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Benzion Netanyahu

Mira Sucharov: Bleak picture of democracy

by MIRA SUCHAROV, June 15, 2012

With the death of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, one article about his legacy has been shared widely. Writing in Tablet Magazine, Yossi Klein Halevy wrote of the legacy of Revisionist Zionism, the hawkish version of Zionism peddled by Vladimir Jabotinsky through to Menachem Begin through to today’s Likud party. The take-away message of Revisionist Zionism according to Halevy? “Don’t be a fool.”

Israeli slang changes frequently. But one term that has remained for decades is the word “fryer.” One of the worst things you can be in Israel is a fryer, a fool, someone who is taken advantage of. No wonder that the right-wing Zionists I know shared the article on Facebook almost immediately.

But there’s another side to the story. Recently, I sat down at Bridgehead coffee in Ottawa’s Glebe with Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now in Israel. During our interview, as well as at the talk he gave that evening at Temple Israel, Oppenheimer painted a bleak picture of the state of Israeli democracy. Both within Israel and via the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the peace camp is sorely needed.

In Israel, two recent laws threaten to undermine Israeli democracy.

The Nakba law declares that any publicly funded organization attempting to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” that Palestinians use to describe the violence and dispossession they experienced in 1948) is liable to have its funding cut.

The boycott law entails any Israeli who calls for a boycott of settlement products being subject to a civil suit without the plaintiff having to prove damages. In response to the boycott law, Peace Now launched a campaign that quickly went viral called “Sue me; I boycott settlement products.”

Talking about budget discrimination against the Arab sector and racism within Israeli society, Oppenheimer said, “I think Arab Israelis are more loyal to Israel than Israel is to its Arab citizens.”

The Revisionist Zionist philosophy that motivated Netanyahu’s father, and today Netanyahu and most of his governing coalition, warns Israelis away from playing the fool. Revisionist Zionists did not seem troubled over the military administration Israel extended to its Arab minority citizens until it was repealed in 1966, they do not seem to lose sleep over Israel’s 45-year-long occupation of 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank that continues apace, nor do they seem distressed by the apparent erosion of the free-speech principles integral to Israeli democracy.

It’s all good and fine to retreat behind fortress Israel, chalking up anti-democratic legislation as necessary for security. But we must realize that there is a great moral and strategic cost to not questioning why Palestinian commemoration of their history is a threat, and why Israelis challenging their country’s settlement policies with their wallets needs to be stifled.

One of the most striking things Oppenheimer relayed in his public talk was when he regularly meets with Israeli teens. Most of the teens he talks with no longer have a concept of the Green Line, no longer seem to realize that the West Bank is a separate entity from democratic Israel. Neither, he said, do these teens seem troubled by the occupation. “If we have the power to enforce an occupation, we should,” these teens tell him. He responds by telling them that one day they may very well find themselves studying abroad and sitting next to a Palestinian student at university. “What are you going to tell that Palestinian student?” he asks them. “How will you possibly be able to defend the occupation then?”

That morning, I asked Oppenheimer a question I often hear from the right: how can Israel contemplate a withdrawal from the West Bank given the ongoing rocket fire following the 2005 pullout from Gaza?

Oppenheimer’s answer was this. He rightly pointed out that both Israeli-Arab peace treaties – one with Egypt in 1979 and another with Jordan in 1994 – have held. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was a unilateral move, unaccompanied by a peace treaty. To this, I would add that neither was it a full withdrawal. While Israel did remove its ground forces and all 7,000 settlers, Israel still maintains a naval blockade and control over airspace, as well as control over borders.

In Hebrew, Yariv means adversary, opponent, or “he will fight.” It’s an odd name perhaps for someone who leads the main grassroots peace camp movement in Israel. But we shouldn’t forget that Peace Now was founded by Israeli army officers in the late 1970s, officers who understood the value of security as well as the urgency of making peace with their country’s adversaries. You don’t make peace with your friends, after all.

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

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