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Is Israel heading for its own 6 January?

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Israel

(JTA) As Benjamin Netanyahu makes a last-ditch attempt to stay in power, even with a rival coalition set to take office, American journalists and scholars are offering a dire comparison: 6 January.

In Israel, the political turmoil now seems eerily similar to what was happening in America prior to the insurrection at the Capitol that day.

Like Donald Trump, Netanyahu is trying to foil a democratic process that historically has been little more than a formality. Also like Trump, the prime minister says the new administration is the product of the “greatest electoral fraud in the history of the country”.

On Monday, 7 June, Netanyahu’s Likud party claimed that the new coalition would be a “dark dictatorship” with laws “akin to the dictates of North Korea or Iran” because it will seek to institute term limits that could disqualify Netanyahu from running again.

Netanyahu, Israel’s leader for the past dozen years, has a loyal and passionate base that feels aggrieved and betrayed, similar to the former United States president.

One key difference is that an event that would have gathered Netanyahu supporters for a potentially volatile rally was denied a permit on Monday.

Even as the head of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, has warned of political violence, the leaders of the incoming coalition, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, have tried to stress that democracy will take its course while condemning incitement.

But a left-wing member of their coalition, incoming Environmental Minister Tamar Zandberg, tied Netanyahu’s verbiage to that of Trump during the fraught presidential transition.

“It’s similar to what Trump and his hate groups and supporters were doing in the time before the Capitol attack,” she told Politico in an article published on Sunday.

Zandberg has borne the brunt of violent rhetoric from the extremist right. Last week, she and her family fled their home in Tel Aviv after receiving death threats. A fake notice of her death circulated on social media.

Meanwhile, other politicians have received death threats or faced protests outside their private homes that have been promoted on social media by Netanyahu allies.

Still, the Israeli transition is proceeding, albeit slowly.

On Monday, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu ally, officially announced that parliament would vote on the new coalition by 14 June, though he didn’t set a date. With the coalition having the slimmest of majorities – 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members – Netanyahu is desperately trying to get one rival legislator to defect. His goal is to deadlock the Knesset into a 60-60 tie and prevent the new government from taking office. Thus far he has failed.

Meanwhile, a potential flashpoint for conflict appears to have been removed, as the Israel Police cancelled a right-wing nationalist parade through the Old City of Jerusalem scheduled for Thursday, 10 June. The march was denied permits amid fears that it would reignite violence just weeks after the conflict in Gaza, as well as the precarious electoral transition.

The parade, known as the Flags March, takes place annually on Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s 1967 capture of eastern Jerusalem. Israel subsequently annexed the area as part of its capital city. The march is meant to celebrate Israeli sovereignty over the Old City, and its route generally takes the mostly Orthodox Jewish marchers through the Muslim Quarter. In past years, the march has featured racist chants, and Arab shopkeepers in the Old City have been advised to board up their stores while it is taking place.

This year, on Jerusalem Day, which fell on 10 May, the parade was interrupted by rockets fired by Hamas launching 11 days of warfare between the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip and Israel. The march also took place amid escalating clashes between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and across Israel.

Last week, after organisers announced that the parade would be rescheduled for 10 June, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who is also part of the incoming coalition, advised that the route be changed. After refusing to approve the permit for Thursday, police did invite organisers to reapply with a new route or date.

The Biden administration also reportedly urged a change of route, fearing that Jerusalem could again experience violence.

Two Netanyahu allies, far-right legislator Itamar Ben-Gvir and May Golan, a Likud member, have vowed to lead the parade down the same route on Thursday anyway, with or without a police permit.

“We won’t give a prize to those Arab rioters and chicken politicians,” tweeted Golan, who compared her parliamentary opponents to “suicide bombers” on Sunday. “We will preserve our Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem!”

Fears remain that tensions could still erupt in Jerusalem, parade or no parade. On Monday, Ha’aretz reported that Israel’s attorney general wouldn’t intervene to stop the pending eviction of Palestinian families from the eastern Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, making the eviction more likely. The pending evictions were among several contributing factors to the violence in Jerusalem last month.

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Israel

Is the new Israeli government the end of ‘the magician’?

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After 12 consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis are coming to terms with the fact that the magician, as his fans like to call him, has finally run out of tricks. Or not.

A special parliament session on Sunday ended with a razor-thin majority of 60-59 in favour of a new, hugely diverse, coalition of eight parties. Headed by the leader of the far-right Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, it will result in Netanyahu, as head of the right-wing Likud party that won the most votes in the last election, heading off to lead the opposition bloc.

But before one writes Netanyahu off, it’s worth noting that he’s been here before. Twice he’s returned from the opposition to become prime minister, and he certainly plans to do it a third time. He’s vowed to “rescue Israel” from an incoming government based on “fraud, hate, and power-seeking”.

Netanyahu is a sore loser. He forwent the traditional public handover ceremony on Monday, 14 June, that includes a toast for the incoming prime minister, and reportedly gave Bennett just half an hour of his time before leaving to meet with his new opposition forces. They welcomed him as “prime minister”, and he didn’t feel the need to correct them, claiming that he could feel the “weak points” of the “dangerous left-wing government” at “the tips of my fingers”.

So, who is Naftali Bennett, the man who managed to unseat Israel’s longest serving prime minister? Ironically, the 49-year-old former tech-start-up-millionaire-turned-politician once served as a senior aide to Netanyahu, although the two often clashed. Bennett went on to form his own political party that represents the religious right and over the years, held three ministerial positions – diaspora affairs, education, and defence. But he failed to perform during the last election in March this year, coming joint fifth with just six out of 120 parliament seats. In the previous election, he didn’t even cross the threshold.

Israelis are asking themselves how someone with such a small mandate (the equivalent of 180 000 seats) is now their prime minister. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, his erstwhile supporters say he “stole” their vote. Many feel betrayed and angry. They complain that they voted for the right, and now Bennett has joined forces with parties on the centre and left. Many believe his desire to become prime minister, or to oust Netanyahu, or both, was so great, he forfeited his political positions. If elections were to be held today, Bennett would fare worse than he did three months ago.

But the new prime minister sees things differently. After Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition back in April, President Reuven Rivlin handed the baton to Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party which won the second largest number of votes in the last election. But Lapid was short of seven seats, exactly the number Bennett, an unlikely ally, could offer him, although later, one of the seven left the party. Bennett was kingmaker. After weeks of negotiations, he and Lapid signed a power-sharing deal in which Bennett will be prime minister until September 2023 and then Lapid for a further two years.

Most Israelis, though, don’t believe the new government will last that long, sounding its death knell as early as a few weeks from now. Bennett is Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister and the former head of the Settlers Council. Lapid is a secular centrist. Bennett wants to annex up to 60% of the West Bank; Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz wants to withdraw to pre-1967 lines. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seeking to maximise conscription in the ultra-Orthodox community and drastically reduce that sector’s government funding; Bennett and maybe even Lapid hold out the hope of at least some of the ultra-Orthodox MKs joining the coalition. And so it goes on.

But Bennett is using the coalition’s weakness as his biggest strength, arguing this “change government” is the broadest and most representative in Israel’s history.

“We hope it’s the beginning of a new Israel,” he said, promising that his government would “work for the sake of all the people” and prioritise reforms in education, health, and cutting red tape. Thorny issues like reaching a deal with the Palestinians he’s left out for now.

But the biggest irony of all is that it’s on Bennett’s watch that for the first time, an Arab party will be sitting in the ruling coalition. In the 73-year history of Israel, there’s an unwritten rule that any government is formed only by Jewish parties. The one exception was when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the support of an Arab party in the wake of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s. That agreement, however, didn’t formalise the party’s entry into the ruling coalition.

What has driven Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Arab Islamist Ra’am party, to join the government isn’t the desire for a peace agreement but rather pragmatism. He wants immediate attention paid to the demands of the Israeli Arab minority. Among the promises he has extracted from Bennett are the adoption of a five-year economic-development plan for the Arab community with a budget of 30 billion shekels (about R126 billion) as well as plans to combat crime and violence in the Arab community, improve infrastructure, and advance Arab local authorities.

Palestinian leaders, however, have reacted dismissively to Israel’s new government, saying it makes no difference who heads it, least of all when it’s someone cut from the same cloth as Netanyahu.

Inside Israel, there have been calls for physical violence against Bennett and members of the new government. Even before being elected, the new prime minister’s security was increased amid concerns that he could be harmed. Rising incitement and hate speech on social media led to an extraordinary statement being issued by the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Nadav Argaman. “This discourse may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity, and could even lead to harm to individuals,” he warned.

It’s worth remembering that Rabin (like Bennett) was depicted as a traitor by the Israeli right, and eventually that led to his assassination. Some are worried the current political climate has echoes of those times.

Netanyahu has declared that the new government endangers the land of Israel, the state of Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces. “We’ll be back,” he pledged just before getting dethroned. Sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his blockbuster Terminator movie, there’s likely to be a dramatic sequel to follow. Watch this space!

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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“How much blood will be shed?” ask bereaved parents

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Losing a child to violence devastates the parents left behind. It creates an unspeakable emptiness, a void of loss, pain, and anger. Two bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents have joined forces to forgive, and have become unlikely warriors for peace so that their children won’t have died in vain.

Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin shared their grief and hope in an emotion-filled webinar, “One Day After Peace”, hosted by the SA Jewish Report on Saturday, 12 June.

Damelin was born in Johannesburg, and settled in Israel in 1967. Her youngest son, David, served in the Israeli army during the Second Intifada. The liberal and open-minded educationalist David struggled with serving in the territories.

He was killed by a Palestinian sniper’s bullet in March 2002.

“One Palestinian,” Damelin said, “Not the whole Palestinian nation. I told the army, ‘You may not kill anyone in the name of my child.’”

Losing a child “tears your heart out”, Damelin said. Reluctantly, she was persuaded to attend a weekend for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families in East Jerusalem. “I thought I had had enough pain. But they understood. Palestinian mothers shared the same pain, our tears were the same colour.”

Damelin became a voice for non-violence, reconciliation, and restorative justice, and shared her story around the world. When the man who killed David was found, “That was the test,” she said. “Did I really mean all this stuff about reconciliation and forgiveness?” He said he had killed 10 people – David and nine others – to “free Palestine”, having as a child seen his uncle die for this cause. He took a path of revenge and was a folk hero. Damelin reached out to him, only to receive a bitter and stinging reply years later.

“When you are a victim of any circumstance, don’t remain one. It will hold you back for the rest of your life. I gave up my just right to revenge,” Damelin said. “Forgiveness is a very personal.” She has found that writing letters to David has given her solace.

Aramin also shared his story. Growing up under what he called “this strange occupation”, he began throwing stones at Israeli soldiers when he was 13. He was arrested at 17, and sentenced to seven years. He learned Hebrew in prison, “So I could know my enemy and kill my enemy. Jail gets you to hate more.”

Then he watched a film in prison about the Holocaust. “The vast majority of us don’t believe it happened, and that the Zionists use this ‘great lie’ to justify the occupation.” He was unexpectedly moved, and went on to do a Master’s in the Holocaust at Bradford University.

When he started a family after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Aramin realised that 100 years of armed struggle hadn’t worked, and just wanted a safe, normal life for his children.

In 2005, he met Israeli officers who had refused to serve in the territories. Having difficult conversations, they kept meeting. Their group grew to 300 in a year, and became Combatants for Peace. “When you work with your enemy, he becomes your partner,” Aramin said.

Then on 16 January 2007, an Israeli border policeman shot and killed Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, outside her school.

“I joined a bereaved parents’ circle, an organisation in my worst dream I wouldn’t want to join. The ticket price is very high. You never fully heal.” Aramin was disappointed at the lack of regret by the man who killed his innocent daughter. “Revenge is a right, but forgiveness is a choice.”

“A child’s life is more important than any holy land. Without loving each other, we need to respect each other, and both peoples have a right to exist. Palestinians will never ever accept the Israeli occupation. We’re not going to leave or disappear. We will remain and the occupation will go. But how many more children will have to die?” asked Aramin.

“This last war was terrifying – a repeat of 2014 with better weapons,” Damelin said. “How are those children growing up filled with hatred in Gaza ever going to handle things? Children in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod are traumatised and wetting their beds. Palestinian women have no safe room to run to. Israeli mothers have 15 seconds to run – what if they have more than one child?”

“We need brave leaders,” said Aramin. “The Nakba [establishment of Israel in 1948] is over. The Holocaust is over. We are very strong nations, but we must look forward. We need to share this land, in one state, two states, five states, or there will just be two big graves here. I hope to see peace in my lifetime, but how much blood will still be shed?”

Aramin partnered with more than 100 Israeli soldiers to build gardens for children to play in, in Abir’s memory. “One can kill, 100 can build,” he said. “Me and Robi are family now. We are human beings and we need to trust and respect our partners.”

Damelin said, “If we don’t deal with the problems with Palestine, one of these days there won’t be an Israeli state. I love Israel, and I have paid the highest price. But it’s important to live in a moral country, and the occupation is taking its toll.”

Both speakers appear in documentaries about their journeys, One Day after Peace and Within the Eye of the Storm. Aramin’s story was also an inspiration for the novel, Apeirogon, by Colum McCann.

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Why Benjamin Netanyahu treats the Jewish media with contempt

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(JTA) Whether this week marks the last of Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-setting tenure as prime minister or is just a prelude to another never-count-him-out comeback, it seems a fitting moment to try to understand why he has consistently treated diaspora Jewish media with disdain.

It’s something I’ve experienced personally on several occasions, and may well reflect the prime minister’s attitude not just toward the Jewish press but toward American Jewry in general.

It seems ironic, if not baffling, that Netanyahu would be rude to the one group of journalists who are most sympathetic and accommodating. But then he is a man of many contradictions, with remarkable skills and ugly traits, towering oratory, and gutter-level charges, and great success in protecting Israel from outside threats while allowing the weakening of Israeli society from within.

I have interviewed the prime minister one-on-one in his Jerusalem office, attended a number of meetings he’s held with the press, and heard him speak many times in the United States (US) and Israel. Perhaps the most illuminating example of his contradictory behaviour dates back to a visit he made to the US when he first served as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999.

During that visit 25 years ago, Netanyahu’s staff scheduled back-to-back sessions for him with two separate groups of journalists in a small conference room at his Manhattan hotel. The first group consisted of about a dozen major media figures, including the network news anchors of the day and A-list reporters. The second meeting was with the same number of editors of Jewish newspapers from across the country.

As editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, I was invited to the second meeting. But thanks to an influential friend at the local Israeli consulate, I was allowed to attend the first meeting as well, though I was asked to keep a low profile.

When Netanyahu walked into the room with the media notables seated around a table, he was warm, friendly, and upbeat from the outset. He greeted them individually by name, shaking hands, making small talk as he moved gracefully around the room. During the session, he handled questions with aplomb, on point, articulate, and used colloquial expressions at times – it was easy to forget that he was the leader of a foreign country. He was thoroughly charming.

About 15 minutes after the meeting, while Netanyahu was taking a break, my Jewish media colleagues were ushered into the room. When we were settled in, the prime minister re-entered and immediately sat down at the head of the table. No schmoozing this time. He was all business and began, “OK, ask me your questions.”

A bit taken aback by the abrupt opening, the chair of our delegation asked if it would be all right for us to introduce ourselves briefly, stating our names and professional titles. Netanyahu agreed. When it was my turn, the prime minister looked closely at me and said, “You look familiar.”

I said, “I was with the first group here as well.”

What I wanted to add was, “I saw how engaging and friendly you can be if you want to make the effort. What’s your problem?”

For a split second, Netanyahu seemed a bit taken aback, but he just nodded and the introductions continued.

The mood of the session couldn’t have been more different to the earlier one. Though he was in the presence of loyal, influential Zionists who treated him with great respect, the prime minister was curt, contentious, and clearly couldn’t wait to be done with us.

“Ask me your questions.”

A few years later, when I was in Israel, I was granted a one-on-one interview with Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office. I was ushered in by an aide who announced my name as I sat down in a chair facing the prime minister. He wore a leather bomber jacket and was seated at his desk, reading through a document in front of him.

“Go ahead, ask me your questions,” he said without looking up. He was using a yellow outliner pen to mark his reading material.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed and waited for him to make eye contact. After a moment, he repeated his request. I waited again – it felt like minutes but was probably only a few seconds – before proceeding, reluctantly, with the interview.

I don’t remember the details of what transpired, only that I was thrown by Netanyahu’s rudeness, and that the agreed-on 45-minute session ended abruptly when an aide came in to announce that the prime minister was needed for a pressing matter. It seemed prearranged; the prime minister got up and followed him out of the office without a word or gesture to me.

One more: five years ago, at a Jewish media conference in Jerusalem I attended with dozens of colleagues from the US, Europe, and South America, Netanyahu addressed our group and was ornery from the outset. His manner was challenging and dismissive, interrupting the moderator, the Forward’s Jane Eisner, and suggesting alternative topics. At one point, he evaded a question about his government’s relations with American Jewry and responded, in effect, “Why not ask me about Israel’s impressive dairy output?” He then waxed eloquent on the subject, and had an aide display a chart on the wall with statistics about Israel’s prolific cows.

“After the session ended, some of the women journalists in the room were furious, sure that he acted as he did because I was the moderator,” Eisner wrote. “I appreciated their support, but male colleagues tell me that Netanyahu can be similarly dismissive to them, too.”

How does one explain this behaviour?

I turned to two close colleagues and veteran Bibi watchers – journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi in Jerusalem and Mideast expert David Makovsky in Washington – and asked why they think Netanyahu treats the Jewish media so shabbily. Is it because he doesn’t respect us as journalists? Or because he believes that diaspora communities are less relevant to Israeli politics? Or neither, or both?

“Bibi treats his friends worse than anyone,” Klein Halevi responded, “which is why, at the end of the day, he doesn’t have any. He takes them for granted and abuses their trust. That’s why this new government is being led, in part, by three of his former closest aides,” Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and Gideon Saar.

“The American Jewish media was simply in his pocket,” Klein Halevi continued, “or so he assumed, and he could treat them with the special contempt he reserved for those on his side.”

Makovsky believes Netanyahu views the diaspora Jewish media in the larger context of his attitude toward American Jewry – seen as declining dramatically in relevance.

On a practical level, he noted, diaspora Jews don’t vote in Israeli elections and so are “less central for his [Netanyahu’s] purposes to cultivate”. Similarly, the prime minister focuses mainly on Israeli media, which he views as either for him or against him, so the diaspora media is less important.

The prime minister has told those who meet with him privately that with the exception of the Orthodox, “American Jews will last another generation or two … due to assimilation and low fertility rates,” Makovsky said. “This has enabled him to discount the liberal attitudes and voting trends of non-Orthodox American Jews and not think of the impact of a few of his policies on the relationship.”

In addition, Netanyahu has said in private that as long as he has the support in America of evangelical Christians, who vastly outnumber Jews, and the Orthodox Jewish community, he’s in good shape.

We’ll know in the coming days the shape of Netanyahu’s immediate future. But even if the “change” coalition is sworn in, no one who knows Bibi Netanyahu believes he can be counted out.

  • Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of “The Jewish Week” from 1993 to 2019.

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