Netanyahu, Israel's Independence Day and the Death of Expectation

A nation which has gone from hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, to Netanyahu’s all-purpose credo: This is the best you can hope for – expect nothing

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Empty Rabin Square
Empty Rabin SquareCredit: Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

I live in a country that was founded on hope, expectation, and a sense of horizon, of mission, and of an overarching commitment to a better future for all of its inhabitants.

Expectation was the fuel of independence, of social cohesion, of democracy.

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And expectation, as we once knew it in Israel, is dead.

There’s a fitting shadow to Israel’s 72nd Independence Day that is only partly a consequence of coronavirus, of lockdown, of social distancing.

It is the shadow of an Israel that could have been.

It is the shadow cast by the nation’s Declaration of Independence, the blueprint which recognized that Israel would be truly free, that Israel would be genuinely independent, only if it did not rebuild for others the shackles of inequality, intolerance, injustice, and insecurity which, for thousands of years, a world of unequal, intolerant, and unjust nations had imposed on the Jews in their midst.

There are 72 years' worth of factors which assured that the Declaration would recede, erode, and ultimately, be rescinded. But the catalyst for its final dissolution was one man: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Over more than a dozen years in office, his godsend instrument appeared barely two months ago: The fear, grief, and darkness engendered by a pandemic. In the space of less than 60 days, the coronavirus, an all-encompassing, all-silencing pretext, has allowed Benjamin Netanyahu to seamlessly leverage medical emergency into genuine dictatorship.

Citing the plague, Netanyahu has co-opted and delegitimized and crushed his political opposition. Citing the plague, he has pressed the surveillance technology and know-how of the Shin Bet into service against his own citizenry.

All decisions are now effectively classified top secret, as if to hide them from a human enemy. But, in fact, there is a human enemy: the public. That which just last March 2 expressed its will, by the vote of a majority of well over 100,000 votes, that Benjamin Netanyahu should no longer continue to hold office.

Citing the plague, Netanyahu is now freed of all legislative oversight, judicial review, electoral responsibility. There is effectively no longer a legislative branch, nor a court system, nor elections which can have any result other than Netanyahu.

Yes, I live in a country which, like all countries in the age of a pandemic, has changed utterly. But there is no telling if the changes, which the leader has instituted specifically to cement his own hold on power, will ever roll back.

What, then, was this once-Israel of expectation, of aspiration, of Independence Day, 1948. It was a nation that would:

“ … foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

And this is the nation of the death of expectation, the nation of Netanyahu. A nation that – no matter the results of legal elections – will be ruled by the same one man, by the members of the same one nuclear family, whether they are charged with bribery, accused of assault, guilty of racism, or reliant on incitement.

A nation in which all decisions - annexation, occupation, religious coercion, sucking up to Trump and his Evangelicals over any concerns of moderate and progressive Jews - all of it goes to one purpose: keep Netanyahu in power and out of jail. At all cost.

A nation in which Netanyahu has reset in stone a principle that Arab Israelis must have no real place in government, that they are “supporters of terrorism,” that even their language is unworthy of the official status it was once accorded.

A nation which has gone from hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, to Netanyahu’s all-purpose credo: This is the best you can hope for – expect nothing.

In many ways, the death of expectation extends even to the Israeli right, which, though formally in charge, is, in practice, a nest of disarray, mistrust and disillusionment. Even among the settlers. Even among the ultra-Orthodox. Even in Netanyahu’s own Likud.

Nonetheless, there are, here and there, reasons to believe that when old expectations die out, new realities can emerge. There are many expressions of this, but perhaps the most striking is a landmark increase in the participation of non-Jewish Israelis in elections and the political process, in particular on the part of non-Jews who self-identify as Arabs, Palestinians, Druze, and Bedouin.

Netanyahu during a government meeting. He takes every opportunity to glorify his status as a father figure of the state.Credit: Emil Salman

At a time when large numbers of Jewish Israelis are disenchanted, not to say disgusted, with politics in general and with their own chosen parties in particular, the largely Arab Joint List has galvanized support across Israel.

Just since last Independence Day, the Joint List gained three additional seats in the September, 2019 election, and another two in the March 2 vote, to become the third largest party in the Knesset, with a total of 15 seats.

Increasing numbers of Jews have abandoned their former parties to vote for the Joint List. Partially as a result of recognition of the enormous, often dramatically compassionate role which Arab Israeli medical professionals have played in Israeli health care confronting the coronavirus, numerous politicians have recently stepped forward to reassess their former blanket stances against granting the Joint List a seat at the government table.  

Yes, Netanyahu has built a career and an ideology out of demolishing hopes and crushing expectations. But it is exactly at times of sweeping and unforeseen crisis that new hopes can come to the fore.

I live in a country which, defying all logic, has managed to retain its most powerful of resources, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with government or armament. It is the unfathomable resilience of individuals and families, their devotion to protecting and caring for one another, to a bedrock of personal decency, to creating out-of-the-box homemade survival tools, and to hoping against hope.

Next year, on Independence Day, may we look back and say: This is where the tide began to turn. When democracy and equality began to assert themselves. When expectations, without any warning, were reborn.

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