Israel—at least the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination—is over. Although that Israel was always in some ways a fantasy, the myth was at least grounded in reality. Today that reality has changed, and the country that has replaced it is profoundly different from the one its founders imagined almost 70 years ago. Since the last elections, in March 2015, a number of slow-moving trends have accelerated dramatically. Should they continue, they could soon render the country unrecognizable.
Already, the transformation has been dramatic. Israel’s current leaders—headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who metamorphosed after the election from a risk-averse conservative into a right-wing radical—see democracy as synonymous with unchecked majority rule and have no patience for restraints such as judicial review or the protection of minorities. In their view, Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state—in that order. Only Jews should enjoy full rights, while gentiles should be treated with suspicion. Extreme as it sounds, this belief is now widely held: a Pew public opinion survey published in March found that 79 percent of Jewish Israelis supported “preferential treatment” for Jews—a thinly veiled euphemism for discrimination against non-Jews.
Meanwhile, the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians has been taken off the table, and Israel is steadily making its occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank permanent. Human rights groups and dissidents who dare criticize the occupation and expose its abuses are denounced by officials, and the government has sought to pass new laws restricting their activities. Arab-Jewish relations within the country have hit a low point, and Israel’s society is breaking down into its constituent tribes.
Netanyahu thrives on such tribalism, which serves his lifelong goal of replacing Israel’s traditional elite with one more in tune with his philosophy. The origins of all these changes predate the current prime minister, however. To truly understand them, one must look much further