Novelist John le Carre offered the thought that “a desk is a dangerous place to view the world”.
These past weeks, true to his dictum, I have been far from my South African desk and about in the world.
Two days in Israel was to be thrust into the maelstrom of the largest civil discontent and protest among Israelis since the founding of the state in 1948.
I literally exited the train station in Tel Aviv a few weeks back and was engulfed in flag-waving protesters, demonstrating against the “judicial reforms” being piloted through the Knesset (parliament) by the most right-wing, extremist government coalition in the history of the country.
Beyond the immediate dangers to the constitutional fabric of Israel, which has prided itself on being a lone democracy (for Israelis, not Palestinians) in a sea of authoritarian neighbours, there is a wider perspective, the so-called view from “30,000 feet” or, in the distance from South Africa, some 7,000km.
First, while no country in the Middle East would tolerate the mass protests, to date unavailing in stopping the legislative steamroller, which is reducing the independence and power of the courts to check and balance government legislation and conduct, some 20% of Israelis have taken to the streets in opposition. I wondered what back home the response would be if a new government decided to commence removing the guardrails of South African democracy.
My second thought from abroad was sparked by a friend in London who, while highly critical of prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, placed a degree of blame on that country’s liberal and moderate opposition.
His view echoed an editorial in The Economist after the last Israeli election in December, that to prevent Netanyahu from assembling the extremist government now in place, which included ultrareligious and extremist far-right parties, the moderates should have “held their noses and done a deal with the devil”.
In this case “the devil” was the 73-year-old Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and proved to opposition leader Benny Ganz, who previously attempted to co-govern with Bibi, utterly duplicitous and untrustworthy.
Thus the centrist parties campaigned against Netanyahu and refused to join his coalition or serve under him. The construction of the extremist government now undermining the democratic fabric and even the secular nature of Israel is, on this view, the consequence.
Of course, it is easy to indulge in what Robert Hughes called “retrospective clairvoyance”. Few of Netanyahu’s mainstream opponents imagined that he would be captive to the extremist forces in his coalition determined to reshape the image of the country. Previously he managed to talk right and govern with caution. But as Israeli journalist and Netanyahu biographer Ashnel Pfeffer wrote recently, “a question being asked in Israel is whether Netanyahu is being held hostage” by his coalition. The answer is that it simply doesn’t matter. He’s not in charge of most of his government’s policies anyway. Nearly everything his ministers have done in the past seven months has been in contradiction to his long-held beliefs.”
That the man who previously rejoiced in the title “the magician” for his political supremacy is more passenger than driver of the most radical changes seen in modern Israel is explained by Pfeffer: “Netanyahu can’t discipline or sack his ministers. To do so would almost certainly cost him his majority.”