Both as leader of the opposition, and now as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has turned his Knesset speeches into events that attract considerable media attention – with applause from his supporters and expressions of contempt from his opponents, who have no difficulty finding endless factual inaccuracies.
His speech last Monday is in line with article 42(b) Basic-Law: the Government, in which 40 MKs may demand a debate in the Knesset plenum with the participation of the prime minister. The idea behind the law is to ensure that the prime minister presents a report on the current security situation to the Knesset and stays for the entire debate.
After presenting his recent report about the security situation, and after explicitly condemning those “who denigrate the heads of the security forces who are involved in fighting terror,” and who “invade villages and set fire to buildings” (he was referring to the “hilltop youth”), Netanyahu went on to mock the leaders of the opposition, in a parody of the popular children’s book: A Tale of Five Balloons.
The story is about five children who receive five balloons – four of which burst under different circumstances; the fifth is blown away by the wind. In his version of the story, Netanyahu replaced the children with the leaders of five opposition parties.
Each opposition leader was assigned one balloon
The blue balloon, of Yair Lapid, was the opposition leader’s prediction that Israel’s credit rating would be reduced. The yellow balloon of Benny Gantz (National Unity Party) was his prediction that Israel’s democracy is in immediate danger. The purple balloon of Merav Michaeli (Labor Party) was her prediction that the all-Right government would persecute the LGBTQs and turn Israel into a halachic state. Netanyahu added a slight, by speaking of Michaeli’s balloon in the feminine (the word in Hebrew is masculine).
The green balloon of Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Betanyu) concerned Israel’s war against terror, which Liberman claims the government is unable to deal with effectively.
The last balloon – a red one – was Mansour Abbas’s. The balloon represented, according to Netanyahu, the “NIS 50b. of gold” that was promised to him by the previous government, which flew away with the wind. According to Netanyahu, Abbas said: “My God, how did I get entangled with a bunch of novices, all of whose balloons simply burst when inflated.”
Netanyahu poo-pooed all the alleged warnings of the four first opposition leaders, and invented Abbas’s quote to prove that even the leader of Ra’am is full of contempt for his former coalition partners.
REGARDING ISRAEL’S credit rating: At the moment, Israel’s rating has not been reduced by the various international institutions that issue these ratings. The main reason is that the judicial reform has not yet gone into force.
Nevertheless, just a month ago, Fitch Ratings (one of the four main rating institutions) reported that “Israel continues to face high levels of internal social and political tension, and the advancement of certain policies favored by the governing coalition could aggravate these strains and influence the sovereign’s ratings.”
It should also be noted that even without a change in Israel’s credit rating in the last six months, investments in Israeli hi-tech have fallen by 68%, while in the rest of the world investment in hi-tech had started to recover.
One also has to be blind to argue that the political and social unrest have not affected Israel’s economy, and that after the reform will turn into law, in whatever form, there is no danger that the economic situation will continue to deteriorate.
(We do not yet know how far the reform will go, despite contradictory statements made by Netanyahu himself.)
As to the state of Israel’s democracy: No one has argued that Israel is no longer a democracy. The claim is that if the government proceeds with its plans to introduce the legal reform, Netanyahu will continue to place his own political ambitions and judicial concerns before the state’s interests. Israel’s democratic system, in its non-majoritarian sense, will continue to deteriorate.
In addition, there are large sections of the coalition and its supporters for whom democracy, in its essential sense, is not an ideal to be pursued. This increases the chances that Israel’s democracy will deteriorate into an illiberal democracy at best, and at worst to an authoritarian state or even a dictatorship.
Israel's democracy isn't stable and deeply rooted
Netanyahu, unfortunately, is wrong when he insists that Israel’s democracy, and its government institutions, are stable, and deeply rooted. Gantz, and others who declare that there are warning alarms in this sphere, are right. Israel can, of course, continue to be a liberal democracy with ultra-Orthodox, nationalist-messianic, and Kahanist minorities, but not with these groups constituting close to half the ruling coalition, especially when the Likud is no longer a predominantly liberal-Right party.
Regarding Netanyahu’s comment about Michaeli’s purple balloon: Though there is no immediate danger that Israel will turn into a halachic state, or one in which the rights of LGBTQs will be seriously eroded, there is no doubt that under the current coalition there is a real danger that the religious status quo will increasingly tilt in the direction of various religious forces, and that “religionization processes” will intensify.
For example, non-religious schools are already being offered extra financing by the Education Ministry if they increase their religious studies.
As for the rights of the LGBTQs, already there is growing pressure to reverse the trend of liberalization of LGBTQ rights.
The LGBTQ community in Israel is in trouble if MK Yitzhak Pindrus, a senior member of United Torah Judaism, can get away with saying on TV (Channel 12, June 21): “What is most dangerous to the State of Israel – more than ISIS, more than the Hezbollah, more than Hamas? It is incestuous permissiveness (i.e. sexual divergences), because that is what is written in the Torah... Therefore, I am not only obliged to prevent the gay parade, but to prevent this movement altogether.”
As for Liberman’s green balloon – the war against Palestinian terror – it is simply not true that the current government is dealing with it more effectively than the previous one. Statistics prove otherwise. And if you add to this the wanton arson and other physical attacks by young settlers on Arab villages in reaction to acts of terror, and the government’s almost total failure to react to them (despite Netanyahu’s Knesset speech last Monday), then Netanyahu’s comments regarding Liberman’s alleged balloon are a figment of his imagination.
Finally, regarding Abbas’s red balloon: Here, Netanyahu’s cynical hypocrisy reaches new heights. The Arab community in Israel received only a fraction of the NIS 53b. allocated to it by the previous government because the government fell prematurely – thanks to the machinations of the then-opposition, led by Netanyahu.
Furthermore, it is said that the current government’s 2023-2024 budget contains at least part of the payments promised last year. In fact, there is no way the current government will be able to deal effectively with the battle against the constantly growing violence and murders in the Arab community unless large budgets are allocated to deal with the gaps, and a better future is offered to the Arab community.
Which leads to the question: What color is Netanyahu’s balloon, and when will it burst?
The writer was a researcher in the Knesset for many years, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge last year.