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Win or lose, Netanyahu has already cemented his legacy

In his 10 years in power, Netanyahu has engaged in race-baiting against his own citizens, declared the occupation a permanent feature of Israeli reality, and shifted both the national and international conversation on Palestine. It is time to acknowledge that these are no mere trends — but his very legacy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for Golda Meir at Mount Herzl cemetery, Jerusalem, November 18, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fentonl/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for Golda Meir at Mount Herzl cemetery, Jerusalem, November 18, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fentonl/Flash90)

Ten years after he was elected prime minister, it is nearly impossible to imagine an Israel without Benjamin Netanyahu at its helm. An entire generation of Israelis has come of age in the Netanyahu era, and much of what young Israelis have internalized about politics, about their identity, and about Israel is the result of the legacy he has already left behind — regardless of whether he is re-elected.

In 10 years of Netanyahu’s rule, the prime minister has emboldened and been emboldened by some of the most extremist elements in Israeli society, engaged in race-baiting against his own citizens, cozied up to authoritarian and anti-Semitic leaders around the world, meddled in the internal politics of Israel’s greatest ally, and declared the occupation a permanent, integral feature of the Israeli reality.

What he’s done differently, whether deliberately or unwittingly, is lay out in the open what previous prime ministers thought best to not openly acknowledge or declare. Israeli leaders have always been lenient toward Jewish radicals, implemented undisguised discriminatory policies against Palestinian citizens, struck deals with despotic regimes around the world, and entrenched the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories.

One of the most defining features of Netanyahu’s legacy, however, is the way in which Israeli civil and political discourse has changed on his watch. To understand the way he has changed Israel, one must first understand the ways in which Netanyahu himself was transformed by the office. While he was always viewed as an outsider in Israeli politics, even within his own party, for years the prime minister retained a certain outward respect for Israel’s minorities, the rule of law, and democratic norms.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem's Old City, April 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem’s Old City, April 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That all changed around the last elections, says Amir Fuchs, who heads the Israeli Democracy Institute’s Defending Democratic Values Program. “Some believe Netanyahu was always against the Israeli judicial system and the rule of law — but that’s simply not true,” Fuchs explains. “Before 2015, the prime minister spoke out against attacks on the courts by politicians to his right, while surrounding himself with Likud moderates such as Benny Begin and Dan Meridor or rivals from the political center such as Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid. He did not, for example, initially openly support the Jewish Nation-State Law. That eventually ended up changing.”

The day of the 2015 elections, in a last-ditch effort to save his campaign, Netanyahu warned that left-wing organizations were busing Arabs to the polls “in droves.”

“That was racism pure and simple, and it marked a shift from the way Netanyahu had previously expressed himself,” adds Fuchs. “After the elections, he became swept up in the incitement against Israel’s Arab population led by those further to his right.”

The disdain for both Israel’s judicial system and its minorities would, over the next few years, be translated into actions, as Netanyahu began capitulating and even championing radical right-wing legislative initiatives such as the “override bill” (which would defang the High Court’s ability to overturn unconstitutional laws) and the Jewish Nation-State Law, which constitutionalizes Jewish supremacy in Israel. Whereas in previous governments Netanyahu relied on moderates like Ehud Barak and Livni to form his coalition, this time around he surrounded himself with right-wing hardliners who pushed the prime minister to support a slate of far-right and nationalist laws, both vis-à-vis the Palestinians and democratic values and institutions.

Palestinian citizens take part in a protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law, central Tel Aviv, August 12, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian citizens take part in a protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law, central Tel Aviv, August 12, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Each of Netanyahu’s governments have been more nationalist than the one that came before. As the right grew in power, playing to the most extremist elements of its base, its ideology “steadily moved from the drawing board to the law books to the real world,” Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man recently wrote. Those governments passed laws to muzzle free speech, legalize the theft of Palestinian land in the West Bank, harass human rights activists and organizations, delegitimize nonviolent resistance to the occupation, ensure dissenters are banned from entering the country, and stripping Arabic of its status as an official language, among others.

But it is the attacks on Palestinian citizens that have come to define the changes we have seen in Netanyahu’s Israel. The kind of unabashedly racist rhetoric that was once the bread and butter of fringe political groups like the followers of Meir Kahane or strongmen like Avigdor Liberman has become a legitimate part of the public discourse.

“Over the past 10 years, we have seen a tsunami of incitement by the successive Netanyahu governments toward the Arab public,” says Basha’er Fahoum-Jayoussi, a Palestinian legal scholar based in Haifa.

“The Israeli ear has become trained to equate of Arabs with terror, and no one bats an eye,” Fahoum-Jayoussi told +972 just days after the prime minister gave an interview to Channel 12 News, in which he claimed, on primetime television, that Israel’s Arab parties support terrorism.

Successive Netanyahu governments have legitimized rhetoric about Palestinian citizens that Israelis, even in the mainstream, may have thought to themselves but never dared say out loud. The last few years have seen a number of watershed moments in that process. Perhaps the most blatant was when in 2016 over 1,700 wildfires erupted across Israel-Palestine, top members of Netanyahu’s government blamed Palestinians for starting an “arson intifada.” The claims turned out to be almost entirely baseless.

An Israeli Tax Authority worker checks the damage inspects the damage caused to Rama's Kitchen restaurant during a wildfire in Nataf over the weekend, November 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An Israeli Tax Authority worker checks the damage inspects the damage caused to a restaurant following a wildfire near Jerusalem, November 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But it was the passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law that was, for many Arab citizens, a sign that no matter how seriously they took their citizenship, Israel would always view them as inferior. Although Netanyahu had several times blocked the law — the equivalent of a constitutional amendment in the Israeli system — in 2018 he pushed it through and now claims it as the crown jewel of his legislative victories.

“By attacking Palestinians, Netanyahu goes for the lowest common denominator in order to unify Israelis,” says Fahoum-Jayoussi, while noting that his government also earmarked NIS 10-15 billion to help close economic gaps plaguing Israel’s Arab community. The dissonance, she says, creates a “kind of schizophrenia, which ultimately ensures we remain dependent on the government’s good graces.”

In the occupied territories, Netanyahu’s legacy has been simpler. Although when he took office in 2009 he famously declared his support for a two-state solution in his “Bar Ilan speech,” he has now built around him a coalition of annexationists, opponents of the two-state solution, and openly declares that Israel will never give up control of the entire territory between the Jordan River and the sea.

“It’s hard to know whether Netanyahu believed in the two-solution when he delivered the speech at Bar Ilan,” says Assaf David, the co-founder and academic director of the Forum for Regional Thinking. “But as time went on, he began to understand that Israel needs to go to war against Palestinian nationalism.”

A group of protesters wave a Palestinian flag while trying to take cover during the demonstration, east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

A group of protesters wave a Palestinian flag while trying to take cover during the demonstration, east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

To carry out that war, Netanyahu has held fast to three ideological pillars: declaring Israel’s military rule over the West Bank, including the settlement enterprise, permanent; turning the West Bank and Gaza into two separate, distinct entities; and quashing any and all semblance of Palestinian nationalism or resistance to Israeli rule, while treating the conflict as a zero-sum game.

“At the heart of Netanyahu’s policy over the past 10 years has been the attempt to ‘de-nationalize’ the Palestinian cause,” says David. “Once he buried the possibility for a Palestinian state, his next step was to destroy Palestinian national consciousness. This kind of thinking has long existed on the right, but this prime minister is the first to actually implement and lead it. Now we see the political center and parts of the center-left going along with this mentality.”

That hasn’t been an easy task. Netanyahu has led two wars in Gaza, leading to a bloody stalemate with no end on the horizon, and saw a wave of knife attacks, shootings and car-rammings take place on his watch. Anti-occupation Israelis who insist on a national conversation about the effects of Israel’s policies on Palestinians have been labeled traitors, and the push to annex the West Bank has not only become mainstream, it is now a central goal of many governing parties.

In the eyes of many Israelis, all of that translates into a sustainable situation with relatively low casualties on the Israeli side. Rather than moving toward a solution, Israelis remain content with a reality in which they were not forced to choose between making any drastic political decisions.

An election campaign poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An election campaign poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Netanyahu has always been easily pressured by those around him, which means he can easily be dragged to the right,” says Anat Saragusti, a veteran Israeli journalist and peace activist. “He prefers to manage the conflict without taking on too many military excursions. Aside from the devastation of the 2014 Gaza war, he has remained mostly restrained.”

As long as violence directed at Israelis remains relatively low and international powers aren’t willing to place real pressure on Israel to come to an agreement with the Palestinians, the Israeli public would not have to decide between either a two-state or a one-state solution, both of which would exact enormous political and material costs. Under Netanyahu, Israelis have gotten used to the comforts of the status quo: relative quiet coupled with eternal occupation.



“The occupation is viewed by Israelis as a relic of the 90s,” Saragusti continues. “Who talks about the occupation today? We don’t physically see it, it hardly appears in the media, except for on the fringes, and politically it is a non-story.”

Of course, removing the Palestinian question from the Israeli political agenda — and that of the world — was not entirely Netanyahu’s doing, and it was only possible with broader regional changes that led to shifting priorities in the Arab world.

The Arab Spring, says David, heightened the Sunni world’s sense of danger from growing Iranian power, allowing Netanyahu to begin forming quiet alliances with Arab states that had previously considered the Jewish state their sworn enemy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Prime Minister's Office)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office)

The proxy war between the Arab states and Iran, and the widespread effects of Syria’s refugee crisis, meant that the Sunni world had shifted its focus away from Palestine, David says. “Arab states care about their stability and the Syrian refugee crisis — they don’t have time to worry about Palestinian refugees or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“Now, the Palestinian national movement is facing a major crisis vis-à-vis the Arab world, and the lack of pressure on Israel, coupled with the growing pressure on the Palestinians from every direction, could eventually lead to an implosion that could force Israel to take back full military control of the West Bank or Gaza,” David added.

It is time to acknowledge that the influence and changes Benjamin Netanyahu has had on Israel and its society, the region, and the international discourse on Palestine, are not mere trends but his very legacy. Whether he is reelected to build on that legacy or leaves it for others to cope with is almost beside the point.

“Rhetoric has the power to create reality, and the kind of rhetoric that has sprouted here is increasingly dangerous,” Saragusti concluded. “People are afraid of identifying as left-wing, while Palestinian citizens are increasingly being pushed out of the democratic game — once you push minorities out of this game, what does this say about our democracy? This should have the political leadership extremely worried. Netanyahu has led this move and created a recipe for disaster.”

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      Re: “….shifted both the national and international conversation on Palestine”
      There is no fakestine for international and national entities to converse about !

      What you’ve got is a bunch of Jordanians squatting in the mountains Israel liberated from JORDAN in the 6 day war. These Jordanians have deliberately “fakestinianized” themselves in order to deliberately shift their own guilt for initiating the 1967 genocide.

      The end game of this conflict is the namechangers’ expulsion backs to the East Bank. Once repatriated, the Jordanians will have no option but to own up to their real identity.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: If we’re going to pull this off we need to think abut logistics: let’s say we want to deport 4 million Fakestinians to Jordan. Cattle cars have a certain nostalgia but I think we’ll have to use buses. Let’s say we can put 100 people on a bus – that’s 40,000 bus trips. I’d estimate Israel can do 500 trips a day, so that’s 80 days – let’s say 3 months. Who’s going to handle the P.R.?

        Of course, 4 million Fakestinians will likely destabilize Jordan, so we’ll have rockets across the border. Israel will have to re-occupy the Fakestinians, but further east this time. The sun will never set on the Israeli empire.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          You’re asking Lewis to think> Not a realistic plan.

          Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          You do live in a bubble when you ruminate over Israel’s logistics of expelling a few million hateful JORDANIANS a small distance of 20-30 miles. Yet you are seemingly ignorant of the demographic implosion and looming civil war that faces Western Europe.

          25% of all French 20 year olds are now Muslim.
          33% of all French 5 year old kids are now Muslim.
          There is a huge difference between birth rates of 3.0 versus 1.4 kids per family
          What about Muslims with French passports bringing in foreign spouses ?
          Belgium & Sweden are the same.
          The rest of W. Europe is just a few years behind.

          Reply to Comment
    2. itshak Gordine

      Because of Mr Netanyahu’s leniency towards Hamas, the Likud that I support will lose some points in favor of parties that are more right than it. Pity.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Translation: To you it’s a pity that more people will now vote for fascism without a fig leaf rather than fascism with a tiny fig leaf.
        Still sneaking around under cover of darkness I see, keeping up minimal appearances for the goyim. Might as well go full frontal, Halevy. Go ahead, splash on some of Ayalet’s perfume and give in to your naughtiest impulses. Liberate yourself.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        What my nose tells me that you are really after, Halevy, is that the smoke rising from the Israeli bombs dropped on Gaza and the smell of burning human flesh there will distract everyone for a precious week and blot out the huge stench of the exploding submarine affair.

        Blot out the fact that Netanyahu decided on billion dollar defense procurements against the advice of, and behind the backs of, Israel’s entire national security apparatus, as part of a massive kickback scam run by his closest confidantes, from which he himself, Netanyahu, made a huge profit.

        Blot out the fact that Netanyahu got rich off of unneeded purchases of billion dollar submarines.

        Blot out the fact that Netanyahu gave secret consent, which he kept secret from the army and defense ministry, to the sale of submarines to Egypt. For his own venal and nepotistic interests!

        Blot out the fact that Netanyahu then concocted another utterly fantastic lie on top of the mountain of lies: that this sale was supposedly so sensitive that it could not be shared even with those defense officers entrusted with safeguarding Israeli defense and deterrence! Yep!

        Blot out the fact that on Tuesday night, Raviv Drucker showed documented proof that approval of the Egyptian deal had been an integral part of the submarine scam from the very outset.

        Blot out the fact that tonight a group of former top generals led Barak are going to demand an investigation into what will be ranked as Israel’s biggest political corruption controversy ever, Israel’s crime of the century.

        Now, Halevy, my nose tells me that if you truly cared about Israel’s actual security, rather than posturing and pretending to care as a cover for the biblical land grab you suppose your real estate agent (G-d) is dealing you, you would not be voting Likud. But since “security” has always been a ruse, you just hope smoke and fog of war rising from Gaza will cover over the traitor Netanyahu’s deeds for a precious week before the election. Dead humans (in Gaza) be damned. Ya think?

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          You make me a trial of intent, as usual. The story of the submarines was launched by opponents in decline of Mr. Netanyahu. He denied. The Likud and our prime minister are the best guarantors of Israel’s future and it is the Israeli people who will democratically decide in 6 days who will be our next prime minister and the ruling party. I remind you that those who are abroad are not concerned. I vote Likud because it’s my family for 40 years. It is this party that has eliminated the left caviar. It was Menachem Begin who ignited our hearts by speaking of the pride of having a historical, national and religious heritage as wonderful as that of the Jewish people. We are in the Messianic period, and all the predictions of our great Sages are being realized one after the other while the unhealthy dreams of the leftists are collapsing like castles of cards.

          Reply to Comment
          • john

            we are in the messianic period? is bibi the guy?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It is way more than a story, sir. “He denied.” Well, glory be. The man nobody even in Likud trusts and the man the whole world regards as a consummate, inveterate, habitual liar, “denied.” Oh, ooooohhhkaaay.

            Not that I think Gantz is significantly better, in fact he is probably worse:

            But clearly, Israel under Netanyahu is spiraling rapidly into a version of Erdogan’s Turkey — a leader who won’t budge and who gradually brings the judges, the cops, and the press under his enforced control, protecting himself from investigations and from other efforts aimed at preventing corruption. Now I have gathered that this simply does not bother you, Halevy, because, well, gangsters are like that, and because you know the entire occupation is based on corruption and dishonesty and the more of it the better.

            “We are in the Messianic period”

            Oooohkaaaay. I never did say that a rational conversation with you was possible. But we know what we are up against.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Mark

      Netanyahu’s biggest error has been to align himself with the Republicans in the US at the expense of the bipartisan approach that was successful for decades.

      On the plus side, there’s a disturbing realignment of politics in many countries and one may as well be as friendly as possible under the circumstances, but I don’t think these are anything other than passing whims of the global electorate.

      The fact he’s made moves towards a whole range of disgusting regimes across the Arab world is just realpolitik. Even the disgraceful Turkish regime of Erdogan still has diplomatic relations with IL.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You are misappropriating the term “realpolitik,” which term connotes politics and diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological principles or moral and ethical premises. A form of pragmatism, but not losing sight of the moral principles one adheres to and wants to further to the degree possible as circumstances permit. US and West German realpolitik vis a vis the Soviet Union never lost sight of American and West German values or its opposition to Soviet values. Netanyahu is doing no such thing vis a vis far right, neo-fascist regimes. His is not realpolitik, it is geteiltepolitik or gemeinsamepolitik:
        shared politics or common politics.
        He is throwing his lot in with them, feting them, celebrating his alliance with them. This is entirely different.

        Reply to Comment
    4. D Smith

      I am not a citizen of Israel, nor am I Jewish. But being a Christian, and learning of what God desires of His people around the world, I strongly side with Mr. Netanyahu on how he is as P.M. of the Jewish state of Israel. I firmly believe God has His hands in much if not all that goes on in this world. He takes the occurrences and changes them for what He desires to be the final outcome before our God of Abraham will send His son Jesus to retrieve His bride just before the last 7 years of this world under man’s rule. I am a Christian from the division of the two beliefs of the Jewish to Christianity and if not for the Jewish people, we would not be here on earth. I am not trying to divide, I am only stating that we came from the belief of the Jews and followed the ones that came when Jesus was on earth, No more to be said. But I am very much in favor of the state of Israel watching and not dividing the nation because I believe God is very much against this land being given to those He did not wish to have. He will stand for Israel come what may. So what is happening now is leading to he very end of mans rule over earth and the Christ coming to rule. I truly pray for the people of Israel daily and am a strong supporter of their nation. May their and my God (same God) watch over and protect all that are for the state of Israel.

      Reply to Comment