David Remnick: A quarter century ago, I wrote a profile in the New Yorker of Benjamin Netanyahu. He was just a couple of years into his very long tenure as Israel's prime minister. As the head of the conservative Likud Party, Netanyahu had always seemed to me was influenced by the politics and the communication skills of Ronald Reagan. He was tacking between the very hard-line politics that had formed him from his family and onward, and the pragmatic realities of holding onto power. He was absolutely determined to put an end to the peace process with the Palestinians.
What I don't think anybody anticipated was that a generation later Netanyahu would again be in power and that democracy itself would be in question. He's pushed a change to the political system that has brought hundreds of thousands of protestors to the streets. They fear that Israel is on the brink of becoming an autocracy in the mold of Hungary or Poland. This is a very complex subject. Today I want to dig into it, to go in-depth with two very prominent Israeli writers who are in fact, family. The journalist Ruth Margalit, who's written for the New Yorker and lives in Tel Aviv, and her father, the philosopher Avishai Margalit.
Avishai taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Princeton and when I went on my many reporting trips to Israel, Avishai was frequently my first stop. We spoke last week. Let's bear down on what this debate is about. The term judicial reform sounds like, I don't know, a technocratic subject for political science majors but it's brought Israel to a complete standstill. What does judicial reform actually mean? What's being proposed by the right-wing, which of course has a majority of seats in Knesset in the legislature? If it's just reform after all, why is that an existential question about democracy?
Ruth: This first started a week after the swearing-in of the new government. Remember, this is the most ultra-orthodox ultranationalist government in Israel's history. They won decisively. Netanyahu won decisively and I think he was counting on the fact that the opposing camp was defeated, deflated, wouldn't put up much of a fight. Really in a cocky move a week after the swearing-in, his justice minister goes on the airwaves and makes what is really a monotonous speech. You're right, he speaks in the language of judicial reform and this is something that our voters expect as if this is no big deal and we expect to pass this very soon.
What he in fact proposes would in effect get rid of any checks and balance in the country. The executive branch in Israel is already very much in control. What this reform but really overhaul proposes is to limit and weaken the Supreme Court and make the government basically be able to do whatever it wants. The big fight now is over judicial appointments. What the Justice Minister and Netanyahu propose is making the government, the coalition, they can veto and they can appoint judges themselves and that would make the Supreme Court beholden to the government.
David Remnick: How did this fight begin? What are its origins? Are they demographic? Are they religious? Are they political?
Avishai: Not all. The new element, I think is the strong fusion of religion and nationalism. There was a time of separation at least between the two and Zionism was predominantly a secular movement. What takes place now is this explosive fusion of nationalism and religion. This has all the layers that you ask. It's politics, it's everything. The main element that religion adds is that religion makes now a bid on the public space. How we should behave in the public space. The religious element was there all the time but the current government is utterly dependent on the votes of the religious and the ultra-religious and the ultra-orthodoxy that was for many years antizionist became nationalist, even Jingoist. That's a new thing.
David Remnick: Avishai, it seems to me on a demographic level that the communities that are increasingly conservative, increasingly nationalist are communities that have more children and who stay in Israel. That the community that could be roughly described as Tel Aviv and the like are more fluid and whose children are fewer and are more likely to pick up sticks and move to New York or Paris or London or wherever. The future, it may be that Netanyahu compromises, the demonstrators win some level of victory, we don't know yet but in the long run, as it were the Jerusalem Israel triumphs over the Tel Aviv Israel, or is that absolutely wrong?
Avishai: The division is class and ethnic and cultural, and there is a rift on all those levels but you may even say that the differences between the globalizable Israel and the un-globalizable Israel, those are plugged into the global world and the global economy on those who are left behind, what makes the current rift and clash? So vehement is the overlap between the ethnic element and the class element and the class resentment toward the veterans of Israel, who mainly belong to the upper crust and has a different ethnic description, namely Ashkenazi description.
David Remnick: Jews of European origins as opposed to Mizrahi who are from Arab-speaking countries. Ruth, you've been reporting so magnificently for the New Yorker about these demonstrations, about this politics, about the composition of the government, when you're on the street when you're in demonstrations both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and elsewhere who was there? Who are the types of people who is not there and what does that say about the conflict?
Ruth: This is the 13th week in which the demonstrations have been going on. I think during the first week, people came out to the streets, and this was mostly at first in Tel Aviv, mostly, huge numbers taking everyone by surprise not only Netanyahu but I think the protestors themselves. I was there and there was a sense of, "Wow, all these people showed up?" Still, at first, the demographics were what you would expect. Mostly young people, mostly secular. There was a contingency of people, anti-occupation activists holding the Palestinian flags. The ranks on the one hand they grew. They included many more Kippah-wearing Israelis, older people, families, elderly in terms of ethnic society. It was really across all Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, everyone. Not only in Tel Aviv but in Jerusalem, Be'er-Sheva, up north, down south.
Suddenly there were even protests in Jewish settlements, like [unintelligible 00:08:50]. This was unheard of. Civic society protesting against what is a very right-wing government. On the other hand, you suddenly see less of this contingency of anti-reoccupation activists holding the Palestinian flags. In part, this is orchestrated. The leaders of the protest movement really discourage these activists from holding the Palestinian flags because the idea is that they want to make it appeal to average Israelis and to have he widest common denominator basically. The widest common denominator right now is democracy.
David Remnick: Avishai, I first started visiting you long ago when I was in Israel to do a profile of Bibi Netanyahu when he first became Prime Minister. I wonder how you think Bibi Netanyahu has evolved politically and ideologically since the '90s.
Avishai: He emerged as a formidable politician but his aspirations are to be a great statesman trying to imitate a great man but with all his shortcomings he's failing and inadequate. You asked about his evolvement and I think he was very surprised that he won his first candidacy and became a prime minister, a young, inexperienced prime minister. He became skillful later on in managing different factions always keeping faction on the left and a faction on the right. It's the first time and that's the main change that he is pushed to be in the extreme right and no one is to the right of him probably Genghis Khan.
The issue is that he lost his capability to maneuver and therefore lots of his movements that strike as irrational, a great deal of it should be attributed to the fact that in this government what they call the full right government he basically has no room to maneuver and can be blackmailed anytime. The question about Bibi Netanyahu before he was indicted and Bibi after, before he actually even was a defender or at least he put up with the Supreme Court and even was friendly with some of the people in the Supreme Court.
After he was indicted he behaved like in a Trump-like way, namely to break the legal framework of Israel so that he will be saved. Once he controlled the judiciary, namely nominating the judges, then he's in total control. He paved his way towards Hungary and Poland, the kind of iliberal democracies in these two countries.
David Remnick: Which brings me to this point, Ruth, is this just a question of Bibi Netanyahu trying to save his own backside. Do we have a national crisis in Israel because a politician doesn't want to be prosecuted and possibly convicted on corruption charges?
Ruth: I think two things are true. On the one hand the creep to a more populist side has been going on with Netanyahu since before his indictment. He has veered from the old school Likud leaders who had this veneration for the courts basically since, let's say in the last decade or decade and a half, right, since his second rule. The other thing that's true is that since his indictment for the last three years, I do think we now have a country that is really going through all this upheaval because of one man's trial. The reason I think that is because Netanyahu himself said repeatedly that he will not push for this reform. When this had been proposed to him in the past there was a red line with the Supreme Court.
There was a sense that he wasn't going to pass that. The other element of this is all the other appointments. This extreme far right minister who I wrote about for your magazine [unintelligible 00:14:10] he said, Netanyahu said that he will never make him a minister and he has. This is in part because he needed a government that was really beholden to him that was tight elements that wouldn't drop out, that he could count on as loyalists in order to change the judicial system in a way that would seem to favor his tribe.
David Remnick: Your dad just mentioned Hungary and Poland and comparing it to what's happening in Israel, you also wrote about this in your New Yorker profile [unintelligible 00:14:43] of Benville, what are the exact comparisons between say, Hungary and what's happening in Israel now?
Ruth: It seems to be this theoretical point that people bring up Hungary and Poland a background to what's happening here. In fact there are these webinars that are now proposed to anyone who's interested in which you have leaders of protest movements in Hungary, in Poland, in other countries giving out pointers as to what can happen here, what we should expect to see and a lot of it has to do with the freeze. Netanyahu now last week announced a freeze to the legislation. This was after huge protests, general strike really shutting down the country. After that, Netanyahu said, okay, I'm suspending a legislation for now.
Now, you have all these leaders in Poland and Hungary, people who had protested there saying, don't be fooled by this suspension. The same thing happened in Poland. They announced a freeze to the legislation only to then ram it through very quickly after the protests died down which is why the protests haven't quieted. Still people showed up on the street because there's this sense that momentum is behind the protest movement they're not being fooled by this suspension and they're going to keep protesting.
David Remnick: I'm speaking with Ruth Margalit and Avishai Margalit about the judicial overhaul proposed by Bibi Netanyahu and its impact on Israel. This is the New Yorker Radio Hour with more to come.
This is the New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick. We're looking today at the situation in Israel. The Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed what he calls a judicial reform but it's a very clear attempt to make Israel's High Court subservient to the legislature. That's a move from the playbook of an autocrat. It fundamentally upsets the checks and balances in the government. In response, Israel erupted in protest not only in the more liberal cities like Tel Aviv but all over the country.
I'll continue my conversation with Ruth Margalit who wrote for the New Yorker about the protests and Avishai Margalit, Ruth's father and a professor of philosophy, someone I've been talking to about Israeli life and politics for decades. Avishai, from the inception of the state of Israel, so much political struggle there has been over the question of the Palestinians, a question that's even further from resolution today than it was a generation ago. Israel has very different laws within its pre-1967 borders, the so-called Green Line than it does in the occupied territories, the West Bank and so on. Many would say this is a debate itself about democracy and now Israel is embroiled in quite another struggle over democracy, how would you describe that struggle? What exactly is being fought over?
Avishai: The issue was can Israel have this double phase being a democracy within the Green Line and running a mixture of a military occupation, colonial ruling, and even an apartheid elements of it combined. All of them are undemocratic and the question was, what is the nature of the body polity if you take the whole range, namely from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean? Is it a democracy if almost third of the population are under military occupation? Many colonial countries like the Dutch was a democracy in Holland and a colonial power in Indonesia. Here the problem is far more difficult because of the contiguity between Israel of the Green Line and the West Bank and Gaza but the issue now is about democracy within the Green Line. That's the new element.
David Remnick: Avishai, among the many distinguishing things in your background is that you were extremely important in the development of a group called Peace Now which of course had to do with the Palestinian question from the left. I think many people who don't keep up with Israeli politics are constantly asking me, well, what about the Labor Party which dominated the scene for so long or what about merits which is a left wing party and so on and so forth. If you follow Israeli politics you would have to say that the left and the center-left at least as a matter of organized party politics has been a disaster for a quite a long time. Why is that the case? Why is the Labor Party so inconsequential?
Avishai: First it's a general phenomenon. There is an erosion of social democratic movements and parties all over. In Israel, a great deal of strength that was in the hands of [unintelligible 00:20:38] namely of the Labor Party was institutional. They were the founders of Israel and controlled many institutions and formed many institutions. Once Israel was formed, the Labor movement were stripped of its institution and they became nationalized. Once they were nationalized like the medical insurance system and so on, Labor lost its grip and it dwindled. Another element is the sons and daughters of those founders and so on became more and more bourgeois. There was a change even in style of life. The fact that Labor lost its grip is a sorrow and a painful thing for me to admit but I think it happened. Populist movements all over the world won over the Labor movements.
David Remnick: Does the Palestinian question just keep receding and receding to the political horizon? One gets the sense that a large part of the country either pretends it doesn't exist or when there are emergencies, when there's violence, it is in fact an emergency and then you move past it. This seems to me and has always seemed to me an absolutely untenable position, Ruth.
Ruth: I think it is untenable, and that's the big unknown about the nature of this movement. Will it be able to then branch out and include not only within Israel proper but about larger questions having to do with the West Bank, with Gaza? How long can Gaza be under siege? Let's say that the fight over democracy is won. What happens then? Can we branch out this fight over democracy? Can it include the West Bank and then bring an end to the occupation?
That is such a long way away but there is this idea that the center-left camp has been battered for so long that they didn't even try anymore. The feeling was so defeatist. Now if there is this element of defiance and not only defiance but actually thinking that there are values that are worth fighting for not only in opposition to but actually in favor of then this could be a value that's being fought over equality and the end to the occupation bringing liberties to the Palestinian people finally.
David Remnick: Do you see any signs that these demonstrations, that this battle will somehow change Israeli politics? That a center-left movement will coalesce around it or is this just an episode in which probably the center-left is going to lose and that nothing will come of it?
Ruth: I think there is a sign of optimism. There is this potential for a political realignment in the country where the big divide is not necessarily just a left-wing, right-wing divide over the occupation and over the Palestinian question but with this question of democracy in liberal democracy. You would have one side there that represents liberties and equality and everything that stands for and secularism too. Another side, this sort of illiberal camp, the traditionalists, the messianic in some senses, after years of a ascendant right wing in Israel trends aren't looking promising but this could be a sign for hope for the protest movement and everything that's happening here, this kind of civic awakening.
David Remnick: What role does the United States play, Ruth? We saw a back-and-forth between Joe Biden and Bibi Netanyahu very recently in which the-- forget about what they said officially but clearly what was said was the following. Joe Biden was telling Bibi Netanyahu, "Mind where you're going because you're taking your country to an undemocratic place and you can't expect us to endorse this," meaning the United States, and on the other side, you had Netanyahu saying, "Back off, buddy."
Ruth: This has been going on for quite some time, this alignment of Netanyahu with the Republican party with evangelical forces at the expense of American Jewry, American Jews at large progressives, conservative, anyone who's not Orthodox. He's turned away from them and also turning away from the Democratic Party and this kind of longstanding tradition of Israel being bipartisan that is no longer the case and hasn't been the case for a long time. Of course, there was this kind of well-advertised bond between Netanyahu and Trump that served both sides very well.
Now, with Biden, I think I was surprised both by Biden's honesty and cutting out the bullshit after years of whitewashing and saying, oh, we'll invite Netanyahu to the White House and all of this will happen in due time and the usual platitudes that signify a rift, suddenly there were no platitudes. He just called it out. I was also surprised by Netanyahu, not only himself but just his cabinet ministers, this idea that we don't need the United States. Of course, Israel's entire military depends on United States backing and so this idea that the ministers say, "Oh, Biden, you should back off from our business." With everything that's been going on, Netanyahu was always quite good about uniting his ranks and telling his ministers to be quiet and to let him take care of the diplomatic front. Suddenly he's not able to do that anymore. They're going rogue and he has no control over them which just shows how he lost control generally here.
David Remnick: Avishai, Israel is soon to be 75 years old. It's a very young country. You were born before the founding of Israel, and you see the direction the country is going in in the ways we've discussed demographically, politically, socially. This was founded at least ideally as a democratic state. If democracy fails, if finding a workable solution with the Palestinian fails, do you want to see your children remain in the state of Israel?
Avishai: They just all return from the States and all live in Tel Aviv. I am the only relic in Jerusalem. I remember I think very vividly the time before Israel was founded as a child. It's changed beyond recognition. We are now standing in a juncture and you ask me what if it turns in the wrong direction? I don't know. I think we have a fair chance of resisting the move in the wrong direction. As Yogi Berra said, when you come to a juncture take it.
David Remnick: We've been talking for many years, Avishai, I've never heard you quote Yogi Berra before, but God bless you for it. Ruth, as somebody who's considerably younger obviously, you've lived in the United States as well as in Israel, you're back in Israel now with young children. You're seeing what's happening. How does it affect your view of your future either in Israel or not?
Ruth: I should say that I have a lot of friends and acquaintances and people I know who are leaving or considering leaving the country.
David Remnick: To what political paradise do they go? In other words, I'm living in a country where the ex-president is under indictment and many other horrible things are happening. Is it all to the United States or where?
Ruth: No, it's not only to the United States. There is some to Portugal, some I see on Facebook, these women asking how is living in Austria these days. What is life like in Berlin? People are really looking for places to go.
David Remnick: Imagine Austria of all places.
Ruth: I know, and Berlin. This is quite unbelievable for Israelis. This was the case couple of months ago or right after the election. Now you're starting to see elements in the other direction. This idea that liberal democrats are here, finally their voice is being heard and it's actually worth staying and fighting. The protests are heartening in that sense for these people who are saying, "We might as well just stay and fight." I do have some friends who were thinking of leaving and suddenly are saying, "Well, let's just see how this plays out."
They suddenly feel that they have a role. As for me, I always knew that I would move back to Israel to be with family. This is my home and there's no question in my mind that this is where I should be. This is where I want to be. It's not only an ideological or professional journalistic stance. Life here there is a sense of community, of friendship, of family, of good weather, nice places to go. You've been here many times. You know this. The Israel we all love is still here and there's a sense for people that I think that is worth fighting for.
David Remnick: Ruth Margalit, Avishai Margalit, thank you so much. [foreign language] to you and to your family.
Ruth: Thank you, David.
Avishai: [foreign language] to you and to yours, David.
David Remnick: Thank you, both. It's wonderful to talk to you.
Ruth Margalit is a journalist and you can read her work at newyorker.com and in many other publications. Avishai Margalit is a professor emeritus in philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
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