Is #NeverBibi Enough?

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem

Moshe Yaalon is neither left-wing nor glib. Or so anyone who knows him would have said until this week. 

Yaalon served as Israel's defense minister, among other posts, under Benjamin Netanyahu. At one time Yaalon was the go-to person if you wanted Netanyahu's views on permanent Israeli control of the West Bank, but in plain, very direct words, without Netanyahu's sleight of tongue.

True, Yaalon left parliament, the government, and the Likud a couple of years ago over Netanyahu's mob-pleasing support for a soldier who had shot and killed a captured terrorist. And he has decried the stink of corruption wafting from the prime minister's residence. But that was at a rally of right-wing dissidents. 

In a radio interview this week, though, Yaalon asserted it was time to redefine terms. Once upon a time, he said, “right” and “left” in Israel referred to economics. The right was capitalist; the left, socialist. Then the words switched meaning: The right was against the Oslo Accords and the left in favor. The right was hawks; the left, doves.

“Today,” Yaalon said, “someone who supports Netanyahu is right-wing. Someone who doesn't or criticizes him is left-wing. So [Israeli President] Ruvy Rivlin is a leftie. ... And it seems I'm a leftie.” 

The division, he said, wasn't just over the Nation-State Law, the controversial bill pushed by Netanyahu that has filled this week's news in Israel. “It's about integrity. It's about a leader setting a personal example.”

The dictionary hasn't changed as much as Yaalon claimed. But his basic point is valid. Netanyahu, the man himself, the leader, has become the country's most divisive issue: the extravagant lifestyle that his followers forgive and that the police are eternally investigating; his virtuoso ability to play on his voters' fears; his effort to neuter the news media; his flagrant disregard for rules of the democratic game; his warmth toward autocrats

Netanyahu, in short, is proof of how appallingly normal Israel is in the world of 2018.

Most of the Israeli right has stuck with him. Netanyahu wins elections, even if narrowly. He keeps the right in power. But there are right-wingers—not just in the commentariat, but among politicians—who could be called #NeverBibi. 

They always thought of themselves as supporters of liberal democracy within Israel's borders. In their own view they were more or less Tories, albeit Tories of the 1930s, democratic at home but determined to maintain the empire—but rather than the Raj, it's “Judea and Samaria.” Netanyahu shocks them. 

You can't help respecting the #NeverBibi crowd. You can't help wondering if they ask themselves just how much responsibility they bear for the country getting to this point.

About the Nation-State Law. For some reason Netanyahu, the Likud, and its satellite parties think that a Hebrew-speaking country with large Jewish majority desperately needs a constitutional measure in order to confirm that it is the nation-state of the Jews. They want this new piece of the constitution to shield the flag and national anthem, with their Jewish symbolism, from any change. 

On the surface, the only possible purpose of this is to further alienate the Arab minority. Actually, the purpose is to inflame the feeling among Netanyahu's supporters that at any moment the minority will take the country away from them.

The bill, however, contains more than inflammatory symbolism. Among other practical measures, it allows the creation of residential communities for members of one religion or nationality. Or as coalition whip and Netanyahu consigliore David Amsalem said on the same radio talk show as Yaalon, the law would legalize “establishing communities for Jews where people who are Arabs couldn't join.” 

The point is to bury a civil rights decision by the Supreme Court in 2000 that banned such discrimination. On the air, Amsalem gave his view of civil rights: 

Amsalem: This freedom, and freedom here, and freedom there, and in the name of that freedom—pretty soon we practically won't be able to live because of freedom—

Interviewer: And equality?

Amsalem: In the end there isn't equality for Jews ... in our country.

Interviewer: ... You understand that Jews have more privileges in Israel than Arabs do?

Amsalem: I say it's the opposite. 

You couldn't make up a better summary of right-wing populism in the International Age of Trump: The ethnic majority is being oppressed, because of all those rights given to other folks.

It's the housing subsection of the law that aroused Yaalon's ire. But the most prominent #NeverBibi protest came from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin spent decades as a Likud politician, and in the later years clashed regularly with Netanyahu over the anti-democratic legislation backed by the prime minister. The president is the elected equivalent of Britain's monarch—a ceremonial head of state who usually stays out of politics. 

Rivlin made an exception this week, sending a letter to Netanyahu and Amir Ohana, the chair of the parliamentary committee that was holding a hearing on the bill. The housing clause, he said, could “harm Jews throughout the world ... and provide a weapon to [Israel's] enemies.” Inside Israel, “in practice it would allow any group ... to build a community without Mizrahim [Jews from Muslim countries], without ultra-Orthodox Jews, without Druse, without LGBT people. Is this really the meaning of the Zionist vision?”

Rivlin's record shows he also opposes discrimination against Arabs. But addressing Netanyahu and Ohana, he focuses on what he hoped would matter to them—diplomatic damage, dangers to Jews abroad, and domestic constituencies they care about. Israeli members of the Druse sect serve in outsized numbers in the army. Ohana himself is the child of immigrants from Morocco, and is gay. 

Then again, Rivlin believes with a mystical passion in Israel's right—no, obligation—to hold the “Whole Land of Israel,” including the West Bank. He is an avid, outspoken settlement supporter. 

Rivlin is the epitome of the #NeverBibi contradiction. He has repeatedly stood up against Netanyahu and for coexistence. Yet the lobe of his brain committed to democracy doesn't seem to talk to the lobe committed to quintessentially undemocratic rule over Palestinians. 

Actually, the #NeverBibi disconnect is worse than that. The central practical policy of the Likud is building costly settlements in order to make Israeli withdrawal impossible. Especially under Netanyahu, it has also practiced Thatcherism on steroids, privatizing state assets and creating a new class of oligarchs. 

Yet its electoral strongholds are poor neighborhoods and small towns, which pay the price of Likud policies. The party's founder, Menachem Begin, built that support by playing on resentment of the left, fear of Arabs, and grudges against the rest of the world. Netanyahu, it's true, has made the message much more explicit, while living in a fashion that would have nauseated Begin. But the contradiction between liberal democratic talk and angry nationalism is the party's foundation.

The test of intellectual and political courage for a #NeverBibi rightist is whether she or he breaks completely with its right-wing populism and commitment to the occupation. It does happen. An excellent example is Tzipi Livni, who began her political career in the 1990s as a Netanyahu appointee. She's now a leader of the left-of-center Zionist Union, and its most dedicated advocate of a two-state solution. 

In the committee meeting on the Nation-State Law, right-wing members of parliament bashed Rivlin for sending his letter. Livni defended the president. When she was called out of order, she persisted. Ohana ordered her to leave the room. “Shame on you,” she chastised Ohana as an usher took her arm. “Racists!”

That's a #NeverBibi-ist worthy of respect.

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