As I See It: Democracy in turmoil

Liberman’s appointment as defense minister, the possibility of a military coup has been raised – but only with a smile.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Avigdor Liberman ‏ (photo credit: KOBI ZOLTAK)
Yisrael Beytenu MK Avigdor Liberman ‏
(photo credit: KOBI ZOLTAK)
The West is convulsing over a crisis of democracy.
This week, Austria’s far-right leader Norbert Hofer came within a whisker of being elected the country’s president.
Across Europe, neo-fascist parties are gaining traction. What’s driving their support is a revolt against the entire political and cultural establishment which extends beyond Europe’s borders.
The reasons vary country by country.
In Europe, it’s the scale of mass migration from the developing world and the fear of Islamization.
In Britain, concerns about the loss of national self-government as well as unsustainable levels of European-linked immigration have provoked next month’s referendum on continued EU membership.
In America, widespread disgust with crony capitalism and a corresponding public swing toward isolationism and protectionism have fueled both the persistent support for Bernie Sanders and the unstoppable rise of Donald Trump.
All these discontents share a common core: a revolt by the masses against an entire political and cultural establishment now overwhelmingly seen as corrupt, self-serving, arrogant, incompetent and unaccountable. It is a crisis for democracy itself.
In a different context, a similar crisis is gripping Israel.
The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, dumped his ally, the generally respected defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, and replaced him with his foe, the generally reviled Avigdor Liberman.
This was because Ya’alon had spoken out in support of the deputy chief of staff, Maj.- Gen. Yair Golan. In a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Golan warned about signs in Israeli society of “intolerance, violence and self-destruction.”
He added: “If there is one thing that is scary in remembering the Holocaust, it is noticing horrific processes which developed in Europe – particularly in Germany – 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and finding remnants of that here among us in the year 2016.”
Netanyahu hit the roof, saying Golan’s remarks “wrong Israeli society and cheapen the Holocaust.” Ya’alon said it was right and necessary for IDF officers to speak up for moral values and was accordingly fired.
Golan was correct in warning about a moral crisis, but not in the way he meant. The crisis is over the meaning of Israeli democracy, and both he and Ya’alon are themselves part of the problem.
For sure, there are indeed disturbing trends in Israeli society. The violence of “hill-top youth” or “price-tag” terrorists needs to be stamped out. Some attitudes toward Arabs or Ethiopian Jews cross the line from legitimate concerns into bigotry.
It is also troubling that so many Israelis, who are outraged by the prosecution for manslaughter of Sgt. Elor Azaria after he shot dead an already wounded Palestinian assailant, seem not to recognize any moral distinction between stopping an attack and shooting in cold blood someone who poses no threat.
Maj.-Gen. Golan was, however, wrong to have publicly denigrated Israeli society, and his Weimar/Nazi analogy was beyond the pale.
Ya’alon was wrong in turn to say IDF officers should be free to say what they like. They should not. Soldiers should be defending their country, not attacking it. As servants of a unified national interest, they must be seen to be dispassionate and detached from the wider public debate.
Golan and Ya’alon, however, reflect a wider problem. The IDF and Israeli security circles behave as a superior and untouchable elite that puts itself above democratically elected politicians.
In an extraordinary article in last weekend’s New York Times, the Israeli military affairs journalist Ronen Bergman suggested the “last defenders of Israel” were the heads of the IDF. Politicians, he wrote, “blatantly trample the state’s values and laws and seek belligerent solutions, while the chiefs of the Israel Defense Forces and the heads of the intelligence agencies try to calm and restrain them.”
Israel’s defense establishment, he claimed, was motivated only by the national interest rather than ideology, religion or electoral considerations.
Above all, he said, many military and intelligence officers simply detested Netanyahu.
According to the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, while all other prime ministers had been motivated ultimately by the national interest, Netanyahu was motivated by self-interest alone.
The arrogance and disloyal insubordination of such views are startling. As Bergman notes in the same article, the unelected military and security establishment blocked one government initiative after another, including an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.
Far from defending the national interest, several of Israel’s most senior security personnel actively undermine it. In the movie The Gatekeepers, a number of former Shin Bet chiefs blamed successive governments for not having pulled out of the disputed territories which, they claimed, would have ended the Arab war against Israel.
Endorsing, by such demonstrable idiocies, the manipulative campaign of psychological warfare against Israel and thus giving ammunition to its mortal enemies is nothing short of treachery.
This word is more appropriate than you may have thought. For Bergman also wrote: “In some conversations I’ve had recently with high-ranking officers about Mr. Liberman’s appointment as defense minister, the possibility of a military coup has been raised – but only with a smile. It remains unlikely.”
A military coup in Israel should not merely be “unlikely.” It should be unthinkable. Military coups do not take place in democracies. They take place in banana republics. Frighteningly, it seems that far from protecting Israel’s moral values some in the military and security establishment do not accept democratic values at all.
At the root of this lies a fundamental problem. The supposedly hyper-democratic Israeli political system, which is predicated upon permanent coalitions, inescapably institutionalizes corruption, cronyism and administrative chaos. It produces weak governments and a political establishment overwhelmingly seen as venal, self-serving, arrogant, incompetent and unaccountable.
Such political weakness undermines democratic government by inflating the influence of other social institutions such as the universities and the media.
This has cemented in power the vicious intellectual Left, itself a chronic Israeli moral problem. For its members, all who fail to conform to their tenets are fascists.
During the 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge), Israel Prize laureate (and historian of French fascism) Prof.
Ze’ev Sternhell said there were “indicators” of fascism in Israel which was “on the brink of boiling over,” and compared the atmosphere to 1940s France.
Last December Dr. Ofer Cassif, a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University, called Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked “neo-Nazi scum.” He told Israel Radio: “I think it’s fair to compare Israel to Germany in the 1930s (and not to the years of genocide).”
Last month, in relation to the Azaria case, a Haaretz writer called B. Michael claimed Israel was on the way to “full, official fascism.”
The influence of the Left is widespread in Israel’s military and security circles, too. That’s why Maj.-Gen. Golan reached reflexively for the same smear.
That’s why former prime minister and lieutenant-general Ehud Barak claimed he saw the “seeds of fascism” in the Netanyahu administration after Ya’alon was dumped.
This doesn’t just betray the victims of true fascism. It trivializes the meaning of fascism itself.
Minimizing fascism diminishes democracy.
In both Israel and the West, the abuse, misunderstanding and neglect of democracy now threaten to shake it at its very core.
Melanie Phillips is a columnist for The Times (UK).