How Netanyahu Has Transformed the Nation


Israel—at least the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination—is over. Although that Israel was always in some ways a fantasy, the myth was at least grounded in reality. Today that reality has changed, and the country that has replaced it is profoundly different from the one its founders imagined almost 70 years ago. Since the last elections, in March 2015, a number of slow-moving trends have accelerated dramatically. Should they continue, they could soon render the country unrecognizable.

Already, the transformation has been dramatic. Israel’s current leaders—headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who metamorphosed after the election from a risk-averse conservative into a right-wing radical—see democracy as synonymous with unchecked majority rule and have no patience for restraints such as judicial review or the protection of minorities. In their view, Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state—in that order. Only Jews should enjoy full rights, while gentiles should be treated with suspicion. Extreme as it sounds, this belief is now widely held: a Pew public opinion survey published in March found that 79 percent of Jewish Israelis supported “preferential treatment” for Jews—a thinly veiled euphemism for discrimination against non-Jews.

Meanwhile, the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians has been taken off the table, and Israel is steadily making its occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank permanent. Human rights groups and dissidents who dare criticize the occupation and expose its abuses are denounced by officials, and the government has sought to pass new laws restricting their activities. Arab-Jewish relations within the country have hit a low point, and Israel’s society is breaking down into its constituent tribes.

Netanyahu thrives on such tribalism, which serves his lifelong goal of replacing Israel’s traditional elite with one more in tune with his philosophy. The origins of all these changes predate the current prime minister, however. To truly under­stand them, one must look much further back in Israel’s history: to the country’s founding, in 1948.


Modern Israel was created by a group of secular socialists led by David Ben-Gurion, who would become the state’s first prime minister. “The Old Man,” as he was known, sought to create a homeland for a new type of Jew: a warrior-pioneer who would plow the land with a gun on his back and then read poetry around a bonfire when the battle was won. (This “new Jew” was mythologized, most memorably, by Paul Newman in the film Exodus.) Although a civilian, Ben-Gurion was a martial leader. He oversaw the fledgling state’s victory in its War of Independence against Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Palestinians, most of whom were then exiled. And when the war was over, the Old Man oversaw the creation of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which he designed to serve as (among other things) the new country’s main tool for turning its polyglot Jewish immigrants into Hebrew-speaking citizens.

Ben-Gurion was a leftist but not a liberal. Following independence, he put Israel’s remaining Arab residents under martial law (a condition that lasted until 1966) and expropriated much of their land, which he gave to Jewish communities. His party, Mapai (the forerunner of Labor), controlled the economy and the distribution of jobs. Ben-Gurion and his cohort were almost all Ashkenazi (of eastern European origin), and they discriminated against the Sephardic Jews (known in Israel as the Mizrahim), who came from Arab states such as Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen. Ben-Gurion also failed to appreciate the power of religion, which he believed would wither away when confronted with secular modernity. He therefore allowed the Orthodox to preserve their educational autonomy under the new state—thereby ensuring and underwriting the creation of future generations of religious voters.

In recent years, as the Israeli public has shifted rightward, so has Netanyahu—which has allowed him to more openly indulge his true passions.

For all Ben-Gurion’s flaws, his achievements were enormous and should not be underestimated: he created one of the most developed states in the post­colonial world, with a world-class military, including a nuclear deterrent, and top scientific and technological institutions. His reliance on the IDF as a melting pot also worked well, effectively assimilating great numbers of new Israelis. This reliance on the military—along with its battlefield victories in 1948, 1956, and 1967—helped cement the centrality of the IDF in Israeli society. To this day, serving in the military’s more prestigious units is the surest way to get ahead in the country. The army has supplied many of the nation’s top leaders, from Yitzhak Rabin and Ezer Weizman to Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, and every chief of staff or intelligence head instantly becomes an unofficial candidate for high office on retirement.

The first major challenge to Ben-Gurion’s idea of Israel arrived on Yom Kippur in 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack that managed to catch the IDF unawares. Although Israel ultimately won the war, it suffered heavy losses, and the massive intelligence failure traumatized the nation. Like the United Kingdom after World War I, Israel emerged technically victorious but shorn of its sense of invincibility.

Less than four years later, Menachem Begin—the founder of Israel’s right wing—capitalized on this unhappiness and on Sephardic grievances to hand Labor its first-ever defeat at the polls. Taking power at the head of a new coalition called Likud (Unity), Begin forged an alliance with Israel’s religious parties, which felt more at home with a Sabbath-observing con­servative. To sweeten the deal, his government accelerated the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (which appealed to religious Zionists) and offered numerous concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, such as generous educational subsidies.

Begin was a conservative and nationalist. But the decades he’d spent in the opposition had taught him to respect dissent and debate. As prime minister, therefore, he always defended judicial independence, and he refrained from purging Labor loyalists from the top echelons of the civil service and the IDF. As a consequence, his revolution, important though it was, was only a partial one. Under Begin’s leadership, Israel’s old left-wing elite lost its cabinet seats. But it preserved much of its influence, holding on to top positions in powerful institutions such as the media and academia. And the Supreme Court remained stocked with justices who, while officially nonpartisan, nevertheless represented a liberal worldview of human and civil rights.


Although Likud has governed Israel for most of the years since then, the left’s ongoing control over many other facets of life has given rise to a deep sense of resentment on the right. No one has felt that grievance more keenly than Netanyahu, who long dreamed of finishing Begin’s incomplete revolution. “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is known, first won the premiership in 1996, but it would take him decades to accomplish his goal.

Netanyahu’s initial election came shortly after the assassination of Rabin. The years prior to Rabin’s death had been dominated by the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and that same peace process would become the focus of his successor’s first term as well.

Netanyahu opposed Oslo from the very beginning. Then as now, he saw Israel as a Jewish community besieged by hostile Arabs and Muslims who wanted to destroy it. He considered the Arab-Israeli conflict a perpetual fact of life that could be managed but would never be resolved. The West—which, in his view, was anti-Semitic, indifferent, or both—couldn’t be counted on to help, and so Israel’s leaders were duty bound to prevent a second Holocaust through a combination of smart diplomacy and military prowess. And they couldn’t afford to worry about what the rest of the world thought of them. Indeed, one of Netanyahu’s main domestic selling points has always been his willingness to stand up to established powers, whether they take the form of the U.S. president or the UN General Assembly (where Netanyahu served as Israel’s representative from 1984 to 1988 and first caught his nation’s attention). Netanyahu loves lecturing gentiles in his perfect English, and much of the Israeli public loves these performances. He may go overboard at times—as when, last October, he suggested that Adolf Hitler had gotten the idea to kill Europe’s Jews from Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during World War II. Historians of all stripes scoffed at the claim, but many ordinary Israelis were indifferent to its inaccuracy.

During his first term, Netanyahu connected his domestic and international agendas by blaming the leftism of Israel’s old elite for the country’s foreign policy mistakes. To prevent more missteps in the future, he borrowed a page from the U.S. conservative playbook and vowed to fight the groupthink at Israel’s universities and on its editorial boards—a way of thinking that, he argued, had led the country to Oslo. In a 1996 interview with the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, Netanyahu complained about his delegitimization “by the nomenklatura of the old regime,” adding that “the problem is that the intellectual structure of Israeli society is unbalanced.” He pledged to create new, more conserva­tive institutions to rewrite the national narrative.

But Netanyahu’s political inexperience worked against him. His tenure was rocked by controversy, from his reck­less provocations of the Palestinians and of Jordan to a scandal caused by his wife’s mistreatment of household employees. Israel’s old elites closed ranks, and, with the support of the Clinton administration, they forced Netanyahu into another deal with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. The 1998 Wye River memorandum—the last formal agreement that Israel and the Palestinians have signed to this day—triggered early elections in May 1999, after several small, hard-right parties abandoned Netanyahu’s coalition in protest. Barak and the Labor Party emerged victorious.

Both Barak, a decorated former head of the IDF, and Sharon, who replaced Netanyahu at the helm of Likud and became prime minister himself in 2001, represented a return to the Ben-Gurion model of farmer turned soldier turned statesman. Their ascent thus restored the old order—at least temporarily—and made Netanyahu seem like a historical fluke.

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