Israel’s longest-serving leader, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, has always been a master of the long goodbye. He takes forever to take his leave, and never stops trying for political comebacks.
The arc of Netanyahu’s rise and fall — his emergence and resurgence, his successes and failures — is a reflection of Israel’s recent history. It is marked by opportunities missed and opportunism seized.
The distorted mirror he held up to Israeli society further contorted the country’s fault lines. He stoked divisions, exploited resentments, harnessed hatred, preyed on the fears of the faithful.
On the two occasions that I interviewed him at his heavily guarded prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, he proved to be as cantankerous in person as he could be obstreperous in public. For most of his career, it worked like a charm.
Until it didn’t.
His ascent to power was made possible by — and may have contributed to — the 1995 assassination by a Jewish extremist of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who dared to seek peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu sowed hatred back then, just as he stokes fanaticism today.
Israel is more divided than ever imagined, just as its Palestinian adversaries are more split than ever fathomed. And yet the wedge politics that he perfected, the perfect storms he profited from, have not turned out quite as predicted.
Israelis tend to turn against each other in internecine sniping in times of peace, only to unite against internal enemies. This week, a (slim) majority of Israel’s politicians came together to overcome two years of democratic stasis and stalemates, arrayed this time against an internal foe in the person of Netanyahu.
This unprecedented coalition is not so much about unity but enmity. As ever, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so their shared antipathy for Netanyahu has brought polar opposites together.
Israel’s new government is helmed by Naftali Bennett, a religious right-winger who once led the Jewish settler movement. But the power behind the throne is secular centrist Yair Lapid, who has a broader parliamentary base but handed the prime minister’s post to his rival as the price of compromise.
What makes this government unique is that it brings together not only secular and religious, but Jew and Muslim. The pragmatist Islamist party (United Arab List) that joined the coalition made its slender majority possible.
There is no way to soften the rough edges of Israeli society today. For all its economic might, military muscle and democratic credentials, it is stuck in tough territory — geographically and politically — corroded by a half-century of occupation and riven by intra-Jewish divisions.
Amid the perennial war of attrition against Hamas-ruled Gaza, Israel now faces a more insidious civil war on the home front. The violence that erupted between Israeli Jews and Arabs in cities across the country is a new flashpoint that threatens the national fabric.
The government has been tested in its early days, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. This week it permitted yet another provocative march by nationalist fanatics through the streets of Jerusalem — opting for a dubious right to assemble that culminated in right wing hate speech, as Lapid himself observed ruefully.
For a coalition that could not afford to fracture so fast, this was seen as the lesser of evils. But it was an irresistible opening for Hamas, the Islamist government in Gaza that has become the self-appointed — and self-promoting — guardian of Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem.
Hamas promptly broke the region’s fragile ceasefire, setting neighbouring Israeli fields aflame and triggering reprisal air raids. But it is truly playing with fire, just as it did last month by firing 500 missiles at Israeli civilians on the pretext of protesting its actions in East Jerusalem, while triggering the inevitable military reprisals with lopsided results (243 Palestinians and 12 Israelis killed).
Israel’s government, like any elected government anywhere, will not allow a foreign force such as Hamas to police its internal actions. Imagine if Mexico lobbed missiles into Texas at the sight of Latinos facing police brutality — the American riposte would be fast and furious.
Hamas had its way when it violently expelled the rival Palestinian Authority from Gaza years ago. Its motive in attacking Israel today has less to do with weakening the Jewish state than further undermining the rival Palestinian Authority, now based in the West Bank.
While Palestinian citizens of Israel now hold the balance of power in the Knesset (parliament), Palestinian democracy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is on hold until further notice. Elections scheduled for this spring have once again been postponed, allowing both Hamas in Gaza City and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to consolidate their separate power bases without facing their own voters.
For the moment, there is method to the madness of Israeli politics. Against all odds, despite the ideological and demographic divisions plaguing the Jewish state — pitting secular versus religious, left against right, hawks versus doves, Ashkenazi against Sephardic, immigrants versus sabras, and Jews against Muslims against Christians — voters have an unlikely new government.
In an awkward democratic experiment, this coalition will govern without coherence or consensus, focusing instead on a few areas of common agreement while avoiding disagreements. It is imperfect, but it is a better alternative to the Netanyahu era that preceded it.