All those who understand that the national disgrace of Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinian people is the country’s fundamental existential issue will find it hard not to agree with Gideon Levy, who marvels that while the military oppression and settler terror reach new heights daily, the only issue dividing Israel is Benjamin Netanyahu’s possible return to power. Indeed, there could be no political spectacle more anomalous than Meretz being part of an essentially right-wing government, at the cost of ceding its most basic principles, solely to block the Netanyahu family from moving back in to the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street.
But given the near-total and remarkably obsessive centrality of the “Netanyahu question” on the Israeli political agenda, we need to admit that the only hope of normalizing the Israeli political scene – and thus restoring the Israel/Palestine question to the center of Israeli political discourse – is to get Netanyahu out of the country’s political life.
Even Netanyahu’s fiercest ideological opponents have to acknowledge that he is a leader of historic stature who left and continues to leave a permanent mark on the country’s history. Early in his political career, he made an indirect but very key contribution, one with vast historic impact, to the elimination of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process when he oversaw the unbridled incitement campaign against Yitzhak Rabin, which culminated in his assassination. Subsequently, with extraordinary ideological consistency and political skill, Netanyahu also managed to almost completely erase the Palestinian issue not only from the Israeli agenda, but from the international agenda.
At the same time, by employing cynical, false and demagogic (but utterly brilliant) rhetoric, Netanyahu – the son of an Asheknazi professor from Cornell University – succeeded in fostering an image of himself as a victim of the Ashkenazi elites, thereby winning over a large portion of Mizrahi voters, descendants of true victims of Orientalist discrimination, for whom the memory of their racist exclusion from the Euro-centric establishment in the country’s early decades still reverberates strongly.
And since wide swaths of this public are drawn to zealous Jewish nationalism and Arab-hatred, due to complex historical circumstances that we shall not get into here, Netanyahu’s all-out war against the peace process boosted his popularity with them. This is how the link was created between the divisive nationalist discourse and divisive identity-based discourse, a link that spawned the authentic, populist-social, fascistic movement in Israel today, appropriately called “Bibi-ism” – a movement with a vast number of Jewish Israeli adherents from a variety of ethnicities.
As the blind admiration for the successful populist leader continued to expand, Netanyahu increasingly adopted the habits and conduct of an unrestrained autocrat. And since, in a nation of laws in which the first safeguards against a nascent dictator are to be found in the courts and the law enforcement system, it’s only natural that Netanyahu and the Bibi-ist movement launched a frontal attack on these institutions. And this offensive naturally sparked a counter-reaction from those citizens for whom the institutions that protect against tyranny are important, so in recent years a widespread internal Israeli battle has been raging between those who believe the state is meant to serve the revered leader and those who believe the state is meant to serve its citizens.
Levy rightly considers Netanyahu to be a great, beloved populist leader and also rightly refuses to downplay his image and his accomplishments. But precisely because we are talking about a historic figure who has played a formative role and has profoundly influenced all areas of Israeli life, the significance of the civil protest against this figure and his impact should not be minimized either. The all-out nature of the “Anyone But Bibi” movement is a natural consequence of the all-out nature of the “Only Bibi” movement. This totality, which derives from Netanyahu’s powerful presence in Israeli society and politics, leaves no room for any other social or political issue aside from the issue of what Netanyahu’s place will be in Israel’s near political future.
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Both Palestinian and Jewish opponents of Israeli occupation and apartheid must, therefore, recognize the current reality. From a principled ideological perspective, they should continue to insist that it is not the “Netanyahu question” but rather the question of the occupation and apartheid that is the truly important issue in terms of this country’s future. But from a realistic political perspective, they must also recognize that in the current unusual, absurd political circumstances that have arisen in Israel, and given Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic importance, which overshadows all of the country’s truly existential issues – the basic and necessary condition for returning the Palestine issue to the center of the public and political debate in Israel is to banish Netanyahu into the political wilderness once and for all.