Analysis

Leaving Settlers and Investigations Behind, Netanyahu Heads to U.S., U.K. and Australia

When Netanyahu gets back, the settlers will serve him a pile of checks to sign ■ Those who think that an indictment of the prime minister is around the corner should look at the probe into opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

Illustration: Netanyahu and Bennett in the role of police evacuating the West Bank settlement of Amona.
Amos Biderman

During almost half of the days of this month, the shortest in the year, Israel’s prime minister won’t be punching his time card at the office. He’ll be junketing between three continents. Next week he’ll be meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London. Afterward, he’ll head for Washington for a much-anticipated meeting with President Donald Trump, and immediately after returning home he’ll pack his bags again and head for Australia.

When the police investigations of Netanyahu became official and were first publicized, I wrote that he would try to minimize his absences from the homeland in order not to lose eye contact with developments in the interrogation rooms and the offices of the state prosecution. Well, it turns out that the opposite is the case. The man seems to be in the grip of a travel obsession. Last month, he ordered his ministers to boycott Britain, which was involved in the secret talks that led to the passage of Security Council Resolution 2334 – and also supported it. Now he’s forgiven and forgotten. The suitcases have been taken down from the crawl space, and won’t be returning anytime soon. Maybe he’s looking for refuge from his stressful situation here in the more convenient international atmosphere. Around the world in 14 days.

Netanyahu kept quiet Wednesday, the day the Amona settler outpost was evacuated. He kept quiet as hundreds of hot-tempered rioters (whom Channel 2 News dubbed “youths” and “enthusiasts”) entrenched themselves in the illegal outpost, rampaged, cursed, set property ablaze and threw debris at policemen.

He didn’t see fit to issue some formal denunciation even when his coalition member, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), a famous feminist, compared the Amona evacuation to the rape of a woman. The settler party’s leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, also swallowed his tongue. Smotrich wasn't forced to confront the obvious question: How can he remain a part of a government that rapes its residents? The most racist and ignorant of Knesset members, who has turned into a media star, will continue to roll his eyes and preach.

Neither did Netanyahu feel compelled to defend Israel's democracy, the Supreme Court (which laid the legal groundwork for the rape as Smotrich described it) and the security forces that carried out the criminal scheme (on Wednesday, while visiting the Ariel settlement, he mumbled a sentence and a half of praise for police and condemnation of violence, but not before sympathizing with the evacuated families' pain).

Police evacuate the West Bank outpost of Amona, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

If Amona were an Arab village in the Little Triangle in central Israel, Netanyahu would have bombarded the web with rants and inflammatory tweets against the protesters. But the settlers, thanks to whom he maintains his rule, are the apple of his eye, Amona is above the law, and he lost no time in promising to build a new settlement for its 40 families – who for 20 years knowingly plundered private Palestinian land – however much that may cost: 150 million or 160 million shekels (around $40 million). Money is no object. And he’ll go on telling world leaders that he continues to support the two-state solution, without blinking.

By the way, the claim that no new settlement has been built in the territories since 1992 is not totally accurate. In 2012, Netanyahu’s second government approved the legalization and “regularization of status” of three illegal settler outposts, Bruchin, Sansana and Rechelim. They already existed physically, but formally they were not considered recognized settlements. For the prime minister, it’s convenient to sell the establishment of Amona II as something rare, as part of his campaign to please the settlers and the right wing as a whole.

The Amona evacuation, which was dragged out for years, will be registered on Netanyahu and Bennett’s names. Neither of them will be able to make political capital from the other’s distress. Maybe there’ll be no distress: The prime minister and defense minister have just approved the construction of thousands of housing units throughout the West Bank, most of them in the so-called settlement blocs. One diplomatic source said Wednesday that without prior approval from the White House, Netanyahu wouldn’t have dared to approve this ravenous burst of construction, or commit to establishment of a new settlement before meeting President Donald Trump on Feb. 15.

But if the prime minister hopes this will satisfy the settlers, he’s in for a bitter disappointment. They are far beyond the stage where construction will suffice. Now they are demanding annexation and the implementation of Israeli sovereignty, first in Area C (the areas in the territories under full Israeli control) and afterward in the entire West Bank, as Bennett declared in the Knesset. After Netanyahu returns from meeting Trump, the settlers will serve him a pile of checks to sign. Let’s see him try to claim that restraint is called for due to international pressure.

Garbage time

Above the stench from the mounds of garbage that piled up this week on the streets of Jerusalem wafted an equally repugnant odor: the stink of a cynical politician with an over-inflated ego for whom the end justifies the means.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat claimed that the municipal strike was meant to benefit the residents of his city, and that he was only “fighting for them.” (The strike had been called by the mayor, city workers and local labor unions to pressure the government to cover a budget shortfall in the city.) Some see his behavior as evidence of a total loss of inhibition in the name of reaping political gain. That conclusion was obvious without having to hear Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman apologize to the city’s inhabitants for the strike and admit, “We have lost control.” Nor was it necessary to witness Barkat’s pathetic capitulation after three days without getting so much as one extra red cent from the Finance Ministry, in order to understand whom we’re dealing with.

All it took to get the mayor to back down was a phone call from Netanyahu and “an invitation to take part in next Sunday’s cabinet meeting.” It would be interesting to know the circumstances that brought about that phone call. Did Jerusalemites suffer only because the mayor wanted a bit of attention? And is his judgment so off-kilter that he really thought he would be able to vanquish the finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, who’s about as stubborn as they come and without whom there is no coalition?

Barkat is so full of himself, so high and mighty, that it’s amazing he’s subject to the law of gravity. Opinions are divided about his record as mayor over the past eight-and-a-half years. But no one disputes the fact that he’s obsessed with entering the Knesset and the government and becoming prime minister as fast as possible. Barkat is up to his neck in Likud politics. Before the start of the strike, he found time to hang out with a few hundred party functionaries and central committee members at the “Likudiada” gathering in an Eilat hotel. At midday on Monday, in the middle of the action, when the city stank to high heaven and stall-owners in the Mahane Yehuda market were unable to sell their wares because of the mess, he attended a meeting of Likud MKs at the Knesset to schmooze with party activists.

The mayor is a regular presence at the endless series of family celebrations of leading Likudniks. He pampers potential voters in the party primaries with tours of Jerusalem, and transportation and hotel meals are on the house. The deficit and fatal lack of funds from which the city suffers – and it’s gotten worse under his stewardship – are not reflected in the way he comports himself politically.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Yisrael Katz at the inauguration of the Harel tunnels on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, January 19, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The source of his quarrel with Kahlon is not clear. Kahlon is not prone to feuding, but Barkat is an exception to the rule. Kahlon can’t stand him. He thinks the mayor is all talk, and nothing more.

Barkat is trying to depict the treasury minister as someone who’s trying to inflict an economic disaster on Jerusalem. That isn’t in keeping with Kahlon’s character – he calls himself right-wing and a “nationalist” politician – or with the fact that his brother, Kobi Kahlon, the person closest to him, was Barkat’s deputy mayor and loyal supporter until a year and a half ago.

People in Barkat’s circle say Kahlon is taking revenge on Jerusalem because his party, Kulanu, didn’t do well in the last municipal election. That story is being sold mainly to Likudniks, to persuade them to vote for Barkat in the next party primary. But anyone who wants to see Barkat achieve his goal of being in the top five after that vote, which is his target, should consider the implications. If there’s one lesson the public should draw from Barkat’s strike, it’s that catapulting him into national politics and entrusting him with a ministerial portfolio is too dangerous a gamble. Not only Jerusalemites are liable to feel the consequences if he is upgraded to the national league.

Signs of life

In 2012, when Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, the industrious Labor MK, ran for the first time in a party primary, Ehud Barak’s name was taboo. Utterance of it generated volleys of insults and other verbal abuse. That has changed in the past year; the anger has faded. The desire for revenge has morphed into nostalgic longing. These days, Nahmias-Verbin, who is considered close to Barak, is fielding numerous requests from party activists who want some quality time with the former prime minister-mega-tweeter, and arranging meetings.

Barak’s appearance this week at a gathering of Labor activists – his first since “you abandoned the party with eight Knesset seats,” as party leader MK Isaac Herzog reminded him sarcastically – went well. He was greeted warmly. When Herzog urged him to “come home,” the crowd applauded (amid a few protests).

Indeed, the body of the Labor Party showed signs of life this week, and not because of involuntary motoric responses. Three leading security people joined the party: Maj. Gens. (res.) Yom Tov Samia and Amiram Levin, and Brig. Gen. (res.) Dani Arditi, former head of the National Security Council. Samia and Levin are certainly not glittering ornaments like former Israel Defense Forces Chiefs of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz. Samia retired from the army 15 years ago; Levin five years before that. Still, in a country that continues to sanctify the security-related opinions of such pensioners, it’s worth taking note of their decision to join Labor.

Avi Gabbay, one of the founders of Kulanu, was the first to get on board. Maybe he helped the generals make the final decision. There’s a two-pronged statement here. First, despite the party’s near-terminal standing in the polls, the new guys on the block see this organization with its deep roots as a serious option for a change of government – rather than Yesh Atid, which is flourishing in the surveys but is hollow, all air, and with only one voice, uniform and bland. Levin and Samia apparently decided that they don’t want to forsake their personality in favor of a sure seat in the next Knesset.

Labor also conducted an orderly process to elect a new secretary general, on Sunday. Two promising young people ran: Eran Hermoni and Yair “Ya Ya” Fink. Hermoni was the winner, by 1.5 percent (26 votes out of a total of 1,798). However, the contest was perceived as being between Herzog and former party leader MK Shelly Yacimovich. Hermoni was backed by a strong, broad coalition, including Herzog, MK Amir Peretz, and leaders of the Histadrut labor federation and the Jewish National Fund. In that context, Fink, who is close to Yacimovich, did very well.

Herzog boasted of his accomplishment, but if he’s able to read the party map – and no one reads it better than he – he undoubtedly knows that Yacimovich-Fink didn’t actually fail and that he didn’t actually triumph. By this Sunday, at the latest, Yacimovich has to announce whether she will intends to run for leadership of the Histadrut. If she decides in favor, that race, which threatened to be the epitome of dullness, will become fascinating.

In any event, this week Herzog was also rid of the oppressive weight of a criminal investigation against him in connection with election funding. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit closed the case due to lack of evidence, though he noted that the suspect’s account was not free of holes and contradictions. It is actually far from being an exoneration or a cleansing of his name.

Ehud Barak shakes hands with Labor leader Isaac Herzog at a Labor Party event in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2017.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Netanyahu would be delighted, however, to get a decision like that, and even before the echoes of the Justice Ministry’s statement had faded he would unleash a cascade of accusations and vilifications against the leftist, Bolshevik media that persecuted him and his family, and all the rest of the familiar litany. Herzog spared us that.

By the way, those who think that indictments of Netanyahu are just around the corner should recall that the secret investigation or “examination” of Herzog began in November 2015. He was questioned by the police in March 2016. The police recommended that the case be closed in September 2016. At that rate, the decisions about the host of cases involving Netanyahu, which are a thousand times more complicated, will be made by Mendelblit’s successor.

Sons of the fathers

The vibrant Likud WhatsApp group this week featured a short video that the compassionate will view as heartrending and the cruel will perceive with a sense of schadenfreude. In the clip, Gilad Sharon, the son of Ariel Sharon, who wants to be on Likud’s slate in the next elections, is seen talking about the importance of the Likud Central Committee at a party gathering.

In a plaid flannel shirt, as befits tillers of the soil, he says laconically, “The central committee is the beating heart of the movement and nothing must be done to hurt it.” In the second half of the sentence, his voice fades out. The people around the table don’t spare him. “We can’t hear you,” they complain, and the wretched Sharon is required to grind out the explicit words again, as though he has gravel between his teeth, only this time in a loud voice. When he finishes, he sinks into the plastic chair as though his knees had given out.

His distress is understandable. He’s the son of a Likud leader who utterly despised what his son called “the beating heart.” Ariel Sharon viewed the Likud Central Committee as the embodiment of everything negative about Israeli public life. One of the elder Sharon’s main motivations for splitting the party and forming Kadima in November 2005 was the disgust he felt for that party forum.

A little more than a decade after the political big bang that followed the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements, the son of the splitter and evacuator has chosen to utter words that his late father would not have abided. On top of which, Gilad Sharon was the brains who initiated and pushed his father to implement the two dramatic moves in the security and political realms: The so-called disengagement and the party split were engendered around the kitchen table at Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch, where things were run by the young, dominant son.

Gilad Sharon’s decision to run in the Likud primaries could be considered a betrayal of his father’s heritage, but it also shows considerable courage, possibly even masochism. In the Likud narrative, the Gaza pullout is more hated than Oslo, and the split that left the party with 12 Knesset seats and almost eradicated it, is remembered by the veterans no less than the abuse meted out to Likud’s forerunner, Herut, by Labor’s forerunner, Mapai, in Israel’s early years.

The trauma hasn’t healed: Gilad Sharon encounters no little vocal hatred when campaigning in Likud branches. But there are also pious Sharonists in the party who miss the legendary leader.

Knowledgeable people in Likud say that Gilad Sharon will have no trouble being elected to the slate. If so, it will be the closing of a circle. After a break of 11 years – on the assumption that an election is held next year – the name Sharon will return to the Likud Knesset faction.

And if the accepted working assumption comes true and Yair Netanyahu fulfills his parents’ dream, the sons of the two men who led Likud during the past quarter of a century will sit side by side in the next Knesset. Together with their mothers’ milk and drinks of various colors, each of them imbibed in his father’s house an abundance of enmity, contempt and apprehension regarding the mythic ex-colleague. It will be interesting to watch them taking their first steps on the same team in the big leagues.