“As a democracy, [Israel] is at stake. I’m not saying the problem is coming here tomorrow, but the trend is very, very, very dangerous.” With these words, spoken last April, Benny Gantz set the tone for his year-long bid to become Israeli prime minister. Such foreboding rhetoric was a recurrent feature of the Gantz campaign: in the same press conference he compared his rival Benjamin Netanyahu to the Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan; on another occasion, channeling Churchill, he promised to fight Netanyahu “in the streets, in the town squares, in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in the media and the courts.” This sense of existential urgency — of a collective future on the line — seemed at once to match events and outstrip them. Outwardly, Israel has undergone a year of incredible upheaval — three deadlocked elections, Parliamentary logjam, a prime minister on trial for corruption. And yet, following from abroad, the overwhelming feeling has been one of dissonance; of an urgency detached from reality.
I felt this dissonance most acutely towards the end of March, when, for a brief moment, we appeared to be watching Israel slip from ethnocracy to formal dictatorship. The election at the beginning of the month had resulted in yet another stalemate, with neither Gantz nor Netanyahu having an unimpeded path to the required sixty-one-seat Knesset majority. The prospect of a fourth election loomed — but was swiftly quashed by the incipient COVID-19 pandemic, which has now killed over a hundred Israelis and forced the country into lockdown.
The first sign that Netanyahu might exploit coronavirus for antidemocratic ends was the news that the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service, were tracking citizens’ digital data in order to trace infections. This kind of surveillance, normally weaponized against Palestinians in the West Bank, was suddenly being deployed against Jews on the other side of the Green Line. And as the virus began to spread, so too did the scale and severity of the emergency measures. First, the Justice Minister Amir Ohana shuttered the courts, indefinitely adjourning Netanyahu’s trial and preventing any judicial scrutiny of the powers he’d afforded himself. Then the Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein suspended Parliament entirely, before choosing to resign rather than call a vote on his replacement. In 972 Magazine, the lawyer Michael Sfard described the events as a “coup in broad daylight”: in a matter of days, and using only legal process, Netanyahu had effectively dissolved Israeli democracy, allowing him to wield power unchecked.
And then, as quickly as it began, the coup was over. It had seemed likely that Edelstein, a steadfast ally of the Prime Minister, was really working on Netanyahu’s behalf when he suspended the Knesset. But the pretext he offered — that allowing a vote on a new speaker would jeopardize talks to establish a Unity Government — turned out to be correct. Panicked by the escalating pandemic, and no doubt heeding the public clamor for stable governance, Gantz agreed to join Netanyahu in coalition. Under the terms of their agreement, finalized today after weeks of negotiations, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for eighteen months, with Gantz serving as Defence Minister before taking the top job in October of next year. In making the deal, Gantz torpedoed his own party, Blue & White, and broke the main promise of his year-long campaign: never to serve a prime minister under criminal indictment.
Gantz, who spent his pre-political life in the IDF, rising ultimately to the position of Chief of Staff, had premised his candidacy on a single organizing message. Netanyahu, he repeatedly warned, represents a unique threat to Israel’s legal order — the “Jewish democracy” forged by Labor strongmen like David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, whose memory Gantz seemed to evoke. Like any effective piece of propaganda, it contained a large degree of truth: throughout his eleven-year term, Netanyahu has waged war against the civic and state institutions that grease the wheels of Israeli democracy. The judicial system has been his main target: traditionally the most effective check on the occupation and its abuses, it has been twisted into an ugly, unrecognizable shape. Under the former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a secular Jew with a religious zeal for the settler project, over three hundred new judges were appointed, giving the courts a fiercely conservative bent. Notably, the Supreme Court has been stacked with right-wingers, stymieing any potential challenge to the Nation State law, which inscribes apartheid into the Israeli constitution.
Other institutions have also suffered badly under Netanyahu: the mainstream press has had its credibility irreparably damaged by the revelation that he struck secret deals with major news outlets in exchange for more favorable coverage. And where organizations have resisted his settler revolution, they’ve been crippled: left-wing NGOs now operate in an atmosphere of unfreedom, their activities significantly restricted by a flurry of targeted legislation. One such law, directed at the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence (BtS), prevents particular kinds of human rights organizations from speaking in schools. Another requires any NGOs receiving over 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments to declare themselves, and their representatives to wear name tags in the Knesset. This illiberal drift has been accompanied by a personality cult that has legitimized Netanyahu’s centralization of power, prompting many to lament Israel’s path to “Erdoganization” — or worse.
To capitalize on this discontent, Blue & White sought to create a compelling symbolic contrast between Gantz and Netanyahu — one quiet and dignified, the other demagogic, despotic. The substantive ideological differences between the two, however, were always more elusive. This was evident in January of last year, when Gantz released an ad boasting of having returned Gaza “to the Stone Age” during the 2014 war, which he presided over as Chief of Staff. And while he was happy for his prospective coalition to include Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right former ally of Netanyahu’s, Gantz remained implacably opposed to joining forces with the Arab-led Joint List, who all along represented his only viable path to a Knesset majority. The most egregious act of triangulation was on the annexation of the West Bank, which Netanyahu intends to make his legacy — and which Blue & White announced they also supported, before the most recent election.
In emphasizing differences of character rather than ideology, Gantz has an unmistakable analogue in American politics. Blue & White was the “anyone-but-Bibi” party, and Gantz was the Israeli equivalent of a Never Trump conservative — a principled member of a political elite (in this case the military), conducting a personality-based campaign intended to protect the rule of law and “restore dignity” to front-line politics. And just like the Never Trumpers who shepherded Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court, when Gantz’s conscience was tested, it failed him. His decision to join Netanyahu in coalition was not, as per the howls of his former comrades in Blue & White, a betrayal, but a wholly predictable upshot of their ideological likeness. It teaches two salutary lessons: one concerning the stupidity of relying on character rather than ideology, and another about the insufficiency of a Netanyahu-centric analysis of Israel’s democratic decline. To be sure, Israel is in an autocratic moment, but its cause is strictly material; it is a problem of systems, not personalities, and one in which Gantz himself is deeply implicated. Maintaining an illegal occupation via liberal democratic institutions was always a difficult task; once all sides accept the occupation as immortal, it becomes an impossible one. In both Gantz and Netanyahu’s visions, Israel retains a permanent noncitizen population of five million Palestinians. They can’t vote, they can’t be incorporated as Israelis, and the settlements that imprison them can’t be swept away. How does a judicial system ostensibly dedicated to upholding equal rights reckon with this fact? It adjusts — or it is brought to heel. The democratic decline that Gantz campaigned on reversing was only catalyzed by Netanyahu; in truth, it was inevitable, encoded into the end logic of the occupation Gantz supports.
The deal signed today defines the new administration as a “national emergency government,” meaning that no legislation unrelated to the battle against coronavirus will be passed for the first six months. There is only one exception to this: annexation of the West Bank, which will be voted through the Knesset at the beginning of March. Netanyahu, who until little over a month ago was facing a possible prison sentence, could not have dreamt of a better outcome. His legacy has been secured, and he can pursue annexation unbothered by either Parliamentary opposition or his corruption trial. Blue & White, the most significant threat to his power in over a decade, has been annihilated, and the center ground it hoped to capture has withered away. His own position has never been stronger, or the consensus he built so secure.
The role of the Jewish left in all this has been marginal. Meretz, Israel’s leftmost Zionist party, meekly supported Blue & White’s anti-corruption crusade until it came to an abrupt end, while Labor, the party of Yitzhak Rabin, has seen its leader follow Gantz into coalition with a man who was at least partly responsible for his death. The Left’s standard posture is prostration, and the temptation to revert to type will be strong. But instead of crying traitor, triangulating rightwards, or reforming around the carcass of Blue & White, they should see this as a golden opportunity for realignment.
Real change — if they want it — will not arrive through Blue & White, nor through Israeli democracy in its current, constricted formation. There is a path back to genuine opposition, but treading it will require abandoning certain unspoken predicates. Foremost amongst these is the traditional two-state solution, which retains its zombie grip on left politics despite the inescapable fact of 750,000 heavily armed and lavishly funded settlers. A hard-headed acceptance of the one-state reality will also mean dropping the politics of separation — a rebrand of two-statism which largely involves obsessing over Israel’s Jewish demographic majority.
But most of all, there needs to be an understanding that the principal opposition to Netanyahu, both ideologically and in terms of raw math, comes from the fifteen MKs of the Joint List.
I have written before about the radical future suggested by an Arab-left alliance, but Gantz’s decision brings the point into even starker relief. The question of corruption first clouded, then eventually eclipsed, the question of Palestine, creating a narrow, superficial anti-politics fought between competing visions of Israeli identity. This is why all the drama of the past year has felt so flat; there have been three referendums on Israel’s future, and no one has mentioned the only thing that really matters. Israel’s real existential dilemma has remained unchanged since at least 1967, when Moshe Dayan rolled his tanks into East Jerusalem: Palestine, not corruption.
It is the question, in theory and in practice, of a “Jewish and democratic state” — how it might be built, whether it is even possible. The Left, for all its faults, at least used to take this question seriously. Benny Gantz has given it a chance to do so again.