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When governmental boundaries break down

By blurring the lines of Israel's legal and institutional physical existence, Netanyahu engendered national malaise

Public discourse in Israel — never known for its verbal finesse — has now reached a record low. The airwaves and social networks are filled with venomous exchanges which spew poisonous invective on almost everything that once stood at the core of Israeli society and everyone who dares to uphold these tenets. Most Israeli citizens find the atmosphere in the public domain contaminated, if not completely repugnant. Those who are not entirely turned off by the torrent of words are grappling for ways to cope with the oral mud-slinging and what it signifies.

At root, Israel’s current malaise is the outgrowth of a process of loosening the boundaries of its legal, institutional, normative and physical existence. Freedom in open societies is all about constantly shifting yet consensual borders; liberty — both individual and collective — has always come with a measure of self-restraint. Over the years, however, Israel has released the reins in almost every domain, thereby contributing to the unraveling of the framework of its very existence. And when there are no frontiers, when no holds are barred, then inevitably chaos ensues. To preserve its freedom, it must define and reshape its own parameters.

The most obvious manifestation of the undoing of boundaries — and the most superficial — is in the realm of speech. Just this past weekend, Israelis were treated to the Facebook ruminations of Yair Netanyahu, the son of the prime minister, who posted a patently anti-Semitic caricature depicting his father’s domestic opponents — a meme immediately hailed by the most racist white supremacists abroad. This is not the first time that Netanyahu Jr. has attacked critics of the present coalition in a language derived from the basest anti-Jewish hate-mongers. The response tweeted by his father’s nemesis, Ehud Barak, was also off-putting in the extreme: the former prime minister intimated that the scion of the current incumbent could well do with intense psychiatric treatment. This is just the latest in a series of verbal skirmishes that defy even the rich vituperative lexicon of Israeli politics.

It is also the most recent expression of the distortion of freedom of expression (an individual right of all citizens) to silence critics of the government — the most common target of civil discontent. In truly democratic societies, there is a clear line between the protection of free speech and incitement; between the liberty to articulate dissent and the dissemination of outright hatred. In Israel, these boundaries have traditionally been blurred and the debate over their delineation has accompanied the evolution of Israeli society. But only recently have those in power expropriated the concept of freedom of speech and association to systematically muzzle opponents and attack them individually in the name of their own civil liberties.

Binyamin Netanyahu, who has almost single-handedly led the charge against Palestinian incitement against Israel, has become Israel’s master domestic inciter. He has lashed out against Arab citizens, the “left,” human rights organizations and their backers — indeed, against any force in Israeli society at odds with his precepts. His ministers and political fellow travelers have followed suit. But as his own position has become increasingly precarious, he has personalized his message, calling out opponents by name and pillorying them publicly. All too often, they have responded in kind, rendering the political arena abusive and progressively devoid of substance. As a result, the culture of debate has been thoroughly debased and key issues on the national agenda shunted to the sidelines. The ferocity and vacuity of public discourse is hence the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

The second, much deeper, articulation of the lack of clear borders lies in the normative realm. The clearest demonstration is the alarming spread of official corruption into almost every nook and cranny of public life. The patent inability to abide by the rule of law, to refrain from the abuse of power for personal gain and to respect the brakes placed on public officials has taken over the news and inundated the public psyche (a full 70 percent of headlines during the past week dealt with the main corruption scandals involving the prime minister and/or his key associates). The critical distinction between public office and personal gain has been totally breached.

As more information has accumulated on crooked submarine deals, massive media machinations and personal perks in return for official favors, far too little attention has been given to major policy initiatives that have been conducted without sufficient popular oversight. These include a massive increase in settlement construction, wide scale house demolitions in the West Bank and in Arab communities within Israel, the renewal of Jewish encampments in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the stepped-up forays on Syrian and Hezbollah strongholds, the infiltration of religious contents into the school system and further gender segregation in public places. The inability to control violence (domestically and in the streets), coupled with the lack of capacity to deal with widening socioeconomic gaps, are further corollaries of the inefficiency of means and the ambiguity of measures to monitor government actions.

Part of these normative pitfalls may be attributed to a third area of boundary breakdown: the progressive weakening of structural distinctions in Israel’s political system. The direct attacks on the independence of the judiciary — spearheaded by the Minister of Justice — have been designed to undermine the separation of powers and to weaken the very delicate set of institutional checks and balances. These are being compounded by plans to further politicize the civil service by blurring the boundaries between the executive and legislative branches, as well as, once again, reducing the supervisory role of the free press.

Intriguingly, but hardly coincidentally, the weakening of institutional arrangements has focused most squarely on the formal opposition, whose fragmentation, internal squabbling and substantive hesitations have contributed directly to its own emasculation. The absence of well-articulated alternatives at the official level has enhanced the role of civil society — making it and its leaders the latest butt of official concern and now the subject of growing delegitimization.

The lack of effective discursive, normative, legal and institutional restraints on office-holders and their actions is an extension of the continuous absence of clearly demarcated and internationally recognized geographical borders. For the past 50 years, Israel has not been able to reach internal or external agreement on its own physical contours. It subsists in a limbo which has facilitated takeovers of segments of the lands captured in 1967 and will enable — if the design of right-wing extremists is implemented — the annexation of further areas. Frontier societies without defined borders have been noted, throughout history, for their moral laxness verging on lawlessness.

The breaching of Israel’s visible and more elusive barriers in the name of its independence has thus severely curtailed its freedom. This is not just the legacy of the current Likud administration: the release of normative and institutional boundaries has been promoted by governments and leaders of all political hues and shades. This penchant, however, has been systematized and personalized during the past decade with the active assistance of those who have chosen — out of fear, frustration or despair — to remain silent. It is neither inevitable nor irreversible.

Creativity and innovation in the present conjuncture requires a willingness to actively engage in remodeling the physical, ethical, behavioral and structural limits of Israel’s being. Inspiration for such an undertaking may be drawn from the new Israeli hit “The Situation” based on the words of David Grossman as translated by Jessica Cohen.

To want, to want — I dare to want, I still recall (but less and less) what it’s like to want, to hope, to yearn, to believe that we can still escape this fate…We can never have our lives, if they do not have their lives. They can never have their lives if we do not have our lives…To want, to want I dare to want, I still recall (but less and less) what it’s like to want, to hope, to yearn, and to believe we can still write this story differently. To believe that I will yet be a free person, a free people, in my country, in my home, inside my soul.”

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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