They're frustrated, they're contradicting their own past statements, they're bored, and they’re desperately seeking attention or a political comeback. That is the gist of Prime Minister Netanyahu's response to the speeches made by two of his former defense ministers, Moshe Ya'alon and Ehud Barak, at the Herzliya Conference on Thursday. I haven't heard a single sentence from him that would explain to the citizens of Israel why the two are wrong.
Whatever the motives of the two may be, they are not the main point. The two speeches came of a certain feeling of emergency, one that has been popping up in many places across the country—from the north to the south. It is a feeling that comes up during Friday night dinners, at social gatherings, in water-cooler conversations in the workplace, in posts on social media. This feeling of emergency appears to be manifesting only among some parts of Israeli society, but this is an important part that has played—and still plays—a central role in Israel's defense, economy, academia, and culture. This feeling gives rise to harsh criticism not just from two former defense ministers, but also from two former IDF chiefs—Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz—and many others.
This is the old elite, critics would say dismissively. Okay, it's the old elite. But the cry it is making is genuine and real: A lot of what has been going on here over the past year has brought us, as Barak said, to the brink of disaster. Barak went on to detail everything he sees as a deviation of the current government from the Zionist ethos: "Whiny, victim-like mentality," "tribal mentality," "scare tactics," "incitement," "pessimism," "passivity," "cynicism," "paralysis," and the "Hilterization of every threat."
He described Netanyahu as someone who, out of a weakness of mind or character, out of identification with his captors or the influence of his family—has been dragged by the radical right wing. His government is a "hijacked government." It plots against the values of democracy and the institutions of justice; it is leading Israel to a juncture that could turn us into an apartheid state that is doomed to fall, or to a bi-national state that exists in a state of perpetual civil war. Either way, this would be the end of the Zionist enterprise.
Then he used the word many Israelis have a hard time hearing: Fascism. "If it looks like budding fascism, walks like budding fascism and quacks like budding fascism—it's budding fascism."
Barak is a gifted orator. His speech was particularly scathing, blunt and cruel. He didn't talk about himself or boasted about his own achievements: It was purely a speech of admonishment.
Ya'alon's speech was less sweeping in its criticism, less explicit, but no less painful. Israel's existential problem is not Iran or Hezbollah, the problem is the erosion of values. We have an inciting leadership that uses hatred towards Arabs, leftists or kibbutz members to gather up more votes. His announcement—that he plans to run for the leadership of the country in the next elections—was welcomed by conference goers with cheers.
Barak and Ya'alon are not immune from criticism. It is important to ask them where they were when it was still possible for them to stop the trends they're talking about. What was Barak doing as a defense minister in Netanyahu's government, what did he promote and what did he fail to stop; why did Barak as a prime minister establish settlements that he now seeks to dismantle; what did Ya'alon say and do before falling out with Netanyahu and before being ousted from the Defense Ministry. They each have very good reasons for remorse.
But all of this doesn't negate the value of their words, and doesn't erase the writing they see on the wall. After a year of ongoing victory celebrations, of being drunk on power, the government is beginning to pay the price for its deviations and incitement. It is paying it on the international stage, and domestically. Barak and Ya'alon are just the tip of the iceberg.