The defense establishment's plan to institute separate buses for Israelis and Palestinians on West Bank roads sparked a storm on Wednesday: It took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by surprise, was roundly criticized in Israel and abroad, and was immediately frozen.
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The whole situation once again personified the Israeli balagan – chaos – in all its might, with the deputy defense minister dispatched to present the plan from the Knesset rostrum, only to be informed by a member of the opposition seated before him in the plenum that the plan had been shelved, without anyone letting him know.
The man behind the plan, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, insists that his intentions were completely security related, and that there was no hidden racist motive involved. Ya’alon considers his plan an attempt to increase control over the passage of Palestinian laborers into Israel by requiring them to register, coming and going, when traversing the Green Line in West Bank crossings.
The trouble is that this demand would mean separate buses (because the settlers absolutely reject being themselves delayed at the crossings), and separate buses are perceived as an outright manifestation of the apartheid rule Israel is accused of imposing in the West Bank. Moreover, claims voiced by settlers of dangers posed to Jewish women by the Palestinian laborers (claims which themselves emit a strong scent of racism), came up during preliminary discussions held ahead of the plan's implementation – and were reiterated over the past two days - in a way that pulls the rug out from under the security argument that Ya’alon was trying to promote.
The discussions over Ya’alon's plan began back in January 2014. To his mind, the plan was also motivated by a state comptroller’s report from the beginning of the decade that criticized the crossings' breeches. And yet, the Israel Defense Forces was not enthusiastic. The previous GOC Central Command major, Nitzan Alon, said he doubted stricter tabs on crossing registration of laborers would necessarily reduce security risks. The launching of the pilot program was put off by several months until the defense minister enforced it on the military this week. Meanwhile, already in October of last year - when there were intentions to launch a pilot at a single crossing - the Justice Ministry warned it would be problematic legally. Despite that, the pilot was launched this week, with the intent of commencing its implementation at four crossings.
The report on Tuesday night in Haaretz immediately engendered angry responses in Israel and particularly harsh responses abroad. The first to denounce the plan was actually a right-winger, former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who offered a fleshed-out attack on it via a tweet. The plan, he wrote, was mistaken and damaging both to the settlement project as a whole and to Israel’s status in the world. He called for it to be cancelled as soon as possible.
President Reuven Rivlin, too, was angered. It should be noted that he waited with his response until he had spoken by phone with Ya’alon, who told him the plan had been shelved. But even when welcoming the freeze, the president did not hold back his criticism of the original decision. Separation between passengers, he said, was “inconceivable.” In addition, the president scolded members of the right wing who supported the move, deeming their opinion on the matter contrary to the founding principles of the state.
The prime minister knew, in principle, about Ya’alon’s intentions to enforce the plan - but he was not informed that it would start this week. Netanyahu had made no attempt to intervene in order to freeze the plan. On Wednesday morning he was forced to recognize the fact that circumstances required his intervention. Netanyahu had a meeting on Wednesday with the European Union’s Foreign Minister Federika Mogherini, that was followed by a joint statement to the press - and the last thing he needed was to be publicly taken to task by the EU, along with a grilling by foreign reporters. Then came the abrupt U-turn. Netanyahu and Ya’alon spoke on the phone and Ya’alon’s media adviser issued a short statement to the press to the effect that the two "have agreed to suspend the pilot at the Judea and Samaria crossings.”
But Ya’alon, it emerged later, has not backtracked from his support of the plan. The defense minister considers it a necessary step for the prevention of terror attacks. The problem, he believes, is largely a PR one: namely, that the way the plan was presented to the media made it look racist, and caused a furor that necessitated its freezing. Now the Central Command and the Office of the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories will go back to the drawing board and take further steps to prepare infrastructure and a new pilot, that will involve all 13 crossings. In a few more months, when things calm down, perhaps the plan will be deemed re-introducible, aided by the appropriate public relations.
That’s Ya’alon’s approach. The chance that it will happen seemed very unlikely on Wednesday. Netanyahu was quick to distance himself from his defense minister’s recommendations and his staff energetically briefed the press that this was not his doing.
In recent years Ya’alon has been a responsible voice of moderation on sensitive defense issues – in particular during last year’s war in Gaza and in regards to the cautious management of Israeli policy on the northern border. And yet, the plan he instigated for bussing Palestinian laborers displays obstinacy, shortsightedness and an utter disregard of the "bigger" diplomatic picture. What he realized on Wednesday morning, together with Netanyahu, he should have known last week as well.
The affair temporarily ended on a comic note on Wednesday in the Knesset. The newly minted deputy defense minister Eli Ben-Dahan was called to explain the government’s position and answer questions from the floor, after the plan was made public. Ben-Dahan - a member of Habayit Hayehudi, the party most strongly identified with the settlers - was supposed to have been afforded certain responsibility for the work of the Civil Administration, according to the coalition agreement. But Ya’alon vetoed that idea, and in his first conversation with his deputy at the beginning of the week, made clear that that was not about to happen. Ben-Dahan would be allowed to deal with matters of the West Bank only with regard to marginal legislation, and the coalition agreement would be a dead letter as far as the defense minister was concerned.
As of Wednesday morning, Ben-Dahan was still hoping for a little joy. After all, the MKs from his faction had enthusiastically supported the separate bussing. But then something embarrassing happened. While the deputy minister was praising the plan before the Knesset plenum, opposition MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) informed him of the decision to suspend the program's launch. Ben-Dahan, clearly frustrated, had no choice but to concede that he knew nothing about it. First came Netanyahu, then Ben-Dahan; something fundamentally creaky was ailing the coordinations.
Ben-Dahan's embarrassment isn't the crux of the matter, of course. The bus saga saw a perfect storm of dubious security reasoning, racist sentiments expressed by several Knesset members and settler leaders - and clumsy execution. Netanyahu often complains of the international community's hypocritical attitude toward Israel, whose every move gets scrutinized according to particularly stringent standards. But even a hundred accomplished spin doctors won't succeed in blurring out the damage done when the program was unveiled on Wednesday, even after the prime minister came to his senses and put an end to it.