Israel’s new government and ‘Pauline Kael syndrome’ - opinion

What’s not in question is that the crew now at the helm was elected – democratically – to try and meet some major objectives.

 Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset ahead of the special session on Thursday morning to ratify the country's 37th government. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset ahead of the special session on Thursday morning to ratify the country's 37th government.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Following the late and former US president Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972, New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael voiced a mixture of dismay and surprise. 

“I live in a rather special world,” she commented. “I only know one person who voted for [him]. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater, I can feel them.”

Her famous acknowledgment of existence in an elitist bubble, insulated from a faceless mass of aliens lurking menacingly in the shadows, may have been irritating, but at least it was honest. It also perfectly described the chasm between the chattering classes and the majority of the voting public.

Though this type of divide in the West tends to be viewed and treated as political – since it’s inevitably expressed at the ballot box – it’s actually more cultural in nature. The response in Israel and abroad to the outcome of the November 1 Knesset election is a case in point.

What were the reactions to Netanyahu's coalition?

The initial shock and subsequent hysteria surrounding the emergence of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s “full, full right-wing” coalition has been emanating from circles of the Pauline Kael variety. To them, it’s worse than irrelevant that the new government in Jerusalem is the result of the people’s clear choice; they call the rejection of the Left’s increasingly woke post-Zionism “undemocratic” and a sign of societal downfall.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives the opening address at the swearing-in of the 37th Israeli government on December 29, 2022.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives the opening address at the swearing-in of the 37th Israeli government on December 29, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Such baseless charges on the part of the “anybody but Bibi” camp would be funny if they weren’t welcomed so heartily by those in the international community who delegitimize the Jewish state, regardless of its leadership, and by fellow travelers putting Israel on perpetual probation. Take the hundreds of American rabbis (none Orthodox, of course) who signed “A Call to Action for Clergy in Protest of Israeli Government Extremists,” for instance.

The petition targets newly instated ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, as well as all members of the religious-Zionist bloc, for boycott. Its signatories pledge not to invite any of the above to speak at their congregations and organizations, and vow to persuade other fora to follow suit, “as a demonstration of our commitment to our Jewish and democratic values.”

NEVER MIND that the document is filled with lies and distortions, such as the claim that the bloc’s proposals include “eroding LGBTQ rights and the rights of women.” Leftist activism trumps accuracy every time, after all. This is why Smotrich’s effort to set the record straight – through a thoughtful op-ed on Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal – is likely to be dismissed by the audience at whom it’s aimed.

“The US media has vilified me and the traditionalist bloc to which I belong since our success in Israel’s November elections,” he wrote. “They say I am a right-wing extremist and that our bloc will usher in a ‘halachic state’ in which Jewish law governs. In reality, we seek to strengthen every citizen’s freedoms and the country’s democratic institutions, bringing Israel more closely in line with the liberal American model.

He went on to explain how he intends to “open the country up economically, and usher in growth and prosperity” by implementing a “broad free-market policy.”

As for “matters of religion and state,” he clarified, “the new government will never seek to impose anything on a citizen that goes against his or her beliefs. We wish only to increase the freedom of religious people to participate in the public sphere in accordance with their faith, without coercion on secular people. For example, arranging for a minuscule number of sex-separated beaches, as we propose, scarcely limits the choices of the majority of Israelis who prefer mixed beaches. It simply offers an option to others. We also will work to guarantee that religious believers aren’t punished by the government for standing by their beliefs. This is no different from the rights the US Supreme Court recently affirmed in its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. Contrary to some American reporting, we seek to protect all citizens from coercion that would violate their conscience – nothing more.”

Addressing judicial reform, he insisted that it’s “meant to bring Israel closer to the American political model, with some limited checks to ensure the judicial system respects the law. We seek to appoint judges in Israel in a process similar to America’s; to define the attorney general’s scope of authority and relation to elected representatives in a manner similar to what’s set down in America; to develop effective oversight mechanisms for law enforcement to ensure they protect basic rights; and to restore the Knesset’s authority to define the fundamental values of the state and its emerging constitution.”

In conclusion, he stated: “All Americans should appreciate the wisdom and justice in these plans. They should shed their preconceptions and unite to support the resurgence of accountable government, prosperity, individual rights, and democracy in the Jewish homeland.”

He must know that there’s no such thing as “all Americans.” The United States, like Israel, is split along cultural lines that shape its political landscape. The best he can do is sing to the choir, in Hebrew or in English.

THE SAME applies to Netanyahu. Though his platform won’t be appreciated by the Pauline Kael set on either side of the Atlantic, it’s worth highlighting for the shadow-lurking majority in the Holy Land.

According to its “basic principles,” the new Israeli government “will work to: fortify national security and provide personal security to its citizens, while fighting violence and terrorism with determination; continue the fight against Iran’s nuclear program; strengthen the status of Jerusalem; promote peace with all neighbors, while preserving Israel’s security, historical and national interests; strive for social justice by developing the periphery and reducing social disparities, while fighting poverty through education, employment and increased aid to weaker sectors.”

It also aims to: “encourage the use of public transportation and solve traffic congestion; deal with the rising cost of living and create the economic conditions for sustainable growth; lower housing prices and increase the supply of apartments; ensure governance and restore the proper balance between the legislative, executive and judicial branches; increase immigration and absorption; place education at the center of the nation’s priorities and promote reforms in the education system, while working to achieve equality among all students in the various school systems and strengthen Jewish identity; preserve the Jewish character of the state and its heritage, while respecting the beliefs and traditions of the members of all religions in the country, in accordance with the values of the Declaration of Independence.”

Additionally, it will strive to: “maintain the status quo in matters of religion and state, as has been customary for decades in Israel, including with regard to its holy sites; address the problem of personal security and crime in Arab society, while encouraging education, providing suitable solutions for young people and appropriate investment in infrastructure in Arab communities; promote technological training and education, to provide an adequate response to the current needs of industry as a key growth factor in the economy; integrate people with disabilities into society, while assisting in their education and employment, and tend to the basic needs of those who are unable to support themselves, in addition to improving the status of the elderly, the disabled and families with many children; protect the environment, to improve the quality of life of the country’s residents and for Israel to contribute to global climate efforts; strengthen the security forces, and provide support to soldiers and police to combat and defeat terrorism; recognize the Golan Heights as a strategic region with wide development potential, and create momentum for settlement and entrepreneurship, while preserving the nature, people and environment unique to that area.”

WHETHER THE crew now at the helm meets any, let alone all, of these tall objectives remains to be seen. What’s not in question, however, is that it was elected – democratically – to try.