Trump's Jerusalem Speech Is the Pick-me-up Netanyahu's Depressed Party Needed

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the harsh reactions of regional leaders and clashes with Palestinians all played into Netanyahu's hands this week, as investigators close in on him and his close associates

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Illustration: Trump glows over Jerusalem's wall as Netanyahu and his confidants wait in line in front of a police station.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The clashes on Thursday in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and near the border with the Gaza Strip following Donald Trump’s “second Balfour Declaration” didn’t stray from the norm in our region. As opposed to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s prophecies of doom, the harsh words of Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, and warnings from Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi – these shows of violence were child’s play. The real test will take place on Friday afternoon, after weekly prayers end at the mosques.

All this brings us back to the days after the terror attack at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the ensuing installation of metal detectors at the holy site in July, which triggered violent riots. These ended when the Israeli government folded spectacularly. This time, however, there will be no retreat. Trump isn’t one to cave in. To the contrary: If he’s angered, he’ll just flit over here with Ivanka and Jared to lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem himself.

After Trump’s strident words, the sniping directed at his predecessors and all the hand waving on Wednesday, we are left with a declaration that is tantamount to a first course, or appetizer, for a meal the White House is preparing to serve up to the various parties.

The United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – that is, West Jerusalem, based upon the map outlined by Trump (Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office, the President’s Residence, the Supreme Court and government ministries) – isn’t an ending but rather a beginning. This is a wonderful gift for Israel’s 70th birthday and of course voices on the right were triumphant; those on the center-left were muted. And yet, in return for this Hanukkah present, the government of Israel could be asked to pay at some future date with the hard currency of concessions to the Palestinians, even before negotiations are jump-started again. That is, assuming that talks will resume and that on Wednesday evening we were not witnessing the burial of any chance to renew them.

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu chalked up a genuine diplomatic accomplishment, his first and essentially only one since Trump entered office. The prime minister can, quite correctly, attribute the dramatic announcement in Washington to his personal relationship with the president. “If it weren’t me, it wouldn’t have happened,” will from now on be Netanyahu’s line. He will now seek to convince the public that his removal from office over “cigars,” and his replacement by someone else would cause Israel strategic damage.

Trump’s announcement comes at a good time for Netanyahu, not only in diplomatic terms. It also helps him divert the public’s attention, at least in the near future, away from his police investigations and from those involving his right-hand man David Bitan, and from mounting discourse concerning the extensive corruption of other high-ranking Likud figures.

With a single speech in the White House, the atmosphere prevailing in the ruling party has been transformed, as if with a magic wand. Depression and pessimism have been supplanted by euphoria and cautious optimism – a feeling that just maybe the impending catastrophe will be averted.

Not only has the focus been shifted, it has moved to the prime minister’s comfort zone: the political-security arena. If the Palestinians inflame the region, if Erdogan makes good on his threat to break off ties with Israel, if chaos spreads through the neighborhood and “the gates of hell are opened,” as Hamas has warned – Netanyahu will point to all this evil as proof of the unwillingness of the Arabs to reach a peace agreement.

In any potential conflict, the United States will take Israel’s side, even after Trump himself said that his move is aimed at advancing peace in the region. The State Department’s panicked travel advisory to diplomats to stay away from the West Bank for fear of a wave of terror – evidence of which indeed surfaced Thursday in clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in a number of locales in the territories and Israel, in which a number of people were injured – has made the president’s declaration appear to be a bad joke.

Conversely, if dark forecasts are proved wrong and the dust quickly settles, Netanyahu will be able to say that Jerusalem has been recognized officially as the capital of Israel and the sky did not fall – and all of that is thanks to whom? To which policy? To whose managerial technique? It is obvious.

A Palestinian protester in the West Bank torches a U.S. flag during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest against Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, December 7, 2017.Credit: AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI

David’s lament

We’re well accustomed to enumerating, to the melancholy sounds of the violin, the list of “the fallen”: friends, advisers, confidants and trusted attorneys of Netanyahu who’ve been falling by the wayside, one after another, like autumn leaves: David Shimron, Isaac Molho, Ari Harow, Shlomo Filber, Shaul Elovitch, Arnon Milchan, etc. Each time we think we’ve hit rock bottom, then another one is taken away.

This week, it was MK David Bitan’s turn to be swept up, up and away from the thinning circle around the prime minister. Used to be that if you said Bitan, you were saying Netanyahu. You said Bitan, you were saying Likud 2017.

If we randomly asked passers-by to give us the name of a Likudnik with whom they were familiar, who’s not Netanyahu, it’s reasonable to assume the majority would say Bitan. Some might consider their options, vacillating between Bitan and the other David, Amsalem. But the first name that would come to mind would not be that of Yuli Edelstein or Gilad Erdan, Yisrael Katz or Yuval Steinitz, Gideon Sa’ar or Benny Begin, Ze’ev Elkin or Tzipi Hotovely. It would be Bitan’s and Amsalem’s.

This is the tragedy or, to our regret, the farce of the ruling party. Its faces are new MKs who lack any self-awareness; they are coarse, raucous, lacking any statesman-like impulses. Their entire existence embodies one long show of contempt for the norms of behavior expected of the people’s elected representatives.

Once upon a time, the “princes” were the pride and joy, the top rank, the official symbols of the Likud. But they are gone with the wind. After them came the “senior members,” most of whom were ministers of foreign affairs, defense, finance, education and justice, or Knesset speakers. Their time has passed, as well. Who could we even consider “a senior member” these days?

Nowadays it’s all about the “close associates.” Anyone who is not ashamed to dip his hands in filth, to defend the highest-ranking suspect in the media, to make a mockery of himself for the leader, is entitled to approach the throne, to gain a superior standing. This status is based on deception and lies. These people aren’t really close, influential, shapers of policy. They are servants, worker bees, contractors – until they fall from grace, the Lady notices a smidgen of doubt or criticism in their words, or some dark cloud casts its shadow over their loyalty. At that moment, their heads will be smashed. (By the way, where is Miri Regev these days? Her silence is shouting volumes.)

This is an “unhealthy evolution,” as one Likud MK correctly described the manner in which the party is ailing. The illustrious political movement that has for nearly a decade headed the government, and in its most recent term has not yielded any sort of ideological or visionary agenda. It is wholly engaged in the personal, in Netanyahu and his wife, in suspicions and investigations, in their ostentatious lifestyles, caprices and outbursts. Anyone with an ounce of self-respect keeps clear of this turbid mud puddle.

Into this vacuum have entered Mssrs. Bitan and Amsalem, representing everything the Likud is today: a despicable party that has been in power too long. The bills it is advancing, or not – the so-called “recommendations law,” the “French law” and legislation that would limit the power of the state comptroller – are corrupt and aimed at covering up corrupt acts. Netanyahu is marching in front with his scandals, behind him are Bitan and UN Ambassador Danny Danon, and the aides to Minister of National Infrastructures Yuval Steinitz. The closest aide to Transport Minister Israel Katz was just detained for investigation. On Thursday MK Oren Hazan was indicted on suspicion of assaulting a municipal official in the West Bank city of Ariel. And there’s no reason to think it will end here.

All of the above are signs of a party that has lost its moral compass and conscience. All the years in power, along with the big money, have sharpened its appetite and dulled its senses. From this point, the path to investigators in the police’s Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit is short. From here, the slogan “You are corrupt and we’re fed up with you,” which brought down the Yitzhak Shamir government in 1992 (and Shamir was as honest as they come), is even shorter.

When Bitan becomes the main suspect of receiving bribes in a huge corruption scandal, the damage done to the Likud is huge. The identification between him and Netanyahu is maximal. Bitan is the prime minister’s human shield, the one-man cavalry called to TV studios and weekend cultural gatherings to issue denials, to say that everything’s a matter of lies and political persecution, and that “nothing happened and if it did, so what?” By virtue of his entanglement with the investigators, Bitan is dragging down the entire party, and Netanyahu is losing a political asset more precious than gold.

As coalition whip, Bitan has been weakened and crippled, and this is a harsh blow to the coalition’s ability to function, as it faces the complex tests that await. Likud MKs and ministers, and their colleagues in other coalition parties, look on helplessly, like the lookout on the Titanic. He’s dragging us into the depths along with him, they are saying about Netanyahu. Saying, and doing nothing.

David Bitan, coalition head, on his way to be questioned by police, Dec 6, 2017.Credit: Meged Gozani

Sinking ship

Late Saturday night, Naftali Bennett telephoned David Bitan. “There is no such thing as letting everyone [in a coalition party] vote as they wish,” he informed Bitan, in an empathetic but strict tone. “If Kulanu is entitled to this privilege, then we deserve it too.”

Bennett was referring to the so-called recommendations law, which would basically silence the police and conceal details about its investigations from the public. Shortly beforehand, it was revealed that Moshe Kahlon, who got cold feet after thousands demonstrated in Tel Aviv against corruption, had issued instructions to his Knesset faction. He told his colleagues to submit their reservations about the bill that would in effect neutralize its clearest and most corrupt component – its protection of Netanyahu – turning it into just another vengeful and superfluous law.

Kahlon may have shot himself in the foot, since a secondary goal of the bill was actually to help him, the only one in the coalition waving the banner of the rule of law, to navigate the issue of the police’s recommendations successfully. Specifically, if the written summary of their investigations would indeed not be publicized, at least not formally, the public pressure on Kahlon to take some sort of action would obviously be lessened. At least that’s what they hoped in the PMO.

Bitan realized that the game was up. The flagship sailed by Amsalem and himself is emitting a foul odor; the ship is about to sink into the depths.

Bennett didn’t make do with ruining Bitan’s night (which in retrospect will seem pleasurable, compared to those to come). He updated one of the premier’s advisers by phone and placed another call to Washington, where his party colleague Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was preparing to appear at the annual Saban Forum. Habayit Hayehudi’s chairman asked his colleague to release a statement that would please their constituents back home. Shaked delivered the goods: “The people did not elect a government of the right in order to pass the recommendations law, but in order to enact fundamental ideological reforms,” she declared from the stage. Where has she been all this time, the frustrated prosecutors in her office could only wonder.

Thus, the curtain came down on the scheme to prevent the public from knowing about the conclusions of the police regarding possible indictments in the Netanyahu cases. Sunday morning, the premier announced that he had “decided” to exclude himself from the law, since in any event, he said, the conclusions had been drawn up a priori and are being leaked on a daily basis. If that is the case, why was he prepared to commit political suicide by means of his emissaries, in an effort to push the law through?

Despondent and furious, he arrived Sunday afternoon at a meeting of coalition party leaders. “I conceded something for the sake of coalition stability,” he told them. “If we want to continue for another two years, I expect that everyone here will concede something. All of us have to join in the effort.”

He failed to convince Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman. “We will not support [Arye Dery’s] grocery-store law,” the defense minister clarified. “The law was approved today in the cabinet,” Netanyahu reminded him. “You voted against and that’s all right, but in the Knesset plenum, you’re obligated to support it.”

Lieberman was still angry. At the open part of his Knesset faction meeting on Monday, he said he was pleased to find that without his MKs’ votes, the Knesset would not pass the bill that aims to prevent heads of local governments from authorizing the opening on Shabbat of groceries and other shops in their jurisdiction. But he is about to discover, and perhaps already has, that Bitan and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the minister who liaises between the coalition and the Knesset, were prepared for this revolt and intend to pass the law with the help of several Arab MKs.

Never mind, Lieberman won’t take it to heart. Actually, a heavy stone will be lifted from his heart. No one wants more than he for the coalition to stay afloat. Thus, he will profit two-fold: His faction will happily vote against a pro-religious coercion law that would harm many of his voters – secular immigrants from the FSU, living in the hinterlands, who occasionally want to buy milk on Saturday like their brethren in Tel Aviv – and the government will not sustain any damage.

I asked Levin where the coalition is headed. “As for the grocery-store law,” he said, “we are committed to passing it. On Monday and Tuesday we are going to pass a series of laws that will constitute a test of the coalition’s might: the recommendations law, the Jerusalem law, the primaries law. After that, we will enact the nation-state law, and afterward the 2019 budget. In the end,” he confessed, “our fate will be decided by the investigations of the prime minister.”

I asked him if he was talking about the influence the police’s findings may have on the power of some of the coalition partners, primarily that of Moshe Kahlon. Is he the weak link?

“I don’t know what Kahlon will do,” said Levin, “but there’s a law, and it determines that the final word belongs to the attorney general. Police recommendations are no more than that – recommendations. There is no reason to dismantle the coalition so that in another 8 or 9 months the attorney general decides not to file an indictment.”

I asked what he thought of his party’s current situation, with the running amok of Bitan and Amsalem and their anti-police bills.

“I do not agree to everything,” he replied cautiously. “Actually, as for the recommendations law, I think that it is super correct and it is important to complete and enact it. But the way things look, and the fact that everything was mixed up with the investigations of the prime minister and subsequently of Danny Danon and Bitan – it was not good in terms of the way it all looked.”

Is it only the way it looked, I asked him. It is just that the party’s presenters are unseemly, and not the very essence that is corrupt?

“We should have been more meticulous,” said Levin. “To speak in a lower tone of voice, a more moderate tone, a more dignified manner.” (Not a bad piece of advice, perhaps he should remember it himself the next time he scorns the Supreme Court and dubs its justices leftists).

Levin has in the past served as coalition whip, a role of which he was not particularly fond. What will happen now with Bitan, I asked. How are you going to pass the laws and the budget with a coalition whip whose time will be consumed by investigations?

“I expect the police to take into account the work of the Knesset and not to summon him for interrogations on Wednesdays,” Levin proposed. “It can be done also on Tuesday or Thursday. You don’t have to necessarily do it when there are votes in the Knesset.”

Did the police intentionally call Bitan in last Wednesday, the day of the important votes in the plenum? Is it seeking to wreak vengeance on him and on the Likud?

“I don’t think so,” said Levin, taking care not to fall into a trap. “But I do expect the police to show greater sensitivity in the future.”

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