The Netanyahu Years

ON SUNDAY THE KNESSET voted to approve the ‘Change’ government of Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid. Whether this multi-headed pantomime horse will survive is an open question, but it does appear that Benjamin Netanyahu has been put out to political pasture. While it is too early to write him off, what are we to make of the Israel that has been forged during the Netanyahu years?

Netanyahu came to head the Likud in 1992 unexpectedly and was prime minister for a remarkable 15 years. While he was pragmatic in his political manoeuvres — sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating, occasionally the conservative, often the radical — a clear ideological agenda lay behind this. It was to remake Israel in his own image and to replace the pioneering labour elite with a new elite. On being elected in 1996, he castigated ‘the nomenklatura of the ancien régime’.

Netanyahu made light of Ben-Gurion’s vision of an open-necked ‘new Jew’. Instead, he preferred the world of the men in blue suits in smoke-filled backrooms. The change had already commenced in 1977 with the ‘earthquake’ that elected Menahem Begin. Netanyahu saw himself as the guardian of this newly emerging Israel and sought to promote its values.

However, his vision was not framed by Begin’s frugality, disdain for materialism and respect for the rule of law. In time, Netanyahu’s Israel began to resemble the old Rome rather than the new Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has a symbiotic relationship with Israeli citizens — sometimes he reflected their mindset, at others, he instigated measures that would force them to move in his ideological direction.

Aided by his expertise as a highly effective public relations practitioner — a technique honed in the American media when he represented Israel at the United Nations between 1984 and 1988, Netanyahu proved adept in providing soundbites and slogans: ‘peace for peace’; ‘without preconditions’, ‘reciprocity’, ‘there is no one to speak to’ — and they entered the vernacular of argument and debate both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Like Trump, he understood very well the distracting effect of emotive language and the use of emerging social media. As in the United States, many were groomed to think inside the box.  

A central task was to eliminate the collectivist ideal and to institute instead the individualist imperative.

In July 1996, in an address to the US Congress, he said that his new administration was committed ‘to turn Israel’s economy into a free market of goods and ideas — free enterprise, privatisation, open capital markets, an end to cartels, lower taxes, deregulation.’

He was Minister of Finance between 2003 and 2005 under Ariel Sharon — and was as good as his word in putting to rest the remnant of the old, outdated command economy of Labour. He instituted instead a neo-liberal free market, designed to attract Diaspora Jews to Israel.

All this coincided with the development of Israel’s remarkable high-tech industry — ‘the start-up nation’ which has made Israel a centre of global investment and innovative technology.

While it produced millionaires in mansions in Israel, it did not produce an egalitarian society — the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened and resembled that of western Europe.

The allure of capital also led to corruption amongst politicians who had grown up in modest circumstances. Financial scandals became a repeating feature of Netanyahu’s administrations and led him personally to a Jerusalem courtroom.

His innate approach polarised Israeli society and tempted its citizens to see what they could get away with. This relegation of the rule of law was exemplified when an IDF soldier, Elor Azaria, was found guilty of manslaughter for killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron in 2016, who had been lying motionless on the ground for several minutes.

Azaria was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment and a further 12-month probation period afterwards. The case became a cause célèbre for the Right. Netanyahu telephoned to commiserate with Azaria’s father while Naftali Bennett, now Israel’s prime minister, called for his release from prison.

In this case, Netanyahu sided with the shooter rather than with the generals who wanted justice to be done and to be seen to be done. Moshe Ya’alon, the Minister of Defence — and no political dove — tendered his resignation in protest at Netanyahu’s behaviour.

The advent of Islamist suicide bombers had persuaded many Israelis that peace with the Palestinians was little more than a pipe dream. This allowed Netanyahu to proceed with a stonewall approach towards Palestinian nationalists who did want a peaceful solution to this hundred years war of conflict and bloodshed.

While he adopted a softly, softly approach and littered any proposal with caveats, he dragged his feet when Clinton and Obama were in office, He enthusiastically threw caution to the wind when Trump removed any obstacles.

Netanyahu educated Israeli society to regard the Palestinian question as marginal to their overall concerns. On the one hand, the Abraham Accords reflected this outlook in that the UAE cared less about the Palestinians and more about commerce, trade and opposing Iran in common cause with Israel. On the other, the missiles over Tel Aviv in the recent conflagration with the Islamists reminded Israelis that the Palestinians have not gone away.

Yet the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Gulf States, the UAE and Bahrain, the blossoming of subterranean contacts with Saudi Arabia and the normalisation of ties with a plethora of other countries — the Abraham Accords — was a great achievement. A psychological breakout for Israelis generally and a veritable feather in Netanyahu’s cap.

For most observers, it came out of the blue even though Israel has had quiet links with the UAE since 2008. It significantly displaced Trump’s controversial ‘Deal of the Century’ in which Israel would be permitted to formally annex a sliver of the West Bank.

Yet questions remain unanswered. A meeting of the cabinet was hastily arranged by an enthusiastic Netanyahu to formally agree this annexation, but then inexplicably postponed indefinitely. Was the sudden emergence of the Abraham Accords little more than an unplanned innovation in exchange for sidelining the annexation of part of the West Bank? Or was it a deliberate example of the black arts of politics, orchestrated all along by Trump in Washington and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv?

Even so, the achievement of the Abraham Accords neither saved Netanyahu from the courtroom nor gave him the breakthrough in the polls to break the stalemate of repeated elections.

In the 1990s, Netanyahu told Israelis that the demographic problem in settling the West Bank was never a threat to democratic norms, but merely ‘a hobgoblin in the minds of people who have lost their nerve’. He portrayed the West Bank settlements as little more than suburbs of Israel and their inhabitants as ‘commuters’ into the big city.

Netanyahu, unlike previous Likud prime ministers, was never totally ideological about Judea and Samaria and preferred to project the territories to a wider audience as buffers that would protect mainland Israel in the event of an invasion. In his early days, he argued that any Palestinian state would subsequently overthrow the Hashemites in Jordan and forge an alliance with Iraq and Iran to eventually encircle Israel.

Unlike his predecessors, the former Likudniks, Sharon and Olmert, who gradually accepted the veracity of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu’s epiphany was sudden during a speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009. This was almost certainly a tactical measure to ward off the unwelcome attention directed at him by President Obama. During the Trump interregnum, his rejection of a Palestinian state was clear and unequivocal.

Such flip-flop fandangos have undermined the bipartisan basis for supporting Israel in the US Congress. All too many members of Congress, as well as President Biden, make a distinction today between the government of Israel and the state of Israel.

While Biden has always been a passionate advocate of Israel, he has also been a determined opponent of the settlement drive in the territories. Democrat presidents have always been a problem for Netanyahu and Israelis in general have warmed to those who give them less hassle. Netanyahu, however, has been perceived as taking any disagreement out of the professional into the personal — and often painted any differences in quasi-ideological language.

Thus he preferred to focus on the Christian evangelicals on a visit to the US at the end of the 1990s and to speak at their conference rather than dedicate himself to resolving any immediate problems with President Clinton.

Netanyahu’s approach towards Israel’s closest ally has been a growing factor in the disillusionment with the outgoing prime minister. Many in Israeli society now believe that he has exercised poor judgment — as in other matters — and impaired the special relationship between the US and Israel.

Netanyahu clearly has had little time for any external restraints placed upon him. This core belief was mobilised into an attack on the judges, the Attorney-General and the Supreme Court. The upholders of the law, it was suggested, should now simply be regarded as political actors in Israeli society rather than independent public servants.

The press, the fourth estate in any democracy, too was an enemy. The freebie, Israel Hayom, funded by the late Sheldon Adelson, was started in 2007 and soon became a major daily publication. It adopted the guise of a bone fide newspaper, but, in reality, was committed to washing Netanyahu whiter than white.

Israeli society has also changed due to the growing political influence of the haredim whose support Netanyahu counted upon. Over 20 years ago, the late Professor Ehud Sprinzak, pointed to the emergence of ‘a soft Right’ which Netanyahu was cultivating. In addition to the Likud and the far Right, Netanyahu was now attracting the haredim, both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi and the new Russian immigrants.

The defiance of many haredim to ignore basic measures during the pandemic infuriated many Israelis and intensified resentment at Netanyahu’s willingness never to offend them.

In 1998, Ehud Sprinzak also warned about ‘the Kahanisation of ultra-Orthodox students’ which prefigured the rise of the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit during the past year.

For many years, Netanyahu was seen as presiding over a morally strong Israel, a fundamentally decent society which would not only demonstrate the veracity of Zionism to its opponents, but also stand as a beacon of hope for the world. Today Netanyahu is viewed as someone totally self-centred who foolishly outstayed his welcome and in so doing has further damaged Israeli society and the country’s standing in the wider world.

Plus 61j 15 June 2021

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