would this lead to the judiciary being controlled by the executive branch, thus decimating the separation of powers essential in a democracy, but Israel’s Supreme Court will be prevented from defending the rights of individual citizens.
Israel’s former defence minister, Benny Gates, now just a leader of an opposition party, was extremely alarmed by Netanyahu’s plan to eviscerate the Supreme Court. This mild mannered individual, who just a few days earlier had admonished his opposition colleagues simply for heckling Netanyahu’s inaugural speech, warned the new prime minister that if he went ahead with the plan he would effectively end Israel’s democracy. “The court will be composed of those close to the government”, he continued, “and politicians will appoint submissive judges who will do what they are told”. Then, adopting an ominous tone he added: “The responsibility for a war of brothers will rest with you,” he said referring to “milchemet achim”, a Hebrew term which Israeli leaders have used in the past to warn of a possible civil war.
Such strong statements about a “fratricidal war” between Jews have shocking connotations. The Arab media believes the mounting internal strife heralds the disintegration of the state of Israel, with many outlets recalling the “Altalena Affair”. This was an incident in 1948 when a civil war almost broke out in the nascent Jewish state between feuding Israeli military groups after Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the sinking of the cargo ship Altalena. He gave the order because it carried weapons and volunteers from Europe, including arms for a military group known as Irgun. Irgun was led by his political rival Menachem Begin, whom he suspected was planning a military coup against his government. That moment, less than six weeks after the establishment of the state of Israel, was the closest the country has ever come to civil war.
But most observers discount any possibility of civil war, insisting that there have been stirrings of armed insurrection in nearly every decade of Israel’s existence. Following the Altalena incident, there was “Brith Kanaim” (Covenant of Zealots), a religious underground movement that plotted and failed to overthrow the secular government. There were also the riots against the “Reparations Agreement with West Germany”, led by Begin, who forgot for a moment his commitment to democracy and nearly stormed the Knesset. Over a decade later, in 1967, a group of generals discussed taking over if Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wouldn’t give the order to launch a pre-emptive strike on Egypt. In the 90s there were yet more attacks by the far right to prevent the “Oslo Accords”, first murdering Palestinians and then an Israeli prime minister. Each time, there were warnings of a civil war, but at no point since the sinking of the Altalena was Israel actually close to civil war. Not even after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995.
Many Israelis are convinced that the arrival of such hard-right ministers, together with the Levin plan, if implemented in full, will herald the end of Israeli democracy as they know it. But while losing what is left of Israel’s fragile and limited democracy will be a terrible blow for many, they are equally convinced that Israel will not come anywhere near to civil war. The overwhelming majority of Israelis will feel that they stand to lose more than just their democracy—especially as there’s no way of winning such a war. That’s why the last one in Israel happened as recently as 2,000 years ago.