Monday, November 7, 2022

Reports of the demise of democratic Israel are. . .

Tom Friedman recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined "The Israel We Knew Is Gone."  While the headline is a bit misleading and the piece is a little more nuanced than that, Friedman nonetheless paints a dire future for Israel.  In his eyes, we've pretty much become Orban's Hungary.

I don’t discount the seriousness of the situation.  Religious Zionism's Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Noam's Avi Maoz hold despicable views.  Ben-Gvir, in particular, uses and encourages violence.

At this stage in his career, Netanyahu will do or say just about anything to get into and to stay in power in order to squash his trial.  Many critics often say Netanyahu is like Trump.  Wrong.  Netanyau is much smarter.  Trump most likely believes much of what he says.  Netanyahu knows better.

Trump was born a narcissist. Netanyahu has evolved into one in his effort to gain power and thereby, he hopes, stay out of jail.  He is more akin to Republican House leader and wanna-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy.  Both have sold their souls to get what they want or perceive they need.  For the literary baseball crowd, it's Damn Yankees without the music and dance.

Despite Friedman and others who would like to write Israel off, the fact is, to continue the baseball references, we're in the early innings.The coalition negotiations just started.  Yes, Netanyahu is desperate and could give the store away, destroying the courts, marginalizing Israeli Arabs, imposing religious strictures, and destroying whatever small slimmer of possibility that is left for reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is a very wily, conniving politician, usually three or four steps ahead of his allies and opponents.  In a recent op-ed, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz does an admirable job of analyzing the challenge Netanyahu will have negotiating between the monster he helped create and now relies on and his natural impulse to seek smooth sailing. 

Netanyahu has always been risk adverse.  As Prime Minister he withstood pressure from the right that would have embroiled Israel in Gaza and other wars. He also pushed back at pressure that would have had him take steps in (probably futile) efforts to make peace.

He probably will try to weasel out of many of the commitments he made to Ben Gvir and Smotrich.  Members of his own party are going to want the ministries that Ben Gvir and Smotrich have said they want.

Likud members have already said that those guys are joining their government and will have to back their policies, not visa-versa.  Netanyahu has already stated that there will be no changes to laws and policies impacting the LBGTQ community, despite the virently anti-homosexual views of Noam and Smotrich. Whether Netayahu will stick to this pledge is a different story.

One thing we can be sure of:  When it comes down to a choice between what is best for the country and what will ensure his political survival, Netanyahu will choose the latter.

Bottom line: we don’t know who will get which ministry, and we certainly do not know what policies and laws the governing coalition will adopt.  We also don't know how long the coalition will last.  Given recent history, I wouldn't bet on it going the whole nine innings.  (Again with the baseball.)

This is not to minimize the dangers.  There are good reasons to be fearful.  But it is not time to declare the end of Israel either.

If you look back at Friedman’s work, you will find he has been declaring Israel over and gone in different ways for over two decades.  And it is hard to fine a person who has been more wrong on the Middle East than Friedman, although Fareed Zakaria, John Kerry, and former President Obama could give him a run for his money.

About 11% of Israelis, 516,331 out of 4,763,494 voters, voted for Religious Zionism.  And as Paul Mirbach wrote in a recent blog post, the anti-Netanyahu bloc received 155,566 votes more than the pro-Netanyahu bloc (2,459,530 to 2,303,964).  If the center and left had done as good a job as the right at consolidating parties so as to ensure no votes were wasted on parties that fell below the 3.25% necessary to enter the Knesset, the election outcome could have been much different.

Without a doubt, the Religious Zionism grouping has a disproportionate leverage over Netanyahu and, consequently, they could do great damage.  However, if Friedman and other pundits are declaring Israel down the tubes over 11% of Israelis voting for intolerant racists and/or authoritarians, then what do they say about Italy, where a far right party with its roots in fascism now has its leader as Prime Minister, or France where LaPen got 40% of the vote, or the US where one of the two major parties is dominated by election deniers and authoritarians?

Friedman warned that what has happened in Israel could presage what could happen in the U.S.  A more astute analyst would say it is the other way around.  The U.S. already elected narcissist with little understanding of or regard for democratic norms, a racist who tried to ban people from coming into the country based on their religion, a person who refused to accept the results of a legitimate election and who fomented violence in response.

His party, filled with election-denying candidates who refuse to commit to accepting election results that they do not win and who spout racist and  authoritarian ideas, are about to take control of the House and quite possibly the Senate.  As far as threats to democracy go, the U.S. is far ahead of Israel.

Yossi Klein Halevi consistently gets it right when it comes to understanding Israel and the region.  He doesn’t discount the threats to Israel as a result of these elections.  But he puts them in context and gives them appropriate nuance. Others would do well to do the same.

In short, the reports of the demise of Israeli democracy are exaggerated and premature.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)


  1. Very insightful-and somewhat reassuring-commentary from an astute observer.

  2. I read every word of your comments and find them insightful, basically filling gaps in my own understanding of the political situation in Israel. With Netanyahu, trying to predict his actions is sort of like trying to dribble a football (to use another sports analogy), at least in some areas. I know what he will not do: resolve the Kotel situation or enter into serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Of course, the last part assumes that he even gets a serious offer or reason to negotiate, but the problem with this guy is that his ascension to the PM job will ensure that there is no serious, viable reason to try and hammer out a deal. On the other stuff, if I could be dispassionate, it would be interesting to watch him dance around the demands of the Religious Zionists and other Haredi parties that will put him in power. Problem is that their approach to religion and the state is anathema to the majority of Israelis (I think) and certainly most of diaspora Judaism, which may not have (or deserve) a vote, but clearly has a voice.

    As to American politics, what can you say about "Feckless" McCarthy? A Republican congressman once called him "Boehner 2.0" and I'm not sure that is derogative enough. Feckless has completely abandoned any principles except the goal of getting and staying in power and may well turn out to be the worst speaker in my lifetime- especially if Bluto returns to the presidency. It is hard not to be pessimistic about the outcome tomorrow.

  3. I read Friedman's editorial. You make excellent points and maybe I can breathe a little easier.

  4. Oy Alan! I loved your commentary about Friedman's OpEd and the results of the Israel election. On the other hand, this overplay by liberals and the Democratic party elites concerning the supposed threat to democracy by the Republicans is disingenuous. There is no comparison to the mess that will be Israel as a result of this election vs the upcoming election in the US. Let's face it - the parliamentary system in Israel is fatally flawed and will forever be and makes the strangest of bedfellows.
    The whole January 6th debacle is clearly due to Trump's encouragement, directly or indirectly, but I can understand why people were upset that late election eve, it looked pretty certain that Trump was going to be reelected and then it turned 180 overnight in the other direction. For the most advanced country in the world, why can't we get our results out in a timely fashion? As far as election deniers, as you know, there is no shortage of them from the Democrats - Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams to name a few. This entire narrative that the Democratic party has been pushing this last week, i.e that if the Republicans take control, this will be the end of democracy, is just a last minute attempt to gin up fear among the voters. On the other hand the Democrats refuse to acknowledge that crime and the non existent southern border are the real threats to democracy.

  5. I appreciate your thoughts and writings on the state of democracy generally, and specially here in the states.

    These are very concerning times we are living in. When I see these rallies, with people failing to speak or accept the truth, it really concerns me. The state of our democracy is precarious, and the efforts to undermine the rule of law and our elections is dangerous and reckless. The internal and external efforts by those who wish to see the demise of our country is real and a real danger.

    Herschel Walker?? Really??

  6. This made me feel a bit better about Israel!

  7. One thing we can be sure of: When it comes down to a choice between what is best for the country and what will ensure his political survival, Netanyahu will choose the latter.

    well said. sad state of the profession

  8. good piece
    well done

  9. My only objection to this would be to the idea that Netanyahu might destroy “whatever small slimmer of possibility that is left for reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors”. No Jewish Israeli leader could do that. The “Palestinian” Arabs have already done that for themselves 10x over. Until the day comes when an Arab leader of substance and influence stands up and says, “I condemn the murder of Jews done in the name of our cause,” there will be no reconciliation – because until that day comes, there ARE no “Palestinian” neighbors (just Arabs waiting for a chance to finish what they tried to do to us in the years leading up to 1948).
    The article also states, correctly I think, that Netanyahu “withstood pressure from the right that would have embroiled Israel in Gaza and other wars … [and] pushed back at pressure that would have had him take steps in (probably futile) efforts to make peace.” Criticizing these two things by saying that Netanyahu is “risk averse” is patently stupid. Are you suggesting that it would have been GOOD for Israel to have invaded and reoccupied Gaza?! That it would have been GOOD for Israel to cede East Jerusalem to the PA to “make piece”?! Probably not, I would think. Netanyahu has always been astute in his calculus of doing what is best for Israel in these affairs (in other words, taking the actions that would lead to the fewest Israelis being murdered). I respect and admire him for that.

    1. "make peace" not "piece" - sorry