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In the Temple Mount Crisis, Netanyahu Keeps the Flip-flopping to a Minimum

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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The security cabinet's meeting Thursday night to discuss whether to remove the metal detectors at the Temple Mount was just another symptom of the problems afflicting Israel. First, the ministers make a hasty decision under pressure to satisfy public opinion or provide an appropriate Zionist headline for the television news. Only later, when the bigger picture becomes clearer in all its complexity, do they sit down and discuss it.

The government’s panic and the conflicts among the security chiefs amid fears Muslim prayers on the Mount could turn into a “Black Friday” –  a day when dozens of Palestinians were killed in the 2014 Gaza war – raised a few obvious questions. Wasn’t this “sensitivity” known when the decision was made to install the metal detectors?  Didn't anyone in the security establishment recommend otherwise? Were all the long-term consequences considered, and were all the scenarios taken into account before the metal gates were loaded onto the trucks?

The late hour at which the security cabinet met, around 10:30 P.M., only about an hour before the weekend newspapers went to press, stirred suspicions that Netanyahu didn't want the decisions to make it into the papers; they would be the sole province of the electronic media.

In any case, we shouldn’t envy Netanyahu. The decision he faced Thursday night, just a few hours after he returned from France and Hungary, was one of the toughest he has had to make: Whether to accept the recommendations of the army and Shin Bet security service and remove the metal detectors, or take the police’s advice and leave them in place.

This was one of those moments when a leader is on his own. The responsibility is entirely his. The buck stops here. A U-turn from the decision made only a few days earlier would portray Israel as giving in to Arab pressure, though at the same time it might prevent bloody riots at the world’s most volatile religious site. But then Netanyahu could be seen as the first to blink and the last to flip-flop.

In the end, the security cabinet decided that while the metal detectors would remain in place, they would be used selectively.

Newly elected Labor leader Avi Gabbay sits between MKs Tzipi Livni and Merav Michaeli at a Zionist Union faction meeting on July 7, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

It seems there’s something in the holy site’s karma that encourages this phenomenon. Only a few weeks ago Netanyahu flip-flopped there when he ordered a cancellation (or “freeze” in the Orwellian language of the prime minister’s people) of the agreement for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. On Thursday night he faced the brutal choice of whether to flip-flop once again, only 100 meters from the Wall.

In the background, obviously and as always when it comes to Netanyahu, hovered the political implications. His rival for the right wing’s heart, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, rushed to tie his hands in a cunning maneuver that was disguised as support.

At the height of the crisis, as the pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan grew while Netanyahu was hopping between Paris and Budapest, Bennett told the Knesset he was  sure Netanyahu “wouldn’t surrender or give in to the Palestinian pressure” that aimed to undermine Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount. This is how Bennett portrayed himself as the advocate of Israeli sovereignty – facing someone who could very well act against it.  

All that croissant and goulash must have gotten stuck in Netanyahu’s throat. The honey trap that Bennett laid for him was so sweet and sticky there wasn’t anything to tweet against it. And if there’s something that annoys Netanyahu, it’s when Bennett has the last word.

Gabbay learns the ropes

Wednesday evening Avi Gabbay traveled to Tiberias to attend his first political gathering since being elected leader of the Labor Party earlier this month. He described the event as the start of the party’s election campaign under his tutelage. Likud voters showed up, too. For Gabbay, it’s a waste of time to come to an event attended only by Labor voters.

People in my circle are trying to persuade me to organize unity gatherings for the party, he said in private conversation this week, but I tell them that it’s pointless to be preoccupied with ourselves. There’s no need for me to see the same faces that I saw during the primaries. Bring me Likudniks, I tell Labor MKs, bring me new population groups. Whoever brings me new voters, I’ll help them in their primary campaigns. Give, and you’ll get.

That’s a pragmatic, managerial approach. In the past 14 days, Gabbay has familiarized himself with the ins and outs of the party, cruised its back alleys, met with its functionaries, perused its books and visited its flanks. He discovered that not only is Labor not prepared for a national election, which could take place at any minute, it’s not even contemplating the possibility that one might be looming on the horizon. He discovered officials and paid employees whose function and very nature are mysteries. Many people are getting salaries for things I don’t understand, he said this week in a private conversation, adding, I don’t see the output.

Whatever doesn’t shoot will be slashed, he said, quoting his friend, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Ehud Barak. He forgot that Barak made that remark a quarter of a century ago when he wanted to close down Army Radio, and was prevented from carrying out the threat.

Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman

That’s the advantage of a person who comes from outside, someone who didn’t grow up in the party ranks, didn’t shed a tear when it was defeated and defeated again in elections, and didn’t celebrate the rare moments of its victories, either. That’s the advantage of the new party leader, who knows hardly any of the activists and employees personally, hasn’t shared their happy family occasions and or consoled them at times of mourning. For good and for ill, he harbors no particular feelings for them.

Gabbay intends to replace his party’s drowsy elections department soon with professionals from the outside. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for an election, Labor’s campaign headquarters will, according to the plan, already be working like a Swiss clock, trained, synchronized and neatly packaged.

Meanwhile, Gabbay is putting off decisions about personnel changes in Zionist Union until after the long summer break. By then he will have met with MK Tzipi Livni, leader of Hatnuah – Labor’s partner in Zionist Union – to talk about their future path together. We both want to be married, he has said, but it depends on the details, the terms, the formula and the wording of the marriage contract.

Gabbay’s participation last week in the regular Saturday evening demonstration opposite the home of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, in Petah Tikva, did not go down well with many of his colleagues. They expect decorous behavior from him: He’s a candidate for prime minister, not a groupie of attorney and political activist Eldad Yaniv. The criticism did not surprise Gabbay. I didn’t come to demonstrate against Mendelblit (for alleged foot-dragging in the investigations involving Netanyahu), he told one interlocutor. I came to show that at long last there’s a parliamentary opposition here.

The attack on the new Labor leader by Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid for being inexperienced (for which Lapid has since apologized) only boosted Gabbay’s standing. The panic that seized Lapid, who watched in despair as polls predicted that six or seven Knesset seats could make their way back overnight from Yesh Atid to Zionist Union, manifested as an uncontrolled outburst.

In his distress, Lapid broke the first commandment of every political campaign: Stay on message. Never get unnerved, never deviate from your strategy, even when the skies cloud over and the situation is tricky. Moreover, if, as in Lapid’s case, you’re aiming at the right wing, stay exactly where you are. The seats you ostensibly lost weren’t yours to begin with; they were more like overnight guests.

Any new Labor leader would have brought some of the lost votes back. In cases like this one mustn’t blink, and Lapid not only blinked, he went into spasm. He veered leftward, disavowing an earlier declaration to the effect that there is no religious indoctrination in Israel’s school system – and even had the audacity to lie about it, claiming he’d never made the statement. But Lapid’s biggest mistake was to allege that Gabbay isn’t fit to be prime minister because, in contrast to him, he has no idea “what a wartime security cabinet is.”

That nonsense is Lapid at his finest. With him everything is a façade of hollow arguments, rustling plastic and glittering sequins. He took part in meetings of the security cabinet during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, three years ago. Just like other ministers, the stenographer, the cabinet secretary, the head of the National Security Council and his team, Netanyahu’s media adviser and his chief of staff and, naturally, other functionaries as well.

There’s an army operation every two or three years around here, and the security cabinet gets military and intelligence briefings. Dozens of ministers have come and gone in recent security cabinets, along with officials and experts. Maybe also stenographers. They’re all fit to serve as prime minister, but not Gabbay? On top of which, Lapid, according to colleagues’ testimonies, wasn’t exactly brilliant in those meetings back in 2014. He was pale and insignificant. His contribution was not felt.

It’s certainly not a disadvantage to take part in such discussions and hear the chief of staff, the director of Military Intelligence and others report on the information in their possession. But if you’re a politician and a statesman and an ambitious leader who lacks restraint, sanguinity, nerves of steel and tenacity – what good will the mileage you accrued sitting at the table do you?

Lapid, who was a cabinet minister for a year and three-quarters, is the last person who should be hurling charges of inexperience at a rival, just on the superficial basis of time served. His statement against Gabbay was, however, a great service to Netanyahu: If qualification for the premiership is measured by accumulated seniority in security cabinets, there’s no candidate better suited to be prime minister than Netanyahu. And we can be sure the prime minister will not fail to make use of that nonsensical remark.

Deep throat

During the part of the meeting of Likud MKs on Monday open to the media, Netanyahu treated the participants to one of his favorite displays of leadership and determination. “We will make a great effort to pass the nation-state bill on its first reading in this session of the Knesset,” he declared with the requisite solemnity. “It’s a short time, true, but the effort will be made.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the cornerstone laying for Ariel university's medical school, June 2017.Credit: Michael Dameson

Coalition Whip MK David Bitan fidgeted uncomfortably. He knew that this was an empty promise, given the fact that the Knesset will disappear for its summer recess at the end of this month. The controversial bill declares Israel “the national home of the Jewish people” and states that the right to realize self-determination in the state is unique to them.

Earlier, the heads of the coalition parties decided in their meeting to establish a special panel, composed of members of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and its House Committee, to prepare the legislation for a plenum vote. The panel would be headed by MK Amir Ohana (Likud). He lacks the clout and the parliamentary experience that are needed to push through something on this scale, but at least he got to feel important.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud), who doesn’t attend the meetings of his party’s MKs due to the nonpartisan status of his position, was briefed later on and it would be an understatement to say that he was not deeply impressed by Netanyahu’s remarks. He saw the premier’s comments about an upcoming vote on the bill as yet another attempt – not the first or even the 20th in number – to turn the legislature into an obedient branch of the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Attempts that are often torpedoed by the Speaker’s Bureau.

Edelstein never even considered the idea of allowing a lightning-fast procedure for a bill that some consider to be one of the most important and formative pieces of legislation brought before the Knesset. He asked for an opinion from the parliament’s legal adviser, attorney Eyal Yinon, who declared that if the bill is rushed into passage in a period of two weeks, the Knesset will effectively be making a mockery of itself.

“It’s a very serious law,” Edelstein told me this week, “one that defines the State of Israel, its character, its essence. It’s legislation that, until my very old age, I am liable to be ashamed of its having passed while I served as speaker of the 20th Knesset – or, alternately, in whose passage I will take pride. It’s not possible to pass a bill as important as this, even on first reading, in the final days of the winter session before the break.”

He added that a law of this kind requires thorough, in-depth discussion, with all the sides being heard in order to garner as broad a consensus as possible. He phoned the prime minister to tell him he was wasting his time, because it wasn’t going to happen.

“It wasn’t a dramatic conversation, there was no shouting, and I didn’t have to give any ultimatums,” said Edelstein. “The prime minister understood the problem. We agreed that deliberation on the bill would start next week, the final week of this session. Maybe the prime minister himself will want to say a few words to the new parliamentary committee. But the voting will be held in the winter session.”

But don’t bet on that, either. The nation-state law was first discussed in the 18th Knesset, in the middle of the first term of Netanyahu’s current succession of terms in office. That was six-seven years ago, and nothing has happened. Postponement after postponement, obstacle after obstacle, speech after speech.

Whenever the prime minister feels an itch in his right earlobe, after his rival Naftali Bennet, leader of Habayit Hayehudi, has managed to scratch yet advance by seat and a half in the polls – Netanyahu brandishes the rusty weapon of the nation-state law, before sticking it back in the drawer, once the poll is forgotten.

It’s clear that if Netanyahu were to push for the bill’s passage, it would pass. But there are issues that the man who has said that, “Everything I want, I get,” prefers to leave in the realm of rhetoric and exclude from the realm of practice. In December 2014, when he fired ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni and moved up the election, the issue of the nation-state law and its ostensible delay by the pair of leftists was one of the fabricated excuses he came up with to justify their dismissals.

That was two and a half years ago. The coalition has changed, and the only thing to its right is the wall. Lapid and Livni, the two supposed obstacles, were thrown into the opposition, and Netanyahu continues to exalt the lofty character of the legislation.

Cat and mouse

A few weeks ago, a major furor erupted because of the approval of a law strengthening the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over conversions in the country, and the cancellation of a plan to build an egalitarian prayer area for non-Orthodox and egalitarian Jews at the Western Wall (a decision that has since been put on hold). Netanyahu’s capitulation to the pressure of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, MKs was total.

Education Minister Bennett spotted a breach and decided he would fix what Netanyahu spoiled, or at least make a show of doing that. He launched a series of feverish emergency meetings with those aggrieved and betrayed leaders of American Jewry who were in Israel at the time, and afterward with those who grabbed the first available flight here

Bennett sought to present a more moderate, responsible and judicious face than Netanyahu. He strove for a compromise, on both the conversion and Western Wall decisions. Various proposals were put forward, rejected and put forward again, but time did its thing. The Americans went home and new headlines, on other matters, appeared.

The ardor of the self-appointed mediator also cooled. If the leaders of American Jewry expected Bennett, who is also Diaspora affairs minister, to continue his positive activities on their behalf even after they left Israel – they were in for a disappointment. Bennett understood, possibly after someone explained to him, that the Haredim, and in particular Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) and Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), take a dim view of his efforts to soften the decisions of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation (regarding conversion) and the cabinet (regarding the Western Wall).

In an interview with an ultra-Orthodox radio station this week, Bennett was asked if he intended to continue spearheading a compromise on these issues. “I promised Minister Litzman that on all matters of essence to the Haredim, such as conversion and the like, we will be coordinated,” he replied.

With all the empathy he feels for the streams of Judaism abroad that were offended by the brutal decisions, his political interests are a tad more important. To put it concisely: The road to the premiership passes through the courts of the Haredi rabbis. Bennett views his ties with Litzman in particular as having strategic significance. In his vision/dream, not to say his wild fantasy, he becomes the leader of the right-wing bloc in the post-Netanyahu era, and as he learned from the master, the highest injunction will be to forge an alliance with the two Haredi parties, without which there is no government.

When Bennett announces on the Haredi media that henceforth he will be coordinated with Litzman on matters of “conversion and so forth,” he is effectively undertaking to coordinate with the cat what the fate of the mouse will be.

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