“Wow, even with all that’s going on, I find it hard to believe it could happen here,” my sister said to me the other day. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times this week, implied, however, that “it” may already be happening here. He compared Bibi with Putin, and suggested that Bibi is as clueless and out of touch with reality as Putin was when he decided to invade Ukraine.
He may be right. Bibi seems to get his updates from his son, Yair, who sees conspiracies against his parents everywhere. The next circle around him may well be the same type of “yes-men” who bring news of the war’s progress to Putin. Within his party, he is known for a ruthlessness that makes those with talent leave and those that stay afraid to speak out.
While chaos reigns at home, Bibi is busy flitting around Europe, taking any photo op possible as if to say to us and the world: “Dictatorship? What dictatorship? Would Macron shake my hand if I were a dictator?
Who’s in power?
The problem is that Bibi does not appear, at this point, to be the dictator-in-waiting. In fact, he is still prohibited from weighing in on a reform that could affect his future residence, so while he sups on French caviar, others are left at home to keep the train running at full speed into oncoming traffic. It is “Injustice” Minister Yariv Levin, “Mad-Dog” Simcha Rotman and “The Penguin” Itamar Ben-Gvir who are taking power for themselves and using it against their own country. The first two are ramming their anti-democratic legislation through so fast, even some coalition members are feeling the whiplash. The last is instituting laws that will give him absolute power over the police and partial control over the army.
Ben-Gvir is nothing if not persistent, and he is slowly getting his way
Those changes are happening now. By the time the coalition agrees to “talks” on the judicial reform, it will be too late. Any compromises will be merely cosmetic, at that point – almost certainly not cosmetic enough to hide the warts on the ugly truth.
The police chief has sworn to the public that he is beholden to none other than the attorney general, but the police on the ground have also received instructions to act with more force against demonstrators – a demand of Ben-Gvir’s. The army is in enough of a crisis over the reforms that the Chief of Staff has spoken out publicly on the need to preserve democracy. Presumably he is speaking behind closed doors on the fact that having two Ministers oversee the armed forces is a stupid idea. But Ben-Gvir is nothing if not persistent, and he is slowly getting his way.
Still not there
And this is where Putin and Bibi’s stories diverge. Because Putin is, in fact a dictator, and when he feels the war is not going so well, he can change those in charge of the offensive. Bibi can’t do that yet, and he still depends on coalition politics to make it though each day. That’s why one of the laws coming up to an early vote is referred to as the “De’eri Law,” as it will allow Shas’s Aryeh De’eri, a two-time felon, to be a minister, thus greasing the wheels of the coalition train.
Friedman writes that Bibi, like Putin, has been in power too long (agreed), but I would say that this is only one part of the equation. The other part is new minsters who have had great balls of power land, as if magic, in their laps. The world may have its eyes on Bibi and hold him responsible, but we in Israel can’t let ourselves be swept up in his suave insistence that wrong, with just a bit of hocus pocus, makes right. If we watch him, we’ll take our eyes off the real thugs who are carrying out their own agendas under the skimpy kippot of legitimacy.
No good outcomes
Where Friedman sees Bibi and Putin diverging is in the size of the countries they lead. Russia is, indeed, a bear and the rest of the world is wary of provoking it to anger. At the same time, its size – the width of an entire continent – means it is can be self-reliant. Israel, in comparison, is a lab mouse. Its next meal is always coming from an outside cheese source. Turning our back on the world will be suicide.
If we watch him, we’ll take our eyes off the real thugs who are carrying out their own agendas under the skimpy kippot of legitimacy
Our size does give us one advantage. Putin has apparently been successful at one thing: controlling the media in his expansive, insular county. There is little opposition to the war (other than that of the feet of thousands of young, army-aged men), and when protests erupt, they are quickly put down. Bibi, in contrast, is failing, for once, at controlling the public narrative. Without a gilded palace to recline in, he can hear the protesters outside his door, down his street and spreading throughout the country. Only a minority believes his propaganda, a larger portion is vocally refuting it.
Friedman hinted at one potential outcome of my country’s approaching train wreck. (Though he framed it as Bibi getting what he deserves. I would say it is the citizens who will pay the price.) But Wednesday evening, in his speech to the nation, President Herzog stated, in no uncertain terms, the possibility of another: civil war. As much as I would like to refuse to accept it, I must say, I’m coming to believe that, too, could happen here.