French writer and political scientist Dominique Moïsi was in Israel last week for the country’s latest elections, which saw the victory of a hard right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu. He warns that there is an inherent conflict between the self-declared "start-up nation" and the anti-science, anti-liberal program of the new government.
PARIS — In his autobiography Things Seen, seminal French author Victor Hugo describes daily life in Paris during the revolution of the 1830s. He writes about the “limited reach of tragedy,” where one street is covered in barricades and the next is completely peaceful.
On Nov. 1, the day of the elections in Israel, I was walking around the streets of Tel Aviv with those images from Victor Hugo in mind. There was no indication that the future of the country might be at stake despite the huge election signs on buildings and buses. But for their fifth general election in four years, the people of the country's largest economic and cultural metropolis seemed jaded, if not indifferent.
This impression was quickly contradicted by a turnout of more than 70%, a significant increase over previous elections. But nothing seemed to suggest that Israel was on the brink of a tipping point.
Will the so-called "Republic of Tel Aviv'' — with its LGBTQ+ rainbow flags draped from balconies and real estate agencies offering penthouses with jacuzzis and sea views — be able to resist the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu?
This time with a majority of 64 seats out of 120 at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, “Bibi” Netanyahu heads a coalition that includes a particularly vicious extreme right, which despite its acronyms is neither Zionist nor religious, but simply openly racist.
If you are not careful, your turn will come very quickly.
In the early 2000s, in the midst of the second Intifada, Israeli leaders such as Ariel Sharon had a message for Europe and especially for France — the country with the largest Jewish community in Western Europe:
"We Israelis are in the front line of the fight against Islamic terrorism. If you are not careful, your turn will come very quickly."
Sharon even invited the French Jewish community to make their aliyah, and move to Israel. Today, the Jewish state constitutes in itself a warning of a different nature. It is not about what it’s fighting against, but what it has become: a country at the forefront of the most extreme religious nationalism, if not a democracy on the veritable edge of collapsing; a country where political forces now in power openly call for the expulsion of Palestinians and a reactionary fight against modernity.
Women’s status at risk
Israel used to boast about its status as a "startup nation," about its number of Nobel Prize recipients, the creativity of its artists, and so on. If we were to follow the Israeli far-right’s program to the letter, the teaching of mathematics and English would be relegated to a minor place — if not prohibited altogether.
This fight against science, against openness to the world, goes hand-in-hand with a questioning of the role of women in Israeli society. Their function is, to put it plainly, to bear children. What tragic irony, and such a contradiction in terms! Is this retrograde example really what Israel wants to turn to, at a time when an extreme fringe of its society wants to expel the "Arabs" from its midst?
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens compared the evolution of London and Paris in 1793. One could be tempted today to imagine a "Tale of Three Cities," where Tel Aviv’s dynamism and openness would contrast with a self-collapsing Beirut, and Tehran’s growing isolation and withdrawal.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new star of the Israeli far-right
Ben-Gvir, an Israeli Zemmour?
We may think that the country’s far-right — even if it was to hold Israel’s reins — would not be able to shake the foundations of “The Republic of Tel Aviv. But it can still seriously harm democracy in Israel. For years, alongside French human rights defenders Robert Badinter and Simone Veil, I was a member of the International Board of the Israel Democracy Institute.
One of its priorities was to maintain the independence of the country’s Supreme Court. Without judicial power, wouldn't Israel — a country without a Constitution and a steadfast proportional electoral system — risk falling prey to absolute corruption, and enter an era of post-democratic chaos?
At best, an illiberal democracy. At worst, a failed democracy.
Capitalizing on the rift between Israel’s center and left, Netanyahu won his bet — just like Giorgia Meloni did in Italy. But to do so, he had to rely on the support of more extreme and better organized forces than Matteo Salvini's Liga or Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
In fact, a more apt comparison may be found not in Italy, but just next door: Isn’t Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new star of the Israeli far-right (who with 14 deputies is now the new “kingmaker”) a kind of Israeli Eric Zemmour? Infinitely less cultured, of course — but infinitely more skilled politically — than the extreme right French politician.
Whiff of Viktor Orban
It is also worthwhile to compare the situation with the United States. And to wonder whether what has just happened in Israel could prefigure what will go down this week with the midterm elections.
Democracy, in the U.S. and Israel alike, seems to have become a bit of a nuisance for the elites. A good thing, of course, but relegated to the background, as compared to other priorities such as physical or economic security.
We can find solace in the fact that Israel’s right-wing bloc probably won’t last long, that its internal contradictions are far too great, that Netanyahu won’t be able to control Ben-Gvir and his radical ideas.
But we can also shudder at the thought that after this election, Israel has become, at best, an illiberal democracy, like Viktor Orban's Hungary — and, at worst, a failed democracy. And the United States now stands before the very same risk.
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