Netanyahu’s Betrayal of Democracy Is a Betrayal of Israel

Decency and reason can still prevail, but more than ever Israel needs its Jewish friends abroad.

An illustration featuring a photo image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic; Atef Safadi / AFP / Getty; Kobi Wolf / Bloomberg / Getty; Lior Mizrahi / Getty

This past summer, I marked a personal milestone: 40 years since moving to Israel.

The summer of 1982 was one of the lowest points in Israeli history. All of the ambivalence over Israel that would divide the Jewish people in the coming decades began to coalesce then, when Israel was fighting a war in Lebanon that large parts of the Israeli public regarded as unnecessary and deceitful.

I had joined an Israel that was, for the first time, bitterly divided over the perception of threat. War had always united Israelis; now war was dividing them. Once inconceivable, huge anti-government demonstrations took place even as the Israel Defense Forces were fighting at the front. Reservists completing their month of service would return their equipment and head directly to the daily protests outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. If an external threat could no longer unite us, what would hold this fractious people together?

These days, as Israel faces another historic internal crisis, I find myself thinking a great deal about the summer of ’82. Then we lost our unity in the face of an external threat. Now we’ve lost our unifying identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

The new governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a mortal danger to our internal cohesion and democratic legitimacy—a historic disgrace. Each day seems to bring some new, previously unimaginable violation of a moral and national red line. My ordinarily insatiable appetite for Israeli news has been reduced to skimming the headlines; the details are too painful.

The Netanyahu government is the most politically extreme, the most morally corrupt, and the most contemptuous of good governance in Israel’s history. We have known governments with extremist elements, governments rife with corruption or incompetence, but not all at once and not to this extent.

This government that speaks in the name of the Torah desecrates the name of Judaism. This government that speaks in the name of the Jewish people risks tearing apart the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. This government that speaks in the name of the Israeli ethos is the greatest threat to the ethos that binds Israelis together. This government that speaks in the name of Israeli security is a gift to those seeking to isolate the Jewish state and portray it as criminal.

No Israeli government has had more ministers convicted of crimes or under indictment. None has had such disregard for our national institutions, dismantling ministries and distributing the pieces like spoils of war. No other government has shown such disdain for basic standards of decency. No other government has declared war on the judicial system, which even the U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a Netanyahu ally, has called the gold standard that should not be tampered with.

This government threatens to present liberal Israelis with a vision of the state antithetical to their own. Liberals have learned to live with the tragedy of ruling over the Palestinian people, because there was no alternative, no credible Palestinian peace partner—but how to live with that moral anguish if we ourselves make the occupation irreversible? And how to live with permanent domination of another people even as our democratic institutions are threatened? And how to live with that threat even as the growing ultra-Orthodox population, which relies heavily on state benefits, becomes an ever greater financial burden?

No government has the right to re-create the country so profoundly that it effectively disenfranchises whole parts of its population. The Oslo peace process of the 1990s, which the Labor government maintained through a contrived parliamentary majority based on political bribery, was an example of one part of the population trampling on the deepest sensibilities of another without seeking a national dialogue. Stopping a runaway left was why I voted for Netanyahu when he first ran for prime minister, in 1996.

The Netanyahu government of 2023 is the right’s Oslo.

In their commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion were no different from each other—nor, for that matter, were Yair Lapid and an earlier incarnation of Netanyahu himself. The cohering force of this schismatic society is its Zionist majority, from left to center to right. The nation’s two fastest-growing populations—the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab Israelis—do not generally share the vision of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. In tearing apart our Zionist core, Netanyahu is pushing Israel to the edge.

Disdain for the state is the ideology that holds together crucial elements of Netanyahu’s coalition. For the ultra-Orthodox, the state’s legitimacy is measured solely by its willingness to support their separatist state-within-a-state. For the ultra-nationalists, whose real concern is less the state than the land of Israel, the state’s institutions lost their legitimacy during the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, when the state “betrayed” the land.

This is Israel’s first post-state government. The open contempt for the political system that Netanyahu and his Likud Party colleagues in the Knesset have displayed over the past year—boycotting the Parliament’s committees and turning plenary sessions into staged scenes of mockery, encouraging thugs to harass the families of right-wing Knesset members who dared join the previous Bennett-Lapid government—was a mere rehearsal for the current assault on the nation’s institutions.

Not even the most binding Israeli institution, the military, is safe. The coalition has installed Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the extremist Religious Zionist Party, as a kind of alternative, shadow minister in the Defense Ministry. The coalition intends to remove the border police, the unit that most closely oversees the Palestinian population, from IDF authority and place it under the command of the far-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man who despises moral restraint. For Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, the IDF has been corrupted by what the right regards as Western morality, by weakness and defeatism. The camaraderie at the core of the IDF, allowing Israelis across the political spectrum to serve together, means little to them. That is why right-wing members of the Knesset taunt Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of staff of the IDF and a left-wing politician, as a virtual traitor.

As for Netanyahu, only a man who no longer cares about the dignity and good name of Israel could have brought the most extreme elements of society into the inner sanctum of government.

Israeli democracy is a miracle. No other democracy has faced such relentless threats, whether from constant terrorism or periodic war, while fending off diplomatic isolation and economic boycott. Israel has maintained a balancing act between security needs and democratic norms, even as it has absorbed waves of traumatized refugees from countries with no democratic traditions. Other societies would have broken under the strain. Yet the country’s democratic institutions and ethos have held.

True, Israel is not a paragon of democracy. A nation under permanent siege and caught in a long-term occupation from which there is no safe exit can’t be an ideal model. But it is a paragon of the struggle for democracy against overwhelming odds, a laboratory for testing the resilience of democratic norms under extreme conditions.

Far-left anti-Zionists dismiss the relevance of those circumstances as a whitewash. Far-right ultra-Zionists likewise despise Israel’s balancing act because they regard democratic norms and institutions as preventing Israel from using its power without restraint. But to judge Israel without considering its challenges is to miss the historic achievement of its democracy.

Today, though, that miracle is cause less for celebration than for anxiety. For the first time in Israel’s history, our democracy is under threat not from the security situation but from our own government.

An understandable fatalism has taken hold among liberal Israelis. Given the demographic trends, they appear headed for permanent minority status. Talk of emigration is growing; secular Israelis describe it—tellingly, in English—as “relocation.” Netanyahu is creating the grounds for an emigration of despair.

Yet the Netanyahu government is hardly invulnerable. Polls since the election show growing unease among a significant minority of Netanyahu voters. According to one survey, 61 percent of Israelis—and, crucially, 41 percent of those who voted for coalition parties—are worried for the future of Israeli democracy.

Other polls show even larger majorities who oppose a change in the state’s secular identity and who believe Netanyahu mismanaged coalition negotiations, ceding too much to his partners. Another shows that Netanyahu’s coalition would be down by six seats if elections were held today, which would deprive it of a governing majority.

But to win over the ambivalent Netanyahu voters of the postelection polls, the political center needs to understand why many voted for Netanyahu in the first place—because he managed to portray the outgoing coalition as an existential threat to Israel’s Jewish identity, and himself as its last line of defense.

Most Israeli Jews, including committed democrats, regard the state’s Jewish identity as fundamental to its existence, perhaps even more than its democratic identity. After all, many democracies have experienced authoritarian phases and not only continued to exist as nations but eventually recovered their democratic identity. But an Israel stripped of its Jewishness would lose its reason for being, its internal cohesion, and the vitality that has enabled it to survive in a region hostile to its existence.

Netanyahu presented voters with a stark—and utterly false—dichotomy between his “Jewish” camp and his opponents’ “democratic” camp. The opposition’s campaign to save democracy will fail so long as substantial parts of the public are convinced that the left—Netanyahu’s all-purpose term for his opponents, most of whom in fact are centrists—is more committed to Israel’s democratic identity than to its Jewishness.

Netanyahu’s supposed proof that the previous government had betrayed the Jewish state was the inclusion in its coalition of the Islamist Ra’am Party, which he called “the Muslim Brotherhood.” (Although Ra’am’s ideological origins did lie with that group, the party has since repudiated it.) The participation of an Arab party in the coalition, which broke the traditional Arab political boycott, was a milestone for the integration of Arab Israelis. That victory was confirmed when Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, became the first prominent Arab-Israeli leader to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

In fact, Netanyahu himself had tried desperately to woo Ra’am to form his own government, only to be thwarted by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. Netanyahu’s deception about his own overtures to Ra’am and his false accusation of the previous government as being in league with Islamic extremists helped return him to power.

If Netanyahu is allowed to claim a monopoly on loyalty to Jewishness, opposing this government in the name of democracy alone will only strengthen his argument that the rival camp cares little for Israel’s Jewish identity. Along with defending our democratic institutions from assault, we must challenge the Netanyahu coalition’s claim to be protecting the nation’s Jewish identity.

This last election exposed two opposing visions of a Jewish state. For the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-nationalists, Israel is the state of Judaism, of Orthodox Judaism. For classical Zionism, though, Israel was intended to be the state of the Jewish people, with no imposed uniform notion of “authentic” Jewish identity.

The difference is crucial. A state of Judaism is bound by premodern norms defining membership in the Jewish people, and upholds traditional, rather than democratic, standards for who we as a people should be. The state of the Jewish people, however, accepts the Jews as they are.

The state-of-Judaism camp has a compelling argument. For 2,000 years, Jews defined themselves through a shared system of rabbinical practices and beliefs. The remarkable achievement of Orthodox Judaism was to hold us together despite our dispersal. A Jew could travel from Poland to Yemen and experience its diverse Jewish communities through a common religious language. Religion today, though, not only fails to unite us but is our primary divide.

Classical Zionism instead offered a more minimalistic underlying identity to hold us together, as members of the Jewish people. Zionism became the Jewish people’s most successful collective response to modernity, accepting the changes in Jewish identity wrought by two centuries of upheaval in Jewish life.

This is not a strictly religious-secular divide. There are Orthodox Israelis for whom Jewish unity is a basic religious value, so they accept the minimal definition of peoplehood as our shared foundation. Although they are bound to a traditional definition of Jewishness, they support more liberal standards for converting Israelis, such as the many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are of partial Jewish origin but are not recognized as Jewish by rabbinic law.

This is where the Netanyahu government is most vulnerable. Polls repeatedly affirm that a strong majority of Israelis identify with the classical Zionist understanding of a Jewish state, not the definition promoted by Netanyahu’s coalition. Netanyahu has betrayed not just democracy but the vision of a Jewish state that he himself once championed.

The question the centrist camp must place before the Israeli public is this: Should the Jewishness of the state of Israel be defined by rabbinic law or by the Zionist understanding of peoplehood? Framed that way, a decisive majority will side with the center. By salvaging the classical-Zionist vision of a Jewish state, we can help save Israeli democracy.

Forty years is a biblical generation, a period of reckoning. Not for a moment do I regret tying my life to the state of Israel. Perhaps counterintuitively, the summer of ’82 is itself what reinforces my faith in the future of the nation.

The divide then was not just over Lebanon; it was also ethnic and religious. Israel’s multiple schisms all converged on the fault line of the war, pitting Eastern Jew (Mizrahi) against Western Jew (Ashkenazi), religious against secular, left against right. Meanwhile, the economy was unraveling; inflation eventually topped 400 percent. Immigration, vital to Israel, was at a nadir.

Some might have reasonably concluded that Israel was on its way to becoming a failed state. Yet that was not the assumption of the Israelis I encountered. We’ve been through worse, people told me. The most useful Hebrew phrase I learned was Gam zeh ya’avor. This too will pass.

Forty years on, those crises—which seemed at the time existential and insoluble—have indeed passed. When we go to war today, we are united. According to The Economist, this start-up nation was the fourth-most-successful economy in 2022. Immigration is thriving. For all the tensions and grievances, marriage across ethnic communities is gradually healing the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi divide.

Each of those achievements can be undone. Old threats have been replaced by new threats. That is the nature of life in Israel.

I have learned never to freeze the frame and conclude: This is Israel. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, Israeli reality is always fluid. Just when you think you understand the country, along comes some unexpected, disruptive event—a wave of immigration, a war on one of the borders, a diplomatic breakthrough with the Arab world.

The Israeli ethos I learned as an immigrant is to avoid both wishful thinking and despair. Like many Israelis, I am heartbroken by the self-inflicted wound of this extremist new government—and I am deeply afraid of the consequences. This coalition, united only by hatred and vengeance toward internal enemies, cannot possibly cope with the threats facing Israel. Sooner or later, the coalition will unravel. The nature of hatred is to undermine itself, eventually turning its own proponents against one another. I believe that the sanity and decency of Israel will endure. The question will be at what price.

Diaspora Jews, too, are facing their moment of truth. Some whose connection to Israel has been wavering will be further alienated; others may give up on the relationship altogether. But when someone you love is in danger, you draw closer, even if the threat is self-inflicted.

Although I didn’t realize it then, joining the Israeli story during one of its grimmest chapters was a gift. The experience taught me patience and faith and the meaning of love. To turn away from Israel at its time of desperation and failure would have been to evade responsibility for my moment in Jewish time.

Liberal diaspora Jews should lend their support to the centrist Zionist camp in Israel that is determined to save our democracy. They need to be allies in the effort to maintain Israel’s heroic struggle for moral balance in adversity. We Israelis need diaspora Jews as partners in that struggle.

This essay is adapted from the original published by The Times of Israel.