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Illiberal Israel

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.