Mar 23rd 2015

Naked Bibi

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
In the lead up to Israel's March 17th election, Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, fearful that he might lose his reelection bid, threw caution to the wind making blatant appeals to scare voters into returning him to office. He did so not caring who he alienated or what might be the consequences of his behavior. I have always argued that in the animal kingdom there is no creature more dangerous than a panicking politician and, in the last few days, Bibi was one such creature.   

The day before votes were cast, Netanyahu gave a series of interviews to friendly media outlets developing themes that preyed on Israeli fears: of Palestinians, of "foreign conspiracies", and of Israel's own Arab citizens. He charged, for example, that if his opponents won they would submit to the pressures of the international community leading to the creation of "Hamastan B" in Jerusalem. In another interview he said, "...anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian State and evacuate territory, gives territory away to radical Islamists". And when asked if that meant he was backing away from his 2009 pledge to support a two-state solution, Netanyahu responded "Indeed".

He further charged that "the governments of Western Europe...are funding the campaign that is designed to oust me from power".  And he claimed that "there is a massive effort, with tens of millions of dollars...to mobilize the Arab vote...to support Herzog...it's a massive effort...some governments are involved". 

He tied many of these themes together by race-baiting Israel's Arab citizens warning that "[if Labor wins] Herzog and Livni will become the prime ministers...with the backing of the Arabs...causing a monumental shift in policy that will endanger the security of Israel". And on the day of the election, in a final panicked appeal to supporters, he warned "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them in".  

This was the honest Netanyahu, stripped of any veneer—not the one who once feigned support for peace or who begrudgingly pledged support for the idea of a Palestinian State. And this was the Bibi who won.

This was the same Netanyahu who once greeted the Oslo Accords with a campaign to discredit Yitzak Rabin in Israel and by teaming up with Newt Gingrich (then Republican Speaker of the Congress) to stymie the Clinton Administration's efforts in Washington. This was the Netanyahu who was elected in 1996 on a platform committed to ending Oslo, and then acted on his commitment by, in effect, burying the peace process. And this was the same Netanyahu who, when pressured by the West, presented himself as a leader who wanted nothing more than peace, while he pursued policies that only further humiliated and provoked Palestinians, at the same time weakening and discrediting their leadership.

But Netanyahu is also a wily maneuverer. When pressed by President Clinton to sign an agreement with the Palestinians, he did. Upon returning to Israel, however, he did nothing to implement that agreement and, in fact, acted to sabotage it. Similarly, when he was pressed by President Obama, he stated his support for a "two-state solution", but then added caveats that made mockery of this support.

In his last two governments, Netanyahu sought to hide his naked contempt for peace by adding to his coalition individuals who could provide political cover. Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni were known figures in the West, and Netanyahu cleverly used them to shield his government from criticism, while he aggressively pursued his anti-peace, settlement expansion agenda.

Now the cover is gone and Bibi stands naked before the world. He made clear his rejection of the two state solution and his contempt for the Arab citizens of Israel. And he won.

Now Netanyahu must govern. He has just enough votes on the far right to form a coalition government that can pursue his anti-peace, anti-Arab agenda. His coalition will include Avigdor Lieberman who recently said that Israel "needs to pick up an axe and cut off the head" of any Israeli Arab "who is against us", and Naftali Bennett who said that Palestinians were like "shrapnel in your rear end" and pledged that "I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state". 

Netanyahu knows that this collection of like-minded bigots will only damage Israel's relations with the West. And so just a few days ago, when faced with international outrage over his pre-election comments, Netanyahu once again attempted to cover his nakedness by denying that he had actually backed away from support for a two-state solution. What he may also do in an effort to hide his government's racism is to lure one of the opposition parties into his coalition in order to give his government the veneer of respectability. He will make emotional appeals to national unity and call on his would-be "partners" to do their patriotic duty by joining with him to face the grave threats confronting their country. The question is will any of them fall for such a transparent ploy and agree to serve as Bibi's newest stooge.

Looking at the polls in Israel, it was clear that the center-left never had much hope of forming a stable government. In the best case scenario, they could have only secured the 61+ seats they needed by relying on the strength of the Arab's Joint List. This would have left them open to the same racist charge that Netanyahu and Sharon used against Rabin in 1993—that his decisions never had the support of a "Jewish majority". This paralyzed Rabin and would likely have had the same impact on Herzog and Livni, neither of whom would have had the strength to take on the militant far-right and the massive armed settler movement.

The bottom line is that Israelis succumbed to Bibi's race-baiting and fear-mongering and elected the government they wanted. It is as if George Wallace had won the US Presidency in 1972. The mask is off. The "peace process" is dead. What will the West do in response? Will they buy Bibi's act one more time, or will they call his bluff and use the pressure they have long been hesitant to use? Captive Palestinians losing all hope while living under a brutal and humiliating occupation will not wait long for an answer.      

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