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Over the past several weeks, the anger of the opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly elected government has reached hysterical, and even apocalyptic, tones. This should seem familiar to Americans, who have grown accustomed to the same kind of fever-pitch discourse ever since the emergence of Donald Trump on the political scene.
Indeed, his presidency wasn’t merely opposed by foes; it was “resisted,” with conspiracy theories about his colluding with Russia to “steal” the 2016 election. Since 2020, many on the right are so disillusioned by the results of that election—and by the way the corporate media and big tech helped skew coverage and suppress stories that might embarrass the Democrats—that they no longer trust the integrity of the electoral process.
The weaponization of rhetoric has now escalated to such an extent that Democrats spent the 2022 midterms in a not-entirely-unsuccessful attempt to paint Republicans as a “threat” to democracy. Their effort is in tune with the sea change in discourse that depicts rivals not merely as wrong—an attitude that’s necessary in a system where both sides must be willing to lose and cede power when defeated—but as evil.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at the way the people and parties who lost the Nov. 1 Knesset election are reacting. The same goes for the talk about the “mortal danger” that Netanyahu’s coalition supposedly poses to Israeli democracy (as author Yossi Klein Halevi did recently in the The Times of Israel and The Atlantic), which doesn’t allow for reasonable disagreement.
Calling the government “morally corrupt” or “criminal,” in the words of Halevi and Times of Israel editor-in-chief David Horovitz, isn’t a conversation starter about a contentious issue, such as judicial reform or a more robust response to Palestinian terrorism. It’s the end of conversation. Which is, perhaps, precisely the point of that kind of political attack.
And when this comes from the likes of Halevi and Horovitz—whom I’ve always considered generally sober observers, rather than extremist partisans, despite my disagreement with many of their positions—it’s worth asking them how any debate can be conducted in this atmosphere, and why they are so intent on ginning up the anger of the Biden administration and American Jewry toward the new Israeli government.
Along with the protesters who turned out in large numbers for anti-Bibi resistance rallies for the past two Saturday nights in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, they insist that their attempt to anathematize Netanyahu’s coalition is a rational response to what they consider to be policies that would undermine democracy.
But it’s difficult to take their arguments about the government’s plans to rein in an out-of-control, unaccountable and self-perpetuating Supreme Court seriously. As legal scholars such as Jerome Marcus have amply illustrated, that court has arrogated to itself the kind of power to arbitrarily override the will of the democratically elected legislature on nothing more than its own ideas about what is “reasonable,” rather than principles rooted in law to which the voters or the Knesset has assented.
Instead of presenting counter-proposals to a plan aimed at rectifying a problematic situation—one that’s been simmering for years since former Chief Justice Aharon Barak began an unprecedented power grab for the court—those screaming about saving democracy have simply dug in their heels while speaking of their fear of a “tyranny of the majority” that would crush minority rights.
Yet, as Halevi’s articles have equally made clear, what Netanyahu’s opponents really won’t tolerate is a government whose members have no stake in maintaining the power and policies of the country’s establishment elites.
That is something that should also seem familiar to Americans.
When the liberal and leftist elites whose favored candidates lost the last Israeli election– and, as Halevi conceded, are likely to keep losing in the future as the country’s demographics become more religious and politically right-wing—speak of democracy, what they really mean is a system that guarantees that their side will continue to dominate Israel, regardless of who wins elections.
Those who run the corporate media, academic institutions and think tanks are willing to tolerate conservatives as long as they are not determined to change things. So, for example, congressional conservatives who talk about fiscal reform are treated as having some legitimacy, if not really respected, unless, that is, they’re prepared to take action to halt government spending, at which point they become dangerous radicals, if not the moral equivalent of terrorists.
There were and remain good reasons to view Trump with concern and even disdain. But the problem was not so much the president’s intemperate tweets; it was his administration’s willingness to attempt to roll back liberal big government or to actually halt illegal immigration.
Its willingness to ditch the business-as-usual attitude of the establishment “uniparty” was something the governing class considered to be a genuine threat. That Trump attempted, albeit in an often-chaotic fashion, befitting both his character and his lack of government experience, to listen to what the “deplorable” conservative grassroots wanted and to act to fulfill his promises to them, is what made him truly dangerous to his opponents.
Israel’s governing and cultural elites have always viewed Netanyahu and the voters he represents with the same kind of disdain. And, as their attempts to criminally prosecute him on the basis of flimsy charges of corruption show, they, too, are prepared to bend the normal political rules to take him down.
Ironically, Netanyahu is, in many ways, a member of the same Israeli establishment that hates him. But the same cannot be said for cabinet members Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who come from the right wing of the national-religious camp.
Though there are reasons to be concerned about whether they are prepared to behave responsibly in office, Halevi’s rhetoric about their constituting a threat to the ties that bind world Jewry, not to mention the Jewish state’s standing in the world as a civilized country, speaks to a deeper, visceral contempt for Israel’s version of America’s “deplorables.”
Worse than that, they and other members of the Likud Party-led coalition have hit the ground running as they attempt to actually implement what they promised the voters they would do with respect to security and other issues relating to the assertion of Jewish rights or the balance between those of secular and observant Jews.
This, rather than judicial reform, is the new government’s truly unforgivable sin in the eyes of its opponents. What its foes won’t tolerate from Netanyahu’s cabinet is anything that might actually infringe on the power of Israel’s liberal minority and their ability to wield it.
Thus, the anti-Bibi resistance’s freakout is not about democracy; it’s about preserving the power of a faction that fears it can’t win elections. Yet, what makes their demonization of Netanyahu and his colleagues not merely ill-considered but irresponsible is that their partisan hysteria plays right into the hands of those foes of Zionism and the Jews who don’t care who is running the Jewish state or what their policies might be.
For Halevi to assert that the government will allow Israel’s enemies to think they are right to consider it a criminal state is the sort of self-justifying delusion that grants an undeserved permission slip to those who traffic in hate for the Jewish state.
At a time of rising antisemitism that often disguises itself as anti-Zionism, the delegitimization of Israel’s democratically elected government by declaring it beyond the pale has consequences that go beyond Netanyahu’s political future or whether judicial reform is a good idea.
You don’t have to agree with him about the issues to realize how wrong it would be to believe that the hysteria surrounding his government is about democracy. The recent vote for the Knesset should be treated with the same kind of respect that Americans believe should be accorded to their own elections, and view with contempt those who claim to be preserving Israeli democracy by thwarting it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.