The Week Netanyahu Admitted Helplessness in the Face of Hamas' Flaming Kites

What it means when the Israeli prime minister describes the Gaza flare-up as an 'exchange of blows' with Hamas

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Illustration: Balloon bombs shaped like the heads of Netanyahu, Lieberman, Litzman, and Bitan.
Illustration: Balloon bombs shaped like the heads of Netanyahu, Lieberman, Litzman, and Bitan. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

 An “exchange of blows” is how Benjamin Netanyahu describes the situation that has developed between Israel and Hamas over the past few weeks. Heaps of scorn would have been poured on the prime minister’s predecessors if they had gone on camera – not in front of scorched fields, but against a neutral, calm background – and used that phrase.

“Blows” are exchanged by forces of equal strength: army vs. army, militia vs. militia. When the leader of the country with the most powerful army in the Middle East (and beyond) boasts that he is taking blows from and meting them out to a terrorist organization, he is admitting to helplessness. In fact, there is no “appropriate Zionist response” to the campaign of incendiary kites and balloons, and that frustrating no-response falls on his watch.

If a left-leaning prime minister were in power, Netanyahu and his buddies would be organizing sweaty torchlight processions under his office window. The notorious balcony in Jerusalem’s Zion Square would be packed with orators, uninhibited bellowers. Likud activists would invade nature reserves, parks and the blackened groves in the south, running riot and lambasting the leadership and the army.

Smoke raises in the background following an Israeli airstrike hits a governmental building in Gaza City , Saturday, July 14, 2018Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

Zionist Union MKs made do with a polite visit to the Negev region bordering on the Gaza Strip last Saturday night, after a planned mass rally was canceled because of the security escalation. And if it hadn’t been for MK Eitan Broshi’s obscene and disgusting act involving his Zionist Union colleague, MK Nahmias-Verbin (Broshi touched her buttocks when trying to move her aside during the trip down south; he later apologized and she accepted his apology), we probably would never have known about the visit or been able to see footage from there, post-factum.

What did work for the opposition party was its shaming of Netanyahu, which spurred him to visit the southern communities after 100 days of ignoring them, on Monday. Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay and his colleagues had launched a campaign to get the prime minister to visit the fire-ravaged area, which a day earlier had come under attack by a barrage of Hamas rockets. The leader whose expertise at evasiveness is second only to his ability to claim credit for the success of others, yielded to the pressure and caught the first chopper south.

Netanyahu has stockpiled more than enough “security cred” to enable him to ride out this period without suffering significant public-opinion damage. The frequent attacks on Iranian weapons and ammunition depots in Syria, which have been attributed to the Israel Air Force, and the handling of events along the Gaza fence last May, together with the snatching of the nuclear archive from Tehran – all this has given the premier plenty of reserve PR mileage.

His self-confidence has so far kept him from taking the bad advice of right-wing elements to fire missiles at the launchers of the fiery kites and balloons, or to embark on a military operation in Gaza that might put an end to the primitive but effective aerial terror, but which will also guarantee a premature death for dozens of soldiers. In the meantime, Netanyahu is acting responsibly, restrainedly and judiciously.

The situation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is far worse. His distress was visible as he accompanied Netanyahu on the visit to Sderot this week. He looked distinctly uncomfortable, as if he wished he were somewhere else.

Never before has there been a cabinet minister in this country, certainly not with such an important portfolio, whose practical day-to-day, on-the-ground policy so flagrantly contradicted the approach he has advocated for years – one that he preached until the moment he took up his post. No few voters opted for his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, in the 2015 election, because they supported the tough, militant, uncompromising security policy voiced by Lieberman. They will have to admit, though, that there is zero difference between the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces in the past two years, with Lieberman ensconced in the Defense Ministry, and the years in which Moshe Ya’alon held the post. This is not what they expected.

So far, Lieberman is losing on both sides. The restraint and maturity he’s displaying aren’t earning him electoral dividends in the center-left camp, which has never seen him as one of their own. At the same time, he’s liable to lose some of his regular voters, who believed him and have been waiting for him to eradicate, liquidate, annihilate and kill.

Netanyahu’s deceptive zigzagging and his disavowal of explicit promises, in both the political and military realms, are part and parcel of his well-known character. It’s an all-inclusive package. Lieberman, in contrast, is in a situation in which his political DNA is rapidly fading. Where is his “my word is my bond”? Where are the toughness, the decisiveness, the iron fist?

War, should it break out, heaven forbid, will not extricate the minister from his dilemma. An operation in Gaza cannot end “well.” There will be no reprise of the Six-Day War. There will be problems, hitches, complications; we will be mired and we will be dragged into more hostilities. There will be demands for a commission of inquiry. That could be the final nail in his coffin. Nothing good is threatening the defense minister, as Lieberman himself likes to say in jest.

Ehud Barak.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Uncommon sense

Ehud Barak this week delivered one of his semiannual speeches of doom. It was a magnificent text, riveting, captivating, multilayered. An angry prophecy formulated with nano-optic meticulousness, possessing historical depth and scope. But it had no media resonance – both because his remarks lacked a clear, practical bottom line; and also because what he said sounded familiar to an informed ear.

Barak already expressed such thoughts at the annual Herzliya Conference over a year ago. At that time they stirred greater interest; there was something new in them; they contained an implicit promise, or a veiled threat – depending on the listener.

Speaking Tuesday within the framework of lectures billed as “encounters of the intellectual kind” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the former prime minister reiterated that he will do all he can to assist in the establishment of a “different leadership.” The final paragraph of the talk contained a statement that can be interpreted as a call “to link arms” in order to create a leadership that is “strong, cohesive, sober-eyed and fearless, that will bring with it vision, hope and the skill to act, courage to make decisions and to carry them out.”

Barak was careful not to declare by so much as a vague hint that he sees himself as part of that leadership. There was no need for that. The audience got the point. His caution stems from a clear-eyed and illusion-free assessment of the demand that exists for him these days in the political market.

When he’s asked why he doesn’t take the plunge – to launch a shuttle and mediation effort between the players, or suggest himself as a candidate for office – Barak replies that it’s not his habit to leap headfirst into an empty pool.

What does he mean by “doing all he can,” I asked him. “There is no one outside the political arena – who holds no official position, not as MK and not as party leader – who is doing what I am doing in terms of voicing criticism and describing the situation to people,” he said, adding, “At this stage there’s no point going into details.”

Barak’s activity outside the political arena is not confined to delivering philosophical discourses in academic forums or railing loftily at the country’s situation. He is also setting moves in motion, or at least trying to.

Two weeks ago, he met with Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay and with MK Tzipi Livni, whom Gabbay inherited from MK Isaac Herzog as his partner at the head of Zionist Union. Livni is known to want the post of opposition leader, which Herzog will hold until he takes over as chairman of the Jewish Agency next week.

Livni and Gabbay are locked in negotiations. He is refusing to appoint her until she signs a new agreement between Labor and her party, Hatnuah, to run together again in the next election. It would be foolish of Gabbay to give Livni a gift of that kind for what remains of the current Knesset’s term, in case she leaves the two-party nest to establish a new party or join an existing one before the election – and then competes with Labor.

Barak, a former Labor Party leader himself, told Gabbay that the right thing to do is give Livni what she wants, without making it conditional on their signing an agreement to enshrine the relations between the parties in the next Knesset. It’s too early for agreements, Barak told him; the election might be in another year – why commit yourself now? Livni is the most prominent figure in the Knesset faction, certainly after Herzog’s departure, Barak noted. The post is worthy of her and she is worthy of it.

In his dotage, Barak has become a lobbyist and advocate – and for whom, of all people? For “Tzipora,” as he used to call her when they were at each other’s throats. The goddess of irony undoubtedly emitted a slight guffaw.

Gabbay, for his part, was unmoved. People in his circle have the impression that Barak’s free advice was not innocent or devoid of self-interest on the part of the person offering the advice, who’s looking to the future. One widespread conjecture in the political realm sees Barak hooking up with Livni on the eve of the next election as part of a separate Knesset slate that will include additional security figures and people with diplomatic experience.

If that’s his intention, he has to torpedo a possible situation in which the prospective bride will be tied to a different partner on the one hand, and at the same time work to upgrade her public status in order to win over voters. It’s a typical Barak line of thought that isn’t without logic, but doesn’t take fully into account the considerations of the other side.

I asked Barak if this is his intention. “That explanation is out,” he said, scoldingly. “We sat, we talked, the subject came up and I voiced my opinion. Then I met with Tzipi and told her what I’d said to Gabbay.”

The marriage contract that Gabbay is ready to sign as part of the new alliance with Livni, is completely different from the one Livni and Herzog signed on the eve of the last election. There’s less coordination of messages, zero rotation in the party leadership, minimal representation of Hatnuah people on the joint slate (today they constitute six of the joint party’s 24 Knesset seats), and absolute freedom of action by the head of the party in day-to-day management.

Gabbay is promising Livni transparency and fairness. He will not conduct coalition negotiations with Netanyahu behind her back, and then tell her about them after they’re reported in the media. There are no ideological differences between the Zionist Union leaders; they’re on the same wavelength, but when it’s necessary to compromise all the time, the messages become vague and are fudged. When the bill on the draft of yeshiva students came up, for instance, Gabbay wanted the message to be: first let’s pay a proper salary to the soldiers who are serving, and then we’ll deal with the Haredim. Levy insisted on a pronouncement of principle first. They argued and decided on something, but what came out was mush.

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