Herzog, Lapid Are Running Amok to Israel's Right

What we need is a sharp debate over the state’s character: an annexationist settler state or an enlightened state that aspires to peace agreements.

Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram
Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid, February 10, 2016.
Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid, February 10, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram

We should neither deny it nor whitewash it; public opinion is moving ever further rightward – not in the European sense, but in the limited Israeli sense: more aggression, more hatred and big helpings of self-love and “You have chosen us from among all the nations.” This rightward shift isn’t permanent and is likely to prove fragile. But at the moment, everyone is following the marching drill order “Eyes right.”

The prime minister is the prime example of this right-wing radicalization syndrome. Why is Benjamin Netanyahu so enthusiastically supporting bills to regulate foreign-funded NGOs and allow the Knesset to suspend certain MKs? After all, he sees himself as an Israeli leader of international stature and as such, he could have protected his intentional diplomatic paralysis by thwarting dangers to democracy. But he isn’t, because while he may be a lousy manager, he’s a clever politician. The polls are guiding his steps.

Netanyahu doesn’t see Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog as threats, nor is he competing for their voters. In his view, these two rivals are merely pulling votes from each other. The Likud party leader, in contrast, is facing off against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett – two leaders of the right who could potentially exert influence over Likud voters and Knesset members.

The bill that would enable Arab MKs to be suspended is meant to stop Lieberman, with his dominant, authentic hatred for Arabs and his labeling of their elected representatives as traitors. This message threatens Netanyahu on his home court, and therefore, he is responding. The same is true of the NGO bill. Netanyahu knows this bill puts Israel in bad company in the eyes of European countries, but he is more afraid of the electoral threat posed by Bennett and his right-hand woman, Ayelet Shaked.

With the prevailing slogan among the opposition being “seek power at any price,” it is doing exactly that without a smidgen of shame or even a pretense of piety. I heard Lapid in a radio interview; all his talking points were aimed at scrubbing every trace of his liberal past and proclaiming his historical loyalty to the Israeli right. He even said he had handed out Likud bumper stickers during the 1981 campaign.

It’s certainly interesting. When he forged his way to the summit of Israeli politics, Lapid played down the right-wing tendencies that are breaking out now and spoke about a moderate, anti-religious liberalism. His current juggling act isn’t disturbed by the fact that party colleague Ofer Shelah is one of the most prominent spokesman of the dovish but security-oriented worldview, or by his political partnership with former Shin Bet security service chief Jacob Perry, one of the main speakers in the left-wing documentary film “The Gatekeepers.”

In the main opposition faction, Zionist Union, there are also those who seek to get rid of the party’s left-wing image, and much fond remembrance of past leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. After all, leaders of the Labor Party (the main component of Zionist Union) have also read the polls and are determined to run for the political center.

But they forget that running for the political center won’t help. After all, there’s no chance that they’ll be able to compete with the right’s talking points; quite the contrary. Their behavior merely grants rightist leaders legitimacy to continue bringing the state down.

What we need is a sharp debate over the state’s character: an annexationist settler state or an enlightened state that aspires to peace agreements; a Jewish state as advocated by Bennett and Likud MK Zeev Elkin or a democratic Jewish state (even if, back when the state was established, the term “Jewish” state was never used; even the postal service was called the “Hebrew” post.)

The race to the right has led to the abandonment of credible axioms regarding the damage caused by the ongoing occupation, which has made Israel aggressive and intimidating, and the religious/nationalist false messianism, which nobody now opposes either ideologically or politically.

This running amok to the center is actually a running amok to the right. It grants legitimization to every historic injustice, and it’s a train wreck on the road to a real political revolution – which will be achieved through integrity, with no disguises or false pretenses.

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