Benjamin Netanhanyu and Narendra Modi have striking similarities between them, not the least their similar strategies to stay in power. But there are a lot of differences as well. One-surged, self-confessedly, from a humble tea vendor on the railway station, the other was a military commando before becoming a right-wing demagogue. The unlikely doppelgangers thrive on dividing people, polarizing them alongside religious or ethnic traces even as they manipulate political outcomes to their benefit. They don’t always succeed, in their path, but this is the one technique they recognize.
Do not forget the current flare-up in the violence among Hamas and the Israeli army. It reads like a chapter from Balakot or Muzaffarnagar collectively with a campaign thrown in to ‘reclaim’ a Jewish temple from the site of a Muslim mosque.
In its bare form, the Hamas-Israel violence is in fact taking vicinity in Netanyahu’s interest if not additionally at his bidding. Following inconclusive elections in March, the Israeli prime minister had to take away the prospect of conviction over corruption charges. He couldn’t muster a majority and President Reuven Rivlin, a Likud colleague but hostile to Netanyahu, has given up to June to his competitors to make up a viable government. The coalition can work but it needs the assistance of an Arab group who Netanyahu had persuaded in the past. This time around he needs to undermine the possibilities of a probable alliance of leftists, rightists, and Arabs, not least because it’d be ranged against him.
Netanyahu just like modi has sown the seed of mistrust between the groups which are working for the political benefit
Driving a wedge among Israeli Arabs (they don’t like to call them Palestinians) and Jewish parties could accomplish the specified outcome. The unnecessary police mugging on Muslim worshippers at Al Aqsa mosque collectively with a stepped-up drive to take away Arab residents from their dwellings in East Jerusalem has led to history repeating itself. Violence has broken out not only between Palestinians in Gaza and West bank on the only side and Israeli troops on the other, but Arab and Jewish citizens of Israeli cities who’ve lived in relative peace for years have become on each other, not completely but sufficiently to spoil the optics for reconciliation among communities now seen as mutually hostile. It has shades of the Modi formulation, so much so it cannot be ruled out that a person has been exchanging notes on their behalf.
There has been more bad news for Netanyahu. Like his linked spirit in New Delhi, Netanyahu had sought to put a spin on his mishandling of the pandemic. Modi lost a string of key elections at least partly due to the skyrocketing body count while the one significant election he won in Assam was with the help of local tribal chiefs and Congress party turncoats. Israeli media have cited polls suggesting that if an election were held now, Netanyahu’s Likud party would lose more than a quarter of the seats it took in March. Many would go to another right-wing party led by Naftali Bennett, his former aide.
In a small victory for Netanyahu, as a consequence of the politically induced Arab-Jewish violence, Bennett has had to row back from eyeing a government with Ra’am (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas. He has informed fellow opposition leader Yair Lapid the idea was off the table. Lapid had been asked by the president to attempt to form the government. The problems have not abated for Netanyahu.
He still needs a way to win from conviction and possibly imprisonment.
Speculation is widespread that he might throw himself in the dispute as a presidential candidate in elections due on June 2. The indirect election through the Knesset could produce the needed immunity, but will he have the numbers in what is traditionally a secret ballot? There’s a possibility that he may back a candidate who would give him immunity. So it all seems to be about Netanyahu fighting conviction. But it has had an effect on the larger political architecture concerning the Middle East. It has forced President Joe Biden to take his eyes off China and potentially get sucked back into a place where his political options do not necessarily blend with his Russia-specific agenda in Europe and his promise to revive the anti-China pivot to the east. With the former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati calling his Hamas counterpart to extend support against Israel — “the spider in its web” — the apertures have opened wider.
Right now, Netanyahu is fighting to prove his credentials as a pugnacious leader who could not be trifled with. When needed he could even go for a showdown with Barack Obama, remember? Will he win the battle with Hamas and at what cost? Israeli opponents have been warning of civil war-like conditions in strife-torn Israeli cities. As for Israel’s military superiority, everyone knows that it has a humungous capability to pound at will Hamas bases in Gaza. But not everyone knew that Israel’s so-called iron dome of anti-missile protection, supposed to give the country its much-touted invincibility from incoming projectiles could be so easily breached. How this may impact Israel’s status as an international vendor of fail-proof weaponry will be decided when the time comes, but, for now it has to be seen how much if any political mileage Netanyahu has extracted by stirring up fresh confrontation with Hamas.
Netanyahu has many advantages like Modi. They are both aided and abetted in their pursuit of power by an assiduously loyal and influential media. But as recent elections in crucial Indians states showed, the ground reality is not always amenable to media manipulation.
Modi like Netanyahu has sown mistrust between communities for political profit. But how long can mayhem pass for politics, particularly when people are choking to death without any succor insight? However, both leaders have a great asset in common here, which challenges easy speculation about their political demise — a notoriously divided opposition.