In Israeli Government's Parallel Universe, Jerusalem Is United, There Is No Occupation

While cabinet colleagues Bennett and Hotovely wage campaigns to convince the world that all is well in the Holy Land, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his once-and-future rival Yair Lapid engage in an undignified game of one-upmanship.

An illustration shows Minister Naftali Bennett smiling over a banner saying 'United Jerusalem' while below individuals attempt to stab others, policemen shoot at individuals with knives and scissors, and volunteers clean up attack scenes.
Amos Biderman

Purim is still a few weeks off, but anyone who scanned this week’s headlines could have easily had the impression that the carnival-like holiday was already here, or possibly that April Fools’ Day had arrived.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced that to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the next school year will be devoted to discussing the theme of “the unity of Jerusalem.” The deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, launched a new campaign designed to explain to the world that “the return of the Jews to Judea and Samaria” has enhanced the Palestinians’ economic wellbeing. But first place in the masquerade ball goes to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, for the battle in which each took credit for engineering the removal of BDS posters this week from London Tube stations.

Who needs satire when we have these people in the government?

The grim situation in Jerusalem needs little elaboration. The abyss between the two parts of the city was never more blatant and bloody. This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron, a great friend of Israel, called settlement construction in East Jerusalem “genuinely shocking.” If Bennett thinks that Israel’s pupils will swallow the fiction about Israel’s capital being a united city, then more power to him. But they’re more intelligent than he gives them credit for.

As for Hotovely, she thinks that Israel’s flimsy and under-budgeted public diplomacy effort, which falters even in far simpler missions, will succeed in changing the view of the international community about the territories that Israel captured in 1967. To paraphrase the slogan from Orwell’s “1984” – “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” She wants to convince the world that the legal situation in the territories does not constitute “occupation,” and that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is legitimate and moral, on both historical and biblical grounds, and because it conquered the areas in a defensive war.

“The year 2017 will be a festive time,” Hotovely declared this week. “A year in which we will at long last start to talk positively about our being in Judea-Samaria. For 25 years we have been conducting negotiations over the fate of the territories, from Oslo to Annapolis, but we have forgotten the narrative.”

Is her idea enough to open the world’s eyes? “It hasn’t yet been tried,” she said. “I don’t intend to destroy anyone’s dream. If a Palestinian Sadat arises, it will be possible to talk, but even then we have to enter the negotiations with a statement that we have a right to the territory.” I reminded her that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat received all of Sinai, down to the last inch. She sighed. “It’s clear that I think we have to remain in Judea-Samaria in any event,” she said. I asked whether her boss, Foreign Minister Netanyahu, goes along with her on that point. She was happy to reply in the affirmative. “In all the meetings I attend with senior visitors from abroad, the prime minister emphasizes two points: that it is inconceivable to imagine Israel making unilateral moves today, and that evacuating settlements constitutes ethnic cleansing.”

Hotovely sounded optimistic and excited. On the other hand, she always sounds excited. It probably comes from burning faith in the rightness of the path. She is not nave, still less dumb. It’s unlikely that she believes that any sane person anywhere will buy these goods. But they’ll love it in Likud, and that’s something, too.

One of the anti-Israel posters placed in London's underground trains.
Israeli Embassy

Poster boys

And now to first place at the ball. The people spearheading BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement) probably never dreamed that their campaign in the Tube – featuring posters put up as part of Israel Apartheid Week – would be this productive. Or that, with the cameras rolling, Netanyahu and Lapid, the politico who would presume to oust the premier in the next election (but is meanwhile making do with the deluded self-styled title of “acting foreign minister”), would squabble over who was responsible for getting the posters removed, thus augmenting the effect that Israel’s opponents wanted to create.

Lapid, whose level of pomposity and self-importance has reached new heights, described to his Knesset faction his mobilization to cleanse the subway as an act of heroic leadership. “As usual, the government is doing nothing! I called the mayor of London, Boris Johnson! The posters were removed as we spoke!”

Minutes later, Netanyahu reported to the Likud faction in a calmer and somewhat bemused tone that he’d spoken with Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold, who happened to be at the scene of the crime in London, and asked him to act on the matter.

Lapid is in the opposition and has to garner headlines any way he can. But Netanyahu is prime minister – why does he have to get involved in the childish games played by the Yesh Atid leader, who has been quite successful in making the public forget he was finance minister until a year ago? It would have been far more dignified – and, for a change, credible – if Netanyahu had simply announced that the Foreign Ministry, or the embassy, had dealt with the issue immediately.

In fact, the posters were removed forthwith by the Tube’s sanitation workers at the instructions of their bosses and with no connection to the panicky consternation that seized Israel’s leadership, which again demonstrated its ability to occupy itself with nonsense and create a public hubbub over nothing.

The touching distress of the former treasury minister over Israel’s gloomy international situation has thrust him into the arms of a man who actually served as foreign minister, MK Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu. Next Monday, the two are planning to hold an “emergency conference” in the Knesset under the rubric, “Fighting for Israel’s international standing in the world” [sic].

You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand why Lapid chose Lieberman (rather than opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog) as his partner in the patriotic performance that’s part of his ongoing show as “acting foreign minister.” Lieberman is practical rather than ideological right wing, Lieberman is tough, Lieberman projects power, strength, hooliganism. Everything Lapid is dying to be. Lapid apparently intends to use Lieberman as a means to situate himself (Lapid) as leader of the center-right without having to pay a price for it.

It’s safe to assume that some Yesh Atid voters don’t think that Lieberman has helped enhance Israel’s image internationally. His attitude toward the Arab MKs, whom he says should be tried “like in Nuremberg,” and his call to boycott Arab businesses, do not jibe with the views of Yesh Atid’s constituency, which is mostly center-left. That doesn’t bother Lapid, who is determined to “centrify” at any price, based on the mistaken assumption that all these transparent gimmicks will induce right-wing voters to stream in multitudes to his party. In the meantime, according to the occasional polls, he hasn’t picked up even the equivalent of one seat of support from the right bank of the river. He is, however, cutting deep into support for Zionist Union, whose voters are easy prey.

I asked Herzog about the Netanyahu-Lapid tiff this week. “Let them have a good time playing around,” he said. “I guess they’re practicing for being foreign ministers in a government headed by me.”