Novelist John le Carre offered the thought that “a desk is a dangerous place to view the world”.

These past weeks, true to his dictum, I have been far from my South African desk and about in the world.

Two days in Israel was to be thrust into the maelstrom of the largest civil discontent and protest among Israelis since the founding of the state in 1948.

I literally exited the train station in Tel Aviv a few weeks back and was engulfed in flag-waving protesters, demonstrating against the “judicial reforms” being piloted through the Knesset (parliament) by the most right-wing, extremist government coalition in the history of the country.

Beyond the immediate dangers to the constitutional fabric of Israel, which has prided itself on being a lone democracy (for Israelis, not Palestinians) in a sea of authoritarian neighbours, there is a wider perspective, the so-called view from “30,000 feet” or, in the distance from South Africa, some 7,000km.

First, while no country in the Middle East would tolerate the mass protests, to date unavailing in stopping the legislative steamroller, which is reducing the independence and power of the courts to check and balance government legislation and conduct, some 20% of Israelis have taken to the streets in opposition. I wondered what back home the response would be if a new government decided to commence removing the guardrails of South African democracy.

My second thought from abroad was sparked by a friend in London who, while highly critical of prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, placed a degree of blame on that country’s liberal and moderate opposition.

His view echoed an editorial in The Economist after the last Israeli election in December, that to prevent Netanyahu from assembling the extremist government now in place, which included ultrareligious and extremist far-right parties, the moderates should have “held their noses and done a deal with the devil”.

In this case “the devil” was the 73-year-old Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and proved to opposition leader Benny Ganz, who previously attempted to co-govern with Bibi, utterly duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Thus the centrist parties campaigned against Netanyahu and refused to join his coalition or serve under him. The construction of the extremist government now undermining the democratic fabric and even the secular nature of Israel is, on this view, the consequence.

Of course, it is easy to indulge in what Robert Hughes called “retrospective clairvoyance”. Few of Netanyahu’s mainstream opponents imagined that he would be captive to the extremist forces in his coalition determined to reshape the image of the country. Previously he managed to talk right and govern with caution. But as Israeli journalist and Netanyahu biographer Ashnel Pfeffer wrote recently, “a question being asked in Israel is whether Netanyahu is being held hostage” by his coalition. The answer is that it simply doesn’t matter. He’s not in charge of most of his government’s policies anyway. Nearly everything his ministers have done in the past seven months has been in contradiction to his long-held beliefs.”

That the man who previously rejoiced in the title “the magician” for his political supremacy is more passenger than driver of the most radical changes seen in modern Israel is explained by Pfeffer: “Netanyahu can’t discipline or sack his ministers. To do so would almost certainly cost him his majority.”

At home, Cyril Ramaphosa seems incapable or unwilling to act against his own ministers, who undermine the threadbare remains of his reform agenda. In his case, the collation in question is his own party, and preserving its fractured unity at any cost to country, is his prime, arguably only, political purpose.

But there is now the real prospect next year that coalition territory will be the new land of SA politics. It’s not just the polls that tell us this but a flurry of activity on both the government and opposition sides of the political divide.

Last week Deputy President Paul Mashatile convened an all-party workshop to discuss national and local coalitions, and on August 16 the major (bar the non-invited EFF) opposition parties convene to see whether the elusive quest for opposition unity can be achieved, or at least advanced.

But in no set of plausible electoral outcomes next year, will the ANC not emerge, despite the ruinous damage it has inflicted on the country, as the largest single party.

The “known unknown” is to what extent its majority will fall and what combination of parties can then coalesce to form a stable government.

And then the bigger question will be — depending on how damaged the ANC emerges from the poll — who will dance with whom?

Interesting voices have emerged for the first time, from the ANC side, contemplating the previously unthinkable and unsayable, doing a deal with the DA.

Clearly, the dalliance between the ANC and EFF has soured at local level. Newly-elected ANC Veterans League head Snuki Zikalala declared himself in favour of an ANC/DA national arrangement. Even ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula, taking time off from trashing ministers of his own government, declared himself open to such arrangements locally though not nationally “yet”.

The DA, which hopes to lead a resurgent and more unified opposition into the election, has stated its prime purpose is to oust the ANC, however arithmetically unlikely this prospect is.

But what about an outcome that is indecisive and the margin for forming the next government depends on the ANC coalescing with either the DA or the EFF, assuming the smaller parties cannot provide the top three with a governing coalition partnership?

Of course, for both the ANC and DA it will be extremely difficult to convince their respective electorates that their prime enemy is now the coalition partner. And the devil here, beyond supping with him, will be in the detail of such an arrangement.

And the risks in any such coalition will be enormous. But if the alternative on offer is the “kill the boer’’ Venezuelan-inspired EFF, does it not amount to “hold your nose and do the deal with the devil”? Just ask the protesters on the streets of Israel who see their country transforming into something unimaginable for those who hold fast to a nation built on the pillars of a modern, secular democracy.

The movie to watch this year is mesmerising Christopher Nolan biopic epic Oppenheimer about the life, times and conflicts of charismatic genius J Robert Oppeneheimer, who literally changed the world by developing the atomic bomb.

Among the turmoil he dealt with was the moral ambiguity of ending the brutal war in the Pacific against Japan at less cost to American lives on the one hand, and unleashing onto the world the greatest force for destruction ever invented. Mercifully only two have ever been deployed and that was at a cost of an estimated 200,000 Japanese lives. But how many would have been killed in the event of a US invasion of Japan, whose extremist military leadership indicated it would fight to the death and never surrender?

Of course, as a tetchy president Harry Truman told Oppenheimer in their White House meeting after the twin detonations in Japan, which ended the Second World War, the responsibility for dropping the bombs rested with the politician, himself, not the physicist, Oppenheimer, whatever qualms he might have felt afterward.

Any coalition arrangements made in SA in 2024, will be of far less consequence and interest to the world than the epic decisions of 1945. But there is one thread that links them: there is very seldom a perfect set of alternatives on offer — one irrevocably evil and the other pristine in its perfection. Life and politics are a messy and compromising business.

Leadership is all about weighing the options and choosing the better alternative. And as between the ANC/EFF on the one hand and the ANC/DA on the other, the choice is perfectly clear.