By David Remnick, July 22, 2023
Netanyahu’s coalition of zealots, the resistance in the streets, and the Israeli Kulturkampf.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister of Israel longer than anyone in the history of the state, longer than F.D.R. was President of the United States. And yet, for all his electoral success, he has always been a known quantity. Twenty-five years ago, during Netanyahu’s first term, I spoke with his predecessor and fellow Likud member Yitzhak Shamir. “Bibi?” Shamir said. “He is not a very trustworthy man.” He added, “I don’t believe he believes in anything. He has a huge ego. People don’t like such people. I don’t like him.” Not long after, I spoke with Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader who had lost to Netanyahu in 1996. Peres was furious with Netanyahu’s determination to undermine the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians. His general assessment of Netanyahu’s amoralism and cynicism was much like Shamir’s. “Netanyahu’s only consideration is his own coalition,” Peres said. “He’s always worried about losing power—that is always his first priority.”
On the same reporting trip to Jerusalem, I discovered that the cliché is true: No man is a hero to his director of communications and policy planning. David Bar-Illan, a former concert pianist and editor of the Jerusalem Post, was without illusions about Netanyahu even as he pledged abiding loyalty to him. When I asked Bar-Illan how Netanyahu won the ultra-Orthodox vote despite his rigorously secular life style, Bar-Illan said, “Finessing his being secular was nothing compared to other things, like adultery. One thing is to have an affair with a shiksa—but a married woman! With a shiksa, even the rebbes do it. But a married woman! Now Bibi’ll go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, maybe he’s gone to the Western Wall, or he’ll say the phrase ‘With God’s help.’ But he’s not fooling anyone.”
When Bar-Illan’s remarks were published in The New Yorker and then in the Israeli press, Netanyahu was incensed. He barred his spinmeister from his plane and his next trip to Washington. Bar-Illan, who died in 2003, panicked and not only denied that he’d said those things to me but he also told Israeli television that he had never even met me. (This forced me to go on Israeli TV to display the copy of his book “Eye on the Media,” which he had inscribed, “To David from David, With admiration and best wishes.”)
The point is, Netanyahu has never really fooled anyone. He didn’t fool his fellow-politicians or various American Presidents, who knew him to be a liar and an opportunist. He was not fooling the Mizrahim, who obviously knew that he came from an Ashkenazic background. Nor has he fooled the ultra-Orthodox, who have always known that he followed the rules of fidelity and kashruth with equal attention. Netanyahu’s cynicism, deceptions, and ethical gymnastics are no more shocking to his Israeli supporters than Trump’s similar qualities are to his immense base. He won so long as he could deliver for his constituents.
And now this generation-long drama, the Netanyahu era, has reached its dispiriting resolution. Netanyahu has pursued his aim to cling to power at all costs. Facing criminal charges, he has made common cause with a cabinet of messianic authoritarians and bigots who are righteously determined to hack away at judicial independence, freedom of the press, minority rights, protest and opposition politics, and democracy itself. Next week, the Knesset is poised to get rid of the so-called reasonableness clause, a stricture borrowed from British tradition which allows the Supreme Court to strike down actions of the legislature. Such a move, in a state with no constitution, would undermine what modest balance of powers exists in Israeli political life. Avichai Mandelblit, a former Attorney General, warned recently that, if Netanyahu fails to restrain his coalition, Israel is in the process of turning into a “borderline dictatorial state.”
The government’s ability to act without judicial restraint is only one item on an illiberal menu that also includes efforts to restrict media outlets that are deemed excessively critical and to enshrine as a right the ultra-Orthodox community’s exemption from military conscription. In its contempt for the rule of law, the balance of powers, immigration, and ethnic and sexual minorities, the ruling coalition is in synch with intolerant governments and parties around the world; it is, in fact, a harbinger of Trump 2.0. Netanyahu, who can count, sees that the most religious citizens of his country procreate at a high rate, and he has staked his future with them. As Celeste Marcus writes in the latest issue of the journal Liberties, “Netanyahu, who has for decades projected the image of Israel’s protector, has allied with people who insist the study of Torah provides Israel with as much security as the army does, and therefore shirk mandatory conscription. His cynicism is bottomless.”
For years, left-leaning parties and constituencies in Israel have been dispirited and weak. The settlers of the West Bank have not only increased in their numbers and led the resistance to their territorial dominion but they have also helped shape the political rhetoric and character of the state. The Palestinian issue is rarely spoken of—as if the people of Gaza and the West Bank will somehow do Israel the favor of disappearing—and Arab citizens of Israel are too often regarded, by the right wing, as less than citizens. And because so much of the rest of the world, the United States very much included, is immersed in the very same drama of right-wing populism, only modest attention is paid.
But, as grim as the outlook has been, the defeatism among those who oppose the right-wing coalition government in Israel has come to an end. There is a Kulturkampf in Israel but it is hardly a rout, a settled matter. For the past twenty-eight weeks, infuriated by the coalition government’s “judicial overhaul,” hundreds of thousands of Israelis have marched at one dramatic protest after another. It is a sustained act of resistance, an inspiring reassertion of democratic values. These demonstrations have taken place in cities both secular and religious. The protests draw from all occupations and have immobilized city centers and highways. Protesters fearing that the judicial reform will strip women of civil rights sometimes dress in the red robes of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Arnon Bar-David, the head of the Histadrut, the national labor union, has suggested the possibility of a general strike, saying, “If the situation reaches an extreme, we will intervene and employ our strength.” The Israel Medical Association, which represents nearly all of the country’s doctors, voted to “employ all available means” if necessary to head off the judicial reform. Leading figures in the tech industry have threatened to leave the country. Most dramatic, perhaps, hundreds of Air Force reserve pilots signed on to a petition of protest, and there is now a question of whether they will serve if ordered.
Netanyahu knows that, if he dares to forestall the legislation, ministers in his coalition will rebel. And where will that leave someone who values power above all? Anshel Pfeffer, a leading Israeli journalist and the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” told me that no Prime Minister in the history of Israel has ever been in a weaker situation. “In seventy-five years, there has never been a question of the military’s loyalty or any kind of mass disobedience. Smaller things, but not this,” he said. “We’ve gone from the idea of Bibi being the longest-serving Prime Minister to the weakest P.M. ever! And, for him, it just doesn’t compute. He can’t grasp what’s happening to him. For him, it is like those nightmares that you are driving a car, but when you press the brakes or turn the wheel nothing happens. The car doesn’t respond.” Netanyahu “lives in a bubble and thinks, How can they not be listening to me?,” Pfeffer went on. “He has this crazy, mistaken idea that the tech miracle was his doing. And he thinks, I made these guys rich! Before, we only sold oranges. He thinks, How could they join the protests or move abroad?”
Netanyahu has criticized members of the armed forces who have broken with the government, but some leading reservists have insisted publicly they have the right to stop their voluntary service as a protest against a danger to the state. According to the Times, Brigadier General Ofer Lapidot, a reservist who was among those who stepped down, told Channel 11, “What is worse? The destruction of the country? Or the strengthening of an army that will be serving an illegitimate government—legal but not legitimate—that is bringing us all to a dictatorship and will soon give us illegal orders?”
Some signs at the weekly protests read “President Biden, Help Us Please.” For his part, Biden spent much of this week sending Netanyahu clear signals that the Prime Minister is endangering the stability of his own country and his future relations with the United States. Aluf Benn, the editor of the liberal daily Haaretz, wrote that those signals “can be summed up as a demand to replace the coalition,” to dump fanatics like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir “and replace them with Benny Gantz,” a retired general and alternate Prime Minister from 2020 to 2021. Leading Israeli politicians say that Biden is a longtime friend of Israel, and they worry that younger Democratic politicians don’t share that affection. Biden has made it clear that his Administration wants to see a series of serious policy changes, including a halt to the judicial legislation until there is a broader national consensus on its details; a freeze on construction in the settlements; the strengthening of the Palestinian Authority; and total coördination of military activity regarding Iran.
“It’s impossible to fulfill even a single item on this list with Netanyahu’s present coalition,” Benn wrote. “The only person with the power to pull the emergency cord and stop the train of destruction being led by Netanyahu, before it destroys the country, is Benny Gantz. . . . The time has come for him to offer himself as the national savior, the one who prevents the destruction of the army and the economy moments before a civil war. . . . Israel won’t return to the imaginary ideal portrayed in the army entertainment troupe songs beloved by Gantz, but the bleeding will be stanched.” Such a shift, the replacement of the leading zealots in the coalition government with a retired general and a relative centrist, will hardly represent a revolution in Israel, but even that measure of sanity and reconciliation may be beyond the impoverished political imagination of Benjamin Netanyahu.
David Remnick has been the editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of seven books; the most recent is “Holding the Note,” a collection of his profiles of musicians.
Photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during a press statement in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, by Vadim Ghirda/AP. http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Israel-s-prime-minister-gets-backing-from-Romania-1454013.php or http://bit.ly/q2hCtJ or http://tinyurl.com/3zt72p9