There was once a time when people thought Benjamin Netanyahu might become the Richard Nixon of Israel. In the same way a vehement anti-communist opened diplomatic relations with China, a right-wing Zionist could establish a Palestinian state. Political breakthroughs tend to happen when leaders betray their own constituencies.
As the honcho of Israel’s intransigent nationalist camp, Netanyahu had the power as prime minister to possibly lead Israel of out of its most enduring crisis. But, as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately, Netanyahu is not a responsible man.
Over the course of his 10-year reign, he has treated the notion of a two-state solution with contempt and cynicism, undermining the Obama administration’s efforts to broker a deal by relentlessly approving settlement projects. He then ruined his relationship with President Obama by trashing the Iran nuclear deal before Congress, turning Israel into a partisan cause on Capitol Hill. More recently, he’s enabled Donald Trump to diminish America’s capacity to legitimately mediate peace talks.
Domestically, he’s been just as toxic. In February, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The Israeli premier, taking a page out of the Trumpian playbook, has sought to delegitimize the investigations against him as a “witch hunt.” Netanyahu, it turns out, did wind up emulating some of Nixon’s lesser qualities.
Despite the possibility of serving prison time—or maybe because of it—Bibi has become ever more brazen. Faced with a serious threat from former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz in the April 9 election, Netanyahu facilitated a deal that would allow an anti-Arab racist party of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s descendants to join his next coalition. (The group’s leader was denied entry into the United States in 2012 because the U.S. government considers the party a terrorist organization.) Such an arrangement is commensurate to giving David Duke a cabinet seat.
The move is just Netanyahu’s latest assault on Israeli democracy. From his demagogic warning in 2015 against Arab-Israeli citizens voting to cozying up to far-right autocratic leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the prime minister has shown himself willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his own survival and advance his self-interests, even if the cost is destroying Israel in the process.
While Netanyahu is not someone of great moral courage, he is someone of considerable political gifts. For the last 10 years, he’s harnessed an ability to weaponize the fears of Israelis against his domestic adversaries. The traumas of the Second Intifada—a five-year long strategic onslaught of Palestinian terrorist attacks—and three wars in Gaza (after Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005) have left the nation wary of relinquishing any territory. Many of its neighbors, after all, would like to see the state disappear.
Netanyahu has deftly persuaded enough Israelis that he can keep them safe in a dangerous region. Spurning Israel’s traditional commitments to democracy and equality is the price, he seems to think, of surviving in the Middle East. The alternative, he’s implied, would be much worse. In 2015, he painted his dovish rival Isaac Herzog as too weak and too naïve to deal with Iran and the Palestinians. Herzog presiding over the creation of a State of Palestine would result in the creation of Hamastan, he told his base: “The left doesn’t understand that even if we withdraw to the last centimeter” of the 1967 lines, “there are elements who want to wipe us out.”
But in Benny Gantz, the Israeli public might have found a successor they can trust with their security. A former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces—under Netanyahu no less—Gantz is a veteran commander who’s led numerous Israeli offensives. He is not known for his squeamishness. Gantz’s biggest setback came last month when Israeli television reported that Iran hacked his personal cell phone in December. Netanyahu pounced on this revelation, but, by and large, his attacks didn’t work. Gantz was still leading, albeit by a thin margin, in most polls.
That’s where Trump came in. In March, he gave Netanyahu something of an in-kind campaign contribution, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory that Israel won from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and effectively annexed in 1981. Trump did this at the White House, with Netanyahu standing alongside him. Just like he did with moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the president gave Israel one of its longstanding diplomatic demands without asking for anything in return.
Hours later, Netanyahu turned this into something more insidious. “When you start wars of aggression, you lose territory, do not come and claim it afterwards. It belongs to us,” he told reporters. “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours.” Recognizing the Golan as part of Israel, in other words, will pave the way for Israel to annex the West Bank.
If that were to happen, Israel would cease to be Israel. Without separating from the Palestinians, Israel cannot maintain its character as a Jewish-majority democracy. It will either have to fully franchise all Palestinians and give up its Jewish majority, or permanently deprive them of equal rights and give up its democratic status.
It isn’t difficult to see which path Israel will take. Israel will never give up its Jewish identity. By failing to push for a two-state solution, and indeed leading Israel toward a path of West Bank annexation, Netanyahu is surrendering Israel to a future of illiberalism and shame.
To be clear, Gantz has not positioned himself as a hero for progressive Zionists. He hasn’t unequivocally called for Palestinian statehood, which would probably be political suicide in Israel’s current climate. But he’s said that he would renew negotiations, and has evinced certain standards of decency and decorum that Netanyahu grossly lacks.
The tragedy of Netanyahu might be one of squandered opportunity. By virtue of his background and reputation—his impeccable Likudnik credentials—he was the person who could deliver a painful compromise that would be accepted by most Israelis, or at least try. He chose not to. Netanyahu has sought to convince Israel that he’s the only one who can protect the nation from existential threats. The real irony is that one of the greatest threats to Israel’s future has long been Netanyahu.