Israel Election: D-Day for Democracy in the All-out Culture War Launched by Netanyahu

Leaked tapes of Netanyahu’s Rasputin reveal what everyone knows: Against Gantz - hate and incitement are his nuclear weapons of choice

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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People walk next to a billboard for Kahol Lavan showing Netanyahu and members of his coalition in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2020.
People walk next to a billboard for Kahol Lavan showing Netanyahu and members of his coalition in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

All elections are crucial, some are pivotal but only a rare few are truly fateful. Any victory by right or left changes the direction of the country until the next election, but sometimes the decision is irreversible. In most elections, voters come to a fork in the road, from which two paths diverge in different directions but, ostensibly, toward the same general destination. Some, like Monday’s ballot in Israel, are like a T-junction from which one can only set out in opposing directions, toward completely contrary worlds.

The current, year-long election campaign began as a personal referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu. It evolved, at his initiative and under his direction, into a decision on the future of the State of Israel itself. Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to escape criminal prosecution led him to declare total war on democracy, the rule of law and the civic values on which they are based. Rather than facing his accusers in a court of law like a mere mortal, Netanyahu has turned his personal plight into an all-out culture war.

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

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The term “culture war” has been diluted over the years to include any ideological conflict over moral and social values. The term was coined, however, to depict the existential do-or-die war of the worlds that plagued Prussia and Germany in the 19th Century, in the days of Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. It pitted a conservative-Catholic-nationalistic-aristocratic coalition that resisted the waves of liberalism and democratization then sweeping Europe in an attempt to preserve their own, near-absolute, power – against liberals, democrats, humanists and moderate centrists who demanded rule of law, civil rights and separation of church and state. It is a clash from which only one side emerges unscathed, while the other is left beaten and demoralized.

Culture wars are a godsend for leaders like Netanyahu and his U.S. ally Donald Trump. Both fuse all of their critics and rivals into one big and menacing blob – leftist, subversive and heretical – which seeks to seize power, impose its values, ride roughshod over their constituencies and annul all the glorious achievements bestowed on them by their cherished leader.

When the house is burning and liberal barbarians are at the gates, one cannot afford to indulge trifles such as checks and balances, honesty in government, the independence of the law or even simple human decency. All’s fair, you remember, in love and war, especially total war.

We didn’t really need the recently revealed secret recordings by Netanyahu’s personal Rasputin, Natan Eshel, to know that the key to success in any self-made culture war is incitement to suspicion, resentment and hate. This has been Netanyahu’s weapon of choice ever since he was overheard 20 years ago, during his first tenure, whispering into the ear of a venerated rabbi: “Leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jews.” Nonetheless, it will be more than poetic justice if the Nathan Eshel tapes, in which the former chief of the premier's staff can be heard denigrating Likud’s “non-Ashkenazi” voters and depicting them as suckers for manufactured hostility and animosity, will ultimately prove to be the turning point that led to Netanyahu’s downfall.

The eternal source for Netanyahu’s perpetually poisonous incitement, naturally, are Arabs — on either side of Israel’s borders. From them, all else flows. They are the beginning and the end of the all-inclusive equation by which Arabs = anti-Semites = self-hating Jews = leftists = Ashkenazim = elitists = academics = attorneys = journalists = all former Israeli security chiefs and anyone else who dares criticize Netanyahu, doubt his integrity or question his policies.

Kahol Lavan and Likud billboards can be seen in Bnei Brak, February 26, 2020.Credit: AFP

The more ensnared Netanyahu became in his legal woes, the more his “culture war” strategy consumed him entirely. Netanyahu’s propaganda, once a ploy, became a true reflection of his soul. The big lie is the reality in which he lives while libel, defamation and gutter-politics have become his lingua franca.

This is why an election campaign, depicted as a dull reprise of the previous two campaigns held this year, nonetheless broke all known records for slime, filth and bile. On Monday night we’ll find out if this crime pays as well.

A clear-cut Netanyahu victory means that his putsch succeeded: The only democracy in the Middle Ease will begin a steady slide to an autocratic regime no different than others. In the eyes of many of his opponents, a vote for Netanyahu is tantamount to a stab in Israel’s back.

A decisive victory by Benny Gantz won’t bring any quick fix to Israel’s struggles and might actually spark greater tensions in the short term. Ultimately, however, a Gantz victory ensures the return of a semblance of sanity and moderation and, in the longer term, much to the dismay of Gantz’s leftist supporters, an alliance between Kahol Lavan and a post-Netanyahu Likud. The common basis for mutual coexistence between left and right will be restored.

A third straight stalemate may be seen as the lesser evil for preventing Netanyahu from implementing his despotic designs but it nonetheless inflicts its own severe damage. The prospect of four straight elections will prolong current government paralysis, sow frustration and despondency and further erode public confidence in politics and democracy.

With Israel facing such a critical crossroads, there is no forgiveness and no absolution for those who persuade themselves that they have no one to vote for, politicians are all corrupt and nothing will change anyway. They couldn’t be more wrong: Not everyone’s the same, not all politicians are bent and everything, but everything, could change, and for the worse. Not voting means abandoning oneself, one’s family, friends, acquaintances and the public as a whole to Netanyahu’s toxic and hate-filled visions, toward which Israeli voters have hitherto marched en masse.

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