Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure from office has made many people happy because of the damage he wrought to the state and Israeli society in so many respects. Some of the damage can be examined by analyzing four of his more memorable sayings, which, to put it mildly, were outright lies.
On March 17, 2015, Israelis went to the polls. Netanyahu, supposedly concerned about a low Jewish turnout, issued an emotional appeal to his followers to go out and vote in order to “dilute” a high Arab voter turnout. His call encapsulated his persistent delegitimization of Israel’s Arab citizens (some 20% of the population), which peaked with the 2018 Nationality Law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, without reference to equality for all its citizens enshrined in its Declaration of Independence.
However, the results of the 2021 elections forced Netanyahu to recalibrate his course – the only way he could achieve a 61-seat Knesset majority was to include Arab lawmakers in his coalition. With the end justifying all means, Netanyahu set out to woo Ra’am, the party representing the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic movement.
His seal of approval eventually served his rivals. Whereas the head of the centrist Blue and White party – now Defense Minister – Benny Gantz forfeited his opportunity to form a government in 2020 because he feared the inclusion of Arab parties would undermine his party’s Jewish support, Ra’am is now a partner in the new, post-Netanyahu government. The significance and importance of this historic move in terms of Jewish-Arab relations cannot be understated, especially given its timing following riots in mixed Jewish-Arab towns.
With one 1997 hot-mic whisper into the ear of kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, Netanyahu killed two birds – delegitimizing both Arabs and leftists. Netanyahu waged a persistent campaign of incitement against the political Left, although it started before his term, as reflected in Knesset and media comments in the days of his predecessors, Begin and Shamir.
The term “nationalist camp,” which the Right uses to describe itself, embodies delegitimization of all other political views as being beyond the “national” pale. Netanyahu did to the Left what the Left, or actually David Ben-Gurion, did to the Right when he coined the phrase “without Herut and Maki,” delegitimizing Begin’s then-radical right and the extreme left Communist party.
NETANYAHU’S STIGMA against the political Left as a legitimate partner in his governments expanded quickly to include parties in the ideological center (Blue and White, Yesh Atid), and even some on the Right (Yamina, New Hope). In other words, under Netanyahu, “the Left” became a pejorative code word for anyone who was not “one of us.” The new government, which spans the political spectrum from right to left, to a large extent is rehabilitating the parties of the Left.
Netanyahu made this comment in February 2016, while surveying the security fence being built along the border with Jordan. It was reminiscent of the expression coined by former prime minister Ehud Barak, describing Israel as a “villa in the jungle.” To a large extent, this term reflects both men’s perception of Israel’s place in the Middle East. In many respects, it also echoes Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s 1920s concept of the “Iron Wall” which should separate the Jews from their Arab neighbors.
However, the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain illustrated that the Middle East is comprised not only of “wild animals” but also of friendly countries in the region. What is more, an examination of Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East since the Arab Spring illustrates that the patronizing perception of an isolated “villa” is not the prism through which Israel views the Middle East. The behind-the-scenes intelligence and security cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, most Gulf States, Morocco, as well as others in the region proves that not only is Israel not an isolated villa, it maneuvers adroitly around a region most of which is not a jungle. In general, such generalizations and demonization must be rejected categorically.
When the first official Israeli delegation left for Bahrain on October 18, 2020, Netanyahu credited the policy that he had long espoused of “Peace in return for peace, economy in return for economy” for the breakthrough with the Arab world. The “peace for peace” doctrine that Netanyahu has promoted is factually false because all the peace agreements, perhaps barring the one with Bahrain, were achieved in return for some form of payment by Israel and/or the US. What is more, they were accomplished by diverting attention from the truly important issue of relations with the Palestinians.
In other words, the peace with Arab states on Israel’s periphery was designed to divert attention from the core issues of Palestinian statehood and Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and of the settlement enterprise. The latest operation in Gaza and the violence in Jerusalem and in mixed Jewish-Arab towns provided a reminder to anyone who needed it of where the real and acute problems lay. These are the real problems that Netanyahu tried to blur, bury and silence – successfully so, to a large extent.
Just like all propaganda, the relentless preaching by Netanyahu and others on the Right regarding these issues belies reality. Netanyahu’s changing views and policies over the years – for example, regarding Israel’s Arab citizens, his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech on the two-state solution and the signing of the normalization agreements – only serve to highlight his opportunistic use of political rhetoric for short-term goals, placing his true beliefs in doubt.
It is incumbent on the new government, which consists of the Right and the Left, Jews and Arabs, to uproot this imagery and revert to a dignified discourse that does not delegitimize political rivals.
*The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 1 July 2021