Analysis |

Netanyahu Seeks to Thwart Love Affair Between Iran and West, but Remains Handcuffed by 'Allies' at Home

Instead of giving him freedom to maneuver the roiling political domain, a noisy group of politicians followed him to Ben-Gurion Airport, badgering and pestering him on the Palestinian issue.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Sometime during the wee hours between Saturday and Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu will stretch out on the bed installed for him on an El Al plane ‏(at no additional cost to taxpayers, the Prime Minister’s Bureau emphasizes‏) and before he sinks into sleep will probably ponder the fate that has befallen him: to be, in the words of the most American prime minister we have ever had, “a party pooper.”

Netanyahu is going to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, and for a meeting with Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, with a burning mission. He is determined to pour cold water on the love affair that is developing between the West, led by the United States, and Iran, under the stewardship of its new soft-spoken leader, Hassan Rohani. The premier will be armed with intelligence attesting that even in this new era, Iran is behind widespread global terror activity. He will point out in the conversations he holds and the interviews he grants a series of ostensibly “blatant” lies in the interview Rohani gave to America’s NBC network last week. He will draw a direct line between the swindle that North Korea perpetrated on the U.S. eight years ago − which began with nuclear talks and ended with a rather impressive nuclear explosion − and the “something new” that is supposedly happening now in Iran.

And perhaps one other little thought will flit through the prime minister’s mind before his eyelids grow heavy. He will recollect the group of noisy politicians who followed him all the way to Ben-Gurion airport. Instead of giving him freedom to maneuver in the roiling political domain, they badgered him with “a public letter” ‏(from seven of his ministers‏) linking the release of Palestinian prisoners to the murders of soldiers in Qalqilyah and Hebron during the past week, and demanding another government debate over going ahead with the move to free the prisoners, and pestered him with a newspaper ad ‏(taken out by the Knesset’s Land of Israel lobby, on the front page of Haaretz in Hebrew last Friday‏) that demanded that Netanyahu retract his support for the two-state solution both in the UN forum and in his meeting with Obama.

Netanyahu is utterly dismissive of such background noise. He views them as populist measures designed to reap incidental political profit. As to the ad in Haaretz, which carried the signatures of four deputy ministers from Likud, appointed by the prime minister, sources close to him say, “he reads, listens, doesn’t get worked up − and remembers.” The same goes for that letter from seven ministers from Habayit Hayehudi, Israel Beiteinu, plus Likud’s Yisrael Katz. Ministers who communicate with the prime minister about political matters by means of such missives perhaps ought not to be members of government, but rather writers of letters to the editor.

And while we are on the subject of populism: On Monday, Economy Minister and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett eulogized the soldier Gal Kobi, who was killed the day before. His speech was appallingly cynical − a political exploitation of the occasion to promote his position against releasing Palestinian prisoners.

“We must stop giving our enemies the feeling that Jewish blood has become the cheapest commodity in the Middle East, that there is no punishment for it. That there is no pardon for car thieves, but there is parole for the murderers of Jews,” Bennett fulminated. “We will fight to uproot this notion that
murderers can be released just like that.”

All that was missing was for the economy minister to wind up his eulogy by whipping registration forms for his party out of his briefcase and distributing them to mourners. Or, as one of Bennett’s colleagues in the government said: “Nothing, nothing beats the old politics.”

Taken by surprise

“We’ve grown accustomed to being taken by surprise,” says the deputy defense
minister, Danny Danon ‏(Likud‏). “We were taken by surprise in Oslo, we were taken by surprise in the disengagement, we were taken by surprise in the freeze on settlement construction. We don’t want to wake up one day and find ourselves taken by surprise again.”

That, in a nutshell, is the explanation for the right-wing outcry that was reflected in that ad in Haaretz, and in the campaign by the Yesha Council that will soon be launched against the possibility of any agreement with Palestinians over the territories, whether permanent or interim. So far there hasn’t been the slightest hint of progress on the Tzipi Livni-Saeb Erekat track. But on the right, traumatized by surprise, they want to be prepared.

Judging by the mood in Likud, Danon and his friends have nothing to worry about. Netanyahu does not have a mandate from his party to advance even an inch toward an agreement with the Palestinians. If he were to bring forward an agreement today, it is likely that only Yuval Steinitz would support him, and maybe Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who owes his appointment to him. Even Ofir Akunis, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office whose political existence depends on Netanyahu’s, is among the signatories to the ad against “turning over portions of our homeland” to the Palestinians.

But Danon thinks the game is not over. He observes with concern the vigorous diplomatic activity of Livni, the minister in charge of negotiations on behalf of the prime minister: “There are some who say: Forget it, nothing is going to happen. But I say that if we allow her complete freedom to act, we might end up with an Oslo Accords situation. In my remarks, and in the article I wrote in The New York Times [on September 20], I am hoping to wake up the public, bring these matters up before it, for debate.”

In a meeting this week with party activists, Danon ventured to say that an interim agreement, at the end of the nine-month period allotted for negotiations, is within the realm of possibility: an accord in which Netanyahu would offer to turn over to the Palestinians about 60 percent of the territories, including the central mountain range known as Gav Hahar, and to evacuate isolated settlements or leave them without protection from the Israel Defense Forces. The major issues − Jerusalem, refugees − would likely not be dealt with on his watch. True, Mahmoud Abbas would probably not agree, nor would there be backing for this in the Likud party, but, Danon told the activists, “If Bogey [Ya’alon], Gideon [Sa’ar] and Silvan [Shalom] give their support, there will be a serious battle. [Netanyahu] could bring them aboard and together with them make a move.”

Danon recalled the vote in the government a few weeks ago on the proposed release of the prisoners. Ya’alon went with Netanyahu, even though he had voted against freeing prisoners in the Gilad Shalit deal. Sa’ar, who had
contemplated voting against the move, supported and even persuaded others to moderate their position on it. And Shalom, who thought to vote nay, abstained. This axis is reason for concern for Danon, who also happens to be a deputy minister in an important ministry, and represents a different position than that of the minister he answers to, in addition to that of the prime minister.

Three local council comments

1. The local authority elections taking place in less than a month are characterized by a complete absence of stars. Once upon a time, heading a major city, or even a medium-sized one, was considered a proper occupation for generals, both veteran and promising politicians, and successful businessmen who wished to contribute to their community. Suffice it to mention some of the mayors who served in the past 20 years: from the military and police top brass came Amram Mitzna in Haifa, Zvi Bar in Ramat Gan, Ron Huldai in Tel Aviv, Yaakov Terner in Be’er Sheva and Efraim Hiram ‏(Pichotka‏) in Ramat Hasharon; from the political leadership − Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and Roni Milo in Tel Aviv; from the business world − Nir Barkat in Jerusalem and Eli Landau in Herzliya.

Today nobody around is jumping at the chance to run a city. Pitting himself against Barkat on October 22 will be not Reuven Rivlin, Aryeh Deri, Dan Meridor or Dalia Itzik, but rather an uncharismatic accountant from Givatayim − Moshe Leon − who was dropped/pulled/dragged into this role by the leader of Israel Beiteinu, MK Avigdor Lieberman. Running against Huldai in Tel Aviv will not be Gilad Erdan or Yossi Sarid, but rather MK Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz. In Be’er Sheva and Haifa, not one heavyweight has bothered to stand up, respectively, to either young Rubik Danilovich or the veteran Yona Yahav. Even in quite attractive cities whose mayors have quit and are available for hire such as Herzliya ‏(Yael German left to enter the Knesset and government, on the Yesh Atid list‏) or Petah Tikva ‏(Yitzhak Ohayon withdrew a few months ago for reasons of health‏) − nary a retired major general or police commander, or an illustrious former executive has been found who would dare stick his or her toe in the local swamp.

Three former MKs are, however, running in the upcoming municipal elections: Yaakov Edery in Or Yehuda, Carmel Shama Hacohen in Ramat Gan, and Ze’ev Bielsky in Ra’anana. But they were pressed into this only because they lost their Knesset seats.

The reasons for the dry spell in the local arena are known: Violence against mayors has crossed every boundary in recent years. More and more local council heads have security details protecting them. On the other hand, criminal investigations against such figures are breaking records as well. A realm that used to seem respectable and challenging is perceived to be a hornet’s nest today.

Secondly, in the summer of 2011, it seemed as if the shockwaves from the social protests would leave their mark not only on the 19th Knesset but also on the character of local authorities, and on one in particular. Ron Huldai was seen as the great suppressor of the protest movement. He’s a blunt and irritable man who couldn’t wait for the demonstrators to leave the boulevard already, so that he and his staff replant the lovely lawns. Lately he has even installed, in defiance as it were, stylish beach chairs along Rothschild Boulevard, across from the Mann Auditorium − in the very same historical place upon which Daphni Leef erected the first protest tent, and not far from the spot where municipal inspectors arrested her with a brutality that momentarily threatened to reignite the waning demonstrations.

Although in January former protest leaders Itzik Shmuli, of the National Student Union, and Stav Shafir were elected to the Knesset on the Labor party list, and the Yesh Atid list headed by Yair Lapid was the one that received the votes of a majority of the protesters ‏(who discovered, to their chagrin, that the new finance minister differs not a whit from his predecessor‏) − no striking examples of civic mobility have been seen in the municipal realm.

Huldai, who looked then as if his historic role might be finished ‏(this column, too, was quick to eulogize him after Leef’s arrest by City Hall inspectors‏), is now leading in all the polls. In one online survey, conducted by Project Mitgam under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs, the gap between him and Horowitz was just 5 percent ‏(42 percent and 37 percent, respectively‏). But in all the telephone polls, which are considered more reliable, the gap in his favor is much larger.

Protest suppressor or not, Huldai is one of the best mayors Tel Aviv has ever had, if not the best. During the 15 years he has sat in the building on Rabin Square, Tel Aviv has become a city that has nothing to be ashamed of when compared to the most beautiful and fun cities in Europe. He wants another five years. If he wins for the fourth time, against a candidate who can certainly come across as an authentic representative of the summer of 2011, it will not only be a sweeping vote of confidence in him, but will also mean the social protest is absolutely dead and buried.

Finally, in contrast to previous elections, this time the usual big political parties are not extraordinarily involved in the races. Most of the contenders are running as independents on nonpartisan lists. In local elections, everything is personal, and that is how it should be. Therefore, on the national level, there won’t be any winners and there won’t be any losers the day after. Not Netanyahu and not Lapid, not Shelly Yacimovich and not Bennett, not Deri and not Zahava Gal-On.

Only one winner can come out of this battle: Avigdor Lieberman. If his candidate in Jerusalem, Moshe Leon, beats Barkat, the victory will be entirely Lieberman’s. If he loses, the defeat, from an image standpoint certainly, will also be wholly Lieberman’s. But even then, the veteran politician and suspended foreign minister, who is waiting for his verdict in the trial over his appointment of Israel’s ambassador to Latvia, will still preserve his strength in the Knesset and in the coalition as the leader of a parliamentary faction with 11 seats, upon which the fate of Netanyahu’s government depends.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.

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