News headlines appearing in the Israeli press these days might have been viewed in the past as part of a futuristic dystopian novel about the dismantling of Israeli democracy. When the prime minister shamelessly tries to seize control of public broadcasting, the Knesset brazenly approves laws barring the entry of political opponents, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs outrageously tries to set up a database of unruly Israelis, and everything passes smoothly – it’s a sign that “the only democracy in the Middle East” has grown weary of its title.
This process began during Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous term but has now accelerated dramatically. The bobbing and weaving and excuses and delays of the past have been replaced by a sustained, unbridled onslaught on the ramparts of democracy. Netanyahu hardly makes an effort anymore to disguise the political and personal impetus that drives to him to take over public broadcasting. If there were any lingering doubts, one only had to read the ludicrous reports of how the prime minister’s delegation in Beijing was shocked and appalled upon hearing that one of Israel’s most accomplished broadcasters, Geula Even-Sa’ar, had been chosen to anchor the evening news at the new broadcasting corporation that Netanyahu now opposes, only because she is the wife of Netanyahu’s Likud rival, Gideon Sa’ar.
When Netanyahu declared in January that the media is conducting “a Bolshevik witch hunt” against him, it was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Netanyahu and his helpers are operating in accordance with the best traditions of Zhdanovism, a term that was once widely used in public debates in socialist-era Israel, but has long been forgotten. It is named for Andrei Zhdanov, a Bolshevik revolutionary who was appointed by Stalin after World War II to be the Soviet Union’s commissar of culture.
Long before Culture Minister Miri Regev pronounced it, Zhdanov laid the groundwork for a policy that views art and culture as subservient to the interests of the nation and the party. Long before Netanyahu thought it proper to demand the immediate deposal the new broadcasting corporation’s directors, Zhdanov was cleansing Soviet culture of alien influences and purifying the ranks of Russian authors and artists.
But the drive to accelerate Israel’s descent down the slippery slope that leads to erosion of freedoms isn’t coming from Moscow, of course, unless you subscribe to the belief that Russia is now in control of America. It is the changing of the guard in Washington that is loosening the reins in Jerusalem, twice over: First, because with Barack Obama gone there is no one left to restrain Israel and second, because Donald Trump’s own wildness is a catalyzer and a role model for Netanyahu and his allies.
Obama and his advisers repeatedly intervened during his eight years in office to hold Netanyahu’s governments and the Knesset in check. They usually interceded in laws and policies that affected Palestinians, but Obama repeatedly expressed his concerns about the future of Israeli democracy itself. The White House protested laws that would elevate Israel’s Jewish identity over its democracy, or limit the operations of NGOs dealing in civil and human rights, or allow Israel to expropriate private Palestinian land, or expel an Arab member of Knesset, or impose travel bans on anyone supporting a boycott of either Israel or the settlements. Netanyahu was deterred by the president, and by liberal elements in the media and the Jewish community who concurred with him, and would often stop or postpone laws and decisions before they were approved or took effect.
Obama has now been replaced by Trump, who couldn’t care less about Israeli and possibly American democracy as well. Trump is conducing his own war against the judicial system, the media and American cultural icons while he also confronts minorities and immigrants. He is thus presenting a negative personal example that is spurring authoritarian leaders and their wannabes throughout the world, including Netanyahu, to follow in his footsteps and even to outdo him. The difference is that while Trump faces strong and widespread opposition, for now at least, Netanyahu only has to deal with a listless coalition, a wobbly opposition, a weakened judicial system and a media that is fighting for its own survival.
Obama, it may turn out, was Israel’s last line of resistance.
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