Every country needs its myths. Credit: Ariel Schalit/Pool/AFP/Getty

January 6, 2023   5 mins

Every country needs its myths — stories it tells both to its own people about themselves and to the world, even though upon scrutiny they don’t always fully hold up. Sometimes, however, these myths can be destructive, creating false expectations which lead countries down the wrong path; look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Israel, with its unique status as the world’s only Jewish state, its location in a region where it has been ostracised by the surrounding nations, and its absorption over the years of Jewish immigrants from all parts of the world, has always needed its myths. They were essential in constructing a national ethos for Israel’s supporters to rally around. But as a new government takes office in Jerusalem, the sixth led by Binyamin Netanyahu, some of the radical Right-wing and ultra-religious members of his coalition are openly advancing policies which will make it much more difficult to maintain those myths.

The key myth is that of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel has many of the prerequisites of a democracy. It holds open and transparent elections, with high voter turnout and high levels of trust in the outcome. And its elections, as we have seen both in 2021 and 2022, can lead to a change in government. But while the elections are free and fair for all Israeli citizens, claiming to be a democracy while continuing the military occupation of the West Bank, where nearly three million Palestinians live in semi-autonomy under Israeli rule and can’t vote for the Knesset (including the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, who have the right to vote only in local elections), is an increasingly difficult proposition.

Ever since 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from its previous occupiers, the Jordanians, this has remained technically a temporary situation. Israel extended its sovereignty only over East Jerusalem while maintaining the official position that the final status of the rest of the West Bank would be decided in negotiations. Despite the interminable rounds of talks held over nearly 55 years, the West Bank is still under military occupation and Israel, despite occasional talk of annexation, has failed to change its legal status.

In this new government, however, which states quite clearly in its inaugural policy statement that “the Government will act to advance and develop settlements in all parts of the land of Israel”, the myth of Israel not planning to rule over the Palestinians (who are not mentioned in the statement) is impossible to maintain. The statement goes even further and promises that “the prime minister will act to formulate and advance policy which will include the application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, choosing the timing and taking into consideration all of Israel’s national and international interests”. The rather vague wording is intentional — Netanyahu realises that he won’t be able to annex the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, as Israeli nationalists call it) while there is a Democratic administration in the United States, but he has to offer his coalition partners the prospect of doing so under a future Republican president in a couple of years.

Whether or not the Republicans win the election next year, what is already clear is that this Israeli government has officially abandoned the myth of the “temporary” status of the West Bank. Netanyahu is gambling that the international community is otherwise occupied and has no interest in calling Israel’s bluff. He reckons that human-rights groups have already been accusing Israel of “apartheid” for years without harming Israel on the international scene. If anything, its ties with countries around the world, including an increasing number of Arab regimes, have improved. Yet without even the pretence to cling to, things may swiftly change. And with a government of far-Right firebrands, including the new national-security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — who provocatively visited the contended Temple Mount/Al Aqsa Mosque compound on Tuesday morning — the willingness of Western governments to look the other way may start to shift.

Nor is it just old myths surrounding the occupation that Netanyahu is willing to challenge. Another point which Israel’s democracy has long had in its favour is that its legal system holds corrupt politicians to account. Few countries have put their heads of state in prison through legal process, without holding a coup. Yet in Israel, previous prime ministers and presidents have been investigated for various crimes and even put on trial. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to prison for receiving bribes, while former President Moshe Katzav was jailed for rape and sexual assault. Netanyahu is also on trial now for bribery and fraud, but his new government is busy dismantling the legal establishment’s powers to hold politicians to account. Netanyahu’s brazenness at staying in office despite the charges against him (previous PMs resigned before being indicted) has established a major precedent.

The new government has already changed the law, allowing politicians to become ministers despite previous convictions, as long as they weren’t sentenced to actual time in prison. Ministers have also proposed a law abolishing the “fraud and breach of trusts in public office” crime, and another allowing the Knesset to override rulings by the Supreme Court. In isolation, none of the proposed reforms to the legal system are in themselves unreasonable. But the wholesale manner in which the government is going about making these changes — weakening the power and independence of the Supreme Court and State Prosecutor’s office — are both a drastic change and obviously tailored to assist Netanyahu.

Elsewhere, the country’s democratic myths have been eroded by the coalition’s change to Israel’s anti-discrimination law, which means that private citizens and businesses will be allowed to refuse services due to their beliefs. A permissive attitude towards gay people and their prominence in public life has long been one the pillars of Israel’s democracy myth, yet the new clause is widely interpreted as allowing discrimination against LGBTQ citizens. As his government was inaugurated last Thursday, Netanyahu made a big fuss of welcoming the husband and children of Amir Ohana, a loyal member of his Likud party and the first openly gay Knesset Speaker. But this was a naked pink-washing ploy, designed to distract attention from the changes to the anti-discrimination law and the fact that many of his coalition partners are openly homophobic.

Another myth being challenged is that of Israel’s prominence as a high-tech nation. At present, Israel has the highest proportion of any country of its population working in tech — around 11%. This statistic is even more remarkable when you take into account that nearly a third of Israelis — the Arab citizens (estimated at 21% of the population) and the ultra-Orthodox Jews (11%) — are barely employed in the sector. The level of education in the Arab community is poor and they lack the contacts that most tech employees have from their compulsory military service (few Arab-Israelis serve in the Israeli army). In the ultra-Orthodox community, the situation is even more dire as their rabbis refuse to allow ultra-Orthodox schools to teach the national curriculum of mathematics, science and English.

Already, the new government, in which the ultra-Orthodox parties are integral, has increased the isolation of these schools by promising them more government funding without requiring any teaching of the national curriculum. Meanwhile, funding for programmes that the previous government hoped would improve Arab schools and integrate more members of the community into the workforce are now uncertain. And with the demographic trends projecting a growth in the ultra-Orthodox community, the potential skilled workforce will shrink, reducing the attraction for tech companies — Israeli and international — to continue basing their research and development centres in Israel. Tech bosses have already started to complain about recruitment difficulties.

No politician has made more capital out of Israel’s myths than Netanyahu. In his 40 years as a diplomat and statesman, he has touted Israel’s democracy and technological prowess wherever he goes. In his recent autobiography, published just three months ago, he claims to have “always been a staunch believer in liberal democracy”. This may be the case, but the government he has just formed is planning to dismantle any semblance of liberal democracy.

Of course, the myths of Israel’s democracy were not always consistent, but in the past there was enough to work with to make them somewhat believable. At the very least, its governments talked the talk. Netanyahu still does, but he has surrounded himself with political allies who have no such pretensions and are starting to drown out his protestations — along with the myths that created the country they rule.

Anshel Pfeffer is a senior correspondent for Haaretz and Israel correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Bibi
The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.