Israel After Netanyahu – The Atlantic

todayNovember 10, 2023

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It was October 7, and men with guns were hunting Nir Gontarz’s son. Amir, age 23, had been at the music festival that was ambushed by Hamas terrorists from the air. Now he was on the run, sending panicked messages to his father. A professional journalist, Nir tried calling the usual sources for help—politicians, the army, the police. He soon realized that no rescue was coming. Then, scrolling through live updates from the scene of the slaughter on social media, he saw a photograph of someone he thought might be able to help.

Yair Golan, a 61-year-old ex-general and former leftist politician, had no business being in the war zone. But there he was, on site, in his old uniform. In desperation, Nir called Golan’s mobile and explained his son’s predicament. The general’s response: “Send me his location and I will bring him to you.” Half an hour later, Nir received another clipped message: “Link-up in one minute. Don’t worry.” Nir’s son was safe.

Amir Gontarz wasn’t the only one Golan rescued that day. He repeatedly reentered the killing fields to extract other refugees from the rave, relying on his knowledge of the Gaza border region to evade detection, and using WhatsApp location-sharing to find those in need. Where Israel’s government and military failed, one man succeeded.

Golan’s heroism is one of many such stories from October 7. As Israel’s crony-filled Netanyahu government flailed and its security services faltered, ordinary citizens—many of them dissenters against the current ruling coalition—took charge. Crisis tends to separate the poseurs from the professionals, and the deadliest day in Israel’s history did just that.

Much has already been written about what Gaza might look like after this war. But just as important is what Israel will look like. We can already discern some hints, by looking at who gained political and moral credibility on October 7—and who lost it.

Yair Golan was almost the commander in chief of the Israel Defense Forces. A gifted military leader, he rose to the No. 2 position in the entire army. But on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2016, he gave a speech that would ultimately cost him his career. Rather than the usual platitudes about safeguarding the state, Golan warned of the rise of Jewish extremism in Israeli society. “If there is something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying the horrifying processes that occurred in Europe … and finding evidence of their existence here in our midst, today,” he said. “It is worthwhile to ponder our capacity to uproot the first signs of intolerance, violence, and self-destruction that arise on the path to moral degradation.” The speech sparked outrage on the right, and in 2018, when it came time to appoint the next IDF chief, Golan was passed over.

In 2020, he entered politics as a candidate for the leftist Meretz party, and served in the country’s short-lived anti-Netanyahu government. Golan once again stirred controversy when he called Jewish settlers who attacked West Bank Palestinians “subhuman.” He apologized for the phrasing, but not for his point: “The problem isn’t my remarks. It is a gang that systematically and consistently harms innocents, property, IDF soldiers, and policemen, and desecrates graves.” He added, “I have fought Palestinian terror my whole life. I don’t need to be taught what it is, but I think the danger from within is greater than the dangers from outside.” To those on Israel’s right, Golan quickly became an embodiment of everything they thought was wrong with the country’s elite.

But Golan’s credibility has had a resurgence, as Israel’s public broadcaster found last month. The channel followed Golan around as he visited Bedouin Arabs victimized by Hamas on October 7 and then observed other scenes of the terrorist group’s brutality. At one point during the segment, Golan encountered a young ultra-Orthodox first responder, who turned to the camera and said: “I want you to film this. I’m Meir Spanier. I voted for [the hard-right politician Itamar] Ben-Gvir in the last election. I was incited by the poison that the right-wing public poured on the left-wing public. I hated him [Golan]. Now I love and admire him. And I’m really sorry.” The two men embraced.

Golan’s bluntness and propensity for rhetorical self-sabotage limits his broader appeal, but other military heroes of October 7 may yet prove more politically agile. Israel Ziv, a 66-year-old former head of the IDF’s operations directorate, grabbed his pistol and drove headlong into battle, saving many lives. He later joined forces with another sexagenarian ex-general, Noam Tibon, and the two men made their way to a kibbutz safe room where Tibon’s son and his family had been trapped for 10 hours, freeing them. Since then, Ziv—a staunch critic of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—has advised the minister of defense and held top-secret national-security meetings.

Through their actions, all three of these men have assumed not just operational authority but moral authority—and they have already begun to use it. In recent days, both Golan and Tibon have publicly called for Netanyahu to resign or be removed from office. Thanks to their high-profile position among the public, the longer the war continues, the more these calls will resonate.

It’s not just Israeli military figures who have been elevated by events. Modern wars today are fought just as much in the media as on the battlefield. And if one scrolls through social media or turns on cable news today, one is likely to see Eylon Levy, a young Israeli-government spokesperson of British and Iraqi heritage, making Israel’s case. When Israel opted to screen footage of Hamas’s October 7 atrocities for journalists, in order to counteract the already rampant denial of these crimes, it was Levy’s resigned announcement—“I can’t believe I’m saying this, and I can’t believe that we as a country are having to do this”—that went viral. And when the United Nations General Assembly called for a cease-fire, it was Levy who dryly observed, “The United Nations condemned Israel for capturing Nazi war criminal [Adolf] Eichmann.”

What makes Levy’s turn as star spokesperson for the Israeli government so remarkable is that just weeks earlier, he was in the streets protesting it. A graduate of Oxford and Cambridge, an experienced TV journalist, a former media adviser to Israel’s dovish president, and an English translator of Israeli best sellers, Levy was one of millions of Israelis who spent his evenings demonstrating against the far-right Netanyahu coalition’s attempt to gut the Israeli judiciary. But when Hamas inflicted the worst anti-Jewish violence since the Holocaust, Levy—like much of the rest of Israel—felt compelled to set such matters aside and join the war effort.

Levy declined to be interviewed for this article, but his story can be pieced together from his public socialmedia profiles. (He is a prolific writer; I edited an early article of his in 2014.) After the Hamas massacre, Levy noticed that the same government that had stumbled on the security front was also floundering on the media front. The coalition’s minister of public diplomacy, Galit Distel Atbaryan, was known for her extremist rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and claims to have cured her child’s autism. She also once told a member of her own party to “bite me, you moron.” Distel Atbaryan resigned six days into the war.

With no official title or portfolio, Levy began doing interviews from a makeshift studio in his Tel Aviv apartment. He and others in Israel began putting English subtitles on Hebrew clips of Israeli survivors telling their stories. Soon after, the amateur spokesperson was drafted to do the job officially.

Levy is one of many protesters turned foot soldiers, some on the battlefield, some on the home front. Within Israel, relief efforts have been dominated not by government officials but by volunteers, many of whom come from the organized anti-government protest movement. Hamas’s massacre left thousands of southern Israelis traumatized, orphaned, and homeless, in need of food, shelter, and mental-health care. The subsequent Hezbollah attacks in the north have forced entire towns to evacuate. In total, about a quarter million Israelis have been displaced. Many others are struggling to cope after family members were called up to join the fighting.

Faced with these gaping social needs largely unaddressed by the government, the largest civil-demonstration movement in Israeli history repurposed itself overnight. Working out of the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, 15,000 volunteers began distributing food and supplies to refugees, finding accommodations for thousands of families, and matching psychologists with patients. Some, led by the information scientist Karine Nahon of Reichman University, used AI tools to identify victims and hostages, sorting through hours of video footage from the assault. Others helped rescue 120 pets. In Jerusalem, another group of 4,000 protesters, overseen by Michal Muszkat-Barkan, a movement leader and professor at Hebrew Union College, has provided 30,000 hot meals, run daily blood drives, and recruited 200 mental-health professionals. Across Israel, the activists derided by Netanyahu and his hard-right ministers as leftist traitors have become the country’s rapid-response team.

Israel’s crisis has created new alliances and new sources of moral authority. Jewish and Arab women in the south—where Hamas murdered some 100 Bedouins—joined forces to provide relief to the survivors. Successive right-wing governments have neglected the Bedouin community. But as one Arab bus driver who saved dozens of people from the music festival told the media, “We are one people—we are Israelis. We live here together and we need to go hand in hand.”

Conventional wisdom holds that an Israel devastated by Hamas’s deviant violence will be a more hawkish one. “If I may hazard a guess,” wrote the Israeli novelist and peace activist David Grossman three weeks ago, “Israel after the war will be much more right-wing, militant, and racist.” Yet the polls show not the hard-right’s ascendance but rather its collapse.

As outsiders and everyday citizens have gained public trust, Netanyahu and his government have lost it. A recent survey found that 70 percent of Jewish Israelis want the prime minister to resign after the current conflict is over. Another poll, by the Israel Democracy Institute, found that although 80 percent of Israelis have faith in the IDF’s response at this time, just 14 percent approve of the performance of Netanyahu’s government and ministers.

Aware of his rapidly eroding standing, the prime minister has tried to redirect blame from himself to the security services he commands. It hasn’t worked. On October 29, Netanyahu wrote on social media not only that he wasn’t warned about Hamas’s attack, but that “all the security chiefs, including the heads of military intelligence and Shin Bet, estimated that Hamas had been deterred.” The backlash to this attempt to evade accountability was so brutal that Netanyahu was compelled to delete the post and apologize for it. Undoubtedly, his allies are still quietly briefing sympathetic political commentators against the security services, but if polls are any indication, Israelis are not buying it. The man who promised Israelis safety failed to deliver it, and no amount of spin can erase that reality.

Netanyahu has long been dubbed “the magician” for his feats of political survival, but his audience now sees through his tricks. For years, the prime minister told Israelis that their success and security were the result of his extraordinary abilities. He was, according to his own campaign posters, “in another league.” Love him or hate him, Netanyahu implied, the country couldn’t thrive without him. He was Israel’s indispensable man.

But the truth is, Israel has long succeeded in spite of its leaders, not because of them. Levi Eshkol, the prime minister during the 1967 Six-Day War, was no military mastermind but rather a dithering bureaucrat and agricultural enthusiast. Golda Meir resigned in disrepute after being caught unawares by the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Similarly, Netanyahu was less a geopolitical savant who single-handedly secured his country’s standing and more a public-relations genius who took credit for the accomplishments of its people. As Israel’s population steps up where its prime minister and his hard-right allies have failed, the real source of the state’s strength has never been more obvious.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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