Friday, January 13, 2023

Yair Lapid Column in Ha'aretz, Jan. 13, 2023


We are fighting a fierce battle. This is the basic, most crucial thing to know. Our full commitment and unbridled fury must be translated into effective political action and the ability to tell a new story. This government must be toppled quickly, otherwise it will be too late. Two timetables are directly vying against one another – our ability to fight this government versus its potential for destruction.

There will come a moment, in the not too distant future, when the damage will become irreversible. If this government does not fall, Israel will cease to be a liberal democracy; it will not be possible to rehabilitate its constitutional structure. The inevitable consequence will be a quiet exodus by the country’s economic and technological elites. What does it take, after all? A plane ticket, a bank transfer, a page of instructions for the agent selling the house. It has already happened in other countries. Colombia, for one. One day, the elites there understood that things weren’t headed anywhere good, so they quietly moved to Miami. No one noticed that it was happening until the country suddenly imploded at breathtaking speed.

The lure of Miami threatens us, too. The cultural and artistic elites may still speak wistfully of the gray gloom of Berlin the way the old communists used to wax poetic about Maxim Ghilan’s Paris, but the money and the tech talent are already checking out Miami. The sun feels familiar, the food is excellent, and they like the governor, Ron DeSantis.

This battle requires us to look back as much as we look ahead. Where did we go wrong, what did we miss, what exactly happened here? I’m not talking about the brash, self-satisfied questions that journalists hurl at me every day at the start of Yesh Atid’s Knesset faction meeting – “Why didn’t you manage to get the bloc organized?” (Because there is no bloc); “Will you take responsibility for the loss?” (Yes, by winning next time) – but about an undaunted Hegelian attempt to understand the fault line of Israeli society. Which thesis collided with which antithesis, and is what we are seeing now a synthesis or just massive chunks of rubble littering the floor of our lives?

It’s not the election defeat itself that is so appalling, but the feeling that we are being hollowed out, that all that is right and holy and beautiful in our lives is being held up for scorn and ridicule and crudely kicked to the side of the road. The victors’ intoxication with power is about far more than the election results. They seized control of something much bigger than the government or the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee: They seized control of the truth.

Like every anti-democratic regime in history, this is what they always wanted. Not to expose the truth, but to control it. To mold it to their needs, to make certain it is useful for ensuring their rule. They understood that the facts – the true facts that are rooted in things like demography, geography, international relations, economics and security considerations – could cause their downfall, so they embarked on an extremely ambitious mission: to cancel the truth and create in its stead a made-to-order truth that is disconnected from context, disconnected from facts and exists in its own right.

“Next time, I’ll have the media,” Benjamin Netanyahu told his associates after the first time he was booted from office. It was this line that spawned the famous poison-spewing media machine, with all of its obscure sources of financing: Channel 14, Galey Israel, Israel Hayom in its previous version, the Kohelet Forum, Sela Meir Press, Yaakov Bardugo and Erel Segal and the chorus of mouthpieces, and even their new invention, the “useful intellectual” instead of the “useful idiot” – second-tier intellectuals like Gadi Taub and Irit Linur, who traded in their critical thinking for the kind of loving and admiring embrace they would never receive in the purist left-wing milieu.

They built and amassed all of these kinds of assets and then launched a despicable offensive of alleged victimization, which caused the regular channels to capitulate and grovel to them (“Netanyahu himself calls to complain about the smallest news item,” one station director once told me with amazement. It never occurred to him that there was something very deeply wrong with this – not to mention the long-term impact on editing decisions).

Once upon a time, long ago, the role of journalism was to search for the truth. Today, the establishment media has lost its self-confidence as the 8 P.M. arbiter of what is the truth and what is not. Instead, it switched to a model of balance. For every journalist on a panel, they added one vocal Netanyahu supporter (thereby corroborating, by their own initiative, the claim that all journalists are leftists); for every journalistic revelation, the right of reply was stretched and stretched to infinity. Viewers were presented with all the versions of the truth and invited to select one they were most comfortable with.

There is just one problem with this model: The truth does not have different versions. There is no such thing as left-wing truth and right-wing truth. There is only one truth, and all the rest is a lie. Did our government transfer 53 billion shekels to the Arabs? Of course not, but if lies and the truth are given equal standing and equal exposure on the news programs, then lies will always win. A lie is more sensational, it stirs deeper fears. All it takes is the technological means, a total lack of shame, and of course the ability to repeat the lie constantly until the eye and ear get used to it.

In early March, they started saying that a Jewish and Zionist government was “supported by terror supporters.” By late May, this had become a survey question on the “Ulpan Shishi” program: Do you agree or disagree with this claim that is a shocking and blatant lie that openly incites violence? 47 percent agreed, 43 percent disagreed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Kobi Gideon, GPO

This equalization, which presumes that the truth and lies are just two sides of the same coin, has permeated everywhere. A serious journalist whom I admire commented to me that it’s quite hypocritical for us to boycott Arye Dery but make Avigdor Lieberman a key partner, since he too was accused of corruption. The comparison took my breath away. What was he really saying? That there is no difference between a person who is exonerated and a person who is convicted? This is the famous “whataboutism” that enables them to pretend they don’t get what the problem is with wanting to separate the job of the attorney general from that of the general prosecutor: “Your government wanted to do exactly the same thing,” they assert. What’s the difference? Three criminal indictments are the difference. The fact that criminal defendants cannot appoint the prosecutors in their trial is the difference.

Everyone has their own moment when the depth of the post-truth era’s disconnect from reality really hits home. For me, this moment was the day they decided to brand police chief Roni Alsheich part of the left-wing “deep state” because he refused to suspend the Netanyahu investigations. This was a violent, unexpected and completely no-holds-barred move, precisely because Alsheich had seemed fireproof: He was a religious settler from Kiryat Arba, Mizrahi, a former deputy Shin Bet security service chief known for his ruthless efficiency, and Netanyahy’s personal appointee as police commissioner.

Turns out there is no such thing as fireproof. It may have still taken another two or three months, but from the moment the machine was directed against him, the result was unavoidable. The most striking thing about it was that they didn’t even bother to invent some reason or purported motive for why Alsheich supposedly went over to the dark side. It’s true because they say it’s true, and anyone who says otherwise is next in line to be targeted. Similar to the notorious McCarthy Committee, where if you were silent it meant you were guilty, and if you denied the charges then you were certainly guilty.

The horror felt by the other side – our side – at this total distortion of the concept of reality bores them at best and amuses them at worst. The people who surround Netanyahu knew from the start where they were going. They knew that democracy – this product that is under attack – is based on the idea that no one ever wins absolutely. That the minority not only has a place, but it has an opportunity to make a comeback the next time. This is exactly what they cannot abide by in a democracy and what they have vowed to do away with. They wanted an absolute victory, devoid of doubts. Netanyahu did not receive illicit gifts.

Period. Exclamation point. God is on our side in the election. Period. Exclamation Point. They don’t need everyone to agree with them – this the new, updated idea of the “will of the people”: accumulating the number of people that will enable you to completely ignore the other side. The present confusion and disarray are due in part to no one knowing just what to call this type of regime. One thing is certain though: A democracy it is not.

Their assault on the court also needs to be seen in this context. For what is the court if not the place where the truth is clarified? What’s so scary about it, aside from the possibility that it will insist that there are facts and there is the law and there is an indisputable reality? Judicial activism isn’t what threatens them. In any case, this activism began to evaporate from the gleaming corridors of justice the day that Aharon Barak left and was succeeded by more conservative figures like Asher Grunis and Miriam Naor (conservative in the old and decent sense of strict adherence to the language of the law). What they find threatening is the court’s treatment of reality as something that is based upon objective, examinable facts that form the basis of a hearing that reaches a definitive decision and conclusion. They cannot abide by the idea of a truth that they cannot manipulate, that Yair Netanyahu and Topaz Luk and Yonatan Urich cannot twist to suit their needs, that exists independently.

This – not only this, but mainly this – is the essence of our battle. A democracy without truth is not a democracy. If voters go to the polls without knowing the facts, their votes are meaningless. If the main media outlets are too frightened to be truly critical, the democratic process itself is defective. If big money from unclear sources was raised to distort social media – now the main conduit of information and discourse – we get a distorted discourse that leads to a distorted election. For a long time, we kept silent in the face of all this, because we didn’t want to answer the classic question: Does tolerance include the duty to be tolerant toward people who are intolerant? Now I have an answer: No. Absolutely not.

We need to fight for the truth in every way possible. We will uphold the law because that is what separates us from them, but we will fight them in every way, including ways that we have refrained from until now. We will shout, we will protest, we will argue, we will stretch the limits of protest as far as they can go. We won’t try to be statesmanlike if an adversary without conscience uses that against us; we will physically stand up to the water cannons that Ben-Gvir wants to send in. Despite everything, I believe in the power of the truth and in the power of our people to march in its footsteps. How much time will it take? As long as it takes. Our job is to ensure that the truth receives a fair, perhaps final, opportunity to reach hearts and minds. This is the only way to win.

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