Israel Now Torn Between Rule of Law and Rule of Ruthless Power

Plots and machinations have been part and parcel of Israeli politics since their early days, like anywhere else in the world. The novelty of the Netanyahu era lies in the reckless and unabashed chasing of short-term opportunism.

Ravit Hecht
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Netanyahu, Lieberman and Ya'alon in the Knesset.
Netanyahu, Lieberman and Ya'alon in the Knesset, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ravit Hecht

If it wasn’t unfolding the way it is, one could suspect that Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister was yet another milestone in the drive to shatter and replace the old elites, a vengeful campaign embarked on by Benjamin Netanyahu since his first term as prime minister, starting in 1996. Deposing Moshe Ya’alon, born in Kiryat Haim, a member of Kibbutz Grofit, a paratrooper and former chief-of-staff, and replacing him with Avigdor Lieberman, a former citizen of the Soviet Union who served in the Israel Defense Forces as a corporal and whose election commercials are in Russian, is a true sociological big bang.

However, the manner in which things transpired, the horse trading that took place with the two contenders – one a useless person, the other a political scoundrel – in a process called here “politics at the highest levels” discloses more than anything else the transformation Israel has undergone in the Netanyahu era. This has nothing to do with getting even with old elites, but a changeover from a government with an ideology, or at least a pretense of one, to a cynical, ruthless era that knows no red lines or shame.

Machinations and crooked deals have been part of Israeli politics since their first days, as they are anywhere else. The novelty of the Netanyahu era is the reckless and unabashed striving for short-term opportunism, even if it counters the rule of law or the military regulations for opening fire. This constitutes a complete shaking off of statist restraints that obliged all previous prime ministers, even the ones on the right, including Netanyahu himself occasionally.

The essential markers of the moral bankruptcy led by Netanyahu could already be discerned in remarks he was overheard making to religious leaders back in 1997, stating that “the left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish.” However, since the last elections, with his remark about “Arabs rushing to the polling stations in droves” and the phone call to the father of the soldier Elor Azaria, who shot an incapacitated terrorist, the limits of recklessness are being shattered.

The appointment of Lieberman, a person who during the last war in Gaza called on Jewish Israelis to boycott Arab businesses, who dishonestly called for the conquest of the entire Gaza Strip while serving as a member of the cabinet, who incited against the defense establishment and the army in the Azaria affair – all of these are but recent examples, leaving aside the suspicions and investigations which have revolved around him for years – is a new record in this process.

Israeli society thus finds itself split not according to traditional core issues which have riven it up to now. Ya’alon, who like many Israelis despaired of the Oslo Accords and turned to the right, embracing a charmed relationship with the settlers, now finds himself ejected from the Defense Ministry, betrayed, frazzled and beaten, only because he insisted on backing the army on preserving the rules of engagement, while opposing the percolating of ISIS-style anarchy into the military.

President Reuven Rivlin, a proud Beitar member and supporter of the annexation of the territories, has been threatened with death only for expressing sorrow at the existence of Jewish terror, while denouncing inflammatory incitement and vilification of Arabs. Benny Begin, the senior Likud “prince” and the son of the biggest foe of Labor’s forerunner Mapai, defines Lieberman’s appointment as “surreal.”

The division is no longer determined by the holding of right-wing or left-wing opinions and not, as ministers such as Miri Regev like to depict it, according to sector affiliation or class. The division now lies in a deep cultural and value-driven choice, between upholding the rule of law and democratic principles on one hand, and the sanctification of power, ruthlessness, violence and ignorance, leading to an undemocratic government with a murderous potential, on the other.

That’s the dilemma, that’s the choice, and that’s what people like Moshe Kahlon have to decide, while bearing this coalition upon his shoulders.

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