For a few hours last 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 country’s 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-turned-peacemaker 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 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 second-class 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