But he's not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative either.
He's a member of the center-right, which at this point means he basically believes in conservative policies while being committed in principle to the underlying liberal architecture of freedom of expression, democratic norms, fairness and factuality in politics, and respect for minorities.
And like many members of the center-right, he's starting to feel uneasy about the decay of this liberal architecture at the hands of his less "center" compatriots. Here's him writing on the recent spate of heavy-handed security actions Israel has taken at Netanyahu's behest against dissident voices (detentions at the border, expelling artists):
Although it is hard to know exactly who is issuing directives to the security services on this issue, the clumsiness leads one to suspect there is an unstated goal. It seems likely that Netanyahu has decided to stoke the embers of “Zionists versus Israel’s enemies” discourse, which will win him points with the right-wing factions of Israeli society he needs to win the next elections, scheduled for next year, but may be called early.
The prime minister is playing with fire. More than half of Israel’s Jewish citizens are either immigrants from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Iran or their descendants. They come from societies where freedom of speech is not nearly as sacrosanct as it is in the U.S. Add in more than 1 million Russian immigrants, many of whom are comfortable with the sort of heavy-handedness President Vladimir Putin is displaying there. Israel needs a leader who can model devotion to the values of liberal societies, not undermine them for the sake of short-term political gains. Appealing to citizens comfortable with authoritarian-leaning regimes may earn Netanyahu short-term political gains, but could eventually yield a country which no one would call “one of the world’s most open democracies.”The first paragraph can't be stressed enough. Netanyahu doesn't fear confrontation with BDS activists and strident Israel critics. He revels in it, because it allows him to pour gasoline on an "us-vs.-the-world" dynamic which both energizes the right-wing base and puts the squeeze on liberal Zionist voices. Israel's right and the global left exist in symbiosis with one another, and Bibi knows it.
The second paragraph, though, needs some unpacking, and brings us back to the title of this post.
The defining characteristic of the center-right over the past few decades has been confidence -- I'd say now revealed to be arrogance -- in the absolute stability of the basic liberal norms of Western society. Whether due to cultural chauvinism or something else, they were absolutely sure that the core liberal commitments weren't going anywhere.
This thread on Jonah Goldberg provides a good iteration of this issue in the American context -- Goldberg now is recognizing the danger of the decayed form of conservatism that now runs supreme on the right, but doesn't acknowledge how he was a key contributor to it. The reason is that, at the time, he probably thought his dalliances were harmless. A little rabble-rousing here, a little mob-baiting there -- what's the big deal? It's all in good fun, or the wink-and-nod of playing the democratic game to win. The institutions were durable, they'd hold up. The stability of the liberal order was taken for granted.
Now, we're finally seeing that confidence fade a little bit. It turns out that liberal and democratic values need work put into them; they don't defend themselves, and they do decay under constant pressure of xenophobia, chauvinism, conspiratorial thinking, and the like. Democracy, as my former professor Melvin Rogers (channeling John Dewey) wrote, is a habit -- and it needs to be practiced.
In Gordis' second paragraph you can see both the recognition of the danger but also the denial of it. He locates the danger to Israel's liberal democratic character in its Middle Eastern and Russian Jewish population -- they, you see, don't have the patrimony of liberalism that we otherwise could take for granted. The implication of the paragraph is that Bibi is playing a game, but alas the ostjuden might not realize he doesn't mean it.
But why assume Bibi is playing a game? Why assume he does, somewhere, deep down, care about or retain commitment to liberal ideals? It's a relic of the center-right arrogance that assumes the unshakable bond between its tribe and those liberal commitments. But if there's one lesson we've learned over the past few years, its that this connection is far frailer than we thought. Bibi may be playing with fire; but he might really be indifferent to that which gets burned. And since he's the one wielding the flame, it's more than a little arrogant to point to the Russians and the Mizrahim and say they're the real threat.
The fact of the matter is that in Israel, or America, or the UK or France or Greece or India or anywhere else that has been blessed even with a temporary and partial spark of the the liberal democratic ideal -- these things require work to survive. They do not persist on their own. The center-right assumed they would, and so did not see the danger that was boiling up in their own yard. And now that it has boiled over, the sobering truth is that there is no natural counterweight to it. The system will not readjust to a natural liberal equilibrium, there is no such equilibrium that exists. Liberal values need to be practiced and they need to be fought for, or they will disappear.