How Netanyahu's Letting the Far-right Redefine Israel’s Character

Netanyahu is stuffing ministries and diplomatic jobs with right-wing provocateurs to punish all those who have ever opposed his political agenda for Israel.

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Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset plenum, Jerusalem, March 7, 2016.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset plenum, Jerusalem, March 7, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

What do the following appointments to high office in Israel have in common: a minister of justice who tries to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court, a minister of culture who schemes to defund and devalue cultural institutions, and a consular-general who seeks to strengthen Diaspora relations by spreading radical right doctrine?

Aside from the fact that they were all appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, either in the context of a coalition-forming process or as a personal choice, one could say they smack a bit Orwellian.

The authoritarian-while-simultaneously-ironic nature of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Cultural Affairs Miri Regev’s present careers is hardly novel.

Before Shaked’s recent call to limit the Supreme Court’s check on government after the latter poured water on a natural gas deal, she was previously a champion of efforts to restrict judicial oversight of the Knesset, to override the Supreme Court, and to pass a slew of McCarthyite laws including her current effort to revive a bill designed to target left-wing NGOs for receiving funds from abroad.

Before Regev’s recent challenge to Habima’s status as Israel’s national theater as a thinly-veiled starting point to erode its independence, she had long pursued a signature campaign of threatening to defund individuals, theater groups and other mainstream cultural institutions that do not cooperate with her own partisan agenda (not to mention her affinity for taunting the left at cultural gatherings).

As for newly nominated ex-settler leader Dani Dayan to serve as the envoy in New York, it took little time before he voiced his explicit intention to sell his pro-settlements, anti-two-state solution views to the largely liberal American Jewish public and lobbed an early insult at J Street. Little wonder why he was rejected by the Brazilian government when Netanyahu tried to install him as ambassador there.

It is not every day that three high-ranking officials seem so diametrically opposed to the spirit of the posts they were given. These paradoxical cases become less peculiar, however, when taken in context with several other appointees from the past three Netanyahu-led governments.

A review of these other hostile appointments reveals a clear pattern. In turn, the trend speaks volumes to how Netanyahu utilizes his friends and cohorts to challenge institutions and groups that have historically clashed with his agenda, and how willing he is to let the far-right redefine Israel’s character.

A Pattern of Obstructionist Appointees

Probably the most recognized of these other contrarian appointments was Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister (2009-2012, 2013-2015). As if Israel didn’t already have an image problem abroad, the loose-tongued Yisrael Beiteinu leader seemed never to miss an occasion to spark a diplomatic spat with one of Israel’s European partners (e.g. France and Spain, Sweden, the EU at large—to say nothing of his colleague’s staged humiliation of the Turkish Foreign Minister).

Adding to the list is the appointment of Danny Danon to be Israel’s special envoy to the United Nations. Before being consigned by Netanyahu to the non-Knesset post, Danon was a leader for the anti-two state solution camp in the Likud and for the effort to push it further to the right.

Not to be outdone was the designation of Tzipi Hotovely as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs—i.e. the highest position in the foreign ministry while Netanyahu still seeks to expand the coalition. Hotovely—Israel’s apparent top diplomat—has made most of her impression on the world stage by voicing a number of incendiary statements, and most recently has taken to launching a global hasbara video competition.

Another senior official bearing Orwellian undertones is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has sought to de-emphasize democracy in schools and whose ministry instituted a high school ban on the novel, Borderlife, for “threatening Jewish identity.”

Next on the list is Ron Dermer. Despite earning a career in Republican partisan politics, he was tapped to be Ambassador to the U.S. at a time when divisions between Netanyahu and Obama had already widened as a result of the former’s blatant endorsement of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, which Dermer himself orchestrated. It stands as no surprise that Dermer would be the one to later arrange with the Republicans for Netanyahu to go behind Obama’s back and speak before Congress against the Iran Deal. 

Last but not least is Ran Baratz, Netanyahu’s personal pick as candidate for Israel’s Communications Chief.

Soon after his nomination, it emerged that this dismissed Hebrew University professor had a penchant for taking to social media to voraciously insult U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and President Rivlin, before later accusing President Obama of anti-Semitism. So much for the person slated to head Israel’s public diplomacy and media outreach. Now two months later, Netanyahu has still not rescinded Baratz’s candidacy, despite opposition from within his own party

The list arguably could go on. Perhaps not so contrarian but certainly worthy of honorable mention was the tragically ironic reinstatement of Aryeh Deri as Interior Minister. Deri, of course, spent two years in jail for corruption while serving in the very same post (an event that soon may have a refrain). 

Intentions Revealed

When viewed together, Netanyahu’s personal and coalition-influenced appointments reveal a clear trend of contrarian and often unabashedly obstructionist individuals.

In each case they are trying or have already succeeded in exploiting positions once meant to promote understanding and cooperation but now serve as platforms to censor and sabotage institutions, international norms, and sections of the public that have long constrained his populist, reactionary agenda.  

Certainly no one expects a right-wing government with many favors owed to the “further” right to select a cadre of center-left candidates to these top portfolios. But it is an entirely different matter to promote so many leading ideological provocateurs to assume chief diplomatic roles, and to secure ministerial roles for politicians who harbor such a clear disdain for the people and institutions with which they must interact.

It is incumbent upon Israelis and those abroad who support Israel’s outward-facing and democratic future to pay close attention and continue to confront the inimical endeavors of these obstructionist crusaders.

Brian Reeves is a researcher in Israeli politics for a prominent DC think tank. Previously, he lived in Jerusalem and was a visiting fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.Twitter: @BrianNReeves