- “We’ve Won”: How Trump Empowers Israel’s Far Right
On the morning of Dec. 6, residents of Tel Aviv awoke to find a giant gilded statue of Benjamin Netanyahu standing on a white pedestal in Rabin Square across from City Hall. In its garishness, the 15-foot-tall gold sculpture resembled a monument to a pompous third-world dictator. (True to form, spectators toppled it hours later.) Most figured this was some sort of a joke, but some couldn’t help but wonder: Could this be genuine state-commissioned art?
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The statue, as it turned out, was the work of sculptor Itay Zalait and a commentary on freedom of expression and public space. To many, however, it had other connotations—namely, the air of inevitability that has surrounded Netanyahu’s leadership, particularly in the last two years. The image of a giant, golden “King Bibi” (the title of the piece and the nickname given to Netanyahu by Time magazine in 2012) lording over his “kingdom” served as a stark reminder that Israel is slouching toward autocratic rule. Its location, in the same square where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 22 years ago, was also a cruel irony: With the two-state solution that Rabin died for all but abandoned, Israel is closer than ever to becoming an apartheid state.
Many articles have been written about the deterioration of Israeli democracy. “The End of Israeli Democracy Is a Clear and Present Danger,” warned Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, in an op-ed published in Haaretz last year. A 2015 Vox article, ominously titled “Israel’s Dark Future,” went further and declared that “[d]emocracy in the Jewish state is doomed.”
In a highly controversial statement last May, Israeli Defense Force Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan said: “If there’s something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance, it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then—70, 80, and 90 years ago—and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”
Dubious analogies to Nazi Germany aside, it is true that Israel has veered from its stated democratic ideals. Minorities are marginalized more than ever; opposition groups—particularly human rights organizations like B’Tselem and anti-occupation groups like Breaking the Silence—face McCarthyist smear campaigns and are persecuted by private organizations and the state. Bullying and racism dominate the political discourse. A wave of anti-democratic legislation threatens to limit civil rights and freedom of speech. Delegitimization of leftists and minorities is the norm, and facts and expert opinions are dismissed and derided in a manner now common in other Western countries. Even the IDF is no longer sacrosanct: When officers such as Golan dare voice an opinion that advocates restraint, they are condemned as left-wing propagandists or worse.
The decline of Israeli democracy is often attributed to an increase in ultranationalism and religious fanaticism, a tilt toward the Jewish part of Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and democratic state. “Israel’s Jewishness Is Overtaking its Democracy,” as a March 2016 Washington Post headline proclaimed.
Nationalism and messianic fervor have fanned the flames of xenophobia and far-right extremism, particularly since the second intifada—in which more than 1,000 Israelis were killed from 2000 to 2005—but they are not the whole story. There are other aspects to the rise of the far right in Israel that have been underexplored or overlooked.
One, for instance, is the simple matter of expediency. The Israeli left has been vanquished as a political alternative since the second intifada, forever synonymous with the failure of the Oslo peace process, which began with the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 and 1995. Even the word “leftist” is considered derogatory these days, to the point that Labor, a traditionally left party, rebranded itself the Zionist Union (after forming an alliance with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party) and now refrains from referring to itself as part of the left. This effectively made being right...