Trumps’ insurrection in Washington: possible in Israel? - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (January 11, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. How does last Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol in Washington affect Israel?

A. In two primary ways. One is a reckoning in politics and the media with the past four years of glorification of Trump in Israel. The Trump administration “gave” Israel recognition of sovereignty on the Golan Heights, a US embassy in Jerusalem, minimalization of the Palestinian issue, and normalization of relations with four Arab states under the Abraham Accords. A new settlement on the Golan is being named after him. Yet now Trump is discredited, even in the eyes of many on the Israeli right who lionized him.

How to rationalize those Likud election billboards that portrayed Trump and PM Netanyahu as virtual twins--“the conmen’s league”, in the words of former prime minister Ehud Barak? This is embarrassing. The dominant right-religious mainstream is walking a thin line on this issue.

Netanyahu himself was virtually last among world leaders to condemn the events in Washington. But he did so only by praising American democracy and without mentioning Trump except to laud him for “one breakthrough after another” in his Middle East peace efforts.

Typical of the Israeli prime minister’s followers was Boaz Bismuth, editor of the Sheldon Adelson-owned pro-Netanyahu freebee Yisrael HaYom. Bismuth wrote on January 10 that “Twitter closed Trump’s account . . . the media is celebrating Trump’s crucifixion. [But] silencing him hurts freedom of expression. . . . No sane American liked the images from Congress on January 6, but from here to impeaching a serving president--the distance is huge.”

Bismuth’s tone is not much different from Fox News. The extent to which Netanyahu-Trump comparisons will hurt Netanyahu in Israel’s March 23 election is not at all clear. Conceivably Netanyahu’s grip on his followers is too strong to be hurt by Trump’s disgrace.

Q. And the second context of discussion?

A. Here we switch to the serious question being raised by the liberal media in Israel: could this happen here? Is the abortive act of insurrection in Washington an inspiration for Israel’s right-religious extremists? Or is the fate of that insurrection and its leader, Trump, a deterrent?

Q. Well, could it happen in Israel? What are the Israeli equivalents to Trump, to Washington’s hapless security services, and to the men and women who stormed the Capitol?

A. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter asked on Friday, “How are we different from them? In no way. . . . Bibi and Trump . . . are liars and unabashed inciters. Both lack values, norms and minimal integrity. They disdain . . . the rule of law and its gatekeepers. . . . They spy on rivals and fuel crazy conspiracy theories. . . . The prime minister’s supporters and admirers are today the most dangerous movement in the country. . . . Storm the Knesset? . . . the High Court? . . . Whatever it takes.”

Yediot Aharonot columnist Sima Kadmon also pulled no punches: “There can be no doubt. If Netanyahu loses the elections he will cling to power. He has already developed an agenda . . . that they are going to steal the election from half the public. . . . It is not he who is on trial, but the entire Likud. He is not on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but rather half the people.”

Kadmon’s fellow Yediot columnist Nachum Barnea was more cautious. His comparison between Israel and the US was a warning to Netanyahu: “The lessons for Israel are almost obvious: a ruler who undermines the institutions of power, the basic laws and the judicial system, who turns his personal agenda into ideology and subverts his party to his whims is liable to finish up like Donald Trump.”

Q. So is there really an equivalent in Israeli politics, society, history?

A. Here are three relevant events in contemporary Israeli history. They might provide insights into the danger of something similar happening in Israel, say, following this year’s March 23 election or Netanyahu’s conviction in a court of law.

In 1952, then leader of the opposition Menachem Begin led a mob of followers in an attempt to storm the Knesset. He was protesting the government’s decision to enter into negotiations with West Germany over Holocaust reparations. Policemen and civilians were injured. The army had to be called in. Begin failed to prevent a Knesset vote in favor of negotiations. He was suspended from the Knesset for three months by that body. He apologized for his rhetoric. Twenty-five years later he became prime minister.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-religious extremist on November 4, 1995. Benjamin Netanyahu was one of those who incited against Rabin. It took him barely a year to become prime minister.

Many warnings had been sounded by concerned Israelis, yet the Rabin assassination happened. Nor, following the murder, was there much of a reckoning among the religious right--then not yet the mainstream it constitutes today. Nor did the then-establishment, which was left of center, proceed to deal effectively with the inciters, the pro-settler rabbis and their henchmen. The establishment, which had allowed the settlements to flourish, feared further fragmenting the country. Politicians like Netanyahu were about as contrite as Lindsey Graham is now. And that, needless to say, is why we are where we are today. In sharp contrast, when right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon evacuated all settlements and settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, the doomsday predictions of a rightist-settler revolt and civil war never materialized. The vast majority of the settlers accepted their fate. Sharon’s critics on the right went silent. They had warned against a replay of the destruction of the Temple twice in ancient Hebrew history due to ‘fraternal hatred’ and civil war that led to conquest and exile.

Are Israel’s Im Tirzu (an activist right-wing NGO), Hill Youth (anarchist settlers) and La Familia (racist and violent Jerusalem soccer fans) the equivalents of America’s QAnon, Murder the Media, Proud Boys, National Socialist Club and Three Percenters? Are Israel’s right-wingers who increasingly prefer an ethnic state over a pluralistic democracy the equivalent of Trumpists?

Americans have a gun culture. They had a civil war more than 150 years ago that in some circles never really ended. In contrast, Israelis have been under constant siege for over 70 years. The narrative they tell themselves is that, since the Holocaust, they have learned to pull together as a nation when threatened. Nor is there a unified right wing in Israel that corresponds with Trump’s 74 million voters. Indeed, Netanyahu and the Likud are now seriously challenged by fellow right-wingers Gideon Saar (New Hope), Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu) and Naftali Bennet (Yamina). They seek to unseat him; they condemn his egomaniacal behavior and Trumpist tendencies. Their political positions are to the right of Netanyahu. Polls currently favor their chances of forming a coalition without Netanyahu after March 23. If the aforementioned examples from Israeli history are relevant, Netanyahu’s replacement by right-wingers could make it more difficult for him to incite against the election outcome.

Lest we forget, in recent years Israeli courts have convicted and imprisoned a prime minister (Olmert, who resigned to face trial) and a president (Katsav). Both went quietly, protesting their innocence yet honoring the law.

Now we live in an era of fake news and conspiracy theories on social media--in Israel, stoked by the prime minister’s own son! Never before 2015 did the president of Israel (Rivlin) characterize the country as being hopelessly fragmented into four “tribes”. Never before has Israel had a prime minister who has been indicted, refuses to resign, and is seeking reelection. So the picture is complex, multi-dimensional and confusing.

Q. What’s your bottom-line assessment?

A. Netanyahu, son of a historian, is extremely intelligent. He is undoubtedly aware of the verdict of history on inciters to rebellion against democracy. Unlike Trump, he does not engage in magical thinking; he knows when he is lying to the public, which is much of the time.

On the other hand, after so many years in office Netanyahu has come to identify his fate with that of the nation. And he is desperate. He is trying to sabotage Israel’s democratic institutions and norms in his drive to avoid trial, conviction and jail. He models his behavior after elected fellow authoritarians like Trump, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Orban. If confronting defeat, he must be considered capable of inciting insurrection among his followers.

But after which defeat: at the polls or in the courts? At what point in time in the Netanyahu martyrdom narrative might this happen? And will those followers, blindly faithful Likudniks, storm the Knesset? The courts?

We cannot dismiss the possibility that it will happen. If it does, the odds will be heavily against the seditionists. They will fail. Israel’s democratic institutions, though younger and perhaps more fragile than their American equivalents, will resist and prevail. Its security institutions will hold the line against anarchy. A large portion of the body politic will fight for the system despite its dysfunctionality.

But the wounds inflicted on the country’s societal and political fabric will be even more severe than they already are. And all this could happen in lockstep with our ongoing descent down a slippery slope together with the Palestinians toward an apartheid reality. Bear in mind that the rightist opposition campaigning persuasively to remove Netanyahu from office and restore honor to Israeli politics is more annexationist and broadly more messianic than Trump’s buddy on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.