Netanyahu’s Incitement on Nation-state Law Heralds Approach of Israel’s Day of Reckoning

Controversial laws force many Israelis to look at their state in the mirror and to discover they can hardly recognize it any more

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem,  July 29, 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, July 29, 2018. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner /Pool via Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

On Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was at his worst. Intentionally and maliciously, he transformed the debate over the new nation-state law into a test of loyalty. If you’re with the Jews, you’re with me, the prime minister cried. He, his ministers, his parliamentarians and his obedient coalition parties legislated a law that was supposed to be good for the Jews but delighted their enemies instead. The nation-state law tarnished Israel’s good name, inflicted sorrow and hurt on its admirers, gave its enemies a powerful battering ram and sowed strife and discord among Israel’s already divided public. So who’s to blame, as far as Netanyahu is concerned?

Why the left, of course, silly.

The routine is familiar to the point of revulsion, but it seems to do the trick most every time. Since he started in politics, Netanyahu in times of stress will inevitably resort to casting doubt on the patriotism of his rivals, critics and haters, at home and abroad, from Yitzhak Rabin to Breaking the Silence, from Shimon Peres to the New Israel Fund, from Barack Obama through George Soros to the never ending roster of critical European leaders. A few months ago Netanyahu broke the world record for flip-flopping, when he trashed an agreement with the United Nations on asylum seekers that he had praised only hours before. The culprits responsible for the fiasco, it goes without saying, were Soros and the New Israel Fund.

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This has been Netanyahu’s game all along. In 1996, he secured the last minute advantage that enabled him to eke out a sensational victory over Shimon Peres by convincing the leaders of ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement that the Labor Party leader and the left will give back territories, thus initiating the apocalyptic prophecies of their revered leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on the ensuing death and destruction. Thousands of Chabad followers spread out all over Israel, holding signs, putting up posters and handing out pamphlets that read “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.” The nation-state law, just like Netanyahu’s infamous statement on election day 2015 about the multitudes of Arabs swarming to the ballots, say the same thing in similar language. Bibi was and is good for the Jews, and everyone else can choke.

From now on, anyone supporting the nationalist law passed by the Knesset earlier this month is good for the Jews, while those who blabber about the democracy and equality missing from it are, by definition, bad for the Jews. Netanyahu said on Sunday, in characteristic distortion, that “the basic Zionist concept of ‘a Jewish nation state of the Jewish people in its land’ has become an abhorrent concept,” for the left, knowing full well that, in most cases, this is a brazen lie. But it allows Netanyahu, along with his enablers and collaborators in the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, to brand all those who believe there are equally crucial elements in Israel’s identity, as anti-Jewish. Western liberal values, like those who espouse them, are slowly transforming into enemies of the people and state.

The unexpected protest from the Israeli Druze community threw a spoke in Netanyahu’s wheels. It infused new energy into what was already looking like an awakening of an Israeli-style “resistance” movement, previously galvanized by Netanyahu’s abrupt and shameful about-face on surrogacy rights for gay men. In the perverted Israeli reality, the Druze protest served as a protective patriotic shield that immunized moderate Israelis from the claim that they oppose the nation-state law because they aren’t Jewish enough. Netanyahu knows he must win the Druze over to his side so that he can once again isolate a leftist-Arab block, identify one with the other and accuse both, directly or indirectly, of flirting with treason.

Netanyahu is sure that he can control the demons he releases, though many on the left remain convinced that this thesis was unequivocally refuted by Rabin assassin Yigal Amir on November 4, 1995. Demons, by nature, don’t take orders from mere mortals. Netanyahu wishes to frame the debate over the nation-state law as right vs. left, patriots vs. back-stabbers, Jews against, would you believe it, turncoat Israelis.

Netanyahu’s statements will inevitably accelerate polarization, increase tensions and, in extreme cases, as witnessed by the weekend beating of a Breaking the Silence activist in Hebron, spark violence. Nonetheless, by accident or design, a public debate has started that touches on the rawest nerves of the Israeli entity, sparks renewed questions about the essence of Zionism, that were supposedly settled, or at least repressed, long ago. The brouhaha over the surrogacy law and the nation-state law has compelled Israelis to look at their state in the mirror; many were shocked to suddenly learn they could hardly recognize it any more.

Critics of the law who are demanding that elements of the Declaration of Independence be incorporated into the Jewish nation-state law are missing the point: the nation-state law is a declaration of independence in and of itself, by a new Israel, Jewish, nationalistic, ethnocentric, full of itself and oblivious of others. In other times one might have chalked up the clash over the law to the perennial local battle between the secular and theoretically liberal left, once represented by Mapai, and the traditional and nationalistic right, once represented by Beitar and the Revisionists. But Israel, contrary to what many of its citizens believe, is not an island unto itself, but an increasingly integral part of the world. It now walks under the shadow of Donald Trump and is increasingly identifying with its intolerant and illiberal Eastern European doppelgängers, such as Poland and Hungary, which Netanyahu so admires.

The surrogacy law and nation-state law have turned a harsh spotlight on the changes, sponsored by Netanyahu and his cohorts, in how Israel defines itself. The controversy is ushering in days of national reckoning. Israelis will have to decide whether to take their heads out of the warm and fuzzy sand that they’ve grown accustomed to. They will have to make up their minds whether they bow their heads and pave the way for an aggressive, regressive and isolationist strain of Judaism to propel Netanyahu to victory and the destruction of Israeli democracy or whether they have the will and ability to fight for the good ole Israel that genuinely strives, under objectively difficult circumstances, to be both Jewish and democratic.

The energized protest movement will now try to harness growing public rage, unite the divergent protest and show its muscles over the coming few weeks. But the true decision will come in the next elections, which will be held, one way or another, within the next year.

Circumstances are such that the cliché about the next elections always being the most crucial ever could actually be true this time around. Netanyahu launched the campaign on Sunday, with an inflammatory shot across the bow that heralds that hunting season is now officially open.   

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