Analysis

Between Settlers' Demands and U.S. Criticism, a Stormy Winter Is Coming for Netanyahu

The international community is demanding that Israel evacuate the illegal Amona outpost without tricks and without shticks, but the settlers won't go quietly How did Yair Lapid's party manage to incur a $4 million debt?

An illustration showing Netanyahu, Bennett and Kahlon sitting in a sukkah decorated with garlands in the shape of settlement homes, while Obama is operating a drone over their heads.
Amos Biderman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with the settlers from Amona – the illegal outpost that’s slated for evacuation later this year (the meeting was reported on Wednesday by Channel 2 News) – shows the extent of the settlers’ hold on the government and prime minister. The fear they inspire in him. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog; it’s the flea at the end of the dog’s tail. There is no other Western country in which a group of people who established an outpost on land that is not theirs – and against whom an absolute judgment of the Supreme Court is pending – get to meet with the country’s leader, who is supposed to symbolize the rule of law, and hear his wise insights about the outgoing U.S. president and the “danger” the remainder of his term in the White House poses to the “settlement enterprise.” Israel’s problem is not the settlements, the occupation, the rule over another people and the expropriation of land. No, the strategic threat to our life here is Barack Obama.

Of course, what the settlers heard from the prime minister was immediately leaked, in order to spread the bad blood and deepen the rift between the Prime Minister’s Office and Washington over the settlements in general, and the future of Amona in particular. Netanyahu’s bureau issued a denial of the quotes but did not contradict the heart of the report, according to which the premier expressed concern about what lies in store for his government in the 70-odd, twilight-zone days between the U.S. election and the inauguration.

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And there is cause for concern. The shortness of temper manifested by the White House and U.S. State Department toward the Netanyahu government lately is reflected in their aggressive public statements, whether over Amona or in response to Netanyahu’s brutal assault against the human rights organization B’Tselem (whose director, Hagai El-Adaddressed the UN Security Council last week). In Israel, these American reactions are being taken as disturbing signals, lowering clouds that augur a winter of discontent.

Netanyahu will be forced to rebuff growing U.S. administration pressure on the settlements – pressure that could morph into an American initiative in the Security Council, or an initiative that Washington will support. European diplomats who are involved in the peace process recently told an Israeli figure in a private conversation that, as far as they know, a draft resolution against Israel in connection with the settlements has already been drawn up and is safely locked away at UN headquarters.

The United States, together with the entire international community, will demand that Netanyahu restrain the rampage in the territories and execute the decision of the High Court of Justice on Amona, without tricks and without shticks. Contrariwise, Netanyahu is about to endure an offensive from the settlers, as always playing the role of sacrificial victims. They will demand generous compensation for the evacuation of the buildings in Amona, and afterward for some of the structures in the veteran settlement of Ofra and elsewhere. The demand will be for a commitment to build dozens or even hundreds of alternative housing units in the West Bank, and a “strategic solution” for some 2,000 Jewish homes that were built on private Palestinian land and face the same fate as Amona.

The coalition, too, is likely to be jolted. Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the leaders of Habayit Hayehudi, are toeing the line with the extremists of Amona & Co. They will float a strategic solution that exists only in the settlers’ hallucinations and thereby pour oil on the embers of the hilltops in the West Bank. There is no way that Netanyahu, magician and political wizard though he may be, can retroactively legalize thousands of illegally built structures without bringing down upon himself the wrath of a world which, he claimed in his summer briefings blitz, has lost interest in the conflict and is reverentially genuflecting to him.

There is no chance that the Amona evacuation, scheduled for December (unless the High Court grants another extension, which it will be asked to do after the Sukkot holiday), will pass quietly. There’s no scenario in which Bennett, who recently veered sharply to the right in a number of statements such as a call “to give our soul for Judea and Samaria,” will be able to swallow one evacuation and then another – and say that it’s strawberry syrup.

No, Netanyahu won’t be cavorting in strawberry fields when the Knesset reconvenes for the winter session on October 31.

Follow the money

What were Netanyahu and Bennett thinking a few days before the 2015 general election when they agreed to shelter under the wing of right-wing settler extremist Daniella Weiss and take part in a mass political rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square? That no complaint would be filed? That the state comptroller would ignore the incident? That the event would slip under the radar like a bill submitted by the Communications Ministry in the midst of hostilities in the Gaza Strip?

That twosome knows that taking part in a rally funded by the settlers is a gross violation of the election-financing law. If there was a risk that any resultant fine would come out of their own bank accounts (“From the mouths of our children,” as bottle-recycler Sara Netanyahu likes to say), they might have reconsidered. But as they knew the taxpayer’s pocket would be hit, they probably lost no sleep the night before the rally – just as they probably didn’t this week, either, in the wake of the reprimand and fines doled out by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.

To recap: The rally in question took place on March 15, 2015, two days before the election. The polls were forecasting 22 seats for Likud and 25 for Zionist Union. Panic reigned. Below the surface, the tectonic shift of Habayit Hayehudi votes to Likud had begun, in order to save the country. But at the rally, an emergency atmosphere prevailed. Yitzhak Shamir once said that lying is permissible for the sake of the state – so if the Ninth Commandment can be ignored, what’s a semi-technical law passed by flesh and blood?

Bennett is nothing short of a recidivist when it comes to violating election-financing laws. In campaign after campaign, he hasn’t yet found the magic formula for above-board behavior, by the rules. He doesn’t need punishment, he needs treatment.

Certainly the most memorable image from that rally was of Bennett strumming a guitar and singing “Jerusalem of Gold,” off-key. Well, while he was leading a hootenanny – as compensation (or tribulation) for the state comptroller’s refusal to allow paid performers to appear at an election event – his voters were already flocking in their “droves” to cast their ballots for Likud. His voters, not the Arabs. Habayit Hayehudi discovered that bitter truth when the polls closed on Election Day.

This week, a frustrated Bennett told his confidants, “I came, I sang, I mustered votes for Bibi and I also have to pay. It’s like the date from hell!” Well, at least he still has his sense of humor.

The fines levied on the parties in the wake of the election campaign are similar to what we saw in the past. Who remembers and who cares? Still, one wonders how the party of purity, probity, values and pious rolling of the eyes – Yesh Atid – managed to run up an incomprehensible debt of 16 million shekels ($4.2 million). After all, the party’s leader, Yair Lapid, is the chief preacher in these parts for “the highest standards regarding the rule of law and proper administration,” as a statement issued by Yesh Atid claimed this week, without blushing. Lapid was finance minister until that election, responsible for the public coffers – even if he would like the public to forget that. Where’s his fiscal responsibility?

Furthermore, Yesh Atid is known to have a large number of volunteers, like the innumerable grains of sand on the beach, perhaps more than any other party. Volunteers presumably work without pay. So how did the huge debt come about? Or, to quote the title of Lapid’s old newspaper column and his slogan when he ran for office: Where’s the money, Yair, where’s the money?

For part 1 of Yossi Verter's column, click here. 

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