The Trump of Israel
(This article is a follow-up to the Features piece “A Jew Comes Home.” The author has chosen to change their name. The views of this article are not representative of the views of The Chronicle.)
During the afternoon of March 17, 2015, I was glued to my couch.
Cautiously, I watched the numbers go up and the clock tick forward. The backdrop of a tense night in Jerusalem played out on my TV screen. Anchors and analysts from the BBC reported the exit polls that would decide the next Knesset (the Israeli Parliament). Israel was at a crossroads. It was going somewhere, but nobody knew where.
On one side, there was the incumbent: Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. He was leading his conservative Likud party in this election. Bibi was a political giant among his colleagues, known for his harsh words of doom-and-gloom and tough defense strategies. Plus, he was running for his fourth term as Prime Minister.
The conservatives loved him, while the progressives resented him. Israeli settlers favored him, while Palestinians despised him. The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress invited him to speak just two weeks before his election day, and gave him a flurry of standing ovations. President Obama wanted nothing to do with Bibi, and saw him as a roadblock to every foreign policy decision he made in the Middle East.
Bibi’s a no-hold-barred kind of leader. In the days leading up to the election, Bibi told a crowd at a rally that “there will be no Palestinian state,” and made a last-minute plea to his supporters in an online video, claiming that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” Bibi was using fear tactics to get voters out, actively trying to convince the public that if he wasn’t elected Prime Minister again, Israel would be dead in the water. That didn’t sit too well with me, to put it lightly.
But there was hope:
One the other side of the elections, there was Bibi’s new opponent: Isaac Herzog, the de-facto leader of the Zionist Union, a center-left political alliance (co-lead by Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni). Herzog was no rookie to politics, either. He served in the Knesset since 2003, and his father was the 6th President of Israel. An IDF Intelligence Corps veteran, Herzog was a proud Israeli. Bibi would try to sell Herzog off as a lightweight, but that criticism simply couldn’t stand up to facts.
Herzog publicly stated he would support restarting peace negotiations with Palestinian leadership, something that had indefinitely stalled under Netanyahu. He also wanted to push progressive domestic reforms in healthcare, housing, and education. In an interview with CNN, Herzog said that Bibi’s security policy had “failed,” and that he was “trying to call his bluff on it.” Herzog seemed to have come out of the gate swinging, and there was a chance he could win.
Then the results came in: Bibi won.
I slammed my hand on the table and shouted. “Why?!” Why in the world would someone like this win? With every good molecule in my body telling me he shouldn’t win, why did he win?
Does this sound like a familiar question? Did you happen to ask yourself this on November 9th, 2016?
I thought so.
Many Americans think the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the new era of far-right politics is unprecedented on the world stage. Not since the many authoritarian regimes of the 20th Century has the world seen such a growth in far-right movements. Never have we seen someone quite like Donald Trump.
But there’s a reason why I wasn’t shocked when Trump got elected: Israel already had their Donald Trump in office, and he’d been there for three terms.
I knew electing a fear-mongering leader was possible, because I saw it myself. The only difference is that I’m not quite sure Trump knows what he’s doing as his country’s leader. Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu knows exactly what he wants to do as his country’s leader, and that terrifies me even more.
For years, Netanyahu has poised himself to be the savior of Israel. His near-messianic idea of his strategies to stop all threats against the Jewish people have propelled him to the highest office in his country, and he’s now one of the most vocal world leaders in the 21st Century.
But Bibi’s not concerned with building bridges toward diplomacy. Instead, he’s focused on war, and lots of it.
When faced with enormous challenges like those of Israel, you have to play your cards right. You have to make the right decisions that will lead your people into a future that promises peace and prosperity. You can’t just make decisions based on election prospects. You must think long-term.
Bibi has spent most of his time playing short-term cards, the security kind. The cards that say ‘if you don’t elect me, your military will fail, and your families will be killed.’ What Netanyahu fails to realize is, as Isaac Herzog has said: “…security is not only the barrel of the gun. Security [is] much bigger than that.” Security for your people doesn’t just mean bolstering your military. Security also means building bridges with those around you, even if they’re your sworn enemy, if it’s necessary for the survival of your people. Security means making sure the people living in your land are healthy, educated, and open to new futures. Security means giving your people hope in the face of unfiltered evil, not sending them into a whirlwind of fear.
Many people are critical of Israel these days, and there is always a portion of that criticism that’s simply anti-Semitic. However, some of that criticism is very legitimate, and it’s all thanks to Bibi.
Netanyahu has, time and time again, used fear to motivate his supporters. He’s not concerned with how a crumbling economy and infrastructure in the Palestinian territories could possibly lead to young men joining terrorist groups. He’s not concerned with rising housing and healthcare costs for low-income Israelis. He’s only focused on his total conservative leadership of Israel, not matter where that leads.
Let me leave you with one last example of this:
One of Bibi’s most memorable, and infamous, moments in his long political career took place one evening in the fall of 1995. Bibi stood atop a balcony in downtown Jerusalem, and spoke to his supporters. Those supporters were angry opponents of the recently-signed Oslo Accords, the biggest step towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians in recent history. Many in the crowd held up signs depicting then-current Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli architect of the modern peace process, in Nazi uniforms. They burned pictures of Rabin in the street and stomped on the charred pieces. They chanted things like: “In blood and fire, we will expel Rabin…” There were days of right-wing protests against the peace treaty, and against Rabin, and Netanyahu soaked it in like a sponge.
The right-wing outburst in Israel that fall culminated in the worst night of 1995: when an Israeli gunman assassinated Rabin just after a massive peace rally.
Over 100,000 Israelis, singing of a brighter future just minutes before, were thrown into a whirlwind of shock. The gunman was sentenced to life in prison, and has never shown remorse since. Rabin’s supporters blamed Netanyahu for escalating the rhetoric and not acting to stop the violence that lead up to Rabin’s killing. Netanyahu’s supporters deny that claim.
Harsh rhetoric and silence in the face of escalating violence? Who does this sound like? I think you get the idea by now.
Until there can be positive change against a fear-mongering Donald Trump of the Middle East, Israel’s relationship with the world isn’t going to get any better. Netanyahu constantly cites the violence in his own country to fuel his political machine. However, what Netanyahu fails to see is the violence he’s inciting between his own people, and how that’s tearing Israel apart from the inside.