Center Field: The anything-goes election, to keep Bibi from going to jail

While Israel vacationed, we continued hearing that anyone crossing King Bibi is a leftist.

An election ad with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the center   (photo credit: REUTERS)
An election ad with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the center
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When lawyers’ arguments weaken, they pound the table harder. When politicians stumble, they pound democracy.
In this election nobody wants, the prime minister, who overstayed his welcome, is guaranteeing one outcome. Attacking democracy, the vote’s legitimacy, the courts’ integrity, his rivals’ loyalty, will leave Israel polarized, “Trumpified.” Essentially, Benjamin Netanyahu’s despicable demagoguery disdaining democracy risks making everyone lose, no matter who wins.
Wake up Israelis, summer’s over.
While Israel vacationed, the prime minister assaulted democracy, resurrecting his 2015 tricks of mobilizing “Likhoodlums” by demonizing Arabs. Netanyahu’s stink bombs assailing the process blame the post-April deadlock on imaginary electoral fraud, particularly among Arabs, rather than his coalition bargaining bungles.
Did Israel need thousands brandishing their cameras at polling places, so Bibi could intimidate Arabs and question the results if he loses? Cameras can help secure balloting, if deployed thoughtfully, apolitically. The Knesset committee’s tie – which killed the camera bill – saved the democratic holy of holies, the voting booth, from Bibi’s machinations, for now.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s still threatening democracy’s secret sauce – that legitimacy citizens grant the winner to govern. A true patriot would boast about how fair Israeli elections are, not besmirch them.
While Israel vacationed, the Lying Likudniks worshiped at Bibi’s feet as blindly as Banana Republicans worship at Trump’s, sacrificing their souls while disrespecting democracy.
I challenge the Likud “princes” angling to replace Bibi: What kind of Israel do you want to inherit when he finally retires? Do you want a democracy diminished by demonization, polarization, demagoguery? If so, keep doing what you’re not doing – not defending the miracle of Israeli democracy.
While Israel vacationed, too many pols tried perfuming the stench of Kahanism with political pragmatism. Once, merely a whiff of such anti-Arab prejudice roused Yitzhak Shamir, who banished Jewish bigots from the Knesset. Today, even people of principle like Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Rafi Peretz tried wooing the Arab-bashing Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit into their Yamina Party. Rather than defining some redlines – even on the Right – petty clashes over political positioning scotched the merger. I wish just one of these pols had taken the high road, not the ego trip, and rejected these thugs on principle.
While Israel vacationed, we continued hearing that anyone crossing King Bibi is a leftist. Avigdor Liberman, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon and Benny Gantz are about as leftist as Netanyahu is humble. It doesn’t matter that Bibi once trusted Liberman and Ya’alon to serve as defense minister; and it doesn’t matter that “leftist” shouldn’t be a dirty word: because it’s the anything-goes election, to keep Bibi going as prime minister and from going to jail.
Reporters keep claiming that Bibi mimics Trump’s demagoguery. But Bibi mastered these morally bankrupt dark arts when Trump was still declaring bankruptcy in the 1990s. Both exploit the same Western ills of polarizing partisanship and sky-is-falling xenophobia. But there’s a difference. Netanyahu knows better. He’s an intellectual, a man of refinement, who browbeats and pot-stirs because it works. Donald Trump is a vulgarian, a narcissist, who bellows and bullies because he can – and it works.
If there are circles of Dantean Hell, the calculating arsonist will burn hotter than the knee-jerk pyromaniac.
Alas, while Israel vacationed, the Center vacationed, too. Blue and White went AWOL, foolishly following consultants who proposed avoiding politics because Israelis are fed up with politics. But you can’t unseat Mr. Low Road with a low profile. And if Gantz lacks fire in the belly before winning, will he ever give Israel the passionate leadership it needs?
Meanwhile, the parties genuinely to Bibi’s left only tell us what’s wrong with him, not what’s right about their ideas. They offered no compelling solutions to Hamas’s Gaza “kite-tifada,” Hezbollah’s multiplying missiles, or Iran’s cancerous conniving. And too many Bibi bashers let their disdain for his demagoguery block them from seeing all the good in Israel today – or anything good Netanyahu accomplished economically, diplomatically.
And, while Israel vacationed, the Arab parties continued failing their own people. Most Arab mayors are practical bridge-builders, boosting their constituents’ socioeconomic status, which benefits all Israelis. Most Arab MKs are flamethrowers, making Israeli Arabs look more radical than they are, dismissing the progress in the sector, and risking any further gains with their extremism. (That doesn’t mean they should be banned from Knesset, just voted out by their voters.)
NETANYAHU BELIEVES in winning elections ruthlessly, then backpedaling. But his brutality brutalizes, pockmarking politics, disfiguring democracy.
Democracy is a fragile flower. “Twitterdumb,” social breakdown, and our coarsened cultures are weakening democracy globally. When leaders trample the delicate buds of trust, respect, proportionality and principle that make complicated, chaotic countries work, our democracies risk wilting.
Some campaign-time overstepping is inevitable, but systematic assaults are unconscionable.
Last Saturday night, Labor Party functionaries started banging on the door of Yitzhak Rabin’s 94-year-old sister on Kibbutz Menara in the Upper Galilee. They needed her to sign a power of attorney to sue Yair Netanyahu, Bibi’s son, for accusing Rabin of “killing Holocaust survivors on the Altalena.”
“Ma pit’om?” – whatsamatta with you? she said, Yediot Aharonot reported. “Izvu, hayeled hazeh lo beseder” – drop it, that boy’s not right.
You can read this story as replacing one libel with another. I don’t. Rather, 235 kilometers north of the Knesset, a voice of reason, of moderation, instinctively said “enough.” Such maturity is key to preserving community, democracy.
Israeli democracy is resilient. Ultimately, Rabin’s self-restraint will trump Netanyahu’s democracy bashing. We will survive. We just shouldn’t have to – because we the voters can punish these behaviors now rather than encouraging them by rewarding them.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.