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Netanyahu represents the bottleneck that is choking Israeli politics

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Reuters)
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28 Jan 2024 02:01:05 GMT9
28 Jan 2024 02:01:05 GMT9

Most of the time, I am perplexed not only when I try to understand what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes in anymore or what he stands for, but also whether he himself can figure out this conundrum.

It is no secret that his first priority is to cling to power for as long as possible, or at least until he can derail his corruption trial. His second priority is that Netanyahu mainly believes in … well, Netanyahu.

But is there anything else that still motivates him? Probably not much, which means that each additional day he spends in the prime minister’s office threatens Israel’s ability to assess its strategic interests rationally and logically, and to resolve the country’s deepening social divisions, and as a result he has also become detrimental to regional security.

Let us be absolutely clear about two things. Firstly, Netanyahu’s career is nearing an end — and at a rapid pace.

This longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, nearly 17 years in total, who has survived many failures and scandals along the way and can claim very few notable successes, cannot and should not remain in office following the attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7, which was the most catastrophic single day in the country’s history. The manner in which he is handling the war against Hamas has exposed his lack of strategic thinking, and demonstrated that he is guided only by narrow political calculations.

Secondly, his removal from office — and it should be clearly emphasized that this must only be through democratic means — will not be a magic wand that resolves all of the challenges Israel currently faces at home and abroad. But it will be a very good place to start.

To begin with, Netanyahu has a … “special” relationship with the truth. To put it bluntly, during his long political career facts have been used — or rather, mostly misused — to serve whatever his political and personal interests happened to be at the time, to the extent that this has even landed him with indictments in three corruption cases.

Had he only heeded the observation of US President Abraham Lincoln, who said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But you can never fool all of the people all of the time,” he would have saved himself, and more importantly his country, from the current turbulent times both are currently enduring.

One recent example of his trait of being evasive and economical with the truth is his approach to the two-state solution. Most recently, in a tweet, he rejected the idea of an independent and viable Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel along the lines of the pre-1967 borders, declaring: “I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over all the territory west of Jordan … and this is contrary to a Palestinian state.”

However, it was reported that only a day earlier, during a telephone call with US President Joe Biden, he had refused to entirely rule out the establishment of a Palestinian state.

This is not a one-off example of Netanyahu’s convenient indecisiveness but a typical piece of flip-flopping by someone who has been spinning like a weather vane throughout his political career, and never more so than on the most important issue for Israel’s future: its relations with the Palestinians.

His first priority is to cling to power for as long as possible, or at least until he can derail his corruption trial.

Yossi Mekelberg

He was propelled to his first term as a prime minister in 1996 on the wave of his venomous attacks on the Oslo Accords. But when he returned to power in 2009 he expressed his support for a Palestinian state, mainly to please Washington during the Obama years, in what has become known as his Bar-Illan speech, named after the university at which it was delivered, only to spend most of his time in office since then derailing this proposal and even toying with annexing parts of the West Bank.

During such a long political career, adjustments to and adaptations of policies to reflect changing circumstances are to be expected; in Netanyahu’s case, however, the only changes that have ever mattered to him have been those in his political and personal fortunes.

Any adjustments he made were usually to placate his coalition partners, who always knew his greed for power would result in his governing with no consistent guiding principles or strategic objectives.

It might have been naive to expect that the catastrophe that befell Israel on Oct. 7 might reveal a more thoughtful, reflective and strategically forward-looking Netanyahu. Certainly, nothing changed. Nada, absolutely zilch.

After the initial shock, he reverted to his default position of refusing to take any responsibility, leaving others in the security establishment to do that, while presiding over a war in which the Israeli army is stuck in the Gazan quagmire, losing soldiers every day and already accused of war crimes.

Furthermore, the country is losing the near-universal support it received in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks; much of that sympathy has switched to the innocent Palestinian victims of this conflict, who in their many thousands represent the vast majority of those paying the price of this war.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s promise to destroy Hamas has not only proved to be costly but also illusory. This leaves the war with Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants open-ended, and without an immediate ceasefire there is a real danger that Israel will remain in Gaza for a very long time, repeating the same mistakes it made more than 40 years ago in Lebanon.

This time, though, the Israelis are dealing with a much more radicalized population, while also risking confrontations on other fronts, including in the occupied West Bank and with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Not to mention the fact they are being blamed by the international community for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza and the growing regional instability as a result.

Netanyahu is the one who got Israel into this mess, as he was instrumental in strengthening Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to prevent a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. He then weakened Israel by forming an ultra-right-wing government and attacking his own nation’s democratic system while viciously inciting against those who supported it.

To repair the social divisions Netanyahu and his sycophants have created at home, and to rebuild relations with the Palestinians and ease the frictions with the international community caused by the war in Gaza, will require new leadership and fresh discourse, beginning with a national reconciliation that includes the country’s minority groups and an agenda for peace with the Palestinians.

This cannot happen as long as Netanyahu leads the country. Without bringing down the curtain on his political career, Israel will remain under the spell of his toxic, directionless and dangerous leadership — and it cannot afford that any longer.

• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House.
X: @YMekelberg

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