Editorial: Benjamin Netanyahu veers Israel away from democracy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on March 10.
(Gali Tibbon / Associated Press)

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel and its American supporters were dumb and offensive, and they deserved to be called out for their use of ugly anti-Semitic tropes.

Donald Trump’s response to Omar’s comments — that the Democrats are an “anti-Jewish party” — was cynical and divisive and patently untrue. It deserves our contempt.

But the real prize for repugnant, mean-spirited and undemocratic speech on the subject of Jews and Israel in recent days goes to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s not terribly surprising that the long-serving, right-wing prime minister, who faces reelection next month as well as a looming indictment on charges of taking bribes and trading favors, should be pandering to his base. But this time, he outdid himself.

For years, Netanyahu has manipulated fear and anger to dominate the Israeli political stage.

On Sunday, Netanyahu demeaned the status of the nearly 2 million Arabs who live in Israel, saying that although they are welcome to live there and are entitled to equal rights, it is not, in fact, their country.


“Israel is not a state for all its citizens,” he said in a post on Facebook. “According to a basic law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and the Jewish people only.”

Netanyahu was referring to an enormously controversial law passed by the Knesset last summer that declared the country to be the “nation-state” of the Jewish people. The measure downgraded Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status” and took other steps to make it clear just whose country it was. Though opponents called the law racist, Netanyahu hailed it as a major achievement.

That law was perhaps more symbolic than meaningful. Everyone already knows Israel is a Jewish state, don’t they? But it was nevertheless troubling and unnecessary — a provocation that sent an unmistakable message about Jewish primacy and the contempt Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition hold for Palestinians and their rights. It omitted the promises of democracy and equality that are included in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And it followed on the heels of right-wing efforts to exclude Arab legislators from important votes and to require Arab citizens to take loyalty oaths or be stripped of their citizenship.

Now Netanyahu has doubled down on these anti-democratic moves. In Sunday’s Facebook post, he not only suggested that Arabs in Israel were second-class citizens, but also that his electoral opponents Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, if voted into power, would put together a left-wing government “with the support of the Arab parties” that would undermine the security of the state.

Netanyahu’s comments come just weeks after he cut a deal with a small, racist anti-Arab party known as “Jewish Power” whose leaders have called for violence against Palestinians, for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens from the country, for a prohibition on intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, and for a takeover of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Netanyahu, in an apparent bid to strengthen his right-wing base before the April 9 election, arranged for that faction — whose leaders are disciples of the late ultranationalist rabbi Meir Kahane — to merge into a somewhat more mainstream party of religious Zionists.

Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful organization lobbying on behalf of Israel in the United States, called the views of Jewish Power “racist and reprehensible.”

Netanyahu could soon become the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. If he wins reelection next month, he will a few months later exceed the record of the nation’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. And it could happen: Netanyahu has remained firmly in control through many tumultuous years and previous scandals. It would shock no one if he pulled through again.

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But has he been good for his country? For years, he has manipulated fear and anger to dominate the Israeli political stage. He has been divisive and demagogic. He has been, on balance, an enemy of the two-state solution that has been the only realistic path to peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Not its only enemy, to be sure, but an obstacle nevertheless.

Now, in the face of the corruption indictment and the strong electoral challenge, he seems to be growing desperate. Perhaps he will go too far and be driven from office.

In the end, we hope for an Israel that is secure — but one that makes peace with its neighbors. And an Israel that is not a two-tiered society, but is egalitarian, liberal and democratic, and treats all its citizens fairly.

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