It’s No Election Campaign Gift or Friendship: Putin Just Blackmailed Netanyahu

Russia will free an Israeli woman jailed on drug charges, but the ironic smile on Putin’s lips told the whole story. Meanwhile, Bibi’s talk of annexation is causing problems for Benny Gantz

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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The man from the valley.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

“Saturday Night Live” likes to portray Vladimir Putin as the real ruler in the White House – the guy Donald Trump owes for his great victory in 2016. On Thursday, at the residence of our prime minister, we also got to see the real master of the house in Jerusalem. Haughty, almost giddy, Putin celebrated his easy domination of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and power

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The event at the residence on Balfour Street also included the unavoidable presence of “the first lady,” who at the start of the visit pushed herself into the middle of the two leaders’ photo op. At the end of it, she wouldn’t let go of the hand of the embarrassed Yaffa Issachar. It was the ultimate humiliation ceremony. The ironic smile on Putin’s lips told the whole story.

It wasn’t humanitarianism that prompted Putin to offer a few words of reassurance to Yaffa, whose 26-year-old daughter is in a Russian prison on drug charges. It wasn’t reassurance to the nation whose heart goes out to the young woman who has become a hostage in the hands of an evil regime.

It certainly wasn’t compassion. It was the joy of the victor, the poise of professional blackmailers whose scheme has succeeded. It wasn’t a heartwarming “election gift” but a tiny payment that the blackmailer gives the blackmailee for an incomparably more valuable asset.

Naama Issachar will soon be released from the Russian prison she was sent to by a court that’s a rubber stamp for the crime organization called the Kremlin. Her release will of course trigger another round of emotional gratitude to the Russian president. Netanyahu’s slick propaganda machine will keep flooding the airwaves with reports on the amazing relationship, the wonderful friendship, between him and Putin, “thanks to which” Naama’s release was made possible.

Netanyahu, his wife Sara and Yaffa Issachar, mother of Naama Issachar who is jailed in Russia welcome Vladimir Putin ahead of the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

This brainwashing is designed to make us forget the simple facts of this sad story, of the seven-and-a-half-year jail sentence handed to a young woman who was marked as a hostage by the Russians when she stopped in Moscow for a connecting flight with a few grams of marijuana in her luggage. She will return home not because Netanyahu is a great leader but because, in an election fateful for his future, he’s willing to pay a high price for the public’s sympathy. If relations between him and Putin were really as wonderful as he’d like us to believe, this whole story never would have happened.

Netanyahu freed Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity at the cost of more than a thousand terrorist killers, just to extinguish the last embers of the social protest movement that was putting him in a panic. Now he’s freeing Naama Issachar for major concessions, most of which Jerusalem will keep trying to hide.

Sara Netanyahu wasn’t the only one to elbow her way into the frame Thursday. Crown Prince Yair (who claims not to be unemployed) couldn’t pass up a fawning gesture of his own. He posted pictures of himself and Putin on Twitter with a greeting in English and Russian. Where was the slime that he usually posts on these platforms? I suppose dictators bring out the best in him.

This effort brought to mind a tweet by the online bully from the beginning of the week – and suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. It started when Speaker Yuli Edelstein ordered the Knesset to meet next week to discuss the convening of the Knesset House Committee, which would hold hearings on Netanyahu’s request for immunity in the corruption cases against him. Junior tweeted a reminder about the speaker’s family tree: “The father of his wife is Leonid Nevzlin, an oligarch wanted for murder in Russia and the owner of Haaretz.”

The facts, of course, are quite the opposite. Nevzlin, a 20 percent owner of Haaretz, has been politically persecuted by the Putin regime and his innocence has been recognized by Israel’s Supreme Court and international institutions.

The tweet was soon deleted – a known technique of Yair – but it was up long enough for the message to reverberate all the way to Moscow. At the very least, the prime minister’s son’s expression of faith in Russia’s corrupt justice system deserves deeper reflection now that the full picture has been laid out.

The man from the Jordan Valley

Benny Gantz’s visit to the Jordan Valley was arranged 10 days before it took place Tuesday. He planned to say that his Kahol Lavan party would annex the valley in coordination with the international community, not as a unilateral step.

Given that this limited annexation is almost a matter of national consensus, a move strongly supported by the “soft right” that Kahol Lavan is eager to court, Gantz didn’t see any danger in such an act. He wants to be seen as more to the right, after all. The Peretz-Meretz merger on the left removed the last obstacle on the path to the Jordan Valley. Even if some left-wing Kahol Lavan voters get upset and jump ship to Labor-Gesher-Meretz, it will still be worth it.

Gantz wanted to check off the Jordan Valley issue and return safely to his comfort zone: talking about Netanyahu’s immunity request. But his plans went awry. In an interview on Army Radio the day before, Kahol Lavan’s Yael German blurted out that the party’s platform talks about an arrangement “based on disengagement.” Actually, the platform doesn’t say any such thing. One thing for sure: We won’t be hearing any more interviews with German in the next five weeks.

And so the tour by Gantz and the No. 3 on the Kahol Lavan slate, Moshe Ya’alon – something so carefully planned – ended up looking like a desperate attempt to repair the damage from German’s gaffe, which became Gantz’s gaffe. He was forced to keep reassuring the public. A unilateral move is not my intention, he tweeted that evening. If not, why didn’t he make annexation contingent on an accord? Why didn’t he warn about the danger of annulling the peace agreement with Jordan?

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, speaks to a man during a tour in East Jerusalem on January 14, 2020. Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Then he put his foot in it even more when he tweeted to Netanyahu: First we’ll discuss immunity, then we’ll get to applying sovereignty. Well, Gantz, if immunity takes precedence, why did you go to the Jordan Valley? Why did you interrupt your campaign? Why didn’t you go to Gush Etzion in the West Bank? Or to the Golan Heights? You would have seen a little snow – a good photo op.

But what’s all this nonsense about “annexation with the consent of the international community”? Just what community is going to consent to that? Micronesia and American evangelicals way down south? It sounds about as credible as that old slogan “Peace with the Golan.”

The tumult in Kahol Lavan highlighted the left-right split in the party. Likud doesn’t have this problem, but Gantz entered this territory anyway. Some senior Likudniks strongly oppose such a move but wouldn’t dare break ranks with Netanyahu. If Netanyahu brings the issue before the Knesset (he’s said to be “determined” to do so even if it risks the peace agreement with Jordan), Kahol Lavan will be in trouble.

Gantz’s fiasco helped Netanyahu skirt the central question: If he thinks annexation is such a winning card, why didn’t he pursue it before the September election? He dispatched his Sancho Panza, Likud’s Miki Zohar, to promote the bill for putting cameras in polling stations, which had no Knesset majority from the start. Not only did the move fail, it contributed three Knesset seats to the Joint List of Arab parties.

Of course, the reason is Netanyahu’s legal situation. The third election is the final battle (uh, or maybe the fourth). The whole immunity thing is a farce. He won’t receive it, not by this Knesset or the one after. His trial is looming. Until a few months ago he was still employing a certain amount of restraint and responsibility, but now that he can sense the sword’s cool blade, all other considerations are out.

He believes that annexing the Jordan Valley in a legislative blitz, similar to Menachem Begin’s extending of Israeli law to the Golan Heights in December 1981, will be the game changer. Israelis with Ethiopian roots (so he tells people privately) will return to Likud, as will a seat or two from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, one or two from the “dormant Likudniks,” and maybe even another from Kahol Lavan. Add that to voters for Kahanist Otzma Yehudit realizing they mustn’t waste their votes, and he’ll be up to 61.

He won’t get immunity, but he may be able to get the bill passed letting the Knesset override the Supreme Court. Peace with Jordan, the security ramifications, international relations – all this is trivial compared to his political survival.

Washington’s new confidant

Gantz made a sharp U-turn this week when he said he supported the unveiling of Trump’s peace plan before the election. Just a few days earlier he was quoted as saying that such an announcement would be blatant interference in Israeli politics. The change reportedly resulted from pressure by American officials.

The main player in this pressure campaign was the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Friedman told Gantz that the president would greatly appreciate it if the Kahol Lavan leader withdrew his opposition. Gantz also had talks or meetings with other American officials. They filled him in on the details of the president’s “deal of the century.”

Behind these moves is the Americans' assumption that there is some likelihood that Gantz will become prime minister after the election. Otherwise they wouldn’t bother to put so much effort into this and make him a confidant. The Prime Minister’s Office is also aware of this change of mood in Washington, and isn’t too thrilled about it.

Time for a toady to grow up

The visit to Israel by 40 world leaders to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, honor the memory of the 6 million and pledge to combat anti-Semitism is something to be proud of. Above all, the credit goes to President Reuven Rivlin, who initiated the project with Yad Vashem. Initially, he didn’t expect such an overwhelming response. Many leaders, especially from Western Europe, view Rivlin as a symbol of sanity, statesmanship and sound judgment in a precarious political environment.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin speaks during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on Thursday, January 23, 2020.Credit: Abir Sultan,AP

Netanyahu is entitled to feel satisfied. Without a doubt, his standing abroad was another incentive for certain leaders, mainly from Eastern Europe, to show up. But the attempt by some of his associates to give him all the credit for the event’s success was pathetic.

One of these was Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. “An event like this couldn’t have taken place 10 or 12 years ago,” he said this week, with his usual gushing excitement. The message from him and the other Likud sycophants was clear: Israel only reached the pinnacle of its international relations in the Netanyahu era. Nothing before that comes close.

Well, would President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was popular and respected abroad, have been able to organize a production of this magnitude? Of course.

In his new Hebrew-language book on Israel’s burgeoning natural gas industry, Steinitz describes the Knesset meeting where the plan for the offshore gas fields was approved. As Steinitz writes, “Netanyahu gave a speech in which the word ‘I’ seemed to appear just as often as in my speech. One minister sitting near me during the speech noticed that I looked a little down; he leaned over and joked: ‘Why are you taking it to heart, Yuval? Did you really think he’d applaud you?’”

That’s the whole difference. As a matter of principle, Netanyahu tries not to applaud others, even when they deserve it. Steinitz applauds and grovels, even when it’s not deserved. It’s time for him to grow up.

Trumpian role model

Arthur Finkelstein, the legendary campaign adviser to Netanyahu and later to Avigdor Lieberman, had a certain trademark. A day before the polls opened, he would leave the country after having helped on a campaign. My services are no longer needed, he would say. The final 24 hours are about organization and field work. The strategy has done its part. Now just stick to the instructions.

This week, as Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson reported a few days ago, the two American advisers to the Likud campaign, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, finished their work – a month after they were hired, 40 days before the election and with the campaign not really started. Something obviously happened there. Likud says everything is fine, that “they helped build the campaign platform and completed their work.”

Completed their work or were run out of town? Their fingerprints were evident at Likud’s rally Tuesday at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center to kick off the campaign. Netanyahu was surrounded by all the Trumpian gimmicks (Lewandowski was a Trump campaign manager in 2016). The song accompanying Netanyu’s arrival on stage wasn’t the Likud anthem that the party has used for three decades but “Eye of the Tiger,” the ‘80s hit that Trump used at his rallies (until one of the two songwriters forbid him to play it).

The shirts, the slogans, the young and ethnically diverse crowd that served as human scenery around him – all are part of the legacy of Netanyahu’s orange friend. Netanyahu also adopted the Trumpian boorishness and showed a video in which Gantz was made to sound like he was stuttering and at a loss for words. Like Trump, who at a rally mocked a journalist who has a degenerative nerve disease, Netanyahu mocked Gantz’s “stutter.” The Israel Stuttering Association (and many others) protested fiercely. The two-bit impersonator got scared and apologized. If you really want to be Trump, you have to go all the way. He never apologizes for anything.

It might take one more election campaign for Netanyahu to give up his last speck of elegance. To borrow from Annie Oakley, he’ll try to prove that anything Trump can do he can do lower. The speech at the Jerusalem convention center was full of half-truths and lies, unbridled self-glorification and crude slander of his adversary. And let’s not forget all the weak trial balloons (“applying Israeli sovereignty to every settlement,” “historic peace agreements with more Arab countries,” “stopping Iran once and for all”).

The only politician who was called to the stage to share a bit of the spotlight was Gadi Yevarkan, the deserter from Kahol Lavan and representative of Ethiopian immigrants. He “came home” to Likud in return for the 20th spot on the party slate and the shaky promise of a ministerial appointment. No Likud lawmakers were invited to join the prime minister. None were mentioned either.

When Netanyahu needed their support in the primary versus Gideon Sa’ar, they were his human scenery. He lauded the ministers, MKs, mayors and branch heads. No one fled his plaudits. But when he no longer needs them, he spurns them while showing gratitude to a cynical little opportunist who will later flit like Baryshnikov to another party.

Which Diaspora?

Amid all this, this week Netanyahu appointed people from his party to the ministries he had to give up because of the corruption indictments. Science Minister Ofir Akunis will now also be labor minister, and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi will also be agriculture minister. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely is now Diaspora affairs minister. Netanyahu honored her with an emotional tweet: “I am proud to appoint Tzipi Hotovely … the first religious-Zionist woman minister in the country’s history.”

Actually, the only Diaspora Hotovely will be asked to focus on isn’t overseas but on the other side of the Green Line. In the last election, Netanyahu had her come along on his visits to pre-military academies, yeshivas and religious girls’ schools in the settlements, all fertile ground for the right-wing parties. Now she’ll be doing this as a minister.

In his congratulations to Hotovely, Netanyahu was also appealing to the religious-Zionist community. Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich was much blunter. Minutes after Hanegbi emerged from the prime minister’s office with the appointment, a press release went out saying that Hanegbi was appointed to solve the farmers’ problems and return them to Likud.

Hanegbi was stunned. No one bothered to coordinate the statement with him. He’s one of the last Likudniks to retain a bit of respectability. “What a stupid statement,” he told Channel 13’s Udi Segal.

Well, we are living in stupid times. In another office, with another prime minister, Urich would have been fired or reprimanded. But when the spokesman draws his power and inspiration from Yair Netanyahu, no one will dare touch him.