The Bibi Package Deal

The Likud’s abandonment of its liberal traditions, long-evident but now formalized in the surplus vote-sharing agreement with the far-right party of Bezalel Smotrich and Itmar Ben-Gvir, at least simplifies matters for voters. Let’s face it, Israeli politics is damn complicated. You might vote for a big party in the hope that that party leader will become prime minister, but you have no way of knowing for sure who he (or she) might bring in to the coalition.

In the election taking place next month every voter should know that, if they want Netanyahu to remain prime minister, there is only one coalition realistically open to him; his Likud will be joined by the two ultra-Orthodox parties UTJ and Shas, the Religious Zionist Party newly merged with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina (if Bennett agrees – he has remained tight-lipped on whether he would join Netanyahu).

Staying in power is almost a matter of life and death for Netanyahu. As long as he is prime minister, he can use his bully pulpit to continue his campaign of delegitimizing law enforcement and the judiciary, pouring scorn on the “conspiracy” behind his indictment and the corruption charges against him. With this right-wing coalition he would finally be able to pass legislation granting himself immunity from prosecution. And if the Supreme Court vetoes such a law (as any judiciary in any respectable democracy would) he will pass the much-discussed “override law”, allowing a bare majority of MKs to override the Court’s veto – effectively removing the only real check and balance on the abuse of executive power in the Israeli system.

Both the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Kahanists know that Bibi needs them, because without them, he’s out of power. As an ordinary MK he cannot continue in politics while facing criminal trial. His political career would be – at best – suspended, but more likely over.

So, Netanyahu as prime minister means the continuation of the ultra-Orthodox veto over polices they don’t like, and his continued deference to their demands – even whenthis craven appeasement literally kills people. Who knows exactly what Itamar Ben Gvir will demand of him, but be in no doubt, de-toxifying Kahanism and deliberately bringing Jewish supremacists into mainstream politics, is a historic betrayal of Zionism and indeed of his own Likud party. In the Knesset of 1984-88, when Meir Kahane held the one Knesset seat of his Kach Party – the forerunner of Otzma Yehudit – every other Knesset member would walk out when he spoke, including Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He was a pariah. Likud MK Mickey Eitan referred to the Kach political platform, which called for Jewish-Arab segregation, as “like the Nuremberg Laws”. Yitzhak Rabin had it exactly right, speaking in the Knesset after the shooting to death of 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron by the Kahanist Baruch Goldstein in 1994:

You are not part of the community of Israel.You are an errant weed…Judaism spits you out…You are a shame to Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.

Not shameful or embarrassing enough for Bibi it would seem. Because by this point, he’s utterly shameless.

So, it’s clear to all. You want Bibi as prime minister, you’ll get the ultra-Orthodox continuing to live as a separate state-within-a-state, and you’ll have the Jewish equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan sitting around the cabinet table.

Now it may be that you’re okay with that. It may be that you are so utterly convinced (as indeed Netanyahu is) that only he can steer the ship of state through the turbulent waters of Middle East geopolitics, that you will cast your vote for Likud regardless. It may be that you’re voting for Likud out of tribal loyalty; because you’ve “always voted Likud”. Never mind that voting for this Likud because you voted for Begin or Shamir is like voting for Trump because you used to vote for Ronald Reagan; or voting for Jeremy Corbyn because you used to vote for Tony Blair. Judging by the polls, plenty of Israelis will be casting their ballot for the prime minister’s party.

Okay. But please don’t say you didn’t know. Don’t complain about ultra-Orthodox rule-breaking and government inaction. Don’t scream antisemitism if the European Union refuses to meet with Minister Ben Gvir, because the EU will simply be treating him the same way Israel treats European far-right politicians – and rightly so. And if President Biden decides to convene some kind of ‘summit of democracies’ as he’s proposed, and there is serious debate in the White House as to whether Israel still qualifies (particularly if Netanyahu has successfully legislated his own immunity and the neutering of the Supreme Court), don’t whine about the far-left takeover of the Democratic Party. The Administration would be exercising appropriate caution in the circumstances.

In a democracy the voter has rights and responsibilities. The right to vote, the responsibility (not always taken to be sure) to be as informed as possible about the options. That’s not always simple in Israel, with its multiple parties and coalition politics. This time, a vote for Bibi means something very specific. It’s a vote for a different, darker Israel; an Israel that no previous Israeli prime minister – of any party – would welcome.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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