On Election Day, It’s the Prince of Darkness vs. Israel’s Very Soul

Netanyahu’s unbridled and untethered election campaign outlined the shape of things to come if he wins: The slow and agonizing death of Israeli democracy

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A worker hangs a Likud election campaign billboard in Tel Aviv, September 8, 2019.
A worker hangs a Likud election campaign billboard in Tel Aviv, September 8, 2019.Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Some Israeli analysts are downplaying the importance of Tuesday’s election. The ballot is bound to produce continued stalemate and paralysis, no matter who wins, they claim. Benjamin Netanyahu is history, even if he doesn’t realize it yet: If he loses, the prime minister will quickly resign or be ejected from politics, but even if he wins, it’s only a short matter of time before Netanyahu is snared by the long arm of the law. (Click here for live election updates. Here for latest polls)

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 40

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To believe that Tuesday’s election is inconsequential, however, requires one to assume that, as in Las Vegas, what happens in an election campaign stays in the election campaign. It is a false premise: Netanyahu’s vicious, uninhibited and untethered election campaign is a condensed version of his conduct throughout the past few years. More ominously, it is a preview of the shape of things to come.

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Netanyahu conducted his campaign like a Trump gone wild on steroids. He lied, defamed, fabricated and provoked his way to center stage, leaving his rivals grumbling on the sidelines, away from the spotlights. He broke all the rules, ignored all conventions, took no prisoners and could very well leave nothing but scorched earth in his wake.

In the process, Netanyahu lurched to the deep right, committing Israel to a broad annexation of significant portions of the West Bank. He unplugged the life support system of the comatose two-state solution and placed Israel on a path to apartheid or a bi-national state. Given the choice, Netanyahu would choose apartheid, and so would many of his fans.

Netanyahu continued his assault on democracy and the rule of law, but turbocharged it and armed it to the teeth. He humiliated the attorney general, cowed the Chairman of the Election Committee and, most injuriously, cast doubt on the election process itself. Though he never spelled it out, the sum of his fears and grievances provided a glimpse of the how Israeli democracy could wither and die, paving the way for authoritarian one-man rule.

Netanyahu’s omnipresence riveted and transfixed Israelis, some with admiration and others with trepidation. Netanyahu cast himself as a martyr to the cause, an innocent victim persecuted for his beliefs, the object of a worldwide conspiracy that wields power and expresses itself, apparently, through the Israeli media. He branded his rivals traitors, implicitly at first but more and more explicitly as time went on.

Netanyahu alienated Israeli Arabs, describing them as hell-bent on their country’s destruction. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more Israeli Arabs are marginalized, the more they are outcast from Israel’s body politic, the likelier it is that many of them will radicalize and turn increasingly hostile. It’s not obvious that Netanyahu would not welcome such a development.

After 10 straight years in power, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has declared war on his own country. He has presented Israeli voters with an alternate set of values, which will be ratified through his win. It is of an insular and xenophobic Israel that shuns Western democracies and aligns itself with authoritarian and nationalist rulers, not only as a matter of expedient realpolitik but out of a deep identification with their values.

Netanyahu’s sense of self-worth has inflated to virtual megalomania: When he boasted on the campaign trail that “only he” could save Israel from the threats confronting it – including Donald Trump’s ultimate peace deal – Netanyahu really meant it. Coupled with his panic over his impending indictments and fueled by his long-held paranoia, which is now in an acute stage, Netanyahu crossed a Rubicon. The Prince of Darkness, which hitherto fought for Netanyahu’s soul, emerged victorious and was put on public display.

Thus, while the elections may indeed end up in another stalemate that will simply extend Israel’s increasingly Italian-style political paralysis, it is equally reasonable to posit that these elections could very well mark a turning point in the history of Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people. That may sound melodramatic, but it really isn’t. The so-called “referendum” on Netanyahu isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It is a referendum on the very values that have served as the bedrock of modern Israel. It is a referendum on Israel’s very soul.

The sense of urgency seems to have finally permeated to center-left voters, despite their leaders’ lackluster performance in the campaign. The cardinal question is whether Netanyahu has successfully mesmerized all of his potential electorate, leading them to vote for him and give him his greatest victory of all. Before the results come in, one can still take comfort by the illusion that enough of them will hear the cry of their beloved country and react, as true patriots should.

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