Dancing with the Abyss Netanyahu's Toxic Embrace with Israel
A new wave of killings has plagued Israel for the past several months, with hopes for a two-state solution growing remoter than ever. The threat of violence is helping Benjamin Netanyahu maintain power, but it is also corroding the country's society.
Benjamin Netanyahu is standing in front of a bar in downtown Tel Aviv, behind a lectern made of bulletproof glass. It's dark outside, and the candles at his feet, placed there as a memorial, are reflected in the glass.
The day before, a young man pulled a Spectre M4 submachine gun from his backpack and began firing at pedestrians. He shot and killed the bar owner and a patron, and injured seven others. The perpetrator was an Arab Israeli from the northern part of the country.
"There is wild radical Islamic incitement against the State of Israel in the Arab sector," Netanyahu says from behind the lectern, his hair encircling his head like a steel-gray helmet. "We will demand from all of them loyalty to the laws of the state. One cannot say, 'I am an Israeli in rights and a Palestinian in obligations.'"
Netanyahu's words are neither conciliatory nor reassuring. On the contrary, they are an accusation against all Arabs in the country. His words are relentless, and in keeping with the reality at which Israel has arrived after 10 years under his leadership.
Almost a year ago, on March 17, 2015, Netanyahu defied all expectations and scored another triumphant election victory. The conservative Likud bloc, which he heads, became the strongest party in the country by a wide margin. It is Netanyahu's fourth term as prime minister. If he serves the entire term, he will have been in office longer than David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel.
Netanyahu is shaping present-day Israel to a greater degree than anyone else. The country has distanced itself from its Western partners and has shifted far to the right. Netanyahu violated a political taboo when he brought The Jewish Home, a party that primarily represents settlers, into his government. The move sent a message: against peace and against hope for a two-state solution.
The attack on the bar in Tel Aviv is just another example of the omnipresent hate that is eating its way more and more deeply into the lives of Israelis, corroding their society in the process. Almost every day now, young Palestinians attack Jewish Israelis with knives and scissors, and they are usually shot to death in the process. The attackers are 13- 17- or 20-year-olds.
There were four attacks on Tuesday of last week alone. Several police officers were injured, two severely, in a Jerusalem attack. In the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikwa, a Palestinian began stabbing an Israeli, until passersby finally managed to grab his knife.
And while US Vice President Joe Biden was attending peace talks nearby, a 22-year-old from Kalkilia in the West Bank stabbed several people on the boardwalk in the port city of Jaffa.
Even though this new wave of violence has been underway since October, Netanyahu has been unable to do anything about it or bring peace to his country. Some would argue that his record is disastrous, and that the tense situation would harm his popularity, but the opposite has been true. Last year, Netanyahu expanded his power even further, simply claiming a number of ministries for himself. Now, in addition to being prime minister, he is also foreign minister, economy minister, communication minister and regional development minister. He has installed allies in the media, in the police force and in the judiciary. It's as if Netanyahu is in a toxic embrace with his country.
During a state trip last fall, Netanyahu's official plane flew through heavy, dark clouds, with the fasten seatbelt sign on. Just as the aircraft entered severe turbulence, Netanyahu appeared in the rear section of the aircraft, where the journalists sat. He wanted to give a background talk at that very moment. He had a full 12 hours to speak, but he only chose to do so a few minutes prior to landing.
As a hurricane-like storm brewed, the journalists clung to their seats. It was the middle of the night in Jerusalem and Netanyahu spoke with them about Syria and Iraq. He had dark circles under his eyes and unkempt hair. His words essentially amounted to nothing.
The plane swayed back and forth. His press spokesman then pulled at his sleeve, trying to get him to sit down. The aircraft hit an air pocket, but Netanyahu didn't flinch. This was and is his message. He stages politics as a never-ending dance at the brink of an abyss -- in which he constantly remains in control. This catastrophic backdrop allows Netanyahu to appear both as victim and savior. He turns everything into an existential question, because he derives his power from the existential.
"The survival mode is in the Israeli DNA," says journalist Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the country's biggest daily newspapers. He has followed Netanyahu for years. "He plays the type who holds the dam together."
And sometimes he also plays the type who offends and provokes. Last week, Netanyahu surprisingly canceled a meeting with US President Barack Obama scheduled for March 18. In yet another of a series of affronts between the two countries, the US government only learned of the cancellation through the media.
Netanyahu's displeasure over the nuclear agreement with Iran was probably behind the cancellation, despite the Israeli government's official explanation that it did not wish to be drawn into the US election campaign. Since coming into office, Netanyahu has been warning the world about Iran and the Iranian nuclear bomb. For Netanyahu, the agreement, which the United States and five other nations hammered out with Iran last year, was a humiliating defeat and also marked a low point in Israeli-American relations.
Skilled at Playing His Audience
Netanyahu continued to fight against the agreement, even after it had been signed. In early October, the Israeli prime minister stood before the United Nations General Assembly in New York and remained silent for 45 seconds. His silence was meant to symbolize the "deafening silence" of the world community, as he put it, in light of the threat of the extermination of Israel by Iran. Some of the diplomats in the audience looked down at the floor, while others rolled their eyes. But Netanyahu's real audience consisted of Israelis watching the speech on television back home.
"In every generation, there were those who rose up to destroy our people," the prime minister said. "The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies -- those days are over."
Netanyahu knows the Israelis better than they know themselves, wrote Bradley Burston, an American-born Israeli columnist with the daily newspaper Haaretz. "Benjamin Netanyahu can play you like a Stradivarius. And he does." Netanyahu is a master at playing on people's feelings and the Jewish fear of being threatened from all sides and abandoned. He exploits the Israelis' sense of shame over having been victims, unable to defend themselves during the period surrounding World War II, and the resulting pain.
"Where is the diplomatic sense in mocking the entire world?" commentators asked after his speech before the UN. But Netanyahu isn't interested in diplomacy. In moments like these, he doesn't seem to care about whether he is doing damage. It is about a promise, Israel's raison d'etre, the slogan "Never again!"
What counts is the fact that he is fighting for his country -- and, again and again, to preserve his own power. Netanyahu dissolved his own government more than a year ago, fearing that there was a conspiracy against him. He was convinced his cabinet ministers were trying to overthrow him and called for new elections. For a moment, it seemed as if he had miscalculated. Shortly before the election, in March 2015, all the polls showed the opposition leading the race.
It was a difficult time for the Netanyahus. The family was involved in a number of scandals. The Israelis learned how many thousands of shekels the couple spent each year on pistachio ice cream, candles and sushi. The situation became even more outlandish when the Netanyahus had a video produced to offset their image as a luxury couple. In the film, Netanyahu's wife Sarah gave a well-known decorator a tour of their dilapidated-looking kitchen. The man bent over the plastic coating that was peeling from the cabinets and finally said: "This looks like the kitchen of a Romanian orphanage from 1954!"
A few days later, it was revealed that the kitchen in the video was for staff, and that there was a state-of-the-art kitchen on the next floor above. Residents of liberal Tel Aviv felt ashamed, outraged and even a little amused. Few believed Netanyahu would be reelected.
But once again, Netanyahu knew what he had to do. Six days before the election, he appealed to the settler movement as his last chance to survive politically. He asked its leaders to his residence, where he told them: "I am about to lose the election. We will leave this residence, and you will have to leave your homes." The way to prevent this horrible outcome, he offered, was by voting for him instead of his right-wing rivals from The Jewish Home. Netanyahu publicly withdrew his support for the two-state solution.
He won because the settler activists convinced thousands of voters in villages and cities to cast their ballots for him. The election saw the largest last-minute turnout ever.
Soon after the election, Netanyahu apologized to the international community and Arab supporters of his party for statements he had made during the campaign. He repeatedly alienates important allies with this apparent vacillating, but not his voters.
Honesty is not what many Israelis expect from a political leader, says historian Tom Segev. They can even deal with corruption, "as long there are no bombs exploding under their cars."
But Netanyahu is not merely an opportunist. There is a belief system behind his tactical maneuvers that have been constant throughout his life. His father was a close associate of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the proponent of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. Netanyahu was 28 when he said in a TV debate: "The obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the demand for a Palestinian state."
He fought against the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. As prime minister, he allowed settlement construction to move forward. In doing so, he increasingly made the two-state solution appear utopian. It seems all but impossible today.
Columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times that Netanyahu is the father of a one-state solution. "Well, it's pretty clear now: Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a major figure in Israeli history." He wrote: "Netanyahu will be the father of the one-state solution. Now, if there are not going to be two states for two peoples in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, then there is going to be only one state."
After almost 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, this state is now a reality. It is an unjust state with unequal citizens. It is a state suffering from violence, where Palestinian schoolgirls stab Israeli police officers. A few weeks ago, the police searched a 13-year-old girl's backpack and found notebooks, a calculator, a package of grape juice and two kitchen knives. They wanted to "kill Jews," the girl said at the police station,
When the attacks began in the fall, the country's largest tabloid newspaper called them "The Third Intifida." Netanyahu's approval ratings declined for a short time, and he resorted to the rhetoric of civil war. "We will forever live by the sword," he said in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in October. He wanted parts of East Jerusalem to be sealed off and the houses of the families of killers destroyed. His goal was to let the population know that he was in control and that he was the only one who could be.
Netanyahu has performed a skillful balancing act between demands from the right and those of the international community. He has played them off against each other. More settlement construction? Impossible, he tells the settlers, because of the United States. Suddenly he seems reasonable compared to those farther on the right in his government. Even his coalition's razor-thin majority in the Knesset, where he rules with a majority of only one vote, seems to work to Netanyahu's advantage. Each individual member of parliament can cause the government to fail. Each vote counts. Risk begets discipline. The left-wing media and NGOs that rage against Netanyahu come across as traitors to their country in light of the tense situation. Anything that is against Netanyahu benefits him.
But the violence continues, as Palestinian youths become radicalized through Facebook and YouTube, and attack Israeli police officers, ordinary men and even pregnant and elderly women. Terror has taken on a new quality, with the perpetrators acting independently instead of at the behest of organizations. And there is something deeply barbaric about people stabbing other people in the flesh at close range with the intention of killing them.
Will Terrorism Bring Him Down?
So is this the moment when Netanyahu's policy of maintaining the status quo could fail? When it becomes clear that purely managing the conflict is impossible?
Terrorism has been the downfall of other politicians in Israel. But it doesn't even scathe Netanyahu. He believes in and benefits from the eternally looming disaster on the horizon, which needs to be mastered. But this also means that the threat cannot disappear, and that there can be no solution. For Netanyahu, the status quo is the ideal, and the impending catastrophe the glue that holds everything together. This too is a reason why the conflict must be declared to be unsolvable.
To strengthen this narrative, Netanyahu has also not shied away from adding a new variant to the story of the Holocaust. At the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem a few months ago, he declared that the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem had suggested the idea of the "final solution" to Hitler.
The next day, he traveled to Berlin for a state visit. His speech there was the news of the day. The German government felt forced to reinforce Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust. In the ensuing days, prominent historians distanced themselves from him. He backpedaled. Old supporters called it "shameless," saying: "This time he has gone too far."
In the spring of 2016, little has remained of all that, at least nothing that would harm him -- except perhaps Netanyahu's statement that this is not a question of Palestinians against Israelis, but of Arabs against Jews, the idea that the Arabs have always wanted to kill the Jews, even without the Israeli occupation and the sense that this is a cultural conflict and not a political one.
"I am Israel, and Israel is what I am," Yedioth Yedioth Ahronoth's Barnea wrote, describing the prime minister's fusion with his country. "He no longer feels that he was elected, but rather chosen."
'All Others Are Idiots'
When Netanyahu looks around in his government, he determines that he is the cleverest and most experienced man far and wide. Advisers come and go, but only Netanyahu remains. In his administration, each minister is assigned to the most unsuitable position, both for himself and for the country. That too is part of his calculus. The culture minister is a former military sensor. The acting foreign minister shocked international diplomats by demanding that the Israeli flag be flown from the Temple Mount. The tourism minister is a lawyer. None can truly distinguish him or herself, and the opposition lacks strong leaders.
Netanyahu has created a situation in which there seems to be no alternative to him. He himself is convinced that this is true. One reason he has to remain in power is that he believes he is the only person who can save the country. If manipulation works, it works in both directions, ultimately reeling in the manipulator himself as well.
There is also a parallel to his childhood. "All others are idiots," wrote an old friend, describing his family's attitude. Although the Netanyahus were part of the elite, they saw themselves as outsiders in the hostile environment of the socialist-Zionist upper class that was in power at the time. Netanyahu's father, a historian who predicted the Holocaust, felt misunderstood throughout his life. He finally became so bitter that he took his family to the United States, leaving the country whose founding he had once stood up for.
He is especially beloved among so-called Oriental Jews who feel like outsiders in a society dominated by the elites who emigrated from Europe. Has Netanyahu imposed his convictions on the country? Or does the Israeli reality see itself reflected in him? Netanyahu and his voters are mirror images of their respective fears -- an eternal back-and-forth that narrows their perspective.
There have been more than 300 terrorist attacks in the last six months, in which about 30 Israelis and more than 180 Palestinians have died. Netanyahu's dark worldview is constantly seeking and finding validation, in a cycle in which fear spurs that which is feared.
The prime minister simply keeps on going. At the end of last year, the Education Ministry banned a schoolbook in which a Jewish woman falls in love with a Palestinian man. In February, Netanyahu announced the construction of a fence all the way around Israel. He wanted to bring internal political elections forward to February. In the end, they were cancelled because there was no opposing candidate.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan