NEW YORK – After a half-century of occupying Palestinian territory, Israel is succumbing to its deepest ethnocentric impulses, and increasingly rejecting recognized boundaries. Israel is now well on its way to joining the growing club of illiberal democracies, and it has Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to thank.
Over the course of 11 years as Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu has reshaped the country’s collective psyche. He has elevated the isolated, traumatized “Jew” – still at odds with the “gentiles,” not to mention the “Arabs” – above the secular, liberal, and globalized “Israeli” envisioned by the country’s founding fathers.
Netanyahu himself is a secular, cynical hedonist who faces an ongoing investigation into his alleged acceptance of lavish illicit gifts from a Hollywood mogul. Yet he is adept at playing the “Jewish card” to his benefit. In 1996, his promise to be “good for the Jews” won him power. In 2015, his warning that Jews must rush to vote for him, or have their fate decided by “droves” of Arabs supposedly headed to the polling stations, did the same.
Just as appealing to people’s Jewishness wins elections, it blocks negotiations on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu’s insistence in 2014 that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state became the last nail in the coffin of an already dying peace process.
In many ways, Netanyahu’s political profile matches that of the most hardline Republicans. His wife once boasted that, had he been born in the US, he could have been president. He probably would have preferred such a life, largely for the sheer power it would afford him. It also would have enabled him to avoid eight frustrating years at loggerheads with President Barack Obama.
Now, however, Netanyahu is relieved to have Donald Trump – a like-minded Republican who is, in practically every way, the polar opposite of Obama – in the White House. The last US president showed empathy for minorities and immigrants; defended human and civil rights; achieved a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran; sought peace in Palestine; and, most problematic, attempted to hold the Israeli leader to account. One of Obama’s last acts as president was to have the US abstain from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution against Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories, rather than vetoing it.
Netanyahu prefers Trump’s crude charlatanism to Obama’s professorial liberalism. In fact, Trump and Netanyahu share much in common with other illiberal leaders, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. All three – and their counterparts in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere – view open hostility toward the mainstream media as a means of securing and consolidating power.
Trump has launched, in so many words, a “war on the media.” Erdoğan, for his part, has cracked down on press freedom, arresting journalists on accusations of involvement in last July’s failed military coup. And Netanyahu has been Israel’s acting communications minister since late 2014.
The logic is not difficult to discern. News media are supposed to hold those in power accountable. So those in power try to muffle the news media. One way to do that is to amplify the voices of more agreeable alternatives, such as Israel Hayom – a Hebrew-language free daily newspaper dedicated to singing Netanyahu’s praises.
The goal of this North Korean-style pamphlet is not to turn a profit. In 2014, Sheldon Adelson, the American casino mogul who has long supported Netanyahu and also helped to finance Trump’s campaign, invested an estimated $50 million in Israel Hayom, which has lost more than $250 million since its launch in 2007. Netanyahu held an early election in 2014, in order to protect his mouthpiece – which now has the largest circulation of any Israeli newspaper – from parliamentary bills threatening to hobble it.
Netanyahu has always denied that he had anything to do with Israel Hayom, though the truth is that he is practically its editor-in-chief. In what other capacity could he have discussed with the owner of its main competitor, Yedioth Ahronot, the possibility of curtailing the distribution of Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage?
Of course, Netanyahu is not doing all of the heavy lifting in pushing Israel toward illiberalism, and censorship and harassment are not reserved exclusively for the media. The minister of education, Naftali Bennett – Chairman of the Jewish Home party, a key ally in Netanyahu’s far-right coalition and a leading advocate for annexing Palestinian lands – is now instructing schools that “studying Judaism is more important than math and science.” A novel describing a love affair between a Palestinian boy and a Jewish girl has been banned from school curricula.
The minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked, also a member of Jewish Home, is second only to Bennett in her ultra-Zionist ardor. She is now spearheading an attack on Israeli democracy’s last frontier, the Supreme Court, condemning it for rulings such as last April’s decision holding that Israel’s natural-gas policy was unconstitutional.
More recently, Shaked approved the “loyalty in culture bill,” which would make government cultural funding contingent on the recipient’s “loyalty” to the Jewish state. Right-wing groups supporting annexation, meanwhile, receive lavish support from the government, as well as from foreign Jewish donors.
Notions of loyalty are used as weapons not just against artists. A newly passed bill – clearly aimed at Israeli Arabs’ representatives in the Knesset (parliament) – would allow MKs to be dismissed for disloyalty to the state. NGOs focused on human rights and peacemaking are scrutinized as foreign agents.
For Israel, democracy has always been a strategic asset, because a democratic Israel was a natural fit in the Western alliance. Whereas the West lost no time in imposing sanctions on President Vladimir Putin’s Russia following its annexation of Crimea, it has not punished Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The more Israel embraces Putin-inspired practices, however, the weaker becomes its connection to its strategic rearguard in the West.
It remains to be seen whether the unpredictable Trump will meet Israel’s expectations. What is clear is that by weakening its democratic credentials, Israel imperils its lifeline to the West – including post-Trump America.