Op-Ed: Netanyahu’s return to power with a coalition of racists is appalling. But Israel’s problem runs deeper
The apparent return of Benjamin Netanyahu to power in Israel is a gut punch to people concerned about the state of democracy and the rule of law in the world. Netanyahu has been a key pillar in the global movement of illiberal leaders who have taken control and altered the rules of the democratic game — including in Turkey, Hungary and the United States in the Trump era.
During his 12 years in power from 2009 to 2021, Netanyahu lashed out at the media and political enemies, consistently attacked the Israeli judiciary (while under indictment and on trial), and promoted a version of majoritarianism intended to enshrine Jewish supremacy as a constitutional principle.
And now, in his new term as prime minister, he will sit in a government with Itamar Ben-Gvir, the avowed disciple of the hate-filled racist Meir Kahane, and Bezalel Smotrich, a rabidly anti-LGBTQ rabble-rouser. The fact that Netanyahu, together with these allies, will form a government with as many as 65 seats in the Knesset represents not an aberration but the clear will of the people.
A majority of Israel’s Jewish population — about 62% — identifies as right-wing, which is a sharp increase from 46% in 2019. Especially depressing is that young Israeli Jews (70%) are more right-wing than older Israeli Jews. Ben-Gvir received a rapturous reception from young Israeli Jews across the country, including in reliably liberal Tel Aviv. And this was not the result of external forces such as a war or a third intifada. Instead, it reflects sustained political efforts to promote a doctrine of Jewish supremacy — and larger global right-leaning populist trends.
In Israel, as in many countries around the world, the very idea of Western-style liberal democracy is under assault by those who — like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narenda Modi in India, Giorgia Meloni in Italy and, of course, Donald Trump — champion the idea of “illiberal democracy,” in which the majority rules with little or no consideration for the rights of minorities or the rule of law. It is easy to despair in the face of the success of these politicians and their many millions of supporters.
To many in the U.S. who have committed much time and effort to supporting a progressive vision of Israel, this is a day of reckoning.
Israel is not what our parents and grandparents imagined it could be — a workable balance of a haven for Jews and an enlightened, egalitarian society. The problem was not born with the latest election nor in the Netanyahu era more generally. It runs much deeper. Israel has maintained an illegal and immoral occupation of Palestinian land since 1967. And it has never reconciled its self-definition as a Jewish state with its professed desire to offer full equality to all its citizens, especially its large Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of the population.
As an antidote to paralysis, it is important to recognize that this week’s election results, like all election results, are transitory — a snapshot in time, not a final destination. Even in the Israeli case, it turns out that just shy of 50% voted against the Netanyahu coalition. Despite the growing right-wing tendencies of Israeli Jews, the outcome could well have been different had a number of small parties on the left joined forces to pass the minimum threshold of votes. But the path forward will require a new approach to Israeli politics — and in fact, a new vision of Israel, one that rests on the principle of Arab-Jewish partnership.
The Israel of the future must turn away from the ugly face of Jewish supremacy that is ascendant today. This means that although Israel can and should remain a homeland for Jews, it must not be, as the 2019 Nation-State Law declared, exclusively so. It also must be a homeland for Palestinians who have lived in the land for centuries. In addition, it must acknowledge the searing pain of displacement and exile that Israel’s establishment brought upon Palestinians in 1948, as well as the ongoing dehumanization of the occupation that began in 1967. And it must commit to full political, social and economic enfranchisement of Arab citizens of the country.
It is almost forgotten that the last government formed in Israel last year included an Arab party as part of the coalition — the first time an independent Arab party did so in Israel’s history. This kind of event must become the norm rather than the exception. This will require crafting out of the detritus of the collapsed left and center-left in Israel a new political partnership based not on the self-interest of Jews or Arabs but the shared future of both. This is an ideal that all who care about the well-being of that sacred and cursed land should support.
In the meantime, we can no longer sugarcoat an unacceptable reality. Jews in this country, and particularly Jewish communal leaders, should refuse to meet with Israeli politicians who are unabashed racists. And we should no longer tolerate — or provide a blank check to — the illegal settlement project and the occupation that many observers have called an Israeli version of apartheid.
Just as friends don’t let friends drive drunk, so we must tell our Israel friends and cousins that enough is enough. We cannot stand idly by when the state continues to deprive Palestinians of full rights nor when its leaders take aim at leftists, LGBTQ people and African asylum seekers — all in violation of the very ideals of “liberty, justice, and peace” declared in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and is president of the New Israel Fund. Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.
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