I remember in January 2019, I stood in the cold, in front of the Prime Minister’s house, at a rally of religious Jews against the merger of Bayit Yehudi -the National Religious party – and the Jewish extremist Otzma Yehudit party. We were there to say that the party’s racist ideology, modelled on the teachings of Meir Kahane, was against Jewish values. The rally was in front of the Prime Minister’s house because he had given his blessing to and encouraged the merger.
Now, two elections later, Bibi has gone a step farther: He has threatened that if Bennett leaves Otzma Yehudit out of a merger between his New Right party and Bayit Yehudi, then Bibi will fire Bennet as Defense Minister. This is going a step further: Instead of encouraging a deal and blessing it after it’s completed, Bibi is threatening punitive political action if a deal-that is currently NOT in the cards* – isn’t created and completed.
Unlike two elections ago, this time, the outrage at Bibi about his support of Otzma Yehudit is barely present. After all, there have already been two elections. The general public is tired and doesn’t have the energy to follow election politics for the third time in a year.
But there’s also something else at work: The general public has accepted that the smaller right-wing parties are essentially Likud satellite parties, that will sit in a Bibi-led coalition. After all, all the right-wing parties negotiated as one political bloc during the last attempt to form a government, acting as if they were one vast political party. Thus, Bibi’s attempt to meddle in the affairs of small right-wing parties doesn’t seem outrageous; it seems normal. After all, he’s only trying to have a say in who his coalition members will be!
This way, Bibi gets to have his cake and eat it too: He can count on the small -and more extreme- right-wing parties to basically toe Likud party line when it comes to coalition-forming and to policy, but can disavow himself from overtly racist statements by saying, “That’s not my party!”
Of course, it becomes a lot harder to say that credibly when you’ve expended political capital trying to get that party into the Knesset. But then again, as the elections season grows longer, Bibi’s red lines seem to grow thinner, and one could be forgiven for wondering whether or not he still cares about having plausible deniability against accusations of racism.
On the other hand, the blurring of these lines may be simply a result of the length of Bibi’s tenure as longest-serving Prime Minister. There’s a reason that most democracies have term limits; the longer a leader stays in power, the more that leader -and the general public – see the leader’s position as leader as an inevitability. Eventually, it seems like nobody else could do the job, because nobody can really remember a time where anyone else was doing the job. In such cases, maintaining the leader’s position as leader may begin to seem crucial to the nation’s continued wellbeing. Once that happens, the ends can justify the means: democratic norms can be slightly tweaked in order to protect the leader, since protecting the leader is protecting the nation. From there, it’s a slippery slope into dictatorship – and it’s surely no coincidence that so many dictatorships seem to be predicated on equating the will and wellbeing of the dictator with that of the people and the nation.
But maybe the bigger problem isn’t Bibi: It’s us. Not because we continue to elect Bibi. Actually, the reason we’re going into third elections is that Bibi failed to get a conclusive coalition majority, and his party came in second place.** But because we’ve grown apathetic. On the one hand, who can blame us? There is so much news, all the time. It’s overwhelming. By the time we’re in the third election season in one year, every political act seems like a really bad sequel instalment of a movie that we didn’t really like that much the first time around. But apathy is dangerous. It is when we are apathetic, and don’t have the energy to focus on the news, that tweaks to democratic norms can be shoved under the carpet. It is when we are apathetic that racists can act with impunity.
So let’s vote for action -for choosing one issue we care about, and doing something about it. The act may be something big, like going to a rally, lobbying, or starting an advocacy group, or something small, like signing a petition, contributing to an organization, or educating ourselves about a topic.
On that note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Tag Meir has an online petition you can sign if you wish to protest the Bayit Yehudi-Otzma Yehudit deal. I signed it, as my action of the day. Unlike the rally last year, it didn’t even require getting out of my pajamas.
*Bibi’s threat was in response to Bennett’s assertion that if his party did merge with Bayit Yehudi, the Otzma Yehudit party would not be included in the deal.
**Of course, we also failed to conclusively elect anybody else, which is the other reason we’re having new elections.