Toxic Israeli Politics Give Rise to Fears of Assassinations

(Bloomberg) -- In Israel’s toxic political atmosphere, talk has turned to assassination.

Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leaders have received death threats as two divisive and inconclusive elections dovetail in a caustic mix with the premier’s indictment for fraud. A former spymaster sees a worrisome parallel with the vitriolic campaign against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before he was gunned down leaving a peace rally in 1995.

“There have been negative campaigns and smear campaigns” in the past, said Gabi Weimann, a communications professor at the University of Haifa. “But all of that is nothing compared to recent times.”

Israel has long been a society wracked by sectarian divides: Jews of European descent versus Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Ultra-religious Jews against secular Jews. Proponents and opponents of trading land for peace with the Palestinians. Not to mention the chasm between Arab and Jew.

Netanyahu proved a master at leveraging these rifts, championing nationalist identity politics that pit right-wingers against leftists, and Jews against Arabs. Israel’s fractured poltiical terrain offered fertile ground. But the atmosphere has become more menacing in the wake of the two elections where corruption allegations against Netanyahu played a key role.

A social media post, now under investigation, advised Israeli police to “get ready to direct traffic to the funerals” of Netanyahu, his wife and son, an aide said.

Israeli media have reported unconfirmed death threats against Netanyahu’s main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, and another senior figure in his Blue and White bloc, lawmaker Yair Lapid, has received death threats for weeks, an aide said. “Every bullet has its address and yours is in the rifle barrel,” said one tweet.

Bodyguards Assigned

Shabtai Shavit, head of the Mossad spy agency when law student Yigal Amir murdered Rabin over his land-for-peace policy, sees a troubling parallel. “I can’t but think about the possibility that Yigal Amir Chapter 2 is already in our midst,” he tweeted.

Bodyguards were reportedly assigned to two state prosecutors who led the investigations leading up to Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of bribery and fraud. While Netanyahu and his circle haven’t been insulated from the threats, his campaign’s rhetoric has been rife with invective aimed at the media, law enforcement, leftists and Israeli Arabs as he fights for his political survival.

‘Riven With Division’

At the recent annual memorial for Rabin, President Reuven Rivlin lamented that “the political culture of left and right is riven with division.”

“It is as if we have learned nothing,” he said.

Not so, said Likud backer Yarim Berreby, who was a preschooler when Rabin was killed. “We all learned its lesson,” said the 29-year-old student from the southern community of Zohar.

Netanyahu was the central speaker at the 1990s demonstrations where marchers chanted “Death to Rabin,” and carried a mock coffin and noose. Critics say Netanyahu’s presence there and failure to roundly condemn the rhetoric fanned the passions that encouraged the assassin to act -- a charge he hotly denies.

“The phenomenon of incitement isn’t new,” said Itzhak Galnoor, a senior fellow at Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. “But the scale of it, and the fact it sometimes comes from the top are creating tremors that could lead to a major disruption of the political system. This is entirely new.”

Shield of Anonymity

Aggressive campaigning and incitement have also been transformed by the anonymity social media affords users across the globe. Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, says social media allows people to let off steam and lowers the possibility of physical violence.

Yet police said they’re on alert for possible political violence as online hatred mounts. Lapid employs a team that manages his social media accounts and removes vicious content.

“The writing is on the wall,” wrote Uri Misgav, a commentator for the Haaretz newspaper. “You’ve been warned.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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