AnalysisA time to tear down

Why Netanyahu’s government treats every issue like a war

The new generation of right-wing politicians is bound by the belief that entrenched leftist elites lurk behind every institution and policy problem. The result is chaos

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and members of his new government look on as the government is sworn in at the Knesset, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, in Jerusalem. (Amir Cohen/Pool via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and members of his new government look on as the government is sworn in at the Knesset, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, in Jerusalem. (Amir Cohen/Pool via AP)

In 2017, an Israeli right-wing activist published a book that became an overnight mainstay of the conservative Israeli bookshelf. It was a fierce and effective polemic with a title as blunt as its argument: “Why do you vote right and get left?”

Since the late 1970s, explained author Erez Tadmor, voters have usually sent right-wing majorities to the Knesset, yet government policy remained, he argued, “leftist.” The reason was simple. At every turn, a narrow leftist elite stymied the will of the people, and especially in three key domains: the media, the legal system and the universities.

The right won’t truly govern or realize its vision for the country, Tadmor warned, until this elite is sidelined.

He offered three proposals for achieving that end, mostly framed in language borrowed from American conservatism: Competition must be imposed in the media, the judiciary and government legal bureaucracy must be restrained through legal reforms, and universities and colleges must be pressured to adopt a more conservative bent in research and teaching.

None of the book’s arguments were new, but their presentation in a single, coherent and combative narrative helped crystalize the worldview of a growing movement. To young right-wing activists, the story made sense. Their defining experience was the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, inexplicably carried out by a Likud-led government. The right’s unbeatable leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, was not a hero to this cadre, but an embodiment of the problem. In the years since his return to power in 2009, he had proved himself exceedingly cautious on matters of war and peace, batted away attempts at judicial reform, and generally preferred broad coalitions with the center-left (such as his 2009 and 2013 governments) to narrower rightist governments.

Tadmor sought to explain this strange rightist devotion to what activists like him couldn’t help but see as an essentially leftist political agenda. His answer – a leftist clique in the state bureaucracy, higher education and the judiciary – made sense to many.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak in 2012. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

The narrative soon proved its usefulness. When Netanyahu responded to his corruption indictment in November 2019 by claiming he was being persecuted by a conspiracy of leftist elites, opponents heard a reckless conspiracist with his back to the wall, but supporters nodded in agreement. If a cohesive and self-interested leftist elite did indeed exist in the key legal, journalistic and academic institutions of the country, it hardly seemed far-fetched to suggest that its members might be unified in their desire to bring down the right’s most successful champion in two generations.

In every democracy, entrenched elites and long institutional memories slow the pace of change, and in every democracy, at one point or another, railing against entrenched elites can prove too effective at the ballot box to be resistible for any aspiring politician.

Erez Tadmor (Tamir Dortal / Wikipedia)

But the Israeli reality is more complicated than any simplistic political narrative can admit. There is an entrenched Israeli elite, but it’s more meritocratic and diverse than right-wing rhetoric claims, with growing representation in elite institutions for once-marginalized communities. Media, legal and academic elites do indeed tend left, though not as uniformly as commonly believed.

But the narrative itself is the point here. It’s impossible to understand the culture, rhetoric and policy instincts of the new government without it — or why the government seems to have gotten off to such a rocky, chaotic start. The narrative has become a basic habit of mind of the Israeli right, to the point that politicians are now primed to see – or pretend to see – oppressive elites around every corner.

Defending the Sabbath

So it was that in his first significant act as a member of the new government, Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar decided to draw a bold line in the sand in defense of the sacred Jewish day of rest.

Incoming Culture Minister Miki Zohar (R) with his predecessor Chili Tropper at a handover ceremony in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The Shabbat-observant public won’t be discriminated against on my watch,” he declared on January 22, announcing that his office was canceling its funding for the “Israeli Sabbath” program put in place by his predecessor Chili Tropper, offering state funding for local councils’ cultural events on Shabbat.

By funding programs on the Sabbath, Zohar argued, his ministry was spending public money on activities observant Jews could not participate in.

The support flooded in. The pro-Netanyahu Channel 14 lauded the decision, headlining its coverage with the words “He came to govern” and explaining that the decision would “strengthen the Sabbath in the public square.” United Torah Judaism chief Yitzhak Goldknopf welcomed Zohar’s statement as an “important expression of values.”

Then, a day later, Zohar abruptly reversed course.

As testimony from observant Israelis poured in to his Twitter and other online accounts, Zohar discovered belatedly that the “Israeli Sabbath” program was almost the diametrical opposite of what he’d believed. It didn’t favor the secular; in fact, it made cultural events and sites previously only available to the secular now accessible to the religious. By funding up to 90 percent of the budget of events, museum entrance fees and the like during the Sabbath, it removed the ticket counters, turnstiles and other paraphernalia that blocked access for those who could not interact with money or electronics on the holy day. Some of the program’s funds were actually earmarked for “Sabbath compatibility” measures like the installation of automatic clocks to operate lights and air conditioning, and many museums took advantage of the subsidy to do just that.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple looks at an installation in the dining room section of the No Place Like Home exhibition in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on February 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Zohar’s first act in his first ministerial post had backfired embarrassingly. He came into office searching for tell-tale signs of secularist-left elitism so he could declare immediate, uncompromising war upon it. It was sheer bad luck that he accidentally found himself going to war against the wrong segment of the population.

Once the dust had settled, Zohar railed at “the lying media spin” that he claimed had misrepresented his policy. He’d only sought to stop the practice of the Culture Ministry initiating cultural programs on the Sabbath, he said, and never intended to defund or shutter local council events. Local officials disagreed, noting that before Zohar’s volte-face, they’d been notified that budgets for council-initiated programs would be frozen too.

The public broadcaster

A similar process is underway in Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi’s bid to shutter the Kan public broadcaster.

The plan appears to be based in part on a four-page policy paper by the Kohelet Policy Forum that advocates, among other things, shifting funding for original programming from the public broadcaster to competing commercial channels.

The plan is being revealed piecemeal; much of it remains unknown. When pressed for details, Karhi’s answers in interviews, both on- and off-record, have been vague and sometimes contradictory, suggesting that the details are unclear even to their primary architect.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi attends a digital journalism conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, January 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

There’s nothing inherently unreasonable in calling for a shift from a cash-flush British-style public broadcaster to an arrangement in which commercial channels compete for government subsidies to produce high-quality original content. Nor is the counter-argument unreasonable: that if the public broadcaster is defunded, highly centralized and closely cooperating commercial interests will control the entirety of the Hebrew-language television landscape, leaving no independent public media or television news operation to call those commercial interests to task.

The point here isn’t to debate the merits of the policy. The point is simply that the minister advancing it hasn’t seemed able to clearly articulate those merits, or any specifics at all, as he’s unveiled it. He routinely appeared to confuse the agencies involved, the way the money would move under the new regime, and other key details.

One telling example: In a mid-January interview with “Meet the Press,” Karhi claimed that in the United States, “there is no public broadcasting” and “the state doesn’t fund public broadcasting.” It’s a strange claim for an Israeli communications minister to make. America’s public broadcasting system is very different from Israel’s – highly localized and mostly donor-funded – but it is nevertheless massively funded by the state. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting received some $465 million in 2022 alone from the American taxpayer.

Karhi’s unfamiliarity with the issue is significant not because it calls into question his qualifications or seriousness, but for the opposite reason: because of his reputation as one of the sharper policy minds in government. He holds degrees, including a doctorate, from top Israeli universities in accounting, information systems and industrial engineering and management. In his short time in the Knesset (he was first elected in 2019), he’s made a name for himself as an influential and knowledgeable point man on complex issues like banking reform.

So his lack of acquaintance with his own policy can’t be explained by any limitation of intellect or raw ability. Rather, like Zohar, Karhi is a neophyte minister who knows that to advance politically within the present-day Israeli right, he must be seen to break things. The public broadcaster, seen by right-wing populists as an “oppressive, racist” and “anti-Likud” institution, was ripe for such breaking. What he might end up building in its stead is, in terms of pure political benefit, far less important.

Workers from the Kan public broadcaster and supporters protest against the government’s apparent intention to close the network, in Tel Aviv, January 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A time to tear down, and a time to build

It is hard to divorce Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposed judicial overhaul from this broader culture of habitual belligerence – again, irrespective of the substance of the reforms.

A great many legal scholars on both right and left support curtailing the Israeli judiciary’s unusual powers. There are many reasons, too, to fear that Levin’s reforms go too far.

But few of those responsible for the far-reaching plan, including its key political shepherds Levin and Knesset Law Committee chair MK Simcha Rothman, have been engaging seriously and publicly with these concerns or advancing any attempts at compromise.

And a great many Israelis, including on the right, are asking why.

Are they, as some of their defenders claim, merely playing hardball ahead of the inevitable turn toward a middle ground? Or is the overhaul another rendition of Zohar and Karhi’s impulse to move fast and break things, albeit with much higher stakes?

Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman (L) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend a meeting of the panel on January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli right is now in power with an unassailable parliamentary majority. But habits of mind are hard to break; much of the right still talks and acts like the angry young anti-Disengagement activists of yesteryear. And politicians like Zohar are discovering the pitfalls of that instinctive belligerence.

A judicial reform born in a similar confrontational impulse, immune to criticism and convinced all opposition serves a nefarious enemy, may well prove as short-sighted and disastrous as its critics claim.

As the government embarks on some of the most ambitious changes in Israel’s history, it’s fair to ask this crop of seemingly perpetually disgruntled politicians whether they have come to build, or merely to tear down.

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