Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing the greatest political challenge of his life. After a close snap election, if he is unable to form a unity coalition in the next few days, for the first time in a decade he might be voted out of office and could becomea prisoner.
His potential successor, Benny Gantz, is not necessarily better. Gantz is a war criminal. He was chief of staff during the 2012 and 2014 attacks on Gaza and is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. He is proud of this. His policies are vague and very similar to Netanyahu’s on most important issues. Clearly, these elections don’t represent a revolutionary turn in Israeli politics. But I think they do matter.
Change is the lifeblood of all progressive politics. No one understands this better than Netanyahu, a conservative politician whose reign has been marked by stagnation. His appeal is in maintaining the existing reality, bad as it is, against real and imagined calamities. His legacy is not in making dramatic decisions. It’s in successfully convincing the Israeli public that there’s no other option but the status quo, while slowly and surely sinking the country deeper and deeper into fascism, entrenching its racial policies and consolidating its control over the territory occupied in 1967.
Take the peace process for example. Netanyahu’s achievement is not in dealing it a fatal blow; this honor is reserved for Ehud Barak. By the time of Netanyahu’s current term, it was dead on arrival. His achievement is that he somehow managed to keep it seemingly alive. A decade of intentionally pointless demands, zig-zagging on a commitment to the two-state solution and blaming the Palestinians for everything has resulted in a very convenient impasse. Israel’s foreign allies can maintain deniability over their complicity in Israel’s international law violations by asserting that the regrettable situation is temporary.
Meanwhile, Israeli society has never been less interested in the Palestinian question. Fewer and fewer Israelis believe that any solution is possible, most of us solemnly accept as a rule of nature that there’s just no end to this. Older generations tended to yearn for peace, which at the very least meant that the next generation of Israelis will not have to pick up a gun at 18. Today more and more believe that, as Netanyahu said, “we will forever live on our swords.” The metaphorical swords, of course, include bombs dropped from airplanes into the densely populated Gaza strip every few years. “Mowing the lawn,” as one of his cabinet members called it. It’s as brutal as it’s endlessly repetitive. For the first time since the first intifada, Netanyahu succeeded in making the occupation boring.
With the occupation sidelined, Israelis turned to other issues. In 2011, a massive wave of social protests broke out against Netanyahu’s austere, laissez-faire economic policies. At their peak, the protests brought half a million Israelis to the streets against the high cost of living and the deterioration of Israel’s once-robust welfare system. Netanyahu withstood the storm until it subsided without offering any meaningful policy change. The social protest petered out and all we got was some new opportunist politicians to warm the Knesset’s seats and the notion that Bibi is undefeatable. Less than a year later he was crowned “King Bibi” on Time’s front page.
A generation of Israelis has grown from preschoolers to young adults knowing nothing but Bibi. In recent years we have seen an incredible wave of progress in Palestine-related politics here in the U.S., with young people more and more likely to oppose Israeli apartheid. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu generation in Israel is more right-wing, more entrenched and more racist than their parents. There’s no clearer indication for his success.
But now, as a result of corruption charges (minuscule in comparison to his war crimes) and petty sectorial politics, the king is shaking in his throne. The authoritative father figure is now running around hysterically trying to form an unlikely coalition to save his own skin. Whether or not he’ll manage to weasel his way out of this pit, his invincible days may well be over. Could Pharaoh be a mere mortal? He sure sweats like one.
Netanyahu’s carefully cultivated stagnation can only be disrupted by his removal. The change will not come from a Gantz administration, but by the end of the Netanyahu administration. It may allow Israelis to imagine again. I am not saying that Israelis will suddenly vote down apartheid, and Gantz himself surely has no intention of ending it. But it’s important to not underestimate the toxic influence of Netanyahu’s personal grip on power. His fall can set things in motion again, revitalize dormant Israeli protests and grievances, and bring back hope for change to the Israeli psyche. As it stands, presently the only segment of Israeli society that is optimistic about the future is the right. The Israeli people – rather than the Israeli regime – are necessary partners in any future solution. Their awakening from their Bibi-induced slumber will be a crucial wave of change in which we must recognize and take part.