Netanyahu: My Zionism for a horse

Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest political deal sees him taking up the role of Richard III.

 Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset on June 30. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset on June 30.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Betrayed, pursued, besieged, and by that moment of the battle also horseless, a terrified Richard III screams across the war zone, where he will soon die: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

It’s a fitting finale for Shakespeare’s portrait of a man whose political ambition turned him into a serial killer whose victims included his brother and two little boys. The historicity of this portrait is debatable, and Richard’s last statement was evidently the playwright’s invention.

Still, that line is sadly realistic, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest political deal makes plain.

Netanyahu's alliance ultra-Orthodoxy

THE DEAL is about Netanyahu’s longstanding alliance with ultra-Orthodoxy.

As this fragmented community’s political dynamics go, the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism – already separate from non-Ashkenazi Shas – is subdivided, like the tsarist Pale of Settlement, into hassidim and anti-hassidim.

 Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud members make a number four gesture (credit: LIKUD SPOKESPERSON) Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud members make a number four gesture (credit: LIKUD SPOKESPERSON)

The hassidim are then sub-subdivided according to their rabbis’ multiple courts. One of those, Belz, decided to accept the government’s offer for increased budgeting for their schools should they teach English, math and science in addition to their ordinary religious curriculum. Currently, schools that don’t teach this core curriculum get only 55% of the budget ordinarily allotted to educational institutions.

The agreement was set to be signed when the anti-hassidim decided that this meant war. If Belz proceeds with the deal we will break up our partnership and run in the next election alone, they threatened.

That’s when Netanyahu stepped in. If UTJ’s seven lawmakers field two parties, one of them might not pass the electoral threshold, and thus hand defeat to Netanyahu’s conservative alliance.

Preventing such a scenario is a perfectly agreeable goal for a politician. The question is at what political price, and with what moral message? Netanyahu, it turns out, had no concern for either.

The political price was wholesale surrender to one of ultra-Orthodoxy’s sweetest budgetary dreams – a vow to fully equalize any ultra-Orthodox school’s budget to those of the mainstream system’s, regardless of their curriculum.

The moral price was a Zionist surrender note

THE ZIONIST project was not merely about reassembling the Jews and restoring their power. It was about transforming the Old Jew into a New Jew, about shedding the ghetto Jew’s social seclusion, economic degeneration, and cultural stagnation.

Ultra-Orthodoxy’s rabbis called all this blasphemy and declared war on the Zionist idea and its followers. Where this attitude eventually led their flock – to Hitler’s furnaces – everyone knows. What not everyone knows is that what once was a clash between Zionism and ultra-Orthodoxy has since become a clash within ultra-Orthodoxy, between reactionaries and pragmatists.

The struggle has been afoot for some two decades and has seen a vast ultra-Orthodox migration to the workplace, the emergence of ultra-Orthodox colleges, and an increase in ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF.

While some have debated the scope and depth of this transition, Middle Israelis agreed on the need to encourage any ultra-Orthodox step toward productivity and self-reliance. It’s not just a matter of financial caution and social justice. It’s a matter of Zionist conviction.

Now Belz’s leader for the past 56 years, the 74-year-old Yissachar Dov Rokeach has joined the pragmatists who realize the need to equip yeshiva boys with modern life’s most basic demands. Every Zionist was ready to applaud the hassidic sage. Every Zionist, that is, except one: Benjamin Netanyahu.

The anti-hassidic establishment’s main grievance against Belz has been its independent negotiation with the Education Ministry. That threatened the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers’ power, the power that they roundly manipulate, and which Netanyahu has volunteered to cement. Realizing they needed a partner for a Faustian deal, they knew where to find the man who would readily sign it.

Netanyahu's moral deterioration

NETANYAHU’S moral deterioration began in 2011, with his alleged solicitation and receipt of illegal gifts cumulatively worth more than $200,000.

That had nothing to do with ultra-Orthodoxy. However, a major turning point in Netanyahu’s corruption did involve ultra-Orthodoxy. It happened in 2015, when he gave Arye Deri, a convicted bribe taker, a cabinet seat. Deri, it should be noted, never assumed responsibility for his crime or even just admitted it, portraying himself instead as the legal system’s innocent target and helpless victim.

This attitude alone, even regardless of his conviction and jail time, should have marked Deri as a threat to everything the Zionist project set out to achieve, but Netanyahu didn’t care for Zionism. He cared for his power.

Three years later, as Netanyahu responded to his evolving indictments with a venomous attack on the police chief he had personally appointed, it turned out that Deri’s political rehabilitation was but the prologue of the legal saga, political farce, and moral tragedy that Netanyahu’s biography will become.

What began with an attack on police then proceeded to the spectacular allegation that the cops and judges conspired with the media (when? where?) to tarnish Netanyahu’s family and depose its king. The aim was obvious: drive a wedge between the masses and the elites.

That is also why Netanyahu personally led neo-fascist Itamar Ben-Gvir – a disciple of Meir Kahane, the racist whom previous Likud leaders had boycotted – to the Knesset.

Having thus split the nation and delegitimized the police, the judiciary and the press, Netanyahu then delegitimized the legislature, twice: first, when he had his lawmakers silence Naftali Bennett, the prime minister the Knesset elected, by heckling his inaugural speech; then by claiming that what mattered was not Bennett’s election by the Knesset, but the size of his faction.

Now Netanyahu’s loss of moral brakes has made him actively condemn citizens to poverty, ignorance and parasitism in disregard of Zionism’s most basic tenets. The plan is obvious: First, buy ultra-Orthodox politicians (with our money), then make them help him distort the legal system, and then make them cancel his trial. The Zionist enterprise – he suggested and they happily agreed – for a horse.

The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.