Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave doubters six hours of surprising bliss on Monday. Between four and eleven PM, he turned into a seasoned statesman, a prime minister for all Israelis. American Jews were relieved and Western diplomats praised his wisdom while rival politicians and hostile pundits praised the prime minister for achieving an agreement with the UN that would settle the problem of foreign workers. Only Netanyahu can, they said.
The joy swept opponents of the Israeli government’s deportation plan but also those who aren’t all that interested in the fate of the 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers. The shock announcement of an honorable and reasonable agreement with the United Nations was like a sudden ray of light in the darkness of Israel’s right-wing and ultra-nationalist government, which looks to Donald Trump as its role model.
The accolades were fervent enough to erase the years of incitement and deception that Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party have employed in their battle against the foreign workers. In the end he did the right thing, his defenders enthused, and that’s all that counts.
The press conference the prime minister convened together with Interior Minister Arye Deri showed Netanyahu not as he is, but as he might have been: A prime minister who distinguishes between slogan and reality, who acknowledges Jewish and international public opinion, who is willing to collaborate with international organizations such as the UN and who can take hard decisions that are unpopular with his voters. A clear-eyed statesman, who realizes that the damage to Israel’s good name is compounded by the fact that many, especially American Jews, cannot repress the image of a white Jewish state consigning black African migrants to an uncertain future. A leader who may not be driven by concepts of justice or morality, but when push comes to shove will do right by the country he leads.
What a joke. What a farce. Even if the evaporation of the illusion was expected, its rapid pace was almost slapstick. Netanyahu jumped head first off a pedestal of sound and sensible policy into his more familiar cesspool of division and strife.
Before anyone had time to find out who does what in the agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Netanyahu carried out one of the more stunning turnarounds in Israeli political history. Not only did he suspend and later cancel a supposedly bad agreement that he had described hours earlier as the best of all worlds, but he immediately reverted to slinging dirt and mud, as is his wont, on the New Israel Fund and other villains.
Besides the shock to the foreign workers themselves, Netanyahu’s vacillation turned a bad PR situation for Israel into a full-blown disaster. His dramatic press conference focused international attention on an issue that had hitherto been marginal, but the renewed concentration turned into shock and consternation when it turned out, after a few hours, that it had all been for show.
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Netanyahu’s base had reared its head and roared. The world found out that while many countries are facing the challenge of absorbing millions, right-wing, Jewish Israel couldn’t even cope with 20,000. As in other cases, including this weekend’s bloodshed in Gaza, an internal debate that sounds reasonable and acceptable to Israeli ears comes across to others as cold, condescending and, often, downright racist.
But the most damage Netanyahu inflicted was on himself. Among the left he simply exacerbated an existing resentment, but among the general public, including the right, he was seen as weak, cowardly, easily compelled to change his ways and slightly hysterical.
Ever since he signed the historic Wye River peace deal twenty years ago but immediately changed his mind because the right-wing objected, Netanyahu has proven time and again that fear is his guidebook, incitement his weapon of choice, the electoral base is God, and personal is the ultimate raison d'etre.
His distress with the myriad criminal investigations against him may have influenced his mercurial about-face during the past 24 hours, but in the end it’s the same bad old Netanyahu, a cold and cynical manipulator that everyone, including his voters, know all too well, one who has nonetheless ruled Israel for what’s beginning to seem like forever.