The Arab Spring turned Netanyahu into the national fearmonger
In the last year, Middle Eastern leaders have been ousted and denounced, have been slaughtered or have engaged in slaughter. The response of Israel's premier has been to become more entrenched in his own views - and in passivity, as Tzipi Livni puts it.
In February, just after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Benjamin Netanyahu made a statement before the Knesset. The images from Tahrir Square enabled him to slide effortlessly into the role he likes best: that of the national fearmonger.
"We are in an unstable situation," he told the parliament. "In a situation like this, we need to look around with open and realistic eyes. We remember what things were like here when there was no peace; how we fought on the banks of the Suez Canal, and in Jordan. Since the advent of peace we have enjoyed the fact that we have not needed to defend those borders, with all that this entails ... Now we have to understand that the basis for every future agreement involves the entrenchment of Israel's strength. Security arrangements are needed on the ground in the event that the agreements are violated or there is a regime change on the other side."
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who spoke after the prime minister, could only present the other side of the coin: "I knew that when the prime minister would take the podium today," she said in something of a resigned tone, "he would talk about uncertainty and instability and fear. The fear that will freeze every initiative, that will drive us into insularity and will prompt the public to seek a strong leadership."
Livni went on to scold the prime minister: "You will not be able to go on using the uncertainty, and the true and legitimate fears of the country's citizens, in order to continue entrenching not security, but your own status."
Almost a year later, Middle Eastern leaders have been ousted and denounced, have been slaughtered or have engaged in slaughter. Netanyahu and Livni, though, have only become more sure of their opinions.
Two weeks ago, Livni was a guest of the annual Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., where the keynote speaker was U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta devoted much of his remarks to the Arab Spring and to Israel's growing isolation. While acknowledging that a campaign was afoot to augment that isolation, Panetta noted, "I have never known an Israeli government - or an Israeli, for that matter - to be passive about anything, let alone this troubling trend." He recommended that Israel try to "mend fences" with countries that have a shared interest in regional stability: Egypt, Turkey, Jordan. "This is not impossible," he said. "If gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are."
Livni couldn't agree more. "Throughout its history, the Zionist movement always took the initiative in the face of difficult situations," she said this week. "The concept of not doing anything because the situation is tough and uncertain - that is Netanyahu's worldview. His passivity is hurtling us rapidly into a situation of no return. There is 'no partner' among the Palestinians, the events all around are creating uncertainty - so we don't have to do anything. He is isolating Israel out of existence.
"Bibi is not working with the world. He is not deciding, not initiating. But this also serves him politically. If there are no decisions, there are no aftershocks. The coalition is stable and all's well. Now the word is that he wants to move up the elections so that Israel will not get a thrashing from [U.S. President Barack] Obama in a second term. He is not worried about the thrashing Israel will get, only about being elected before it happens."
The failure to make decisions, Livni added, is also creating the violent phenomenon of Jewish terrorism that is spreading here.
"Many people here talk arrogantly about how Israel is 'the only democracy in the region,' a 'villa in the jungle,' and all that," she said. "They should take a close look at what's been happening here lately. The neighbors are at least trying to achieve democracy, even if in the end Islamists seize positions of power and exploit the democratic process. Whereas we, as a democracy, are undergoing processes that are no less serious and disturbing. Where is the difference?"
A senior Likud figure who wishes to remain unnamed said this week in a private conversation that the so-called Arab Spring is the No. 1 reason for the disappearance of the social protest from the national agenda and for the rise of interest in the security issue - with the attendant strengthening of Likud and the right-wing bloc.
"The near-lynching of the embassy staff in Cairo; the victory of the Islamist parties in the parliamentary elections in Egypt; the evaporating peace with Egypt; the fact that Sinai is becoming a vast hornets' nest of terrorism; ... the frequent security alerts around Eilat; the reconciliation between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas; the diplomatic war being waged by the Palestinian Authority against us; the bloodbath in Syria; the verbal aggression of the Turks; and the open discourse about a regional war that is liable to break out here in the spring - all those developments are factors that stir fear in the average Israeli. He [Netanyahu] doesn't want to take unnecessary risks. After all, he doesn't believe the Palestinians anyway.
"I am not saying that the social-welfare issue will disappear completely in the [next] elections. It will have an effect, but I have no doubt that what will determine the outcome is what happens around us. And the Israelis do not see an Arab spring around us. They see an Islamic winter.
"I can imagine Likud's major campaign clip in the next elections," the senior figure continued. "It's an image of that night in the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Of Mubarak in a cage. Tahrir. Massacres in Syria. Mahmoud Abbas and [Hamas chief Khaled] Meshal together. Gadhafi led to slaughter. The U.S. armed forces leaving Iraq. And the announcer asks: What kind of Israel do we want? A strong, entrenched, aggressive Israel? Or a conciliatory, forgiving and conceding Israel? It's a short, sharp clip. Terrifying music. Every night, over and over.
"Let's think: Why is the public moving to the right, according to all the polls? After all, there have hardly been any missiles in the past three years. There's been very little terrorism. On the face of it, there are all the reasons for moderation. But the opposite is happening, because the problems in the region are a tremendous engine for extremism on the Israeli street. Likud will have an easy job in the elections. We will ask: Do you want us to hand over the space above Ben-Gurion airport? To whom, exactly?"
Playing with fire
A week ago, this column reported that the political universe was rife with rumors that Netanyahu intends to move up the Knesset elections to next May or June. This week, a Likud cabinet minister who is close to Netanyahu was heard telling people that election day will be Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Another minister related that Netanyahu's staff is reexamining the possibility of passing legislation that will allow Israelis who are abroad for study or work to vote. The Prime Minister's Bureau stated in response that this particular subject has not been examined recently. A senior Likud figure who is knowledgeable about such matters noted that the idea was examined last September, after Netanyahu returned from a visit to the United States, but has been shelved in the meantime.
A minister who asked the premier this week about his intentions with respect to moving up the elections heard a totally sweeping denial.
In any event, first of all, Netanyahu has to be elected leader in the Likud primary on January 31. In the meantime, he is trying to maintain contact with what's going on in the field. On Wednesday, he adopted most of the recommendations made by the justice and public security ministers concerning the Jewish pogromists - apart from one: to declare them a terrorist organization. There is a limit, he declared.
Netanyahu's goal in the primary is to win 75 percent of the votes, versus 25 percent for Moshe Feiglin. Officially declaring the lawbreakers from the hilltops to be terrorists could have generated a tailwind for the extreme-right Feiglin, leaving Netanyahu with 65 percent to his 35 percent. That's why, together with the sharp measures the prime minister took against the hooligans in the territories, he also likened them to the left-wingers who demonstrate against the separation fence every week in Bil'in. But is Bil'in a military base? Did any of those demonstrators throw a brick at an Israel Defense Forces officer from zero range?
Netanyahu is playing with the height of the flames. He never goes all the way unless it's to shut down a television station and news company that made his family and friends angry.