Bibi Netanyahu is no fascist, and Israel will not become a totalitarian state tomorrow. The country certainly has drifted rightward in politics, conservative in social and religious ideas, and toward a low tolerance for difference and opposition; but this is in line with similar shifts in many other countries around the world.
What Israel should be concerned about is Bibi’s approach to governance. After his shortened first term from 1996-1999, the widespread perception was that Bibi had mishandled just about every important issue his government faced.
When he returned to politics by winning leadership of the Likud in 2005 and then the premiership in 2009, he did seem a little different: more mature, more experienced, more willing to think before acting, and so on. But it was an illusion, and everything from the increasing visibility of extreme religious coercion, to settlers running wild across the West Bank and attacking both the state itself and Palestinians, to the efforts of coalition members to impose an ethnocentric and illiberal rule can be laid in part, though certainly not in total, at Bibi’s feet.
These worrisome trends are facilitated by Bibi’s inabilities. He is more concerned with holding on to power because he likes that position (with a lesser concern that he must ensure the country stays on the “proper” path); and he simply isn’t politically brave. (Unfortunately for Israel, many of the country’s politicians fit that same description.)
Bibi has refused to make tough choices regarding relations with the Palestinians. Worse, though, he has refused to do so regarding Israel’s domestic political and societal spheres, preferring instead to let matters drift toward their own conclusions. The Israeli state is certainly constrained in some areas. The ability of workers to strike seemingly everywhere and at will, and the influence that the military-security sector has in decision-making in foreign and security matters is more than normal for a liberal democracy.
But Israel remains a powerful state, as a set of authoritative institutions. Bibi has not used these institutions to maintain the rule of the state above all others.
Instead of meeting with settlers and haredi to discuss how to tone down their rhetoric, or telling his cabinet that he opposes the recent attacks by these groups, he should—he must—instruct his police, the justice system, and the security forces to immediately arrest and bring to trial anyone who violates Israel’s laws and norms. He should make multiple appearances on national television and radio to assert the state’s authority to do this; to loudly proclaim his government’s and his own personal commitment to Israel’s democratic norms and rule of law; and he should instruct his ministers to do the same—and if they don’t, to sanction them.
Bibi’s refusal to use the force of his own stature as Prime Minister and the state’s laws to denounce and censure those who consistently break it has facilitated an opening for tolerance of such acts of religious coercion, the exercise of violence by sub-state groups, and moves to change the accepted norms of liberal democracy. By not personally and consistently condemning such incidents, and then backing these condemnations up with direct action, Bibi has created the impression that things that used to be considered beyond the pale are now tolerable and even acceptable.
The lack of state authority in these matters is what positioned Israel (including the West Bank) at number 53 on a prominent list of failed states, in the “borderline” zone. Israel’s ranking has been rising—in 2009 it was 58, and 2010 it was at 54. The current trajectory will only put Israel higher in future rankings. The bulk of the countries listed above Israel is in Africa, Central Asia, and include other states such as Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This should not be the community that Israel puts itself in.
Israeli democracy is not on the precipice, but it is weakening. Certainly even if Bibi did the above it would not be enough—there are plenty of other issues and divisions in Israel that need to be resolved. But it is an important and strong start, and is necessary in a state that prizes its membership in the club of industrialized democracies.