Benjamin Netanyahu, once the golden boy of the Israeli hard right, appears to have been stripped of his Midas touch. A sly orator, a populist manipulator and a rabble-rouser, the 73-year-old has now lost his flair for grandstanding. At the UN General Assembly last week, speaking to a near-empty hall, Netanyahu’s usual gaslighting, while attempting to do his signature smoke and mirrors show, foundered. He used everything in his repertoire of tricks and yet he failed to impress. All that was missing was for him to throw a tantrum. Maybe that will come once he gets back to Israel and faces reality.
His enamor for showing graphs and maps was pitiful. His “new Middle East” offering had nothing new. The idea goes back to the era of the Oslo Accords, when a different brand of Israeli – and Arab – politician contemplated the vision of a time when Arabs and Israelis could live in peace and use their vast human and natural resources to turn the region into a potent powerhouse. But there was an essential condition to that vision: an end to the decades of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. That prerequisite never happened.
One of the main culprits for the derailment of Oslo and subsequent attempts to resuscitate an ailing peace process was none other than Netanyahu himself. Whether in opposition or at the helm, he has done his best to wreck the peace process and later bury the premise of a two-state solution in historical Palestine. He used everything in his arsenal to empty the Oslo Accords of any substance. The Palestinian Authority became a placebo self-rule pill that the Palestinians were duped into swallowing for years. Slowly, the goal of negotiating final status issues – a preface to finally ending the occupation and delivering on the Oslo promises – was stripped of any context.
Having changed the narrative, Netanyahu then proceeded to undermine the PA, unleashing waves of settlement buildings that strangled the Palestinians and robbed them of their homes, lands and natural resources. The biggest land grab since the occupation of the West Bank took place after Oslo. Netanyahu was always there to give the green light as he nurtured the Kahanists, the ultrareligious and the ultranationalists. Under his successive governments – he became the longest-serving premier in Israeli history – the left fell on its proverbial sword and the right lost its bearings as the far right hijacked its platform.
His penultimate political sin was to bring those far-right fanatics out from the cold when he struck a deal to end an election stalemate and win a majority in the Knesset. His toxic coalition unveiled an ugly face of Israel; one that even its most loyal supporters in Washington, London and elsewhere could not tolerate. He has divided Israel more than it ever has been since the country’s bloody birth. His assault on Israel’s democratic institutions has little to do with its incurable hold on the West Bank. He has triggered a civil war that threatens to tear the country apart. But he avoided the issue at the UN. Facing criminal charges of graft, Netanyahu’s legacy is at stake – and he could go to prison. Thus his unholy alliance with the maniacs who want to make Israel a Daesh-like state. He is willing to risk chaos in Israel to save his own skin.
But the far-right’s conflicting agendas go beyond the outer limits of Netanyahu’s political avarice. Aside from ending Israel’s secular nature through racist, misogynistic, religiously extreme objectives, they also want to end any hope of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. The alternative? Who knows? Mass transfer, genocide, ghettos – everything has been normalized and is now on the table. This is what Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and others are spewing out with no shame. But Netanyahu says he is in control. However, his enemies, even the conservative Israeli media, do not believe him. While avoiding all this, Netanyahu still believes he can sell something to the world, when in fact his coffers are empty. His final act at the UN was to claim he was delivering a new Middle East, aptly his last show and legacy. The reality is that his government is so radioactive that even his Abraham Accords partners are in disgust. Support for the accords has dipped, according to various surveys.
At the UN, he brandished a map that underlined a total denial of the existence of the Palestinians. But he offered no solution. The big question today in Netanyahu’s Israel is what to do with more than 3.5 million Palestinians if “Eretz Israel” is to become a reality. His new Middle East premise is missing one giant component, and he is in denial. Netanyahu avoided mentioning how Israel is changing under his watch and he skirted mentioning the peace process altogether, as if normalizing ties with the Arab world would make the Palestinian issue disappear. He again tried to play the Iran card but was a few steps behind in the latest geopolitical shifts. The region’s countries now agree that they must deal with Iran as a neighbor and possibly a partner.
Netanyahu was rash to celebrate possible rapprochement with Saudi Arabia – the big prize – while ignoring Riyadh’s crystal-clear and principled position on what needs to be delivered before such a historical breakthrough is ripe for the picking. In short, Netanyahu got everything wrong at the UN; just as it appears he is getting a lot wrong back home in Israel.