Land Grab Seen as Netanyahu's Attempt to Restore Standing on the Right

With a single decision, Netanyahu fueled Palestinian PR efforts and painted Israel into the corner it’s so familiar with - the one inhabited by ostracized, wayward, irritating countries.

The dust has settled, the echoes of the rocket-alarm sirens have faded, the reservists have been sent home. The homes in the kibbutzim are filled again with wailing babies, the barns with lowing cattle. What better symbol of the return to normality than the headlines about the expropriation of land in the West Bank, new building plans for settlements and furious condemnations from the international community?

It’s not by chance that the festive announcement about the land grab was issued on Sunday afternoon during the long Labor Day weekend in the United States. Someone high up here, who is closely acquainted with the American way of life, had a brainstorm, or at least some sort of a working assumption: If the bombshell comes while the U.S. administration is on holiday, maybe by the time they get back to work on Tuesday afternoon, Israeli time, we’ll be able to smooth things over without anyone noticing. The trick didn’t really work.

Foreign diplomats were quoted as saying that the latest Israeli provocation was tantamount to poking a finger in the eye of the international community, which was silent and supported Israel during the 50 days of the pounding of Gaza. While we’re on the subject of body parts, the decision to confiscate 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) of land in the Gush Etzion area can be compared to the decision maker, namely the Israeli government, shooting itself in its already-punctured, battered and perforated leg.

Instead of utilizing the coming weeks and months to execute subtle, complex consensus-demanding moves of forging an anti-Hamas and pro-Palestinian Authority alliance with the United States and Europe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won praise across the political spectrum for his restrained, responsible and judicious approach during the war has, as usual, overturned the bucket.

With a single decision, framed as a punishment or an “appropriate Zionist response” to the kidnap-murder of three Jewish teens in June, he fueled Palestinian PR efforts and painted Israel into the corner it’s so familiar with – the one inhabited by ostracized, wayward, irritating countries. The same person who just two weeks ago spoke about a “new diplomatic horizon” showed all the naïve types who momentarily pinned their hopes on him that his horizon remains distant and dark.

There is no other way to view the land grab than as being bound up with Netanyahu’s expectations of his political future. The prime minister reads polls and won’t find it difficult to discern his lackluster standing among his right-wing base of support in the post-Protective Edge era. His stubborn refusal to re-occupy the Gaza Strip and the frequent infighting with ministers Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, within the security cabinet and outside it, created a kind of pincer movement among the public.

On the one hand, Likud under Netanyahu has benefited from the equivalent of no few new Knesset seats (in the polls), at the expense of center parties such as Yesh Atid and Labor. But at the same time, the ruling party is seen losing votes to the right-wing satellite parties of Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. The bottom line is that support of the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc has swelled to the equivalent of 68-70 seats – if an election were to be held today – an increase of about 10 percent over the current Knesset.

This is a temporary, illusionary postwar situation. For come election day, the center voters will return to their mother parties, old and new, and the rightists will vote right, and the sea will be the same sea, as the saying goes.

Well aware of this, Netanyahu has launched a pre-High Holy Days effort to restore his standing in the movement and across his electoral base. The land expropriation was the first move toward making the voters of the national camp feel they are standing tall. The second will be a series of meetings he’s planning to hold with Likud activists around the country and in his residence in Jerusalem. In fact, that round of political persuasion began a few months ago. It was broken off by the security-related events. (His last party-political meeting, with parliamentary assistants from Likud, was held on the Friday morning on which the disappearance of the three teens in the West Bank was confirmed; the prime minister was handed a note of a type that he’d hoped not to be handed, left the meeting and didn’t return.)

The range of possible scenarios with regard to the renewed political frenzy on the part of the Likud leader extends from the moderate – touching base and calming the always tumultuous and frustrated and offended grass roots – to the extreme: deployment for an early Knesset election, which will oblige a primary for the Likud leadership. On the eve of the outbreak of hostilities in the south, an orderly plan was drawn up in the Prime Minister’s Bureau for moving up the primary to some point in November, right after the autumn holidays. Bringing primaries forward is a well-known Netanyahu tactic. He likes to pull the rug out from under the feet of those who are plotting to oust him, or those whom he imagines are plotting. He did so twice in the past decade, and successfully.

The security agenda pushed all that aside, but now the prevailing view in Likud is that the political hyperactivity expected of Netanyahu in the near future will in fact be aimed at preparing the ground for an early primary. Incidentally, the Likud Central Committee is is scheduled to meet in December to consider amendments to the party’s constitution. One of the proposed changes states that a Likud member who wishes to contest the party’s leadership for a third time in succession will need at least a 60-percent majority to be declared the winner. If passed, that clause could prove to be a large hurdle. Netanyahu may want the primary to be held even before the central committee meets, to avoid having to jump that hurdle.

Even before that, however, the central committee will convene in Ashkelon in the coming weeks under the gavel of MK Danny Danon, currently Netanyahu’s most outspoken and unrestrained rival in the party. Danon is not hiding his sword, whereas other MKs and ministers from the “fighting family” are leaving theirs sheathed for the time being. The mood at the Ashkelon meeting is likely to show how tall the Likud leader stands in his political home.

Upcoming showdown

Finance Minister Yair Lapid said the West Bank land expropriation was causing Israel “great diplomatic damage” and wondered aloud, and rightly, why it was necessary at this time. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said the move weakens Israel. They said what they said, they whined and they lamented.

The finance minister is over his head in the 2015 budget discussions, ahead of a cabinet meeting on the subject in two weeks or so. He has no time, and probably no great desire, to foment a crisis over the Palestinian issue, which is making a lame comeback after the war. But Lapid’s soft-pedal approach is encountering opposition in his party. Two of Yesh Atid’s senior figures – MK Ofer Shelah, who is the faction’s chairman, and without whom Lapid will instantly lose control of his group of novices, and Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, the party’s top diplomatic-security authority – are starting to lose patience.

The moment the cease-fire came into effect, the two – separately, but in coordination – issued a series of strongly worded statements urging Netanyahu, and indirectly Lapid, to launch an immediate diplomatic gambit in order not to lose the momentum that was generated. Their declarations carried a veiled threat about future moves by Yesh Atid if no diplomatic initiative, preferably a regional one, is taken in the near future. In this case, Shelah and Perry wanted to confront Lapid with a fait accompli.

Lapid, who leads a party that has the same number of Knesset seats as Likud, frequently comes out with well-orchestrated and well-measured grumblings about the collapse of Israel’s relations with the United States and the like. Shelah and Perry want more. They want firm assertions, even an ultimatum if necessary, followed by action. It’s a “test of seriousness,” Shelah is telling the party’s MKs in private conversations. He’s reminding them that the great majority of Yesh Atid voters came from the left and the center, and favor an agreement with the Palestinians. Without a comprehensive regional initiative by Israel, Shelah maintains, there will really be nothing to discuss with the Palestinians in the forthcoming Cairo talks.

Shelah and Perry are not the only ones who are beginning to grasp the pointlessness of being part of this government. Others in their Knesset faction have also privately voiced their frustration at the irrelevance of Yesh Atid in terms of the peace process.

“We talk about these issues a great deal publicly, in the media, but the only one who gets credit as the diplomatic catalyst is Tzipi Livni. She is the dominant voice in the government when it comes to the peace process,” a Yesh Atid MK said this week. “With all due respect, she has six seats and we have a tad more."

Ministers who have talked to Lapid don’t see him adopting the left-leaning line of his two senior MKs. There’s no doubt that he’s now more inclined in that direction than he was in the past, but he’s not wholeheartedly there yet. To drag him in that direction – to compel him to inform the nation, and himself, that without rapid progress on the peace front, Yesh Atid will not remain in the coalition when the Knesset convenes for its winter session next month – Perry and Shelah are preparing for a showdown with the party leader. At least, that's what people who are close to them say.

Under the spell

A couple of weeks ago, the center-left sector of the coalition was quiet and tranquil. All the fireworks were coming from the right-wing side. Now, Lieberman and Bennett are as happy as a bug in a rug, and it’s Livni and Lapid who feel they have to vent their frustrations in media rants.

The latter’s distress is compounded by the budget saga. He’s been painting himself into corners all week with ironclad promises not to raise taxes. At the same time, he’s declaring that he will not retract his initiative for zero VAT for first-time home buyers. And in the same breath he’s committing himself to not making cuts in health, education or social welfare – the three ministries held by his party. Where is he going to find the billions needed for the hungry defense establishment without raising taxes and without abandoning the zero-VAT plan, which in the meantime hasn’t even made it through a preliminary discussion by the Knesset’s Finance Committee?
 
The prime minister declared this week in the cabinet meeting that security comes first. Lapid swallowed hard, ministers report. In the days that followed he provided an appropriate Zionist response by locking himself into a promise not to raise taxes. Obviously. He’s the finance minister. He signs the Budget Law. No one can force him to raise taxes.

We can empathize with Lapid: He doesn’t want to betray a promise. and thereby betray himself. At the same time, he doesn’t want to betray his voters by making brutal cuts in the three social-services ministries whose operations affect Israelis of every age and every socioeconomic status. The 50-day operation in Gaza inflicted a budgetary catastrophe on Lapid, which he and his staff didn’t see coming even in their nightmares. In the last cabinet meeting, when the ministers were forced to approve an indiscriminate across-the-board cut, Lapid was severely criticized: Why didn’t he come prepared with priorities for budget cuts? Why was everyone targeted alike? Is this what we need a finance ministry for?

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) said to Lapid, “No one here disputes the needs of the residents of the communities around Gaza, and there’s also no doubt that the defense establishment needs money. But hardly anyone understands why additions for security have to be the foundation for the budget, and neither do I."
 
She added: “Why didn’t you and the treasury give us a full picture of the economic situation today? Why didn’t you provide a comprehensive survey of the current status of the budget? Are there surpluses? Are there additional sources? We ministers see no transparency and no serious approach from the treasury. In your election campaign you promised a ‘new politics.’ I, for one, believed you. Do you really call what’s happening here ‘new politics?"'

“Okay,” Lapid, who hardly said a word in the meeting, replied. “But that was before I fell under the spell of the old politics."