For Netanyahu, a New Enemy Couldn't Have Come Sooner

Netanyahu is diverting attention from the problematic accord emerging in Cairo by trying to rouse the public's traditional hatred of the UN, which will be investigating the Gaza war.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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William Schabas, second from left, at The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, March 3, 2014.
William Schabas, second from left, at The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, March 3, 2014.Credit: AP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

A few hours before the Israeli public and the security cabinet learned from the media, courtesy of Hamas and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, about the new five-day cease-fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced the cameras that were covering the visit of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In an exaggerated close-up, his eyes darting every which way, Netanyahu lashed out at Prof. William Schabas, the head of the United Nations committee that will investigate Operation Protective Edge. “First let them visit Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli,” he snarled. “Let them go see Islamic State, the Syrian army, Hamas – there, not here, they will find war crimes.”

The prime minister’s body language projected stress, not the self-confidence and sangfroid that characterized him during the period of the fighting. It’s clear to him that there’s no way he can come out ahead, substantively or politically, from the agreement with Hamas that is emerging from Cairo. So he’s making an effort to divert attention from the major issue at hand by creating a new demon. He bitterly assailed the organization we all love to loathe, in the hope that the public will ignore the Cairo talks and unite, if only for a moment, around the traditional hatred of the United Nations and the feeling of victimization that is generated by relentless anti-Semitic persecution.

Netanyahu did not convene the security cabinet, did not speak with the ministers; on the critical day, Wednesday, he simply vanished. He had met with them the day before, for separate conversations. That’s the Ehud Barak method: Tell everyone something slightly different, and then see who leaks anything. The ministers found Netanyahu inchoate, worn out, vague. They weren’t quite sure whether this was really his frame of mind or whether he just wanted to play his cards close to his chest.

By yesterday, he remained alone in the political arena. All that was left of the collective hug and the broad support from right, center and left, in whose light he basked for 30 days, was a dull fog. Even Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced that he’s not in Netanyahu’s pocket, and that he will not necessarily vote for the agreement when the time comes. Lapid, too, apparently wants to put space between him and the document that is being worked out in Cairo.

Labor Party chairman and opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog and Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On, who gave Netanyahu unusual backing while the fighting raged, pounced on him with talons flashing. “Netanyahu’s public advantage until now was that he is strong in the security realm. He is weakest in the socioeconomic sphere. Now he’s about to lose his advantage, too,” Herzog said, in an analysis laced with political hope.

“Here’s what Netanyahu promised during the operation: the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip, bringing Hamas to its knees and achieving long-term deterrence,” Gal-On wrote on her Facebook page, adding, “And here’s what we got: Israel, conducting negotiations in Cairo with Hamas, under fire, agreed not to demand the demilitarization of Gaza, and is discussing subjects such as opening border crossings, allowing goods in and extending the fishing areas. All of that will be chalked up to Hamas’ credit and to the credit of those who side with violence."

Gal-On continued, "We have strengthened Hamas, and we have helped it to buttress its standing in the Gaza Strip, instead of supporting the united government under Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] from the outset.”

The leaders of the coalition parties engaged in a ludicrous competition over which of them would be first to publish a groundbreaking political plan to resolve the Gaza dilemma. Lapid came out with an “initiative” for an international conference, which was roundly ignored. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni suggested that Abbas be installed as ruler of Gaza, as though it were up to her. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman verbally thrust the Gaza Strip into the hands of the United Nations, while urging Netanyahu to vanquish Hamas and in the same breath lauding the Saudi Arabian initiative for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

In short, we were treated to an unending media cacophony this week. Maybe not as frightening as the wail of the rocket alarm sirens, but no less oppressive and superfluous. Fortunately for Netanyahu, the Knesset is in recess. If he is nevertheless forced to address the parliament – which will only happen if a party collects 40 signatures of MKs in support of reconvening it – he will be ripped to pieces there.

Who will resign?

The battle between Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett for the support of the right-wing constituency ratcheted up this week. Lieberman declared that any agreement must be contingent upon the return of the bodies of Israel Defense Forces soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. Otherwise, he threatened, the Palestinians will get the bodies of Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Deif.

For his part, Bennett stated that Israel’s agreement to arrange for the payment of salaries to Hamas employees in Gaza was tantamount to political “protection money”: “Pay us and we will shoot at you later. Don’t pay us and we will shoot at you now.”

It’s obvious that both of these ministers will vote against any arrangement being cobbled together in Cairo. The question occupying the political arena is what they will do the morning after. Will they stay in the government, battering Netanyahu and wearing him down, or will one or both of them pull out, bring down the government and drag the country into an early election at the beginning of next year?

Lieberman would seem to be more prone to resign than Bennett, both in terms of his character and his record, and given his personal and political situation. Entering an election campaign from the ranks of the opposition will serve Lieberman better than it will serve Bennett, who would have to give up two huge assets that are of priceless value to his voters: the Knesset’s Finance Committee and the Ministry of Housing and Construction.

The prevailing feeling is that Habayit Hayehudi, the party Bennett heads, is stronger among the right-wing camp when it’s in the government, whereas for Yisrael Beiteinu, Lieberman’s party, the opposite is true. In addition, Lieberman’s veteran voters, the hard core of his party – immigrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union – are dwindling in numbers. Their sons and daughters are part and parcel of Israeli society and no longer see themselves as the “Russian vote.” That’s something Lieberman needs to take into account before making a political move.

Dr. Yair and Mr. Lapid

On June 9, 2006, tragedy struck on the shore of Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip. Seven members of the Ghaliya family were killed by an Israeli army shell, which apparently went off-course during a bombardment of “open areas,” according to the IDF. The dead included children aged eight months, two years, seven and 17.

A few days later, Yair Lapid, who was then a columnist for the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, wrote a piece titled “I Am Ashamed.” An alert reader tracked down the column and sent it to me. Here are a few quotes: “I am ashamed. I feel deep, searing, eye-lowering shame. I am ashamed of us, of our actions, in the places we have come to … It’s true that they started and true that it was an errant shell, true too that it’s impossible to live with the fact that they are constantly trying to murder us. All that is true.

“But if you kill enough children, enough times, this is what you become: a child-killer … All those sorrowful spokesperson statements, that make it sound like we have no choice but have to kill children every so often, otherwise our hands are tied … You always conduct a limited war. It’s limited by your morality, by the need to remain human, by the understanding that Jews cannot act like this … I am not ashamed in the face of the Americans or in the face of the group of self-righteous British quasi-intellectuals … I am ashamed for myself, in the face of what I wanted to be, what I was once.”

Since the start of Operation Protective Edge, in which about 150 Gazan children were killed, Finance Minister Lapid has demonstrated an aggressive, ruthless approach toward the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip. In his frequent television appearances he customarily threatens not only to liquidate the Hamas leadership – he has lately developed a weird obsession about killing Mohammed Deif, the head of the organization’s military wing – but also threatens that the IDF will step up its bombing of the Strip, meaning that it will wipe out more children and more families. Occasionally he expresses regret, reiterating his language from 2006, at the death of innocent people – and in the same breath blames Hamas for it.

A few days ago, Lapid published an article in The Huffington Post titled “The Betrayal of the Intellectual,” in which he accused “many American and European intellectuals” of ignoring the truth in the current conflict, namely Israel’s truth: “The suffering in Gaza is truly heartbreaking, but the causes are not clear cut … When Hamas places rockets and explosives inside UN schools and fires from within hospitals, who are we to hold responsible? ... Those intellectuals betrayed themselves because they refuse to answer these questions or even to truly appreciate the complex global reality in which we all now live. Instead they stare at the photographs of the injured children in Gaza and compete as to who is the most outraged.”

People have a right to change their political views. It’s happened to the best of us and to the most important of our leaders. However, the upheaval Lapid has undergone in his political path is deep and very extreme. From an individual possessing a high level of morality, as reflected in the Yedioth column (how he would be rebuked and reviled today if he dared publish a similar text!), he has become a hard-line, cynical militarist with Lieberman-like traits.

From a compassionate humanist whose heart contracts in shame at the mistaken killing of a Gaza family, and whose values do not allow him to slough off responsibility by pointing an accusing finger at the victim, Lapid has become a leading vigorous propagandist for just such excuses. He scorns and disdains the Western “intellectuals” who are appalled by photographs of the dead children in Gaza, who think exactly as he did eight years ago.

In Yiddish they say that such a person is like a camel who doesn’t see his own hump.

Double game

Lapid and his Yesh Atid faction in the Knesset suffered another humiliation this week, and not their first or second one, in the saga of the finance minister’s plan to eliminate VAT for first-home buyers. The Finance Committee dispersed without approving the minister’s flagship social legislation. The opposition again taught the coalition a lesson.

Lapid is determined to pass the legislation – either that will happen, or there will not be a government. That’s his threat. He has to complete the process before the start of the deliberations on the next state budget, because he knows that when it becomes apparent how deep the budget pit is and how large the deficit is, he will come under enormous pressure to drop the zero VAT plan. Its estimated cost is 4 billion shekels (more than $1.1 billion), it doesn’t have the support of any serious economist and isn’t seen by any coalition party as a balm for the ills of the housing situation.

It’s hard to believe how often the second-largest coalition party, which is headed by the treasury minister, is defeated time and again in battles in the parliamentary arena by smaller and weaker forces.

The chairman of the Finance Committee, MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), is a skilled politician, an old-school National Religious Party man. On Wednesday, in the last meeting of the committee this month, two items that will benefit his party were passed: the transfer of 20 million shekels ($5.7 million) to the settlements, and another 60 million to the religious councils. That’s part of a deal struck between Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid. Immediately afterward, there was to be a vote on the various clauses of Lapid’s legislation.

During a break before the second vote, Slomiansky huddled with the two Labor representatives on the committee: MK Erel Margalit and also MK Stav Shaffir, whom Slomiansky had thrown out of a meeting the day before because she dared to demand transparency from him about the destiny of funds that skitter from here to there. “I told Yair,” Shaffir said to the two men, “if you want to back out of the legislation, climb down from the tree, then do it and I will be your ladder.”

For his part Slomiansky did not hide from the two Laborites his private opinion of the Lapid initiative. “It will not increase the supply [of housing], only the demand,” he averred.

Well, with allies like that, all we can do is wish the finance minister well on his future path.

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