Israel's New Political Leadership Turns Diplomatic Debacle Into Turkish Delight

The Bennett-Lapid-Herzog team spurned dramatics to win the release of the Israeli tourists Natalie and Mordi Oknin. Meanwhile, Israel's justice system continues to fear the wrath of Defendant No. 1

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Issac Herzog
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The saga of the arrest of the Oknin couple and their release from a trumped-up detention in Turkey was like a rite of passage for Israel’s new leadership. Such crises put to the test not only the leaders’ mental endurance, but their ability to cooperate, act in unison and stick to a homogenous policy.

This means that if they succeed, they don’t let their egos get ahead of them. And if they fail, they don’t lay the blame on each other.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog finished the course with flying colors. So did Mossad chief David Barnea, who is even newer at his job than they are.

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From the start, the agreed tactic was to keep a low profile – not to rant and rave, not to escalate matters and not to drive Recep Tayyip Erdogan up a tree from which he can’t get down.

The Turkish despot’s problematic personality is well known to Israeli officials. They succeeded in not giving him any reason to lose his temper. Of the three, the only one who had spoken to him in the past was Herzog, when Erdogan called to congratulate him after being elected president. They talked for about 40 minutes. Herzog was everything he is – polite, attentive to nuances, one could almost say “containing.” As sweet as Turkish delight. The communication they established turned out to be critical in the Oknin crisis.

We wrote this in real time and we’ll say it again: Alack and alas for us if Miriam Peretz had been elected president in June. In this role, we must have a statesmanlike figure, with strategic understanding, a broad view and deep familiarity with the geopolitical arena. At a time of trouble, it always helps. Sometimes it even saves lives.

Let’s return to the beginning of the event. On Friday evening, Israel time, Lapid held a Zoom call with Israel’s senior representative in North America. It was mainly about Iran and China matters, but Lapid began with congratulating our new ambassador to Washington, Mike Herzog, who had just landed. At the same time, he was feverishly texting another Herzog, the ambassador’s brother in the President’s Residence.

“We must make sure not too many cooks stir the broth,” Lapid wrote. “It’s you, Bennett and me. C’est tout. We’ll succeed in getting them out only if we remove all the self-appointed mediators out of the way. If the Turks think we’re hysterical, they’ll set a price we won’t be able to pay.”

For this reason it was decided not to ask foreign leaders to intervene, as this would have given the impression Lapid was trying to avoid, and would have raised the price.

The term “the strategic corporal” – marginal players with the potential to produce mega-crises – was mentioned more than once among the three. In the Turkish telenovela that was developing before our eyes there was a potential for the mother of crises.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset last week.Credit: Emil Salman

Once Herzog was briefed on the details, he called his contact in Erdogan’s Ankara palace, who is a whisper away from the ruler’s ear. The president passed on the message he was requested to: The two are indeed innocent tourists, bus drivers from a suburban town, for whom espionage is something they see on TV.

The telephone connection between Herzog and Ankara continued all the time, but two parallel channels were quickly formed, one by Bennett, another by Lapid. The Mossad chief was activated, too.

Spies have codes. When one chief promises his colleague that certain individuals don’t work for him or for any other espionage agency, that’s cast in iron. Word. The talks continued, until on Wednesday morning an agreement on principle was reached.

What did Erdogan want, I asked one of the lead players yesterday. “Look,” he said, “he followed Biden and Putin’s gestures to Bennett. He knows what the new strategic climate is. He wants to be part of it. He wants to be talked to.” In Hebrew it’s called “wanting attention.”

With all due respect to climate change, I said, there’s no way the Turkish fox didn’t demand something in exchange. Life is a bazaar.

His answer was interesting: “What he’ll get will be less than what Netanyahu gave President Putin in the Naama Issachar event.”

What do you see as Israeli?

Bennett and Lapid haven’t finished cashing in their political chips from this affair. Politicians are never entirely altruistic – the need for praise and honor is encoded in their DNA. With all the empathy shown for the distress of the couple from Modi’in in their Turkish prison cells, a happy ending is sure to bring a PR bonanza to this motley political crew. It’s an outcome Bennett and Lapid badly need.

The affair from the past mentioned earlier by the official demonstrates the difference. Issachar’s woes were poured into the political cauldron, with the former prime minister talking about her with Likud activists.

It ended with the most expensive photoshop in our history, beginning with the flight of a delegation headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and ending with the gift basket of diplomatic and real estate goodies Putin received for releasing the young woman, who had forgotten in her bag seven grams of drugs purchased in India.

The Oknin family at their Modi'in home on Thursday.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP

The change in the Prime Minister’s Office is not the only thing worth mentioning in this connection. Had the rotation taken place in the Netanyahu-Gantz government, this week Miri Regev would have assumed control of the Foreign Ministry.

The woman who made an art out of huckstering and wears vulgarity as a crown would have fanned the flames in Ankara’s face to nuclear intensity in order to make political profit with her base whose enthusiasm is waning. The Oknins would have been sentenced to a bitter fate.

More importantly, it seems that the most blessed aspect of the case is also the most seemingly humdrum. For years, we’ve seen the systematic abuse and neglect of Foreign Ministry officials and the trampling roughshod over the ministry itself. It was turned from the grandest of ministries to an almost empty shell.

The ministry’s civil servants are now experiencing a new heyday. On Thursday, the first important photo op in the Oknin affair was of two deputy directors general, and not of any honor-greedy politician. The Israeli consul who worked with Erdogan received both the powers and the confidence – not to mention the proper credit – from his minister.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lapid called the Oknin family home in Modi’in. He asked to talk to Natalie’s brother, Eran, and her daughter Shiraz. “They’ll be arriving tomorrow morning,” he told them. “But if the information leaks before then, the Turks won’t let them leave. Don’t talk to anyone, not to friends, not to a lawyer. The lives of your sister, of your parents, are in your hands.”

The last sentence did the trick. Lapid set military censorship in motion. He expected it would have to take out the mythological black marker shortly. Nada. Nothing leaked. Not a word. Not a tweet. The family maintained dead silence.

The people in the relevant government ministries sat and watched the television talk and news shows. They listened carefully to the reporters and commentators diving into Erdogan’s mind and predicting his next move, forecasting scenarios and offering assessments. The prevailing tone was apocalyptic. They had no clue.

“The less they knew, that is, they didn’t know anything at all, the more resolved they sounded,” one of those viewers told me. “Natalie and Mordi were packing their bags, and here they were predicting a tragedy.”

How didn’t it leak, someone asked Lapid. Dozens of people knew. “Mutual responsibility,” he said. “That’s what Israelis are like.”

Trial by delay

Nearly two years after the corruption indictment was filed against Benjamin Netanyahu, only four of more than 300 witnesses have testified in the courtroom of Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman. The fifth witness, former Netanyahu-family spokesman Nir Hefetz, will testify next week.

The farce this week of another postponement is the latest sign of the trial’s disturbing dynamic. Progress in Case 2000 – the proceedings involving the daily Yedioth Ahronoth and planned positive news coverage for Netanyahu – has been slowed because of evidence in the lavish-gifts case.

With sophisticated tools, as well as orchestrated and aggressive tactics, the accused has managed to bend the chessboard to his will. The pawns are the police investigators harassed by private investigators, the rook in the courtroom on Saladin Street is a hesitant and suspicious Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, and the queen is Judge Friedman-Feldman.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his lawyers at the Jerusalem District Court this week. Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu has done this partly via the band of obsequious politicians who follow him around, like Likud legislator Amir Ohana, whom we saw this week toddling after the accused in a pitiful attempt to rehabilitate his shaky status with the boss and his retinue. But Netanyahu has largely succeeded using two parallel and perfidious systems. One is the army of his supporters, the Bibi-ists on social media and the regular media who are riddling us with fake news and threats, backed by blind admirers and bots.

The second system has checked every pergola in the backyards of the investigators and attorneys, rummaged through their private lives and made sure to scrutinize the judges, too. As far as we know, no investigation is underway regarding an apparent attempt to entrap Friedman-Feldman’s husband (which was reported on the “Uvda” investigative news program).

During the many discussions at the State Prosecutor’s Office before the filing of the indictment, the attorney general expressed concerns about an exoneration. Such a result, he said, would be the Yom Kippur of Israeli law enforcement. With the police's flabby performance post-Commissioner Roni Alsheich, Mendelblit’s fears and – as became clear during the past year – the judges’ extreme irresoluteness, the system doesn’t need to wait for any Yom Kippur. It’s in a prolonged fast.

It’s nearly paralyzed with fear. The mills of justice aren’t grinding slowly, they’re being ground down.

The story of the gift of the $43,000 bracelet to Netanyahu’s wife flitted by in silence. Nothing happened, everything as usual. He and she continue to receive celeb discounts, on top of the celeb gifts.

The attorney general is keeping mum, for now. He hasn’t launched an investigation, he hasn’t ordered the police to summon the lady for questioning. He hasn’t touched her since she won that dream deal in the teeth of seven investigations, a charge that sounds like it was invented especially for her. In this case, it isn’t even a matter of a perishable gift like those cigars and bottles of Champagne worth about 750,000 shekels ($243,600), according to the indictment.

This saga is befogged by trickery. Its essence is the weakness of the system amid the public’s limited interest in the trial. Even the supporters of the accused aren’t showing up in large numbers.

Channel 13’s Avishay Ben Haim (to call him a journalist would be a joke) is afflicted with acute Bibi-ism and compares his king, his lord, to Dreyfus. Well, he’s right about one thing. The number of people who bothered to take to the streets to support Dreyfus and Netanyahu seems about the same. Only a handful of crude and sometimes violent men and women bothered to come to Jerusalem on Tuesday.

There’s irony here when we consider Aviad Glickman and Baruch Kra, Ben Haim’s colleagues who haven’t forgotten what it is to be a journalist. They’re legal reporters who for years have been covering the trial of Yitzhak Abergil and the other heads of the crime groups – murderers and drug dealers. But Glickman and Kra can leave the courthouse and walk around undisturbed. No one threatens, shoves or curses them.

In the criminal world there is “respect” for the media, even when it broadcasts incriminating recordings. Abergil’s and Rico Shirazi’s soldiers will never raise a hand to a reporter. Bibi’s “soldiers” are far more dangerous, just as he is with his tweets, thunderous silences and mafioso machine that surrounds him. It’s a clear and present danger to the rule of law in Israel.

There’s a limit

Netanyahu has a sophisticated argument on the bill to limit a prime minister to eight years in office that’s coming up for a vote next week. It’s a smokescreen, he says, a distraction from the bill that prevents a person accused of a crime from forming a government.

“This bill is too crude,” he preached this week at the Likud caucus meeting. “So they’re bringing in a bill that doesn’t exist in any parliamentary democracy.”

Formally, he’s right. This isn’t ideal legislation. Presumably, if it weren’t for his own negative contribution that we haven’t recovered from yet, we wouldn’t need term-limit legislation like this. More than any other leader, he has shown how being in power for a very long time can be destructive, corrupt and corrupting.

Only about six months ago, his great fondness for democracy didn’t stop him from proposing a limit to his own term in office, retroactively! During the coalition talks, as we well remember, he fawned over Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, to the point of self-abasement. To each of them in turn he presented the following: If in a rotation he serves as prime minister first, his term will end after three years, in June 2024. And if he serves second, he will resign from political life in October 2025, at the end of the Knesset’s term.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar meeting with legislators from his New Hope party this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Sa’ar immediately rejected this proposal brought to him by Netanyahu’s emissaries. Bennett, perhaps a bit naively, or because he wanted to prove to his electorate that a right-wing government was indeed a preferred option, agreed. Fortunately for him, Bezalel Smotrich thwarted the moves by Netanyahu and Likud MK Yoav Kish, who wanted to form a government with the votes of the United Arab List (and of course continue to enjoy its help thereafter).

Bennett made a swift exit from the deal that never got off the ground – and agreed to be prime minister. He doesn’t look like he’s suffering.

The justice minister and initiator of the term-limit law, Sa’ar, removed the retroactivity element. Netanyahu, in his futile courtships, applied it to himself. But if his attempts somehow succeeded, he would have broken up the government soon enough, gone for an election and changed the law.

Over the past 73 years, the Israeli calendar has never seen a more unrealistic date than the transition date in the rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, which was marked this week by an anecdote. It never even occurred to the former to honor the agreement. The latter never imagined he would fall into the hands of a cheat and a scoundrel.

An abyss gapes

From the above, it seems the recent reports of a return of the Gantz-joins-Bibi scenario are unrealistic to the same degree. Defense Minister Gantz hasn’t learned anything in the past five months to believe that this time it would be safe to carry this scorpion on his back across the turbulent political river.

In any case, Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party has nothing to discuss with Likud. A gaping abyss separates his centrist party and what happens in Likud whip Yariv Levin’s caucus room. After last week’s aggressive campaign by Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox against allowing non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall, this week we saw another horrifying display of what’s happening in the party that once called itself “national liberal.”

On Monday, Netanyahu allowed his caucus to discuss the bill by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the representative of Otzma Yehudit in the Jewish racist caucus, to amend the Law of Return. Under this legislation, a person undergoing a non-Orthodox conversion abroad would not be considered a Jew under the Law of Return – an insane proposal that would alienate Israel from world Jewry, strike a mortal blow to American Jewry, undermine immigration to Israel and turn the country into a benighted ultra-Orthodox ghetto.

Far-rightist Itamar Ben-Gvir, center, at an event in Jerusalem this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“The discussion was serious,” a Likud lawmaker who’s against the bill told me. “Various opinions were heard.”

Excuse me, I asked, but why on earth are you even considering support for this filth?

“It’s to prove collegiality to our partners,” he said. “Anyway, it wouldn’t have passed.”

Of the 23 caucus members present, seven argued that the bill had to be opposed: Yuval Steinitz, Yuli Edelstein, Yoav Gallant, Gila Gamliel, Avi Dichter, Nir Barkat and Keren Barak.

I asked what the former prime minister thought. “He supported a conscience vote.”

Really? I asked. After all, many of his big donors in the United States are Reform and Conservative Jews, as are many leaders of AIPAC, his pet. Has he given up on them? The MK shrugged.

On Wednesday, Ben-Gvir withdrew the bill; Netanyahu apparently planned to flee the Knesset hall. I couldn’t help but remember his second wife, Fleur Cates, an American gentile he married in a civil ceremony in Boston in 1981, after she underwent a rapid Reform conversion. Luckily she decided to flee this place back in 1989 when Ben-Gvir was in junior high.