Israel's political strength is also the source of its greatest weakness.
With a parliamentary democratic system, Israel's variety of political parties has become a double-edged sword.
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Three thousand years ago, when the Kingdom of Israel was in its infancy, the battle between David versus Goliath took place in the Valley of Elah, in what is now the State of Israel.1
Ancient Israel had a mountain range called the Shephelah, which linked the ancient and obviously significant cities of that region — namely Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron.
There was also a coastal plain, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea, where Tel Aviv is now. And the Shephelah connected the mountain range with the coastal plain, including a series of valleys and ridges that ran east to west, such as the Valley of Elah, which had a strategic function, because it was the means by which you accessed the aforementioned ancient cities.
The Philistines, among the Kingdom of Israel’s fiercest enemies at the time, were living along coastal plain and wanted to occupy the Valley of Elah, so they could split the Kingdom of Israel in half. King Saul, the Israelite leader, obviously caught wind of this and brought his army down from the mountains to confront the Philistines in the Valley of Elah.
Eventually, the Israelites and Philistines became deadlocked because neither could attack the other; in order to do so, you needed to either go down or up the valley, which would completely expose you. So, finally, to break the deadlock, the Philistines sent their mightiest warrior, Goliath.
Insolently challenging the Israelites to appoint one of their number to meet him in single combat — a tradition in ancient warfare to settle disputes without incurring massive bloodshed — the condition was that the people whose champion is killed will become the other’s slaves.
Goliath was some 210 centimeters tall (6 feet 9 inches) and was decked out in bronze armor and a brass helmet, holding a sword in one hand and a spear in the other. The staff of his spear is said to have been like a weaver’s beam, the spear’s head weighing 600 shekels of iron.
According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Goliath was born by polyspermy and had about a hundred fathers.2 The Talmud stresses that his taunts before the Israelites included the boast that it was he who had captured the Ark of the Covenant and brought it to the temple of Dagon, and his challenges to combat were made at morning and evening in order to disturb the Israelites in their prayers.
Who the heck would want to fight him one-on-one? Hence why none of the Israelites volunteered, except a young shepherd boy, who King Saul couldn’t possibly take seriously.
Ultimately, the boy convinced King Saul to let him proceed, and King Saul tried to give him ample armor, but the boy declined and instead brought with him five ordinary stones. The boy then walked down to meet Goliath, face-to-face. As Goliath sees the boy walking down to ward him, he also doesn’t take the boy seriously and starts taunting him from afar, yelling:
“Come to me so I can feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field!”
The boy then appeared before Goliath, a few meters or yards away from him, took out his slingshot, and flung one of the stones at Goliath, hitting him squarely in the forehead. Immediately, Goliath fell to the ground, although it was unclear if he died on the spot, or if the boy simply knocked him out unconscious.
Then, the boy took Goliath’s sword and cut off his head, causing a knee-jerk reaction by the Philistines who, clearly shocked by the events, fled in the opposite direction. The boy is, of course, David, hence the phrase “David versus Goliath” — denoting an underdog situation, a contest wherein a weaker opponent faces a substantially stronger one.
Scholars today believe that Goliath’s original listed killer was Elhanan, son of Jair, and that the Deuteronomic history’s authors changed the original text to credit David, a more famous character, with the victory.
But the story gets even better: Scholars also believe that Goliath, not David, was the underdog.
Part of the “David versus Goliath” tale that often doesn’t get told is the part where an attendant escorted Goliath to meet the Israelites and propose single combat. Why on earth would Goliath, such a physically imposing superhuman, need an attendant? Because scholars believe he had a vision problem.
You see, Goliath was indeed a giant, and the modern medical community has determined that many extraordinarily tall people — such as Andre the Giant and Robert Wadlow, the tallest person of all-time — have a condition of acromegaly. It is caused by a benign tumor that sits on the pituitary gland, resulting in overproduction of human growth hormone. There’s even speculation that Abraham Lincoln had acromegaly.
As the tumor grows, it usually starts to compress the brain’s visual nerves, giving people with acromegaly double-vision, or making them severely near-sighted. This explains why Goliath might have underestimated his counterpart — he couldn’t really see him and his slingshot until it was too late.
What’s also telling is the phrase, “Come to me in Come to me so I can feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field!” Perhaps Goliath could only fight David at an arm’s distance, whereas David only needed to get close enough to accurately and lethally hit Goliath with his slingshot. (Word has it that, back then, slingshot “professionals” were incredibly accurate from up to 200 meters away.)
The Israelites, looking down from the mountain, thought Goliath was a frighteningly powerful foe, but what they didn’t understand was that the source of his apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness.
Nowadays, many Israelis view their country’s vibrant democracy as one of its greatest strengths, thanks to dozens of political parties from which voters have to choose. As the Jewish joke goes: “Two Jews, three opinions.” But could this great democratic strength also be the source of Israel’s greatest weakness?
Some historians have suggested that two-party systems, while certainly imperfect, promote centrism and encourage political parties to find common positions that appeal to wide swaths of the electorate. In turn, this leads to political stability, which leads to economic growth. Two-party systems also tend to be less fractious and feature greater harmony since they discourage radical minor parties.
Israel, on the other hand, has a parliamentary democratic system made up of several parties — none of which have ever received enough votes on their own to secure a majority of seats in the Knesset (Israel’s legislature).
This means parties must team up to create a coalition and reach the 61-seat minimum needed to form a ruling government, which Israelis view as a positive because several parties in a coalition allow for a variety of voices to be heard and a wide range of socioeconomic needs to be addressed.
However, these coalitions can also be shaky, especially if they hover around the 61-seat minimum. If you lose one party’s support, or sometimes even one member of parliament, you’ve lost the majority, at which point the coalition disbands and a new election is called (if the coalition falls beneath the 61-seat minimum).
The other factor is Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s served as prime minister for longer than anyone else in Israeli history (nearly one-quarter of the country’s existence, since there aren’t any term limits for Israeli prime ministers). Netanyahu is in the midst of a corruption trial, and some top politicians on the center and center-right, who agree with him ideologically, refuse to work with him for personal or political reasons.
This made it difficult for Netanyahu to build lasting governing majorities, resulting in an unprecedented five elections from 2019 to 2022.
In 2021, Netanyahu’s opponents managed to cobble together a never-before-seen coalition of parties from across the political spectrum to keep him out of power. But that coalition only held together for not even 18 months before its leaders, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, pulled the plug and called for new elections.
During the last election, in 2022, Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party again became the largest party in the Knesset and won 64 seats. Far-right parties saw a surge in their vote share, and the new majority has been variously described as the most right-wing government in Israeli history, as well as its most religious government.
After being sworn into office in November 2022, Netanyahu and his coalition partners dove head-first into reforms for the country’s judicial branch, which drew widespread criticism and created immense strains in the country’s social fabric, including among its vaunted security and military establishments.
Critics highlighted the negative effects it would have on the separation of powers, the office of the Attorney General, the economy, public health, women and minorities, workers’ rights, scientific research, the military, the overall strength of Israel’s democracy, and its foreign relations.
As Netanyahu and his coalition partners unapologetically aimed to press forward with these judicial reforms, hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere in the country.
Some of Israel’s top air force pilots wrote a public letter to government, threatening to not arrive for service, and Netanyahu was warned multiple times about a growing divide between his government and the Israeli military.
Reportedly, he also received two stark warnings from the head of research at the Military Intelligence Directorate in April and July of this year, that the societal divisions sparked by his government’s effort to radically overhaul the judiciary were emboldening Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran to take actions against the Jewish state.3
“We are seeing a debate among Israel’s enemies over whether to sit on the fence and let Israel continue to weaken itself internally, or to take initiatives and further exacerbate the situation,” Amir Sa’ar wrote in letters apparently sent directly to Netanyahu.
Each of the letters included intelligence that pointed to imminent danger of a military escalation by Israel’s adversaries, which Netanyahu appeared to have dismissed, as he continued to advance the highly controversial judicial overhaul, that sparked months of unprecedented protests across the country.
To add insult to injury, the various Netanyahu-led governments have, for years, tried to divide power between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — crippling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while purposely propping up the Hamas terror group.4
The strategy was to diminish the likelihood that Abbas, or anyone else in the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank government, could work toward establishing a Palestinian state.
Amid this strategy to restrict the Palestinian Authority, Hamas was effectively elevated from just a terror group to a social-political organization. Hamas was also included in discussions about increasing the number of work permits Israel granted to Gazan laborers, which kept money flowing into Gaza, meaning food for families and the ability to purchase basic products.
Israeli officials said these permits, which allow Gazan laborers to earn higher salaries than they would in the enclave, were a powerful tool to help preserve calm.
Most of the time, Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset. Far-right politician Bezalel Smotrich, now the finance minister in the hardline government and leader of the Religious Zionism party, said so himself in 2015.
According to various reports, Netanyahu made a similar point at a Likud faction meeting in early 2019, when he was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Bolstered by this policy, Hamas grew increasingly stronger until October 7th, 2023 — when Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the border, slaughtered hundreds of people, and abducted some 240 more — the bloodiest day in Israel’s 75-year history.
“The unheard story of David and Goliath | Malcolm Gladwell.” TED. September 30, 2013, YouTube.
Jerusalem Talmud Yebamoth, 24b.
“Top intel official twice warned Netanyahu that judicial overhaul was emboldening Hamas to strike — report.” The Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/top-intel-official-twice-warned-netanyahu-that-judicial-overhaul-was-emboldening-hamas-to-strike-report.
Schneider, Tal. “For years, Netanyahu propped up Hamas. Now it’s blown up in our faces.” The Times of Israel. October 8, 2023. https://www.timesofisrael.com/for-years-netanyahu-propped-up-hamas-now-its-blown-up-in-our-faces.