Surveying the Israeli news cycle over the course of the last few weeks, one could be forgiven for thinking that Israeli democracy had been dealt a fatal blow, as a cascade of anti-democratic and nationalist laws have made their way through the Knesset. They range from legislation allowing the Interior Ministry (currently controlled by Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri) to shutter businesses on Saturdays ,a published list of organizations whose members will be forbidden access to the country due to their support for BDS, a promise to expel the 40,000 mostly Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, a law that would require a supermajority in the Knesset in order to cede parts of Jerusalem in any future peace deal, and a resolution passed by the Central Committee of the Likud calling for the annexation of parts of the West Bank, and the gradual application of Israeli law in the settlements. Reactions from the liberal Zionist world have, not for the first time, been harsh, with denunciations of the government actions leading some prominent activists to declare that Israel’s actions have so moved it beyond the pale of respectability, they could no longer ‘defend’ it in the court of international opinion, or going so far in claiming that the very notion of reconciling Zionism with liberalism is no longer possible.
Hysteria aside, dig below the surface a little and one finds that many of these laws, legislated or proposed, either rest on flimsy footing, or are simply trumped-up declarations with no teeth. The resolution to cause the most ire deals with annexation. While ostensibly threatening, it is non-binding, and, given the gradual shift of the party in recent years to the right, should surprise no one with even cursory knowledge of the Likud’s history. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s modus operandi for much of his time in office has been to maintain a delicate balance between solidifying control over the territories beyond the Green Line while simultaneously keeping at bay forces that would demand their full annexation. Such an arrangement has worked well up to this point in time, and it seems there’s no reason to move forward with a decision that would upset this balance and invite international condemnation.
Likewise, the law requiring two-thirds of the Knesset’s approval can easily be overturned with a simple majority of 61 votes, making it a redundant declaration by a coalition that was never particularly interested in negotiating with the P.L.O. in good faith in the first place. The BDS blacklist published at the behest of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has been viewed, understandably, as a blow to freedom of speech and a foreboding precedent for the limits imposed on the ability to freely criticize Israeli policy. Yet, as Ha’aretzcolumnist Anshel Pfeffer points out,Israel has taken the liberty of barring activists for years long before the formalizing of a list of individuals, and despite the image projected of a complete shuttering of borders to anyone suspected of harboring a hint of anti-Israel sentiment, in reality the blacklist’s scope is limited to a handful of organizations and specific individuals within those organizations.
For Israel watchers well-acquainted with the current mood in the Knesset, this legislative onslaught should hardly come as a surprise. The conclusion of the corruption investigations against Prime Minister Netanyahu may have been pushed into the spring, buying the coalition more time, but there is a distinct sense that blood is in the water and elections are, if not around the corner, then a much likelier possibility than they were only a short time ago. As a result, coalition partners have taken to making demands from each other to support each other’s pet projects, effectively blackmailing each other lest the government collapse, and the party responsible be seen by right-wing voters as the cause of the right’s fall from power. It is, for example no surprise that Erdan would broadcast his anti-BDS initiative in such an ostentatious manner; he has long fashioned himself a champion against the boycott movement, and the publishing of an effectively redundant list required little political capital.
Pandering to the basest inclinations of constituents in the hopes of future electoral gains is hardly an exclusively Israeli phenomenon, nor is this the first time Israeli politicians on the right have tried to rally their base by proposing extreme legislation. But this time is different, if only due the sheer number of laws proposed. What is most worrying is not the contents of the laws or proposed legislation itself — as discussed, beyond the dramatic headlines, many of them are either ineffective or purely symbolic — but the mere fact that many politicians have come to value short-term political expediency and a desire to satisfy the most extreme inclinations over prudent decision-making. In the past, I accepted brazen rhetoric by right-wing politicians to pursue blatantly anti-democratic policy as a misstep, given the widespread publicity each and every suggestion was given, and the damage such exposure was likely to do to Israel’s image as a democratic state; I’ve now come to believe that these outbursts have become a routine cynical ploy to shore up support from an increasingly radical base, with the explicit knowledge that such appeals would likely rankle the international community in the process, adding to their appeal.
The prime minister’s desire to stay in power at all costs has slowly bled into the ranks of not only his party, but large swathes of the right-leaning electorate and its representatives in the government. Over the course of Netanyahu’s latest tenure as prime minister, a zero-sum mentality has become deeply entrenched on parts of the right, imagining the return of the left to power as an ungodly nightmare liable to threaten everything his party and its allies have accomplished since his return to power, with a heavy emphasis on the status and entrenchment of the settlements. Furthermore, the cult of personality that has sprung up and been cultivated by the prime minister and his most loyal followers — a phenomenon that now, depressingly, appears in many countries in which populism has entered mainstream political discourse—has created a situation in which even opposition to the most distasteful acts committed by Netanyahu or his family members are met with outright hostility.
And yet, even within the ranks of the ruling party, there is apprehension regarding this behavior: a number of Likud MKs voiced their opposition to the Supermarket Law, going to far as to abstain and vote against it, leading to threats by David Amsalem, now coalition chairman, to have MK Sharren Haskel removed from the Knesset. While the threats quickly came to nothing, the mere spectacle of watching Likud members harassed for entertaining the notion of voting against the party line puts on display the demands of absolute loyalty that have become a requisite for working in such an environment. Of course, there are already ugly precedents regarding this type of behavior: Benny Begin, long a member of Likud’s more traditional wing, has been vilified over the last few years due to his staunch opposition to laws that he believes target democratic norms, culminating in his recent removal from the Internal Affairs panel for speaking out against a law that would protect Netanyahu from police investigations. MK Ofir Akunis, hardly a bleeding-heart leftist, along with fellow MK Gila Gamliel and local party authorities have worriedly opined that the law is liable to damage the party in the eyes of its secular constituents, who may view such bills as acquiescing to religious fundamentalists and seek out parties to the left of Likud more adamant about safeguarding the interests of the secular majority. Despite these warnings, the coalition plowed forward, delivering a narrow victory by just one vote. If there is any indication that such laws might have adverse in even the near future with possible elections on the horizon, the prime minister and his close allies did not seem outwardly perturbed.
These decisions yield short-term gains and may keep the coalition afloat for the time being, but they will undoubtedly have ramifications, both now and in the long-term, which are likely to be felt on a multitude of fronts, not least for Likud’s viability in future elections. The cynically crafted legislation that has become a routine fixture in the Knesset since 2009 cannot help but chip away at the state’s democratic institutions, even if such bills were merely conceived in the service of garnering future votes. This latest wave, while particularly noxious, is not the first of its kind, and, given the party’s trajectory and increasingly unscrupulous behavior, unlikely to be the last. In clinging to power at any cost, Netanyahu and his cohorts are endangering Israel’s democratic foundations, its standing in the world, and most importantly its security. That danger may not seem apparent when it takes the form of often ridiculous headlines, but it is there, nonetheless, slowly creeping towards the fore.