…for most Israelis the election results are signaling hope!... hope that we were saved from Halachic state and messianic tendencies govern[ed] by a prime minister that undermined the fabric of the collectivity!” -Prof. Yossi Shain, Georgetown & Tel Aviv University, in a Facebook exchange with me over the significance of the recent election results.
Israeli democracy this week was only a few inches from being Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey – Ehud Barak, Haaretz, Sept. 21, 2019.
Let me commence with full disclosure on two matters: First, I am a totally non-observant Jew, with little to no religious content at all in my day-to-day life—and have little vested interest in defending the religious against criticism from secular circles. Second, I am far from an uncritical Netanyahu apologist, and have severely castigated some his decisions in several columns in the past—see here, here, here & here.
Beyond limits of rational criticism & reasoned dissent
Accordingly, although I have voted for him in recent elections, this was due far more to my concern regarding his major rivals than any unswerving affinity for him personally or for his policies, regarding which I have more than a few reservations. Thus, it would probably accurate to say that I voted against his adversaries, rather for Netanyahu himself.
Perhaps another issue that nudged me into casting my ballot for him was my deep distaste for the vicious and vitriolic excoriation of the man and his deeds—no matter what he did…or did not do. Indeed, I have long been appalled and astonished by the toxic tirades to which his detractors have subjected him.
Of course, after decade of unbroken tenure—and almost a decade and a half overall—as prime minister, a legitimate claim can well be raised that a change is called for. But in Netanyahu’s case, opposition to him goes well beyond legitimate concern over the need for an overdue “changing of the guard”.
Thus, over half a decade ago, well before claims of an excessively long incumbency could be plausibly, raised, I wrote, of the anti-Netanyahu pathology: “The venomous ad hominem attacks on the PM by his political opponents have long exceeded the limits of rational criticism and reasoned dissent.”
Indeed, listening to the rabid rants of the myriad of “Bibiphobes”, an uninformed observer from another planet would be led to believe that Netanyahu is to blame for every misfortune and every malfeasance on the face of the globe - from a typhoid epidemic in East Asia to the cocaine industry in Latin America.
Absurd portrayal of Israel: The myth of Israel theocracy
Moreover, to judge by the derogatory diatribes directed at him, one might get the impression that he has made Israel a dark, backward, regressive backwater, tittering on the brink of tyranny and theocracy, combining the brutality of the Congo, the repression of Sudan and the religious intolerance of Saudi Arabia.
But for anyone familiar with reality in Israel, this is an absurd portrayal of the country.
Indeed, those who have experienced Israel know it to be a vibrant, albeit raucous, democracy, with a free—if often biased—press, a legislature elected by what are, overall, free and fair elections, a vocal, unfettered parliamentary opposition and an independent judiciary. It has become a technological power house, a global leader in innovation, with internationally acclaimed achievement in art and culture and on the cutting edge in most fields of human endeavor—in computer science and IT, in medicine, in water conservation, and in agriculture to name but a few.
As for the claims of creeping theocracy: The highways have never been more congested on Saturdays, with huge traffic jams backed up for miles; shopping malls have never been more crowded with customers on the Sabbath; beaches have never been more crowded over the weekends, and the bikinis never more skimpy; non-kosher restaurants, serving every variety of seafood, have never been more packed, week-end leisure activities—from mountain biking to windsurfing—never been more popular.
With massive “gay pride parades” in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem a regular annual feature of public life, with Tel Aviv dubbed by some as the “gay capital of the world”, Israel is hardly a state in the iron grip of religious zealots!
Anyone attempting to cast it in this light is clearly either woefully misinformed or willfully misleading.
Malevolent & mendacious
The charge is, of course, baseless.
After all, Erdoğan has conducted wide-spread purges of the judiciary and other sectors of the legal establishment – see here, here and here.
According to the Law Society, there has been “widespread and systematic persecution of members of the legal profession in Turkey” with countless suspects being convicted of terrorism “without credible evidence”.
Quoting an international coalition of lawyers, the Guardian reported that: “Trust in Turkey’s justice system is being undermined by the systematic dismissal and jailing of thousands of judges and prosecutors. Judges’ and prosecutors’ independence has been systematically undermined in Turkey”.
Moreover, Erdogan’s Turkey has won the dubious title for jailing more journalists than any other country –reportedly “more than China, Russia and Egypt combined”—see here and here. Indeed, since Erdogan became president in 2014, prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting him and a Dutch journalist of Turkish parentage was arrested while vacationing in the country for criticizing the Turkish president.
Clearly then, any comparison between the realities in Israel and those in Turkey are wildly distortive, hopelessly detached from reality and beyond reasonable doubt, deliberately deceptive.
Under Netanyahu, nary a judge nor a prosecutor has ever been charged with—much less convicted of—terrorism. Likewise, no journalist, however critical of him or his government, has ever been investigated—much less—arrested for opinions he/she expressed in the media.
Accordingly, any suggestion of similarities between the two is manifestly malevolent and mendacious.
Acrid ad hominem acrimony
In many ways, the acrid ad hominem acrimony against Netanyahu is puzzling.
After all, despite the specter of criminal indictments, he invariably tops the polls as the candidate most suited to be Prime Minister–usually outpacing his nearest rival, Blue & White’s Benny Gantz, by ten percentage points or more – see for example here, here & here.
Surprisingly—indeed, astonishingly—even among Israeli Arabs, Netanyahu was designated the “best suited for the role of premier” (23.6%)—scoring well over double the approval rate of Ayman Odeh (9.9%), head of the Arab Joint List, who was just ahead of Gantz (9.6%).
This resounding public endorsement is not undeserved. After all, despite some undeniable shortcomings, during his tenure he has accumulated an impressive record of achievement—in virtually every field of national endeavor—economic, diplomatic and security.
Under Netanyahu-led coalitions, Israel’s economy surged, with GDP per capita climbing by over 50%, equaling or surpassing that of France, UK and Japan—a feat unimaginable not many years ago. Moreover, by encouraging Israel’s pivot to the East, he considerably reduced economic dependence of an often less-than-friendly EU.
On the international front, he managed to wait out the largely antagonistic Obama incumbency, seemingly without major damage; established extremely amiable relations with the current US administration, with Russia, India and the once hostile Brazil.
Ad hominem acrimony (cont.)?
His resolve on Iran’s nuclear program helped induce the US withdrawal from the atrocious accord struck with Tehran and the re-imposition of punishing sanctions against it. In Eastern and Central Europe, he managed to forge a counter weight against an otherwise disapproving EU and made significant diplomatic inroads into Africa and South America.
With regard to security, under his premiership, the IDF have conducted highly successful operations in the north against the Hezbollah tunnel system and the Iranian build up in Syria. As to his handling of terror, apart from periodic flare-ups and excessive restraint against Hamas, he has brought attacks down to almost imperceptible levels for the majority of Israelis—and certainly far less than was the case in the gory times of his predecessors—when attacks were a regular feature of daily life here—in cafes, on buses, in shopping malls, and on crowded sidewalks.
Thus, as I observed previously, after such an extended term in office as had by Netanyahu, a valid case for change can be raised. However, since—by and large—under his leadership, Israel has prospered significantly economically, enjoyed relative security, and enhanced its international standing, the intensity and fervor of the “Bibi derangement syndrome” seems perturbingly inappropriate.
The detriments of BDS (Bibi derangement syndrome)
I have purposely avoided broaching the subject of the pending indictments against Netanyahu—as this is something I have dealt with elsewhere –and about which, I am convinced, that anyone, who is not an obsessive Bibiphobe, would tend to agree that “[t]he unrelenting drive to bring an indictment—any indictment—against Netanyahu has long exceeded the bounds of reasonable law enforcement”.
Instead, I have focused on the issue of Netanyahu’s record of governance, rather than on his alleged personal misdeeds.
It is here that his political opponents should exercise greater caution and restraint.
For in their unbridled assaults on Netanyahu and on what Israel has allegedly become under his leadership, they are playing right into the hands of the country’s most vehement detractors. Indeed, it is difficult not to imagine them rubbing their hands in malicious glee, gloating over every caustic condemnation of Netanyahu by his domestic rivals.
After all, what more need they do to prove their case that Israel has become a fascist, racist state, run by xenophobic religious zealots, nudging it ever closer to totalitarian theocracy, than to quote the largely baseless barbs, hurled at him by those struggling to dislodge him from power?
Indeed, by their own hand, they are laying the foundation for incalculable—and potentially irreversible—damage to Israel, damage which, even if they manage to remove and replace Netanyahu, they themselves will not be able to repair.