2:45pm

Wed January 19, 2011
Middle East

Netanyahu Under Fire From Israeli Left And Right

A heated debate is under way in Israel over issues of racism, freedom of expression and dissent. And Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing criticism from all sides because of it.

It's been a bad few weeks for Bibi, as the prime minister is known.

He is being attacked on the left: Opposition leader Tzipi Livni is blaming the Netanyahu government for what she calls a "wave of evil" that is sweeping the country. She is referring to a recent parliament proposal to investigate human rights groups and left-wing organizations that oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

And on the right, Netanyahu's own foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, publicly attacked members of the prime minister's party for not being right-wing enough.

Analysts in Israel warn of a serious conflict brewing -- not between Israelis and Palestinians but between Israelis on the left and the right.

Netanyahu On Sidelines As Polarization Grows

Words like fascism and racism are used regularly in the Israeli media to describe some of the policies under consideration by the government.

Yaron Ezrahi, a left-leaning political scientist at Hebrew University, says he and many other political analysts receive regular threats just for expressing their opinions.

"I was born in Israel over 70 years ago. I don't remember a period where people would feel that speaking openly against the occupation, against racism directed [at] Israeli Arabs, is a dangerous thing. In Israel, it is a dangerous thing," he says.

Gadi Wolfsfeld, also a professor of political science at Hebrew University, says many blame Netanyahu for not doing more to temper rhetoric that could provoke political violence among Israelis.

"Once again, he has stood on the side as the flames of hatred are rising, and I think violence is inevitable at this point," he says.

Wolfsfeld says Israelis are polarized and they aren't sure anymore what Netanyahu stands for. His only real achievement, Wolfsfeld says, has been his ability to keep his coalition government intact.

"When all you do is technical moves -- give the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] this, give Labor that -- when all you are doing is trying to keep alive, in the end it may kill you because you have no vision, you don't have any momentum," he says.

A recent poll conducted by Israel's Channel 10 shows that Netanyahu's popularity is at an all-time low. Only 34 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied with his performance, down from 45 percent in early December.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to do damage control.

"The assumption that Israel is moving to a bad place ... you have to ask where is the government going, because we are committed, and I am committed, to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, with its democratic values," he said at a recent news conference with the foreign press.

Problems Extend Beyond Borders

The prime minister also faces increasing problems in the international arena. Relations with former ally Turkey are terrible. This week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Netanyahu's government is the worst in Israeli history.

European diplomats in Israel have expressed concern that the moves to monitor human rights groups could endanger Israel's democracy, and peace talks with the Palestinians are at a complete standstill.

The international community is growing ever more restive over the issue of Jewish settlements in occupied territory. A European Union report released this week recommended harsh measures against settlers and settlements in east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, again speaking at the foreign press news conference, insisted that he is a man who can make peace.

"No coalition considerations will prevent me from pursuing a peace that I believe in. And I'll tell you something else. I think if I bring a peace agreement, which means that I believe in the agreement that I will sign, I think I will bring the support of the Israeli public. I don't think, I know that," he said.

But it seems unlikely that the Palestinians will agree to resume negotiations anytime soon. Netanyahu blames them for the collapse of the talks, while the Palestinians say Israel is making negotiations impossible. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.