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Op-ed

If Netanyahu is not careful, there will be blood

He is uniquely capable of calming the hotheads, of delineating the line between legitimate political struggle and darkness. He owes it to himself, and to all of Israel, to do so

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Right-wing protesters outside the home of Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked  in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2021. The sign with a picture of Shaked and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett reads 'Lapid's collaborators' (Flash90)
Right-wing protesters outside the home of Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2021. The sign with a picture of Shaked and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett reads 'Lapid's collaborators' (Flash90)

After 12 consecutive years in power, and an earlier three-year stint, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life. But his efforts, and those of some of his supporters, to demonize and delegitimize those who would oust him are creating a climate in which real lives are being placed at risk.

In an appeal on Friday to Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett — erstwhile right-wing allies who are now his rivals — to join him in a new coalition, Netanyahu asserted that the alliance of ideologically diverse parties seeking his ouster, if it takes power, would “endanger the Land of Israel, the State of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces.”

Netanyahu repeated the terrifying message in an address to the nation on Sunday night, shortly after Bennett had confirmed that he is indeed working with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid to build a coalition of right, center and left parties. “That government is a danger to the security of Israel and a danger to the future of the state,” Netanyahu declared.

In the same speech, Netanyahu argued that such a government would also be illegitimate and undemocratic. This is, in part, he claimed, because Bennett had cheated his voters by promising them before the elections that he would not join a government in which Lapid would be prime minister — as will be the case under the agreement taking shape between the Yamina and Yesh Atid leaders, with Bennett serving as prime minister until September 2023, and Lapid succeeding him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemns rival Naftali Bennett’s newly declared bid to build a unity government with Yair Lapid that would end his 12 years as prime minister, May 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Pool via AP)

Netanyahu, who persists in referring to the crystallizing coalition against him as a “left-wing government” even though three of its constituent parties (Bennett’s Yamina, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu) hold some positions to the right of his own, is thus depicting his would-be supplanters as dangerous in every core respect: as a government born of fraud whose establishment would pose an existential threat to the country and its citizens.

Hagai Ben Artzi on the Knesset Channel, May 30, 2021 (Screenshot)

Others have gone further: In a lengthy interview on the Knesset Channel on Sunday afternoon, Hagai Ben-Artzi, the brother of Netanyahu’s wife Sara, repeatedly asserted that the actions of the political players combining to try to bring down Netanyahu meet the biblical definition of treason. “They are committing treason against the Jewish people, Zionism, and the State of Israel,” Ben-Artzi declared.

Among hundreds of demonstrators outside the home of Bennett’s longtime colleague and Yamina No. 2 on Sunday night were some who held placards branding Bennett and Shaked “collaborators” and others with signs proclaiming “Leftists. Traitors.”

Right-wing activists chant slogans and hold signs during a demonstration against the possibility of the Yamina party being part of a new government, in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2021. Placards read: Leftists. Traitors. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Social media is overflowing with vicious threats to Bennett, Shaked and others in the anti-Netanyahu camp; police are investigating some of them.

Security around Bennett was boosted last week. On Sunday evening, security was stepped up around Shaked as well.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021, after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin for consultations on which lawmaker should form the next government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Concerns about where all this could lead are acute because of Israel’s terrible experience a little over a quarter of a century ago, when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a far-right Jewish extremist in a climate of vicious internal Israeli debate surrounding the peace process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu was the opposition leader at the time, and was bitterly, personally critical of Rabin’s policies. Then, too, others went further, invoking biblical arguments that purportedly rendered Rabin’s actions treasonable and ostensibly required that he be stopped.

There is no doubt that Netanyahu surveys the political reality and his potential political demise with a sense of horror over both his future and that of the state. He believes himself, as indeed do many Israelis, to be uniquely capable of leading this country and keeping it safe. He regards those who would supplant him as political, diplomatic and intellectual lightweights, who cannot be relied upon to meet the challenges facing this tiny country in this hostile region.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives to speak from the Knesset on May 30, 2021, in an address at which he said he was working to firm a unity government with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. (Yonatan Sindel/Pool via AP)

But the alliance that now threatens his ongoing rule is not illegitimate — it is a partnership of duly elected members of Knesset. And Bennett’s breach of solemn pledges to voters is, however unfortunate, part of the same political reality that saw Benny Gantz breach his solemn promises to Blue and White voters by partnering with Netanyahu in a coalition last year; that involves Netanyahu seeking to pry defectors from the parties ranged against him; and that has featured Netanyahu’s emissaries reaching out to the conservative Islamic Ra’am party as a potential coalition-backer despite his pre-election promises not to do so.

Moreover, if Netanyahu truly believes that a government under a prime minister Bennett, with a defense minister Gantz and a justice minister Sa’ar — all politicians who have served in senior ministerial positions under Netanyahu — constitutes a dangerous left-wing alliance that threatens Israel’s very existence, there is a solution at hand. The March 23 elections created two majorities in the Knesset: Most of the 120 MKs can be classified as right-wing, and most seek the ouster of Benjamin Netanyahu. That circle could be squared in an instant were Netanyahu to step down and a different Likud leader take his place. It is Netanyahu, personally, who is choosing to prevent the construction of a majority right-wing government in which the likes of Sa’ar and Bennett have made plain they would happily serve.

“What’s astounding is that he’s prepared to give the premiership to Gantz, to Bennett or to Sa’ar, that’s he’s prepared to go into the opposition — just so long as there is not a different candidate [for prime minister] from Likud,” unnamed Likud ministers were quoted telling Israel’s Channel 12 on Sunday night.

People walk next to Likud party posters against a “unity government,” in Jerusalem, May 31, 2021. The three posters focus on Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, alleging, among other charges, that they are forming a coalition reliant on supporters of terrorism. “The Right will not forgive you,” reads a slogan under all three. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the anti-Netanyahu coalition takes shape in ongoing negotiations, Israel has entered a spectacularly fraught few days in which Netanyahu and his allies will do everything in their political power to derail the new government before it can be sworn in.

Netanyahu owes it to himself, to his legacy, and to this country he has striven for so long to protect, to ensure that his political struggle does not spill into the streets — into violence and bloodshed

Netanyahu is entitled to fight by all the rules of the political game to prevent his rivals from ousting him. But he also owes it to himself, to his legacy, and to this country he has striven for so long to protect, to ensure that his political struggle does not spill into the streets — into violence and bloodshed. He is uniquely capable of calming the hotheads, of delineating the line between legitimate political struggle and darkness.

The alliance taking shape against him is not illegitimate or undemocratic, as he charges. And its actions are not treasonable, as some of his supporters so dangerously claim. It may be too much to expect that he will withdraw his own accusations. But it is vital that he take a public stance against the unconscionable charges of treachery. For he knows full well where those despicable claims can lead.

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