Paul Gross fears this will be the first coalition in Israeli history where a majority of its members do not accept the basic liberal-national definition of the Zionist project: a nation-state of the Jewish people, which is also a democratic state of its citizens.
I was politically engaged long before I was old enough to vote. My earliest political memory is of my mother in tears the morning after the Conservative Party won its fourth consecutive election victory in 1992. A life-long Labour voter and trade union member, like much of the country she had been fooled by the polls into believing that this time, victory was at hand. I was 13 at the time. She would have to wait another five years for Labour’s return to power, by which time I was voting for the first time. In the UK, as a Labour voter during the Blair years, I was backing the winners more often than not. It was after I moved to Israel that I experienced losing – more often than not. In the eight national elections I’ve voted in as an Israeli citizen, the party I voted for became part of the government just three times; and my chosen candidate for prime minister got the top job just once, Yair Lapid in the unusual circumstances of the past few months.
So defeat in Israeli elections is not a new experience. And yet, this one feels very different. It feels fundamental.
In truth, I was not confident on Election Day. All the predictions were of a highly mobilised right-wing base, and depressed turnout in the Arab community. Combine that with the reality of all three Arab parties polling below or just above the threshold for entry into the Knesset; and the left wing parties of Meretz and Labor also at risk of not getting the minimum percentage of votes needed, and the ‘Netanyahu-bloc’ had a clear advantage. I spent the day with my family (Election Day in Israel is a public holiday), with a forced smile on my face as a feeling of dread grew in my stomach.
In the week leading up to the election, I had spelled out my fears of what a Netanyahu victory would mean in a couple of articles and a slew of social media posts. I was deeply worried that Netanyahu, desperate to prevent his possible conviction on corruption charges, would exploit to the fullest his coalition partners’ willingness to subvert democracy and the rule of law. As Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich has said quite openly, they intend to change the appointment process for the Supreme Court, ensuring that the coalition picks the judges, and they will pass a law preventing the Supreme Court from blocking legislation, which contravenes liberal norms (granting the sitting prime minister immunity, for example).
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Simcha Rothman, an MK from Smotrich’s party who published a book condemning ‘judicial activism’, dismissed concerns about Israel’s democracy with the comment: ‘The majority will defend human rights much better than the judiciary.’
Really? I wonder how many Diaspora Jewish populations would feel secure with that kind of arrangement.
A different Israel
An election has fundamentally changed Israel before of course: the 1977 ‘mahapach’ (best translated as ‘overturning’). Thirty nine years of socialist rule were ended by Menachem Begin’s Likud party; the economy was opened up to the free market, Israel had a religiously traditional prime minister for the first time, and there was full governmental support for the West Bank settlement movement. And yet… even then the foundational ideas of Zionism and the State of Israel were not changed. As the longtime Likud MK and minister Dan Meridor has said: ‘In post-independence Israel there were many political struggles—not to say fights—over land and peace, socialism or capitalism…. But there was no struggle over the basic ideas of the rule of law, of human rights, of democracy … There was nobody in the Israeli political arena who spoke against those basic values. I have to say that today this is not the case.’
Meridor talks about ‘post-independence Israel’, but even pre-state, all the major Zionist leaders – Herzl and Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky – sought a Jewish and democratic state. Herzl even wrote a novel about his idea of a future Jewish state, Altneuland, where the villain of the piece is a racist Rabbi running for election on a platform of removing Arabs’ civil rights.
As it turned out, the ‘right-wing’ Begin was more serious about civil liberties and the rule of law than his left-wing predecessors had been, and no less opposed to the theocratic far-right that Netanyahu has brought into the mainstream. As Meridor told me in a public interview, Begin was appalled by the racist ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane (‘he used words and terms about Kahane that I’d never heard him use about any other Jew’). Begin’s successor as Likud prime minister, the more hard-line Yitzhak Shamir, led the walkout of MKs from the Knesset chamber whenever Kahane got up to speak. Likud MK Mickey Eitan compared Kahane’s political platform to the Nuremberg Laws.
Now, 34 years after Kahane’s party Kach was banned from running in the elections because of its overt racism, we will be seeing one of Kahane’s students sitting as a minister in the cabinet. In his ‘victory speech’ on election night, Itamar Ben Gvir, no longer needing to feign moderation, pointedly praised Rabbi Dov Lior, a spiritual leader to the most fanatical and violent anti-Arab racists in Israel; a man who described the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein as ‘holier than the martyrs of the Holocaust’, a man who had pronounced a din rodef on Yitzhak Rabin – essentially the religious sanction for his murder. At the time of writing, reports are that Ben Gvir and others from his ‘Jewish Power’ faction will be attending the memorial ceremony for Kahane.
There has been some speculation that Netanyahu will attempt to bring Benny Gantz’s National Unity party into the coalition at the expense of the Smotrich-Ben Gvir horror show. Certainly it’s what the Bibi of yesteryear would have done. He always preferred to have parties to his left within the coalition, perhaps as a moderating influence on some of the radicals within his own party. But today’s Bibi wants one thing above all else; the political power to free himself from his legal troubles and block the Supreme Court from vetoing such a patently authoritarian move. And for that, he needs authoritarians, not the likes of Gantz and Gideon Saar, who still believe in such apparently passé things as the rule-of-law and democratic norms.
What does this mean?
One way to answer this question is to say what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that Israel is now a far-right, or fundamentally racist country (however disappointing that news will be to the Western far-left.) For one thing, though Netanyahu’s bloc has 65 out of 120 Knesset seats, the popular vote was virtually 50:50, with the anti-Bibi camp paying the price for Meretz and Balad falling below the threshold. But it’s also a mistake to assume that the 450,000 Israelis who voted for the Religious Zionist Party are all ideologically aligned with Ben-Gvir. A great many analyses of this phenomenon – in many respects, the story of the election – will no doubt be offered in the coming weeks and months, but one assessment based on a geographical breakdown of RZP votes, backed up much of what I have learned from conversations with people who either voted RZP, or had friends that did. Essentially, a great many of these voters are not religious, are not settlers, and did not vote for either RZP or Yamina (the other party ostensibly to the right of the Likud) in the 2021 election.
These were people who bought into the idea that a ‘strong, right-wing government’ was required to confront the current rise in Palestinian terrorism (a long-time recurring theme in Israeli politics – for example: Netanyahu’s first election victory in 1996 against Shimon Peres happened in the wake of a wave of Hamas suicide bombings). The concomitant view was that terrorists were capitalising on the weakness, indecision, or naiveté, of a government made up largely of centrists and leftists, with (the real kicker) an Arab party in the coalition preventing the tough measures needed to decisively fight terror. Both assumptions rely less on reality than on the highly successful messaging of the Israeli right – and indeed on the short memories of these voters (Netanyahu’s long tenure was not without waves of Palestinian terror, most notably the ‘knife intifada’ of 2015-2016).
And then there is the potent issue of violence from the Israeli Arab community. It remains rare, and the vast majority of Israel’s two million Arab citizens have never been involved in politically motivated violence against Jews. Nevertheless, in May 2021, as reported in a Fathom article by Russell A. Shalev, ‘Arab rioters set 10 synagogues and 112 Jewish residences on fire, looted 386 Jewish homes and damaged another 673, and set 849 Jewish cars on fire. There were also 5,018 recorded instances of Jews being stoned. Three Jews were murdered and more than 600 were hurt.’ There was substantial support for RZP in the ‘mixed cities’, like Lod and Ramle, where these riots took place.
And yet, despite my firm conviction that the Israeli public is not now infested with far-right ideas, this is a different Israel. The question is: for how long? Or, more pointedly, is this irreversible? Having written articles with apocalyptic headlines like ‘If Netanyahu wins, democracy is in peril’ (a sub-editor’s choice, not mine), I have been approached in recent days with the question – asked with concern by some, with sarcasm by others – ‘so, is liberal democracy in Israel dead? ‘Not yet.’ is my response. But it could be on life support pretty soon. And if so, this election will be the hinge moment.
So what now?
At the time of writing, the coalition remains unbuilt, but by far the most likely scenario is the expected Likud-RZP-Shas-United Torah Judaism government. We will soon be seeing legislation allowing just 61 MKs to override the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws which are deemed to infringe on civil rights. We will also see the fulfilment of Netanyahu’s greatest wish; the so-called ‘French Law,’ providing an Israeli prime minister with immunity from prosecution.
This will be the first coalition in Israeli history where a majority of its members do not accept the basic liberal-national definition of the Zionist project: a nation-state of the Jewish people, which is also a democratic state of its citizens. Ben Gvir learned contempt for liberal democracy from Kahane, who believed Israel should follow no dictates other than those that Judaism requires – not international law, not democratic norms, not the requests of allies. Smotrich has stated in the past his preference for a theocratic Israel. The secular anti-democrats in the Likud seem to want something like Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy.’ The Likud’s Yariv Levin typifies this; a long-time advocate for a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state where ‘democratic’ relates only to the system of government, not to values or principles like minority rights. The likely new Justice Minister, he will doubtless set about his task of removing checks and balances to majority rule with gusto.
But if the ship of the Israeli state is moving in this disastrous direction, the question is whether it will ultimately get there; whether it will reach the point – as in Hungary – where elections may be free, but no longer fair. My sense is that this will be harder to pull off in Israel than in Hungary. The tradition of free and hyper-critical press in Israel is extremely deep-rooted; it is hard to imagine a situation similar to Hungary, where critical media outlets were penalised on spurious grounds and driven out of business, to be bought out by owners supportive of Orban’s party. The political takeover of independent institutions that supervise elections would also not be easily replicated.
And so, what gives me hope is that the ship can reverse course, even as it heads into these choppiest of waters. There will be elections in four years time, if not earlier. In the meantime the Israeli media will have to do their job of ‘speaking truth to power’ like never before. The parliamentary opposition, as well as civil society NGOs, will have to loudly call out each and every attack on liberal democratic norms and institutions; they should take to the airwaves to denounce every move towards greater religious coercion, and organise demonstrations every time new legislation is proposed that will reduce civil rights.
Where now for Israel Advocacy?
How to combat the ‘Zionism equal racism’ brigade, on campus and elsewhere, when certain Israeli ministers essentially agree that yes, Zionism is indeed racism – and that’s to be celebrated?
My answer is simple – in principle if not necessarily in execution: We insist that both are wrong, both are misrepresenting Zionism; the anti-Zionists and the likes of Smotrich and Ben Gvir. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. The task before those of us who spent many years defending Israel and Zionism in the west is now to make a very clear distinction between the current Israeli government and Zionism as an idea; between the racism and illiberalism of the current Israeli government, and the liberal and democratic ideals that were at the foundation of Zionism and of the state of Israel.
I’ve already seen criticism from right-leaning British Jews of those in the community warning – even tepidly – about the make-up of the new government. They need to understand that we are no longer in the old paradigm. This is not left vs. right. This is not about where one stands on settlements; or how much do we blame the Palestinians for the absence of a peace process. This is about Israel as a liberal democracy with values shared by the UK and the United States, or not. This is about protection for minorities, or not. It’s about rule of law, or not.
Christopher Hitchens once described the surprising exhilaration he felt, once the anger and shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks had subsided. The exhilaration came from the clarity of the battle ahead; the sheer obviousness of what side he should be on (‘a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated.’). This new Israeli government is not al-Qaeda (not even Ben Gvir meets that bar), but it does represent everything I oppose in politics: illiberalism, corruption, bigotry and thuggery in the name of religion.
Those of us, in Israel and outside, who felt despair as the Election results came in, need to get over it. We should be proud Israelis and Zionists; advocates for both the idea and the reality of a Jewish and democratic state. There is a battle for the soul and direction of Israel; the other side now has a clear advantage, but it is by no means over. We have over 100 years of Zionist and Israeli history on our side. A history which embraces liberal democracy as the necessary balance to the nationalism of the Zionist project; a history which rejects the theocracy and racism of Kahanism.
I wrote many posts on Facebook in the aftermath of the election. Of the dozens of comments these posts received, one stood out. It added an additional dimension to this battle for Israeli democracy. It was written by an extraordinarily brave and brilliant woman who knows something about illiberal regimes; born in Syria and brought up in Lebanon, she is today an advocate for Israel-Arab understanding, a campaigner against Arab antisemitism, and a huge admirer of Israel. These were her words: ‘the world is watching whether the Israelis will manage to save the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, or will the dark force of bigotry prevail.’
Let’s get to it.