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The D.C. Ego Summit: Netanyahu Surprised Even His Cabinet Ministers

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Illustration: Trump showers Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu in honey.
Illustration: Trump showers Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu in honey.Credit: Amos Biderman

Two arrogant leaders, full of themselves, pose side by side in the East Room of the White House. They have a great deal in common. Both won elections against all the odds, expectations and polls. Both spread hate and promote a divisive and inflammatory policy against minorities in their country. Both abhor the established media. Both are deeply contemptuous of the elites, even though they’re part of them. Both are involved in legal entanglements, each one immersed in his own troubles, and both believe they have been anointed to rule by divine right.

The president of the United States at times looked like the sidekick of the prime minister of Israel in their joint press conference on Wednesday. Of the two, there’s no doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu is the elder statesman. He’s a man of the world, knowledgeable, educated, smart, experienced; Donald Trump – who even uses his meager vocabulary in an unintelligible way – doesn’t come close to Netanyahu intellectually. But that didn’t prevent the latter from being thrilled and lapping up the president’s wisecracks, as if it were at the very least Winston Churchill standing there orating in his majestic rhetoric.

Trump didn’t show very impressive knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I am looking at two states or one state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said in the press conference, as the embarrassed Netanyahu giggled. The main thing is to reach a deal, Trump intoned, looking as though he didn’t have the slightest idea of what he was talking about. His mention of a regional Middle East initiative rang hollow, as though someone had given him a note with that headline on it for him to declaim blindly.

But there was one sensitive issue about which the new president had obviously done his homework. The public gesture he made to Sara Netanyahu was clearly the result of meticulous briefing by his advisers in the White House. Trump was told how desperately she needs public recognition and a display of affection, and he lavished these on her. Perhaps the casino tycoon and heavyweight donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, had drawn the president’s attention to this delicate matter in their advance visit to the White House.

Such a pity that one small sentence was missing: “I know how important your work as a child psychologist in the public service is to you.” But never mind, there will certainly be an opportunity to make amends. Bibi and Sara will be more than happy to call again anytime soon.

The couple, who in Israel have recently spent many hours meeting with police interrogators, enjoyed a rare moment of satisfaction and glory. Together with the U.S. First Lady, Sara Netanyahu even got to sit on a sofa in the Oval Office, a place usually reserved for government officials.

By the way, Netanyahu also did his homework. Knowing that the businessman who strayed into the White House would repeatedly utter the magic word “deal,” the premier found an opportunity to drop – albeit a bit clumsily – the title of Trump’s 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” into the dialogue. If he can help promote sales, why not?

Netanyahu navigated the public part of the visit with flying colors. In fact, so moved was he by the warm event, after eight years of Obama-style chill, that he uncharacteristically got tangled up in his words at times. He did not mention the phrase “two states for two peoples” – an idea he has supported on numerous occasions as a means to prevent the emergence of a binational state.

No wonder the right wing in Israel exulted on Wednesday. Even Trump’s part-proposal, part-jab – to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” – couldn’t extinguish the joy among the constituency of Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi. Their electorate seems to be hearing the chimes of redemption from the east. That is, from the East Room.

Israel Successfully Hacked ISIS Computers; Trump Leaked It to the Russians. Image: Trump meets Netanyahu at the White House. Feb. 15, 2017Credit: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

For his part, Bennett declared that after 24 years – the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – the flag of Palestine has been lowered, and replaced by the blue-and-white. In this, too, he’s right. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was invented by the West to challenge the rule of Yasser Arafat and to put a civilized, elegant and shaven face on the Palestinian Authority, has been tossed into the depths of the Potomac. Less than two months ago, the Palestinians and the administration were still coordinating messages, such as regarding the draft for the UN Security Council resolution on settlements.

In a lordly manner, like a teacher talking to his pupils, Bennett congratulated the prime minister, via Twitter, for the “leadership and boldness he displayed” by not mentioning a Palestinian state. That’s a message Netanyahu would gladly have foregone from the person who until a decade ago was his chief of staff and is now his great rival.

The fact that Netanyahu avoided uttering “two states,” both in the press conference and, following the meeting with Trump, in his briefing to the Israeli correspondents who accompanied him to Washington, came as something of a surprise to the members of the security cabinet back home. In their meeting Sunday, he stated explicitly that it was necessary to go on expressing support for the idea of a Palestinian state but to hinder its realization with obstacles and conditions – such as demanding Palestinian recognition that Israel is a Jewish state, demilitarization of a Palestinian state, full and unrestricted Israeli security control over all Palestinian territory and so forth. In the press conference he put forward only part of the equation.

There will be those in the security cabinet who will say that what he heard from them allowed him to back out of the Palestinian-state corner he’d painted himself into. Bennett didn’t even present the premier with an ultimatum, real or false, nor did he lay down conditions or make threats – and yet, for him, the Palestinian state idea is no more. As if the Bar-Ilan speech was some sort of horrible dream.

For the Israeli right wing, this is no less than a second Balfour Declaration. Trump will be forgiven for reneging on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. According to diplomatic sources, it was Netanyahu who sent the president a request, or perhaps begged him, through senior figures, not to relocate in such a rash manner. Ultimately, the premier showed some sort of responsibility.

Grim determination

In just a few weeks, Netanyahu’s defense strategy and public posturing in connection with the investigations against him underwent an impressive evolution. From “There will be nothing, because there was nothing,” to “You’re allowed to receive gifts from friends,” to “I didn’t know where the champagne that Sara drinks came from,” to “Even if there’s an indictment, I don’t intend to resign.” That last statement was publicized this week in several media outlets and was attributed to “persons close to the prime minister.” That’s a serious leap in terms of development and metamorphoses, from larva to chrysalis to butterfly, though it’s not yet clear whether the time has come for it to spread its wings.

People who speak with the premier are astonished at the fact that his grim determination to remain in office even if he’s indicted – which would be lawful but almost inconceivable – is not just a tactical stance, but something that is profoundly essential to him. Like Richard Nixon, he’s convinced that if he did something that’s appears to be against the law, it’s still legal. He believes that the trivial stipulations of the formal, dry law do not apply to him and his wife. He’s absolutely confident that the historical significance of his being the leader of the State of Israel renders earthly matters such as receiving benefits from tycoon-friends inconsequential, and that those who are preoccupied with the matter are mere nitpickers. Sara once scolded a broadcaster who was emceeing a public event she was participating in, whose presentation she didn’t like, by declaring, “Bibi is the best prime minister ever here, and I am the best prime minister’s wife that’s ever been here.”

With that mentality and that temperament, why in the world should the greatest leader of our time, a person for whom is Israel is small potatoes, pack up and go home only because a few geeky jurists – who are unable to grasp the magnitude of the hour and don’t realize how lucky they are to have Bibi as their leader – may decide to incriminate him? He’s now making it clear to them, before the fact, that their decision will be worthless in his eyes.

If so, a scenario cannot be ruled out in which judicial proceedings in the Netanyahu cases drag on until late 2018, at which time elections must be held in any case.

Meanwhile, it’s not only anonymous confidants who are disseminating the gospel according to Netanyahu. One of its chief marketers is a minister who has become quite close to him: Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Appearing on “Meet the Press” on Channel 2, he made it clear that the prime minister is not in the same category as a cabinet minister who, according to legal precedent, must resign if indicted but can return to office if acquitted.

“If Netanyahu asks my advice, I will definitely recommend that he stay on and manage his trial from the position of prime minister,” Lieberman said.

Even the most cynical and experienced of us find it difficult to grasp how these two, who until last spring were incapable of hearing each other’s name without making a face and letting loose a choice epithet, have become best buddies. What are these people made of? Lieberman, for whom preservation of the coalition is a categorical imperative, is displaying absolute loyalty to the person who enabled his great dream to come true. Netanyahu, for his part, is telling interlocutors that he’s very pleased with his defense minister’s performance and his flawlessly loyal behavior toward him. In return, Lieberman is now helping to create the appropriate atmosphere.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting, February 12, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

Nothing succeeds like succession

On Sunday, Naftali Bennett awoke happy and energized to do the Lord’s work. On his way to Jerusalem, he heard Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), whom he had until then considered a friend, savage his weekend remarks to the effect that a clash with Hamas could be expected in the spring. “The phenomenon of a security cabinet minister who heads a small party and is ready to heat up the whole sector in Gaza for political reasons and drag the whole system into a war, is extremely grave,” Katz asserted.

Bennett was stunned. To begin with, the impending confrontation with Hamas was actually something forecast by Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu). Bennett, for his part, had spoken somewhere and noted that there was no escaping such a situation in the future – a conventional assessment. He subsequently instructed his party’s spokesman to issue an official communique stating, in part, that Katz “is conducting a campaign to replace Netanyahu, including the establishment of campaign headquarters and precise planning for his replacement.”

I asked a senior figure in Habayit Hayehudi what Bennett was talking about. “Everyone knows,” he replied, “that if Bibi has to step down, Katz will try to ram through instant elections for a new party leader in the Likud Central Committee and not via primaries, because Katz is strongest in the central committee, and if elected there, he will work to form an alternative government in this Knesset.”

I asked Katz where his campaign headquarters are and if we could send a photographer. He guffawed. “There’s nothing to the story, there’s no campaign headquarters,” he replied.

With that settled, let’s pause a moment over this episode. Katz is not an impulsive person; he calculates and plans his moves carefully. The sequence of interviews attests to forethought. To strategy. Figures in Habayit Hayehudi believe that the offensive approach is part of a project to pave Katz’s way for the day after Netanyahu. Identifying Bennett as his principal rival in the right wing, Katz wants to undercut him, not with political arguments but on national security grounds.

In this context, we should recall Bennett’s day-after plan: to call on all the parties of the right to form a bloc, a kind of Israeli “Republican Party,” with the leader of the bloc to be elected in primaries among all right-wing voters. Bennett is certain that winning will be a walk in the park. Katz perhaps thinks that such a move would not be advantageous to a post-Netanyahu Likud, which Katz himself hopes will be his, and he’s already now starting to whittle Bennett down to size. Besides which, according to the polls, Katz’s position among the potential successors is not great. He needs high visibility on security issues.

Bennett’s response was disproportional: both below the belt and between the eyes. It was also made clear to Katz in a private conversation that if he behaves in the same manner again, he’ll get a stronger, faster and more painful response.

Ehud Barak at a Labor Party event in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2017.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Center-left hopes

The hope of the center-left that Netanyahu is at the beginning of the end of his political career is encouraging machers of one kind and another to try their luck at making connections and setting in motion moves that will change reality. A few weeks ago, a couple of these types decided to promote reconciliation between two people who are sustaining one of the bitterest and most talked-about quarrels in these parts: Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi, survivors of the “Harpaz affair” and its offshoots.

The two machers, one of whom is a former secretary of the kibbutz movement, Ze’ev Shor, consulted with a person who is very close to Ashkenazi. The person, who is also in favor of and pushing for a historic rapprochement between the two cocks of the walk said that, in his opinion, if the former defense minister were to invite his former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff to a meeting, he would get a positive response. Gabi’s ego, the confidant said, is smaller than Ehud’s. Have no worry, this one macher said; the inviter will not be embarrassed. On my word.

So it was that the two emissaries betook themselves to Gindi Tower in Tel Aviv to meet with the skyscraper-loving occupant. Abashed, they returned to Ashkenazi’s man with a negative reply. They didn’t explain further. Either they were asked to keep the reason to themselves or they were given no reason, or they were given one and didn’t understand it (not a rare occurrence, given the person in question).

It’s still not clear why Barak said no to the whole idea. Maybe he doesn’t think the conditions are ripe. Some say that his wife, Nili, vetoed the idea. That’s been vehemently denied from within his circle. One view is that the emissaries were unsuitable for a mission of this scale. Or maybe, by his nature, he doesn’t make a habit of taking part in games involving “fake news” or “alternative facts” – two phrases he’s become fond of and has been using frequently of late.

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