Netanyahu Touts Israel's Ties With Arab States in Media Briefings Blitz

On paper, the new military aid agreement with the U.S. is the best yet, but the fine print belies the optimism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Egyptian ambassador's residence, Herzliya.
Ofer Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting this week with the Haaretz editorial board completed, as of now, a round of eight media briefings by the prime minister over the past three weeks. It was preceded by meetings with political and military correspondents, bloggers and journalists from the religious right-wing and other media platforms such as TV Channel 2, Army Radio, the Broadcasting Authority and others.

A similar invitation has not been sent yet to the board of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. With regard to Channel 10, the invitation may come, from one day to the next, as is the wont of the Prime Minister’s Bureau, as soon as the vacation timing of journalist Raviv Drucker becomes known. A reasonable estimate is that the prime minister devoted 30 hours from his busy schedule to meeting more than150 editors, correspondents and columnists, apparently an unprecedented initiative.

It was fascinating, riveting and very long. Somewhere in the course of these meetings, Netanyahu related to a training course for surviving captivity, which he took while serving in an elite commando unit (he often harks back to his military service.) The prime minister indeed demonstrated abundant energy and an immense capacity to endure hardship during the meetings. One was reminded of the iron bladder of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, who used to torment former United States Secretary of State Christopher Warren at summit meetings that lasted for seven hours with no break.

AP

What does Netanyahu want? Love and respect, just like everyone else. However, it appears that there is something else at play, as well.

After the first meeting with military correspondents, in which much time was devoted to responding to claims made by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid regarding Operation Protective Edge, it seemed that the prime minister was intent on averting damage that might be inflicted on him by the impending State Comptroller’s report regarding the Hamas attack tunnels. To do so, he presented documentation and quotes of his own words at cabinet sessions.

In other meetings he returned to the tunnels issue, but with less vigor, focusing more on his political views and achievements. He barely referred to brewing criminal investigations of himself and his family.

Nevertheless, these may be linked. When Ehud Olmert became more and more embroiled in criminal investigations, from 2007 onwards, his associates and advisers resorted to the Richard Nixon strategy of the 1970s. The prime minister, it was argued (as was the case with the U.S. President before him,) was the only person who could successfully navigate the vessel of Israel through the stormy security and diplomatic waters. His achievements dwarfed the suspicions against him – so it was only right for all investigations to be deferred.

So far, Netanyahu is not making a similar argument – in any case, most of the suspicions are under a tight gag order – but between the lines one can detect a similar line of reasoning.

In conversation, Netanyahu speaks incessantly of himself and his past, hardly relating to his rivals in the cabinet or the opposition, let alone to Likud ministers. His bottom line is crystal clear, even after three or four hours: in life in general, and in the Middle East in particular, only the strong survive.

His policy has succeeded in ensuring Israeli economic growth within the bounds of reasonable security risks, given the threats surrounding us. He loathes war and has so far succeeded in repelling most dangers through a sophisticated network of mutual interests, both with Sunni states in the region (Netanyahu sounds almost like an unofficial member of the bloc) as well as with more distant countries, from East Asia to Eastern Europe.

In his meetings with right-wing journalists, he stressed that he hadn’t relinquished an inch of territory and that the immediate threat of a Palestinian state had been removed from the world’s agenda.

To the left he hinted that some progress in the territories is potentially possible, if only people remain patient.

In all his briefings, Netanyahu reiterated his deep doubts regarding Palestinian intentions. The Palestinian Authority leadership is incapable of reaching a permanent settlement due to its weakness, but also due to its adherence to an ideology which negates the existence of Israel. Around the corner always lurk more dangerous rivals, firstly Hamas and then ISIS.

The pessimism expressed by Netanyahu turned out to be accurate with the advent of the Arab Spring at the end of 2010. The prime minister successfully navigated Israel’s response to the upheavals in Syria and Egypt and refrained from getting swept up in needless wars.

Conceivably he is also right in harboring doubts regarding any positive outcome of negotiations with Palestinian leaders. However, two things make it difficult for his message to be accepted by the political center and left.

One is the historic burden he carries from the time he entered politics (primarily his role in the atmosphere of incitement that preceded the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which was mentioned again last week in the context of veiled threats made by Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton.)

The second is his personal style, which was starkly displayed in all these meetings, according to participants – his incessant frenzy, accompanied by a raised voice and table-thumping. There may be some people who emerged from these meetings duly impressed. Others remember Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon, who barely budged from their seats during similar briefings, certainly not evincing any of the emotional fluctuations of Netanyahu.

Barak’s attack

Ehud Barak speaking at the Herzlia Conference, June 16, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

Netanyahu’s media blitz this week was slightly disrupted by the only other person who can command such attention, despite having retired from public office and who probably has little chance of being elected to one in the future.

In a speech at a conference of the “Darkenu” (Our Path) grassroots movement in Rishon LeZion, former prime minister Ehud Barak focused his criticism of Netanyahu on the latter’s damage to Israel’s relations with the U.S. Barak had two main arguments. One was that Netanyahu’s conduct after the signing of the nuclear accord with Iran caused the Obama Administration to reduce the amount of military aid it had planned to give Israel. The second was that there was another, unspecified development that could further endanger ties with the U.S., exposing Israel in “a very worrisome manner to a key security threat”.

Barak refused to divulge further details, both during the speech and in response to questions by journalists afterwards. However, such an accusation by a former prime minister and defense minister warrants summoning him to testify at the Knesset subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services, a place where Barak would be only too happy to present his reservations.

With regard to U.S. military aid, Barak was the first to specify the exact amount that the two sides had finally agreed on. It will amount to $3.8 billion a year, or $38 billion over the next decade, in comparison to the current amount of $3.1 billion a year.

Barak’s comments preempted Netanyahu’s announcement about the signing of the deal, which for some reason has been delayed for over a week, even though the final details have already been hammered out. The Prime Minister’s bureau claims that it is the largest amount of aid ever received by Israel. The problem, as Barak noted, is that the number is good as a headline, but not in its essence. That becomes clear when one delves into the details.

The harshest criticism of the agreement focuses on what may have been obtainable had the deal been signed earlier. Netanyahu and his associates strenuously deny that it would have been possible to take advantage of a period of grace in Washington, after the signing of the Iranian nuclear accord in Vienna last July, to significantly increase the amount of aid, possibly to as much as $4.5 billion a year. Netanyahu, of course, continued his lost battle against the agreement for several more months, rather than desisting after the signing.

The Prime Minister’s pride over the amount of aid he managed to secure ignores two additional aspects. Firstly, the rising costs of weapons systems effectively reduce the real value of the aid package. Secondly, various additions granted by Congress and the administration every year in the past, raised the level of aid to $3.6 or $3.7 billion. In the new agreement, Israel has committed to not appealing to Congress for additiona; aid.

Netanyahu is also pleased that he managed to block an administration attempt to halt Israel’s use of the aid for local purchases. Previously, Israel was allowed to spend up to 25 percent of the aid on purchases from its local defense industries. The two countries have now agreed that such purchases will be phased out over the next seven years.