Huffpost WorldPost
Reza Aslan Headshot

The Coming Showdown in Israel

Posted: Updated:
GAZA ROCKETS
PA

This is how it always seems to work in the Middle East. Are the people rising up against you? Are they demanding greater rights, economic equality, social justice? Don't worry. All you need to do is point the finger at an external enemy -- some outside force that threatens your borders, your identity, your very way of life -- and hope that the people will forget their troubles and rally around you instead. That's how it works in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine. Why shouldn't it work that way in Israel, too?

For the past month, a coalition of leftists, student unions, journalists, doctors, and social groups -- popularly known as the J14 Movement -- has been hounding the Netanyahu government through a series of massive protests that have shaken the very foundations of the state. What began as frustration with high housing prices has transformed into the biggest social movement Israel has seen in years. Protesters are demanding the government address the growing class disparity among Israelis, that it make fundamental changes to its education policy, that it cut military spending, even that it stop the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

The J14 protests have opened deep cracks in Israel's civil society and posed a severe challenge to the country's right wing government. Indeed, some have taken to calling it the "Israel Summer," in homage to the Arab Spring. Which is why the Netanyahu government has been desperate to refocus the people's energies away from the rising price of healthcare and gasoline and toward a more manageable problem: national security.

Right on cue, a group of as-yet unnamed Palestinian militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in Eilat on Thursday, killing eight and wounding dozens more. Israel immediately retaliated with a series of air strikes on targets in Gaza that have thus far killed at least a dozen Palestinians including a two-year-old boy. In retaliation for the Israeli retaliation, more than a dozen rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, injuring six Jews near a religious school in Ashdod.

And the cycle continues.

There is, of course, no justification for unprovoked attacks against civilians -- either by Israel or the Palestinians. And certainly Israel has the right to strike back at those who attack its citizens. But there can be no doubt that the attacks and counter-attacks of the last couple of days have given the Netanyahu government the perfect excuse to try to put an end to the J14 protests in the name of national unity.

Already one of the main protest organizers, the National Union of Students, has issued a press release canceling the planned rallies for the weekend so as to show solidarity with the grieving country. While other groups say they still plan to demonstrate on Saturday, they've also promised that rally will be not target the government and its policies but will instead be a somber memorial procession meant to honor the victims of Thursday's attacks.

This is a perfectly appropriate response on the part of the Israeli public. Solidarity in the face of a tragedy is to be expected. But make no mistake, the Netanyahu government will use the heightened security situation in Israel to pressure the protesters to put aside their demands for social reform and focus instead on the enemy next door.

That strategy may work. A recent poll found that a staggering 70 percent of Jewish teenagers in Israel say that national security should trump democratic values. This is the generation that grew up during the Second Intifada, for whom war and security are the defining issues for Israel. They are advocates of militant determinism against Palestinian resistance, and they overwhelmingly support the Likud government's hard-line position in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Yet this is also the same generation that has been flooding the streets of cities across the country, demanding the reallocation of funds from the military budget to welfare and healthcare services for the lower classes.

Thus, the stage is set for a showdown this weekend between two prevailing forces in Israeli society: one which advocates national security above all other concerns, and one which believes a country that prides itself on being a stable, prosperous democracy in an unstable and impoverished region must, above all else, meet its obligations to its weakest citizens. The irony is that these two forces reside in the same individuals who make up the J14 movement.

So then, the question remains: will this generation keep up its efforts to hold the government accountable for its failed economic policies, or will it fold under the banner of national security? Will the protesters continue putting pressure on the government to address domestic issues with the same zealous resolve with which it deals with security issues, or will they pack up their tent cities and go home? Will the demonstrations push on undaunted by the inevitable charges that they are "risking Israel's safety" or will Thursday's attack mark the beginning of the end of the "Israel Summer"?

We may find out this weekend.