The prime minister’s go-to election strategy of scaremongering about allegedly anti-Zionist government alternatives is hypocrisy at its finest when his closest political allies and their supporters are themselves ambivalent or antipathetic to the Jewish state.
“Israel needs a strong and stable government, a Zionist government committed to Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people”, so said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in an address to a small crowd of supporters in Tel Aviv, hours after exit polls revealed a neck and neck result with his main contender, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, for the second, and not the last, time.
“There will not be and cannot be a government that relies on non-Zionist Arab parties”, he continued. “In the coming days, we will enter into negotiations to establish a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government. This is the order of the day.”
On this matter, (until very recently, perhaps) Netanyahu has been consistent, having dog-whistled his way to victory during Israel’s three-time election season by drawing a (largely fabricated) contrast between his commitment to establish a “strong right-wing government” as opposed to a “weak left-wing government supported by the Arab parties.” He similarly clinched the 2015 election by a desperate last-minute appeal to his supporters to go out and vote because “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves.” Less explicit, but undeniably present, in Netanyahu’s rhetoric – and of the right in general – is the accusation that Israel’s political left are themselves anti-Zionist, or at least less Zionist than their right-wing counterparts.
The irony is that Netanyahu has been even more consistent in his political appeals to and partnerships with the non- and anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox populace as well as their religious and political representatives. Of course, Netanyahu is by no means the sole architect of such a political maneuver, with the Likud-ultra-Orthodox alliance stretching back decades. The left, too, have benefited from such partnerships during their stints in government. Israel’s embrace of democratic procedures and the proportional representation voting system renders coalition politics a legitimate necessity.
However, there is gobsmacking hypocrisy in Netanyahu extolling a “Zionist” government whilst simultaneously ingratiating himself with the ultra-Orthodox with a fervor unparalleled by his many other sly or desperate political tactics to cling on to power. The ultra-Orthodox are his closest political allies and a core part of his government; a fact cemented by last month’s pact between the Likud, Shas and the UTJ. You know there is something rotten with the Likud and its leader if they have alienated themselves from virtually every other contending political party from across the entire political spectrum, apart from, of course, the ultra-Orthodox.
The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, the UTJ, is a self-declared non-Zionist party representing a predominantly non- or anti-Zionist contingency. Its sister Mizrahi party, Shas, has a more complicated relationship with Zionism, having technically and belatedly stepped into the Zionist fold in 2010 in altering its charter and joining the World Zionist Organization. The party’s revered spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was himself ambivalent to Zionism, never fully embracing the term. This complicated relationship is reflected by the mixed voting constituents who consider Shas their political home, from ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Jews to the non-religious but traditional Mizrahi contingent aggrieved more by socio-economic travails than religious affairs.
The ultra-Orthodox populace whom the parties represent, and to which their representatives belong, are at best ambivalent and at worst downright antipathetic to Zionism and the State of Israel, be it through omitting to commemorate or belittling Memorial and Independence Day, shirking from national service, or inciting against and attacking IDF personnel. Soldiers have been called pigs and police officers Nazis. Children are raised to hate and mistrust the state in which they live and the institutions which protect them. “Zionism” is a word that rarely carries any positive connotations in these communities but is more often used pejoratively. The ultra-Orthodox communities’ active and concerted efforts to ghettoise themselves from mainstream Israeli society is both indicative of and responsible for their hostility to the Zionist project.
The prevailing non- and anti-Zionism among the ultra-Orthodox is often overlooked by the Israeli public because, unlike the Arabs, they are part of the Jewish fold. This blind spot is not only scandalous because of the damaging political stranglehold the ultra-Orthodox exercise over Israeli politics, but also because those on the right who are most eager to brandish their Zionist credentials and attack the credibility of others’ have set themselves up as the ultra-Orthodox’ natural allies and political bedfellows.
How can the prime minister be truly committed to a so-called Zionist government if his coalition relies on self-defined non-Zionists who represent communities that shun and defame the Zionist state? For that matter, how strong is Netanyahu’s “strong Zionist government” if it relies on the whims of parties which undermine the state through the propagation of unsustainable welfare policies and the encouragement of civil disobedience even in times of national crisis. Netanyahu’s government not only fails to be Zionist; it fails to be strong. He is at the helm of an extorted government, strung along by those who reject the state’s core and founding ideology and whose policies, if unchecked, will destroy the Zionist project.
For all his talk about a strong Zionist government, Netanyahu’s fervid partnership with the ultra-Orthodox is a despicable betrayal of what he claims to preach. Israel’s Zionists deserve better.