Netanyahu’s strength is his rivals’ fear
Benjamin Netanyahu will most likely soon be sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister, representing a growing movement toward extremism in the country’s politics.
After serving more than 15 years as prime minister during two spells in power up to 2021, Netanyahu’s new coalition of right-wing Zionist and religious parties is set to gain control of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Some credit Netanyahu with having a strong coalition. But the truth is that he won because of the weakness and fears of his rivals.
Instead of defining their own voice, Netanyahu’s chief rivals were simply trying to “out-right” him, meaning they wanted to win support from his followers as they tried to define a new political path forward.
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid briefly took power away from Netanyahu in 2021, but they failed to hold on to it. Bennett was more extreme than Netanyahu, but I had hope for Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. However, rather than try to speak with a more moderate, peace-driven voice, Gantz and Lapid attempted to be tough like him.
The only real alternative to Netanyahu is a leader who embraces the rule of law, recognizes Israel’s flaws and corrects them, and presents a plan that can lead to peace and end the violence that has consumed Israelis and Palestinians during the past year. But instead of offering a serious alternative — one based on respect for human rights and international law — Lapid and Gantz sought to pander to Israel’s extremist base.
These extremists have a clear agenda: They oppose peace with the Palestinians and they support empowering the country’s Jewish religious extremists. Being slightly less radical than Netanyahu does not offer a genuine option to those Israelis who feel left out.
Lapid and Gantz’s drift toward Netanyahu rather than away from him only fueled confusion, including among many Jews living outside of Israel, such as those in the US. It has created a political fog in which principles, morals and the rule of law are sacrificed for political expediency. For example, instead of demanding that the Israeli sniper who in May shot and killed American Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh face justice, outgoing PM Lapid vowed that no Israeli would be held accountable.
There are many Israelis and Jews who oppose Israel’s brutality. But without a strong moderate leader, they have no choice but to remain silent. Closing your eyes to injustice wins more votes in Israel than standing up for justice or principles.
That fact has fueled concerns among many American Jews, who rightly believe that the far right in Israel is fueling an environment that promotes violence by both Israelis and Palestinians. That they are concerned about Netanyahu’s role in this in no way undermines their support of Israel. They just believe that Israel’s oppression and occupation should be brought to an end.
In fact, American Jews see the growing extremism in Israeli politics as being a factor that undermines the two-state solution, which is the only realistic way to secure peace. Former President Donald Trump recognized this sentiment among American Jews when he attacked them in October, saying that they needed to “get their act together” before “it is too late.”
Trump’s statement was intended to assert that he has done more for “the Jews” than any other American president. Instead, he was criticized for using a stereotype that American Jews have dual loyalties to the US and Israel. Trump’s remarks provoked a slap on the wrist from the Anti-Defamation League, whose leader described the comments as “Jewsplaining.”
Trump has been slammed for his continued association with the anti-Semitic right in America, yet he remains popular among right-wing Israelis, who do not mind the growing anti-Semitism in the US as long as they get strong support for Jewish claims and settlements in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
The Anti-Defamation League has been attacked by some American Jewish activists and leaders, reflecting a growing split in the community. The right-wing group Americans for Peace and Tolerance slammed the Biden White House for inviting the Anti-Defamation League and other “failed Jewish leaders” to a conference aimed at addressing anti-Semitism.
This schism is apparent to many, including Arab American Institute President Jim Zogby, who this week attended a conference hosted by the centrist and liberal Jewish group J Street. Zogby tweeted on Monday: “I’m at the J Street dinner. A lot of friends & really good people who are struggling w/ squaring a circle. They want to be pro-justice & oppose the occupation but are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of Apartheid. Saying you’re pro-peace & pro-Israel just doesn’t cut it now.”
Instead of offering a serious alternative, Bennett and Lapid sought to replicate Netanyahu, pandering to his extremist base.
The point is that too many centrist and moderate Jews in America and Israel alike are refusing to forcefully stand up against the blatant human and civil rights violations taking place against non-Jews in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Only last year, when Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared many human rights groups in Israel to be terrorist entities, there was little protest from the powerful American Jewish community, which claims to champion civil and human rights.
The conclusion is simple: You cannot simply push aside extremists like Netanyahu by walking a middle ground that is silent on many of his policies, while still calling for peace based on two states. It is a contradiction everyone sees.
Lapid and Gantz could not outdo Netanyahu’s extremism. But if they wanted to do the right thing and bring security to Israel, they could have forged a more centrist moral majority by awakening Israel’s moderate voices. But it may take time to reverse Israel’s march toward extremism. For now, as each election passes, it is clear that the extremist voices are becoming stronger. This might explain why Netanyahu has served more time as prime minister than anybody else in Israel’s history.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania