Analysis

Netanyahu's String of Successes Begins to Unravel

The successful targeted killing of the friendly Israel-Argentina match by the Palestinians marks a milestone in their diplomatic struggle against Israel

Jibril Rajoub scores a goal against Miri Regev. Illustration
Amos Biderman

The word “terror” tripped off the tongue of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev dozens of times in various forms during her press conference on Wednesday: “terror elements,” “terror nests,” “acts of terror,” “terror is terror,” “old-new terror.” One might have thought she was the defense minister, reporting to the nation about a mega-attack that had just been perpetrated in Israel – a sequel to the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as in her tasteless, stomach-churning comparison.

Until now we had Mr. (Fighting Against) Terror. Now, on the smoking ruins of the friendly match between the Argentine and Israeli national soccer teams, we have Ms. (Screaming About) Terror.

Behind her, on her office wall, hung a pictorial panoply: photographs of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators who protested the Argentine team’s intention to participate in the match against Israel at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. As if the press photos were overwhelming proof of something that goes far beyond a political demonstration, the likes of which are held all the time around the world.

Perhaps Regev envied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the shelves of binders behind him during his speech exposing the Iranian nuclear archive over a month ago, and wanted her own bellicose backdrop. Pointing to an image of a bespectacled woman waving a jersey smeared with red, the minister branded the demonstrator a “terror element,” as if she were Leila Khaled at the very least.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev speaks during a press conference following the cancellation of the game between the Israeli and Argentina. June 6, 2018.
Meged Gozani

Regev’s performance set new records for the ludicrous and the pathetic. Which is quite an achievement for someone who is no slouch in this respect. We still haven’t heard her apologize or express contrition or acceptance of responsibility for her part in the game’s cancellation. Suddenly she had nothing to do with the whole thing. The brouhaha she generated ahead of the game, her militant declaration that Lionel Messi would definitely come “and we’ll see who shakes hands with whom,” her insistence on holding the event in Jerusalem, the rotten odor that arose from getting the game moved from Haifa to Jerusalem by paying the entrepreneur behind it compensation to the tune of 3 million shekels ($841,000), the attempted theft of tickets for the staff of her ministry – none of that was mentioned. Just terror, terror and more terror.

The prologue to this absurd and cynical PR strategy was provided hours earlier by the director general of Regev’s ministry, Yossi Sharabi. In media interviews, he called the decision by the Argentines to cancel the game “a terrorist attack par excellence.”

Regev’s imperialism, her hunger to seize on any opportunity for publicity, to get her picture in the paper and to play to her political base, backfired on her big-time. This huge embarrassment happened on her territory, on her watch, at an event that she appropriated to herself.

The failure is all hers. People who embrace “La Familia,” the thuggish supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, in Israel, shouldn’t be surprised to find people who imitate them, in one guise or another, in Europe and elsewhere. In the public diplomacy battle with Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, Regev lost. He did an end run around her the likes of which hasn’t been seen for a long time in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Rajoub: 1. Regev: 0. In the end, that’s what really ticked off the Israelis, and above all, Likudniks – losing to the Palestinians.

Slippery slope

Unusual criticism of Regev cropped up this week in Likud WhatsApp groups. The commenters recalled her great sin: doing the PR for the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 in her capacity, at the time, as spokeswoman of the Israel Defense Forces. They maintained that she’s a populist and that she has caused damage by her behavior in the soccer game episode. This saga may be a watershed in relations between Regev and the Likudniks. The hard core will not desert her, but the other circles, whose support she will need in order to achieve her goal of winning the top spot (after Netanyahu) in the next party primary, are less keen on her today.

As far as they’re concerned, she can curse Israel’s artists to her heart’s content, she can boycott, censor and axe the remnants of culture in Israel. She’s allowed to show up at the Cannes Film Festival in a preposterous dress, to humiliate the Knesset Speaker in the Independence Day-eve torch-lighting ceremony, to leap like a Smurf and whoop like a crane during the recent Israel parade in Times Square. But to totally wipe out a soccer game? And one with our beloved Lionel Messi? That’s crossing the line. The Jewish people has suffered enough.

Prime Minister Netanyahu did not come to her rescue, as she would have done for him if the situation were reversed. Effectively, he threw her under the wheels of the bus without batting an eyelash. His sharp antennae told him that this fiasco is damaging to him among his constituency, too, so it was best to keep a safe distance. “We’ll carry on,” was his initial reaction, with a shrug, to the reporters who accompanied him on his European junket this week. The horrified outcries emanating from Regev’s ministry about the devastating terror attack perpetrated here made no impression on the Boss abroad.

Subsequently, when asked to elaborate, he deigned to mumble a few words of chilly support for the embattled culture minister, while at the same time imputing to her alone the demand for the game to be held in Jerusalem. It slipped his mind that he himself wrote a few months ago to the president of Argentina, asking him to lend a hand in supporting such a venue.

The quashing of the match may be the first inkling of what’s liable to befall us in the second half of this year. The success of the BDS organizations this time around gave them a shot in the arm. Their destructive energies will now be aimed at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, which this week looked a lot less likely to be held in Jerusalem next year.

In any event, Regev is a risk factor at present. If Netanyahu wants to try to minimize future damage, he has to remove Regev from the Culture and Sports Ministry. That portfolio, which at the time seemed minor and marginal, became in her callous hands an explosive device that could blow up in our faces. But maybe even moving her out won’t help things. We’re midway down the slope, heading for the abyss.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when Netanyahu formed his fourth government, members of the cabinet gathered for a festive photo at the President’s Residence. The fresh minister of culture and sports stood next to the environmental protection minister, Avi Gabbay, who at that time represented the Kulanu party. “I cried the whole night,” Regev confessed to him. “What did he [Netanyahu] do to me? What kind of portfolio did he give me, what will I do with this thing?” In the meantime she’s found something to do with it, and now it’s the soccer fans who are crying.

The successful targeted killing of the friendly match by the Palestinians and their supporters marks a new phase and a milestone in the diplomatic struggle they are waging against Israel. The emotional distress that overcame the Israelis who waited with baited breath for the game, the popular uprising against Regev, and the general agreement regarding her contributory responsibility for the disaster – no one in Israel is pinning blame on Rajoub – can be expected to lead the anti-Israel forces to augment their efforts to convince artists and other sports organizations to boycott Israel.

Israel’s national security will not be damaged, but its parallel entity, the political standing of Netanyahu in his own eyes, is liable to take a hit. His string of recent successes – military, intelligence-related, diplomatic – which bumped him up in the polls, began unraveling this week. The gut-punch taken by Israel throws in doubt the narrative that has taken root here of late, according to which, thanks to Netanyahu, the super-statesman and best pal of the leaders of the world’s powers, Israel’s international standing is higher than ever. Ever since Donald Trump moved into the White House, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel has been on a nonstop power trip. The mood crafted by Netanyahu has been that no one has anything on us and we are undefeated – until this week. It’s not by chance that the premier sounded a warning that Israel may soon be facing a wave of additional boycotts and cancellations. He wants to prepare the already broken hearts for the additional heartbreaks in the pipeline.

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg.
Olivier Fitoussi

Meretz’s new look

Tamar Zandberg was elected leader of the Meretz party less than three months ago, after waging a campaign that was centralized and pragmatic – “anti-purist,” in her term. At its core was her declared consent to lift the veto on and cooperate with the left wing’s ultimate demon, Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, in a possible future government.

After her election, the reason for the change in approach that had characterized Meretz in recent years became apparent: She had been aided by strategic adviser Moshe Klughaft, who in the past had worked for Naftali Bennett and his party, Habayit Hayehudi, and had been behind a few vicious campaigns against left-wing organizations such as the New Israel Fund. Zandberg apologized, expressed contrition for having employed him, and the episode was largely forgotten.

It’s possible, however, that the “spirit of Klughaft” is still hovering. Meretz MKs who visited the party’s room in the Knesset last week discovered that the place had undergone a face-lift. Behind the chair of the leader, at the head of the conference table and opposite the media photographers (when they’re present), there were signs bearing the familiar Meretz logo in bold font on an olive-green background.

This is the image that will henceforth be seen in every photograph of the Meretz Knesset faction. The word “left” doesn’t appear on the logo. Not in small print, upside-down letters or invisible ink. Just “Meretz,” no “left.” For a party that always took pride in being the only left-wing party in the country, and whose slogans in the 2013 and 2015 election campaigns were “Meretz, Israel’s left,” “Left is Meretz” and “Left-wingers come home” – this is more than just a stylistic shift. It could mark the start of a consciousness-shaping effort.

The change grated on some MKs and parliamentary aides. They’d been educated – and had educated others – to believe that “left” is not a dirty word, that it’s not a “stain” that has to be removed in campaigns, in the words of Labor Party MK Nachman Shai, who is considering a run for mayor of Jerusalem.

I asked Zandberg where the left had gone. She didn’t attribute much importance to the whole thing. “Until now there were windows behind the table,” she said. “They appeared in every photo. We wanted to do something new in terms of design.” The signs from previous election campaigns bearing Meretz’s slogans haven’t been thrown out, heaven forbid, Zandberg reassured me. They’re still there, hanging on the other walls of the room.

I asked her about the latest affair, surrounding the soccer match. She reminded me of the flak she had taken when she chose to boycott the ceremony inaugurating the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, last month.

“It’s clear to me that all the noise about Jerusalem that led to the cancellation of the game and that is going to cause problems for holding the Eurovision event in the city, stems from the transfer of the embassy,” she said. “Before that, the dialogue about Jerusalem was of a completely different intensity. Performing artists who are scheduled to appear here this summer ask more about Jerusalem than they did before the unveiling of the plaque on the embassy building.

“It’s turned out to be a boomerang,” she continued. “I was right to boycott the event. Labor MKs who attended said they’d felt uncomfortable because of all the evangelistic prayers and the split screens [television broadcasts split the screen between the Jerusalem ceremony and the Gaza Strip protests], but the consequences will be far more serious, and long term.”

Zandberg has hired the services of a special adviser to conduct a series of studies about the messages the party should be getting across to the public, the language and terminology to be used, the positions to be taken. The adviser was asked to examine what the public understands when Meretz mentions “left,” “occupation,” “apartheid” and other loaded terms. Although the study is just being launched, the general direction is emerging before even a single preliminary conclusion has been reached.