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‘Strongmen’ Are Weak Men

Because I am a citizen of both the United States and Israel, I have been following the alarming developments in the Jewish state with intense interest. Of course, Israel attracts an unhealthy amount of international attention considering how small it is, but for those of us who care about the country, it is eerie watching the slide into autocracy play out in real time. The story is nevertheless of universal interest because of the lessons we can draw for the struggle against 21st-century neo-fascism, or “right-wing populist nationalism” if you prefer.

At this moment, the lesson we are relearning is about the futility of negotiating with or attempting to temper these neo-fascists, even when they appear to hold the whip hand. The method the Israeli neo-fascists under Netanyahu’s leadership have chosen to destroy the country’s liberties is a simple one, born of the lack of a written constitution: enact laws by a simple majority vote of the Knesset (parliament) denying the country’s courts the power to review any future laws, and for good measure, stack those courts with the government’s hand-picked political appointees. There are some fine distinctions involving Israel’s so-called Basic Laws, which supposedly have quasi-constitutional status, but those too can easily be enacted or repealed by the majority of the moment, not even a supermajority. Israel’s actual constitution, unwritten like Britain’s and preserved by unspoken norms, turns out to have been a weak and brittle reed indeed.

What Bibi and his collaborators are enacting with dizzying speed is no more and no less than a program for an elected dictatorship, and the bills’ sponsors, who hail from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, have explicitly refused to stop and install safeguards for any rights whatsoever, so that freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary arrest and so on are all now in imminent danger. The drivers of this steamroller have vowed that it shall flatten all in its path by the end of the current legislative session on April 2, which at this writing is less than 25 days away.

How does this frenzied schedule allow any time for negotiation? Well may you ask, and the opposition has demanded that the process be paused as a precondition for talks, which the government has refused to do. At the same time, Bibi himself and other key figures are eager for a deal, and intrigued by proposals from right-leaning figures to go ahead with the power grab but make it not quite so absolute, according to assorted unsourced and conflicting reports. Indeed, the idea of a “compromise” on the establishment of a dictatorship does hold a certain morbid fascination. Perhaps Netanyahu can rule by decree on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and Israel’s vaunted “boisterous democracy” can roar back to life on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Saturday, of course, is the Jewish Sabbath, and according to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox members of the neo-fascist coalition, all activity except prayer and their own acceptance of graft must cease then.

So what is actually going on? To all appearances, the talk of negotiations is just smoke blowing to keep the opposition confused and divided, and less than a month from now, Bibi and his far-right coalition will command absolute power unrestrained by anything except future elections—the rules and scheduling of which they will be free to change at whim. Along with the extent of the franchise itself, perhaps taking it away from Israeli Arab citizens and known “leftists.” Netanyahu’s more fervent supporters have been chanting, “Bibi, King of Israel” since his first election as prime minister in 1996, and it looks as though they will get to crown him and place a scepter in his hand.

So how dare I call Bibi a weak man? Ah, but he is a weak man, as are all aspiring and actual tyrants. Those pesky corruption cases against him are still hanging over his head, and while it is widely expected that after it returns from celebrating Passover, the Festival of Freedom, the self-anointed junta’s first move will be to quash those charges, won’t that just prove, in the eyes of Netanyahu’s enemies, that he was guilty all along and dared not have his day in court? And this goes to the man’s deeper paranoia, a florid Nixonian load of resentments, grievances and terrors, many inherited from his fearsome father Ben-Zion Netanyahu. The “Deep State” is after him, just like the Turkish Deep State is after Erdogan and the American Deep State is after Trump. Highly placed “leftists” from the tiny rump of the old Labor Party elite lurk behind every tree and signpost, ready to leap out and destroy him the moment he lets down his guard. “Foreign elements” are behind the swelling protests against the parliamentary power grab, he lectured the nation just the other night. The warnings of capital flight, brain drain and economic collapse if he manages to destroy the rule of law in Israel are just more maneuverings by people who have always hated him.

If Netanyahu gets his way, of course, his troubles will only deepen, for dictators dare not ever surrender power or leave office voluntarily. Every day will bring rumors of a new plot, a new conspiracy against his historical destiny as the Champion and Savior of Israel. Worst of all, a truly terrifying ghost looms over the chaos of the moment. None other than Itamar Ben-Gvir, the street thug Bibi put in charge of the nation’s police, is foaming at the mouth, warning that the opposition is planning assassinations. And he would know, wouldn’t he, the hero who, as a 19-year-old hooligan, ripped the hood ornament off Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s official limousine for daring to attempt to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, and crowed before the TV cameras that “just as we got to his car, we’ll get him, too?” Weeks later, Rabin was indeed assassinated by another far-right goon, paving the way for the election of none other than Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who strenuously denied then and ever since that he and the fevered crowds he inflamed with talk of treason against the land of Israel had anything to do with the assassination. So now, a terrible fear grips Bibi as it grips Ben-Gvir. There is nothing to do but stomp on the gas pedal of the steamroller, no matter who and what it flattens. The logic of the tyrant, the logic of Macbeth, of all the weak and cowardly men who hide behind royal robes, demands nothing less.

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