Bradley Burston
Haaretz (Opinion)
July 21, 2011 - 12:00am

How could it happen that the seemingly unstoppable momentum of a hard-line majority government would split the right, and, in the process, break the hearts of icons of the ruling Likud?

And how does it happen that what began as a debate about McCarthyism in Israel, turned into a Soviet-style show trial, complete with verdicts handed down in advance, manipulative visual aids, dubious parliamentary procedure, playing to a captive media, and Politburo-worthy redefinitions of democratic values and practice, all on the Knesset floor?

The answer is, of course, politics. More precisely, the opening salvos of an as-yet-undeclared election campaign. A contest which for Israel is something of a departure. It is a campaign which, at this point, pits the major rightist parties, the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, against one another, their leaders head to head, and Likud lawmakers against Likud leaders.

It is axiomatic in Israel that only the right can bring down the right. Where the Netanyahu government and the gutted left are concerned, the axiom may now be more applicable than ever. And sooner than one might have thought.

Amid hours and hours of snarling, sniping debate Wednesday over bids to create committees to probe the funding sources and activities of leftist NGOs deemed by hardliners as harmful to Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu's right-led coalition began to unravel.

Long-bottled tensions came to the fore – among them, friction between the Sabras and the Soviet-born. Beyond that, however, the debate went to the heart of the role of the right-wing in Israel, and its fears for the future of the most cherished of its dreams.

At one almost frighteningly revealing moment, MK Anastasia Michaeli of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, speaking of herself and her many party colleagues born in the U.S.S.R., declared that the NGO probe bill "shows how patriotic we are."

"We grew up on values of patriotism. We arrived in this country, and we want to teach the citizens of Israel what patriotism is, what love of country and loyalty to a country are."

Michaeli, named to serve on one of the proposed NGO probe panels, spoke over widespread interruptions from both Arab and centrist Jewish MKs. Ordered to leave the podium (by an Israeli-born party colleague chairing the session) because of what she called "propaganda" pictures she displayed in contravention of Knesset rules, she dug in for one final full-throated blast.

"You have to learn how Israeli Arabs conduct propaganda against the People of Israel, the way Goebbels built up Nazi Germany, the same way you [Arabs and the left] are continuing to use fascism. You are knocking us down … using democracy and nice words. The real fascist is he who doesn't want the State of Israel to exist.

"Beware! Shame on you! Learn patriotism!"

It has been an extraordinary week for the Israeli right, but not necessarily a good one. At issue are fears that the grand vision of the traditional right may be threatened by the withering competition between Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman for the leadership of the dominant right wing. There are also mounting suspicions that Lieberman, shadowed by graft allegations for years, is waiting for the right chance to slip the rug from under Netanyahu, and move for new elections.

There is, as well, anxiety among hardliners that Netanyahu could save his skin by replacing Lieberman's 15 Knesset seats with the 28 held by Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima. It is not lost on them that Kadima was founded as an aftershock of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, as then-prime minister and Likud chairman Ariel Sharon left the party he founded and stripped it of many of its leaders, to establish what became the Knesset's largest single faction.

For the heirs of Jabotinsky and Begin, the founding dream is two-fold: First, a vision of Israel as an authentic democracy, sensitive to and respectful of minorities, governed by principles of civility, diplomacy, freedom of expression, and mamlachtiyut, statesmanship.
Second, doing everything possible to see to it that the West Bank and East Jerusalem remain in Israeli hands forever.

Over the course of the week, it became clear that some of the most respected elder statesmen of the right had real fears for the course of democracy in Israel. During Wednesday’s debate, it also became clear that locked-in support for the settlement enterprise was no longer a foregone conclusion.

The initial wedge was driven home last weekwith the passage of the Boycott Law. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, one of most tireless and fearless campaigners for both dreams, watched in horror as his fellow champions of the second vision mounted a direct assault on the first.

The Boycott Law, Rivlin wrote in an impassioned essay following passage of the measure, "threatens to catapult us into an era in which gagging people becomes accepted legal practice."

"I stand ashamed and mortified before my mentor, Jabotinsky," Rivlin wrote "for not having succeeded in protecting the individual, whom he likened to a monarch, against the parliamentary fists of the majority."

Likud elder Benny Begin, also a Likud leader with impeccable rightist credentials, this week assailed the NGO-probes bill as seeking to create "a political tribunal…in which Knesset members wish to serve as both investigators and prosecutors, and also judges. The list of the accused, as we have learned, is already being perused, and their guilt has already been established."

If the bill were to pass, Begin warned, a large banner would fly over the investigative commission, "bearing the words: 'Here, it is dark.'"

The Knesset debate also exposed the increasingly fractious coalition partners to the doubts of some settlement advocates. MK Uri Orbach of the mainstream pro-settlement Bayit Hayehudi party scoffed at claims by rival MKs that their Likud or Yisrael Beiteinu was "more right-wing, more nationalist" than the other.

"I don't trust you, either of you," Orbach said, adding that when either Netanyahu or Lieberman eventually bowed to U.S. and world pressure and evacuated the West Bank, "it'll have very pretty names – you'll call it disengagement, you'll call it ingathering, you'll call it snuggling up, you'll say it's not really uprooting at all, it's a redrawing of the line.

"Then, in those days, when you find 1,000 excuses why you're not all that right wing," Orbach told Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, who heckled Orbach throughout, "the people in your party will vote unanimously [in Hebrew, "with one mouth"], and that mouth will be that of Avigdor Lieberman. Whatever that mouth decides, that's what you will vote for, including dividing up the Western Wall, lengthwise and widthwise."

Orbach then cited the Likud's long history of ceding territory. "Therefore, because you know that what I'm saying is true, you compensate yourselves with armchair patriotism – 'Let's tell the public, until we uproot settlement and make two states for two peoples, let's do all these things … we've got religious and right-wing voters, and it's trendy to persecute leftists, give Arabs a brief afternoon flick …'"

Yisrael Beiteinu lawmakers, meanwhile, resigned in advance to losing the Wednesday vote, vowed to keep the measure coming again and again until it passed. "I have already won in this debate," the bill's co-author Faina Kirschenbaum said, noting that "The mere fact that we are talking about this here, that the issue was put on the agenda.

"And even if it doesn't pass here, we'll be dealing with it once again in another 45 days, until you're persuaded that I'm the one that's right."

Taking a similar tone, Yisrael Beiteinu cabinet minister Stas Misezhnikov may have been hinting at the party's timeline for elections during his final Knesset plea for passage of the NGO probes. "They say that no one is a prophet in his own city, but I am presuming to be a prophet," he declared.

"I say to you - remember this: In another six months time, the trend will be reversed. The public, just as it has come to accept everything that we in Yisrael Baiteinu have furthered, parliamentary inquiry commissions to investigate the funding sources of NGOs will become part of the national consensus."

In the end, the vote breakdown on the NGO probes may prove a useful resource in turbulent political days to come.

Especially worthy of note: The Likud divided almost exactly into thirds, with the Young Turk backbench hardliners voting in favor, the Old Guard voting against, and a range of the cautious and the crafty sitting on the fence, while voting with their feet.
Most conspicuous by his absence: Ehud Barak.

In Favor: 28
LIKUD: (9) Zeev Elkin, Ofir Akunis, Gila Gamliel, Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotoveli, Yariv Levin, Zion Pinyan, Ayoob Kara, Miri Regev

YISRAEL BEITEINU: Danny Ayalon, Robert Ilatov, Orly Levy-Abekasis, Avigdor Lieberman, Sofa Landver, Moshe Matalon, Anastasia Michaeli, Alex Miller, Stas Misezhnikov, Hamad Amar, David Rotem, Lia Shemtov, Faina Kirschenbaum.

NATIONAL UNION: Arieh Eldad, Uri Ariel, Michael Ben-Ari, Yaakov Katz

SHAS: Nissim Zeev.

Against: 57
LIKUD: (8) Michael Eitan, Benjamin Begin, Moshe Kahlon, Dan Meridor, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gidon Saar, Reuven Rivlin, Yuval Steinitz.

KADIMA: Doron Avital, Nino Abesadze, Rachel Adatto, Jacob Edery, Dalia Itzik, Eli Aflalo, Arie Bibi, Zeev Bielski, Roni Bar-On, Avi Dichter, Majalli Whbee, Orit Zuaretz, Yoel Hasson, Israel Hasson, Shai Hermesh, Robert Tiviaev, Tzipi Livni, Shlomo Molla, Shaul Mofaz, Marina Solodkin, Gideon Ezra, Yochanon Plesner, Meir Sheetrit, Nachman Shai, Ronit Tirosh.

ATZMAUT: Matan Vilnai, Einat Wilf, Orit Noked, Shalom Simchon.

BALAD: Hanin Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka, Said Naffaa.

HADASH: Mohammed Barakeh, Dov Khenin, Hanna Sweid.

LABOR: Daniel Ben-Simon, Avishay Braverman, Isaac Herzog, Shelly Yachimovich, Eitan Cabel, Raleb Majadele, Amir Peretz.

MERETZ: Ilan Gilon, Zahava Gal-On, Nitzan Horowitz.

RA'AM-TAL: Talab El-Sana, Masud Ganaim, Ahmed Tibi, Ibrahim Sarsur.

Absent: 35
LIKUD: (10) Yuli Edelstein, Gilad Erdan, Haim Katz, Yisrael Katz, Limor Livnat, Lea Ness, Yossi Peled, Moshe Ya’alon, Carmel Shama, Silvan Shalom.

ATZMAUT: Ehud Barak. LABOR: Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

HABAYIT HAYEHUDI: Uri Orbach, Zevulun Orlev, Daniel Hershkowitz.

HADASH: Afou Agbaria.

KADIMA: Ruhama Avraham Balila, Yulia Shamalov Berkovich, Otniel Schneller.

SHAS: David Azoulay, Ariel Atias, Chaim Amsallem, Yitzhak Vaknin, Eli Yishai, Amnon Cohen, Yitzhak Cohen, Yaakov Margi, Meshulam Nahari.

UNITED TORAH JUDAISM: Israel Eichler, Moshe Gafni, Yakov Litzman, Menachem Moses, Uri Maklev.

YISRAEL BEITEINU: Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Uzi Landau


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