Fortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's decision to snub German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel because the latter chose to meet with the anti-occupation groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence won’t have any diplomatic ramifications. As far as relations with Germany go, it was an empty gesture that the prime minister can be confident Berlin will ignore.
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Rather, Bibi was thinking about his voters and the glee they experience every time the government attacks people and organizations associated with “the left.” And that is part and parcel of a more serious problem.
It’s one thing for the country’s leaders to take stands and express values. It's another to express them in terms of enemies lists that include people and causes which are perfectly legal even if you don’t happen to agree with them.
Take Bibi’s explanation for why Gabriel’s meeting with the two nongovernmental organizations crossed a red line: “Diplomats are welcome to meet with representatives of civil society but Prime Minister Netanyahu will not meet with those who lend legitimacy to organizations that call for the criminalization of Israeli soldiers,” calling them “groups that slander IDF soldiers as war criminals.”
Netanyahu is more of a diplomat: he seems to recognize that as prime minister, there is only so far you can go, except in the last days of an election. He just suggests that the Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are not a legitimate part of Israeli civil society.
Bereft on the left
It’s people a notch below who take off the gloves and finish off the job of thoroughly delegitimizing their ideological foes. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, talking about groups like Breaking the Silence, told an army radio interview this week, “Our wars are just, and in all these wars we face one enemy called Hamas and a second enemy, that is those organizations."
For Hotovely, these NGOs aren’t just marginal groups that should be ignored by solid citizens: they are enemies, which is crossing a big line.
The war on the left hasn’t been confined to the NGO world. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev seems determined to impose her brand of patriotic political correctness on the arts. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is leading the charge against an independent judiciary.
Netanyahu himself has launched a sustained attack on government broadcasting. My guess it is more about protecting his ultra-sensitive ego than about ideology, but he knows that the way to advance his agenda is to attack the media as leftist enemies of Israel.
The business sector has been spared this ideological warfare, but there are good reasons to be worried that its turn will come.
Seizing hundreds of companies
The war that the right is waging isn’t just about ideology but about power, too: They want NGOs, the media, artists and the courts to reflect their worldview, and to be answerable to them. And if we’re talking about power, then we’re talking about money as well, and what better place to get them than from business.
Israel is still a long way from Erdogan’s Turkey, but it is worth looking at the trajectory of a government slowly dismantling democratic institutions, which means that business has to come into line just like everyone else.
Since last July’s coup, Erdogan's government has not only arrested journalist and academics, but businessmen, too. It has taken over hundreds of companies accused of ties to the Gulen movement and billions of dollars of assets.
It’s hard to imagine Israel becoming as dystopian as that. But it is easy to see a day when businesses are rewarded or punished for the fealty to a semi-official government ideology.
Regev has sought to award theater groups, orchestras and dance companies that perform in the West Bank a 10% funding bonus, while those that do not suffer a 33% cut to their funding.
Why not start conditioning government contracts and licenses on building a factory in a settlement? Might the government’s anti-BDS campaign begin targeting overseas companies? It seems like an insane idea – we want investment and trade, why attack the businesses that provide it?
Seek enemy, attack, backfire
The logic of ideological warfare is to be on the constant search for enemies and attack them, which raises the bar for weighing the consequences.
That Bibi refused to meet with the German foreign minister won’t likely result in any fallout, but then again, it certainly doesn’t benefit bilateral relations either. Once you begin waging battle, it’s hard to stop, and maybe next time a cynical move like that may backfire.
It seems the whole world is going backward into a darker age of intolerance, distrust and ideological warfare . With Trump in the White House, Erdogan in his grand new palace, Putin in the Kremlin and Le Pen frighteningly close to the Elysee Palace, the doings at the Prime Minister’s Resident seem to be par for the course. But the fact that Israel is part of a global phenomenon is little cause for comfort: What’s bad for democracy, freedom -- and business -- is bad regardless of who else is doing it.