Netanyahu Is Acting Like a Responsible Adult – for Now

As tensions and terror rage, the premier has been making prudent decisions in which, fortunately, pragmatism has trumped ideology.

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Illustration

According to four ministers from three different parties, during the rash of recent security cabinet meetings, Benjamin Netanyahu has demonstrated that he is an experienced prime minister, a quick study who knows to separate the wheat from the chaff. He’s being infinitely patient, even too patient, says one of those who has been present. He listens attentively to the speakers, and takes things seriously, or at least pretends to. Frequently he positions himself in the center, between the cabinet's militant right wing and its leftist peaceniks. Like most of the prime ministers before him, however, he comes to this forum with set decisions already worked out in a smaller forum, and intelligently navigates the ministers toward the shores on which he wants them to land.

If he has to decide on the placement of barriers between the eastern and western parts of Jerusalem – meaning de facto partitioning of the capital – he does so without blinking an eye. The ideology vanishes and pragmatism takes over, thank heaven. The speeches, the campaigns and the propaganda broadcasts are all very well and good, but reality triumphs.

The message from his books, the systematic ideology, and the vision that rejected a Palestinian state disappeared in the Bar-Ilan speech back in 2009, and in the Gilad Shalit prisoner-exchange deal, as did the almost-religious mantra against releasing “murderous terrorists.” From one election campaign to the next, Netanyahu is shedding his old beliefs and approaches, constantly undergoing renewal. What will he have left to sell in the next election? That unified Jerusalem will never be divided? That if Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni come to power, Israelis will need to arrive at the Western Wall in armored personnel carriers? Today, they don’t go there at all. They’re too scared.

Why should we complain only about Netanyahu, when leaders from the center-left, such as Herzog and also Yesh Atid’s MK Yair Lapid, continue to obsessively declaim hackneyed comments about “one Jerusalem”? When will that camp finally get a courageous leader who can look the public in the eye and say that Jews have no reason to be in Silwan or in Jabal Mukkaber, in Shoafat or Isawiyah, and that we have to dispense with that illusion. The irony is that only a strong, right-wing leader like Netanyahu, with security appeal (which has, admittedly, suffered lately), is capable of persuading a broad public to accept a change in policy like that.

When the situation deteriorates, Netanyahu does the right thing, judiciously, with a foot on the brake, without getting carried away. By nature, he’s apprehensive about getting involved in unnecessary entanglements. Last year, during Operation Protective Edge, he fearlessly blocked demands from the right wing in his government to invade and occupy the Gaza Strip.

But what does he do between one crisis and the next, when things are ostensibly – but only ostensibly – quiet? Much of the past month, he spent abroad: Florence, Moscow, London, New York, and he wanted to go to Berlin, too, but that trip was canceled a day before it was to take place. The initial warning signs were already there, but the prime minister didn’t have his feet on the ground; he was airborne.

And what was Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan doing during those critical weeks? He huffed and he puffed, as he dealt with the bizarre, hopeless candidacy of Gal Hirsch as police commissioner, an idea that was born in haste and died in disgrace.

One minister said he has been frustrated by security cabinet meetings, because all the measures that get discussed at them have been merely tactical. There has been no out-of-the-box thinking, he said – nothing other than punitive or preventive, nothing of a diplomatic or semi-diplomatic nature. Like a meeting, a dialogue, some sort of initiative.

Even after the lengthy discussions, another minister told me, we still have no idea why the great majority of the terrorists involved in the recent violence are coming from East Jerusalem. If it’s the mendacious incitement regarding the Temple Mount, why aren’t the Arabs of the West Bank rising up, too? After all, the Mount is just as important to them. Is it the rage the result of decades of infrastructure neglect? “It’s very frustrating,” the minister admitted. “There is no intelligence: No one could tell us when it will end.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat claims that in the past year the investments in East Jerusalem have been unprecedented in scale. The improvement is plainly visible, he says. The problem is with the young people. Whereas he discerns a different, more moderate attitude among the older population in the Palestinian neighborhoods, youth are not grateful for another new road, another public structure. Facebook, the new Satan, is brainwashing them.

Barkat recently initiated a Jerusalem Municipality Facebook page aimed at residents in the eastern part of the city. It was only through that, he says, that we discovered the intensity of the incitement in their social networks. He admits candidly that he too has no idea why Palestinians are venting their rage on their Jewish neighbors – or why the incitement in the social networks, the ugly lies of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Temple Mount militancy are not obviously affecting residents of the West Bank.

Cold revenge

Every Israeli should be outraged by the U.S. State Department spokesman’s claim that there are “credible reports” to the effect that Israel is using what many consider to be “excessive force” in dealing with the current violent situation, and that the United States expects this tendency to stop. The comment is incomprehensible, divorced from reality. For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry also deviated from the line that historically characterizes Washington during periods when Israel is subject to a terrorist offensive: Kerry spoke about “violence on both sides” and claimed that the settlements were driving the Palestinians to act as they were. He poured salt on the wound when he added that he himself does not hold either side responsible for the violence.

This is the sweet, cold revenge President Barack Obama is taking on Netanyahu for intervening in domestic American politics on the eve of the agreement with Iran. The U.S. has a long memory and equally long patience. Netanyahu himself is saying nothing. He knows why he’s being battered and knows he deserves it. (The question is why we deserve it.) He has a meeting next month with Obama in the White House, and hopes that by then his period of punishment will be over. He needs the president’s good will for the talks on the security-compensation package that Israel will ask for in the wake of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

So Netanyahu has buttoned his lips, and that’s a good thing. But who volunteered to excoriate the Americans? The man who would be foreign minister and has nothing else to do these days: Public Security Minister Erdan. In a radio interview and afterward on Facebook and Twitter, he accused the Americans of “hypocrisy” and called on Kerry to clarify Washington’s position and to dissociate himself from what the spokesman said, as though we were dealing with an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

It’s all a bit childish. The United States is a properly run country. Remarks by the spokesman – any spokesman, certainly those at key government departments – always accurately reflect the secretary’s thinking. Hardly had the echoes of Erdan’s tongue-lashing of Kerry and Obama faded, when the Prime Minister’s Bureau issued a directive to cool it. I am dealing with the situation, the prime minister made clear.

Court jester

The campaign by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev against former Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch, alleging that he and his “kowtowing” policy gave rise to the current wave of violence, caught Aharonovitch in the midst of a family vacation in Crete. The vacation was ruined. Phone calls and text messages from Israel wrecked the feeling of tranquility. But was he surprised? Disappointed? Disillusioned? Not really.

Aharonovitch is well acquainted with Regev. She headed the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee, whose brief includes parliamentary oversight of the police. From close up, he saw her style, personality and behavior. He would not be surprised if Regev’s onslaught has its source in briefings she’s getting from Netanyahu’s bureau, if not from the horse’s mouth. (One Likud minister who is a regular recipient of the Netanyahu bureau’s communiques, said yesterday that recipients were no in fact instructed to cast the blame for the wave of terrorism on “Yisrael Beiteinu, [its leader] Avigdor Lieberman and Aharonovitch,” in the words of Regev. This minister did not rule out the possibility that Netanyahu or someone else in the bureau is dictating this narrative directly to Regev, to ensure that there is no paper trail.)

It takes no small measure of chutzpah, insensitivity and brazenness to hold Aharonovitch, of all people, responsible for what’s now going on in Jerusalem. Regev, as we know, does not lack those traits. “Itzik” showed up quickly at every security event and displayed leadership (his successor, Erdan, is meanwhile keeping a safe distance from the blood-drenched sites). He was also the moderate who acted responsibly – the experienced former police major general who was the commander of the Border Police. And she was, well, Miri Regev.

The Israel Police experienced no few failures during Aharonovitch’s term as commissioner. But in the most volatile arena, with the greatest potential for danger – the dynamite keg, aka Temple Mount – he acted as the barrier, a wall of sanity in the face of the caprices of Regev and her pals on the extreme right.

“For two years, she just drove me crazy,” he said from Crete on Wednesday emotionally, after emerging from a morning swim in the sea. “Time and again she nagged me to allow her to visit the Temple Mount with her committee. She also wanted to open a passage for Jews in the ‘Little Western Wall’ [a continuation of the larger wall, close to the supposed site of the Temple’s Holy of Holies]. She said, ‘Let’s clean up that place and open it.’ ‘Over my dead body,’ I told her. ‘You don’t understand that the Temple Mount can inflame the whole Muslim world against us.’ For six years, I maintained the status quo on the Temple Mount with all my might. Besides which, public security policy in Jerusalem is decided by the security cabinet, headed by Netanyahu.”

Aharonovitch announced his retirement from politics ahead of the last election, when he was asked by Lieberman not to be a candidate. He says that the allegation that, during his six years as minister, the police did not act freely or firmly on the Temple Mount and in East Jerusalem is a lie, demagogy, motivated by Regev’s desire for personal revenge.

“My directives were clear and unequivocal,” he says. “To go into every neighborhood when needed. We entered the Temple Mount plaza maybe 20-30 times. Of course, I did not allow the police to enter the shrines. Whenever needed, we set up roadblocks in the neighborhoods and checked and arrested people. A year ago, when there was a wave of knifings and ramming attacks with cars, I said publicly that the police should shoot to kill the terrorists, and that was the directive I handed down. I was criticized by the media, by the Arab MKs and by the left.”

Aharonovitch, who until now had not spoken out on the current situation, says he is not impressed by the security cabinet’s decisions. With regard to the daily operation of the police, there is nothing new about the directives, he explains: “I hear the prime minister saying, ‘I have ordered the security forces to enter the [Arab] neighborhoods.’ Is that new? That was a standing order. I hear they want to conduct a new Operation Defensive Shield [referring to a large-scale, 2002 army action in the West Bank]. What kind of nonsense is that? Has any of them ever been in Silwan? Houses inside houses, Jews and Arabs – it’s all one big mix there. How will they move from house to house? Who will they look for? In Operation Defensive Shield, the army had a list of hundreds of terrorists. Really, they should stop the demagogy. Regev isn’t the only one shooting wildly in every direction. There are no judicious people there today. Regev on one side, [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett on the other side. It’s not good.”

Regev has become a court jester, plying her unfounded wares not only on television and radio but in her own party, too. Her colleagues in the top ranks of Likud, among whom even those most loyal to Netanyahu would blush furiously before stigmatizing Aharonovitch, say that she is a disgraceful embarrassment. They don’t understand how she became, overnight, Netanyahu’s new parrot, what her newfound status means.

Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich told her that to hold Aharonovitch responsible for the current violence is like claiming that the failures of the Second Lebanon War were caused by the IDF Spokesperson at the time (i.e., Regev). One can add the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, at which time she was also the army’s ardent spokesperson. And as she’s now also minister of sports, if in another few years the Israeli national soccer team again fails to qualify for the European Championship, we’ll know whom to blame.

Water under the bridge

In the past few weeks, the public has become acquainted with acting police commissioner Bentzi Sau. Israel’s No. 1 cop, until former deputy Shin Bet head Roni Alsheich takes over in three weeks, has been the right man in the right place. His public appearances project sangfroid, judiciousness, vast experience, healthy logic and authority. In a word, the man is impressive. He’s a policeman in every fiber of his being. He’s also displayed gallantry in his readines time after time to extend his term as acting commissioner as needed, even after it became clear that Erdan doesn’t want him for the top job. Not everyone would have behaved like that.

Many people are now asking themselves whether the Israel Police aren’t losing an excellent commissioner who would not need even a single day in such turbulent times to acquaint himself with the job. Did Erdan’s obsession with appointing an “outside candidate” at any cost not blind him to the existence of the natural candidate under his nose?

With all respect, Alsheich is an unknown quantity, a novice. Amid our complex reality, it’s not certain that we, the citizens, can allow ourselves such a luxury. But that’s all water under the bridge. Let’s hope Sau stays on the police force and will educate Alsheich in the months ahead. That will be Erdan’s test.

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