Analysis

One Jubilee for Two Israeli Peoples: Netanyahu Celebrates Occupation With Divide and Conquer Politics

The Supreme Court abstained from attending the celebration of 50 years of occupation this week, an event exploited by the premier and his culture commissar to sanctify settlement and polarize the public

Illustration: Israel's Supreme Court Justice Naor is at the heart of a political drama
Amos Biderman

Immediately after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended his speech at the West Bank ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s conquest of the territories, his convoy headed for the nearby helipad. An army chopper flew him and his wife to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, where thousands of guests had been waiting for them for 90 minutes at what was called “the alternative ceremony.” Of course, you never heard about this event. It wasn’t all that sexy; it didn’t reflect everything that’s screwed up and ruined in Israeli politics. All they did there was mark the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 – an event organized by a certain Theodor Herzl. The delegates there talked about establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Ottoman Palestine. It was also there that the World Zionist Organization, which would go on to build the State of Israel, was founded, and there the modes and methods for implementing the ambitious plan were worked out.

The Mount Herzl ceremony was organized by the WZO at a cost of 6 million shekels (about $1.7 million). Half the budget came from the organization itself, the rest from the Prime Minister’s Office. A few MKs attended, notably opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union). No cabinet ministers showed up. The reader may well wonder why two events were scheduled for the same evening at the same time (7:30 pm), when the guest of honor and keynote speaker at both of them was the prime minister. Was it not possible for the ministerial committee for ceremonies and symbols, under the aegis of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, to find any other date and time on the calendar besides September 27? If we were aliens, we’d probably think this was an innocent mistake, a regrettable coincidence. But we’ve already come to know Regev and her ways.

The Mount Herzl ceremony was set three months ago, long before anyone had heard of the official “state” event that was held in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. But lawmakers, including Herzog, only received emails about the ceremony marking “the jubilee of the liberation of Judea, Samaria, the Jordan Rift Valley and the Golan Heights” not long before Rosh Hashanah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech is broadcast on a large screen during the ceremony marking 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, September 29, 2017.
Emil Salman

Subsequently, an official invitation appeared in the freebie Israel Hayom, in the name of the education and culture, and sports ministries. The public was invited to the event, “with the participation of the prime minister, the speaker of the Knesset, ministers and ranking officials.” It would be held “under the leadership” – so the invitation declared – of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Regev.

That leadership took the form of the broadcast of very short, recorded speeches by the two at the start of the evening, amid the bustle of the crowd’s arrival, when most of the guests were not yet seated. Maybe the intention was for Regev and Bennett to lead the guests to their places, like ushers in a theater. Here’s the advantage of the occupation celebration over the dry, serious and, according to participants, up-to-date and not archaic ceremony on Mount Herzl: Regev’s four minutes of fame.

The state invested 10 million shekels in the Gush Etzion event – 4 million more than the Mount Herzl event. That ostensibly minor detail tells the whole story. The story of the many billions that have been invested in the settlements, the settler outposts, the ghost settlements on remote hilltops, in guarding, maintaining, cultivating and expanding them, at the expense of investments within the borders of the State of Israel, the national home of the Jewish people.

Torn curtain

From a right-wing government that is enamored of settlements and suppresses diplomatic agreements, we might have expected the reverse tactic from what we saw at the event in Gush Etzion: It should have gone to extremes to expand the number of participants at the ceremony of support for the settlements. Its obligation was to stretch the tent poles to the limit to accommodate as many representatives of the Israeli public as possible. The larger their number and the more diversified their political views, the more definitive the right-wing governing coalition’s victory would be in achieving its ostensible supreme aim: bolstering the legitimacy of the settlement project.

File photo: Supreme Court President Miriam Naor (L) attends a Knesset committee meeting flanked by Habayit Hayehudi MK Nissan Slomiansky and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also of Habayit Hayehudi.
Emil Salman

If opposition leader Herzog or Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay had been invited to speak along with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Netanyahu, Bennett and Regev, the Supreme Court, too, would have sent someone to sit there – however unenthusiastically. But Herzog or Gabbay might have poured cold water on the festivities. They might have talked in favor of a Palestinian state, urged the evacuation of isolated settlements, or called for moving the settlement blocs. Who wants to listen to such heresies on such a festive occasion?

In the two days that preceded the festival, attempts were made by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Yesha Council of settlements to persuade the two politicians to attend. Emissaries were dispatched, mediators sent. They weren’t offered a chance to speak – only to honor the event with their presence in the front row.

They refused, and rightly so. Not only because they had prior commitments. On Wednesday evening, when they heard Bennett proposing that Israel apply its sovereignty to the West Bank, and Netanyahu aggressively asserting that no more settlements would be uprooted – they thanked God they hadn’t been there. What was the point of them being silent extras at this horror show?

Gush Etzion is the heart of the consensus. In every possible agreement, that bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem will come under Israeli sovereignty. It enjoys far greater public acceptance than the locales in East Jerusalem, where 99.9 percent of Israelis have never trod. But it was with the choice of the event’s venue that the false impressions of a nonpartisan state event ended.

The curtain was torn away when it became clear that no senior opposition figure would be speaking, or anyone other than hard core, right-wing politicians: The event was clearly one of rightist, settlement-sanctifying politics.

Supreme Court President Miriam Naor retracted her earlier agreement to send a justice, showing integrity and courage. The decision probably cost her dearly – she’s not one who looks for squabbles – but she had no choice. She behaved like the boy who called out: “The emperor has no clothes!”

The event was formally designated as state-sponsored by the government, thus obliging the Supreme Court to send a representative. Basically, though, whatever looks political, acts politically and makes political noises, is political. Not the place for the Supreme Court. The court’s status is different from that of the police and the army, each of which sent a high-ranking representative. Those two are under governmental authority. If Tourism Minister Yariv Levin had his way, the Supreme Court would be, too. Meanwhile, it’s subordinate only to the law of the land.

Of course, the mudslinging was quick to come. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked accused Naor of “unraveling a state event.” A few weeks ago, the minister declared that the justices aren’t sufficiently Zionist, because they had the temerity not to affirm the government’s recent decision on asylum seekers.

After each shameful rant of this kind, Shaked goes to the TV studios to capitalize on it with her voters. Oozing sweetness, she doesn’t forget to note for the thousandth time her proper, sociable relations with Naor. It will be interesting, one day, to hear the justice’s take on this cordial relationship, in which she is assailed, vilified and trampled by the minister. Maybe after her upcoming retirement.

Passing the torch

Regev, the culture commissar who produced the West Bank event, preceded it with various announcements and communiques – all of them rife with nationalist-rightist-messianic texts (“We’ve returned to Jericho” and the like). She decided who would speak, added herself to the list, and from the moment things went awry, burst into yowls and complaints in her best bazaar style. First against “the left,” then against the Supreme Court.

It’s well known that Regev doesn’t pick up a pencil in her ministry without getting the prime minister’s approval. It emerges, then, that Netanyahu is the same old Netanyahu. Never missing a chance to polarize and dichotomize, this time, too, he behaved according to the supreme tenet that has dictated his actions in the past few years: consolidation of his political base while presenting the other side as traitorous, settlement haters – and, this week, also as hostile to statesman-like conduct.

“Us and them” is the essence of Netanyahu’s political existence. Or, more accurately, “I and them.” In making the decision between drawing the settlement narrative closer to the general public by including an opposition figure at the Gush Etzion ceremony, and making personal political hay with the electorate without whom he’s liable to lose power – he didn’t hesitate.

And why should he? Gabbay and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid are angling for the support of the soft right. The pool of voters in the space between their parties and Meretz isn’t large enough to propel them to power. They have to break ranks and make inroads among the rival camp. The Bibi-Miri gimmick pushed them into the abhorred left-wing corner. That’s the last place where Lapid, who launched his party in the West Bank city of Ariel and recently dedicated a neighborhood in Gush Etzion, and Gabbay, who’s scurrying around the country trying to persuade Likudniks that he’s not left wing, want to be. But who’s asking them?

This week, Channel 2 News reported that emcee Regev has decided that at next year’s Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, speeches will be delivered not only by the speaker of the Knesset, whose exclusive reserve this has always been, but also by the president and the prime minister. Regev’s rationale: Seventy years of independence is a special date, a nice round number. (But really, what’s the big deal about 70?).

Netanyahu’s uncontrollable desire to get a foothold in the torch-lighting ceremony – a big favorite among many Israelis and broadcast live on all the TV channels – is well known. This column, too, reported more than once about the clashes he had with then-Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who prevented him from broadcasting prerecorded speeches.

For Netanyahu, the tremendous exposure he gets at other festivities related to Memorial Day and Independence Day isn’t enough. He’s got his eye on the jewel in the crown.

At the most recent ceremony, Netanyahu forced Edelstein, through Regev, to include a Soviet-style propaganda clip at the beginning, showing Netanyahu striding across fields, shaking soldiers’ hands and bragging about a host of achievements – some imaginary and some simply exaggerated. This time, he will speak in person. And what’s more important, his always-deprived wife, Sara, will get to upgrade her seat. Another issue that’s always generated quarrels.

Regev will undoubtedly say that her hands are clean, because in addition to the premier, she’s suggesting that President Rivlin speak, too. No politics here, she’ll declare; rather, a state event par excellence. But it’s not. Rivlin is a decent person; he speaks what he believes. His is not a Hottentot morality. What was not proper in his view when he was Knesset speaker will not be appropriate when he’s president. He will pass up the honor, with the result that Netanyahu will get his way and be the keynote speaker. Regev knows that, so does Netanyahu. That’s the plan he and the minister cooked up; none other will do.

Now we have to see what Edelstein will do: Will he capitulate or do a Rivlin? On Wednesday, on the margins, he grabbed Netanyahu for an intense conversation on the subject. We’ll undoubtedly hear more about it.

Up and down

Tourism Minister Levin’s enmity toward the Supreme Court has long since become an obsession. In his eyes, there is no greater danger or more serious threat to Israel’s well-being than the justices on that bench. His mind is abuzz with scenarios and machinations for weakening this judicial institution by eroding its status and undercutting its justices’ prestige.

At the prime minister’s latest weekly meeting with the coalition party leaders, the subject of the details of the new army draft law came up. Hovering above the discussion was the knowledge that every piece of legislation enacted by the Knesset will get to the Supreme Court. Everyone grumbled.

Levin had an idea. What will solve most of the problem, he said, is to lower the retirement age of the Supreme Court justices: from the present age of 70 for both male and female members to 67 for men and 62 for women, as the labor laws mandate. This will shake things up, bring in new blood, allow many appointments and help get rid of the seniority system, which prevents politicians from deciding who the Supreme Court president will be. Lowering the retirement age of our justices, says Levin, will remove the more experienced, more authoritative, longer-serving ones. A cleaning of the stables, just what’s needed. Levin has been dreaming about this for years. Now he thinks the hour is ripe. The court brought it on itself.

Everyone looked at Netanyahu. He nodded in assent. “That really is a good idea,” he said, urging Levin to go forward. Levin immediately started to check things out in the Justice Ministry. This whole move did not come about by chance, nor is Netanyahu’s support of it either random or innocent. The prime minister is embarking on a bitter war against the “system”: the police, the prosecution and, ultimately, the courts. From his perspective, they’re all one synergetic package, where everyone scratches everyone else’s back, where everyone is against him.

Even if the attorney general decides not to indict him in any of the cases pending against him, there will be petitions to the High Court. And if Netanyahu is indicted and refuses to step down, the bench will be asked to rule. By siccing his lean Doberman on the justices’ retirement age, Netanyahu is signaling them that they too are not immune from him.

The cynicism here cries out to the heavens. In 2004, then-Finance Minister Netanyahu decided to raise the retirement age for men, from 65 to 67, and for women from 60 to 62. Now there’s talk of raising it again for women, to 64, in line with longer life spans. All global economic logic has pulled in that direction.

If Netanyahu had an iota of integrity, decency or a statesman-like approach, he would strike Levin’s warped idea from the agenda. It’s not even clear, legally, whether the retirement age of appointed justices can be changed. After all, they submitted their candidacy on the basis of the current state of affairs. And even if it can, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon can be trusted to scuttle the scheme. And if not, then it has to be an across-the-board move: not just for judges, but all publicly elected officials.

There’s one senior elected personage who will celebrate 68 autumns in less than a month, on October 21. Maybe it’s time for him to retire. He can be found at the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.