Imagine a political party that finds itself in what appears to be a permanent bind. The elites who run the party and make up the senior elected officials represent an establishment rightwing view, and it is one that has been electorally successful for decades as it stayed within a national consensus that allowed it to attract a wider array of voters beyond its natural base. At the same time, many of the party’s voters have been steadily moving rightward and taking more extreme positions that are being embraced by people on an order of magnitude that would have been unimaginable a couple of elections before. The party honchos have not been unaware of this trend, and have been playing a timeless game in which they rhetorically support the more extreme positions of the base in an effort to keep them in the fold and win their votes, while rarely following through on the promises they make during the heat of a campaign. They are careful to give the base some small victories, but generally tend to pull back from the edge of the cliff of truly revolutionary proposals, always providing an array of excuses and promises that patience will pay off in the end, and that the eventual victory of remaking the country wholesale is just around the corner.
With each heightened expectation that is inevitably dashed, the base of the party becomes more upset and more radicalized. They eventually turn to even more rightwing movements that are seen as more authentic and more grassroots, and even though these more extreme movements are smaller and will never be able to win an election on their own outright, the effect is to push the larger and more establishment party to the right as it becomes terrified of being cannibalized by its more ideologically pure sibling. This of course only encourages the extremist base, and it creates a spiral in which the party becomes more extreme but can never go far enough to satisfy its most strident voters, and eventually the voters who happily kept returning the party and its standard bearers to national office turn on those standard bearers, branding their former heroes traitors to the cause and embracing new politicians who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how absurd or devastating the consequences of the proposed policies would be.
This is a rough portrayal of what has been taking place in the Republican Party, but it is also the story of what is right now taking place in Likud. The Likud establishment has been winning elections for decades, but the impatience of many in its base – particularly religious settlers – has led to challenges from smaller parties demanding greater fidelity to nationalist ideology, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi being the most prominent recent example. Prime Minister Netanyahu comes off as unapologetically rightwing to many American Jews, but the fact is that to the Israeli right, he is seen as too cautious and not viewed as a true believer. His rhetoric meant for the rightwing base has become more extreme over time, from the infamous election night warning about Arab voters coming to the polls in droves to his all but calling Mahmoud Abbas a terrorist, but it is never enough. The fact that he and his government have placed any brakes at all on settlement activity in the West Bank, let alone refused to seriously consider annexation, makes him and other Likud luminaries automatically suspect. And thus Netanyahu keeps on being returned to office, but each time the grumbling becomes louder and keeping his coalition satisfied becomes increasingly Sisyphean.
In the U.S., this trend has led to a Republican Party circular firing squad, where whomever or whatever emerges is going to be barely breathing politically. In Israel, however, the consequences have been more serious, since this trend is not only ensnaring one of Israel’s two historically major political parties, but the IDF as well. This has been laid bare by the fallout from the Hebron shooting, in which an IDF soldier shot and killed an injured and immobilized terrorist with a bullet to the head. Both Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot immediately moved to make sure that the soldier was detained and that a proper investigation was conducted, and Ya’alon forcefully condemned the soldier as one who had gone bad. The fact that they did not instead unequivocally support the soldier – who may yet turn out to be guilty of something less serious than murder, but whose actions were captured on tape and appear to be as ugly as it gets – was immediately seized upon by those on the far right, led by Bennett who accused Ya’alon of selling out the IDF. Netanyahu’s zigzag, from initially supporting Ya’alon and criticizing the soldier to then calling the soldier’s family and seemingly playing all sides, was sadly predictable. All of this was naturally followed by images circulating of Ya’alon’s face in the crosshairs of a rifle, comparisons to Hitler, and posters hung all over Tel Aviv calling on Eisenkot to resign and accusing him of failing to safeguard Jewish lives. The sad fact that Bennett is more representative of the public mood, as a majority of Israelis do not believe that the solider should have been arrested and investigated, does not make his conduct any less dangerous or reprehensible, since he is deliberately undermining the institution that is most trusted by the Israeli public in order to further his own political career. That Netanyahu is continuing to calibrate his own actions based on what Bennett does should finally put the notion to bed once and for all that Netanyahu is a leader rather than a man with his finger perpetually in the air testing the wind.
The IDF is what holds Israel together; once it has been undermined for short term political gain, there is no going back. And yet after years of treating its base as simplistic fools and seeing it boomerang in the faces of its leaders, the Likud is now haplessly watching by as its own defense minister is savaged for actually acting correctly and responsibly, and the IDF leadership is questioned for acting like armies in democratic countries act. That Republican leaders in the U.S. completely lost control of their own political vehicle and are now faced with the prospect of a nominee that many of them refuse to support – whether it is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz – is not a good thing for American democracy; no matter which party owns your sympathies, competition is both good and necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy, and the corrosion of the Republican Party is not good for the country. But ultimately, the damage is likely going to be limited to Republican institutions and not the institutions of the state. In Israel, the same cannot be said. Likud has been fighting a losing battle against its own Tea Partiers, whom it tacitly encouraged under the assumption that it could contain them, but the chaos is now spilling over and has the potential to bring the rest of the country down with it. When you wink at extremism while laughing at it behind its back, the joke is often on you. This time, it is coming at all of Israel’s expense.