The Dark Knight, this week, laid his country rather low.
When Benjamin Netanyahu entered Israeli politics some 30 years ago, he was seen as a well-scrubbed recruit to the cadre of Likud Party leadership hopefuls widely nicknamed the “princes.” After a star turn as UN ambassador, his gleaming toolbox included US-accented English upon a silver tongue, and fancy proposals for free-market reform.
But the fairytale “prince” tag never seemed to fit the nationalist Netanyahu, who was strangely angry at something even as a young man. He needed no nickname other than “Bibi,” it turned out. Netanyahu left the princes in his dust and led Israel down a rocky, lonely road.
He knew successes, to be sure. There has been less terrorism under his watch as prime minister and he reformed the economy, boosting growth but also yielding world-beating inequality. I imagine he considers his main achievement to be killing the peace process, so as to keep the occupied territories, while minimizing the damage to Israel’s international standing. Make no mistake: Israel’s standing (despite spin to the contrary) and also economy have suffered. But he did minimize the fallout: the man’s brilliant prevarications could sell sand to the Bedouin.
I first experienced this in person in 1996, in the last days of his campaign against incumbent PM Shimon Peres. Peres had inherited the throne upon the assassination some months earlier of Yitzhak Rabin, shot amid a hysterical crusade of agitation in which opposition leader Netanyahu had played a leading part. It was also the twilight of the Oslo peace process: the Palestinians had been given “autonomy” in their cities as an interim phase, and May 1999 was looming as the date for a final peace agreement. As a reporter for the AP I was sent to corner him at some event. Accomplishing this, I fired off my question: You opposed giving the Palestinians anything at all. If elected what would you offer them for the final deal?
“Young man,” said Netanyahu, “I will offer them autonomy.”
But the Palestinians already had this and would surely demand sovereignty, I protested.
“Young man,” Bibi replied, “Have you heard of the Catalans?” He efficiently explained that this Iberian tribe lived under an autonomy arrangement and sufficed with it. I countered that the Catalans were also citizens of Spain who vote for the same parliament as everyone else, and only thus can Madrid rule Barcelona (and even that, as we now see, hangs by a thread).
Netanyahu looked around, and finding no TV cameras made good a swift escape. It was a vintage performance! His Catalan analogy would convince many a baffled voter, and sounded sophisticated to boot. Sure, it had a fatal flaw and made no sense. But how many people would know the facts and think it through? Probably not a majority; that’s the system. A few days later Netanyahu won 50.5% of the vote, squeaking past Peres.
The Dark Knight rises.
Many moons have passed, and these now are the days when Netanyahu is closing in on David Ben Gurion’s record of 13 years and change in office. He would reach that point in July, if reelected next month.
Netanyahu’s rule has been typified by overcast skies. He seems to shine brightest when railing against enemies real, imagined or exaggerated. Israel undoubtedly faces grave threats, terrible to contemplate and hard to exaggerate. But Netanyahu manages.
He equally enjoys opportunities for fighting enemies from within, and these most certainly exist.
Israel’s establishment favored the peace process Netanyahu has done his best to destroy, because it is widely composed of rational Zionists who do not share his apparent belief that the Palestinians can be forever subjugated without wrecking Israel in the bargain. So it has given Netanyahu grief. He has been in various levels of conflict throughout with the security establishment, the arts community, most academics and high-end journalists, and much of the business community and professional class.
But only in recent years has the situation become as ugly as it is. Freed of civilized norms, perhaps, by the arrival of ally Donald Trump, Netanyahu has systematically vilified the police and judiciary as tools of deep state conspiracies, demonized the media in a genuinely dangerous way, and governed with reckless disregard for the delicate balances and compromises that make civilization possible here.
About 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs, and many are the reasons for concern: Israel has been in conflict with their brothers in every neighboring land, all of which are Arab; they are marginalized in various ways and generally poorer than the Jews; and the Palestinian refugees whose tribulations are legend are literally their relatives.
Yet the Israeli Arabs have been loyal. With few exceptions they have not joined the struggle against Israel. They almost all speak Hebrew and to an amazing degree many of the youth have assimilated into the mainstream and some are indistinguishable from Jewish Israelis. Their participation in elections is almost as high as that of the Jews — which, as we shall see, is where the problem this week begins.
Thoughtful and decent Israeli leaders never did do enough to improve the Arabs’ lot, but they certainly knew not to provoke them. Netanyahu is cut from another cloth. On election day in 2015, he issued a panicked-looking video trying to turn out his nationalist base by warning that Arabs were being bused to the polls in droves; that was not too cool, and he had to apologize. But it seemed to have worked, and he governs still.
Last year, his coalition passed a “Nationality Bill” officially proclaiming Israel to be the nation-state of the Jews and erasing the official status of the Arabic language. It was classic: a provocation that was not even necessary, because Israel’s declaration of independence already says much the same — but one which also conveniently stoked ethnic tensions and as a bonus cast tongue-tied liberal Jews into the uncomfortable role of appearing to oppose the premise of a Jewish state. Most Israelis instinctively supported this bill; the intelligentsia hated it; you do not win elections with the intelligentsia.
Now Netanyahu faces a real threat, with Likud lagging in the polls behind a new centrist party led by a trio of military chiefs and a charismatic former TV and film celebrity.
His strategy has been to delegitimize the Arab political parties. Netanyahu has made a huge issue out of the fact that the Knesset majority which might block him will probably depend on Arabs (as Rabin’s indeed did). “It’s Bibi or Tibi!” he thunders, invoking Ahmed Tibi, a leading Israeli Arab politician. Many Jewish Israelis, not necessarily racist, heads hurting from the noise, ears ringing from the bluster, sort of buy it.
This week Rotem Sela, a well-known TV personality, protested these tactics on social media. Netanyahu sprung to action on TV, lambasting celebrities who forget that “Israel is the nation state of the Jews, and of the Jews only.” The masterly second clause is almost poetic in its way, if pyromania can thusly be described.
The country has since been abuzz with discussions about the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of the Arabs. Sela faces threats but also praise for her supposed “courage” in noting that the Arabs of Israel are equal citizens. It has come to this, these days.
The three leading Likud princes of the 1980s were Dan Meridor, Roni Milo, and Ehud Olmert. All transformed into moderates and none could survive in Netanyahu’s rabid Likud today.
Olmert did serve three years as PM and went further in than anyone in offering the Palestinians statehood on almost all the land they seek in late 2008. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas would have been wise to grab that but chose instead to overthink: Could a deal really be done? Olmert appeared a lame duck, under police investigation, after all.
Netanyahu was hounding Olmert without mercy back then, shouting from every rooftop that the PM must resign. With fiery eloquence he argued that a national leader cannot function under the strain of police investigation. The prince quietly abdicated the throne, took his peace offers with him, and spent a term in jail for accepting a bribe. Elections that followed returned Netanyahu to office, after a nine-year hiatus.
A decade later, beset by breathtaking corruption scandals of his own, does he feel shame? Netanyahu has been clinging to his seat not only through investigations but a scathing police recommendation to indict. A rogue’s gallery of cronies have turned state’s witness against him. He unapologetically campaigns for reelection even after the announcement this month by the attorney general of three actual counts (pending a hearing), including a bribery charge, involving sums greater than Olmert’s. Cringe-worthy details would torment a wobblier soul.
The Dark Knight is a supremely intelligent man; the epic hypocrisy, to him, undoubtedly is crystal clear. Is he hoping for a deal with the prosecution? Does he expect salvation at the polls? April 9 approaches fast. Democracy is tested as it’s rarely been before.