How to Save Israeli Democracy From Netanyahu
Israeli politics has often been made in the streets, and if Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “immunity law” — which would grant him immunity from prosecution on corruption charges — means anything, it is that a battered and beleaguered opposition is now determined to make the attempt to overcome more than a decade of relative impotence.
Throughout Netanyahu’s long tenure, it was only during the 2011 social justice protests that the opposition seemed to have the wind at its back, capable of galvanizing a majority of Israelis to demand a change of policy and even a change of leadership. That momentum dissipated, however, and Netanyahu emerged remarkably unscathed, coasting to victory in the following elections.
Thus far little has changed — perhaps understandably, since the current opposition is still taking shape. The Blue and White Party is not yet a year old, and has not shown the capacity to rise above the politics of personality, with leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid still attempting to stake out identities of their own beyond mere opposition to Netanyahu and all who sail with him.
This, at the moment, remains the opposition’s Achilles heel.
There is no doubt that Netanyahu has overreached himself, and that an immunity law would represent a dangerous — though not necessarily apocalyptic — power grab that would damage Israel’s democracy. The hostility of his likely coalition parties towards Israel’s Supreme Court and the legal system in general is no less ominous, and Netanyahu himself has benefited greatly from his talent at demonizing, and indeed marginalizing, the media.
Saturday’s large turnout notwithstanding, however, none of this has proven enough to turn Netanyahu’s formidable base against him. His voters care about other things: Israel’s decent security and economic situation, an understandable resentment of the Ashkenazi elite, an equally understandable distrust of the left’s tendency towards capitulationist policies, and, at the extremes, an adherence to values beyond and even antithetical to democracy, such as the Divine right to the Land of Israel and the superiority of Torah law.
This last factor makes the opposition’s current impotence all the more worrisome, since there is no question that a large minority of Netanyahu’s supporters, and perhaps a majority of Bezalel Smotrich and Aryeh Deri’s supporters, are indeed at best indifferent and at worst opposed to democratic institutions should they stand in the way of larger ambitions, such as halachic rule or annexation of the West Bank.
As for Netanyahu himself, one regrets to say that despite his constant declarations to foreign audiences of Israel’s virtues as the sole democracy in the Middle East, he has proven studiously indifferent to preserving that democracy should doing so work against his political interests. Despite pledging not to pursue an immunity law in a pre-election interview, he has made no move toward stopping his allies from proposing one. His anti-Arab rhetoric during the campaign was at best deplorably cynical, and at worst simply appalling, making a mockery of his attempts to tout Israel’s tolerance and diversity before foreign audiences. And, as an extension of this, his demonization of the opposition as collaborators with pro-terrorist Arab parties was even less excusable.
Whether Netanyahu himself actually believes any of this is, one regrets to say, irrelevant. If he does believe it, then one must regard him as potentially dangerous to Israel’s democracy. If he doesn’t believe it, then one must conclude that he is willing to say and do nearly anything to attain and remain in power, whatever the cost to Israel’s civil society and civil rights.
Against this, the opposition has thus far been able to offer very little, though this is by no means entirely their fault. To an extent, they are caught in a trap of no one’s making. Due to the demolition of the left in the Second Intifada, there are simply not enough leftist and centrist Israelis to go around. The majority of Israeli Jews either identify with or pragmatically support the right, and a large section of what remains of the left is Arab, giving unscrupulous politicians on the right — including, one regrets to say, the prime minister himself — a trump card they can play at every opportunity. Indeed, the Likud Party’s official response to the Tel Aviv demonstration, referring to the head of Israel’s largest Arab party, was, “Terror supporter Ayman Odeh spoke with Lapid and Gantz’s blessing, what a joke!” In effect, the right can always point to Ayman Odeh and be done with it.
The question then, is what Israel’s desperately needed opposition can do. If there is an answer, it lies in the opposition’s primary failure. Despite the charisma of Gantz and Lapid, and the genuine if latent desire of the majority of Israelis for more liberal policies on issues like economics and religion, the opposition has not succeeded in formulating an alternative vision. Its ideology, to the extent that it has one, is wholly negative: rak lo Bibi, as it goes in Hebrew, “Anyone but Bibi.” The problem with this, as should be obvious, is that Bibi has largely succeeded on his own terms thus far, and proffering “anyone” as an alternative is bound to meet with skepticism at best.
To save Israeli democracy, or at least to protect it, then, the opposition must begin to formulate a positive alternative, a coherent and achievable vision of a more liberal, less divided, and hopefully more peaceful Israel.
There is at least a vague idea of what this would look like. It would be an Israel in which the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion and civil issues like marriage would be broken; efforts would be made to enhance tolerance and co-existence between Jews and Israeli minorities; policies promoting a more equal distribution of wealth would be adopted; peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the larger Arab world would be pursued, albeit with a healthy skepticism; and the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers would be scrupulously protected.
Pursuing such a vision would also exploit Netanyahu’s primary weakness: He excels at the politics of division — it has re-elected him every time — but he is less adept at unity and consensus. All his victories, however impressive, have come through dominating the right, whose numerical superiority keeps him perennially, if not comfortably, in office. But he has never managed to command the wide consensus enjoyed by leaders like Ariel Sharon. It is here that the opposition ought to see its opening.
There is at least the possibility that Gantz, who has the charisma if not the legendary pedigree to match Sharon, could fill the role of the consensus leader, a kind of Israeli De Gaulle who appears to rise above petty politics in the name of the overriding interests of the nation. And beside him, Lapid could play the Pompidou, doing the dirty work of fighting it out in the political trenches. Gantz has something of this elevated quality to him, and Lapid’s talent for the scrappy, screaming intensity of Israeli politics is real. But they cannot begin to bring these nascent abilities to bear if they do not formulate a larger vision of what Israel could and ought to be.
Gantz and Lapid already advocate the basic outlines of such a vision, and could easily pivot away from attacking the prime minister and towards advocating a more positive future for the Jewish state along those lines. It is imperative that they do so, because if Netanyahu is dedicated to anything, it is to preserving the status quo at nearly any cost. In order to do so, he has divided the Israeli public and begun to erode and undermine those very institutions he claims to cherish.
If Gantz and Lapid can set aside their contempt for Netanyahu and give us something that is not “Anyone but Bibi,” but “This instead of Bibi,” they could well tap into the Israeli public’s latent but nonetheless real desire for change, and see King Bibi toppled at last.
Benjamin Kerstein is the Israel correspondent for The Algemeiner.