Netanyahu Cements His Place in the Illiberal International

Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a joint press conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem

These two things happened within a few hours of each other‫:

  • Hungary's authoritarian leader, Victor Orban, landed in Israel as the warmly welcomed guest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 
  • On a party-line vote, Israel's parliament passed Netanyahu's flagship piece of legislation, the Nation State Law—which enshrines second-class status for the country's Arab citizens as a constitutional principle.

Coincidence? Yes, and no.

Orban's visit wasn't orchestrated to celebrate Netanyahu's victory. The law passed in a rush before the Knesset recessed for the summer. The visit was planned separately

That said, the timing was scarily perfect. The Nation State Law is a historic turning point in transforming Israel into an illiberal democracy. Netanyahu's embrace of Orban—and of other Central European leaders of his ilk, and of Donald Trump—shows his conscious identification with the new Illiberal International. 

The new measure was enacted as a “basic law.” That means it becomes part of Israel's partially written constitution, the basis for interpreting or even overturning other laws. It declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews—and that the Jewish people alone has the right to self-determination in Israel.

On a practical level, it demotes Arabic from an official language, co-equal with Hebrew, to a language with an undefined “special status.” 

Under pressure, including from some dissidents on the right, Netanyahu's coalition replaced the article of the law that would have explicitly allowed Jewish-only residential areas. The new version says that the state sees “Jewish settlement as a national value” and will act to encourage it. 

That's vaguer, but still awful. It still gives the government cover before the courts for preferring the Jewish majority in town planning, infrastructure, and more. Depending on the judges who hear particular suits, it could also protect building communities where only Jews can move in. This is certainly what the authors of the new version seek: the same effect as the previous version, dressed up in prettier language. 

Why have Netanyahu and most of the political right been so eager to pass this law? Partly it's a response to Supreme Court decisions that have struck down discriminatory laws and policies. The court has tried—on occasion, and not firmly enough—to uphold the promise of Israel's declaration of independence that Arabs would have “full and equal citizenship.” Netanyahu and his allies want to protect the old privileges of the majority against the threat from Israelis, Arab and Jewish, working for equality.

Beyond that, the law tells Arabs in Israel that they are most definitely – constitutionally—second-class citizens. 

At the same time, the daily media noise of the fight to pass the law served Netanyahu's political needs. It told his supporters that their vague fear of the minority somehow taking the country away from them was realistic—but look! Netanyahu was making sure it wouldn't happen. 

In the real world, Israel still has an overwhelming Jewish majority. Hebrew is the default language of public discourse. The country still offers a home to Jews who face persecution, or merely feel like strangers, elsewhere in the world. In practical terms, it's a Jewish nation-state. The only actual threat to that reality is Netanyahu's policy of permanent occupation of the West Bank, which could lead to a single bi-national state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. 

Rather than change direction, Netanyahu amplifies his base's anxieties, presents himself as the guardian of the nation, and stays in power. 

Israel is hardly unique in being a nation state—check the map of Europe—or in being founded on the idea of a formerly oppressed group seeking self-determination. The question is what you do after getting to self-determination: Do you take your new freedom as an opportunity to create a society different from the one that oppressed you, or do you imitate it? 

Israel's founders committed themselves to the first of those possibilities. Obviously, their promise of equality has never been fulfilled. But the promise matters. It's a goal, a measuring stick for where the state has fallen short, a foundation for legal and political struggles. 

Perhaps, you say, the promise was hypocrisy, and Netanyahu is only getting honest. If so, this is evidence for the positive side of hypocrisy. Famously, it has been defined as the tribute vice pays to virtue. Which is to say, virtue is still sovereign and demands tribute. The new law deposes the virtue of equality and crowns the vice of bigotry in its place. 

In that pre-recess rush, the Knesset passed several other laws. One gave new authority to the minister of education to bar outside speakers from public schools. The purpose is to keep high schools from inviting speakers from Breaking the Silence, the veterans' group that collects soldiers' testimony on serving in the occupied territories. A last-minute amendment was aimed at barring other human rights groups. 

Another new law bans the police practice of publicizing why an investigation has ended without charges against a suspect. That's aimed at protecting Netanyahu personally. If one or more of the investigations ends without an indictment, the police can't tell the public what they did find—which might well be of political importance, even if it doesn't add up to a crime.

All of these measures were passed by an elected majority. Together they shield the leader from scrutiny, suppress dissent, prevent pluralism and add to the stench of paranoia emanating from the prime minister's residence. They epitomize illiberal democracy

Which brings us back to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, the proud advocate of the “illiberal state.” 

Netanyahu has had an illiberal streak for years, and his abuse of a Knesset majority isn't new. He's always faced political resistance within Israel—even from the right—and pressures from the United States and Europe. 

These days the international arena encourages his worst tendencies. He's best buddies with India's Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi. He has forged close ties with the Visegrad Group, Central Europe's ultra-nationalist bloc of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. The man who saw anti-Semitism everywhere ignores Orban's anti-Jewish rhetoric and drew the fury of historians for a recent agreement with Poland that papers over the complicity of Poles in the Holocaust. 

And he can count on the support of Donald Trump, president of the country that formerly led the free world. 

I write this with a great deal of pain. Netanyahu has changed Israel for the worse. It's important to remember that he faced a great deal of resistance, and that his parliamentary majority was narrow. The struggle to take the country in a better direction isn't over. It's more difficult, and more desperately important than ever. 

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