The long-running police investigations into the affairs of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to cross a Rubicon earlier this month. Netanyahu is under suspicion in a number of cases involving alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust, among other things. A deal has now been reached by the State Prosecutor’s Office for Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, to turn state’s witness—an arrangement rarely agreed to unless a strong case is being built against a more senior and serious criminal actor.
With the likelihood of his being indicted and speculation as to his longevity in office reaching unprecedented levels, Netanyahu struck back. In a support rally convened by his Likud Party, Netanyahu accused “the thought police in the media,” together with the left, and supported by the Palestinians, of conducting an “unprecedented, obsessive witch-hunt campaign” against him and his family. Their goal, he claimed, was to stage “a government overthrow” to topple “the national camp.” Both the style and substance of Netanyahu’s fiery rhetoric should have sounded very familiar to anyone in America not asleep for the past seven months.
That part of his speech was an appeal to his base. But Netanyahu’s lengthy term in office, multiple electoral successes, and ability to hold together a governing coalition in Israel’s rambunctious political system is also predicated on him having a message that resonates with a broader public. It is a sales pitch that Netanyahu repeated at that rally, that he had “brought the state of Israel to the best situation in its history, a rising global force . . . the state of Israel is diplomatically flourishing.” Netanyahu had beaten back what he had called the “fake-news claim” that without a deal with the Palestinians “Israel will be isolated, weakened and abandoned” facing a “diplomatic tsunami.”
Difficult though it is for his political detractors to acknowledge, Netanyahu’s claim resonates with the public because it reflects something that is real, and that has shifted the center of gravity of Israeli politics further and further to the right. It is a claim that if correct and replicable over time will leave a legacy that lasts well beyond Netanyahu’s premiership and any indictment he might face.
Netanyahu’s assertion is that he is not merely buying time in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians to improve the terms of an eventual and inevitable compromise. Netanyahu is laying claim to something different—the possibility of ultimate victory, the permanent and definitive defeat of the Palestinians, their national and collective goals.
In over a decade as prime minister, Netanyahu has consistently and unequivocally rejected any plans or practical steps that even begin to address Palestinian aspirations. Netanyahu is all about perpetuating and exacerbating the conflict, not about managing it, let alone resolving it. He seeks out long-neglected scars to poke anew and hones in on what appears most existentially angst-ridden. It has been left to others—ministers, Knesset members and local leaders in Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, and from his governing coalition partners, to articulate the end game in a more open fashion. Their message is clear: there will be no Palestinian state because the West Bank and East Jerusalem are simply Greater Israel.
The approach overturns assumptions that have guided peace efforts and American policy for over a quarter of a century: that Israel has no alternative to an eventual territorial withdrawal and acceptance of something sufficiently resembling an independent sovereign Palestinian state broadly along the 1967 lines. It challenges the presumption that the permanent denial of such an outcome is incompatible with how Israel and Israelis perceive themselves as being a democracy. Additionally, it challenges the peace-effort supposition that this denial would in any way be unacceptable to the key allies on which Israel depends—from Jewish diaspora communities and their political support, to America and its military guarantees, to Europe as Israel’s largest trading partner—and is therefore incompatible with Israel’s positioning of itself as an integrated, open and global trading nation.
After years of failure, those peace-process assumptions have begun to look corroded anyway. Thus, Bibi has gone for the jugular. Earlier in his premiership, Netanyahu nibbled at the edges of this Oslo paradigm, sensing that the consensus achieved internationally was not replicated at home in Israel. Over time, Netanyahu became convinced he could reshape the paradigm. Developments worked in his favor—both those of his making, for which he could claim credit, and those that were out of his control but in sync with the new zeitgeist he was pushing. We have, or so it seems, now entered the phase in which Netanyahu wants to own the new paradigm and to claim victory.
The way in which the Palestinian cause continues to be framed, as one of national liberation, an anti-colonial struggle, appears to have less purchase around the world with a new generation of leaders and publics than it did in the past. On a more practical level, the Non-Aligned Movement (with its commitment to self-determination) containing the majority of the world’s sovereign states, is no longer the significant organizing political vector for those states that it once was. These global historical dynamics are not of Netanyahu’s making, but Israel’s prime minister has seized the moment to advance Israel’s global relations (particularly in Africa and Asia), effectively deploying Israel’s assets in the security, intelligence, cyber and technology fields, as well as the ability to cajole others via the close relationship to the United States and sometimes in an irresponsible way by fuelling perceptions of global Jewish power.