Forget Iran - Bibi Just Wants to Humiliate Obama on His Own Turf

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Illustration

The part of his speech this week at American University in which U.S. President Barack Obama mocked or imitated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intonation in demanding a “better deal” with Iran, will undoubtedly go viral, if it hasn’t 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 America’s international agenda. Maybe it’ll 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 latter’s home turf.

Since the March election, Netanyahu apparently has the feeling that he’s invincible, numero uno. Just as he “doesn’t 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 doesn’t give a hoot for Obama, or indeed for the whole world and anyone whose opinion differs from his on the Iran agreement.

He’s 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 we’ll 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 isn’t 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 week’s 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. It’s Erdan’s 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 hadn’t 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. He’s a gung-ho type; if he spots a potential brawl, he’ll 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 François Hollande would have convened the National Assembly and ordered all his ministers to interrupt their sacred vacance and betake themselves to Paris pronto.

It’s too bad the law doesn’t allow the Knesset to invite Israel’s 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 Israel’s 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. He’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t bother to show up for the special session. And most of those who did were from the left-wing and center parties. Yesh Atid’s 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, “He’s 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, Lapid’s 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 people’s skin, but there was Lapid on stage, suited up like a waiter at a wedding.

Up for grabs

The abstention by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon 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. Ya’alon is unable to ignore the fact that the report’s author, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yonatan Locker, was Netanyahu’s 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 report’s recommendations are implemented, and even if some are shelved, much will remain that, in Ya’alon’s estimate, the government will adopt. For example, the recommendation to grant the National Security Council, which is subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office, unprecedented powers in regard to planning and overseeing the military’s annual and multiyear budget. The Locker report also recommends enlarging and strengthening the NSC, which Ya’alon sees as an attempt from above to undercut the Defense Ministry’s 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 Minister’s 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. Ya’alon is sometimes said to be something of a blockhead, but dumb he’s not, and above all, he’s learned how Netanyahu’s mind works.

Ya’alon 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 wouldn’t 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 hasn’t discarded his desire to expand the coalition. He’ll 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 didn’t see the blow coming – especially from the closest and most loyal person to him in the party. Haim Bibas, mayor of Modi’in-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 Minister’s 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t speak,” he replied with bitterness.

Comandante Arye

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 Dery’s demand for the introduction of zero VAT on certain items. The Shas leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon entered Netanyahu’s 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, “I’ve been sitting across from you for two months and looking at you. It’s amazing how much you resemble Fidel Castro. You’re total look-alikes.”

“Be careful with that comparison,” Dery shot back. “Castro is a good friend of Obama’s these days.”

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