Israel is at a fascinating, and frightening, crossroads. In the last two years the Knesset has proposed and passed laws that seriously endanger Israel’s identity as a liberal democracy.
It began with a law forbidding public commemoration of the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948, known as the Nakba; it continued with the demand for all new Israeli citizens to swear a loyalty oath to a Jewish and democratic country, and recently culminated in a bill outlawing calls to boycott any Israeli group or product — including those from the occupied territories.
On the other hand, in the last two months, Israel’s democracy has come dramatically alive after a long period of hibernation. Protests for social justice have mobilized hundreds of thousands in demonstrations that have the support of 87 percent of the country, according to a Haaretz poll. These protests have become an exercise in direct democracy, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move beyond party politics and listen directly to the grievances of Israel’s disenfranchised middle classes.
Existential fears have pushed Israelis to the right; only when it comes to social questions are they willing to listen to the largely liberal middle class. Who, then, represents the real Israel? Is Israel an open-minded, liberal country with a developed sense of justice, or is it an ethnocracy with theocratic leanings?
Mr. Netanyahu believes that he can avoid agreeing to a viable Palestinian state, in the face of fierce international criticism, because he is certain that America’s heartland, as opposed to its liberal elites, is tied to Israel on ideological and theological grounds. The ovations he received in Congress earlier this year only strengthened this belief. Convinced that Obama won’t win a second term, he simply wants to hang on until a Republican president is sworn in.
His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has a very different worldview. Mr. Lieberman’s open disdain for European leaders and diplomats is not a failure of diplomacy; he is a shrewd man, who first and foremost seeks to cultivate an image of a strong leader for his right-wing constituency. He believes that the West’s hegemony has come to an end, and that the future lies with autocratic governments like those ruling Russia and China. Hence he believes that Israel has no reason to pander to the West’s values.
To him, liberal democracy represents weakness and he contends that Israel should evolve into a stronger state with less individual freedom. At the same time, he is completely secular: his constituency is primarily of Russian origin, and many of its members are not accepted as Jewish by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment.
The national-religious parties in the governing coalition, meanwhile, are based on the belief that the Jewish people have a God-given right to what they call the Greater Land of Israel. In the long run, they want Israel to be a theocracy based on biblical law. Their participation in the democratic game is based on the prediction that Israel’s demography will inevitably lead to an Orthodox Jewish majority, and that they simply need to make sure that Israel doesn’t give up the West Bank before they rule the country.
The ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and Yahadut Hatorah, also want Israel to become a theocracy in the long run. Until a decade ago, they did not necessarily claim that Israel should hold on to the occupied territories, but they realized that their electorate is right-leaning, and they need space for the rapidly expanding families of their constituency. They see liberal elites as their primary enemies.
The paradox, of course, is that Mr. Lieberman and the religious parties are on opposing ends of the spectrum in other ways. Mr. Lieberman wants a secular state; the religious parties want a theocracy. What unites them is that, for completely different reasons, they have no investment in the values of liberal democracy, which are one of the major stumbling blocks for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. As Israeli liberals have repeated ad nauseam, such annexation will either lead to a binational state without a Jewish majority, or to an apartheid regime.
The coalition partners have found a modus vivendi primarily by uniting in their hatred for the institutions that uphold liberal democratic values: Israel’s Supreme Court, its largely liberal academic community and its human rights organizations.
Israel’s recent falling out with Turkey is just the latest example: Mr. Lieberman made it impossible for Mr. Netanyahu to apologize for the killing of nine people by Israeli commandos on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara last year by insisting that it would undermine Israel’s national pride. When Turkey retaliated with trade sanctions and threats of an increased naval presence in the Mediterranean, Mr. Lieberman called on Israel to support Kurdish militants. Mr. Lieberman keeps upping the ante for being a patriotic Israeli, pulling Mr. Netanyahu along with him.
The staying power of Israel’s governing coalition is primarily the result of the trauma Israelis sustained during the second Palestinian intifada and subsequent rocket attacks. Israelis have trouble trusting anybody but a hard-liner for fear that, once again, they will become targets of terror attacks.
Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition may seem incoherent in its core values, but it has created a potentially explosive mix that has brought considerable damage to Israel, pushing it into unprecedented isolation that is only likely to deepen if a sizable majority of the United Nations General Assembly recognizes Palestine as a state later this month. This would be especially challenging when relations are already strained with historic regional allies like Egypt and Turkey.
The irony is that Mr. Netanyahu himself is not opposed to liberal democracy. But the only way for him to prevent an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders is to hold his right-wing coalition together.
Mr. Lieberman has outflanked him and challenged his leadership of the Israeli right. Mr. Netanyahu needs to keep up with the right-wing Joneses and show that he is no less of a strong leader. The only common denominator of his major coalition partners is enmity to the core values of liberal democracy, and, for lack of choice, he has so far pandered to their wishes.
By Carlo Strenger, a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, a columnist for Haaretz and the author of The Fear of Insignificance.