A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

King Bibi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to undermine Israel’s democratic institutions.
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With his latest attack on the Israeli Defense Forces, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has breached yet another taboo in Israeli politics. The consequences could be far-reaching – in a polarized society, the army is one of the last unifying elements.

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© REUTERS/Baz Ratner

May 18, 2016 might become one of those dates later defined as a turning point in history. On that day – Wednesday – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman will join his coalition, getting the Defense Ministry as his portfolio. Apart from the very serious question of whether Lieberman is even suitable for the job, the announcement is something of a declaration of war against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officers who time and again have disagreed with “Bibi” Netanyahu and been unwilling to pursue his wishes – including his desire to attack Iran a few years ago.

Lieberman’s nomination as defense minister is the latest of Netanyahu’s attacks against the established bastion of generals, who in the past have shown more rationality in questions of war and terror than the Prime Minister and his coalition partners. The latest battle began on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan spoke of Germany during the 1930s, discussing how German history shows how fast people, states, and cultures can lose their human values. He went on to speak of the dangers of growing racism and inhumanity within Israeli society today, and made clear that he feels it is the IDF’s responsibility to act according to ethical values and teach its soldiers to fight these tendencies.

Within the blink of an eye, right-wing politicians, Netanyahu included, cynically (and unfairly) attacked Golan, accusing him of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, comparing the Holocaust to the Palestinian issue, and so on. None of this is true – Golan did not say any of this. But it was a welcome opportunity to once again promote Israel’s case, namely that Israel is morally untouchable. In other words, right-wing Israeli ideology cannot be unjust or cruel, or – God forbid – fascist.

Changing Israel’s Identity

It was Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, himself a hardcore right-winger, who agreed with Golan, making it clear that Golan was defending ethical values which were not only important to the IDF, but to Israel as a society. And he said he welcomed generals who speak their minds – even in public – to defend democracy.

Bibi wasn’t amused, calling in his Defense Minister to speak privately. What they discussed behind closed doors can only be assumed, but it was obvious that Bogie’s days in office might be numbered.

And now here is Lieberman, Bibi’s favorite enemy. Both politicians know each other very well, and each is equally disgusted by the other. But Bibi needed Lieberman to teach Ya’alon, and the generals even more so, a lesson. It is not totally clear yet whether Lieberman and his party, Yisrale Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”), will really join Bibi’s governing coalition. But even if they do not, the message remains the same: Bibi is trying to set fire to the IDF. He’s had enough. And just as he is trying to shut up journalists who are too critical, just as he is trying to bring down leftist NGOs (first and foremost Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked’s project, but one Netanyahu will not stop), he’s now trying to make the army leadership tremble.

The latter is astonishing, as the IDF is the last real source of pride for Israelis, an almost untouchable and strongly admired institution. Since everybody, or almost everybody, has been part of the army, or has children in the army, it’s the core of a shared identity, the glue that holds almost all levels of society together. And most generals are deeply admired in Israel.

In 2012, TIME magazine ran a cover story about Netanyahu titled “King Bibi”. It seems now that King Bibi wants to rename his state – frustrated Israelis joke that maybe in a few years it won’t be called “Israel”, but rather “Bibisrael”. May 18 might be remembered as the day when Bibi changed Israel’s identity in the most destructive way, possibly forever.