Leftists Crushed, Israel’s Right-wing Starts Gnawing on Itself

Israel's right wing is safe in power, so why are its members savaging each other - and democracy - in a mad race to the bottom?

Asher Schechter
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An illustration of Netanyahu and Bennet as sumo wrestlers.
Netanyahu and Bennett.Credit: Amos Biderman
Asher Schechter

Israel’s right wing should be riding high right now.

Its grip on power is safer than ever. Following weeks of terror attacks and radical incitement,  and in the midst of a crackdown on human rights organizations like B'Tselem, whatever support remained for the dwindling Israeli left has been all but extinguished. Even former self-proclaimed leaders of the liberal camp, like Isaac Herzog, are doing all they can to distance themselves from association with the word “left.”

With the left delegitimized, the right is finally free to do whatever it wishes: to rewrite school books in order to inject them with “Jewish identity,” ban works of fiction that “promote miscegenation,” or simply mark human rights activists with “leftie badges.” They know that the opposition won't squeak, the U.S. will not punish them (worst case scenario, those “Jew boys” will say something kind-of-harsh, and Europeans will condemn but remain ineffectual.

So why, oh why, are right-wing politicians fighting amongst themselves?

It started with Naftali Bennett, minister of education and leader of Habayit Hayehudi, who last week accused Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon of being shortsighted. Addressing the Institute for National Security Studies, Bennett launched a biting attack on Netanyahu’s and Ya’alon’s leadership qualities, describing the two as soft on terror. “The main threat to Israel’s security isn't coming from the north or the south, not from Hamas or Hezbollah rockets, or even Iran," Bennett said. "The main threat we have to face is not diplomatic stagnation, but stagnated thinking.”

Ever the alphas, Netanyahu and Ya’alon mocked Bennett’s attack. The prime minister's cronies reportedly disparaged Bennett as an “internet commenter.” Ya’alon called him “childish” and implied that Bennett plagiarized his points of criticism from other cabinet members: Netanyahu and himself.

But Bennett wasn’t the only one attacking the government from the right. Gideon Sa'ar, a former high-ranking Likud minister and potential Netanyahu rival, also used the INSS event to attack the government, accusing Netanyahu of “losing Jerusalem.” Earlier this week, right-wing coalition MKs rebelled threatened to boycott the vote on the NGO "transparency law" (which would impose new regulations on NGOs funded mainly by foreign governments) to protest the eviction of settler homes in Hebron. (The vote was ultimately postponed for unrelated reasons).

It is true that infighting on the right is nothing new. Right-wing ministers like Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked have been accusing their own government of being too soft on terror for years, reflecting the right wing’s apparent uneasiness with its status as undisputed ruler.

Naftali Bennett: What's the worst threat? Not ISIS or Iran but stagnant thinking. Photo of minister, wearing light-colored shirt, dark suit and no tie, taken during cabinet meeting on Jan. 10, 2016.
Naftali Bennett: What's the worst threat? Not ISIS or Iran but stagnant thinking.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

But in recent months, the right wing’s usual bickering has escalated to the disturbing dimensions of a Zionist rooster fight, in which each politician tries to one up the other by becoming even more radical. The victim of this one-upmanship is Israeli democracy.

The anti-democratic arms race

So is Israel’s right-wing rule coming apart at the seams? No. It’s just that right wing politicians are losing the race. The race against who? Against themselves, of course. Let’s call it the race to the bottom right.

Ever since Netanyahu was re-elected in March on the back of his incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens, right-wing politicians seem to be competing in an anti-democratic arms race.

It’s not like the right wing held itself back before. But the floodgates have been opened wide, with new radical statements and controversial bills almost every day.

You’d expect right-wing politicians to be overjoyed with this newfound freedom. In fact, they’re miserable.

After all, who do you fight once your camp is the only one left standing? How do you stand out?

This angst has led to a rapid succession of incitement against minorities and leftists, and anti-democratic legislation, with right wing politicians constantly radicalizing their language in order to one-up their peers. This is part of the reason why they sound so much like Donald Trump these days. Like the Donald, they too have to resort to outlandish tactics that rely on ignorance and rage in order to differentiate themselves in a market oversaturated with other right-wing loons.

It is easy to see where this process is leading. The race to bottom right will continue, ad absurdum, until there is nothing left that resembles a democratic state, or even a semi-functioning one - only a clownocracy, where incitement is confused with action and reflex is confused with strategy.

In fact, we have already reached the point of absurdity, and are now seeing it through the rearview mirror. Don’t believe it? Take a look at what happened this week, when the Knesset approved a first reading of Likud MK Oren Hazan’s bill to officially call the state of Israel the State of Israel. Hazan explained that the bill is meant to prevent someone from, God forbid, referring to Israel as “Palestine.”

Israel, people. Remember the name. If the people entrusted with it are any indication, it may not be around for very long.

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