In today’s media generated public discourse, perception is everything. The last thing that Prime Minster Netanyahu needed ahead of the Sept 17 snap elections is the outrage of middle of the road non-religious voters over the remarks of MK Smotrich this week. In case you have been on the moon for the past two days and missed how the media relished at this unexpected media freebie to attack and politically weaken Netanyahu and the Likud party. Smotrich stated in his own words, without “stuttering”, and without “remorse”; speaking Sunday at the Jerusalem Day celebration at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, Smotrich said, "We want the justice portfolio, because we want to return the Torah to its foundation." On Monday, he told Reshet Bet radio in an interview, “My long-term desires are for the State of Israel to operate according to the Torah. This is how it should be. This is a Jewish state. The state of the Jewish people will return to being conducted as it was during the days of King David and King Solomon - according to Torah law.”
Only 10 days ago we witnessed the political results of right wing arrogance due to the breakaway New Right party failing to cross the threshold and enter the Knesset weakening the ability of the Likud party to form a coalition and sending the country to snap elections. If there is something that frightens away the secular middle of the road voting bloc is talk of religious coercion in the public sphere and transforming Israel into a Halachic state. Arrogance tends to be protective, of itself and of other ills, says a Chinese proverb, ”It hates humility, and justifies the sin.” Since the recent elections Bezalel Smotrich has become more confident in his self-righteousness, showing a blatant disregard for the political reality that Israel is experiencing. In our era of partisan politics when new technologies spread and facilitate the laser-speed proliferation of inaccurate or out of context information, the damage can be extensive and at times even irreversible. Avigdor Leiberman, the politician solely responsible for preventing the formation of a right wing coalition by Netanyahu, didn’t lose a second running from studio to studio using the statements of Smotrich as evidence that only he and not Netanyahu can safeguard the secular rights of Israelis.
Smotrich seems to have made a decision to transform the National Union party to the party of “know-it-all-ism” elevating it to the party of arrogance and blind conviction. In one major swoop he has branded himself and his party as the party of unrepentant religious extremism and intolerance. On his climb up the political ladder he has evidently decided that rather than being capable of uniting he is reaching out for the leadership of Israel’s most uncompromisingly divisive politician. The upcoming elections may very well be about religion and the State of Modern Israel. The simmering tension in Israeli society between secular-religious-ultra orthodox will resurface and create the politically charged atmosphere that can only benefit the left and the sworn political enemies of Netanyahu and the Likud.
For most of the Israeli public, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is more or less over and it’s only a question of time before the Palestinians get it and move on. Israel’s economy is booming and prosperity has trickled down to all segments of society with virtually no unemployment and the level of poverty receding throughout the years of Netanyahu’s terms as Prime Minister. Millions of Israeli’s are flying out abroad to vacation and Israel’s standard of living is reaching heights unseen during the 71 years since Israel’s inception.
The opposition parties and the biased media against Netanyahu and the Likud’s re-election have really nothing left to campaign on or market to the Israeli public. Nothing better than re-branding the Likud as the party that will bring on a Halachic State. Let the public believe that Netanyahu’s re-election will empower Smotrich and the unltra-Orthodox parties to impose their lifestyle on the secular majority in Israel. They will claim that if the Likud is re-elected and Netanyahu is Prime Minister then women will be forced to sit at the back of the bus, culture and leisure venues will be shut down on Shabbat, and so forth. The politics of fear will be deafening and amplified by the biased media who smell an opportunity rarely given to opposition political parties who would otherwise have nothing to offer to the general public other than the threat of religious coercion.
The internal struggle within the right wing bloc has become the single most major obstacle in getting the needed voting majority and forming Israel’s next governing coalition. This divisiveness may very well force a realignment of Israel’s political map forcing political compromises from center-left parties that would be willing to enter Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. It would be ironic that in response to unnecessary political remarks from right wing politicians, center left political parties who had nowhere to go have suddenly become empowered by the very politicians who oppose their political agenda.
Later this month, Netanyahu will be hosting US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev who will be meeting in Jerusalem to discuss regional security issues. “I proposed to [US President Donald] Trump and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to form a US-Russia-Israel trilateral committee that would meet in Jerusalem to discuss the security situation in the Middle East and both of them agreed,” Netanyahu said. “This is unprecedented. A meeting like that has never taken place before in Israel. Never.”
Sadly, the important strategic work still needed to ensure Israel’s military and defense policies, meticulously planned and executed by Prime Minister Netanyahu may very well be a victim of the recent gutter talk of religious coercion, and the politics of fear.