Stephen Daisley

Netanyahu’s desperate bid to cling to power

Netanyahu's desperate bid to cling to power
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He struck at dawn, 25 years ago this week. As Jews marked Purim and Muslims Ramadan, Baruch Goldstein walked unchallenged into Yitzhak Hall in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Here the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people are buried and here Muslims worship in what they call the Ibrahimi Mosque. Surveying the Muslims praying the Fajr, Goldstein opened fire, emptying his Israeli-made Galil of three and a half magazines in two minutes, a rate of almost one round per second. When his rifle jammed on bullet number 112, the Palestinians took their chance and overpowered the gunman, beating him to death with a fire extinguisher. Twenty-nine Palestinians lay dead and their murderer a few feet away. 

The Goldstein massacre is reviled in Israel as the worst act of Jewish terrorism since modern statehood. The killings and the deadly riots that followed underscored the wages of indulging or ignoring extremism within the settlement movement. Goldstein, an emergency room doctor from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, had been a member of the Jewish Defence League terror group and the Jewish supremacist Kach party, founded by far-right rabbi Meir Kahane and proscribed following the 1994 slayings. Both Goldstein and Kahane (who was assassinated in 1990) have retained a following on the outer fringes of Israel’s radical right but are held in contempt even by most hardliners. 

Benjamin Netanyahu has disturbed their obsolescence by cutting a deal that could bring a thinly-veiled successor party to Kach back into the Knesset. Ten years into his second stretch as prime minister and dogged by corruption allegations, Bibi heads into elections on April 9 facing the first credible challenge to his premiership in a decade. Three former chiefs of staff of the IDF (Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon) have joined up with ex-TV personality Yair Lapid to form the Blue and White alliance, a centre-left coalition with only one real policy: get rid of Bibi. Polls put Blue and White ahead of Likud though Netanyahu has a knack for snatching last-minute victories. The generals might have decades on the battlefield but Bibi fights in the gutter. 

Netanyahu has fallen back on familiar themes. His new opponents are (as always) leftists. They will do a deal with the anti-Zionist Arab parties. Only ‘Likud gadol’ (a big Likud) can keep Israel secure. However, this time he has gone further than even his most pungent detractors expected by convincing some of the smaller, national-religious parties to run on a joint list with Otzma Yehudit (‘Jewish Power’) to prevent the right-wing vote splintering as happened in 1992. Otzma is no ordinary nationalist party. Founded as Otzma Leyisrael (‘Strength to Israel’) in 2012, the faction is openly anti-Arab and racist. Leader Michael Ben-Ari has called himself ‘Kahane’s student and follower’, advocated a population transfer of Arabs out of Israel and has been banned from entering the United States. A serial antagoniser of race relations in south Tel Aviv, he broke into a chant of ‘Sudanese, go back to Sudan’ during one speech. He told a rally during Operation Pillar of Defence: ‘There are no innocents in Gaza. Let the IDF kick ass. Why is it after 200 assaults only 15 were killed? It should be 15 assaults and 2,000 killed.’ Ben-Ari’s top team is even more extreme than him. Far-right activist Baruch Marzel holds celebrations at Baruch Goldstein’s grave; attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir has a picture of Goldstein hanging in his home. Tel Aviv based newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth describes Otzma as ‘a dynasty of racism and provocation’. The American Jewish Committee and AIPAC have denounced what the latter called ‘this racist and reprehensible party’. Opposition parties are staging an eleventh-hour bid to have it banned before polling day. 

Leftists are scandalised by Netanyahu’s decision to lift this particular rock but their criticism is diluted by 20 years of Bibisteria. Decry fascism in a right-of-centre politician’s every pronouncement for two decades and don’t be surprised if one day you are suspected of crying wolf. The criticism of his fellow right-wingers would carry more moral force but there has been a muted response from the national camp. Naftali Bennett, chairman of the nationalist Yamin Hadash party, says ‘Kahane’s people are not fit to sit in the Knesset’ but for most in the Likud, Bibi’s deal with the demagogues is the price of doing business. Thus has the national-liberal tradition of Jabotinsky, Begin and Shamir — the latter of whom led the boycott of Kahane in the Knesset, branding him a ‘dangerous character’ — given way to the party of Netanyahu, a consolidation of self-interest and moral abdication. 

Bibi’s electoral success is built on fear tactics and sectionalism but he has until now been gifted a dream foil in a disorganised and divided Israeli left, one hooked on the opium of Oslo and making endless concessions to a Palestinian leadership that no longer comes to the table to walk away from it. These charges are harder to level at generals but level them Bibi will. His latest attack ad ends with the coda: ‘Lapid and Gantz: Left. Weak.’ Weakness troubles Netanyahu. His biographer Anshel Pfeffer avers that Bibi inherited his father’s ‘deep disdain for what he sees as an inherent weakness in the Jewish character’. By which he means the character of other Jews, not himself. 

Left? Weak? This from the ideologue who once declared ‘Jordan is a Palestinian state’ then became the prime minister who spoke the words of the Bar Ilan speech. The first-term premier who assured the settlers ‘You can trust me on Hebron’, then pulled the IDF out of 80 per cent of the city and handed it to the PLO. Ariel Sharon’s foreign minister who called his leader’s disengagement from Gaza ‘Sharon’s surrender plan’ then voted for it four times before belatedly resigning. The tough guy who grovelled to Erdogan over the Mavi Marmara. The settlers’ champion who has presided over less building in Judea and Samaria than any prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin.

This is the man who hopes to cling to power by tagging his opponents as weak. Whether he should is a matter for Israelis, but his Kahanist gambit does not project the foresight and intellectual brawn he imagines to be his defining qualities. It shows that he’s finally running scared of the centre-left and, worse, the voters.