Netanyahu Has Won the Battle for the Israeli Psyche

The premier has sought, and found, ways to undermine prospects for peace.

Sefi Rachlevsky
Sefi Rachlevsky
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: AP
Sefi Rachlevsky
Sefi Rachlevsky

Benjamin Netanyahu’s war in Gaza is one of the most successful of Israel’s wars. All its goals were accomplished.

Netanyahu is not Arik Sharon, who worked on Oranim, the plan for changing the region and its leaderships in the 1982 Lebanon War, and when the opportunity came, Israel was dragged into it. Menachem Begin spoke of 40 kilometers when the army was placed 100 kilometers from the border. Netanyahu has no interest in actions like these to change the reality. For two decades, he has been busy changing something that he rightly sees as more important than reality: the Israeli psyche.

Netanyahu has a narrative, a simple story, that he believes in, and he is focused on his legacy to Israelis: “The Arabs, the Palestinians and the Muslims are evil. They want to kill us cruelly. We must not make an agreement with them. We must not give them land because they will use it against us. The left wing has forgotten what it means to be Jewish. The key is that the nation understand that.” Most of Netanyahu’s actions for change in the media, the legal system and the system of government are designed to give this story a controlling role.

Meantime, he appears to have succeeded. When Israel Prize laureate Gila Almagor was forced to take refuge in her home just because she had expressed reservations about the burning alive of an Arab teenager; when the heroes of the center, from Yitzhak Rabin to Amnon Abramovich, are deliberately put under fire; when the polls show that a majority is to the right of Netanyahu; when Dov Lior, an influential rabbi in Israel whom Netanyahu called “the commando that leads the nation of Israel,” orders the destruction of Gaza; when Netanyahu justifies the destruction of 20,000 buildings by speaking of Dresden, and when most of the Israeli public seems to consider us too soft, then the goals of the war in Gaza, the war of the three yeshiva students who were murdered, have been achieved. The psyche of most Israelis seems to have been kidnapped and possessed by a fascist-religious-messianic-racist entity. Netanyahu’s story appears to have won.

To make his story a controlling factor, the prime minister looks for Archimedean points that will blow up the peace talks that he sees as deceptive, as the Israelis blame the blowup of the talks on the evil Arabs. That was what Netanyahu did to sabotage the second Oslo Accords after Rabin was assassinated: He did not fulfill the second and third phases. Not for nothing was Hamas’s winning slogan: "Seven years of talks, nothing; four years of resistance: everything." That was how the demand for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state arose, when he knew perfectly well, as a top Netanyahu adviser testified, that this would destroy the talks with the Palestinians. That was why he focused on not fulfilling the fourth phase of releasing 24 elderly detainees to Abu Mazen. That was why, when the three yeshiva students were murdered, he accepted the proposal of Rabbi Lior, Member of Knesset Orit Strock and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett to violate the agreement with Hamas and arrest those who had been released in the Shalit deal, which ignited the madness that led to the war, proving the statement that nothing must be given to the “evil Arab.”

The pattern is turning Jabotinsky's "iron wall" upside down. While Ben-Gurion built Israel on this thesis — an iron fist for extremists and generosity toward moderates — the government of Netanyahu and the right wing took precisely the opposite approach to extremists and moderates, within and without.

Not for nothing have Likud governments without Labor been the ones to bring Hamas to power. In the early 1980s, the right wing specifically built Hamas against the Palestine Liberation Organization to prevent an agreement. In 2005, a Likud government insisted on withdrawing from Gaza without an agreement with Abu Mazen -- who was well in control of the entire Palestinian Authority -- and while trampling the Arab initiative of 2002 to make peace based on the 1967 borders. Then came the release of 1,027 prisoners for Hamas and nothing for Abu Mazen. One does not need to be a prophet to realize that leaving Gaza the way we did, while hewing to the rule that “only force will work,” would put Hamas in power. That's what happens when the iron wall is turned upside down.

Did the war in Gaza bring about the final victory of the right wing and its settlements? Perhaps. Still, it is too early to give up. If the non-right-wing comes out of its silence and does not give advice to its rivals, a turnabout could still be possible. The majority of Israelis can still choose Almagor over Lior. Most of them still do not want a fascist-religious-racist entity. But for that, another story needs to be told. For that, we need to unite.

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