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State of Tel Aviv

How bad will the hangover be for Israel?

I.

Reality thrashed Israel last night.

At 10 pm local time, when national television went live with exit poll predictions, they were surprisingly decisive, handing a clear victory to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and his steadfast allies, the ultra-Orthodox Haredi and Religious Nationalist political leaders.

Bibi killed it.

His triumph lays out a clear path for Israel during the next four years and, likely, forever.

II.

This election was a contest of starkly divergent visions for Israel now and into the future.

Bibi led what is referred to as the “right-wing bloc” of interests. But “right-left” nomenclature is absurd in the context of present-day Israel.

Yes. In the past, Netanyahu has been a champion of free-market economic policies and related matters that were solidly “right wing.” He has always been a hawk on defense and security matters but, then again, so are most Israeli parties, except those on the extreme left.

This epic alliance of Likud, Haredim and Religious Zionists is about power. Not principle. And not right or left or center.

Likud wants power for the same reason as any political party – that’s the goal; why you are in the business. But. In order to preserve a veneer of respectability, of standing for something more than just self-interest, a leader must be able to articulate that. Something. Principle. Ideology.

Likud does a fine job of that too. It stands for the end of liberal democracy.

The party has evolved from the more refined era of Menachem Begin into a fierce adversary of many key institutions in Israel: the judiciary, the justice establishment, police and prosecutorial branches and media. Likud rages about the system being rigged and hell-bent on persecuting the Netanyahu family and, presumably, the party and its allies. And there may well be truth to their claims. But that in no way justifies the dismantling of an independent judiciary and related state institutions. Many democracies withstand the pressure of overly activist courts. Over time, pendulums swing, and governments and courts that are not aligned with their populations learn moderation.

But Likud is not talking about moderation. No. It is focused on evisceration.

With its coalition partners, Likud will likely deliver on key promises with speed and alacrity. Within months of taking office, they will likely upend the process currently in place to nominate judges at all levels, including the Israeli Supreme Court. And they will pass some form of legislation that prevents the highest court from reinterpreting, narrowing the application or striking down laws passed by the Knesset.

Having an institutional check on the exercise of legislative power, in the form of judicial consideration or review, is a core and critical element of a functioning democracy. The Israeli people have made clear that they do not value this check on the exercise of political power.

This is not about perfection. No system will meet that absurd standard. Judicial appointments are always “political,” it’s just a matter of degree and can vary considerably. In the United States, for example, many judges actually run for office in elections. In Canada or the UK – and many European countries – that is unimaginable; considered to be undignified in the extreme. And more prone to corruption.

But, what Likud has been floating is a system where elected officials would control the nomination and appointment process for the judiciary and at all levels. I cannot think of a democracy where that degree of intrusion and control of the judiciary is tolerated.


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III.

Bibi’s brothers-in-arms in his coalition demonstrate even more extreme contempt for the judicial system. His colleagues are varying degrees of ultra-Orthodox and pay greater heed to Jewish religious law than liberal democracy. Their entire worldview is through a lens of religious observance and Jewish law. All else is secondary and, for the time being, a necessary evil.

Haredi leaders have held firm in their negotiations with Netanyahu, who seems to have caved to every demand. He has promised state funding for all ultra-Orthodox religious institutions with no requirement that young men be taught secular subjects like math, science and English. They will spend their lives steeped in Torah study and prayer. They will continue, with Bibi’s blessing, to be exempt from all army or civil national service. And they will demand that the shrinking pool of taxpayers finance their obscene entitlements. With Bibi’s blessing.

In fact, several weeks ago, Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf, head of the Agudat Yisrael faction of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, mocked the interviewers on Israel’s main Saturday night political talk show, saying: “What has all this math done for Israel?” He continued to assert that prayer is the nation’s salvation, not mathematics.

Stupefied, Amit Segal, a Modern Orthodox television interviewer, stammered disbelievingly, something to the effect of: “Where have you been for the last 20 years?”

The ultra-Orthodox control life-cycle events, kashrut certification, and – for much of the last few decades they have chaired the government’s powerful Finance Committee – which controls Knesset budgets. Fertility rates in their communities are about 7 per female, meaning that their population is ballooning. Today they account for 13% of a population of 9 million; in twenty years it will be closer to 30%.

Religious Nationalists are a very different population. They are ultra-Orthodox in practice but with softened edges. Men and women wear more modern, colorful clothing, unlike the Haredim who limit themselves to dark and drab. They support higher education, preparing them for higher-level employment and compensation. Their families are slightly smaller and the vast majority serve in the IDF. In fact, religious-nationalist solders disproportionately represent the high-level officer cohort, in a way replacing the old elites that hailed from kibbutzim.

They also believe that God promised to the Jewish people sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, territory referred to internationally as the West Bank. And they settle in this area in significant numbers, now in the hundreds of thousands.

Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the two leaders of this party, are variations on a disturbing theme; wild horses with different temperaments. Ben Gvir, the breakout star of the election, is prone to loud, aggressive provocative rhetoric and conduct. Smotrich is a lower volume and less commanding presence but prone to the same general outbursts and beliefs. They are a highly combustible combination.

As for right-wing credentials, this team has none. Their ideology can be summarized as being belligerently supportive of a state based upon Jewish law as a fundamental value, superseding liberal democracy. Perhaps most disturbing is the violent history of Ben Gvir and his open celebration of various Jewish terrorists and terrorism. The notorious hilltop youth, which we covered recently in an extensive two-part report, enjoy unstinting support from Ben Gvir and Smotrich.

IV.

Today, the “right-wing bloc” is gloating. They won big. They effectively wiped out the left-leaning parties and rendered Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid centrist bloc – which performed brilliantly – as political roadkill. Lapid took 24 mandates, a stellar result. But he can do nothing with it. He has no chance of building a coalition to reach 61 Knesset seats.

The overarching message? That the people of Israel overwhelmingly support extreme nationalism and religious control of the state’s institutions and economy.


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V.

For almost a century, this nation has defied probability, developing from a third-world agrarian economy to a tech and innovation global giant and a regional military superpower. The Israeli economy is dependent on extraordinary human capital, which is already in short supply. Not only does the agenda of the newly elected “right-wing bloc” frighten many Israelis and clash violently with liberal democratic principles, but it will also not encourage foreign investment in the tech economy. Instability repels investment. More immediately worrisome is what this uncertainty will do to the supply of human capital in the short term.

I met this afternoon with a very experienced executive in the tech and innovation sectors. He interacts regularly with CEOs of global giants, governments, think tanks, top intellectuals. His career trajectory has more or less tracked the economic miracle that is modern Israel. His immediate worry? We already have a dire shortage of engineers in Israel.

The cream. Will they stay? Or will they leave? Will they risk starting up a new tech venture in Israel, and possibly be subject to a level of political and economic boycott that will be fatal? Or will they decamp now with their young families and build their lives in a more stable environment? Do they want their sons and daughters to bear an impossible burden of military service as the burgeoning Haredi population remains exempt? Do they want to live in a country where Itamar Ben Gvir has a critical security-related cabinet portfolio? Where the ultra-Orthodox control the state budget?

Benjamin Netanyahu is beyond genius politically. He did it. He won. But, at what cost?


Author image
Tel Aviv, Israel
Originally from Toronto, now residing in Tel Aviv, Vivian has long been active in journalistic pursuits, practiced law for 24 years and served as the Canadian Ambassador to Israel from 2014-16.
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