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April 16th, 2020

The Magician of Jerusalem: Israeli politics in the times of Corona

topic:Rule of Law
by:Josef Reich, Ithamar Handelman-Smith

Among his fan base, he is known as king Bibi, or simply - The Magician. For the Israeli right wing voters, the Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu appears to be a steady performer of political miracles.

Since last spring, he has repeatedly overhauled his domestic opponent and main rival, the former army general and centrist-party leader Benyamin Gantz. Be it smear campaigns spread by Netanyahu’s social-media team or petty accusations of Gantz being a mentally unstable pervert whose phone was hacked by the Iranian arch-enemy; be it Bibi´s eloquent and masterful way of connecting the racist paranoia of his constituency with his own; or be it his neo-liberal economic approach  and enchanting comradeship with his fan base, which perceives him as one of “the strong guys of this world” like Trump in the White House, the Kremlin’s authoritarian Putin, the rain-forest-destroyer in Brazil, Hungary´s quasi-dictator Orban, etc.

Lately, a famous Israeli rock artist turned far-right activist,composed a song in support of Netanyahu entitled “Benjamin, God’s friend.” In sad synchronicity to the right-wing frenzy in the Western hemisphere this personality-cult deformed political reality in Israel in the past two decades. For example, in an election poster from last year,

Netanyahu’s right-wing minions were so shameless as to compare Gaza´s governing Islamist terror-organization Hamas to the Israeli High Court, simply because the juridical body had no other legal choice but to support the indictment by the police against Netanyahu for breach of trust, bribery and fraud. The Trump administration’s extremely pro-Israeli peace plan and recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, including the U.S. acceptance of a possible annexation of Palestinian territories (a wet dream of the Israeli far right) - all those questionable ‘achievements’ of Netanyahu’s foreign policy, had almost no impact on those fifty percent of Israeli voters who are simply tired of him. 

“Only-not-Bibi,” says the slogan. To the other half of the population he and his followers are Machiavellian politicians, whose lust for power got off track; they view them as people who are lacking the decency and courage to make him step back and would thus enable a stable Nationalist-centrist government majority, the most logical solution and most wanted by the majority in the country. “This eventually corrupted and present leader of the nation should leave and concentrate on his lawsuit,” says former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who in 2009 did exactly this, got convicted for corruption, served a short prison-term and is today vehemently warning against how much Bibi, who is not playing by the rules of moral civility, became a burden for Israeli democracy. 

For the anti-Bibi-voters, it is more than obvious how naked the King and his followers are in their scandalous acceptance of his power clinging; how ruthlessly and unscrupulously they put his political survival above the unity of the country; how he accepts a dead-lock between his equally strong nationalistic-religious bloc and the centrist-left wing-Arab-bloc, already for three elections within a year, in spite their enormous costs and the terrible incitement propaganda. 

So after Israel held its third round of general elections in early March 2020, Netanyahu’s challenger, Benny Gantz, received the support of the Joint List, the alliance of Israel’s Arabic parties, who together form the third strongest power in parliament. Since they are ideologically opposed to and rejected by the main Zionist parties, they remain on the sidelines, but do function as kind of a passive kingmaker by simply tolerating Bibi´s rival as a possible alternative. Last time this happened was back  in 1992, when then Labor-Leader Yitzhak Rabin (who was subsequently murdered) formed a coalition supported by the Arab parties. 

The reason Gantz failed to form a government after the first elections was due to the objection of the very active kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman, head of a small nationalist party. Liberman, an immigrant from the ex-soviet Moldavia who holds strong secular sentiments,  rejects Bibi´s coalition with the religious parties as much as he rejects a centrist-left-wing coalition with Gantz, since it would be tolerated ergo supported by the Arabic parties, to whom Lieberman, like Netanyahu, refer as “terror supporters” or simply “enemies”. 

Last March, it all changed. It seemed, if only for a short euphoric moment, as though the far-right Lieberman was open to the possibility of Gantz forging a coalition and building a minority government supported by the Arab Joint list. If that had been the case, then Benjamin Netanyahu would have been an alchemist rather than a magician: he would have managed to unite against him with the greatest of opposition forces in Israeli politics, like transmutation of lead into gold. Bibi’s chances to stay in power grew dimmer with his lawsuit looming around the corner.

But then, as in a true Greek tragedy (or a dark comedy, depending on how one chooses to look at it) Deus ex machina, the COVID 19 pandemic came to Netanyahu’s rescue like a knight in shining armor. Bibi became great again, moral and rightful, even in the eyes of many of his adversaries. 

Unlike his populist far-right peers Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or the UK’s Boris Johnson, who put the economy over health, Netanyahu responded most rapidly and efficiently to the virus. In his function as a temporary prime minister in a transition government, Netanyahu introduced sweeping measures in reaction to the outbreak long before other Western countries did so. This might have a lot to do with the deeply embedded imperative of saving human life as a superior principle in the Jewish tradition. 

Besides that, Israel, being a far more militaristic society than any other western democracy, is always prepared for disaster; fighting a war against a deadly threat suits the national and of course Netanyahu´s mentality. Others say it may be just the old Jewish hypochondriac syndrome, fearing fatal medical situations at all times.

Undoubtedly, Bibi´s desire to be the saviour and shield of his nation connected in this hour of need in a beneficial way with his duty for leadership, when he informed in his evening speeches on public TV his fellow citizen about the hygienic necessities, social distancing and the gravity of the situation. 

There is no doubt that Netanyahu really cares for his people. But one cannot deny that the first person to benefit from this crisis is, of course, Bibi himself. It aroused a lot of mixed feelings, criticism and unease in the opposition and on the international stage, when his backers declared in a quick move a state of emergency, dissolved the parliament for a few days and postponed the prime minister´s first court hearing for three months. 

Netanyahu offered Gantz to form a national unity government for the sake of fighting the Coronavirus plague together. Gantz, who promised his voters that he would never sit in one government side by side with a prime minister suspected of being a criminal, agreed because of the “difficult hour”. Completely shocked, two other leaders of Gantz’s political party had left the alliance, and his party split in half immediately after the announcement.

According to a first rotation agreement draft, Bibi would serve as the prime minister for the first two years, followed by Gantz. But already, after a couple of weeks, coalition talks stalled, since Bibi’s guys want more influence over  appointments of judges, which Gantz’s side opposes. In the meantime “Bibi forever” will go on to govern and to battle the virus. Will the Corona Crown on his head make him immortal? 

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