As Israel’s protesters go high, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sinks lower and lower

As Israel’s protesters go high, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sinks lower and lower

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 28, 2020. (Reuters)

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama first used her famous catchphrase, “When they go low, we go high,” in reference to handling the vile bullying of Hillary Clinton during her bid for the White House. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, needs no lessons in “going low” — he has made a political career out of it. Even worse, he has propelled himself to being the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history; though his recent lows are so venomous that they smack more of desperation than of the canny and manipulative operator of old.

Nowadays, Netanyahu surrounds himself with a group of brutish instigators, chief among them being his eldest son Yair, who has a knack of slurring via social media anyone he suspects of disloyalty to the family and anyone who dares to suggest that a prime minister facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust should at least suspend himself from the role until he can prove himself innocent in a court of law. 

To say that Netanyahu has overstayed his welcome as prime minister would be a gross understatement. His premiership is way past its sell-by date. However, the danger for Israeli society now is that the longer he stays in power, and as the January deliberations in his corruption trial draw closer, the more spanners he will throw into the works in an attempt to disrupt the trial and/or instigate sufficient political chaos and social upheaval to somehow save himself from facing justice. The Netanyahus are already sowing hatred and division, and seem prepared to bring the roof down on the country for the sake of either saving their skin or taking revenge for their demise. 

What the family in Balfour Street fails to understand is that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis has permanently changed the rules of the game for the country. Portraying themselves as the victims of a long list of detractors — including leftists, seculars, Arabs, journalists, police investigators, the attorney general, prosecutors, and judges (and the list goes on) — no longer holds water. The pandemic has exposed the prime minister’s incompetence, carelessness and selfishness, while his entourage consists of those who owe their career to him, along with others who lack the stamina or integrity to challenge him, despite the increasing damage being caused to the country with every day that Netanyahu remains in power.

If the first wave of the pandemic was handled with a modicum of responsibility, the subsequent relaxation of lockdown procedures came too early and too fast, with no adequate test and trace system in place, and with inadequate public health guidance. This inevitably led to a second and much worse wave of mass infections. Israel’s position shifted from having some of the world’s lowest rates of infection and mortality to a situation where it now has one of the highest rates of infection. Accompanying this grim situation are incoherent lockdown measures that are constantly changing, making it impossible for businesses to adjust and leaving most people anxious and confused. 

The coronavirus pandemic has sent the jobless rate spiraling from a previous all-time low of 3.4 percent to today’s unprecedented high of about 28 percent of the populace. These are the people who have, throughout the country, joined the more traditional opposition to Netanyahu in taking their protests onto the streets. We are witnessing the anger of millions of citizens who are fighting for their economic survival and who are desperately worried for theirs and their loved ones’ health and well-being; are appalled at their government’s inaction and even denial of the dire straits that they find themselves in; and are disgusted by the daily revelations of the lavish lives of the Netanyahus — who are also insisting that the public fund such insulting behavior.

Only last week, Yair Netanyahu called the protesters “aliens” and said they make him and his family laugh. His insensitive remarks were supported by his father, who showed his true colors: He has no empathy or even respect for the hardships of the protesters and is a prime minister devoid of ideas for alleviating their fears and genuine concerns. 

Instead, the incitements of Netanyahu and his henchmen are complemented by pressurizing the police to find pretexts to stop these demonstrations altogether, either by cynically exploiting the risk of spreading the virus or equally cynically to avoid disturbance to the Netanyahus’ neighbors caused by the noise of the demonstrators. The prime minister was not concerned about spreading COVID-19 when he told people to go out and have fun to save the economy. His main concern has been to avoid popular unrest and the calls for the end of his crooked and inept premiership.

For Likud party officials, the integrity of the democratic system is secondary to their desire to remain in power indefinitely and, if necessary, help their leader escape justice. As far as they are concerned, crushing the democratic rights of the people and the justice system is not too high a price to pay in order to achieve this.

And if aggressive language, incitement and misusing the government’s machinery to crush Israeli democracy were not enough, recently the thugs of La Familia — a group of far-right soccer fans — attacked and injured anti-Netanyahu protesters without a single word of condemnation from the prime minister himself. These racist hooligans, who insist that no Arab play for their team, are the violent expression of Netanyahu’s incitements against those calling for his resignation.

To say that Netanyahu has overstayed his welcome as prime minister would be a gross understatement.

Yossi Mekelberg

To think that, in the streets of any democracy the main defenders of the prime minister wear fascist-style black shirts and are known for displaying banners declaring that their team is “forever pure,” meaning pure of Arab players, should make any decent Israeli feel sick to their core.

Netanyahu’s time in office is likely to come to a close sooner rather than later, but the divisiveness and hatred he has sown will remain. While he would like to be remembered as the protector of the Israeli people, his behavior in power, especially during the final chapters of his premiership, will instead forever be remembered for his callous readiness to deceive, incite and sink to new lows with every move. He will leave behind a fractured society that might need a long time to recover from the wounds that a prime minister, his family and circle of mindless subordinates have inflicted on a nation in order to save his skin and their political careers.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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