This Is Netanyahu's Dying Israel. Where the Doctor Is the Disease

The rabid incitement against president Rivlin was the worst since the eve of the Rabin murder. But the meaning of Netanyahu's grin was clear: This is not hate speech, it's simply evidence of a healthy democracy

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Ronen Zvulun/AP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Even some of Israel's worst critics will grant that in medical research, cutting-edge trauma and emergency health care, in disaster relief and in a myriad social support incentives by selfless, tireless, endlessly creative and giving and humanist individuals, Israel is a true base for the huge number of terrestrial angels and saving-grace miracle workers who call it their home and their workplace.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Israel itself is dying.

And that this week, it took a turn for the worse.

Don't say you didn't know. You've known for more than 20 years. As I did. As we all did. And you let it happen. As I did. As we all did.

As we all do.

Israel is dying of a disease which no one can do anything about. Because as dangerous, as progressively lethal as the symptoms are, no one can do anything about the real cause, which is the doctor:

Benjamin Netanyahu.

Though they go by many names, we all know the symptoms and signs of the disease. There is the physical, psychological and genetic damage caused by generations of ever-deepening occupation, associated with and exacerbated by creeping annexation, and a behind-the-wall West Bank apartheid which is seeping unchecked into pre-1967 Israel. 

For more than 20 years, Netanyahu the attending healer, the man who more than anyone else could have reversed the illness, has done nothing but made each of the symptoms more damaging and more distant from any proposed cure.

This week, though, he outdid himself.

This week, a barrage of rabid incitement was levelled squarely at President Reuven Rivlin, a level of extreme-right venom that approached the ferocity of the public-arena hate storm which directly preceded – and led to – the 1995 assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

It was Netanyahu's clear responsibility to step in, back Rivlin with unequivocal zeal, and shield the president with the force of his authority and of all the tools of persuasion and law enforcement at his command.

So how did Netanyahu respond? With a smirk.

In 20-plus years of having himself contributed to incitement against Arabs, against leftists and liberals, against Reform and Conservative American Jews, against human rights groups, against asylum seekers and a host of others, this week Benjamin Netanyahu managed to hit a new low.

With a level of schadenfreude so exaggerated as to border on the distinctly cruel, Netanyahu addressed the subject of incitement during a statement to the lawmakers of his ruling Likud party on Monday.

Suddenly, it was clear from Netanyahu's manner that the incitement against Rivlin – much of it stemming from the politicians in that very room – was in the prime minister's view not a danger, not at all, but simply proof of a healthy democracy in action.

Egging on his shock troops, beaming and gloating, his affect broadly, childishly, frighteningly inappropriate, Netanyahu's grin seemed at once to channel both Donald Trump and Alfred E. Newman.

"In a democracy, it's permissible to criticize anyone - who knows that better than I? 

"And not all criticism is incitement."

Then, smooth as oil, without missing a beat, the prime minister's eyes narrowed, weaponized. His tone turned vindictive, cold as a grave.

The overlay of good humor was gone. The head scanned ever-so-slightly side to side, as if readying to squeeze off well-aimed rounds. And this man – who had taken part, if tacitly, in the incitement campaign that murdered Yitzhak Rabin – finally began to condemn incitement. Only, the incitement to which Netanyahu made reference, turned out to be incitement directed mainly against him. "My only request would be that the criticism be substantive and respectful. No kafiyehs, no statues, no hanging nooses, no Nazi uniforms in which we've all been 'dressed' and in which we're still being 'dressed.'"

At issue was Rivlin's rejection of a pardon request by IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, now serving a 14-month sentence for manslaughter following an on-duty incident in the West Bank flashpoint of Hebron.

Film taken of the incident showed Azaria, a combat medic, arriving at the scene of a knife attack. Some ten minutes before, a Palestinian assailant wounded an Israeli soldier, and was then shot. When Azaria arrived, the Palestinian was writhing on the ground, incapacitated and disarmed.

Azaria then handed his helmet to someone at the scene, cocked his assault rifle, and at the range of a few feet, fired a high-velocity bullet into the assailant's skull.

It should be noted – and I note this as a former IDF combat medic – that before receiving his badge as a field medic, Azaria, like all medics, swore an oath to provide care to every wounded person, "im ohev o im oyev" – whether a loved comrade or a bitter enemy.

He further swore that he would administer treatment with respect, and to consider his "actions with understanding, wisdom, and love of humanity."

It should also be noted, that when then-defense minister Moshe Ya'alon and army Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot publicly and immediately condemned Azaria's actions as having violated the army's rules of engagement and having betrayed the sworn duty of a medic, Netanyahu's response was resolute.

He threw the defense minister under the bus.

Within days, as soon as Netanyahu sensed that his hardline base was firmly behind Azaria, the prime minister made a very public show of embracing Azaria's whole family, and viewing Azaria as Every [Jewish] Israeli Mother's Son. And, just to make clear where his loyalties stood, he replaced Ya'alon with a new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who even showed up at Azaria's arrest hearing to show support.   

This is Netanyahu's Israel, a place where there is only room for betrayal on the left. The possibility of betrayal on the right does not exist.

In Netanyahu's Israel, it's more important to signal that you side with your party colleagues as they spew hate-speech against the president, than it is to stand alongside the president.

"I called for a full pardon for Elor Azaria from day one," Netanyahu concluded in his talk with Likud lawmakers on Monday. "My opinion hasn't changed."

This is Netanyahu's Israel, where the doctor is the disease.

Where, when your prospective voters call the president "you filthy Nazi" and a fully-fledged traitor of Israel, and the president only of Arabs and leftists, and a lover of terrorists – all because he failed to pardon Elor Azaria - this is the new expression of Real Israeliness.

Israel crossed a line this week. Then again, of late, Israel crosses a line every week. The list of the disloyal grows by the day. Arabs and leftists and Reform Jews and rights activists have been joined by the chief of police, the Shin Bet, the Supreme Court, the attorney general, and the state comptroller – to name a few.

This is Netanyahu's Israel. Where a quarter to a third of the people stand with their ruler no matter what. No matter what segment of Israeli citizens his party demonizes – as long as it's leftists or Arabs or Reform Jews or Ashkenazim or kibbutznikim or Haaretz readers or Breaking the Silence or B'Tselem or a judge in the army who convicts a potential voter like Elor Azaria.

This is the doctor we've been assigned. This is the cause of our disease.

This is the treatment plan which cannot be changed. This is the entire country which is becoming a hospice. This is the man who is determined to put all of us out of our misery.

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