Israel’s state of politics
Netanyahu, nukes, and novels help illuminate a complicated nation
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The March 23 Israeli elections concluded in a deadlock for the fourth time in two years (See “Courting Christians”). Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu once again fell short of the parliamentary majority needed to form a new government, in what Israelis viewed as a referendum on his leadership: Netanyahu, first elected in 1996, was running for his sixth term.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes. He dismisses the scandals as an attack by hostile politicians, lawyers, and journalists. Netanyahu recently campaigned on his success in securing vaccines for all Israelis, which led to 80 percent of the population gaining inoculation by election time. Critics say Netanyahu has allowed his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and inoculation drives.
Ze’ev Chafets was born in 1947, grew up in Pontiac, Mich., and majored in Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. He moved to Israel and in 1977 became director of the Government Press Office under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He was founding managing editor of The Jerusalem Report magazine and is now a Bloomberg columnist. I’ve edited and condensed our Feb. 26 interview.
Israeli politics is a mystery to most American readers. Could you explain the aleph, bet, gimel—the ABCs? I’ll try. There are only 9 million Israelis, which means about 7 million voters. A national election is the size of an election in Michigan. The parliament here is called the Knesset and has 120 members. To form a government you need 61 votes in the Knesset. Each of about a dozen parties puts up a list of candidates and gets a percentage of the Knesset equivalent to the percentage of votes it receives. If Likud, the party of Netanyahu, gets 25 percent of the vote, it gets 30 members of the Knesset, one quarter.
No one ever gets a majority, right? Since Israel began in 1948, no party has ever had an absolute majority. All our governments are coalition governments. Until 1977 the ruling party was always the Labor Party, which founded the country under David Ben-Gurion. Since 1977 Likud, with rare moments of lapse, has been the dominant party and formed most of the coalitions. The real elections in Israel these days actually start the day after the election, which is when the coalition bargaining begins.
What’s your assessment of Bibi Netanyahu? He’s a demagogue in some ways, a very tough campaigner, very manipulative, which I guess is probably not a bad quality in a politician. I’ve known him for a long time. I stopped supporting him when I thought that in 1995 he played a role in whipping up the hostility in the country that ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I don’t admire his character. I do admire his abilities. They’re substantial.
What about his trial for fraud and bribery? I’m against him when he does things like attempt to suppress the justice system. His defense has been way over the top in a democratic country like Israel. He’s been ready to undermine the attorney general, the Justice Department, the police department, and anybody else he thinks might be a partner to him going to jail, or at least having to leave the prime minister job.
Has Israel turned to the political right? The demography has shifted over the years. Israel used to be roughly 50-50 in terms of left and right. Today, I would say that in terms of that Jewish population of the country—which is 80 percent of the country—80 percent of that 80 percent is right-wing. Some of those people are ultra-Orthodox. Some are settlers or supportive of the settler movement in the West Bank.
What does right-wing mean in the Israeli context? One component: You are a hard-liner on the issue of Iran. Second, Bibi was a Trump supporter—in some ways you could say he was a Trump whisperer, since the American plan for a Palestinian entity was essentially a plan scripted by Bibi and adopted by the U.S. government. People who support that plan, you could say, are right-wing, although they may be liberal on abortion: Abortion here is not controversial on the right or left.
But the Haredim—the ultra-Orthodox—are not pro-abortion. No, the Haredim, about 12 percent of the population, are a world of their own, divorced from anything beyond what their own community wants and needs. That has become very clear in the last year, especially with the pandemic: They refused to follow any government restrictions. Likud is prepared not to press them into full citizenship; not to require their sons and daughters to go into military service; not to educate their children in mathematics, science, or even basic history or nonreligious texts. Netanyahu, Begin, even Ben-Gurion have been willing to accommodate them because, (a) they didn’t realize that this is going to grow into such a big community, and (b) they’re very easy coalition partners: They don’t want anything in terms of the national budget.
Others in the right-wing coalition don’t like them? More than half the men and families are unemployed on purpose because they consider working inferior to Talmudic study. The government supports them, and almost all of these families are welfare families. They have seven, eight, 10 children in their families, because it’s a Biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and because they don’t have to worry about raising these children because they’re raised essentially by taxes.
The Arab bloc, about 20 percent of the country, sides with the left? They vote against any Jewish party. They’ve never been in the government or a coalition partner for anybody. Their political leadership is all much closer to the Palestinian idea of a non-Jewish state, what they think of as a state of all its citizens, than the Israeli model, which is Jewish and democratic. The Haredim don’t like the democratic part of that slogan, but they don’t deny the right of the Jewish people to have their own state.
What are the primary misunderstandings many American evangelicals have about Israel? Many don’t realize that Israel is not a militarized country, that it’s very Americanized, and that it’s not (where most people live) a desert. There’s a seamless cultural and media web between here and the United States. We watch the same things, listen to the same music, wear the same clothes. For many evangelicals, the big matters of Israeli politics are secondary. They love Israel because that’s what God said they need to do.
When the Iranians have a nuclear weapon, it might be that Israel will decide it has no choice but to go after the Iranians.
In 2007 you wrote a column essentially saying It may be a good idea to bomb Iran before it can nuke us. Is that doable and desirable today? Today, not necessarily doable, nor worthwhile. Iranian facilities are spread around the country—not a single reactor Israel can take out. It would cause a major war and Israel would suffer a lot of missile damage, so what did they say in the 1950s—a balancing of terror?
MAD—Mutually assured destruction. When the Iranians have a nuclear weapon, it might be that Israel will decide it has no choice but to go after the Iranians. That’s called the Begin doctrine here, that no hostile country denying Israel’s right to exist can be allowed to have nuclear weapons. During the Trump administration, people here hoped American sanctions might bring down that regime. There’s not a problem between the mass of Iranian people and the mass of the Israelis; but the government there is militantly anti-Israel and if there’s no choice, there’s no choice.
If there’s no choice, Israel attacks, and it can’t take out all the nuclear weapons—there goes Tel Aviv? Do Israelis have existential dread? At a low velocity, because after the Holocaust, nobody is under the impression that these sorts of things are impossible. It doesn’t concern people every minute, but it could change if the Iranians do have nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them.
Do Israeli military people think the Iranian leadership is basically sane as the Soviet leadership was, or is the malignancy so great that the leaders would say, Let’s take out Israel, and so what if we lose a few million people? I don’t know. We know in retrospect that the Soviet Union was reasonably responsible with its nuclear weapons, and after Cuba in 1962 not looking for opportunities to threaten with them. Maybe if the Iranian leadership thought they could do it, they’d try. I doubt that they’re suicidal, but I’m not sure that they’re not.
You wrote five novels during the 1990s. In your funny novel The Project, the Israeli prime minister outwits and manipulates the U.S. president. Could Netanyahu manipulate Joe Biden? I don’t think so. They have known each other a long time, and Biden is not cold to Israel in the same way President Obama was. But Biden’s senior foreign policy team are virtually all people who have a grudge against Netanyahu because of the fight he put up against the Iran nuclear pact.
For The Project, was Prime Minister Begin your model? No, but some of his staff people were models for different characters.
The other four novels you wrote are also laugh-out-loud, but WORLD readers should know that some of your novels include sexual situations and all of them have some bad language. I won’t quote here what your NBA player in Hang Time teaches the son of a Muslim terrorist, but I was impressed with the wily Israeli prime minister. He’s very hard-line—somewhat based on Yitzhak Rabin.
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