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The Compressor Stops

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Banner of the anti-Netanyahu protest movement. The exact vibe is untranslatable, but literally it means “go away”.

The first time Benjamin Netanyahu was voted out of office, I was eighteen years old. I was newly-conscripted, attending a training course for a computer system that I fervently hope has since been retired. It was my first time voting, which in hindsight set a bar that no subsequent election in which I have participated has managed to clear. We were living on base, in a rickety but slightly charming house that had been converted into a dormitory, and one of the girls had set up a radio where everyone could hear. In the bustle of preparing for lights out, we all paused at 10PM to listen for the first exit polls. It probably speaks to the demographics of the people selected for the type of clerical work I was being prepared for that the news of Ehud Barak’s landslide victory (Israel was, at the time, still in the grips of an ill-advised and ultimately quite harmful experiment in direct election of the PM) was greeted with cheers and shrieks of joy. But given the extent of that landslide, I think it also speaks to the mood of the country. After three years of some of the most incompetent, dishonest, corrupt leadership most of us had ever experienced, we were ready to take out the trash. It was a feeling not unlike the one that many Americans experienced last November. As Amos Oz is reported to have said, “it was as if for years a compressor had been churning outside your window, filling the air with an unbearable din, and now it had stopped”.

Today doesn’t feel like that. Mostly because I’m older, and because I can no longer indulge in the delusion that having shown Netanyahu the door, this country will have too much common sense to embrace him again. But also because of the long, grueling, literally blood-soaked path we’ve taken to get here. In early May, when it became clear that Netanyahu would be unable to reconcile the Kahanist, far-right parties he had shepherded into the Knesset to the necessity for forming a coalition with a right-wing Arab party, several people on my Hebrew-language twitter feed issued a warning: “he’s a desperate animal now. You have no idea what he’s willing to do to keep his seat and stay out of jail. He’ll set the country on fire if he has to”. I knew that they were right, but I’d also heard that warning before. What I hadn’t realized was that this time was the real deal. Netanyahu’s premiership was imperiled in a way that it had never been before, and the carnage he unleashed was in proportion to the depth of his desperation.

Some of the damage was done even before Netanyahu returned his mandate to the president in early May. Throughout April he instigated acts of provocation against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs alike, interrupting Ramadan celebrations in East Jerusalem and standing back while his newly-legitimized partner, the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, orchestrated repeated incursions—a “march of flags”; a parliamentary office in disputed Sheikh Jarrah—into Palestinian neighborhoods and, later, when the violence he’d stoked spilled over into mixed Israeli cities, throughout the country. In the early hours of April 30th, Netanyahu’s unshakable alliance with the Ultra-Orthodox parties took its bloody toll when forty-five men and boys were crushed to death in a stampede while leaving a religious festival that should never have granted a permit (unbothered by the deaths of their own constituents, the Haredi MKs recently voted against convening an investigative committee for the disaster, knowing that the fingers it would point would be directed at them and their longtime ally).

The worst, however, was still to come, as Netanyahu and his supporters’ provocations in East Jerusalem dovetailed with the interests of his (effectively) allies in Gaza. Let us be clear: there was no reason to embark on a wide-scale military operation in Gaza last month. Previous eruptions of rocket fire from the south, which came at less convenient times for Netanyahu’s political aspirations, were ignored or allowed to fizzle out (in the lead-up to the spring 2019 elections, Netanyahu lickspittle Miri Regev exclaimed “so what if they’re firing on Ashkelon?” by way of explaining why her boss, too busy running a campaign, had ordered no significant military response; two years later, firing on Ashkelon was treated as casus belli). And there was certainly no reason to draw out the operation for nearly two weeks, in spite of repeated Hamas overtures towards a ceasefire. Netanyahu embarked on, and prolonged, a military operation that cost the lives of nearly seventy children, for one and only one reason—to scuttle the attempts by Yair Lapid to form a coalition that would finally unseat him. So if I’m not in the mood to celebrate today, it’s because I keep thinking of what it cost to get us here.

If there’s any comfort to be taken, it’s from the fact that, for once, Netanyahu’s machinations didn’t work. They nearly did—Naftali Bennet, the man who, for reasons I’m still not entirely clear about, is to be sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister despite having only six MKs behind him, lost his nerve very quickly when the guns started firing, backing out of negotiations with Lapid. But Netanyahu (perhaps believing that he’d taken the full measure of the man) immediately reneged on his promise to secure Bennet and his cronies (who were certain to be wiped out in case of another election) positions on the Likud list. When Bennet resumed negotiations with Lapid after the May 21st ceasefire, Netanyahu scrambled to destabilize the forming coalition in other ways. According to rumors, he has offered rotation agreements to nearly every MK in the anti-Netanyahu camp. But something marvelous seems to have happened: after a quarter-century, Israeli politicians have finally worked out what I had realized already as a teenager—Bibi never keeps his word. What seems to have finally done the trick was the exact mechanism by which Netanyahu orchestrated the most recent round of elections—breaking his coalition agreement with Benny Gantz and refusing to pass a budget. Netanyahu clearly believed that, having exposed Gantz as an empty suit, and having successfully delivered vaccines that have effectively ended coronavirus in Israel, he would sweep in to a resounding victory. Instead, he finally taught Israeli politicians not to trust him, which seems to have dug his political grave.

So, what about the incoming government? In some ways, it’s incredibly promising. Left wing parties have secured major cabinet positions and committee appointments. It’s also the first government in Israel’s history to include an Arab party, and though I am far from a fellow traveler of Ra’am, the precedent set by its presence, legitimizing the participation of a fifth of Israel’s population in their own government, is a long overdue step in the right direction. There are also a lot of promising noises coming from Lapid, the architect of what is, after all, an extremely unlikely coalition of nearly every party not run by a Bibi cultist. He’s talking about an end to gridlock, getting back to actually working for citizens rather than the benefit of one man, prioritizing the rule of law and the proper function of government. He’s talking about a government that works for the betterment of the entire country, not just interest groups. It’s all very encouraging (and also, quite clearly, very Biden-inspired).

On the other hand, it’s easy to talk about unity and an end to favoritism when you’re not yet in office. And when you look at the personalities at the higher echelons of this government, it’s hard to believe that it will last very long or move the country in the right direction. Bennet, as previously noted on this blog, is pretty far right, but he’s also a nebbish who has fumbled any serious political position he’s had. It’s hard to tell, at this point, whether that spells disaster or whether stronger personalities will be able to control him before he, for example, sends troops into Gaza. And waiting in the wings are Gideon Sa’ar, who is as far right as Bennet but also pretty smart and competent, and Gantz, who apparently still thinks he’s owed the PM position. And in the far corner, trying hard not to be noticed, we have Avigdor Liberman, who is basically a mobster and a Putin lackey to boot. Which, frankly, might not be as bad as the fact that he’s the intended treasury minister at the moment when the bill for four elections, a war, and the ravages of coronavirus is about to come due, and has expressed 2009’s hottest neoliberal positions as his preferred method of dealing with the crisis. As for the Palestinians, I’m afraid the best that can be hoped for is the absence of extreme violence of the type we saw last month. The ongoing encroachment of settlers into area C, and the takeover of Palestinian neighborhoods under color of law, are unlikely to stop under Bennet’s leadership.

So yeah, the accomplishment of this day is getting rid of Bibi, and probably not much more than that. As for what comes after him—and whether this is really the last we’ve seen of him—I have no idea. I’m not eighteen anymore, and I no longer believe that all our problems can solved by getting rid of one bad man. But it is the first step, and at least, at long last, we have done that.

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