Defending Israeli Democracy Is More Urgent Right Now Than Fighting the Occupation

Gideon Levy lambasts right wing protests against Netanyahu’s corruption when he should be embracing them

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Protesters in a right-wing protest against corruption hold a sign reading 'Netanyahu, quit!' Dec 23, 2017
Protesters in a right-wing protest against corruption hold a sign reading 'Netanyahu, quit!' Dec 23, 2017Credit: Emile Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

My colleague Gideon Levy is outraged by the “monstrous” right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem on Saturday against government corruption and by the sympathy it garnered in the general press. Levy believes that supporters of the occupation - which, in his eyes is the ultimate corruption - have relinquished their moral right to protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged personal criminality in office or his efforts to undermine the police investigation against him. Levy wants no part of efforts by “the right with makeup on” to replace Netanyahu with a squeaky-clean right wing leader who would maintain control of Palestinians, albeit honestly and by the book.

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One can indeed make the case that after 50 years of rule over four million disenfranchised Palestinians, Israel is far removed from the perfect democracy it believes itself to be. A settlement-supporting nationalist bloc led by a politician who is personally above reproach and who swears allegiance to the institutions of Israeli democracy is actually more dangerous, in this view, than a right wing that finds itself chained to an increasingly frantic prime minister besieged by allegations and insinuations of wrongdoing. As long as there is no agreed solution to the Palestinian problem, the worse it is, the better it is, as the maxim mistakenly ascribed to Lenin suggests, even for Israel’s imperiled democracy.

But the converse is just as true: Without a viable Israeli democracy, warts and all, the occupation will never end. The whole point of the ongoing right wing onslaught on the rule of law and on dissent and on the institutions of Israeli democracy is to dismantle current and future obstacles to full-fledged annexation of Judea and Samaria and permanent disenfranchisement of Palestinians. Netanyahu is piggy-backing on the ongoing nationalist putsch against the rule of law in order to undermine the police and to attack the media in advance of possible criminal charges, but his success, like Trump’s in America, will advance the right-wing’s campaign against democracy over all.

Any supporter of the peace process should therefore embrace the emergence of an anti-corruption faction on the right, however modest its sparsely attended launch on Saturday night was, first and foremost as a matter of expediency. An internal spat that divides and preoccupies the right and helps portray the dominant side – Netanyahu’s, for now - as inherently corrupt, might improve the ever-so-slight chances that the right can be voted out of power altogether in the next elections. At worst, anti-Netanyahu right wingers who are repelled by his shenanigans can be seen as useful idiots who might help return the center-left to the throne.

But unlike Levy, apparently, I do not believe that one’s attitude towards the occupation is the only litmus test for political alliances or sympathies. It is not the only and possibly not even the most important line that should divide Israelis from each other right now. Support for continued rule over the Palestinians, misguided as it may be, does not negate genuine loyalty to democracy and the rule of law, inside the Green Line at least.

The peace process, let us not forget, is dead as a dodo in any case, following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem.  Prospects of a breakthrough with the Palestinians, slim from the outset, are now virtually non-existent. The battle over Israeli democracy, on the other hand, is raging all around us, in Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s campaign to neuter the Supreme Court, in the countless Knesset laws that aim to stifle dissent and curtail free speech, in the assault on academic and cultural freedoms, in the Netanyahu-led crusade against the mainstream media and in his no-holds-barred efforts to discredit any person or anybody who believes, based on available evidence, that he should be indicted and forced to resign.

Right-wingers such as former Defense Minister Moshe Boogie Yaalon and former Netanyahu aide and journalist Yoaz Hendel who are speaking out against Netanyahu’s behavior can and should be full allies in the efforts to rebuff the attack on the rule of law, even if they do support continued occupation. Like many Never-Trumpers in the United States, they have taken the often difficult step of parting with their ideological constituencies in order to stand up against what they perceive as the threat posed by Netanyahu, a la Trump, to their country’s democracy and decency. They should be applauded for their integrity, not derided for their perceived hypocrisy.

The willingness to cherish democracy and respect the rule of law and to play by the book is the only possible glue that can hold Israel together. If Trump’s America or Netanyahu’s Israel descends into semi-authoritarian anarchy, their peoples’ internal cohesion, frayed as it is, will be shattered, their very existence, ultimately, put at risk. It is only a true and fair democracy that maintains hope for fundamental change that can suppress the urges and instincts to resort to coercion and violence against one’s ideological foes.

Depicting the occupation as form of corruption is a powerful point to make in a theoretical debate but it does not follow that all of its adherents are inherently corrupt. It is way too easy to dismiss their substantive reasons for believing that continued occupation is the best of all evils by tarring them as morally deficient. But even if they are tainted, right-wingers who put the integrity of the state and its democracy over all else are the left’s only possible allies in the fight over Israel’s soul. It is the only alliance capable of withstanding the anti-democratic coalitions that are gaining power and setting the tone in both Israel and the United States:  Masses who are swayed by religious zealotry and messianic instincts together with devotees of the leader-Prinzip, the growing number of people whose identification with Trump and Netanyahu is personal and intense to the point of blinding them to the inherent corruption, and sometimes just spite and evil, of their ways.

If there is any hope remaining of combatting the anti-democratic viruses that the occupation has instilled and of fighting the leaders who cynically spread them, it is through an alliance between opposing sides that are united in their defense of the rule of law and of democratic institutions. If there is any hope of ending the occupation itself, it is only through the eventual persuasion of Israeli public opinion that its continuation is toxic for Israel’s future.  In order to ensure that if and when public opinion is powerful enough to push Israeli leaders to make peace they will not be met by a violent right wing uprising, a contract must be willingly signed by both sides of the ideological divide to respect the outcome of elections and to abide by rulings of the country’s courts and institutions.

The left and center have a vested interest in promoting alliances across the Knesset aisles with the unfortunately few right wing parliamentarians whose ideologies do not blind them to Netanyahu’s increasingly erratic behavior and dangerous efforts to subvert the rule of law. An occupation-supporting right wing leader who nonetheless plays by the rules is likelier to respect the rights of minorities and dissenters and to accept the decisions of a lawfully constituted government, even if it ends the occupation and uproots settlements. A corrupt right wing that has discarded any allegiances to democracy and fair play will burn down the house rather than respect a decision to make peace.

Defending Israeli democracy is thus not only a matter of self-preservation but also the only possible way of ending the occupation. In this endeavor, the left needs any friends it can get, including bitter ideological opponents. When the viability and stability of Israeli democracy are ensured, we can get back to the great and critical debate about ending the occupation and hopefully making Israel into a more perfect union.  

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