A Backward-facing Government in Israel

There is no greater contradiction than that between the names of the two parties that organized the new coalition in Israel. Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) heralds change, while heading the government is a party calling itself Yamina (“Turn Right”), which intends to take us back to the days of President Ronald Reagan, who hamstrung the welfare state and opened the neoliberal era. Today, especially after the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is turning strongly to the Left to rebuild the welfare state with ideas from Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” based on a green economy.

Donald Trump sealed the neoliberal era with a jarring chord that threatened, and still threatens, to destroy American democracy. Benjamin Netanyahu worked to distort Israeli democracy to save his skin from criminal charges. Yet the current American cure for neoliberalism is to bring the state back as a key factor in economic development for the benefit of society as a whole. By contrast, Israel turns rightward to the economic conservatism represented by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. What future can Israel expect when the cure for populism is the same neoliberal doctrine from which that populism grew?

Bennett did indeed demand that his eight coalition partners put ideologies aside and concentrate on running the country, investing in areas on which there exists consensus, such as education, health, transportation and welfare. The question, however, is who will develop these areas – the private or public sector? Will the rich pay more taxes (as Biden demands in the US) to reduce the gap between them and the poor? How can one reconcile the need to raise the workers’ standard of living with the harm to organized labor entailed by Bennett’s theory? How can the expansive funding of work-shy ultra-Orthodox men be reconciled with the need to raise the educational level of the disadvantaged? How do you reconcile the contradiction between the new billionaires and the need to fight the link between wealth and government, which has already brought two prime ministers to court on criminal charges and is gnawing away at democracy? It turns out that every road, every desk, and every hospital bed amounts to an ideological choice.

Apparently, the only way to bridge ideological gaps is to cling to the past. We have overthrown Netanyahu but will continue in his footsteps, applying his teachings in our own style. We will change the melody but not the lyrics– melody by Bennett, lyrics by Netanyahu. It’s weird, it’s jarring, but it’s possible. Bennett, a supporter of settling Greater Israel, is sitting in the same coalition as Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz and Mansour Abbas from the Islamic Movement. Netanyahu’s mantras – “Iran, Iran, Iran”, “peace in exchange for peace”, “agreement with the Palestinians is not on the agenda”, “Hamas only understands force”, “we have become a natural gas power”, “we are a cyber power”, “we came out of the pandemic first “- continue to resonate.

Despite Bennett’s adoption of Bibi’s lyrics, US President Joe Biden was quick to call and congratulate him, since the departure of Trump’s close friend is a relief for the US Democrats. Biden is already inviting Bennett to the White House, and as the son of San Francisco -born parents he will probably have no trouble communicating with the President. Yet Bennett ought to update his English, because if he continues to mimic Netanyahu’s, he will get a cold shoulder and a raised eyebrow. He may not have difficulty mouthing phrases like “climate change” or “build back better,” but it will be otherwise with issues like “Black Lives Matter” or “human rights,” since he is committed to avoiding ideology. If Biden makes it hard for him and utters the forbidden P-word (“Palestinians”), the raised eyebrow will be Bennett’s, wondering how Biden arrived at so anti-Semitic a concept.

If Biden tries to ask less divisive questions, such as “democracy or autocracy,” Bennett will have no difficulty, since he is the representative of the only democracy in the Middle East and knows what language to choose. But if Biden demands that Bennett take sides— Putin or him, China or the US— that’s another matter. Bennett will immediately recall the dowry left him by Netanyahu: the special ties with Putin that let Israel attack Syria unimpeded. He will also squirm in his seat if Biden mentions the sale of Israeli companies to the Chinese, such as Tnuva, Ahava and the new port in Haifa.

So yes, Israel stands by its best friend, and democratic values do indeed underlie the strategic relationship between the two countries, but they disagree on the meanings of the words democracy and autocracy. Bennett’s school is closer to that of Trump, which advocates democracy for whites only, while Bennett’s is for Jews only. Human rights à la Bennett may be important for Americans and Israelis, but less so for Russians, Chinese and our Arab neighbors, and it is not in our interest to interfere in their affairs.

Upon his return to Israel, Bennett will announce how he bravely withstood American pressure, just as Netanyahu did before him. Israel will continue to stew in its own juice, Jews against Arabs, Mizrahis against Ashkenazis, Haredim against seculars, and will continue to control five million Palestinians lacking in human and civil rights. At the same time, America is turning to existential tasks, such as fighting against climate change, opposing institutionalized racism, promoting social justice, and grounding democracy. After four decades of destroying the welfare state, pushing itself and the world to the abyss, the US is adapting itself to the 21st century. And Israel? Under the national-religious Bennett, it awaits the Messiah.

For those who do not believe in Bennett’s messianic ideology, and who look through the prism of a worldwide Green New Deal, the manifest reality is bleak and dangerous. The agreement of 115 out of 120 MKs in the Knesset to keep Palestinians out of the public discourse, and to refuse to seriously discuss a permanent solution to end the conflict, is foolishness and injustice. Eight years ago, the Left cried out against Bennett’s statement that the Palestinians are “a shrapnel in Israel’s ass,” meaning that it hurts but can be lived with. Today this attitude is commonplace, from Bennett to Horowitz, from Lapid to Michaeli.

The truth is that the shrapnel has blighted the whole of Israeli society. It has corrupted the youth, deepened racism, and undermined the legitimacy of the justice system. It has profoundly changed the attitude of US Jewry toward Israel, causing American youth to hate it for 54 years of crushing Palestinians by means of Occupation.

The headline of the “Economist” on May 29 did not read “Bibi or not Bibi.” It read, “Israel and Palestine: Two States or One.” The answer is clear and unequivocal. After 28 years of the Oslo Accords, the two-state slogan is irrelevant. Bennett said so eight years ago, and this is what the newly changed government heralds.

If Israel wants to be a democracy, it must adopt the path of the American administration, which advocates equal human rights and a “Green New Deal” to protect democracy from autocracy. Advocates of democracy in Israel and Palestine face the historic task of adopting an “Israeli-Palestinian Green New Deal,” jointly eliminating the apartheid regime by founding one democratic state. The international community is ripe for this. It is the only answer to the religious-nationalist and messianic trends that currently dominate the Israeli and Palestinian societies, reigniting the conflict time and again with no prospect of a solution.

About Yacov Ben Efrat