Bolsheviks, Khomeinists and Now Bibi: How Israelis Can Stop Netanyahu’s Messianic Dictatorship


The Netanyahu government is intent on obtaining unlimited power to institute a radical revolution in Israel. Only the Supreme Court stands in its way. Every democracy-loving Israeli must use all nonviolent means to intensify the protest movement before the crucial court sessions take place

To solve the existential crisis gripping Israel, we need to understand what kind of forces we are dealing with. On the one hand, many personal interests and pressure groups are shaping events, as happens in every political crisis. But the severity of the hatred, rage and fear that Israelis are experiencing, and the disintegration that Israeli society and the Israel Defense Forces are undergoing, suggest that an entirely different kind of force is also at work.

Many Israelis experience this crisis as an attempt by the governing coalition to stage a radical revolution, akin to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia or the Khomeinist Revolution in Iran. A revolution that fosters messianic hopes on one side, and existential terror on the other. “If this succeeds,” dream some Israelis, “we’ll be living in paradise!” “If this succeeds,” dread other Israelis, “we’ll be living in hell!”

Whatever the outcome, Israeli politics is undergoing a tectonic change. We have shifted from normal politics, which promises mundane improvements and sometimes delivers them – to messianic politics, which promises paradise on earth but tends to create hell. A radical messianic group has risen to power. Like the Bolsheviks and the Khomeinists, the Israeli messianic zealots are certain of three things:

• They know the way to ultimate redemption.

• To bring about that redemption, they require unlimited power.

• Any means used to acquire that power are acceptable, and every sacrifice is legitimate.

The messianic zealots are not confined to one party, such as the Religious Zionism party. Some members of the Likud, Shas and United Torah Judaism parties also share the messianic worldview, and wish to obtain unlimited power in order to implement a radical revolution in Israel. This messianic group does not represent the majority of Israelis, but adroit political maneuvers have given it control over vast swaths of the state’s resources. It is now building up its strength. Using their control of government ministries and budgets, the zealots recruit new supporters and they appoint loyalists to powerful positions everywhere from the police to the educational system. In this way, they accumulate the power they need to realize their messianic fantasies.

Many Israelis like to imagine that the zealots will stop their attempted revolution once they realize how much damage they are inflicting on Israel’s economyarmy, society and international standing. But the zealots aren’t afraid of destruction. They want to demolish the old world to its foundations, and build a new world in its stead. We cannot assume that an economic crisis will deter them – the zealots don’t mind if the Israeli economy collapses. They will take it in stride. They assume that Israel’s defense industries, its gas fields and several other secure sources of income will keep them afloat, while in the long run they’ll build a new economy, like the Bolsheviks did in Russia.

We cannot rely on the disintegration of the army to stop the zealots – they are happy to see the IDF fall apart. Nuclear weapons and some loyal army units will suffice to provide defense in the short term, and in the long run they will build a new, faithful army, just as the Bolsheviks created the Red Army and the Khomeinists created the Revolutionary Guards.

We cannot rely on the emigration from Israel of doctors, academics or members of other elites to stop the zealots – who would like nothing more than to get rid of all those troublemakers. Dictatorships seldom collapse just because they provide inferior health care or lack philosophers.

We cannot rely on the United States to put its foot down – it has its own problems, and even if America were to abandon Israel, the zealots would have no qualms pivoting to the Chinese camp.

We cannot rely on future democratic elections to remove the zealots from power – they won’t allow free and fair elections in which they might be defeated. The zealots believe that if they lose power, it will lead to a series of countermeasures that they cannot countenance, such as adoption of a constitution that protects minority rights, or a renewed public discussion about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. That’s why the zealots deliberately sow seeds of hatred and work to drive Israelis apart, so that the possibility of losing future elections will become intolerable not only to them, but also to their current allies. This will make even their allies accept the need to rig the elections by various means, such as changing the electoral rules, disqualifying certain opposition parties from participating in the election, or limiting the opposition’s freedom of expression.

How then might the messianic zealots be stopped?

Luckily, they don’t constitute a majority in the Knesset. To govern, they still need to ally with more moderate forces. Therefore, one option is that the moderate elements in the coalition will come to their senses, and join up with the opposition to establish a government of national healing. Unlike the Bennett-Lapid coalition, which intentionally tried to avoid contending with the deepest problems facing Israeli society, a government of national healing would be obliged to contend with these problems head-on. Confronted by the messianic threat, Israel doesn’t need a mere bandage – it urgently needs open-heart surgery. The guiding principle of a healing government should be: “Wounds must be healed rather than used as an excuse to accumulate power and injure others.”


Sadly, the chances for establishing a government of national healing are not high. There are messianic elements within all the coalition parties, so to establish a healing government it will probably not suffice to jettison the Religious Zionism party and replace it with some of the current opposition parties. Even worse, to date, it appears that the more moderate members of the coalition seem to believe that they can ride the messianic tiger without being devoured by it. Historical experience, provided by cases like the Bolshevik Revolution, suggests that the moderates wake up to the danger only when they are already inside the tiger’s mouth.

If we don’t wish to entrust Israel’s fate to the doubtful wisdom and courage of potential rebels within the coalition, the other power that can block the messianic takeover is the Supreme Court. This coming month, the Supreme Court justices will have to rule not only on specific judicial cases, but about a fundamental question of principle: Can a small majority in the Knesset unilaterally change the key rules of the democratic game, weaken the system’s checks and balances, and grab unlimited power for itself?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition argue that the Supreme Court lacks the authority to strike down what are known as “Basic Laws.” However, any law can be defined as a Basic Law, and such bills can be passed with a normal majority of just 61 MKs. So, if the Supreme Court accepts the argument that it cannot strike down a Basic Law, what alternative mechanism would prevent 61 MKs from passing, say, a Basic Law denying voting rights to Israel’s Arab citizens, or a Basic Law curtailing the freedom of expression?

To save Israeli democracy, the Supreme Court justices must clarify that a small majority in parliament may not unilaterally change the key rules of the democratic game, and that if the coalition attempts to do such a thing – then the Supreme Court has the authority to strike down even Basic Laws. The Netanyahu government already indicated that it might refuse to accept such a ruling – even though not abiding by the court would ignite a constitutional crisis. There is, fortunately, good reason to expect that in a constitutional crisis, the security forces would abide by the law, and follow the rulings of the Supreme Court. The messianic zealots haven’t had time yet to fill the ranks of the security forces with their loyalists.

Nevertheless, it would be dangerous to wait passively for the Supreme Court’s decision. Even if the judges are convinced that the coalition has overstepped its authority and is trying to grab dictatorial power, the judges would be wary of pushing Israel toward a constitutional crisis, not to mention a civil war. Sane people are extremely reluctant to shoulder such a terrible responsibility. Instead, the Supreme Court might prefer to renounce its authority, in the hope that someone else would intervene to save Israel. If the court hesitates to take a brave stance, it would not only be committing institutional suicide – it would also be dealing a death blow to the protest movement and to Israeli democracy itself.

This means that Israelis who cherish freedom and democracy need to join the protest movement now, and with all their might, before it is too late. We must exert maximum pressure before the Supreme Court convenes to make its fateful decisions. We must give the judges the popular backing they require to make a brave stand.

If the reserve soldiers return to their units, the trade unions renounce their plans to go on strike, the streets quiet down and everybody waits patiently for the Supreme Court, then the judges might hesitate to do anything that could set the country on fire. But if the country is already aflame with protests and strikes, if the universities and schools are closed, if hospitals and other essential services are operating in emergency mode, and if hundreds of thousands of citizens are demonstrating in the streets – this will make the judges’ moral burden far lighter. They could justly see themselves as saving Israel from a crisis that someone else ignited.

We must therefore use every nonviolent means at our disposal to intensify the protest before the crucial sessions of the Supreme Court take place. We must avoid all violent actions, but it needs to be clear to the Supreme Court justices that whether they like it or not, they must decide between liberal democracy and messianic dictatorship. If they shirk this responsibility, they will be nothing more than “useful idiots” serving the messianic zealots. Similarly, if any coalition rebels want to help save Israel from dictatorship and civil war, they should hurry up and act before the Supreme Court needs to make its historic choice. Every day that passes deepens the wounds of Israeli society, and makes harder the task of any future government of national healing.

Most people, especially moderate ones, find it very difficult to believe the worst – about other people, or about their situation in general. The Bolsheviks and Khomeinists triumphed and established brutal dictatorships because at several key junctions, the moderates thought they still had time, and preferred to go on sitting on the fence. Every now and then someone realized what was really happening, climbed down from the fence, took a stand – and was liquidated without the other fence-sitters coming to their help. In the end, there was no fence left to sit on.

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, author of “Sapiens,” “Homo Deus” and “Unstoppable Us,” and cofounder of the social-impact company Sapienship.



*METransparent is publishing the point of view of Prof. Yuval Noah Harari for the benefit of its readers. We leave it for our readers, especially our Israeli readers, to assess the pros and the cons of his point of view.

Leave a Reply

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Discover more from Middle East Transparent

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading