The prospect of a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia has put the Israeli opposition in an inelegant bind. It looks like Israelis who oppose Netanyahu are unhappy about the whole thing for fear that it will help Netanyahu remain in power and forge ahead with his authoritarian overhaul.
Cynics will accuse the opposition of hypocrisy, arguing that hatred for the prime minister has driven supposed peaceniks to such distraction that even peace is sacrificed.
I must disagree: One can reasonably assess the damage caused by Netanyahu to exceed even the undeniably huge benefit of normalization with Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, there is no greater danger to Israel than from Netanyahu’s coalition, and I am not forgetting the thousands of missiles which may one day be fired by Hezbollah. They cannot destroy the country, but if the coalition makes good on its plans, Israel will not survive as a viable modern society and economy. Peace with the Saudis is valuable to be sure, but it’s not at this level.
Going forward, much depends on the price Saudi Arabia will extract on two fronts: the Palestinian one (which upsets Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners), and the idea of a civilian nuclear program (which upsets the defense establishment whose retirees are now a central pillar of the opposition and the protest movement).
When the fog on these questions clears, it will determine whether the far-right elements in the coalition will be able to support the deal. Even conditions that seem trifling would be enough to give them fits – for example, a settlement freeze beyond the security barrier. That would be a far cry from genuine progress toward peace, but it still cannot be supported by true believers in Jewish supremacy and annexation-with-apartheid like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
It is because of this that the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in recent days called for a national unity government, both in writing and on Israeli TV. Friedman, who appears to be close to Joe Biden, says this is the “homework” that the US president has stealthily assigned to Netanyahu.
Who knows? Perhaps Netanyahu would be tempted to complete such an assignment. But the opposition, especially the suddenly popular Benny Gantz, should contemplate no such thing. If the show were on the other foot Netanyahu would howl against traitors – but this is not the center-left’s brand.
But that said, there is no reason whatsoever to join Netanyahu in the government. If the far-right wants to bring down the government because of a settlement freeze (or some other burst of rationality on the Palestinian front), it would be folly to rescue Netanyahu from the series of tripwires he has laid out for himself.
One of them looms in the form of the planned bill to formalize sweeping military draft exemptions for the Haredim. It looks like the Haredi parties are going to insist that this promise be fulfilled in the coming winter Knesset session. It is hard to see how the bill passes: it should be possible to find four or five Likud members of Knesset whose conscience will not allow them to go along with a measure that makes a mockery of equality and that is detested by so much of the country, including the Likud electorate.
If it fails to pass, the Haredi parties have already threatened to bring down the government. I wouldn’t bet too much that they actually walk away from a coalition that is otherwise a sweetheart deal – but it might get unpleasant for Netanyahu. Let it.
We are living in a time when the abnormal is normalized at such a breakneck pace – not only in Israel – that it is easy to forget why Netanyahu is so reviled by so many. So I’ll offer a reminder.
Netanyahu is not just personally unworthy – a prime minister who clings to power during a bribery trial while shamelessly attempting to weaken the legal system and strike from the books crimes that he is accused of. He is not just helming a coalition of fanatics and ex-cons whose 225 proposed overhaul bills would transform Israel into a cross between Putin’s Russia and the Mullahs’ Iran. He is not only the person who single-handedly elevated Israel’s racist ultranationalist fringe to the highest levels of government. His representatives are now even reframing the Declaration of Independence as a random document signed by the unelected – a continuation of their war on the “elites” who dared promise equality for all in Israel.
Netanyahu is the politician who has done more than any other to spread hatred and sow divisions in the country. Israel always had potential to degenerate into squabbling tribes at each other’s throats; but no other leader before him (except, perhaps, for Menachem Begin) tried to minimize this; no one has done more to maximize it (such as when he was caught telling a revered Sephardic sage in 1997 that leftists “have forgotten what it means to be Jews”).
Moreover, he has convinced a generation of young Israelis that scheming is a way of life and winning is all that matters. His dispiriting cynicism, which strongly suggests a blatant lack of patriotism, can be summed up in a single event: the persuasion of the Belz Hassidic movement, on the eve of the last election, to renege on plans to agree to begin enacting a core curriculum in its schools, which would have begun to render its youth employable in a modern economy.
There can be no question that Netanyahu knows that the Haredi birthrate makes their continued lack of modern education a national emergency. But he convincingly appeared not to care. He promised that if he returned to power there would be no such requirement, and he kept that promise, retaining the rock-solid support of the community’s benighted rabbis and pols.
So no, don’t save him.
Unless. If Netanyahu abandons his policies and starts to separate from the Palestinians and fix the Haredi problem, I would urge President Herzog to grant him a preemptive pardon. There is a history with that, not only with Israel but with the Herzog family itself.
The chances of this scenario as very unlikely indeed. So we can probably suffice with a simple equation: A qualified yes to a Saudi peace deal, and a deafening no to Netanyahu.