On May 14, 2015, exactly 67 years after the Declaration of Independence, a revolution began in Israel. Few people noticed the change at first. Benjamin Netanyahu remained prime minister, as he had been for six years. He used the same manner of speaking and had the same hairstyle, but he was different.
The conservative Netanyahu who had shunned adventures and risks ceded office to the right-wing radical Netanyahu seeking to fulfill his old dream of “replacing the elites.” But instead of forming a national-unity government with his rival, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, after the election that year and sleepily settling back into “stability,” Netanyahu established a right-wing coalition with his former assistant and current bitter enemy, Habayit Hayehudi chief Naftali Bennett.
It was Bennett who crafted the new government’s message during the election campaign: Stop apologizing. The message expressed an old argument: The right-wing parties had been winning elections for nearly 40 years, but when they came to power they restrained their ideology and shifted toward the political center. That was either out of concerns of “American pressure” or a desire by right-wing politicians to win the adoration of the media and top legal and military officials who allegedly remained under the left’s control.
This time there was a rare opportunity to lift the restraints and set up a real right-wing government that would work for deep change in the social order and public debate. Bennett crafted the political goal: the gradual Israeli annexation of the West Bank while erasing the distinction between Jewish towns and villages in Israel proper and Jewish settlements east of the Green Line. Meanwhile, the West Bank Palestinians would be kept under Israeli control with the assistance of the Palestinian Authority, but without civil rights.
Cleansing the left-wing elites
As the right-wing’s leaders see it, such a situation requires the suppression of criticism and the elimination of words such as “occupation” from the political and media lexicon. Hatred of Arabs, which once was disguised under the worn-out guise of “security considerations,” was now to be openly presented as the right-wing government’s position, in keeping with the tone on Election Day when Netanyahu warned of Arabs going to the polls in droves.
The silencing of criticism was justified by the argument that disagreements in Israel resonate in the West and fuel the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which in turn is portrayed as a serious strategic threat to the country. Defending Israel against it requires a thorough cleansing of the left-wing “elites.”
That means replacing the heads of cultural institutions and threatening a halt to government funding for those who don’t go with the flow. That comes on top of promoting army officers and lawyers identifying with religious Zionism, rewriting the school curriculum with a religious-Zionist tinge and portraying human rights groups as collaborators with the boycott movement. It also means denying the legitimacy of Supreme Court rulings on the argument that “the judges represent a minority that votes for the left and loves Arabs more than Jews settling the land.”
Initially Netanyahu remained statesmanlike and didn’t speak out directly against his rivals. He let other politicians lead the revolution: Education Minister Bennett, Culture Minister Miri Regev, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and coalition chief David Bitan. Each of them received a specific sector. Regev got the arts, Bennett academia and the school curriculum, Shaked the Supreme Court and Bitan the media. Shaked and Levin are managing the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the most important governing body in the country.
As they see it, democracy means majority rule while those in the minority should shut their mouths. The liberal stance espoused by Supreme Court President Miriam Naor – that democracy is distinguished by its protection of the minority and respect for minority rights – is seen by the government as the unacceptable talk of a left-winger making trouble for the Jews.
The left drifts right
While his aides lift the restraints on his government, the prime minister has been biding his time with empty talk about bringing Zionist Union into the coalition and appointing Herzog to the coveted post of foreign minister. Like a cat playing with its prey, Netanyahu has neutralized the opposition with baseless promises that led Herzog to adjust his policies to the right (“no Palestinian state at this time” and “people say we’re Arab lovers”). And that’s without him getting anything in return other than vague messages only said in private and easily denied.
The second opposition leader, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, is now convinced that the people love Netanyahu’s narrative and have embraced a slightly refined version of vague promises for “change.” The political opposition has been easily eliminated, but in the media, independent voices remain, criticizing Netanyahu and his family and reporting on the police’s inquiries into their affairs. This criticism has pulled Netanyahu out of hiding; he has attacked journalists personally using the language that his cabinet colleagues have used against cultural figures and judges, but with a sharper tone.
Netanyahu is developing the direction and methods of the right-wing revolution 20 years ago, when he was elected prime minister for the first time. In conversations with Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, he spoke of the need to replace the rhetoric that had taken over academia and the media and supported a partition of the land with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu claimed that the media had been recruited to delegitimize his government and the prime minister himself. “The intellectual structure of Israeli society is not balanced,” he said. “There is an ideological monolith here, and maybe even ideological tyranny a herd and the conformism of a cult that writes the Torah, interprets it and expects everyone to obey.”
Netanyahu suggested that intellectual “hostels” be established “that wouldn’t be under government control but would generate ideological competition in the country a kind of corrective to the current polarized situation.”
Such rhetoric remained in the air during Netanyahu’s first term, which ended in his electoral defeat in 1999 after he ran into trouble with both the left and the right. His ideas became reality during his years out of office, when he sought to return to power. The most important and largest “intellectual hostel” remains the daily Israel Hayom, which plays the role Pravda did in the Soviet Union, reporting the daily messages from the prime minister’s circle. Over the past two or three years, Israel Hayom has been joined by the Walla website, owned by Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, who is dependent on the regulatory environment that Netanyahu controls.
Then there are the right-wing think tanks and lobby groups such as Im Tirtzu, the Institute for Zionist Strategies, the Mida website and My Israel, which are leading the fight to cleanse the public debate, academia and the media of “the left” and promote legislation that would narrow freedom of expression, suppress the Israeli-Arab community and, following the U.S. presidential election result, take steps to annex West Bank territory.
Netanyahu’s model was a success just as he had expected. Less than two years after Israel Hayom hit the streets, Netanyahu was back in power, and he hasn’t lost an election since.
The current government is promoting censorship in education and academia in the spirit of Im Tirtzu. The mass media outlets – Channel 2 and the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, which Netanyahu portrays as his bitter enemies – may at times criticize him, but they enthusiastically promote his government’s narrative (that Arabs and left-wingers are traitors, the world is anti-Semitic and the occupation doesn’t exist).
Netanyahu continues to rail against the media that is allegedly so hostile to him in order to impress his supporters and force his critics to justify themselves (“we’re not leftists”).
The distinction between settlers and mere Israelis is disappearing, along with the remnants of talk about a two-state solution, which Netanyahu actually raises from time to time in interviews with the foreign media.
His Likud party is reminiscent of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico. Even after so many years steering Israel and the disappearance of the counter-narrative, Netanyahu and his partners depict themselves as a radical opposition to rule by “the left,” and the public is enthusiastic.
But the real revolution is just beginning. Its major challenges remain. Will it get conservative justices onto the Supreme Court, shifting its role from restraining government to protecting it, just as Netanyahu and Shaked have smashed the institution of the attorney general?
Will the top brass and the intelligence services be replaced with loyal officers who view the occupation and settlements as longed-for aims and not necessary evils? Will the incitement against artists and political rivals be translated into indictments, imprisonment and dismissals of academics rather than simply curses and threats on Facebook and administrative legislative steps? Will the civil service be replaced by the appointment of politicians’ associates, as Netanyahu is suggesting?
In the absence of an opposition or alternative public discourse, it’s hard to see what and who will halt these steps as long as the current government remains in office.