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Will Netanyahu fan flames or accept public’s verdict?

Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accept the verdict of the Israeli public, or will he try to ignite the flames one last time, before the new government is sworn in?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Health Ministry-organized appreciation ceremony for health-care system personnel and partner agencies for their contribution during the coronavirus pandemic, Jerusalem, June 6, 2021.

Is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a Middle Eastern clone of former US President Donald Trump? Is Israel’s emerging “government of change” the equivalent of President Joe Biden’s administration seeking to heal divisions and the country’s democratic institutions, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote June 3? It is hard to ignore the similarity between the warning by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley in the waning days of the Trump administration — “We do not take an oath to an individual. … We take an oath to the Constitution.” — and last week’s leaked warnings attributed to an unnamed senior Israeli military source — “We will not allow anyone to set the Middle East on fire.”

No one in Israel was under any illusion that “anyone” was a reference to Netanyahu. As Al-Monitor reported June 4, the comments were made public following Netanyahu’s threats to block Iran’s nuclear program with or without US approval, and renewed attempts by right-wing activists to stir up unrest in Jerusalem by holding the Flag Parade in the Old City of Jerusalem June 10.

Knesset member David Bitan, a Likud party strongman and former close associate of Netanyahu, said in a June 7 television interview, “The heads of the defense agencies no longer heed Netanyahu; for them he’s already a has-been.” Bitan vented a feeling many Israelis share that Netanyahu is “losing it," veering out of control as he tries desperately to hold on to power.

Netanyahu was silent last week when reports emerged of the planned nationalist Flag Parade through the most volatile sections of the city as a reprise of the May 10 Jerusalem Day march that was scuttled by Hamas rockets. In the past, he would have been quick to veto such a flagrant nationalist provocation that risks the fragile calm in the mixed city. These days, some people are even suggesting that Netanyahu is cheering and encouraging the event behind the scenes. Last month’s Flag Parade that prompted Hamas to fire rockets at Jerusalem resulted in an Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip and set off rioting in mixed Arab-Jewish towns — suspending negotiations on a “government of change” and almost scuttling its formation. Is Netanyahu planning a rerun of these events?

This time, Defense Minister Benny Gantz sent up warning flares well in advance, convening a consultation of security officials and declaring that he would oppose the parade at such a sensitive time. The Israeli Police followed suit, adopting the same position. Netanyahu was forced to accept the verdict, and the event has been scrapped. The new, desperate, warmongering Netanyahu retreated. The original responsible Netanyahu, averse to military adventures, was back in charge.

Are Trump and Netanyahu twins separated at birth? Yes and no. Trump has been the same Trump throughout his public career. Netanyahu morphs into different characters according to circumstances. The original Netanyahu is as different from Trump as humanly possible — highly educated, knowledgeable, thorough, a voracious reader, a man who delves into the minutest of details, shirks risks, adheres religiously to the status quo, protects the system and nurtures the elites. The complete opposite of Donald J. Trump.

However, since 2015 we have been witnessing the rebirth of a different Netanyahu. Like Mr. Hyde gradually overtaken by Dr. Jekyll, Netanyahu’s original character is becoming blurred. Gone is the classy, articulate, stylish leader, replaced by a destabilized, adventurous persona, irresponsibly challenging fundamental principles and conventions. Netanyahu is like Icarus who flew so close to the sun that his wings melted and sent him crashing to the ground. His stunning 2015 electoral victory unleashed dark forces, convincing him of his immortality, omnipotence and invulnerability. He believed Israeli voters had given him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. He was wrong.

Trump’s confounding 2016 election victory accelerated Netanyahu’s destructive downward spiral. The hot-headed leader, who trampled on the rules of the American political system, unknowingly became Netanyahu’s role model. "There’s no reason I cannot do everything Trump can do in America" — that was in essence the sentiment relayed by Netanyahu to his people. His associates set up a sophisticated fake news machine, mobilized legions of dedicated followers who cast fear over Likud party members on social media. More so, Netanyahu shed the checks and balances that had been his hallmark for many years.

Tracing Netanyahu’s behavior in the past four years, it seems he was ambivalent about Trump. Clearly, Netanyahu viewed the US president as an infinite source of power and political riches for Israel — and himself. He had thanked Trump for his actions on numerous occasions. Still, Netanyahu distanced himself from the president’s ignorance and style. Unfortunately, Netanyahu did not realize that he himself was turning speedily into an Israeli-style Trump. A stranger watching Netanyahu these days would not be able to tell the difference between him and Trump in the twilight of his presidency. Netanyahu is maneuvering wildly, coming up with horrifying ideas designed to help him survive, casting deranged accusations at political rivals and trying to convince Israelis that without him, Israel is lost.

The worst could still be ahead. Barring a last-minute change, the Knesset is scheduled to swear in the new government June 13. Will Netanyahu in a last-ditch effort engineer a Capitol-style invasion in Jerusalem? Will he call on his followers to march on the Knesset to prevent being unseated? Going by historic precedent and Netanyahu’s own record, the answer is “no.” He will pull himself up short at the last minute. Nonetheless, today’s Netanyahu could surprise even himself. This morning, his Likud party issued statements in English informing the world that deposing Netanyahu means turning Israel into a dictatorship and comparing his designated successor Yamina leader Naftali Bennett to the leaders of North Korea.

Judging by statements by his associates, Netanyahu is wholly sold on these absurd claims. Currently, he has very few professionals advising him, his office having emptied of all its sane officials in the past two years, as was the case with Trump’s West Wing in its final months. Netanyahu is almost alone, with only a handful of advisers, his wife and son Yair, and the backing of terrified senior Likud figures. This could prompt him to commit a desperate act. Will he decide in the coming days to bow his head, accept the rules of the democratic game and urge his followers to stand down? Or will he fan the flames and send them to storm the ramparts of Israeli democracy? Netanyahu is in a precarious mood, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s final days in office. He must choose between two equally unpalatable options: To be Trump or Nixon.

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