Reality Check: Divide and rule

More than anything else, the Nation-State Law shows Netanyahu is preparing for an early election.

The Knesset votes on the nation-state bill, July 19, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset votes on the nation-state bill, July 19, 2018
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Arthur Finkelstein died last year, but his dangerous and divisive legacy lives on. Finkelstein was the American political consultant behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s first election victory in 1996 and, over the years, Netanyahu has never veered from Finkelstein’s cynical playbook, regardless of the damage it causes to Israel’s delicate social fabric.
When declaring the establishment of the State of Israel, despite clear knowledge that war with the Arab world was about to break out, the country’s founders nevertheless had the foresight to realize that if the Jewish state was to flourish in the future, the new country had to ensure equality of rights for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race or sex.
There was no need for a clause in the Declaration of Independence promising to anchor the status of the Druze and Circassian communities in law, as Netanyahu is now proposing in an attempt to smooth over Druze feelings, because 70 years ago, equality of all citizens (in theory at least, if not in practice) was a given. But in Netanyahu’s new world order, based more on George Orwell’s Animal Farm than the Bible, it’s apparent that some are more equal than others.
Due to the totally to-be-expected backlash and hurt his Nation-State Law has caused among the Druze community, Netanyahu is now trying to buy their silence by promising a special package of benefits to members of minority groups, such as the Druze and Circassians, who serve in the security forces. Which of course raises the question: what about minority groups, such as haredim, who refuse to serve in the IDF? Ah yes, they’re Jews, so they can rely on favored status regardless of whether they fulfill their civic obligations or not.
To be fair, Netanyahu’s haredi coalition partners were not enthusiastic supporters of the Nation-State Law. As Knesset member Moshe Gafni told a closed meeting of the United Torah Judaism leadership, the law “is a bad law,” provoking anger in the international community and causing a needless argument with Israel’s Arab citizens.
One of the little-known facts about life in the Knesset is the closeness of some haredi Knesset members and their counterparts on the Joint List. This is due to their understanding that both haredim and Arab citizens are unpopular minorities and need to work together at times to ensure the mainstream majority does not ride roughshod over their rights.
In the end though, according to Gafni (as reported by Channel 11 news), the UTJ Knesset members supported the law because Netanyahu told them: I need this law, and if you support me on this, I’ll give you what you want on the IDF draft law. As the IDF draft law, the latest attempt to regulate the exemption of yeshiva students from mandatory military service, is the key issue on the haredi parties’ agenda, it’s no surprise the haredi MKs toed the coalition line.
Divide and rule is Netanyahu’s default setting for governing. Rather than seek to provide a unifying vision behind which the whole country can rally, Netanyahu bases his leadership on galvanizing his base and ruthlessly delegitimizing any opposition, regardless of the divisiveness and at times conflict such tactics cause.
Back in 1996, his winning campaign slogan was “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” which was clearly understood by the electorate to also mean “Netanyahu is bad for the Arabs,” thereby writing off one-fifth of the country’s citizens. In his first term as prime minister, seeking to curry favor with one of Shas’s spiritual leaders, Netanyahu sought to demonize his political opposition further by whispering in the ancient rabbi’s ear: “The Left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
Surpassing himself in 2015, Netanyahu managed to kill two birds with one stone with his panic-stricken Election Day video in which he declared: “The rule of the Right is in danger, Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses,” hitting hard at both Arabs and leftists in the same message. For once, even Netanyahu himself realized he had gone too far and, once his election victory was secured, apologized to the Arab community for his remarks.
The Nation-State Law is Netanyahu’s latest retreat into his divide-and-rule strategy. The legislation introduces no positive change to Israel’s body of laws; its sole purpose is to build up the narrow, nationalistic feelings among Netanyahu’s base by deliberately unsettling the large Arab minority.
The one thing this legislation does highlight is the fact that Netanyahu is preparing for an early election, probably in the spring, reworking the hate-fueled tactics created over two decades ago by his former American spin doctor, with no consideration for the damage to Israel’s democracy such a scorched-earth policy creates.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.