Pinsker Centre Policy Fellow William Rome sat down in November 2022 with Dan Meridor, Israel’s ex-Deputy Prime Minister, to discuss Israeli domestic and international politics. The Pinsker Centre is a campus-based think tank that facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
Sitting across from Dan Meridor in a North-East England restaurant, I found a man committed to fighting for Israel’s historic values against the tide of illiberal government. His country is at “a crossroads, a turning point” and he is committed to ensuring it avoids the wrong path. In the months following our discussion, many of his predictions have been realized, with the manifestations of these prompting widespread protests, but the future of Israeli democracy seems just as uncertain.
Meridor’s highest political offices have been earned through his association with Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet, it is Netanyahu, whose appointment as Prime Minister was imminent but not yet confirmed when I spoke with Meridor, who receives most opprobrium.
Meridor presents Netanyahu as a figure who has exacerbated and symbolized but not created the damaging trends emerging in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s corruption trial remains central in Meridor’s analysis: he ascribes to this Netanyahu’s unwillingness to support the traditional values surrounding the rule of law or to cooperate with judicial authorities. Netanyahu previously “spoke the language that every normal leader would speak,” but has now become part of the global trend towards illiberalism. Meridor attributes Netanyahu’s newfound disdain for judicial procedure and its practitioners to the Prime Minister’s pride and focus on legacy.
Meridor argues that his actions emerge from a corruption of Zionism, the true form of which is grounded in democratic values of self-determination. It has since been framed falsely as recognizing the inherent superiority of the Jewish people, in turn disdaining certain other peoples. His impassioned defense of true Zionism highlights his deep unease with Netanyahu’s actions, which he considers to be the dominant issue in Israeli domestic politics. He sees a new political binary emerging: Netanyahu’s faction and the liberal democratic opposition to this, rather than the traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’ binary. Though reluctant to accept that this constituted an ‘existential’ threat, Meridor undoubtedly considers it a “danger, which may affect Israeli society.”
Meridor maintains a mixed view of Israel’s founding constructs: whilst he believes Zionism to be a fundamental good in Israel and rejects my suggestion that the proportional representation system, with its resulting coalitions, is a destabilizing force, he strongly criticizes the lack of an Israeli Constitution, a problem to which he ascribes several domestic issues.
The quality of Israeli leadership clearly concerns Meridor. I mention ex-Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who he considers a possible match to Netanyahu, but surprisingly Meridor’s most generous praise is reserved for Mansour Abbas. The Arab Ra’am Party’s leader “really showed courage, showed leadership not usually seen, not only in the Arab [communities] but also in the Jewish and other places.” Whereas many politicians act more like “pollster[s]” than “leaders,” Abbas “tried to lead.” In “trying to take them [the Israeli Arabs] to places they wouldn’t go,” through persuasion, “he broke an old taboo for them.” Although he notes that Ra’am and the Palestinian government are of “a different condition” and are therefore not comparable, it points to the necessity of compromise and engagement with Jewish authorities if the Palestinians wish to have their interests better represented.
The issue of Palestine is clearly one on which Meridor is challenged regularly. I did not plan to focus on this at length as Israeli political discourse constitutes far more than just Palestine, which has been discussed at length, but as Meridor mentioned repeatedly throughout our interview his expectation that I would ask about Palestine, I did so in the context of the Abraham Accords. He considered these potentially useful for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict in the long-term but not decisive. Instead, he argues that the Accords successfully positioned Israel as a “high-tech nation” in Arab minds. Palestine is an issue that can only be resolved incrementally.
We discuss Israeli foreign affairs at length, but with a specific focus on the United States. The Trump Administration is conventionally thought to have benefitted Israel, but Meridor challenges this. Although some policies “were very good to Israel,” he remains deeply skeptical about the motives of Trump’s evangelical voter base and comments that the withdrawal from the JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) was a “mistake” as no alternative was offered, despite the flaws inherent in the agreement.
America’s decline in global influence plays a major role in Meridor’s calculations about Israel’s place in the world. He suggests that Israel is an independent player which, though allied to the United States, is not reliant on it. He highlights the Obama administration’s policy of supporting independence activists over their allies during the Arab Spring as decisive, noting Hillary Clinton’s comment that the Americans wanted to be on the right side of history, when in fact their actions enabled Islamist parties to rise to power. The subsequent loss of faith in the United States as an ally is identified as a factor in many Arab nations’ willingness to entertain building closer ties with Israel.
Dan Meridor’s analysis was deeply insightful. It was notable how critical he was of Israeli institutions and his past political superior, Benjamin Netanyahu, but most important was his view of Zionism as a force for democracy. It underpins Israel’s grounding principles and its corruption is of utmost concern to him. The protests that the streets of Israel have seen in recent months show that much of the Israeli population agree that meddling with the judicial status quo poses a clear and present danger to Israel as a beacon for democracy in the Middle East.