Down but not out
A master schemer and skilled rabble-rouser, with well cultivated US links. But above all going with the flow of history was key to Netanyahu’s success. No wonder Moshé Machover thinks it is far too early to write off this flawed and deeply unpleasant man
So Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is voted out of office - for now. It is too soon to write his political obituary: this master manipulator may yet be back, even as Israel’s prime minister - a post he has already held longer than anyone: 1996-99 and 2009-21, a total of 15 years. What I offer here is just a brief interim assessment of his career.
Netanyahu has managed to dominate Israeli politics for so long not only due to his skill as a schemer and his art - in which he surpasses Tony Blair - in lying shamelessly with hand on heart, wearing a mask of candid innocence.1 Nor was his long hold on power due solely to his demagogic, rabble-rousing techniques and slick use of conventional and social media. The deeper reason for his political success is that he is in tune with historical trends - both domestic and international.
The Zionist project of colonisation is driven by an inherent dynamic. A mode of colonisation based on ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people rather than exploiting their labour-power, it is like a gas, in that it expands to fill all available space. The question at each stage of the project has been what space is actually available. Following the June 1967 war, Israel found itself occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a large Palestinian Arab population, many of them refugees of the 1947-49 Nakba or their descendants. Some 400,000 were ethnically cleansed during that brief war, but that left about one million.2 The population of Israel at the time was about 2.8 million, of whom 2.4 million were Jews.3 Virtually all Israeli leaders were committed to the Zionist doctrine that Jews had a sacred right to colonise the whole of Palestine (‘Eretz Yisrael’). But Zionist colonisation required more land, not an additional Arab population that would dilute the Jewish majority. This came to be known as Israel’s ‘demographic problem’.
For reasons of Zionist-religious ideology, east Jerusalem was treated as a special case: by the end of June 1967, it was illegally annexed to Israel, together with a large surrounding area. In the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, whose fertile land Israeli ‘socialist’ kibbutzim coveted, the Arab population was swiftly dealt with: the majority (estimates vary between 100,000 and 180,000) were ethnically cleansed, leaving behind 6,000 members of the Druze minority (which Israel chooses to regard as non-Arab).4 The territory was then illegally annexed to Israel.
But the much larger Palestinian population in the remaining newly occupied parts of Palestine, with its high rate of natural increase, posed a much bigger ‘demographic problem’. Could these territories be ethnically cleansed? Would this be feasible? Would it be accepted by Israel’s imperialist backers? Would it not provoke a damaging intensified hostility of the Arab and Muslim countries?
It did not take long for two approaches to this problem to emerge. The more cautious was to mark out certain choice areas - mostly less densely populated, such as the Jordan valley - for colonisation and eventual annexation, while leaving the rest to be administered by proxy on behalf of Israel. But by whom? An early plan, proposed by Yigal Allon, was to get Jordan to perform this service. However, Jordan’s king Hussein refused to accept this poisoned chalice. The obvious alternative was to get some Palestinian authority to be a quisling proxy, administering the densely populated areas under a limited autonomy. This was proposed under the deceptive title of the ‘two-state solution’. It was initially supported by some ‘left’ Zionists - although even Menachem Begin, who originally was vehemently opposed to it,5 agreed to a version of it in his 1978 Camp David accords with Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat.
After the first intifada (1987-91), when Israel found direct suppression of popular Palestinian resistance too costly in military effort and morale, this scheme, pursued by Shimon Peres and Yizhak Rabin, became official Israeli policy. It was sealed in the 1993 Oslo accords - which, of course, made no mention of a Palestinian state, but established the Palestinian ‘Authority’. Even while the accords were being negotiated, messianic settlers continued to colonise the occupied territories. Rabin and Peres did nothing to stop them.
Following the assassination of Rabin, Netanyahu, who had viciously incited against him, was elected prime minister in 1996. He belonged to a group of leaders whose approach to Israel’s ‘demographic problem’ was more extreme and aggressive. They saw no need to grant any kind of autonomy to the Palestinians, and opposed the Oslo accords. Their long-term aim was to perpetrate a major ethnic cleansing - in effect a second Nakba. The original foremost advocate of this approach was Ariel Sharon - a veteran general with an outstanding, if questionable, military reputation, and the ‘hero’ of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. But Netanyahu, 21 years his junior, had what ‘bulldozer’ Sharon lacked: diplomatic polish and close familiarity with the US, where he had spent six years as a child and teenager, completed his secondary education, and later returned there to study at a prestigious university.
In the scenario pursued by these hard-liners, Jordan was to play a central role, but quite the opposite to that in the Allon plan. Rather than a partner, it was to be the fall guy. Under what became known as the Sharon plan, masses of Palestinians would be driven across the river. The Hashemite regime of Jordan would be toppled. Of course, this scenario could not be implemented out of the blue: regional events would have to provide a convenient opportunity: “An uprising in Jordan, followed by the collapse of king Abdullah’s regime, would … present such an opportunity - as would a spectacular act of terrorism inside Israel that killed hundreds.”6
Under this plan, Jordan would be declared the ‘new Palestine’ - a Palestinian state - across the river. As you would expect, this idea was angrily rejected by Jordan’s king.7
That Netanyahu had been thinking along the same lines early in his political career, when he was deputy foreign minister, is clear from a speech he made in Bar-Ilan university in November 1989. In this speech he deplored the failure of Israel to exploit the Tiananmen Square crisis, when the eyes of the world were averted from the Middle East and turned to China, and use this opportunity to do some ethnic cleansing.
Netanyahu told the students that the government had failed to exploit politically favourable situations in order to carry out ‘large-scale’ expulsions at times when the damage would have been relatively small. “I still believe that there are opportunities to expel many people,” Netanyahu said.8
To this day he remains convinced - with good reason - that, given a suitable regional opportunity, the international reaction to major ethnic cleansing will not be sufficient to cause Israel major damage. His close familiarity with the US political scene tells him that, even when he antagonises some sections of the political establishment (as he did blatantly during the Obama presidency), he can always get support from the Republican side, as well as from the large Evangelical pro-Israel lobby, not to mention the Zionist section of the Jewish community. In fact, he has bragged about his skilful manipulation of American decision-makers in a cosy meeting with a settlers’ family, which was recorded without his knowledge.9
As for adverse reactions of the Arab and Muslim countries, Netanyahu perceived quite a long time ago that their reactionary regimes care little about the Palestinians. He has indeed managed to forge an alliance with the most reactionary Arab regimes - primarily that of Saudi Arabia - against the common enemy, Iran. This alliance is also of importance in connection with the ethnic cleansing scenario. The royal house of Saud is a long-standing enemy of the Hashemite royal family of Jordan. Saudi support in toppling the Jordanian regime could be very valuable. As a reward, the Saudis would replace the Hashemites as custodians of Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif, the third holiest place of Islam - adding it to the two holy places of Mecca and Medina, from which the Saudis ousted the Hashemites in the 1920s.
Recent events in Jordan, with reports of a plot against the king, may have something to do with this scenario.
In the wider international arena, Netanyahu has forged useful amicable relations with like-minded rightwing populist, illiberal ‘democrats’: Hungary’s anti-Semitic leader, Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and others - including, of course, Donald Trump (a fellow come-back aspirant).
Flaws of character
You may ask: if Netanyahu has been so successful politically - as indeed he has - what led to his (albeit possibly temporary) downfall? The answer in this parody of a Greek tragedy lies in his faults of character. He is not only repulsively avaricious (which led to his little troubles with the law), but also domineering and unkind to subordinates who are not prepared to be his lackeys. (There is strong evidence that his meddlesome missus, Sara, is even stingier and more horrible to staff.) It is noteworthy that the original instigator of the two-year-long political crisis that ended in Netanyahu’s downfall, Avigdor Lieberman, used to be Netanyahu’s personal assistant. His successor as prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was also a close helper, but was repeatedly insulted by him in public. A third pillar of the anti-Netanyahu coalition, Gideon Sa’ar, is a defector from Netanyahu’s Likud party, who no doubt felt undervalued as Bibi’s underling.
But the alliance forged by his rightwing disaffected former followers with an assortment of unlike-minded partners cannot last very long. So expect to hear about Netanyahu’s return to office in the not too distant future - provided he can keep out of jail.
“French president Nicolas Sarkozy branded Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ‘a liar’ in a private conversation with US president Barack Obama that was accidentally broadcast to journalists during last week’s G20 summit in Cannes. ‘I cannot bear Netanyahu - he’s a liar,’ Sarkozy told Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on, enabling reporters in a separate location to listen in to a simultaneous translation. ‘You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,’ Obama replied, according to the French interpreter” (Yann le Guerniou, Reuters, November 8 2011).↩︎
See I Shahak, ‘Memory of 1967 “ethnic cleansing” fuels ideology of Golan settlers’ Washington report on Middle East affairs November 1992: www.wrmea.org/1992-november/memory-of-1967-ethnic-cleansing-fuels-ideology-of-golan-settlers.html.↩︎
This was revealed in the minutes of the Israeli cabinet dating from June 1967, declassified 50 years later; see www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4962794,00.html.↩︎
M van Creveld, ‘Sharon’s plan is to drive Palestinians across the Jordan’ The Sunday Telegraph April 28 2002.↩︎
M Shalev, ‘Use political opportunities: Netanyahu recommends large-scale expulsions’ Jerusalem Post November 19 1989.↩︎
Netanyahu: ‘This is how I broke the Oslo accords with the Palestinians’, November 28 2010 (video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-5hUG6Os68).↩︎