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Tuesday, 31 January 2023
Bibi’s well-timed memoir
Ian Black

Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s latest book is well-timed, doubtless intentionally: it was published just a week before Israel’s general election, its fifth in less than four years, on November 1, encouraging supporters to vote for him by recounting his many years in office and his vast experience in dealing with both allies and enemies.

 Netanyahu devotes a lot of his memoir entitled, Bibi: My Story, to describing how he persuaded Donald Trump not to trust Mahmoud Abbas, the veteran leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), who he claims was irrevocably hostile to the Jewish state and wanted a border as close to Tel Aviv as the George Washington Bridge is to Trump Tower. The familiarity of the New York landscape was the key. It is well-written but unashamedly self-serving.

 Netanyahu stayed very close to Trump throughout the latter’s time in the White House, between 2017 and 2021. Both are now out of power. Predictably, Netanyahu ticks off policy successes, among them the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the American embassy moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and Washington recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which were Syrian before the 1967 war.

 Bibi also tells the genesis of the Abraham Accords, the “normalization” deals signed between Israel and four Arab countries. But he also repeatedly describes his frustration as Trump continued with a “fixation with the Palestinians” rather than “a great political deal of peace with Arab states that I believed was around the corner”. Netanyahu tells how he contrived to play Trump a video meant to “adjust his thinking” about Abbas. The tape portrayed the Palestinian leader as two-faced, talking peace in English and praising terrorists in Arabic.

 Netanyahu’s 650-page memoir was published under the shadow of corruption charges which affect his ability to secure a workable majority in the Knesset. Based on recent polls, he has a serious chance of being re-elected. A victory could mean immunity from prosecution. That decision will rest with his coalition partners – if he wins.

 Latest opinion polls show that neither side will win the 61-majority necessary to form a government. Netanyahu’s Likud got 31 seats in the 120-member Knesset while Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) was predicted to win 27. Netanyahu's bloc remains stuck at 60 mandates, with the extremist Religious Zionist Party continuing to gain voters at the expense of Likud. That is led by Bezalel Smotrich. “If we get a lot of mandates, we will have the legitimacy to demand significant portfolios such as defence and the treasury,” he said recently.

 As leader of the opposition, Netanyahu has tried to focus on criticising government policies. Earlier in the campaign he sought to raise the issue of the high cost of living. He has also heavily criticised the Lapid government’s handling of the security situation, especially the recent maritime deal with Lebanon which Netanyahu claimed signalled a capitulation to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

 Another familiar tactic has been Bibi’s warning that Lapid will be forced to rely on an Arab party to form a coalition. At the same time, Likud has been active on social media in Arabic. The goal is to reduce antagonism towards Netanyahu since Israeli Arab parties often warn against his victory ahead of elections. In these campaigns, Netanyahu argues that Arab MPs only care about themselves.

 Netanyahu has the best chance of forming a coalition of 61. But the policies he would have to adopt in order to get these parties on side – tearing up the justice system (potentially cancelling his own trial), ignoring the teaching of core subjects in ultra-Orthodox education and appointing Smotrich and the even more extremist and avowed racist Itamar Ben-Gvir as senior ministers – would tarnish his political legacy.
 Lapid is doing well in the polls but based on the numbers it is difficult to see a permutation where he can form a 61-seat coalition, meaning the most realistic scenario for him is staying as caretaker prime minister as the country heads to yet another general election.

 Recent weeks have also seen alarming escalation in the occupied West Bank, in particular with regard to the Palestinian Lions’ Den militant group. This encompasses young men from various political factions who have been mounting resistance to the Israeli army when it raids Nablus city or Jenin refugee camp, or when Jewish settlers, escorted by Israeli soldiers, storm Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.

 Lions’ Den has gained much popularity among Palestinians, as evidenced by the widespread adherence to the group’s call to hold a general strike on October 12 in solidarity with the civil disobedience campaign declared by Shu’fat refugee camp following a lockdown imposed by Israel a few days earlier. Abbas is now 86, and the PA is widely seen by Palestinians as corrupt and having  a vested interest in the status quo.

 If turnout in the Arab population (20% of Israel’s) is low, it is possible that the most far-right government in Israeli history will come to power – led again by Bibi. The world really needs to pay far more attention to what will happen in one of its most intractable conflicts as soon as tomorrow.