Ten Reasons Benjamin Netanyahu Was This Week’s Top anti-Zionist

From tarnishing Israel’s image to sowing demoralization and distrust, the prime minister’s machinations are like a BDS dream come true.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, May 15, 2016.
Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, May 15, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

1. An entire brigade of BDS promoters shouting anti-Zionist slogans for a whole year couldn’t tarnish Israel to the degree that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the past few days alone. The many millions of dollars spent in fighting delegitimization can be written off as a loss right now.

Even if you believe, or at least hope, as I do, that Avigdor Lieberman’s bark as a right-wing firebrand will turn out to have been far worse than his bite as an ambitious defense minister, the man has serious image issues, to say the least.

With his appointment, Netanyahu has smeared Israel with Lieberman’s problematic reputation for jingoism, racism and intolerance. Perhaps Lieberman will be perceived differently in the future, but in the meantime the damage is done, and it is hardly insubstantial.

2. With the same stroke, Netanyahu has exacerbated Israel’s already tense ties with the Obama administration. Lieberman’s confrontational statements in the past are raising concerns in Washington about Israeli policies toward the Palestinians while his alleged admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin is sparking suspicion about Israel’s ultimate designs.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon’s deposal removes the main, in fact the only, high-level conduit for the supposedly “special relationship” between the two countries. Ya'alon may have had his altercations with the Obama administration in the past, but he has nonetheless forged close ties with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his successor Ash Carter.

Given that Netanyahu is one of the main reasons for the unprecedented lack of trust between Washington and Jerusalem in the first place, you would think that he would do his utmost to preserve Ya'alon’s unique line of communication. But then he wouldn’t be Netanyahu, would he?

3. Netanyahu has thus damaged not only the diplomatic ties between the two countries; he has potentially harmed Israel’s national security as well. Intimacy between the defense establishments of the two allies is crucial at any time, but it is doubly important when Israel is trying to extract as many concessions as possible for the new Memorandum of Understanding on U.S. aid.

Unless and until he succeeds in earning Washington’s trust, Lieberman will be in no position to negotiate, cajole, seek secret understandings, ask for favors under the table or discreetly agree to cut corners in the same way that Ya'alon could.

4. Netanyahu has undermined public trust in the Israeli Defense Forces in particular and in the overall security establishment in general. In the latest round he sided with the extreme right wing that embraced the soldier who killed an unarmed terrorist in Hebron, thus undermining the army’s efforts to adhere to rules of engagement and to maintain the rule of law.

Netanyahu then repeatedly upbraided Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan for his controversial remarks on Holocaust Remembrance Day, thus declaring a political open season on the army’s No. 2 officer, which instantly translated into a right-wing witch hunt seeking his head.

The subtext of Netanyahu’s refusal to back his army commanders is an expression of no confidence by the political echelon in the army’s generals and an implied allegation that they are delving in politics. This, in fact, has been the prime minister’s standard operating procedure for all of the security chiefs who have worked with him and who have all criticized and confronted him at one point or another.

By impugning their motives, Netanyahu is eroding the public’s trust in those responsible for their security, an ominous trend with potentially dangerous ramifications in a country such as Israel.

5. By ousting Ya'alon, Netanyahu has stunned the army’s top command, which enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect and trust with the defense minister. Ya'alon’s removal means they are no longer protected from the escalating efforts of Netanyahu’s allies on the right to delegitimize and politicize the IDF.

Again, Lieberman may ultimately earn their trust, but for now the generals are suspicious and wary, not the ideal frame of mind for the guardians of your security.

6. Netanyahu diminished the once sacrosanct stature of Israel’s security needs, casting them as political bounty that can be bargained and dispensed with as the prime minister sees fit.

This was also the upshot of the main talking point handed down by the prime minister’s spin doctors to his advocates and front-men in the Likud and the media: everything is politics. Ya'alon doesn’t really care about Israel’s security – he’s just a spoilsport.

He may be a hundred times more qualified and experienced than Lieberman, he may enjoy the respect and the confidence of the army’s top generals, he may speak with authority to defense ministers around the world, but hey, what does all that matter compared to Netanyahu’s survivability and his coalition’s stability? Security, defense, yadda yadda yadda: it’s all bobkes.

7. Netanyahu once again failed to confront the “extremist elements” that Ya'alon said are taking over the country or the “fascist roots” that Ehud Barak claims are taking over his cabinet.

He is steadfastly myopic about the bold writing on Israel’s wall. The prime minister is all fire and brimstone when it comes to half a dozen NGOs that are funded by foreign countries, he is shocked and outraged when reservist soldiers recount their traumas from the occupation, but other than a few mumbled condemnations when he’s had no other choice, he’s done absolutely nothing to counter the ugly and dangerous wave of murderous racism that gains new adherents by the day.

Instead of reining in the radical right, Netanyahu kowtows to it. He may not like analogies to Germany of the 1930s but he might find himself one day being compared to Franz Von Papen or Kurt Von Schleicher, the conservative German chancellors who thought they could rein in the Nazis by coopting them: they were ultimately devoured by the monster they helped create.

And no, the comparison isn’t even close to perfect, but neither is the Iran nuclear deal anything like Munich, Barack Obama like Neville Chamberlain or Yasser Arafat like Adolf Hitler. Or is it only Netanyahu who’s allowed to compare?

8. By his cynical removal of Ya'alon, Netanyahu has further undermined Israelis’ trust in democracy, politics, ideology and fair play.

If Netanyahu can zigzag violently between a moderate coalition with Zionist Camp and a radical-right alliance with Lieberman, what does that say about political convictions? If Ya'alon – a man who has devoted his adult life to Israel’s security and who functioned at least reasonably well, according to most knowledgeable experts – if he can be summarily removed from his post for political expediency, what does that say about justice and fair play? What does it say about the concept of reward for hard work?

What kind of lesson are Israelis supposed to draw from Netanyahu’s willingness to deposit the country’s most sensitive decisions in the hands of a man who has expressed a complete lack of faith in the prime minister’s own character? Or one who may have escaped criminal prosecution – other than for striking a child – but is nonetheless covered by a dark cloud of suspicion?

And what are Israelis supposed to deduce from the legions of respected Likud politicians, who, like Ya'alon, were either ejected by Netanyahu over the years or had the good sense to quit while they were ahead, only to be replaced by far more brutish and far less impressive colleagues? That politics is a profession worth pursuing for people of integrity and quality?

9. Netanyahu alienated and demoralized large swaths of Israelis, as dramatically shown on Friday night television when Channel 2’s military correspondent Roni Daniel – a staunch supporter of the army and harsh critic of its’ critics, a journalist so firmly embedded in the heart of the consensus that his status can be compared to that of Walter Cronkite – said that he no longer knows if he wants his children to grow up in Israel.

As the Talmud says: If the mighty have succumbed, what chance is there for the weak to emerge unscathed? And if he’s lost Roni Daniel, who is Netanyahu left with, exactly?

Instead of reaching out to reassure Israelis who feel increasingly besieged by the direction the country is taking, Netanyahu grows ever more resentful of their reservations. Rather than convincing them that they are not the enemy, he revels in antagonizing and belittling them and stoking their fears. If they’re not ardent supporters, Netanyahu views them as political enemies.

Only ostensibly is he the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, in practice his only loyalty is to those who say amen to his every move. Thus, Netanyahu is sowing demoralization and discontent, to the detriment of Israel’s wellbeing.

10. The only “positive” element of this week’s political melodrama is that it could actually increase mutual understanding between Israelis and Americans, in general, and American Jews, in particular (mainly because they may have been the only ones paying attention).

In his erratic lurches between left and right, in his hitherto inconceivable campaign against the army, in his cynical deposal of a trusted defense minister in favor of one of the most controversial politicians in Israel, in his increasing Louis XIV belief that l’etat c’est moi, in his borderline irrational tampering with Israel’s most vital concerns, Netanyahu has emulated America by creating a widespread sense that things have awry, if not completely crazy.

Between the incredible rise of Donald Trump and the astonishing return of Avigdor Lieberman, nothing seems stable anymore. The earth is moving under our feet.

Forget Sheldon Adelson; perhaps one day Israelis and Americans will wake up to find that it was Vladimir Putin, Trump’s supposed buddy and Lieberman’s alleged mentor, who has been pulling our strings all along.



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