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Why Did Netanyahu Kick Ministers Off His Trip to Liberia at the Last Minute?

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Illustration: Netanyahu speaks empty words that make up settlement houses, Netanyahu kicks Likud figures off his plane
IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman

Three meetings in two days, lasting a total of five hours, and one super-right-wing speech, in genuine Bennett-speak, for the glory of the settler state. That’s all it took for Benjamin “the Magician” Netanyahu to relieve the stomachaches of the regional council heads of the West Bank. He successfully navigated that land mine until the next outburst, which will occur when they realize they’ve been led up the garden path and that construction in the territories will continue to be restricted (it’s all relative, of course, and depends on the eye of the beholder), as it was during the Obama period.

The settler leaders demanded thousands of housing units immediately, and in practice received hundreds. That low-calorie diet, from their perspective, is being served up by Netanyahu with sweet nothings about his affection for them, for their voters who live in the West Bank, and for the “new Zionism” they embody in their image and their likeness. Instead of bulldozers they got words.

“It’s the battered-woman syndrome,” a senior right-wing figure observed. “For eight years, there’s been a construction freeze in the territories. Year nine will be more of the same. He’s telling tales and they’re cooing with pleasure.”

Not that words are insignificant. In a Knesset speech this week at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, Netanyahu said, “I am explaining that everyone has the right to live in his home, that no person will be uprooted from his home.”

That’s a declaration that is nothing short of dramatic. On the eve of publication of an American plan for a political “deal” to be struck between Israel and the Palestinians, the prime minister of Israel asserts that, as far as he is concerned, no settlement will be evacuated or uprooted, no outpost will be razed. Did he declaim a similar text to U.S. President Donald Trump a few weeks ago? Could that be what made Trump say he was convinced his pal Benjamin wants peace?

“It is my privilege, after decades, to be the prime minister who is building a new settlement in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu gushed in the Knesset. If it’s such a privilege, why did not he do it until he was put under pressure – by Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, and by the extreme wing in his own Likud – to establish a new settlement for the Amona outpost evacuees?

Netanyahu’s right-wing rhetoric seems to pour cold water on the expectation of any impending diplomatic negotiations. The text of his speech was certainly translated and forwarded to foreign ministries abroad. The conclusion from his remarks should not come as a surprise to anyone: Netanyahu will not be the person who ends the occupation, he will not be the leader who places an ambitious peace plan on the table, and he will undoubtedly be as good as his word and not evacuate as much as a single settlement, large or small, without a clear directive from the High Court of Justice, and then only after any number of delays and evasive tactics. He will go on managing the conflict as he has done since 2009, with his familiar tricks that are intended to gain time, the more the better. He’ll leave the need to cope with the disaster, the calamity, to his successors.

In the meantime, Likud cabinet ministers and MKs report a marked improvement in the prime minister’s mood over the past few weeks. Some of them attribute it to flattering public opinion surveys. In them, Likud under Netanyahu would lose hardly any Knesset seats from its present 30, if an election were held today, while his main rival, MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), is faltering. Netanyahu believes that surveys are the be-all and end-all, and that they influence everything, including the investigators and state prosecutors who are dealing with the cases in which he is a suspect. The purist nudniks from the police’s Lahav 433 fraud investigation unit and from the Justice Ministry’s headquarters on Salah e-Din Street in East Jerusalem will see that the people are behind him – and will draw the necessary conclusions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, June 4, 2017.Credit: Kobi Gideon, GPO

Immunization deficiency

Cabinet ministers frequently go abroad as part of their job. In fact, it’s rare to find all the chairs around the cabinet table occupied by ministerial posteriors. An invitation to join the prime minister’s trips is an especially coveted perk, which promises quality time with the person who’s always so busy, not to mention the honor heaped on those who accompany the leader abroad. Deprived of respect locally, our ministers lap it up out there in the world.

The “genre” of ministers seconded to the premier’s plane can be divided into three subgroups: 1. Those whose presence is relevant to the trip. 2. Those who are getting a personal or political-coalition bonus. 3. The pushy ones.

When Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) joined the prime minister’s prestigious visit to the UN General Assembly session last fall, it was the very embodiment of No. 2: In the political interest of the person doing the inviting, and political stroaking par excellence. When the economy, health and environmental protection ministers flew to China in March with Netanyahu, they worked in their ministerial spheres, signed bilateral agreements and so forth.

A month ago, the cabinet secretariat sent invitations to National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. They were asked to join Netanyahu on this week’s lightning visit (under 24 hours, flights included) to Liberia, where he spoke at a regional conference and met with African heads of state.

Africa is crying out for close ties with Israel, which is an agriculture, energy and water powerhouse. There was no doubt about the need for Ariel and Steinitz. Hotovely is Netanyahu’s deputy in the Foreign Ministry. Her task was to meet with foreign ministers from the countries whose leaders attended the conference; Foreign Minister Netanyahu simply wouldn’t have time for them in his crowded schedule. That’s why deputy ministers were invented.

The three invitees were sent two weeks ago to the Jerusalem health bureau to receive the necessary immunizations. Then last Thursday night, when the antigens against life-threatening diseases were coursing through their bloodstream, they got a call from Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz. He informed them that, due to the short stay on the ground planned for Liberia – about six hours – it hadn’t been possible to coordinate “side meetings” with their counterparts. Accordingly, he explained, after a “situation appraisal,” it was decided they would not go.

That excuse is lame and genuinely insulting, even relative to the behavior of the Prime Minister’s Bureau during the past two years. To begin with, there was no change whatsoever in the itinerary from the moment the trip was originally coordinated with the ministers. Second, it’s hard to believe that African ministers would not go out of their way to make time for a meeting with their colleagues from Israel in areas vital to their countries. Something’s fishy here.

The impression the media gave was that the three had been pushed screaming onto the manifest in the first place, and then kicked off the plane by a prime minister who wanted to save money. “We were victims of shaming,” one of the protagonists stated.

Even a week after the incident, the relevant ministries can’t figure out what happened. They find it hard to accept Horowitz’s explanation, as would any sensible person. So, had the Prime Minister’s Bureau simply forgotten to coordinate the bilateral meetings? Inconceivable. Still, why was the decision made, and by whom, to give them the boot, as though they were annoying passengers on an overbooked United Airlines flight? How did all this serve Netanyahu, one of the evicted wondered. What’s in it for him?

I put the following wild conjecture to one of those involved: Maybe this just marks a new stage in Netanyahu’s abuse of his ministers. He does it because he can. The individual concerned rejected that hypothesis out of hand, declaring, “Ariel Sharon liked to torment his cabinet ministers, though not like this. Netanyahu, for whom the ministers are invisible, lacks even that element in his personality. We’re not important enough for him to torment us.”

Last will

Shaya Segal, one of Israel’s most experienced media and strategic consultants, died this week at the age of 66, from cancer. A former journalist, Segal liked to be connected, involved and plugged in. More than other of his colleagues, he had a hankering to exert influence and shape decisions, and to bring together political rivals in order to act as a conciliator. “It’s for the state,” he would say, but mostly it made him feel better.

Following the 2009 elections, he held a series of meetings in his home in the small town of Azor, outside Tel Aviv, between Prime Minister-elect Netanyahu, and Segal’s good friend, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, from the Labor Party. The meetings helped make possible the co-option of Labor, then led by Ehud Barak, into Netanyahu’s second government.

Segal was also the agreed and exclusive mediator between another of his good friends, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu in the period of their joint work as prime minister and foreign minister, respectively, and afterward during Netanyahu’s stint as finance minister – between 2002 and 2005. They both trusted him blindly. Sharon, whose suspiciousness of and hatred for Netanyahu were second only to Netanyahu’s for him, sent Segal on secret missions behind enemy lines (that is, to Netanyahu’s home or bureau), during the periods of the greatest tension between them. He trusted Segal to deliver his messages verbatim. He also knew that the messages that Segal delivered to him were precise and totally reliable, both in content and style.

Segal afterward became a close adviser to Netanyahu, until something went awry. Segal never ceased to love and admire Sharon even after he was distanced from his close circle by others in it. His relations with the Netanyahus ended very distressfully for him and with a sense of betrayal. Welcome to the club.

Segal contributed hundreds of hours of work to Bibi and Sara over the years, without financial remuneration. He was compelled to give them large amounts of money in the form of “gifts” (some at explicit request, others in the wake of clear expectation). He thought the Netanyahus considered him a friend, but discovered that he was merely a tool in their hands. Maybe we’ll get to read about that in the book that Segal worked on during the past three years together with journalist Mazal Mualem.

Many of those stories, which would make a reasonable person feel nauseous, are also documented in the fraud investigations unit of the police, as part of the detailed testimony that Segal was asked to give in the investigation of Case 1000 (concerning allegations that Netanyahu illegally received gifts and other benefits from wealthy individuals). After his experience in the interrogations room, Segal told an interlocutor that, despite everything he has against the Netanyahus, he felt uncomfortable regaling his questioners with the embarrassing details. His testimony will not be heard in court, if there is a trial. The witness is no longer with us.

Segal was an obsessive documenter and collector of tape recordings, transcripts, memos and reminders to himself. In his book, which will be published even after his death, because that was his wish, part of that treasure trove will be uncovered. It is one of several books on Netanyahu that are currently in different stages of preparation. Only in the Segal/Mualem effort will we get a peek, at colonoscopic resolution, into the hidden guts of the Netanyahus’ essence. The book will not bring about Netanyahu’s downfall, as some hope for and others fear. But it will make jaws drop and mouths gape.

Segal was himself too ill to attend the funeral of his friend Ben-Eliezer last August. Segal’s wife, Saraleh, was there. Netanyahu spotted her from a distance, and asked her how Shaya was feeling. She said he was in a bad way. Following the ceremony, the premier informed his bodyguards that he was changing course and asked Saraleh to join him in his car. Together they went to the Segals’ home on Herzog Street in Azor. Netanyahu spent two hours there, after a hiatus of two years. Segal, in general a very naive person whose heart could be won with a simple gesture, did not forgive him even after the visit. That’s how deep the wound was.

Amir PeretzCredit: Emil Salman

Labor’s labyrinth

One fact will not be disputed, perhaps even by the contenders for the leadership of the Labor Party themselves. Namely, that neither on July 4 nor two weeks later, during the seemingly inevitable second round, will a candidate who will become the next prime minister be selected. That era in the party’s history is just that: history.

The only one of the contenders who acknowledges this is the current leader, MK Isaac Herzog. He is promising to turn the wheel back after he’s elected, and hold an open primary of the bloc he hopes to create. He too will run in it.

Herzog is one of the two candidates who are trying to reinvent themselves in the present campaign. In meetings with party colleagues, he’s expressing remorse and apologizing for past mistakes. He’s mentioning with pride the talks he held with Netanyahu about the establishment of a unity government, in the shadow of the regional diplomatic move that was forged, and above all promising the dawn of a new day after he’s re-elected party chairman.

The second is Amir Peretz, the serial contender. Peretz is an exceptional phenomenon in local politics. Like a wild animal that curls up for winter hibernation and wakes up with the advent of spring – or alternatively, like a sleeper agent who emerges from his home for missions when he gets a call from the central committee. Peretz comes alive mainly before elections. In between he’s barely felt. Campaigns, in which he excels, breathe life into him.

The prevailing opinion among all the contenders is that Peretz will definitely make it to the second round. His voters from the Arab population are known to hurry to the polling stations on D-day. Vying to become the other finalist are, in alphabetical order: MK Omer Bar-Lev, former environmental affairs minister Avi Gabai, Herzog, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin, MK Erel Margalit and three others who apparently have time on their hands. The debate in the studio of the Walla! website (in which Margalit embarrassed Gabai on the issue of a vote he denied casting for Likud, while tainting himself by making a racist-tinged remark when he hinted that Gabai, who is of Moroccan descent, doesn’t excel in English), raised the interest level in this dreary contest of nonentities from 2 to 9 on a scale of 100.

Next Monday will see another debate between the six at Haaretz’s Israel Conference on Peace. Margalit is promising/threatening to go on revealing embarrassing faux pas from Gabai’s past. He views Gabai as his main rival for second place in the runoff. Not Bar-Lev and not Herzog. Some take issue with him with regard to Herzog.

In any event, whoever wins – and this has been noted many times in the past two decades – will discover that the creature known as the Labor Party is not amenable to management or leadership. It’s like riding a tiger, even though it’s long since ceased to be one. The next leader will be elected partly based on a calculation of who will be able to maintain the apparatus reasonably well, until its essential metamorphosis comes about. He’ll be a kind of caretaker. MK Shelly Yacimovich, thought to have the best prospect of advancing to the second round against whoever ran, understood that long ago and chose the Histadrut labor federation option instead. But the voters opted differently there and now all the candidates are courting her. She still has the most followers in the party, and her declaration in favor or against anyone could be decisive.

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