Even if Netanyahu Leaves, the Nationalist Right Won’t Disappear

The growing protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged some of my colleagues to declare that we have won, and in another moment not only will Netanyahu and his family be removed from our lives (“Bibi, it’s over,” by Uri Misgav, Thursday’s Haaretz in Hebrew), but so will the journalists, Twitterati and intellectuals who identify with him (“One can understand them,” by Niv Hadas, Thursday’s Haaretz in Hebrew).

I read them and I sailed in my imagination to an Israel of tranquility, brotherhood and friendship in which everyone was committed to human rights and civil rights; an independent justice system; an in-depth, investigative media; and a flourishing, critical academia, which will teach history classes about one Benjamin Netanyahu who incited and divided until all the good people went out into the streets and ousted him from power.

And then I woke up from the dream to reality, which looks less exciting.

The protests have had some immediate results. Netanyahu has been weakened, and has become more dependent on his political partners, from Arye Dery of Shas and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism to Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi of Kahol Lavan. The demonstrators have so far deterred the government from reinstating a full lockdown and forced it to open its wallet and give grants to most Israelis. Plans to annex parts of the West Bank have been postponed, partly for diplomatic reasons and partly due to the lack of public enthusiasm.

But the protests haven’t created a political or moral alternative to rule by Netanyahu’s Likud and the rest of the right. If Netanyahu goes, he’ll be replaced by another right-wing politician, who will have no trouble forming a broad, stable governing coalition. Not a single poll has pointed to or even hinted at any other possibility.

Ironically, Netanyahu himself is the main obstacle to forming a pure right-wing government, due to his terrible relationship with the leaders of other rightist parties – Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and Ayalet Shaked – and his tendency to prefer weak partners like Gantz.

The last three elections have clearly shown that the rightist, religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties have a solid majority among the voters. And if you add to them the votes wasted on tiny right-wing parties that don’t make it into Knesset, their parliamentary majority will be even bigger. Netanyahu’s replacement won’t be Ayman Odeh, Yair Lapid or Gadi Eisenkot, but someone who will support annexing territory and weakening Israel’s gatekeepers.

In reality outside the “Bibi go home” protests, the authoritarian nationalism represented by the prime minister and his disciples has solid support among the public, and it hasn’t waned despite the coronavirus, high unemployment and budget deficit. Spoiler alert: Bennett, the new hot property among Netanyahu opponents, who is enthralling Likud voters and leftist columnists, has the exact same worldview as his rival does.

In contrast to the ruling family now occupying the prime minister’s residence, Bennett doesn’t cadge free meals, and he speaks courteously. But just like them, he wants a strong government that won’t be restrained by the liberal High Court of Justice, that will deepen the occupation of the territories and curtail freedom of expression. On these issues, unlike on minor issues such as how much authority the coronavirus czar should have, there is no sign of any disagreement among different segments of the right.

That is why the right-wing discourse will continue to dominate Israel’s public and media discussions even after the leadership is replaced. Yair Netanyahu and Yaakov Bardugo, Gadi Taub and Avishay Ben Haim, Limor Samimian-Darash and Galit Distal Atbaryan, Amit Segal and Shimon Riklin, Irit Linur and Kalman Liebskind, Benny Ziffer and Yinon Magal, the daily Israel Hayom and the Kohelet Policy Forum aren’t hollow actors reciting lines of dialogue. Some surely toady to the power that Netanyahu and his family currently represent, but they’ll also know how to develop close ties with his heirs.

Rather, they represent something much deeper, something that has a firm grip on public opinion – nationalism and capitalism with no restraints and no checks and balances, rule by the strong simply because they are strong. Just like in China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Brazil and Donald Trump’s America.

Instead of posing an ideological alternative to the right’s positions and building support for it among the public, the left’s talking heads are busy with failed attempts to ridicule rightist spokespeople or premature celebrations of victory over Netanyahu. So get this through your heads: Yair Netanyahu, Riklin and Taub aren’t cartoons, and they won’t suddenly disappear from your screens and your feeds. Not even once the leader is replaced.

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