Netanyahu’s Betrayal of Democracy and Israel

This past summer, I marked a personal milestone: 40 years since moving to Israel.

The summer of 1982 was one of the lowest points in Israeli history. All of the ambivalence over Israel that would divide the Jewish people in the coming decades began to coalesce then, when Israel was fighting a war in Lebanon that large parts of the Israeli public regarded as unnecessary and deceitful.

I had joined an Israel that was, for the first time, bitterly divided over the perception of threat. War had always united Israelis; now war was dividing them. Once inconceivable, huge anti-government demonstrations took place even as the Israel Defense Forces were fighting at the front. Reservists completing their month of service would return their equipment and head directly to the daily protests outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. If an external threat could no longer unite us, what would hold this fractious people together?

These days, as Israel faces another historic internal crisis, I find myself thinking a great deal about the summer of ’82. Then we lost our unity in the face of an external threat. Now we’ve lost our unifying identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

The new governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a mortal danger to our internal cohesion and democratic legitimacy—a historic disgrace. Each day seems to bring some new, previously unimaginable violation of a moral and national red line. My ordinarily insatiable appetite for Israeli news has been reduced to skimming the headlines; the details are too painful.

The Netanyahu government is the most politically extreme, the most morally corrupt, and the most contemptuous of good governance in Israel’s history. We have known governments with extremist elements, governments rife with corruption or incompetence, but not all at once and not to this extent.

This government that speaks in the name of the Torah desecrates the name of Judaism. This government that speaks in the name of the Jewish people risks tearing apart the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. This government that speaks in the name of the Israeli ethos is the greatest threat to the ethos that binds Israelis together. This government that speaks in the name of Israeli security is a gift to those seeking to isolate the Jewish state and portray it as criminal.

No Israeli government has had more ministers convicted of crimes or under indictment. None has had such disregard for our national institutions, dismantling ministries and distributing the pieces like spoils of war. No other government has shown such disdain for basic standards of decency. No other government has declared war on the judicial system, which even the U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a Netanyahu ally, has called the gold standard that should not be tampered with.

This government threatens to present liberal Israelis with a vision of the state antithetical to their own. Liberals have learned to live with the tragedy of ruling over the Palestinian people, because there was no alternative, no credible Palestinian peace partner—but how to live with that moral anguish if we ourselves make the occupation irreversible? And how to live with permanent domination of another people even as our democratic institutions are threatened? And how to live with that threat even as the growing ultra-Orthodox population, which relies heavily on state benefits, becomes an ever greater financial burden?

No government has the right to re-create the country so profoundly that it effectively disenfranchises whole parts of its population. The Oslo peace process of the 1990s, which the Labor government maintained through a contrived parliamentary majority based on political bribery, was an example of one part of the population trampling on the deepest sensibilities of another without seeking a national dialogue. Stopping a runaway left was why I voted for Netanyahu when he first ran for prime minister, in 1996.

The Netanyahu government of 2023 is the right’s Oslo.

In their commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion were no different from each other—nor, for that matter, were Yair Lapid and an earlier incarnation of Netanyahu himself. The cohering force of this schismatic society is its Zionist majority, from left to center to right. The nation’s two fastest-growing populations—the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab Israelis—do not generally share the vision of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. In tearing apart our Zionist core, Netanyahu is pushing Israel to the edge.

Disdain for the state is the ideology that holds together crucial elements of Netanyahu’s coalition. For the ultra-Orthodox, the state’s legitimacy is measured solely by its willingness to support their separatist state-within-a-state. For the ultra-nationalists, whose real concern is less the state than the land of Israel, the state’s institutions lost their legitimacy during the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, when the state “betrayed” the land.

This is Israel’s first post-state government. The open contempt for the political system that Netanyahu and his Likud Party colleagues in the Knesset have displayed over the past year—boycotting the Parliament’s committees and turning plenary sessions into staged scenes of mockery, encouraging thugs to harass the families of right-wing Knesset members who dared join the previous Bennett-Lapid government—was a mere rehearsal for the current assault on the nation’s institutions.

Not even the most binding Israeli institution, the military, is safe. The coalition has installed Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the extremist Religious Zionist Party, as a kind of alternative, shadow minister in the Defense Ministry. The coalition intends to remove the border police, the unit that most closely oversees the Palestinian population, from IDF authority and place it under the command of the far-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man who despises moral restraint. For Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, the IDF has been corrupted by what the right regards as Western morality, by weakness and defeatism. The camaraderie at the core of the IDF, allowing Israelis across the political spectrum to serve together, means little to them. That is why right-wing members of the Knesset taunt Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of staff of the IDF and a left-wing politician, as a virtual traitor.

As for Netanyahu, only a man who no longer cares about the dignity and good name of Israel could have brought the most extreme elements of society into the inner sanctum of government.

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