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The Defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu

The Defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu
Date Posted: Sunday, June 13th, 2021

Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister has dragged the country ever rightward, abandoning the peace process and imperiling its very democracy.


In 2002, three years after losing the Israeli premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu went on a popular television show and spoke of a political comeback. His interviewer was a telegenic broadcaster with gelled black hair named Yair Lapid. “When you left,” Lapid began, “there were people who cried and said they would kill themselves, and there were others who said they would leave the country if you were ever elected again. Do you know why you elicit such strong reactions in people?”

“In some, yes,” Netanyahu replied. He first took office in 1996, a year after a Jewish extremist assassinated the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, for spearheading the Oslo Accords. A month before the assassination, Netanyahu took part in a demonstration, in Jerusalem, in which protesters chanted “Death to Rabin.” In his interview with Lapid, he allowed that he might have had a hand in the rising tensions, calling Rabin’s murder a “terrible trauma.” There was, in his answer then, a rare modicum of self-reflection that he would have done well to revisit in recent days, as similar forces of incitement and violence reëmerged.

At one point in their interview, Lapid asked Netanyahu, “Do you intend to be the next Prime Minister of Israel, yes or no?” “The answer is yes,” Netanyahu said. It took him years to position himself as the undisputed leader of an increasingly hawkish and nationalist Likud. A key moment came in 2005 when, while serving as finance minister in a government headed by Ariel Sharon, also of Likud, Netanyahu publicly quit his position over Sharon’s decision to pull Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip. By 2009, Sharon had suffered a major stroke, and his replacement, Ehud Olmert, mired in corruption investigations, had announced that he was stepping down from the Prime Minister’s seat. After elections that year, Netanyahu returned to the premiership and felt immediate pressure from the Obama Administration to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He did so reluctantly, at one point making a landmark speech in which he expressed support for a two-state solution. But his heart never seemed to be in it. With time, he turned his back on the issue and instead focussed inward, on perceived “enemies from within”: human-rights groups, N.G.O.s.

By whipping up populist rage against so-called Israeli élites—of which he was decidedly one—Netanyahu presided over an increasingly sectarian and divided country. He managed to cling to power for twelve years, becoming Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. But four inconclusive election cycles in the past two years have led to political gridlock and increasing public fury. Last week, Lapid—by now a seasoned centrist politician with hair as white as Netanyahu’s—announced that he had managed to form a working coalition with Naftali Bennett, the pro-settler leader of a small ultranationalist party, and six other parties. On Sunday, this new government was set to be sworn in after a vote in parliament. Bennett, who was once Netanyahu’s chief of staff, will serve as Prime Minister, with Lapid set to replace him in 2023.

Their coalition is one of extremely unlikely allies. In many cases, they are united only by their disdain for Netanyahu. The group includes a nationalist party led by a Russian émigré; a hawkish new right-wing party; two decidedly left-wing parties, respectively headed by a woman and an openly gay man; and, for the first time ever in an Israeli coalition, an Arab party. To form what is known in Israel as the “change government” required a leap of faith on the part of all the party leaders. It also meant that Bennett broke his campaign promise that he would not strike a deal to form a unity government with Lapid, or participate in the establishment of a government headed by him. And so, Bennett, who will serve as Israel’s first religious, kippa-wearing Prime Minister, has become something of a pariah among the ultra-Orthodox, who have had representation in most coalitions since the late nineteen-seventies. In response, a flyer began to circulate in right-wing circles depicting a Photoshopped Bennett in an Arab kaffiyeh, with the words “The Liar” written above—an image eerily reminiscent of doctored posters of Rabin in the days leading up to his murder.

Despite his earlier reflections on Rabin, Netanyahu has fuelled many of the threats against the incoming coalition members. Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” told me, “He can’t accept the fact that the Israeli public has turned him down, and he personally believes that without him Israel is destined for disaster.” In a Facebook post on June 4th, Netanyahu railed against homespun “spies”—a thinly veiled attack against Bennett and another lawmaker, Ayelet Shaked, who, like Bennett, had served as his close aide. A day later, Israel’s head of internal security services issued a stern and extraordinary warning against inciting political violence. He did not mention Netanyahu by name, but the implication was clear. A day after the warning, Netanyahu went on the airwaves and called Arab politicians serving in the new government “supporters of terrorism.” Several right-wing lawmakers have now received a security detail as protesters made death threats against them and their families for joining the new government. Olmert, who served as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009, told me, “The division of Israeli society, the fact that rabbis, acting on Bibi’s orders, are calling Knesset members traitors, the incitement against Arabs—that’s a situation I don’t recall ever happening in the history of Israel.”

Source: Ruth Margalit/Newyorker.com

Date Posted: Sunday, June 13th, 2021 , Total Page Views: 499

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