Tom Friedman recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.” While the headline is a bit misleading and the piece is a little more nuanced than that, Friedman nonetheless paints a dire future for Israel. In his eyes, we’ve pretty much become Orban’s Hungary.
I don’t discount the seriousness of the situation. Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Noam’s Avi Maoz hold despicable views. Ben-Gvir, in particular, uses and encourages violence.
At this stage in his career, Netanyahu will do or say just about anything to get into and to stay in power in order to squash his trial. Many critics often say Netanyahu is like Trump. Wrong. Netanyahu is much smarter. Trump most likely believes much of what he says. Netanyahu knows better.
Trump was born a narcissist. Netanyahu has evolved into one in his effort to gain power and thereby, he hopes, stay out of jail. He is more akin to Republican House leader and wanna-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Both have sold their souls to get what they want or perceive they need. For the literary baseball crowd, it’s Damn Yankees without the music and dance.
Despite Friedman and others who would like to write Israel off, the fact is, to continue the baseball references, we’re in the early innings. The coalition negotiations just started. Yes, Netanyahu is desperate and could give the store away, destroying the courts, marginalizing Israeli Arabs, imposing religious strictures, and destroying whatever small slimmer of possibility that is left for reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors.
On the other hand, Netanyahu is a very wily, conniving politician, usually three or four steps ahead of his allies and opponents. In a recent op-ed, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz does an admirable job of analyzing the challenge Netanyahu will have negotiating between the monster he helped create and now relies on and his natural impulse to seek smooth sailing.
Netanyahu has always been risk adverse. As Prime Minister he withstood pressure from the right that would have embroiled Israel in Gaza and other wars. He also pushed back at pressure that would have had him take steps in (probably futile) efforts to make peace.
He probably will try to weasel out of many of the commitments he made to Ben Gvir and Smotrich. Members of his own party are going to want the ministries that Ben Gvir and Smotrich have said they want.
Likud members have already said that those guys are joining their government and will have to back their policies, not visa-versa. Netanyahu has already stated that there will be no changes to laws and policies impacting the LBGTQ community, despite the virulently anti-homosexual views of Noam and Smotrich. Whether Netanyahu will stick to this pledge is a different story.
One thing we can be sure of: When it comes down to a choice between what is best for the country and what will ensure his political survival, Netanyahu will choose the latter.
Bottom line: we don’t know who will get which ministry, and we certainly do not know what policies and laws the governing coalition will adopt. We also don’t know how long the coalition will last. Given recent history, I wouldn’t bet on it going the whole nine innings. (Again with the baseball.)
This is not to minimize the dangers. There are good reasons to be fearful. But it is not time to declare the end of Israel either.
If you look back at Friedman’s work, you will find he has been declaring Israel over and gone in different ways for over two decades. And it is hard to fine a person who has been more wrong on the Middle East than Friedman, although Fareed Zakaria, John Kerry, and former President Obama could give him a run for his money.
About 11% of Israelis, 516,331 out of 4,763,494 voters, voted for Religious Zionism. And as Paul Mirbach wrote in a recent blog post, the anti-Netanyahu bloc received 155,566 votes more than the pro-Netanyahu bloc (2,459,530 to 2,303,964). If the center and left had done as good a job as the right at consolidating parties so as to ensure no votes were wasted on parties that fell below the 3.25% necessary to enter the Knesset, the election outcome could have been much different.
Without a doubt, the Religious Zionism grouping has a disproportionate leverage over Netanyahu and, consequently, they could do great damage. However, if Friedman and other pundits are declaring Israel down the tubes over 11% of Israelis voting for intolerant racists and/or authoritarians, then what do they say about Italy, where a far right party with its roots in fascism now has its leader as Prime Minister, or France where LaPen got 40% of the vote, or the US where one of the two major parties is dominated by election deniers and authoritarians?
Friedman warned that what has happened in Israel could presage what could happen in the U.S. A more astute analyst would say it is the other way around. The U.S. already elected narcissist with little understanding of or regard for democratic norms, a racist who tried to ban people from coming into the country based on their religion, a person who refused to accept the results of a legitimate election and who fomented violence in response.
His party, filled with election-denying candidates who refuse to commit to accepting election results that they do not win and who spout racist and authoritarian ideas, are about to take control of the House and quite possibly the Senate. As far as threats to democracy go, the US is far ahead of Israel.
Yossi Klein Halevi consistently gets it right when it comes to understanding Israel and the region. He doesn’t discount the threats to Israel as a result of these elections. But he puts them in context and gives them appropriate nuance. Others would do well to do the same.
In short, the reports of the demise of Israeli democracy are exaggerated and premature.