The part of his speech this week at American University in which U.S. President Barack Obama mocked or imitated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus intonation in demanding a better deal with Iran, will undoubtedly go viral, if it hasnt already. It was not only humorous in a bitter way, but well timed and full of scorn for its subject.
According to a recent report, broadcaster and comic Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show until this week, met occasionally with the president to discuss Americas international agenda. Maybe itll turn out that Stewart contributed that bit.
In any event, the prolonged confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu over the Iran agreement took a quantum leap this week. Only God knows how Israel could possibly emerge well from this battle, regardless of whether the accord is approved by Congress. Netanyahu was asked about what comes next, after Congress either supports the deal, or votes against it with a majority large enough to supersede a presidential veto. The prime minister did not provide a satisfactory answer. The questioner came away with the impression that he is waging a battle for its own sake, for the satisfaction of humiliating the president. He longs to defeat Obama on the latters home turf.
Since the March election, Netanyahu apparently has the feeling that hes invincible, numero uno. Just as he doesnt give a hoot, as he put it, for those who dared to criticize the brutal dismissal this week of the head of the Electricity Authority, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, for opposing the natural-gas arrangement – he doesnt give a hoot for Obama, or indeed for the whole world and anyone whose opinion differs from his on the Iran agreement.
Hes convinced that only he is right, that the only truth is his truth and that only he discerns the real dangers, just as his late father was the first to discern the Nazi threat. Maybe well discover in the future that he was right. But now that the agreement is a done deal, and with the rest of the world not being bound by what Congress will decide – someone in his cabinet should wake up and ask whether Netanyahu isnt dragging Israel into bad and dangerous places with his off-the-rails conduct.
Voice of morality
Only one cabinet minister, Gilad Erdan (Likud), was present at this weeks special summer-recess Knesset session, initiated by the opposition in the wake of the two recent acts of terrorism by Jews: the stabbings in the Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the torching of a house in the Palestinian village of Duma. Its Erdans bad luck these days to be in charge of the ministry that oversees the police force whose performance in recent months would recall that of the cops in the town of Springfield on The Simpsons, if the results hadnt been so tragic.
Most of the Knesset session dealt with the incident in Duma in which 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh was burned to death and the rest of his family seriously injured. Erdan, as usual, came mainly to butt heads with the left and the Arabs. Hes a gung-ho type; if he spots a potential brawl, hell jump right in.
Conspicuous by his absence, as the saying goes, was Prime Minister Netanyahu. He was busy just then recording his video message for the Jewish communities in the United States about the Iran deal. Certainly an important mission, but he would have done better to rise to the urgency of the hour and deliver the central speech in the Knesset. If, heaven forbid, a Jewish family had been burned in its home by a firebomb thrown by a Muslim terrorist, French President Franois Hollande would have convened the National Assembly and ordered all his ministers to interrupt their sacred vacance and betake themselves to Paris pronto.
Its too bad the law doesnt allow the Knesset to invite Israels president to speak in the plenum. Once again, for the umpteenth time since taking office a year ago, President Reuven Rivlin showed this week that he is Israels moral voice, the beautiful Israeli. His trenchant remarks at a rally in Jerusalem, following his visit the previous day to Hadassah University Hospital, where the family of the dead child is hospitalized, drew verbal abuse and threats that hurtled us back 20 years.
Netanyahu, too, was reviled by the hooligans of the Web after he dared to visit the Dawabsheh family in the hospital. The difference is that the premier is surrounded by infinite circles of security guards, even more than the president of the United States. Hes untouchable, whereas Rivlin has very little protection. One can hope that the prime minister ordered Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen to beef up security for the president. Why chance a commission of inquiry?
In contrast to a few self-righteous types who tried to sever the connection between religion and nationalism and the savage acts emanating from the far right, Rivlin pulled no punches, speaking of bloodshed in the name of the Torah, morality and love of Israel. Only those who know him can understand the torment and anguish those words cause him.
MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) wrote on her Facebook page this week that she didnt vote for Rivlin, but is happy to eat her hat in the wake of his statements condemning violence and incitement and stressing the need to live together. Rivlin received hundreds of supportive messages, but was touched by that one in particular. He called Michaeli, who was vacationing in Aqaba, to thank her.
Trying too hard
Most MKs didnt bother to show up for the special session. And most of those who did were from the left-wing and center parties. Yesh Atids MK Yair Lapid called his address the empty-chairs speech, and in it settled accounts with all the absentees, accusing them of going AWOL. In fact, that was a wild exaggeration and a typical display of populism: Many MKs are legitimately abroad on family vacations.
Immediately after concluding his speech, Lapid left, leaving behind an empty chair. That drew guffaws from his colleagues in the opposition. Lapid is known for his rare appearances in the Knesset chamber; he shows up mainly for important votes. His chair is usually empty. One MK said of him this week, Hes a Knesset member of Sabbath cultural events.
The clumsy shuffle Lapid has been doing since the election in the direction of the religious and right-wing arenas continued unabated this week. In the wake of the death of 16-year-old Shira Banki, one of the stabbing victims in the Pride Parade, Lapids Facebook post was addressed to no less than our God and the God of our fathers. The post urged Hashem to receive the girl in heaven and embrace her.
His American branding consultant also undoubtedly gave Lapid another piece of advice: At large-scale events, he should dress like a prime minister. Black polo shirts are out. He came to the rally of solidarity with the LGBT community last Saturday night in Tel Aviv wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a dark tie. It was a hot, clammy night. T-shirts stuck to peoples skin, but there was Lapid on stage, suited up like a waiter at a wedding.
Up for grabs
The abstention by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon in the vote on the budget (which the cabinet approved before dawn on Thursday by a vote of 20-0 with that one abstention) is the latest development in the bitter, tense relations between him and Netanyahu. A strong alliance and a protracted political love affair that peaked in Operation Protective Edge a year ago has collapsed in the past two weeks following the submission of the controversial Locker Committee report about waste and inefficiency in the defense establishment.
The working meetings between the two are taking place as usual, but the pleasant atmosphere has given way to sourness, alienation and suspiciousness. Yaalon is unable to ignore the fact that the reports author, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yonatan Locker, was Netanyahus military secretary. With his military logic, the defense minister connected the dots and arrived at a simple conclusion: Locker acted, to a certain or perhaps large degree, in the spirit of his former boss.
Even if not all the reports recommendations are implemented, and even if some are shelved, much will remain that, in Yaalons estimate, the government will adopt. For example, the recommendation to grant the National Security Council, which is subordinate to the Prime Ministers Office, unprecedented powers in regard to planning and overseeing the militarys annual and multiyear budget. The Locker report also recommends enlarging and strengthening the NSC, which Yaalon sees as an attempt from above to undercut the Defense Ministrys sovereignty over its budget and its internal affairs, and also to reduce the power of the defense minister.
When an individual who worked in the Prime Ministers Bureau for several years heads a committee that recommends building up a unit within the PMO that is directly subordinate to the prime minister who appointed him to head that committee – only a total blockhead would fail to see the connection. Yaalon is sometimes said to be something of a blockhead, but dumb hes not, and above all, hes learned how Netanyahus mind works.
Yaalon might also like to know that for Netanyahu, not only the Foreign Ministry is waiting for a minister in a possible coalition reshuffle: The defense portfolio is also up for negotiation. He wouldnt exercise a veto on defense, the way he would, for example, on the sacred communications portfolio. Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog is said to be hot for defense, and Netanyahu hasnt discarded his desire to expand the coalition. Hell get back to that after the budget is passed by the Knesset in November. The foreign affairs and defense portfolios are juicy bait to dangle before the eyes of Zionist Union.
Bibi vs. Bibas
Netanyahu didnt see the blow coming – especially from the closest and most loyal person to him in the party. Haim Bibas, mayor of Modiin-Macabim-Reut and head of the Union of Local Authorities, is one of those rare individuals to whom the premier feels he can turn his back without fear of being stabbed, metaphorically of course. Bibas has easy access to the Prime Ministers Bureau of a kind that many ministers can only dream of.
But now, in the middle of the summer vacation, Bibas holds a press conference with many other local-government heads and threatens the prime minister and the finance minister that if the new budget doesnt provide the funds necessary to reduce class sizes, the school year will not open on September 1. He and his colleagues will shut down the schools. If the government doesnt do its duty, Bibas added, it can go home.
Bibas worked hard for the present government to be formed and for Netanyahu to lead it. I asked him what had happened.
I am first of all a mayor, then head of the Union of Local Authorities, and after that all the other things, he replied. With all respect to my ties with the prime minister, local-government affairs come first. I am demanding the creation of an education basket, like the health-care basket.
I asked Bibas how, given his super-close relations with Netanyahu, things had deteriorated to a point where a public threat was necessary. He evaded a direct answer. We had discussions last week, he said, implying that they had ended badly and that he had no choice.
Did Netanyahu call after the press conference, I asked. We didnt speak, he replied with bitterness.
Two nights ago, at around 1 A.M., after a long break in the cabinet meeting, the solution was finally found for Economy Minister Arye Derys demand for the introduction of zero VAT on certain items. The Shas leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon entered Netanyahus office like a bride and groom and presented the compromise. He approved it.
Later, Netanyahu, sitting opposite Dery in the now-resumed cabinet meeting, gave him a long, dreamy kind of look, according to one of the participants. You know, Arye, he said, Ive been sitting across from you for two months and looking at you. Its amazing how much you resemble Fidel Castro. Youre total look-alikes.
Be careful with that comparison, Dery shot back. Castro is a good friend of Obamas these days.
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