The second annual conference of the Israeli American Council, founded by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, took place in Washington this week. Among the invitees was Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political hatchet man. Steinitz told participants that the “level and intensity” of Palestinian anti-Semitism and incitement over the Temple Mount is “the same level as Hitler.” Two days later, in a speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Steinitz’s master, the prime minister, dropped his own historical bombshell when he said that it was the late mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974), who had devised the idea of the “Final Solution of the Jewish problem” – namely, the extermination of European Jewry.
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This may only have been a coincidence. But by the same token, one can imagine Netanyahu and Steinitz meeting on the eve of the latter’s flight, with the lad asking his mentor what to say to our brethren in the Diaspora. Behind a curtain of cigar smoke, Netanyahu ponders the question and sagely utters, “Go for the Nazi bit!” Steinitz was the dove sent from the ark across the ocean, to test the waters. Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, took it too far, as he sometimes does.
It took a post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page, a half-apologetic, half-obstinate statement before he boarded the flight for a visit to Germany, a further retreat in a press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a passive-aggressive interview by Netanyahu’s new and improved parrot, MK Tzachi Hanegbi, to come up with excuses for his shameful factual foible regarding the most important subject of all to him: the Holocaust.
And all of that only added to the embarrassment and the shame. A German government spokesman was compelled, again, to declare his country’s exclusive responsibility for the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews, accompanied by a reprimand to the prime minister of Israel.
Only Holocaust-deniers and others of that ilk might take Netanyahu’s comments seriously. The rest of the world will see them for what they are: a cynical, clumsy, almost desperate attempt to rewrite history for the transparent propaganda purpose of associating Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with the mufti’s Nazified worldview.
Moreover, if that message – the kind that usually derives from momentary political distress experienced by Netanyahu in his relations with the political right – also indirectly partially absolves Adolf Hitler of responsibility, that’s a small price to pay, as the Israeli prime minister, son of an important historian, sees it.
There is considerable empathy for the Palestinians in the international community. They are perceived as the victims of the occupation. But even those who aren’t their fans don’t see them as the embodiment of Nazism. Netanyahu’s remarks might enthrall the ultra-right of the American Tea Party movement. But he seems to have given up on the rest of the world long ago.
As of this writing, no serious historian has come out in support of Netanyahu’s thesis. His bureau referred people who asked questions to the testimony of a senior Nazi in the Nuremberg trials, as though his version were the epitome of credibility, honesty and accuracy. By that logic, we should believe the Nazis who said they were only obeying orders when they abetted the annihilation of the Jews. And anyway, if Abbas and his cohorts are neo-Nazis, why does Netanyahu keep saying he will be happy to meet with them and discuss a two-state solution?
The irony is that Netanyahu said what he did during a speech about the “10 lies” of the Palestinians. He stated that Israel’s fight is against terrorism, but added that its greatest struggle is “the war over the facts.” But does he mean for the facts or against the facts?
The Hebrew translation of Netanyahu’s speech to the World Zionist Congress appeared on the website of the Prime Minister’s Bureau just hours after he spoke. In other words, it was not the result of a slip of the tongue or a momentary stream of consciousness. Netanyahu read from a prepared text, and we know that no one attaches more importance to words than he.
By linking today’s Palestinians, Israel’s neighbors, with the Nazis of 1930s and ‘40s Germany, his aim is to implant in the Israeli public fear, despair, existential depression and hopelessness. In the decade preceding the nuclear agreement with Iran earlier this year, he often said: “The year is 1938, and Iran is Germany.” With the signing of the accord, he leaped ahead. Now we’re in 1941, and Mahmoud Abbas is the personification of the mufti, from which it follows inevitably that the nation of Israel is again facing the danger of extermination. Islamic State at the gates? If only. It’s Nazis at the gates.
Silence of the bulldozers
An equally interesting revelation in Netanyahu’s speech, though quite a different one, was his surprising admission that his governments have done very little building in the West Bank. In this case he came equipped with facts and figures about the scale of construction carried out by his predecessors: Ehud Barak (5,000 residential units in one year), Ariel Sharon (1,900 a year) and Ehud Olmert (1,700). Under his watch it has gone down to 1,500 a year, he admitted.
He didn’t want to elaborate on the reasons for the silence of the bulldozers, but they are well known. What the international community was willing to put up with when Israeli prime ministers talked to the Palestinians or undertook unilateral moves to end the occupation, it is not ready to accept with Netanyahu at the helm: No one in the world believes a word he says.
Yet just a couple of weeks ago, he sang a very different tune in remarks to the Likud Knesset faction and in a press conference in the wake of the security situation. Asked about complaints by the settlers concerning the de facto freeze on construction in the West Bank, he got angry and boasted about the scale of the projects underway and the rise in the settler population. “No one has built like us,” he told the Likud MKs, while in the press conference he said, “Go and check how much we built, how many people settled there.”
He added, “I build responsibly, in a measured way, intelligently, and that’s what averts a threat to the settlement enterprise.” Parody at its best: If he builds intelligently, then the others – Barak, Sharon, Olmert – lacked intelligence. They built wildly and without restraint, not discreetly and judiciously like him.
Netanyahu’s peculiar disclaimer will not gain him or the settlement project a single supporter anywhere. But it has exacerbated the tensions and suspicions between him and the far right in his government. The pressure is building in Habayit Hayehudi, for example, especially in its Tekuma wing, led by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. The extremist rabbis, such as Dov Lior and Zalman Melamed, are starting to show marked impatience. They are waiting for the results of the talks between Israel and Jordan about new arrangements on the Temple Mount. A source in Habayit Hayehudi reminded Netanyahu that in another month he will need 60 Knesset votes to pass the state budget. His coalition numbers 61 MKs.
In fact, Netanyahu’s comments reveal a lot about his frame of mind. He has no problem saying one thing one day and the opposite the next day. He creates a reality that’s convenient for him at one moment, and then a very different one the next moment. As if when a totally opposite thesis is stated in English, it can still stand on its own, disconnected from the previous, Hebrew, version, and will not be translated or analyzed in a broader context. Professional therapists will judge whether all this is narcissism or the hallmarks of a dictator: the attitude toward the media, the rewriting of history, the possible megalomania regarding his own place in the world. He’s not just the prime minister of Israel – that’s small change. He doesn’t dwell in our region; he is the prime minister of world history.
To add to his troubles, Gideon Sa’ar, the popular former Likud minister who’s taking a break from politics, spoke at a meeting of the Israel Democracy Institute, marking the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, about the current lack of leadership in Israel. Sa’ar called for leadership “that takes responsibility and doesn’t pass the buck, that strives to make decisions, including tough decisions, and doesn’t evade them Israel is crying out for a proactive leadership. We’re sated with words.” He went on, hurling poison darts at a person who remained nameless. There’s no other leading right-wing figure whose criticism of Netanyahu is so barbed and who says aloud what many of his ministers say off-record. Netanyahu knows that if Sa’ar returns – and he’s planning to return, when the circumstances are right – that he will not be a foot soldier in his faction but a rival to contend with.
The rising tide of violence is starting to have an effect on the stability of the prime minister’s chair. Polls showing a deterioration in his so-called security appeal – as against a rise among his rivals on the right, Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett – are not to be easily dismissed.
Netanyahu’s plan to remain in power for another decade is beginning to look less likely. In this week’s cabinet meeting, Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz asked about a certain project and was told it would take about five years. “Five years?” he sighed. “That’s not relevant for us any longer.” Whereupon, according to some present, Netanyahu gave him a withering look and muttered, “Speak for yourself.”
The new Bourbons
Here’s an agonizing, Shakespearean dilemma about two people vying for an important public position that controls billions of shekels. One is a paragon of integrity, an educator, one of the builders of Israel’s outlying communities, who is universally praised. The other is a politician who has been the subject of damning reports, has been involved in affairs of corruption, has been tainted by suspicion and was even arrested, whose personal and public behavior is marked by huge ethical questions and who is the personification of a functionary. Which of the two will the leadership of a major political party support – a party that constantly talks about morality and wants to ascend to power to inculcate values and principles in the nation?
Are you kidding? The second candidate, obviously. Thus, MK Daniel Atar (Zionist Union) was this week elected the new chairman of the Jewish National Fund. And the Labor Party, to whose fiefdom the JNF belongs, missed the chance to place at the head of that sick body a rare public figure: Michael Biton, head of the local council of the Negev town of Yeruham. Labor leader MK Isaac Herzog and his loyalist MK Eitan Cabel, backed Atar; MK Shelly Yacimovich supported Biton. Naturally, the whole thing turned into another Labor war of the camps. MK Nachman Shai, who dropped out of the JNF race when he saw his backers defecting to the two candidates among whom support of the party’s top ranks was divided, was told by one such defector to the Herzog-Cabel-Atar camp: “You don’t understand – this is like a Rabin-Peres battle. Shelly mustn’t be allowed to win here.”
Atar, who was first elected to the Knesset in March, served as a legislator for a mere six months before heading for greener pastures. In his case, it’s sheer chutzpah, because his slot on Zionist Union’s list was tailor-made for him, in the party’s moshav wing, and he needed fewer than 7,000 votes to get a realistic place on the list. Now he will be replaced not by a moshav candidate but by a member of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, Yael Cohen-Paran.
What hasn’t been written about Atar in the past decade? The State Comptroller’s Office has a whole file on him and his exploits as head of the Gilboa Regional Council: profligacy, countless trips abroad, visits to casinos, persecution of the council’s internal comptroller, who had him in her sights. A few years ago, he was arrested on suspicion of fraud and breach of trust (he was not indicted). In his own moshav, he built a private-access route to his property across public land. The building violations of the Atar family were approved by the council head – Daniel Atar, all on the up-and-up.
According to a report in TheMarker yesterday, when Atar wanted to run for the post of Labor secretary general in summer 2014, Herzog asked the party’s internal comptroller to check him out. The conclusion: Atar could not be secretary general. Herzog accepted the findings, as did Atar, albeit bitterly. Now we have got him as JNF chairman, following the term of Efi Stenzler, another paragon.
That’s the Labor Party, behaving as though Mapai, its forerunner, was still in power and divvying up its few remaining spoils among inappropriate and unworthy candidates, as though the public is blind and won’t notice. What the party doesn’t understand is that the bastards changed the rules, the media are not the same and the social networks are seething. What’s needed is transparency, not archaic maneuvering that ultimately does the party more harm than good.
As Victor Hugo said of the House of Bourbon: “They have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing.”
The republic of Netanyahu
The idea that Netanyahu is toying with, the establishment of an across-the-board right-wing party, led by him, ahead of the next election – like the Republican Party in the United States – which would attract a wide range of voters, was first reported in this column five weeks ago.
The original conception was for this party to be comprised of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi (without Tekuma) and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu. However, this week, Shas leader Aryeh Dery related in a private conversation that Netanyahu has also spoken to him about the republican option. Netanyahu wants Shas in the new party, too, Dery told his interlocutor. After the election, Deri added, the party would split into separate Knesset factions.
Asked how he responded, Dery said, surprisingly, that he did not reject the idea. “Before you talk to me, go to the Ashkenazim [United Torah Judaism] and find out if they’re also in,” he told Netanyahu. He explained that to join Netanyahu’s new political grouping without the backing of UTJ and its rabbis would be suicide. Half of Shas’ voters are yeshiva students, and they will always prefer a second, independent party over a unification of forces that includes secular, anti-Orthodox parties like Yisrael Beiteinu. “If UTJ is in, we’re in, too,” Dery said.
He knows that the chances of that scenario coming to pass are zero, at best.