Shir Hever says Netanyahu is abusing his image as a protector of the Jewish people, and cuts deals with far-right and anti-Semitic heads of state, absolving them of their racism towards Jews in exchange for their superficial support for the State of Israel. All this, to win the upcoming Israeli elections
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner, great to have you all with us.
With the April 9 Israeli election is fast approaching, the nation is in full swing election mode. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he is seeking re-election for the fifth term as prime minister. The question is, one of the questions is, why is Netanyahu spending so much time meeting, making deals and hobnobbing with leaders of other nations, rather than domestic campaigning? At home, Netanyahu rarely accepts requests for interviews from the Israeli media, and it appears to most people that when he is, he’s focused on Israel hosting world leaders such as Narendra Modi from India or Viktor Orban from Hungary or Shinzo Abe from Japan and others.
The rest of the time, Netanyahu is abroad, attending the Paris summit commemorating 100 years to the end of World War One, and then attended the Visegrad Group, which is important to talk about, in Budapest, Hungary. And from there, he flew to the inauguration of Brazilian President Bolsonaro. So what’s at play here? Here’s some of what he had to say there.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It is a great day for the Brazil-Israel alliance. President Bolsonaro said the Brazil-Israel brotherhood. The brotherhood, the alliance that you mentioned, is real and can carry us to great heights.
MARC STEINER: So why is Netanyahu spending so much of his time abroad, pursuing foreign leaders? What exactly is the Israeli foreign policy and relations? Why does he seem to be making alignments with the most right wing leaders, many of whom have been accused of being anti-Semitic and being fascist? Here to discuss all of this with us is Real News correspondent Shir Hever, who joins us from Heidelberg, Germany. His most recent book is The Privatization of Israeli Security. And Shir, always great to have you with us, welcome back. Good to see you.
SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me.
MARC STEINER: So let’s just get right to this. I mean, so Netanyahu is under investigation in Israel for several corruption cases. His victory in April in the elections that are taking place in Israel are not certain, not guaranteed. So what do you think is at play here with all his traveling abroad instead of focusing in on Israel itself?
SHIR HEVER: Well, I think Netanyahu is currently winning the popular vote hands down. His support is overwhelming considering all of his opponents. And I think it’s because they understand something very deep. Because if you look at the other political parties in Israel, they’re starting to talk about what are their proposed plans for the failing education system in Israel, for the crisis in the health system, and some of them also talking a little bit about restarting the peace process with them occupied Palestinians, nobody’s talking about Gaza. And Netanyahu is not talking about any of these things.
In fact, Netanyahu doesn’t even have any kind of platform. If you look at the kind of billboards that he’s putting out now, he’s saying, “We’ll not let the journalists decide who the prime minister is, we’ll vote for Netanyahu despite, just so,” which is a very strange campaign slogan. But I think it’s because Netanyahu understands something very deep. He understands that the real elephant in the room is the occupation of Palestine, and the real elephant in the room is the fact that Israelis are terrified that if they will be held accountable for that occupation, the Israeli Foreign Relations will deteriorate, the boycott movement, the BDS movement, is going to wreak havoc on the Israeli army, and a lot of Israelis are very concerned about what it could mean for them traveling abroad and being seen as a colonizers in an apartheid state.
So what Netanyahu is actually saying, let me show you by doing and not by saying how I am creating new alliances for the Israeli state and creating new friends and reaching out to countries that didn’t even have diplomatic relations with Israel for decades. His most recent visit was to Chad in Africa, and now he announced that he’s also going to try to restart diplomatic relations with Mali in Africa. And all of this is in order to show that actually, maybe Israel doesn’t need to worry about criticism coming from the West, coming from Europe, coming democratic countries, because they can make new friends. And I think this is a message that Netanyahu understands can soothe the Israeli public and assure them that the real issue of the occupation, the boycott movement, the siege on Gaza, will not affect their lives.
MARC STEINER: So one of the things here with this kind of precedented move, of his moving around the world in ways he hasn’t done before and Israeli leaders haven’t done before, it makes sense what you’re saying here. I mean, because relations are even warming with a lot of the Arab Gulf states, which have been traditionally, at least on the surface, enemies of Israel, but also those are states that have reluctantly been forced to support the Palestinians, not for their love of the Palestinian movement themselves, because what it portends for their own countries. So how much of this has to do with U.S. and Iran, how much of it has to do with what you’re describing here in terms of the game to build support even with those who once really were verbally attacking Israel?
SHIR HEVER: Well, yeah. Actually, if you look at the new friends of Israel, countries that in the past were very aloof or standoffish in their former relations with Israel, or didn’t have any kind of relations. I think the reason for that is that those countries need more support from Israel, but I also think recognition from Israel, partially because they are themselves isolated in the world, just like Israel is becoming isolated, isolated from international organizations and from the UN and from the European Union. But I think a lot of this is just lip service, a lot of this is really on the surface. If you look at the trade relations of Israel with the rest of the world, you see that Europe remains the biggest trade partner of Israel, followed by the United States. And all of the other countries that Netanyahu is visiting or whose heads of state are visiting Israel are not trading with Israel in large amounts at all. Mostly, we’re talking about the arms trade.
And Duterte from the Philippines, for example, visited Israel in September. And he was criticized, of course, by journalists for his horrible statements condoning sexual violence and murder and comparing himself to Adolph Hitler. And when he was confronted with this accusation, Duterte answered, “Well, I’m buying a lot of weapons from Israel,” and that was his way of telling the Israeli journalists, “Get off my back because I’m on your side.” And I think that’s exactly the kind of relationship which is a very short term, short sighted alliance about arms deliveries and some photo ops. But in terms of Israel’s really long term foreign relation interests, that is something that Netanyahu is not improving at all. And in fact, Israel continues to become more and more isolated.
MARC STEINER: So Duterte is one example, but Netanyahu seems to be forming close relationships with all kinds of right wing governments. Some of them, as I said earlier, are just outright fascistic and known as anti-Semitic. I mean, Orban openly leading anti-Semitic measures in Hungary and denying their role in the Holocaust, and propping up people who were part of killing hundreds of thousands of Jews in World War II during the Holocaust. And they are courting him as well and honoring him, his relationship with people like Matteo Salvini in Italy and many others. So what is that about? The Polish prime minister, who wants to make it a crime to say that Poles were involved in, were complicit in the Holocaust. He’s hobnobbing these folks. What is that about? What’s being built here?
SHIR HEVER: You’re raising a lot of points here. And I have to say that we have to be a little bit careful about using the term fascism, because I think we may lose picture of what’s really happening. This rise of the new populist right, this outright–people like Orban are fans of Horthy, who was the leader of Hungary during the Second World War and was absolutely a fascist. Does that make Orban also a fascist? I’m not completely sure. I think he’s something a bit different and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of–
MARC STEINER: OK. I’ll put the word fascist aside for now.
SHIR HEVER: Yeah. But I also have to say that when you talk about Poland wanting to make a statement illegal, they already did. The law passed, and it passed with the blessing of Netanyahu. And I think that’s part of the point, because these right wing leaders, extreme right wing leaders in Poland and Hungary, also now in Brazil and the Philippines and elsewhere, are facing a legitimacy problem. And because they are immediately being seen as part of a very scary right wing movement, they’re called, for example, far right leaders, which hints that they are in fact fascists and maybe also pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic. And some of them are, like Orban, of course.
And so, by getting a photo opportunity with Netanyahu, by visiting Israel and going to the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, they can absolve themselves of those accusations and legitimize themselves.
MARC STEINER: But what does it do for Netanyahu?
SHIR HEVER: Those leaders have a lot to gain from those opportunities, and Netanyahu. Salvini, just a couple of months ago from Italy, recommended to make a register of the Sinti and Roma people living in Italy, just registering them as a separate kind of population, which is exactly the policy of preparing for ethnic cleansing or genocide. He was not able to do that. But then he comes to Israel and visits the occupied part of Jerusalem and meets with Netanyahu, and suddenly it’s all okay again and he won’t be accused of being an anti-Semites and a fascist because Israel gives him a kosher stamp.
MARC STEINER: But to conclude this, what does Netanyahu get out of this? I mean, he’s running for to be prime minister again for a fifth term, so what is he getting out of these relationships and this hobnobbing with these right wing leaders across the planet?
SHIR HEVER: Well, he’s telling the Israeli public, “Vote for me even though I’m a liar.” He doesn’t say that he’s a liar, but everybody knows that he’s a liar. But “I’m lying for your behalf,” he says to the Israelis. Because if he can get all of these schmoozing with world leaders around the world and call this improving Israel’s foreign relationship, and therefore give the Israelis this assurance that an occupation doesn’t matter, the boycott doesn’t matter, we don’t have to worry about the UN condemning Israeli actions, and violating international law, and so on, because we have new friends all around the world.”
Then the Israelis say, “Well, maybe he’s the leader we need, somebody who is corrupt, somebody who is not an honest politician, but uses his corruption for us, and he uses his very powerful skills and rhetoric and public speaking on our behalf.” And I think this is what is assuring his re-election in the upcoming election, barring only Israeli police putting him in handcuffs.
MARC STEINER: Well, there’s a lot to unpack here, Shir, and I guess we can unpack it in subsequent conversations together, because we really do have to. This is really very critical. And I agree with you, by the way, I think the term fascist is overused. I was just getting a tad emotional for a moment, I guess. So Shir Hever, thanks so much for joining us once again. Thanks for all your work.
SHIR HEVER: Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all. Take care.