It is an experience I will never forget; driving to Yerushalayim in late 2005 on Kvish-Ahat (Route 1) with my parents. Before we arrived in Jerusalem, there was some graffiti on a few settlement walls. In my memory there was quite a bit of it, though perhaps my brain exaggerates. Most of it said the exact same thing: “Kahane Tzodek”, Kahane was right. So what was Meir Kahane right about? Let’s just remember one of Kahane’s most famous quotes:
“The question is as follows: if the Arabs settle among us and make enough children to become a majority, will Israel continue to be a Jewish state? Do we have to accept that the Arab majority will decide?… Western democracy has to be ruled out. For me, that’s cut and dried: There’s no question of setting up a democracy in Israel, because democracy means equal rights for all, irrespective of racial or religious origins.”
Near the very entrance to Jerusalem, directly at the peak of Har HaMenuchot hung three posters on an apartment building, each a hundred feet tall and thirty feet wide, the bulging chazzer-face of Avigdor Lieberman looking out upon us, his eyes trailing us in our car. The message to everyone who saw those poster was clear as day: “I am a fact. Israel needs me. And if you don’t elect me, I will take this country by force.”
Most would-be strongmen are the weakest people in their country. Of course a guy who presents himself as a strongman would also be a guy who beats up on 12 year olds as a grown man
and makes death threats to Arab colleagues,
but the majority of Israelis saw Lieberman as the filth he was. Israel Beitenu never got more than 11.7 percent of the vote. As of last year, Lieberman is no longer in the Netanyahu government and there seems to be no path of reentry for him. Who needs him? With Netanyahu’s election to a fifth term, who’d be attracted to a would-be strongman when we might have the real thing already?
Compared to the direction Netanyahu now flirts with, Lieberman looks mild. Lieberman’s positions were always a caricature of Ariel Sharon’s policies, designed to siphon off votes from Likud and Kadima the way a leech sucks off blood. In the Israel of the 2019, Lieberman now seems like a dinosaur; an appeaser to liberalism from an older generation when Israel might be held accountable to those annoying Western considerations of human rights. The Lieberman Plan is already 15 years ago, and the terms it named seem like a byproduct of an alternate reality – the forced transfer of both Arab AND Israeli populations? Imagine the backlash to any right-wing politician in 2019 proposing that an Israeli might have to move.
Lieberman always saw the Palestinian State as an eventual fact which could not be ignored, while Netanyahu now declares there will be no Palestinian state. No major politician in a major democracy has ever been more fawning to Vladimir Putin than Lieberman, but for all Putin’s reciprocal praise of Lieberman, it has always stopped short of an actual endorsement. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Putin timed their summit to strategically coincide with the Israeli election season. Putin knew that Russian voters in Israel would see Netanyahu’s closeness to Putin, and Netanyahu would draw away hundreds of thousands of Israeli Russians to Likud who’d voted Lieberman’s party in every election since its inception. And when it came time to replace Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister, whom did Netanyahu name as Lieberman’s replacement?
We now live in an age of Authoritarian Democracy. Even if Netanyahu is not a dictator, and the jury is very much out, the world is burdened by a series of democratically elected leaders whose grips on government seem so impregnable that the country operates as though there is no democracy at all. Netanyahu and Viktor Orban of Hungary have ruled their respective countries for roughly a decade, Vladimir Putin will soon rule his country, either in person or in proxy, for two decades, so will Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Behind them in seniority is a new harvest of ultranationalist heads of government; elected by means fundamentally democratic but maintained in power by means that cross the line: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, arguably even Narendra Modi in India, and… you know who else… Egypt is the only among these countries where there is unbroken military/nationalist rule that makes a complete mockery of its democratic norms. In every other of these countries, even Russia and Turkey, there are enough norms of democracy that it’s occasionally difficult to tell if or when or where democracy ended and dictatorship begins.
I’m sure that readers of this column have very specific ideas about how to answer the question of whether or not Netanyahu is a dictator. Personally, the only aspect of the question I’m sure of is that Netanyahu arches for so many of a dictator’s powers. Netanyahu wants to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court to the point that the Court can no longer strike down any law without an unanimous decision. Netanyahu uses litigation against the Press as a coercive weapon to get better coverage, and uses his bully pulpit to denounce Israel’s leading journalists. For three years Netanyahu became his own communications minister. He offered Yedioth Ahronoth a deal in which he would damage the circulation of their rivals in exchange for covering his administration more positively. Netanyahu’s determination to annex the West Bank settlements – effectively meaning the whole West Bank, is half motivated by ideological fanaticism and half motivated by a craven exchange to get the religious right to help him pass laws which make the Prime Minister’s office immune to indictments, the full brunt of which which Netanyahu must eventually face unless he can make himself above the law.
Dictatorship changes in every century. In the 19th century, dictators wore crowns and murdered millions in distant lands. In the 20th century, dictators wore military uniforms and put millions of their own citizens into a meat grinder. Except for the resolutely 20th century-style Kim family in North Korea and Assad family in Syria, there’s hardly an active dictatorship whose bloody deeds can compare to those of Hitler, Mao, Leopold, or Napoleon; but when true dictatorship arrives in the 21st century, it will strike a middle ground between the last two by bringing the citizens of distant lands right to our doorsteps. Global warming is coming, and with global warming comes the flight of entire countries away from the equator. The dictators of our century will wear the suits and shirtsleeves of businessmen, the people they strike down will be refugees desperately knocking on the walls we erect to keep them out.
What does not change from age to age is the absolute gullibility of citizens in every country who think themselves incontrovertibly intelligent and principled and free, yet accede joyfully to making themselves slaves to a king. After ten years (actually thirteen), every person who voted for Netanyahu knows exactly the mixture of authoritarianism, belligerence, corruption, and delusion that he is, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
For thousands of years we slaved in other people’s countries. Did we really do all that so we could come to a country of our own and serve a Pharaoh?