Netanyahu is sitting on the fence, and loving it
While his political rivals are battling one another, the PM headed to the Egyptian border, where he toured the border fence with joy, calmness and a bit of arrogance.
While Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz were wandering between voting booths and engaging in a cut-throat campaign in the run-up to the Kadima primaries, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to the border with Egypt. It is unclear whether the timing of the tour purposefully coincided with Kadima's elections, but it is of little doubt that Netanyahu wanted to show the public, with the help of the journalists that were invited on his plane, that the primaries of the opposition's largest party are of little significance to him.
Netanyahu's message was clear on the runway near Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem. The writers that arrived at the runway found a lone MK, who was invited by Netanyahu to join the tour of the Egyptian border. Only this MK was not from Likud, nor from Yisrael Beiteinu or even Shas. Rather, it was Otniel Schneller from Kadima.
Schneller, who is part of the Mofaz camp, had previously attempted to split from Kadima and join the Likud along with six other MKs. One of the architects of the split was former head of the Prime Minister's Office Natan Eshel. The move failed, Eshel quit after the harassment scandal, but Schneller remained close to Netanyahu. "The prime minister invited me because I am involved in the issue of the fence as part of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee," Schneller said when asked by journalists why he was not campaigning for Mofaz on the day of the Kadima primary.
Upon landing at the Egyptian border near Nitzana, it was clear that Netanyahu was in a good mood. As opposed to previous tours, Netanyahu seemed casual, calm and for a few moments even a bit arrogant. He was photographed with each and every female soldier in the Caracal Battalion and even the construction contractor that came to shake his hand and take photographs with the prime minister on their mobile phones.
At a certain point, Netanyahu decided to leave the tent which is protected by large slabs of reinforced glass, and went out for a tour by foot of the border area, much to the worry of the Shin Bet's Protective Security Department. When he approached the fence, a member of the department covered him, explaining to the prime minister that the area was "within the range of gunfire from the Egyptian side."
"What about tonight?" I asked Netanyahu during the tour. "What about tonight?" he responded with a cynical smile. When I clarified that I was not referring to Tuesday's Maccabi Tel Aviv's game against Panathinaikos F.C., but rather to the primaries between Livni and Mofaz, Netanyahu responded, as a tribute to Menachem Begin when he was asked to respond to the breakout of the Iran-Iraq War. "Oh, the Kadima primaries," said Netanyahu, "I wish the best of luck to both sides."
Netanyahu's "fence" ideology
The fence on the border with Egypt is Netanyahu's "baby" during his second term in office. The decision to erect the fence actually came from the previous government, but former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was unable to advance the issue due to Defense Minister Ehud Barak's fervent opposition, which often took the form of sabotage.
Barak continued to serve as Defense Minister in Netanyahu's government, but his political weakness made it easier for Netanyahu to force him and the Ministry of Defense to build the fence as fast as possible. So far, nearly 105 kilometers of the fence have been built. 30 contractors are working concurrently and building several hundred meters of the fence every day (20 kilometers per month). The goal is to finish the remaining 135 kilometers, including in the mountainous area of Sinai, by 2012.
The fence, which is five meters high, and the barbed wire that are attached to it were originally meant to obstruct migrant workers from Africa. However, due to the Egyptian uprising and the anarchy in the Sinai Peninsula, the fence has become a means of defense against the infiltration of terrorists.
"Sinai has become a wild area of terror and smuggling," said Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yair Naveh to Netanyahu. "This is truly 'No mans land'." Naveh added that the Gaza-Sinai border has become a hotbed of terror and smuggling as a consequence of the Sinai central government's "lack of efficacy."
Netanyahu emphasized that he wants to "surround Israel with fences." Now it is the Egyptian border, after it will be the border in the Golan Heights and lastly the Jordanian border. "Soon we will complete the surrounding of Israel with obstacles that will allow us to defend our borders," said Netanyahu.
The problem is that as time goes on, it seems that for Netanyahu, fences are not just means but actual ideology. The wave of revolutions in the Arab world only strengthened Netanyahu's anxiety over the future, as well as his desire to enter the bunker until the fury has passed and his recoiling from every peace initiative.
For his part, Netanyahu claims that this attitude toward fences is becoming more popular in other countries. "People are beginning to understand the threats on their borders," he said. "The leaders of 12 different countries, with whom I spoke, told me that they had to implement this place long ago."
Before he took off back to Jerusalem, Netanyahu informed the journalists that he is set to fly to China in mid-June, a trip he has been attempting to organize for three years. There, Netanyahu will be able to tour the Great Wall, a fence of quite a different size. According to Netanyahu, the Chinese know how to work. "They do everything, without regard for obstacles."
The blog of Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, taking a deeper look behind the scenes of Israeli politics and foreign policy.