Netanyahu’s Escalating Rhetoric Is a Sign He’s Losing It

The prime minister is helpless in the face of the terror wave, the riots in Jerusalem and the impending deal between Iran and the West. All that's left for him to do is issue press statements.

Tomer Appelbaum

Cabinet ministers in the last couple of days have sounded like the aggressive Internet commenters whom President Reuven Rivlin talked about in his speech to the opening of the Knesset’s winter session. Rivlin, perhaps the only responsible person in the national leadership, described how people called him a “traitor” and “Hezbollah’s president” for daring to empathize with Israel’s Arab citizens.

But the ministers who listened to that speech two weeks ago evidently weren’t impressed. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman praised the policemen who shot and killed an Israeli Arab in Kafr Kana for acting “resolutely and effectively” against terrorists. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett termed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “a terrorist in a suit who should be treated accordingly.” And Housing Minister Uri Ariel demanded that “the security forces’ bound hands be untied so they can crush the head of the snake.”

But the prize for extremist aggression goes to the Internet commenter from the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, one Benjamin Netanyahu.

It began Saturday night, when the first task Netanyahu gave new Interior Minister Gilad Erdan was to look into stripping the citizenship of Arab Israelis who acted “against the state” or assaulted policemen. Then, at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he attacked the Israeli left when he told Environment Minister Amir Peretz, “For you guys, if you haven’t evacuated [settlements], you haven’t done anything,” and “For you guys, the only initiative is to jump off a cliff and capitulate.”

But the climax came during Monday’s Likud faction meeting, when Netanyahu said that any Israeli, Jewish or Arab, who “demonstrates in favor of a Palestinian state [in Israel’s place] or calls for Israel’s eradication” should go live in the Palestinian Authority or Gaza Strip. Suddenly the statement by his patron Sheldon Adelson, founder of the Netanyahu mouthpiece Israel Hayom, that it wouldn’t be so terrible if Israel weren’t a democracy, sounded more relevant and frightening than ever.

Netanyahu’s growing extremism illustrates above all that elections are approaching. The prime minister is watching his one electoral asset – his image as someone who knows how to fight terror and deliver quiet – go down the drain. And he understands that in the battle against Lieberman and Bennett for leadership of the right, if you haven’t spoken aggressively, you haven’t done anything.

But politics aside, Netanyahu looks like someone who is genuinely losing it. On one hand, there’s the wave of terror attacks and the worsening security situation in the West Bank; on the other, there’s a genuine intifada in Jerusalem; on the third, there’s growing international isolation; on the fourth, there’s the impending deal between Iran and the West. Netanyahu has no answer for any of these, nor is there anyone he can blame. So all that’s left for him to do is issue press statements.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu’s conduct has increasingly recalled that of his mentor, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Like Shamir, Netanyahu champions the status quo. Like Shamir, he’s been beset by a serious crisis with Washington and a wave of stabbing attacks. And, also like Shamir, he’s liable to find himself out of a job after the next election.