The Israeli right-wing has been on fire in the last ten days.
Last week, just as the global uproar over Benjamin Netanyahu’s mufti speech was dying down, Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely declared that her "dream is to see the Israeli flag flying over Temple Mount.” She then called on the government to effectively break the status quo it has sworn to maintain.
A few days later, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked revealed the first draft of her latest legislative masterpiece: A “transparency bill” that would require NGOs receiving international funding to report this fact. She would also require representatives of such groups to wear “identification tags” that note their foreign funding when they visit the Knesset. The bill is plainly, outspokenly directed against left-wing organizations.
Later this week, it was time for Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel to provide some much-needed levity.
Instead of neutering street cats, a government-financed custom that apparently, according to Ariel, contradicts Jewish Law, Ariel suggested an original solution: Israel should deport all its feral cats to another country.
All three incidents were greeted with widespread international condemnation. Meme creators mocked them mercilessly. People who didn’t see the humor saw these as further evidence of Israel’s transformation into a messianic, undemocratic ethnocracy.
Which seems like a fairly accurate response. Cat "transfer"? Identity badges to mark leftists? This is such a bold leap into slapstick that one has to wonder: Has the right-wing in Israel finally lost it? They don’t really think these insane ideas would work, do they?
They didn’t, and they don’t. The right-wing politicians making these preposterous proposals know they will never be executed. The point isn’t to see those proposals executed. The point is, simply put, to needle the left and provoke international denouncements in order to score political points with a hardline right-wing base that sees global outrage as a badge of honor.
Dear world, the Israeli right-wing is simply trolling you.
The value is in the response
Take Ayelet Shaked, for instance. She knows her ridiculous “leftist branding” bill will not pass as is. It has no chance of passing the Supreme Court. More importantly, it would cast a very negative light on Shaked herself, and on her political camp.
Left-wing NGOs may be affiliated with foreign donations, but the politicians who get the most foreign funding in Israel come from the right. Netanyahu, for instance, has received most of his campaign donations in his successful bid to retain leadership of the Likud from foreign donors. (He also enjoys the luxury of having a foreign benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, who is willing to finance an entire newspaper devoted to keeping him in power).
Shaked herself has received donations from foreign donors, among them a Belgian citizen named Serge Muller, who was arrested earlier this year by Interpol on charges related to money laundering and arms and drug trafficking.
Shaked may be able to rationalize her foreign funding by distinguishing between private donors and foreign governments, but even the right-wing knows its a dicey distinction. Right wing organizations, think tanks and politicians are financed by foreign money just as much as the left, if not more so.
It’s also worth noting that right-wing MKs have tried and failed to pass similar legislations to penalize left-wing NGOs since 2011. Shaked’s version may just eventually make it, but it would have to go significant changes, and it most certainly will not include left-wing branding.
The same applies to Temple Mount provocations. Anybody with frontal lobe capacity understands what breaking the status quo in the region’s holiest site could cause (and the last four weeks of violence serve as a poignant reminder). Tzipi Hotovely and others may undermine the status quo with reckless publicity stunts, they may dream that some day they'll take control of the Mount, they may even try to “nudge” the status quo in their direction, but it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that no right-wing government will have the audacity to lead an outright change.
So what, then, is the value of these doomed proposals, if all they get their authors is status as international pariahs? The value is in the outrage itself.
Street cred and clownocracy
It's become practically a weekly routine in recent years. Some right-wing Israeli politician proposes a bill or makes a statement that both stupefies and enrages pretty much everyone outside of his political base. Within their camp, though, they are met with instant, uproarious approval. The bigger the outrage, the louder the applause.
Consider Netanyahu’s recent mufti comments, that were met with disdain abroad but seemed to make him even more popular with the right, or his “Arab voters are heading to the polls in droves” incitement, that was subject to much criticism, but got him reelected.
Last year’s “nation-state bill”, that attempted to remove the word “democratic” from Israel’s definition as a “Jewish democratic state”, caused global outrage, and was killed before reaching the Knesset. Still, the uproar made its initiators heroes of the new right.
More and more, right-wing politicians are actively courting controversy. Pressured to be more extreme by a radicalizing electorate, they realize they can easily build a brand by resorting to cheap stunts that bait liberal outrage.
More and more Israelis feel that “the world is against us”, that Israel is righteous, but will never be accepted, no matter what it does. Within the right-wing, there’s value in being despised.
The logic is painfully simple: If the world is against Israel (and ask any right-winger, he will tell you the entire world is against Israel), and you as a right-wing politician manage to incense the world, then you must be doing something right. Consequently, causing leftist outrage has become necessary “street cred” for any aspiring right-wing MK.
Does that mean we can ignore proposals such as Shaked’s NGO bill?
Quite the opposite. Even if they know their proposals are ludicrous and impossible to implement, they still accurately reflect the values they, and their voters, sincerely hold dear. Even if these are cynical politicians cynically pandering to their electorate to score cheap political points, their proposals and the applause they get for expressing them serve as a frightening window into the derangement that has taken hold of large swaths of Israel’s society.
The foundations of democracy can’t stay immune forever. In Israel, these were pretty shaky to begin with. If Israel continues down the path it is on, it will be in a situation similar to that of countries like it in the past: Ideas that were once considered ludicrous will become the norm. It will become a parody of a country, a clownocracy.
It’s getting harder and harder to argue we’re not already there.
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