To offend, or not to offend? That is the question, or one of them, in politics these days.
The right today fears no giving of offense, to its cavalries’ delight. The more outrageous the ploys, the more confidently they’re carried out. Incompetence, when exposed, brings not a shadow of retreat. The rightist masses march in lockstep, as long as one reveals no shame.
But the left! It drowns in agonies of introspection and wants no feeling to be hurt. Progressives will admit to any privilege, appropriate no culture, disavow all that came before. Pundits walk a mile to be fair, are dialectic to a fault, agree on little in the end (except that Trump is a disgrace).
In this crude political moment, it is advantage, right.
Social media has amplified it, providing rocket fuel to an updated version of the Big Lie. Hitler’s theory argued that the grander the deception the more readily the masses will believe it. Putin has replaced Goebbels and his ilk ply their dark art in social media today. The field is level, the filter’s gone, the truth is yesterday’s concern. This system has utility on all sides, but fits most snugly on the right.
This is because of a fascinating societal shift happening in many countries. The left has dispatched its remaining social conservatives and a few outright racists to the right, in turn receiving conservative lawmakers and pundits who could not stomach the depths to which their side has plunged. In Israel this influx includes most security types – decent people who may not be exactly left, and so they call themselves the center (but in this context it may as well be the same thing).
Rightist fabrications zooming around social media have been key in recent electoral disasters in the United States and Britain. And so it is in Israel, where the nationalist incumbent will be lucky to escape jail – yet it is the upstanding ex-general of a challenger who fights off the character assassinations attacking him in waves of online trolls and berserk bots.
The opposition campaign soberly retains decorum still, criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption but mostly giving policy a pass; why offend rightist voters when you need some to swing your way? Here’s a possible reason why: the kid-glove policy may fail. Then you’re not only a sap – you’re a sap in opposition once again.
Netanyahu certainly should go. To the charges of bribery and breach of trust (pending a hearing) announced by the attorney-general you can add personal windfalls in shady deals (for himself and sordid crony-cousins), serial domestic help and expense scandals, systematic attacks on institutions of state, demonization of the media, dangerous agitation against the beleaguered Arab minority, and incitement of citizens against each other. It is truly an abomination.
On his own terms, he’s almost OK. The economy is not great but not bad, and Israel’s standing in the world can be described the same way (though it would be worse if not for Trump). He’s a brilliant politician who, I am certain, knows facts and basic math. His party, not so much. Without Netanyahu the Likud would amount mostly to boors and thugs united by the glue of vulgar confidence and terrible ideas.
Likud first won power under Menachem Begin in 1977. It liberalized the statist economy, but was so clueless that hyperinflation at 400 percent a year soon followed. Begin also did well to reach peace with Egypt, agreeing in 1979 to hand back the Sinai Peninsula. But so deeply did Begin shock himself with this eruption of sanity that by 1982 he invaded Lebanon to regain his reputation. The official goal was to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization that used the south to shell Israel. But Israel maintained the occupation of half this neighboring country, at huge cost on all sides, well after that was achieved.
Despite these failings Likud did not lose the election of 1984, managing a tie. This provided an early indication that modern electorates are only partly vulnerable to good sense. And it yielded a parity government with the leaders of Labor and Likud each in power for two years.
Under Labor’s Shimon Peres, the government passed a hugely successful economic stabilization plan which has been the global model ever since. Who voted against? Almost all the Likud ministers. It also pulled out of most of Lebanon, retaining in a small buffer zone that another Labor leader, Ehud Barak, quit altogether in 2000. Who opposed? Almost every Likud minister.
Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir took over in 1986. His main achievement was scuttling a deal Peres reached as foreign minister under which King Hussein of Jordan would have taken over the West Bank, largely eliminating the Palestinian conflict which has tormented Israel (and annoyed the world) ever since.
In the three decades that have passed Likud has stood mainly for getting in the way of peace efforts and insisting on Jewish settlement of the West Bank.
In this project it has been assisted by Palestinian terrorists who have staged various waves of blowing up Israeli buses and cafes; their goal was to prevent partition, which they viewed as a sellout, by moving Israelis to the right. This succeeded beyond their wildest jihadi dreams: the right now enjoys a clear default advantage and Netanyahu has governed for a decade.
As a result Israel is well on its way to being no longer a Jewish state, because with a few more settlers in place it will become truly inseparable from the millions of stateless Palestinians in the West Bank (no, autonomy does not count). All that may be missing is one last victory for Likud.
But Likud’s achievements are not limited to endangering the Jewish state or oppressing the Palestinians (which Lebanon anyhow does as well). Likud made inroads toward destroying democracy as well.
Indeed, Israel’s proud claims to democracy now rest on non-annexation of the West Bank, where it runs parallel legal systems for Palestinians and Jews. It has been building cities there for a half century. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in them, and even though Israel has no absentee balloting, next Tuesday they will vote, unlike their neighbor Palestinians.
The left (and center), supported by most literate Israelis, seeks ways to alter this unbecoming arrangement. The Likud and the right, which for my purposes are one, will stop at little to keep it in place.
So in recent years the coalition has legalized the expropriation of private property in the West Bank, hampered the ability of NGOs to get funding, almost succeeded in passing a law linking arts funding to “patriotism,” outlawed support for a boycott of settlement products, passed a law marginalizing Israel’s Arab minority and denying the Arabic language its past official status, and agitated endlessly against the police, the judiciary, the state prosecution and the press.
Netanyahu is the creature and champion of this, but he’s not truly the author. The stupidity preceded and will almost certainly succeed him. Indeed, if Likud stayed in power and Netanyahu were removed, things could easily be worse. Menace though he is, he’s read a history book or two.
To say it outright might cause offense, but the main problem is not Netanyahu.
It’s the Likud, stupid!