With Hamas busy firing rockets at Israeli cities, it's only natural that the Israeli public's primary concern in recent days has been physical security. But it should also be attuned to other, equally dangerous, problems posed by the current crisis. As Israel shifts to war footing, the authority of the Israeli state and the country's ability to remain a pluralistic democracy are under threat.

Following the horrific murder last month of three teenagers -- Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach -- who were from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and were kidnapped and then shot by a Hamas cell from Hebron, anger and grief quickly turned into calls for revenge. Political figures from the ultra-right party Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) and extremist members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party demanded an immediate response, incitements that quickly echoed through Israeli social media. Ultranationalist and messianic elements within Israeli society predictably proved eager to answer the call. They were soon harassing and sometimes attacking innocent Muslims in the streets of Israeli cities and settlements -- a wave of hate crimes that reached its peak with the heinous murder of a Palestinian teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by a group of Israeli extremists.

As news of Khdeir's death spread, it seemed for a moment that Israelis had been shocked into recognizing the dire consequences of inflammatory and hateful calls for revenge. Netanyahu himself vehemently condemned the murder and any incitement against innocent Arabs, even as he drew attention to how Israelis and Palestinians respond to racially motivated violence. However, as has happened too often in the past, self-reflection -- consideration about within Israel about the boundaries for legitimate speech and the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force -- quickly gave way to escalating violence between Israel and Palestine. Once more, conflict has distracted Israelis from the fact that radical, messianic, and xenophobic forces have gained significant ground in the battle for the soul of their state.

The angry rhetoric from Israeli leaders following the kidnapping of the three teens was not surprising given the nature of the crime. But beyond reflecting politicians’ genuine feelings, it also appears to have been a calculated response to the difficulties that the government has faced following the April 2014 intra-Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Contrary to Israel’s hopes, the international community, including the United States and the European Union, seemed willing to give Palestinian national unity the benefit of the doubt despite Hamas’s role in it. The kidnapping, a clear challenge by the military wing of Hamas to the Palestinian Authority and to the reconciliation agreement, thus provided politicians a perceived opportunity to achieve a number of Israeli interests: to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure in the West Bank, to undermine international support for the unity government, and to force Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon the reconciliation agreement. Israeli leaders’ harsh language was also intended to rally the Israeli public behind Netanyahu’s government. After all, even the most ardent opponents of the settlements could not but sympathize with the horrible fate of three innocent boys.

But the politicians failed to control the rage and hatred they stoked, and their efforts backfired. The public's unrestrained anger and the subsequent murder of Khdeir diminished Israel’s ability to mobilize international support against Hamas. Instead, these events focused worldwide attention on the radicalization of Israeli society. Some Israelis, including the chair of the left-wing Meretz Party, Zehava Galon, criticized Netanyahu and extremist politicians by drawing comparisons to Netanyahu’s inflammatory rhetoric against former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin prior to Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist in 1995. And on the international front, Israel was put on the defensive in a renewed propaganda war.

Israelis should not be shocked that a combination of racism and fanaticism is spreading from the fringes of society into mainstream politics. It is the culmination of a long process. For over 45 years, the messianic movement has been an unrelenting advocate for settling the territories that Israel captured in 1967 (primarily in the West Bank) and preventing the state from accepting territorial compromises. Yet, since the 1970s, successive Israeli governments have pandered to religious extremists by extending financial and logistical support to settlements that were established without governmental approval, turning a blind eye to acts of Jewish terrorism, and publicly extolling the virtues of the messianic movement, rather than cracking down on those elements that disregard Israeli law by perpetrating acts of vigilantism and terrorism against Palestinians. Even the assassination of Rabin by a member of the movement did little to move the state to take on this domestic threat.

When Israeli governments began supporting radical Jews, they believed that the settlement project would help Israel hold strategic territory in the West Bank, strengthen the state’s ability to protect its population centers, and, since the 1990s, enhance Israel’s bargaining position in the negotiations with the Palestinians. Yet Israel’s policy has failed to produce the expected strategic benefits. Rather, it has intensified the conflict with the Palestinians, reduced the state’s ability to reach a peace agreement, and weakened Israel’s international standing. At the same time, as Rabin’s assassination demonstrates, it has deepened domestic divisions that threaten Israel’s democratic pluralist identity and its internal unity. The attack by ultranationalist mobs on antiwar left-wing protesters in Tel Aviv this past weekend is just the most recent evidence of the severe stress that Israeli democracy is experiencing.

Even worse, the Israeli government has ceded so much ground to the messianic movement that Jerusalem is now unable to control it. For one, militant elements have penetrated the state bureaucracy and the armed forces. The military has become increasingly reliant on religiously motivated youth and on the rabbis they turn to for spiritual guidance. To some extent, the military now operates with a “dual hierarchy” system, in which religious soldiers are subordinate to both their officers and their rabbis. Radical religious leaders have not hesitated to use their newfound influence, especially as it pertains to the peace process with the Palestinians. On occasion -- for example, when the state seeks to dismantle unauthorized settlements -- some of the movement’s religious leaders called on soldiers to disobey commands. This has hampered the Israeli Defense Forces' ability to mobilize for missions that conflict with Jewish messianic ideology, but the military has become so dependent on these people that Israeli leaders can no longer afford to rein them in.

The Israeli state has thus contributed to the gradual erosion of its own authority. In democracies, there are agreed-upon rules for competition over state policies, which allow actors within the state to pursue change. If efforts fail, the losers are expected to respect and submit to the outcome. But when they don’t -- and when the state fails to confront them -- it risks losing control.

This is especially so in Israel, where ideological and religious commitments are necessarily strong. The authority of the Israeli state will always have to compete with ideologically motivated actors who flout the law -- particularly those capable of skillfully manipulating symbols from Jewish history and Zionist ideology -- for the allegiance of the public. Thus, the failure of the state to assert the primacy of its authority and laws is ultimately self-defeating.

There still remains a glimmer of hope that Israel will be able to halt the rising influence of messianism and the racist attitudes it has helped stoke, and reassert its pluralistic and democratic identity. Much of the Jewish public in Israel has not yet undergone an attitudinal shift in favor of ultranationalist religious ideology. Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000 and since Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005 failed to offer the country security on those fronts, Israeli skepticism about the prospects of peace and the wisdom of evacuating any more land or settlements has increased. But most still support the two-state solution, which would require undoing some of the messianic movement's efforts and going against its core beliefs -- that is, the total rejection of a territorial compromise.

Unfortunately, recent events suggest that a growing segment of the Israeli public is susceptible to fits of religious ultranationalism and could even be mobilized in support of Jewish fascism. These are bad omens for the future of Israel as a democratic state. The Israeli public seemed momentarily poised to recognize the immense danger of the country's current path. But with rockets targeting Israeli cities as deep into the country as Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, the threat of a third intifada in the West Bank and East Jerusalem rising, and demonstrations by Israel’s Arab minority turning violent, the chance that Israel will make a serious effort to regain its democratic ideals seems small. 

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  • BARAK MENDELSOHN is an Associate Professor of political science at Haverford College and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). Follow him on Twitter @BarakMendelsohn.
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