Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Last Week’s Israeli Elections and the Slippery Slope: from Leibowitz to Kasher (November 7, 2022)


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. Last week you wrote: “These elections represent another stage in Israel’s descent down a slippery slope toward violent, conflicted bi-nationality.” What do you mean?

A. I mean what I see as the bigger picture. Not the fact that the incoming coalition received barely 30,000 more votes than the outgoing, anti-Netanyahu coalition. Not the fact that a merger on the Zionist left and a shared excess-vote agreement among Arab parties could have prevented the Netanyahu camp’s victory. But rather, the combination of overall incoherence on the center-left and among the Arab parties on the one hand and, on the other, the 14 mandates scored by the racist ultra-nationalist and messianic right under Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and the 18 mandates of the ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

Nor is it crucial to this way of looking at the elections that Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister may now act to limit the obscene excesses of his ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious coalition partners. Thanks to him, they now have a solid political base to exploit: on issues of religion and state, the Temple Mount and the rule of law. They have time; the slippery slope is slow. But steady.

The far-right and left fringes of the electorate determined this election. The far-right-religious won not by 30,000 votes, but by a landslide. Yediot Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea summed it up brutally last Friday: “The story is no longer Netanyahu. The dynamic is stronger than him. In my eyes this is the beginning of the end of the age of liberal secular Zionism. We can send Herzl’s remains to Vienna and Ben Gurion’s to Plonsk.

Q. The slippery slope did not begin last week . . .

A. It began with the Six-Day War and the occupation of the West Bank. It was shortly after that war that prophet-philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz said, “The national pride and the euphoria following the Six-Day War are temporary. They will transport us from proud and rising nationalism to extreme messianic nationalism. The third stage will be bestiality and the final stage the end of Zionism.” Thus did Leibowitz lay out stages in his vision of the slippery slope. 

Here are some of the way-stations in my version of the slippery slope that, to my understanding, led up to last week’s elections.

- 1967-68: The Six-Day War victory and its immediate aftermath of early West Bank settlement, particularly in Hebron. This, and the settlements that followed, were carried out under left-wing or left-right coalition governments. The effect of the settlements on the Palestinians was to radically diminish confidence in Israelis as peace partners in a compromise solution.

- 1977: Likud ascends to power. Menachem Begin explicitly supports expanded West Bank settlement (“more Elonei Moreh”).

- late 1987: the First Intifada breaks out. Israeli intelligence is surprised because apparently it was certain that Israel had found a formula for occupying Palestinians forever. After 20 years of occupation, this first wake-up call is essentially ignored.

- 1995: Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated by an adherent of West Bank-based anti-peace settlement ideology. (Yigal Amir, the assassin, would today be an adherent of Smotrich and Ben Gvir. I will not be surprised if they try to pardon him and free him from jail. Smotrich is already making conspiratorial excuses for Amir in the Knesset: “the Shin Bet encouraged the assassin”.)

- July 2000: A serious attempt at Camp David to convene Israelis and Palestinians under United States auspices and reach final status agreement. In the course of failing abysmally, the parties confront the serious gaps separating their ideological positions and demands.

- 2000-2005: The Second Intifada features Palestinian suicide bombings directed against Israeli civilians inside the green line. The effect on the Israeli perception of Palestinians as peace partners is devastating.

- 2008-2009: PM Ehud Olmert and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas fail to reach an agreement. Abbas: “The gaps were too wide”. The Olmert-Abbas failure only widens them further.

- May 2021: An Israel-Hamas/Gaza clash with a dramatic difference. Operation Guardian of the Walls features Arab-Jewish fighting inside Israel for the first time since 1948. There are clashes in most mixed Arab-Jewish cities. In Wadi Ara, Arab residents attempt to block IDF convoys. Gaza-based Hamas claims to be leading a struggle to ‘free Jerusalem’. Note the presence of Ben Gvir, inciting as always, in Lod and Jerusalem. Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai blames him for the outbreak of violence.

- Nov. 1, 2022: Openly racist, messianic Jewish factions win 14 mandates in Knesset election. Non-Zionist pro-Right Haredim expand their political presence to 18 mandates. If Ben Gvir is now awarded (as he demands) the domestic security portfolio, our next slip down the slippery slope is foretold.

Q. You seem to place us in Leibowitz’s second phase of ‘extreme messianic nationalism’. Isn’t there still time to reverse this dynamic?

A. Indeed, even in my (and Leibowitz’s) worst-case scenario of reaching the bottom of the slippery slope, meaning some sort of violent binational apartheid nightmare, the dynamic could take decades. Note, too, that the slide down the slippery slope has at times been reversed, at least temporarily. Examples include the 1993-94 Oslo Accords, the West Bank separation fence, and the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. (But not the 2019 Abraham Accords, which gave Israel peace with more Arab countries but merely sharpened and exacerbated Palestinian despair and inflated Israel’s ego as an occupier that need not worry about pressure to withdraw and can dream of annexation.) The recent gas and maritime border deal with Lebanon is potentially a limited reversal of the slippery slope.

Yet ‘93-‘94 and ‘05 were the last occasions on record when serious and forceful Israeli leadership found expression. On the Palestinian side, there has been no positive leadership of note since Yasser Arafat agreed to the Oslo Accords (and then proceeded to sabotage them in parallel with Israel’s ongoing settlement sabotage). Thus the overall direction, particularly as expressed within both Israeli and Palestinian society and politics, appears to be negative. The slide down the slippery slope, however slow and at times halting, continues.

Q. Professor Asa Kasher, Israel Prize honoree and coauthor of the IDF Ethical Code, last week wrote highly critically of the “Haredi mutation” and the “nationalist mutation” in the Jewish people. Is Kasher bookending Leibowitz?

A. It looks like it, though Kasher is focusing on Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist coalition partners (and only indirectly on Netanyahu himself), whereas Leibowitz, back in 1967, took on the entire country from left to right, religious to secular.

Kasher wrote last week that “We confront two mutations of the Jewish people. The Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] mutation reflects a transformation from Diaspora roots . . . to a minority living at the expense of others, economically parasitic, draft-dodging at the security level, denying civic responsibility, bereft of respect for the democratic system and its principles.

“ . . . The nationalist mutation reflects a transformation from a religious life based on adherence to justice and fairness . . . with humane and responsible behavior--to a life-style that is . . . malicious, imposes itself violently on its population, uses methods bereft of justice, compassion and morality, and embodies above all a pagan ritualization of the land, the people and their corrupt leadership.”

Q. Bottom line?

A. The current downward dynamic is going to play out over decades to come. This election did not end the dynamic. It contributed but it did not bring us to the bottom of the slippery slope. 

The big challenge for liberal Israelis and their supporters--Diaspora Jews, other supporters of Zionism and of Israel, well-meaning neighbors and friendly nations--is how to navigate the slope, slow the descent, and seize on opportunities to reverse it. I believe that ultimately, if we do reach rock bottom, things will be so bad that the Ben Gvirs, Smotriches and even Netanyahus will be so heavily discredited that the dynamic is reversed. 

But that is a ‘Leninist’ approach: the worse it gets, the better it (eventually) gets. There have to be alternative ways to isolate and weaken the mutations, demagogues and neo-fascists on both sides short of waiting for disaster.

That is the challenge.