The Last Days of Benjamin Netanyahu?

NETANYAHU IS DOWN, but is he out? At the time of writing, this question remains unanswered. In the interim, he has reverted to his old habit of incitement as he did just before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

His supporters in the Likud together with the Kahanists and the quiet admirers of Yigal Amir have door-stopped the homes of members of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. The intention is that through intimidation some MKs will return to the Netanyahu camp and thereby secure a majority of 61 plus seats in the Knesset.

Another weapon in the armoury is to make full use of “the slime merchants on social media” to create public fear about this alternative government which they incredulously describe as incorrigible “left-wingers”.

The Haredim also fear for their political future and the provision of funds. Chabad (Lubavitch) told its followers in the 1996 election that “Netanyahu is good for the Jews!” Moreover, a disproportionate number of voters in Kfar Chabad have happily given their votes to Otzma Yehudit, led by the dedicated disciples of the late Meir Kahane, during the last couple of stalemated elections.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yehuda Yaroslavsky, a senior Chabad rabbi in Israel, directed his animosity towards Bennett, by quoting the words of Moses from last week’s Torah reading. ‘Please turn away from the tents of the evil ones and don’t touch anything of theirs lest you die because of their sins.’ (Parashat Korach, Bamidbar 16:26)

Is Yair Lapid one of “the evil ones”? Is Netanyahu in reality a present-day Moshe Rabeinu?
As in the case of the Christian evangelicals who gave unquestioning support to Donald Trump, the morality of the messenger is of no consequence. What matters, it seems, are the political goals of Chabad, such that the end justifies the means. What matters is unrestricted settlement on the West Bank.

The Canadian academic, Csaba Nikolenyi, defined the term kalanterism as “the phenomenon of politicians changing political parties in return for benefits” – and specifically an appointment to the Executive. This referred to Rahamim Kalanter, an elected member of the Jerusalem City Council who defected from his party in August 1956 to save Gershon Agron, the incumbent mayor of Jerusalem, in exchange for an appointment to the local executive.

Netanyahu has brought back the phenomenon of kalanterism – with a vengeance – to survive so as to reach an inconsequential fifth election.

Many have commented that more than disdain for the prime minister is needed to run the country, but what motivates this coalition of eight disparate parties is the belief that Netanyahu has finally run out of china shops in which to create havoc.

In return, Netanyahu attempts to tar them with any brush that he can find. If the tables were turned and if he had been in charge of his opponents’ campaign, Netanyahu would no doubt have labelled them ‘patriots’ who placed the national interests of the country before their own.

Many have warned time and again that Netanyahu’s pas de deux with Trump was damaging Israel’s standing in the US Congress. Joe Biden, a life-long supporter of Israel, had spent four decades in the Senate, finessing partisan solutions for Democrats and Republicans. Is it no wonder that Biden is now not in a mood to schmooze the Israeli prime minister?

Netanyahu cultivates the imagery of a strategic thinker, but he is much more of a public relations guru who can convince multitudes that two and two equals five. Indeed in 1990, he was dubbed “the Abba Eban of the CNN era” for his smooth and convincing deliveries in the US media.

Even so, as a diplomat in Washington, he was loath to follow the instructions of his then prime minister, Shimon Peres and was happy to privately thwart any progress towards an accommodation with Arafat and the PLO in the late 1980s.

In the US, he cultivated a wide range of philanthropists. The longevity of such contacts has allowed him to fund campaigns and schemes right up until the present time. Few could break the spell and were prepared to challenge him. As John Lennon put it so succinctly: “Some kind of innocence is measured out in years…”

In 1992, he remarkably defeated “the princes” whose fathers had led the Irgun in the 1940s to become head of the Likud. Figures such as Benny Begin and Dan Meridor periodically left the Likud for other parties, but always rejoined. Yitzhak Shamir and Moshe Arens, once mentors and allies, fell out with Netanyahu.

Reuven Rivlin, president for the last seven years, often clashed with Netanyahu. A supporter of Arik Sharon, Rivlin regarded Netanyahu as someone who had strayed far from Jabotinsky’s teachings. Ehud Olmert, disgraced as prime minister, was a long-term member of the Likud before joining Sharon’s Kadima. He spoke of Netanyahu as “an unworthy man and his unstable family”.

Perhaps Netanyahu’s belief in transactional relations works best with figures such as Putin when successfully avoiding clashes over Syrian skies, but this approach has been a disastrous failure when working with colleagues in cabinet.

But unlike Olmert, Netanyahu in his 12 years at the helm, never put forward any public initiative to secure peace with the Palestinians. Ironically, he was concerned that if he did so, the far Right, including Naftali Bennett, would bring down his many governments. Netanyahu had signed the Hebron Accords in 1997 and a year later was willing to return 13% of the West Bank, according to the terms of the Wye Plantation agreement.

This supplied ammunition to his foes on the Right and led to his eventual defeat at the polls in 1999. Netanyahu was not about to make the same mistake again.

Indeed, enthusiastic loyalists entered the revolving doors and exited as bitter foes. The Israeli cartoonist, Yonatan Wachsmann, depicted Netanyahu as a big-game hunter, nonchalantly smoking a cigar while sitting behind his desk. Behind him on the wall were the endless rows of trophy heads of defeated challengers — Benny Gantz (Kahol v’Lavan), Tzipi Livni (Kadima), David Levi (Likud) and Isaac Herzog (Labour) and many others.

Jewish organisations and individuals in the Diaspora became increasingly exasperated by Netanyahu’s flirtation with the Kahanists and his unbecoming conduct in public office.

Ronnie Lauder, once a close associate, took to the New York Times to express his dismay. In part, such rising criticism originated in Netanyahu’s changing tactics to push back opponents and to ingratiate potential supporters. Thus, the Board of Deputies of British Jews today supports a two-state solution, but does the government of Israel?

Madeline Albright once commented that by closing your eyes it was only too easy to imagine Netanyahu as an archetypal US Republican. Under Sharon, he was Minister of Finance and privatised all manner of public utilities while eliminating public subsidies on fundamentals.

It was therefore not surprising that the gap between rich and poor began to resemble that of Western Europe. Yet if Zionism was meant not only to create a state but also a new society, different from the ones that the founders had left, how does this square with Netanyahu’s adoration for the trickle-down economy?

Perhaps Netanyahu’s decline reflects the beginning of the decay of the Israeli Right. Bennett, Saar and Lieberman all felt personally betrayed by the man that they had once admired and left to form their own parties.

It can be argued that the decline of the Israeli Left began — albeit in different circumstances — in 1965 when a cantankerous, stubborn Ben-Gurion, left the party he had founded, Mapai, taking with him, Dayan, Peres, Herzog, Kollek and other notables. The split was a factor in the move to the Right which an astute Menahem Begin capitalised upon. As the Left disintegrated, the Right coalesced.

Regardless of whether he stays or goes, Netanyahu is now at the cliff’s edge, prepared to take a fatigued Israel with him as he plummets downwards. We all watch as the drama unfolds, with the actors parading their political finery in the public arena, the Knesset and the courtroom — and wonder how this soap opera will end.

Plus61j 8 June 2021

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