Opinion |

Israel’s Bizarre Role Reversal Pits Gantz’s Conservative Center-left Against Netanyahu’s Revolutionary Right

Monday’s election isn’t about choosing a new government, but about changing the regime itself

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Left: Benny Gantz at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 12, 2019 // Right: Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020
Left: Benny Gantz at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 12, 2019 // Right: Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.Credit: L: Ohad Zwigenberg // R: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

What makes the upcoming March 2 election different than all other elections?

1. For the first time, the leading candidate is a criminal defendant about to stand trial; 2. For the first time, the assumption that governments come and go but democracy stands eternal is in serious doubt 3. For the first time, the losing side could very well refuse to accept the results and 4. For the first time, elections aren’t about choosing a new government; they are about changing the existing regime.

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This election is different from all other elections because of the dramatic role reversal between the opposing sides, which, in some ways, reflects similar developments in the United States under Donald Trump. The left, which used to represent change and reform, has turned conservative, even reactionary. The right, formerly the champions of the status quo, has turned radical, even revolutionary.

The party that leads the center-left opposition to Netanyahu, Kahol Lavan, boasts of its ability to revert Israel democracy to its previous state, before Benjamin Netanyahu began tormenting it. It touts a return to the values of “good old Israel.” Its leaders swear by the rule of law, hitherto regarded as the right’s bible. They seek to reverse the tides and bring Israel back to what they view as its original, sane and stable state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posing for a selfie with coalition members after his government passed the nation-state law, July 19, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posing for a selfie with coalition members after his government passed the nation-state law, July 19, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Likud, the party that leads the right-wing bloc that supports Netanyahu, on the other hand, is in an agitated, rebellious and even anarchic mode. It fears being ousted from power but concurrently dreams of revolution. Its leaders have come to despise traditional checks and balances on democracy and seek to replace them with unchecked authoritarian rule, in which the leader’s word is gospel, as long as his name is Netanyahu.

Netanyahu himself is the agent of this dramatic metamorphosis. He ingeniously conflated his personal quest to escape the long arm of the law with the long-simmering frustrations, resentments and inferiority complexes harbored by a large chunk of the Likud’s natural constituency. He then added to the mix the religious-nationalist right’s long standing dream of liberating Israel from the shackles of judicial review and international law, freeing Israel to settle in and annex the West Bank while sentencing Palestinians to second-class status for eternity.

Not that Netanyahu’s invective against his alleged persecutors, or his perennial self-portrayal as victim and martyr are anything new: He’s been peddling such wares since first entering politics over 30 years ago. Netanyahu’s investigation and indictment for corruption, however, has transformed his cynical propaganda into a crusading creed.

Netanyahu’s self-interested insurgency against democracy and the rule of law has turned into a collective pillar of fire behind which his right-wing flock is marching from complex reality to simple fantasy. In this upside-down Bizarro world, black is white, lies are truth and the law is unlawful. On Planet Bibi, Netanyahu did no wrong, it’s the system that’s corrupt: Police are bent, state attorneys biased, the courts prejudiced, the media treacherous, academia fraudulent, human rights a sham and Israel’s Declaration of Independence a foreign body that needs to be removed.

In their newly discovered never-never land, there’s no bribery, fraud or breach of trust: Netanyahu is a martyr. Even though Likud has been in power for most of the past four decades, including Netanyahu’s past ten years, the prime minister is perceived as a victim of the same vast elitist-leftist-Ashkenazi cabal that has supposedly oppressed downtrodden right-wing Israelis since time immemorial.

This election is no run of the mill clash between two feuding ideologies; it could emerge as the final showdown over the future of Israel. Herein lies the critical difference between the two competing sides. If Benny Gantz emerges victorious, contrary to the latest polls, right-wing voters can keep on sleeping quietly at night: Their world will be preserved intact and, once Netanyahu leaves the stage, they will be furiously courted by Gantz to join his coalition.

If Netanyahu wins, on the other hand, the earth will tremble, foundations collapse and Israel will undergo an extreme and possibly irreversible makeover. A Netanyahu victory will delight right-wing Israel but horrify everyone else. “Our country is kaput” Netanyahu’s deriders will cite a popular Hebrew song, as they often do after election losses: This time, however, their diagnosis could be right on the money.

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