Rein in Bitan

Values such as freedom of speech should not be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency. Popularity is not the sine qua non of politics.

November 6, 2016 21:34
3 minute read.
DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year

DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Coalition chairman David Bitan has been something of a loose cannon of late. Two weeks ago, the Likud MK advocated punishing Israelis who engage in political activism abroad by revoking their citizenship. He was reacting to B’Tselem executive director Hagai El-Ad’s appearance before the UN Security Council in New York, during which he called on the council to take action against Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank.

Bitan has also been engaged in a campaign to torpedo the creation of a new and revamped public broadcasting body – the Israel Broadcasting Corporation – by launching a smear campaign against journalists involved with the corporation for their purported left-wing leanings. He took this contemporary version of a red scare to a new level on Saturday, when he declared that he has been tracking prospective IBC employees’ Facebook posts and has found evidence of left-wing leanings.

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And over the weekend, to mark the 21st anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Bitan claimed the murder had nothing to do with the political climate generated by the Right.

“This was not a political murder, and it had nothing to do with politicians,” Bitan said during a political event in Holon. “It was a murder committed by one individual who wanted to stop the [peace] process. They’re [the Left] trying to make it out as if politicians murdered him.”

The time has come for the Likud Party to rein in Bitan, unless it prefers cheap populism rather than the upholding of basic democratic principles.

There is no denying that Bitan’s declarations resonate deeply with a large swath of Likud’s constituency, which is still convinced that a left-wing elite controls the media and serves as a fifth column within Israeli society. People like B’Tselem’s El-Ad are viewed by many Israelis on the Right as traitors.

Journalists on the Left who are still disproportionately represented in many media venues are seen as hopelessly out of touch with the Israeli mainstream.

Indeed, it can be argued that the Left has committed excesses of its own and the present attack launched by Bitan is simply a backlash. The attempt, for instance, by some on the Left to transform the assassination of Rabin into an indictment of the entire Right was always unfair and disingenuous.

The vast majority on the Right – even those considered extreme – openly opposed the murder and were appalled by it.

Those Israelis who identify with the Israeli Left are no liberals. They have often tended to be intolerant toward segments of Israeli society who are neither secular nor Ashkenazi nor in favor of a two-state solution. This is a legacy from the old Labor Zionist arrogance which dominated Israeli society in the first decades after the creation of the State of Israel.

There is much resentment against the old Left, and therefore easy and politically advantageous to attack it. But the Likud should resist the urge to stoop to base populism. Just because Labor Zionist elites behaved condescendingly toward those who thought and looked differently from them does not mean that the Right, which now enjoys political hegemony, should resort to the same tactics.

The Likud’s political pedigree is rooted in strong liberal and democratic foundations. Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin strove to balance their Jewish nationalism with more universal values such as individual rights, religious freedom and the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an obligation to follow in this tradition, not just because by doing so he is remaining faithful to his ideological roots, but because it is ultimately the best way to navigate Israel’s diverse, highly polarized society.

Values such as freedom of speech should not be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency. Popularity is not the sine qua non of politics.

And his first order of business should be to rein in Bitan.

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