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Netanyahu’s Shameful Speech: When Holocaust Remembrance Day Becomes a Campaign Event

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at Yad Vashem, yesterday.
Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at Yad Vashem, yesterday.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Here was the prime minister of the State of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, speaking at Yad Vashem on the eve of the country’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, one of the most sacred days on the Israeli national calendar.

On such an occasion, you would expect somberness, solemnity, humility, grace, historical perspective and valuable insight. After all, this is a day in which the entire country remembers the most vile genocide and tragedy in human history. But not when it comes to Mr. Netanyahu.

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For the prime minister, it’s all about him. Always. For him, Holocaust Remembrance Day is just another opportunity to make a political speech, a self-serving tirade. As a bonus encore, just to make things even more politicized, this year’s speech also included a warning to President Joe Biden on Iran.

Israel, Mr. Netanyahu declared, “will not be committed” to a new agreement with Iran, if such an agreement is reached as a result of renewed nuclear negotiations. In Mr. Netanyahu’s world, the year is always 1938, Iran is Nazi Germany, the world is intoxicated with appeasement and he is the improved reincarnation of Winston Churchill.

This view of reality can also explain why, in a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech, Netanyahu also saw fit to mention the establishment of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as his supposed friendship with the CEO of Pfizer, Dr. Albert Bourla. How are these two things related to the memory of the Holocaust?

By mentioning Bourla’s family, Holocaust survivors from Thessaloniki, Greece, Netanyahu wasn’t paying respect to Pfizer’s successful chairman, but rather to himself. In his version of reality, he’s the one who made the vaccinations possible, not Pfizer or Bourla. It’s the same subtext he tried to use during the recent election: If it weren’t for me, Israel would not have received the Pfizer vaccines.

The most convenient way to frame and explain this grandstanding speech would be the peculiar political circumstances Netanyahu is in: His corruption and fraud trial began Monday, and although he was entrusted by the president to try and form a government, his chances of doing so are slim.

On Monday, the day the first witness took the stand in the trial, Netanyahu gave another speech. He lashed out vociferously at the state prosecution, accused it of a coup d’etat and repeated his claim that a vast, “deep state” cabal is out to get him. Both speeches should be bundled together. They represent the stranglehold Netanyahu has on Israel, and the deliberate encroachment on democracy he has masterminded.

The three branches of government are nearly dysfunctional. The Knesset is a weak parliament, subjugated to the government’s whims and control. The government itself is also suppressed and denigrated by a semi-authoritarian prime minister who manages it according to his needs, not according to the requirements of a functioning executive. The judiciary, under constant attacks and intimidation by Netanyahu and his cronies, seems far from being independent.

On top of that, Netanyahu consistently and successfully emasculates the press, harasses the “gatekeepers” into submission, thus weakening the fragile checks and balances of the Israeli system.

Hours before the ceremony on Wednesday, one of his partners for any potential coalition, lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, head of the racist, homophobic Religious Zionism party, said that unless Israeli Arabs accept the Jewish people’s ownership of the Land of Israel, “they won’t stay here.” Netanyahu calls this party his “natural allies,” after relentlessly encouraging them to unite with other far-right forces and imploring voters to vote for them before the election two weeks ago.

It may be true that democracies die in darkness. But in the last five years, and particularly in the last two, Netanyahu – under the threat of a criminal conviction and after failing four times to win a majority – is driving and impelling Israeli democracy to commit spectacular suicide in broad daylight. Netanyahu, whatever judgment history will render on his record, has become an affliction on Israeli democracy.

When he senses an escalating political predicament, Netanyahu will invariably evoke Iran.

“Make no mistake,” Netanyahu proclaimed confidently on the day that the U.S. and Iran were negotiating a resumption of the nuclear deal in Vienna, “an agreement with Iran facilitating its path to nuclear weapons will not obligate Israel at all.”

What does that even mean? Israel is not party to the negotiations. It will not be an official party to the agreement. Israel wasn’t party to the original agreement from 2015. Has Mr. Netanyahu seen the agreement, which does not yet exist? Has he presented a better agreement, as he promised to do since 2015? Does he have any impact or valuable input, or is he admitting that there really is no effective dialogue between Israel and its closest, major ally, the U.S., on this issue?

At a time when the maritime tit-for-tat between Israel and Iran is escalating, when the U.S., Iran and the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal are negotiating a mutual reinstatement, the most callous and imprudent thing to do is to publicly provoke and confront the Biden administration. But instead of engaging Biden in a serious and discreet dialogue, Netanyahu chose another tactic: he made a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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