Following Netanyahu’s Facebook video on September 9th, in which he dubbed as ethnic cleansing any attempt to remove Israeli settlements from the West Bank, he received thousands of likes and much commentary in the media. Pundits tried to guess what had motivated Netanyahu to make a video so surreal and irrational, in which he lashed out against the whole world, a world that opposes the occupation and settlements and views them as a crime against humanity. The problem is that the commentators and journalists are unable to ask the person elected by the public what motivated him. Netanyahu recently invited some of them to closed, private meetings, “briefed” them, but refused to answers questions or give interviews. On the other hand he acts as if he’s an ordinary citizen who shares his thoughts on social media, as implied at the end of the video – “It’s about time someone said it. I just did.”
What’s interesting in this affair isn’t the bizarre theory proposed by the prime minister, but the fact that the surreal has now become the norm. Wild imagination blurs reality, and Israeli society has lost its moral compass and conscience. Some think that the rise of Yair Lapid in recent polls pushed Netanyahu to try to win over the public by using blunt statements that enrage the American administration and other Western countries. Perhaps this is true, but if you look around the corner, it seems that Netanyahu is not alone. His actions are not dissimilar to those of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and, to a certain extent, Vladimir Putin and Rajab Tayyip Erdogan. Trump managed to hijack the Republican Party by lies and racist statements which, in normal times, would cause politicians to disappear from the political stage. Boris Johnson led the UK to exit the EU. Johnson then regretted his actions and currently serves as foreign minister.
Hostility towards the media is not unique to Netanyahu. Attacks on major newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times only help Trump to boost his ratings in the polls. As long as Yediot Aharonot and Haaretz continue attacking him, Netanyahu is seen as a “victim,” which results in a surge of public support and sympathy. People like Trump and Netanyahu have ousted the molders of public opinion, those who crown and depose presidents and prime ministers, and made them irrelevant. Orderly arguments and polished language are losing their power. Derogatory expressions such as ‘niggers’, ‘Mexicans’, ‘Arabs’, ‘Muslims’, ‘terrorists’, ‘thieves’, and ‘rapists’ are more effective. Hollow phrases like “We will return America to greatness”, or playing “the British way of life” card fit well with the “Jewish people have a right to the Land of Israel,” “The whole world is against us,” and “Jewish pride.”
Anyone who thinks that Netanyahu is addressing the Israeli public in his video in English is only half right. The conclusions of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump along with those of the nationalist right in Europe are the basis for the propaganda of the Israeli right throughout the world. Many Trump supporters easily connect to Netanyahu’s message, even more than most Israelis.
Trump is building his campaign on the ignorance of voters. Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables” because they are ready to buy any argument that includes hatred and loathing of the liberal establishment. What goes in America also goes well in Israel. Instead of ‘blacks’, we say ‘Palestinians’, rather than ‘Mexican’, we say ‘Sudanese’, instead of ‘migrants’ we mutter ‘infiltrators’, and the main thing is never to stop attacking the “hostile” press and thereby soar in the polls.
The similarity between Netanyahu’s positions and the views of the representatives of the extreme right in Europe and the US does not reflect the similarities between the socio/political conditions that give rise to nationalist extremism there and here. In 2008, the US and the UK experienced an extremely difficult economic recession that left millions of workers unemployed and millions without homes. Politicians have failed to remedy the situation and, in the intervening years, the rich became richer and the poor sank into deeper despair and humiliation. Trump builds on disgust with the political establishment and, despite receiving the public’s confidence, proposes nothing to improve the state of affairs.
Israel did not undergo such a crisis: there was no mass unemployment; Israelis didn’t lose their homes and even if the cost of living affected workers’ welfare, the rich enjoy their wealth and politicians think only about their own narrow interests at the public’s expense. What harries Israelis is the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, attacks that erupt periodically and the rounds of wars that take Israeli lives. The failure to resolve the Palestinian problem is what fuels racism. Hatred of Arabs deepens the conflict between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, between the old and the new elites.
The timing of Netanyahu’s video is not necessarily connected to recent polls or ongoing investigations against him and his family. The video reflects the confidence and arrogance of someone who says to the world, “I despise you! Although in the past I committed myself to a two-state solution, now I can afford to be ‘myself’ and bury the idea of a Palestinian state in a donkey’s burial (Jeremiah 22:19). The wave of attacks has passed, the Occupation has become a way of life. The world is busy with the Islamic State (ISIS), Syrian refugees flooding Europe, the nuclear activities of North Korea, and the Chinese expansion into the South China Seas. The Palestinian issue has dropped from the agenda. John Kerry surrendered to the dictates of Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Syria. The US government says that it lacks the power to resolve the war in Syria and is having trouble defeating ISIS in Iraq. The US certainly does not have the energy or the confidence of regional leaders to pressure Netanyahu or to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Moreover, even the Palestinians have lost the will to confront Israel, and the internal division between Fatah and Hamas is the main issue troubling them. Not only is the Palestinian Authority (PA) unable to govern the territories under its control, it is not even able to conduct municipal elections. The PA’s fear of losing power has caused it to suspend all political activity and suppress opposition. Hamas has not managed to rebuild the homes left in ruin by Israel’s “Operation Protective Shield” in Gaza, and the hostility of the PA and Egypt leaves it no choice but to cooperate with Israel through Qatar. All this feeds into Netanyahu’s strategy and the reality he is working toward. Economic peace is effective, security coordination with the PA is working, and – regarding Hamas – Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman knows how to restrain him.
People who viewed Netanyahu’s preposterous video have seen, and rightly so, an implausible message that fits the contemporary international and regional reality. Netanyahu compares the evacuation of settlements to ethnic cleansing in order to cover up the difficult and complex challenge facing him, and it is: What will be the fate of two and a half million Palestinians in the West Bank living under Israeli control? Leaving the settlements intact might solve Netanyahu’s internal political problems and preserve his right-wing coalition, but it cannot provide a solution for an occupied population stuck behind a separation barrier, needing permits to enter and exit, living with inadequate public services, a high rate of unemployment among university graduates, teachers earning 2000 shekels monthly (roughly $530), and dealing daily with corruption on all levels. Add to all that the ongoing arrests and the killings.
Politicians such as Trump and Netanyahu know how to manipulate reality, they know how to twist words, they can defeat reason, and they are able to distort the minds of many. But they cannot change the basic facts. To present the removal of settlements as ethnic cleansing will not make the Occupation go away, and any attempt to twist reality will not succeed. History shows that reality eventually explodes in the faces of tricksters and demagogues.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman