The last thing one can say about Benjamin Netanyahu is that he’s stupid or ignorant about the ways of the world.
Netanyahu has written extensively about the basics of anti-Israeli propaganda. He understands Western public opinion better than most, and he knows what makes it tick. He is well aware of the fact that - with the exception of Donald Trump, the Evangelicals, and right wing nationalists wherever they may be – Israel’s image in the world these days is somewhere between bad and awful.
So you have to ask yourself what might have compelled the prime minister, disguised as a “senior diplomatic source,” to tell reporters accompanying him on a trip to Ukraine that Israel was pursuing a policy of encouraging “voluntary emigration” of Palestinians from Gaza.
What on God’s earth could have driven Netanyahu to play into the hands of Palestinian propaganda and to provide first-hand testimony that supposedly corroborates allegations that Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians have always included and continue to include “ethnic cleansing”?
Netanyahu knows full well that this is how most of the world will interpret his statement. On the one hand, Israel maintains a strict blockade on Gaza, crippling its economy and impoverishing its inhabitants, and with the other it is prodding Palestinians to leave the hellhole that it has created.
Under these circumstances, the difference between the “voluntary emigration” that Netanyahu is touting and the so-called “forced transfer” that extreme right-wingers have been advocating for years is negligible, at best.
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Small wonder that leaders of the ultranationalist right-wing Yamina party, led by Ayelet Shaked, applauded Netanyahu’s initiative, despite their fierce election campaign clashes with Likud.
For Palestinians, on the other hand, the official confirmation of the existence of an Israeli policy encouraging Gazans to leave their homes is “depopulation” under another euphemism, one more link in the long historic chain that began with their national catastrophe, the Nakba.
In most of the world – including large swaths of American public opinion – Netanyahu’s latest statement will be seen as confirmation that he and his government have gone off the deep-right end.
That Israel, as its critics maintain, is not only occupying Palestinians, but humiliating them as well. And that Jerusalem is advancing on several fronts, including Trump’s long-awaited peace plan, in order to realize its dream of annexing as much of the occupied territories as it can.
The timing of Netanyahu’s statement, in the midst of the image crisis created by his refusal to allow Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to enter Israel, adds astonishment to dismay.
At the very same time that Omar, Tlaib and their supporters convened a press conference in the U.S. to tell the world about the evils of Israel and their occupation, Netanyahu himself provides evidence to back their claims.
The immediate explanation, of course, is politics. Netanyahu is courting the ultra-nationalist right in order to siphon votes off from Shaked’s Yamina and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and thus ensure that Likud will emerge as the largest party in the Knesset, with a legitimate claim to the prime ministerial throne.
Given that Netanyahu is not only waging an ideological battle against his rivals on the center left but is desperately seeking an exemption from criminal prosecution, he is apparently willing to sacrifice a few of Israel’s vital interests for the sake of saving his own skin.
But there could be a deeper and more ominous rationale for Netanyahu’s behavior, beyond crass and cynical expediency. Somewhere along the way of Netanyahu’s steady drift to the right in recent years, his growing intolerance for criticism and dissent, escalating personal conflict with the rule of law, dangerous disdain for the fundamentals of democracy, resentful hostility towards liberal values and, of course, a budding bromance with fellow-demagogue Donald Trump – the prime minister may have crossed a Rubicon.
His alienation from Western liberal public opinion is no longer an inevitable consequence of realpolitik, force majeure or internal political calculations, but an end in and of itself.
Even if one concedes that Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump is a strategic asset for Israel in general and for the Israeli right in particular, one might have nonetheless expected Netanyahu to try and mitigate its negative repercussions among Trump’s detractors, who still constitute the overwhelming majority of public opinion in the U.S. and around the world.
Netanyahu could have tried, at the very least, to maintain a delicate balancing act of appeasing Trump without burning Israel’s bridges with liberals, Democrats, minorities, U.S. Jews and most Western European countries.
Instead, Netanyahu often seems hell bent on making a bad situation worse. From the Nation State Law, through reneging on a signed and sealed agreement with Reform and Conservative Jews, embrace of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party in the lead up to the April 9 elections, the flip-flopping debacle over the Tlaib-Omar visit and now the Gaza emigration program – it seems that Netanyahu never sees a fire he doesn’t feel the urge to pour more fuel on.
Judging by his decisions and actions rather than platitudes meant for external consumption, Netanyahu may no longer care for “bipartisan support” in the U.S. Congress or for maintaining open lines of dialogue with Western liberal elites. He has given up on his external critics in much the same way he refuses to engage with his internal opposition. Instead, he labels his detractors as Arab-loving defeatists, if not enemies of the state, and gradually becomes addicted to the hateful opium he peddles to his right-wing masses.
Thus, Netanyahu is embracing Trump, relying on Evangelicals, poisoning relations with U.S. Democrats, thumbing his nose at U.S. Jewry, ignoring Western Europe and cozying up to nationalist rabble-rousers throughout the word with increasingly brazen determination. He is insulating Israel from Western public opinion – and, by extension, from Western values – depicting them as inherently anti-Israel and borderline anti-Semitic.
By doing so, Netanyahu is also legitimizing nightmare right wing fantasies hitherto consigned to the kooky fringe alone, casting Israel as a country under the increasing influence and control of nationalists, xenophobes, zealots, Jewish supremacists and sworn enemies of liberalism and equality per se.
Netanyahu’s strategy may ingratiate him with the White House, pave his way to other right-wing authoritarians from Brasilia to Moscow and cement his support in his religious-right wing base - but it is a risky and destructive approach nonetheless.
Netanyahu is casting Israel’s lot with those who condone its increasingly ethnocentric policies and alienating it from long-time supporters of the country’s liberal democracy. It is an immoral policy in and of itself but also one that could very well cause irreparable damage and, when the tides inevitably turn, ultimately blow up in Israel’s face.
The only good news is that that Netanyahu seems oblivious to the damage he is causing. This may indicate that he knows his time will soon be up. It is his successor, after all, who will be tasked with trying to clean up the mess he made.