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Modi, Orban, Bolsonaro: Israel Doesn't Need to Pander to Netanyahu's Autocratic Pals Any More

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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Under Netanyahu, Israel's honeymoon with autocrats was unbounded: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor OrbanCredit: Adriano Machado/Reuters, narendermodi.in/AP, Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Paul Gross
Paul Gross

The article published in Haaretz earlier this week by Indian journalist Swati Chaturvedi was of interest to Israelis ostensibly because of her claim that the Indian government used technology supplied by Israeli company NSO to spy on her.

But her piece (I Was Targeted by NSO Spyware. Here's How Israel Is Helping Modi Undermine India's Democracy) raises a much broader question for Israel’s new government: What will be the nature of Israel's relationship with the India of Narendra Modi and, by the same token, with the Hungary of Viktor Orban and the Brazil of Jair Bolsonaro?

These are all leaders with whom Benjamin Netanyahu established not merely friendly ties, but relations based, according to the speeches of the time, on "shared values." These were allies, not merely partners.

Under Netanyahu, Israel had itself begun to drift away from the norms of liberal democracy, threatening to join a growing list of what Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban proudly calls "illiberal democracies"; countries where the facade of democracy remains, but liberal principles like the rule of law, freedom of speech and minority rights have been systematically curtailed. The authors of a new book on Modi’s India, 'To Kill A Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism' refer to this decline as "democratic despotism."

Protest in Bangalore, India against a new citizenship law brought by PM Narendra Modi that opponents say threatens India's secular, democratic identityCredit: Aijaz Rahi,AP

It’s not a coincidence that Orban is admired by many of Netanyahu’s acolytes today – and is positively adored by Netanyahu’s son, Yair. Nor that a senior aide to Orban said that his boss and Netanyahu "belong to the same political family."

Orban’s Fidesz party was elected in 2010 as a mainstream right-wing party. But in the first few years of Orban’s tenure, he changed the rules on amending the constitution, packed the Supreme Court with supporters, dismissed members of the Election Commission and replaced them with party loyalists.

He established a 'Media Council' with the authority to fine outlets whose coverage the government did not deem 'balanced.' Since then opposition figures have been arrested in front of television cameras. Previously neutral public radio and TV stations have been converted into government propaganda stations.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban kisses the hand of Sara Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife, on an official visit to IsraelCredit: Haim Tzach/La'am

Israel is not Hungary, but if Netanyahu had won the last election, with the only coalition he would have been able to form, he would have acted to prevent his possible conviction on corruption charges, aided by ultra-Orthodox and far-right coalition partners entirely willing to subvert democracy and the rule of law.

They would have passed a law granting him immunity, and then a subsequent 'override clause' preventing the Supreme Court from intervening. Israel would have become a different kind of country.

In Yair Lapid, this new government has an alternate prime minister and foreign minister who has spoken out against this anti-democratic trend, in Israel and abroad.

Protestors in Budapest against the government's use of Israeli-made Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists, opposition leaders and activists. A poster of Orban reads: 'We say no to your surveillance!'Credit: MARTON MONUS/ REUTERS

In a lengthy essay outlining his political vision, (originally published in Hebrew, in Haaretz) he explicitly compared Netanyahu to both Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All three, he says, "employ the language of democracy and democratization even as they abuse the power of their positions to dismantle the democratic systems in their countries."

However this current most hydra-headed of governments also contains Ayelet Shaked – who was, along with the Likud’s Yariv Levin, the main ideological voice in the illiberal coalition of 2014-19 arguing for the supremacy of Jewish nationalist, over liberal democratic, values.

To that end she and Levin championed the Nation-State Law, intending it to be the authoritative definition of "Israel as a Jewish state," superseding the Declaration of Independence but pointedly lacking that document’s commitment to equality and minority rights.

Joe Biden entered the White House determined to break from his predecessor’s clear affinity with authoritarian leaders and reprioritization of human rights; a return to the status quo ante. Biden has spelled out that the United States has many international partners, based on mutual interests and simple realpolitik; but it also has allies, with whom it shares values, not just interests.

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro holds an Israeli flag with his image as they wait at a hospital where Bolsonaro is recovering from an intestinal obstruction in Sao Paulo, BrazilCredit: Nelson Antoine,AP

Israel is not the U.S., and it has far less room to be choosy about from whom it accepts support or assistance. Nevertheless, it can still decide the nature of its relationship with a country and a leader.

One hopes that Lapid will determine the direction of Israeli foreign policy, and will make it quite clear to Orban and his ilk that our appreciation for their support does not mean we will turn a blind eye – as Netanyahu shamefully did – to their bigotry and use of antisemitic tropes.

There are promising signs. Lapid forcefully stood up to Poland last month over its Holocaust-revisionist "Restitution Bill." It was a stark contrast to Netanyahu’s appeasement of Poland when it sought to criminalize the accusation of Polish complicity in the murder of Jews.

In a 2019 interview, famed Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt demanded to know why Israel had "a whole ministry devoted to fighting antisemitism and BDS, and you have a government whose policy is to make nice with the Polish government, which is trying to rewrite Holocaust history, and with a Hungarian government that’s engaging in antisemitism." Another prominent Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, called Netanyahu's stance a "stupid, ignorant and amoral betrayal of the truth." 

Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid shakes hands with United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, UAE last monthCredit: WAM/ REUTERS

Closer to home, Israel has a hugely important relationship with Egypt, under out-and-out dictator Abdel al-Sisi, and burgeoning ties with the wholly undemocratic Gulf monarchies.

Because of the geostrategic imperative, no one is suggesting Israel turn its back on these countries out of concern for their human rights records. But Israel should make a point of stressing – as the U.S. now does again with Biden in charge – that its allies are its fellow liberal democracies. Lapid importantly did just that in his recent meeting with EU foreign ministers, emphasizing our shared values.

And to Modi, Orban and other illiberal, pro-Israel governments, the message should be simple: Thank you for your support, let’s work together on our mutual interests. But please forget the idea that our countries are walking the same political or ideological path. Those days are over.

Paul Gross lives in Jerusalem after emigrating from the U.K. He writes and lectures on Israeli history and politics, and has been published in a number of publications in Israel, the U.K. and the U.S.Twitter: @pauldgross

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