Here’s hop­ing we see the back of Bibi at last

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

FOR A few hours on Mon­day af­ter­noon, there was an un­fa­mil­iar buzz of ex­cite­ment puls­ing around the online com­mu­nity of Is­rael-watch­ers. Binyamin Ne­tanyahu had alerted the TV net­works that he would make a “dra­matic an­nounce­ment” at 8pm lo­cal time. Was there to be some new di­plo­matic ini­tia­tive? A new align­ment of the par­ties of the right per­haps, some mas­ter­stroke by Bibi ahead of Is­raeli elec­tions on April 9? Or, fi­nally and least likely, could it be that the cor­rup­tion probes and threat of in­dict­ment long hang­ing over the prime min­is­ter had reached a tip­ping point and — whis­per it— he was go­ing to re­sign?

None of the above. In­stead, Bibi served up what the Amer­i­cans call a noth­ing­burger. His live TV ad­dress was de­voted to a com­plaint about le­gal pro­ce­dure in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions against him. It was so bor­ing, and so self-serv­ing, that Is­rael’s Chan­nel 10 cut trans­mis­sion and showed some­thing else in­stead.

But for a few, sweet mo­ments we were al­lowed to dream. For an hour or two we could fan­ta­sise about the exit from Is­raeli pol­i­tics of a man who first sat in the prime min­is­ter’s chair in 1996 — nearly a quar­ter cen­tury ago. You now have to be in mid­dle age to re­mem­ber an Is­rael that was not dom­i­nated by the loom­ing fig­ure of Bibi Ne­tanyahu. In­deed, one ex­pla­na­tion of his con­tin­u­ing supremacy is that Is­raelis can­not even imag­ine some­one else in the top job.

There was a time, the best part of two decades ago, when I would ap­proach an Is­raeli elec­tion with some­thing like hope. Per­haps the peace camp, broadly de­fined, was about to win power and, at long last, be­gin the process that I be­lieved — and still be­lieve — was nec­es­sary for the coun- sur­vival: namely the par­ti­tion of the land into two states, one for Is­raelis and one for Pales­tini­ans, liv­ing side by side. I’d seen some­thing like it hap­pen with the vic­tory of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and of Ehud Barak in 1999, so it didn’t seem ab­surd to think it might hap­pen again. But in the 21st cen­tury, re­al­ity has brought a string of de­feats, es­pe­cially fol­low­ing the slow dis­in­te­gra­tion of Kadima, the ve­hi­cle con­structed by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to pur­sue some form of ter­ri­to­rial com­pro­mise.

Ex­pec­ta­tions are lower now. The no­tion of a break­through for Is­rael’s doves is for the birds. The death in De­cem­ber of the coun­try’s lau­re­ate and con­science, Amos Oz, brought home how marginalised, how iso­lated, that strand of Is­raeli think­ing has be­come. So those who don’t wish to har­bour delu­sions need to set their sights lower.

They might long for an­other war­rior-turned­peace­maker in the Rabin mould, hop­ing, say, that for­mer Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, now run­ning for of­fice, will emerge to play that role. But that’s to ig­nore the ba­sic facts of Is­raeli pub­lic opin­ion: Is­raelis them­selves have shifted steadily right­ward since Barak’s fail­ure at Camp David and the sec­ond in­tifada that fol­lowed it. Is­raelis con­sider them­selves burned by the peace ef­forts of the Oslo era and have re­solved that, in the words of The Who, they won’t get fooled again.

If it’s naïve to imag­ine Is­rael is about to take a sud­den swerve to the peacenik left in April, what might count as a more re­al­is­tic hope? How about this: that even if Is­rael doesn’t ditch the na­tion­al­ist right, it at least rids it­self of Ne­tanyahu.

Be­cause Ne­tanyahu em­bod­ies a very spe­cific degra­da­tion in Is­raeli pol­i­tics, and I’m not re­fer­ring to the mul­ti­ple and cred­i­ble al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion against him. I mean moral cor­ro­sion on a larger scale.

Think of Ne­tanyahu’s “warm em­brace” — his Ne­tanyahu’s model of pol­i­tics re­lies on ex­ploit­ing ha­tred and fear. It’s been copied around the world words — just this month of Brazil’s new leader, Jair Bol­sonaro, a proto-fas­cist who once said a fel­low politi­cian didn’t “de­serve to be raped, be­cause she’s very ugly.” Who said he’d pre­fer his own son to die than be gay. Who called black ac­tivists “an­i­mals” who should “go back to the zoo.” Who has praised tor­ture and mass pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions. None of that stopped Ne­tanyahu hold­ing him close.

Bibi has been an equally good friend to Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban, even when Or­ban was run­ning a nakedly an­ti­semitic elec­tion cam­paign. And of course Ne­tanyahu cheered for Don­ald Trump, even as Amer­ica’s Jews warned that Trump was poi­son­ing the air and thrilling an­ti­semites with his dog-whis­tles about Ge­orge Soros and the sin­is­ter “glob­al­ists.”

I’ve noted here be­fore how, when faced with a choice be­tween fright­ened di­as­pora Jewish com­mu­ni­ties and nasty ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists, Ne­tanyahu rou­tinely sides with the lat­ter against the for­mer, so long as they sup­port his ver­sion of Is­raeli in­ter­ests. It fits with the big­otry he’s pur­sued in­side Is­rael, whether it’s a na­tion-state law that re­gards Pales­tinian Is­raelis as sec­ond­class cit­i­zens or a racist warn­ing that that same com­mu­nity were head­ing to the polling sta­tions in 2015 in their “droves.” It’s a model of pol­i­tics which re­lies on the ex­ploita­tion of ha­tred and fear, now repli­cated around the world, by Or­ban, Trump and many oth­ers. But it was mas­tered years ago by Ne­tanyahu.

I’ve lost hope that the forces of peace and com­pro­mise, the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Oz’s Is­rael, will win in April or any­time soon. But I can at least hope for one thing, even though I know it’s a long­shot: that we at last see the back of Binyamin Ne­tanyahu and the rot­ten pol­i­tics he personifies.

Jonathan Freed­land is a Guardian colum­nist

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