Voices Around Netanyahu Remind There Is Another Way

Sobering remarks by army and defense officials this week drowned out the prime minister's usual war-drum talk.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

For one all-too-brief moment this week, the familiar, hackneyed public discourse in the country had a fresh quality to it, challenging and original, without the usual badgering and factionalism. Most of the lectures delivered at the two-day conference of the Institute for National Security Studies reminded the despairing masses that in Israel there still are political and security voices other than that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Current affairs, even a “security plan,” can actually be discussed intelligently, with a different vision and an innovative stance, without volleys of hatred and incitement being sprayed in all directions.

The war-drum talk – simultaneously self-victimizing and threatening – that we get from Netanyahu momentarily gave way to the sounds of different drummers. One of them was the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who dared take a nonconformist approach, and clarified, in a businesslike manner, that the nuclear agreement with Iran holds out “risks and also opportunities.” In fact, that’s the view of all the security experts in Israel, apart from the self-styled “Mr. Security.” And in response to the war cries of the right wing, which wants to see the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a reign of chaos in the territories, Eisenkot maintained that Israel must cultivate security cooperation with the PA and show generosity in granting work permits to Palestinians.

He knows whereof he speaks. If everything falls apart, which is the major objective of right-wing militants, it’s the army that will be accused of impotence and kowtowing. It’s always the army. Interesting how long it will take before the birdies start chirping from the treetops that Eisenkot is a leftist who’s infiltrated the headquarters of the defense establishment.

Equally trenchant, if obvious, remarks were made by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. The Obama administration is “concerned and perplexed” at the Israeli government’s behavior in the settlements, he said, adding that there are two systems of law enforcement, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, in the West Bank.

What’s the classic role of an ambassador? To calm the locals and be nice. Shapiro is a master of this. The serial Obama-Netanyahu crises have made him a mega-whitewasher. But no longer, it seems: The unusual remarks made by the diplomat this week are a strategic benchmark in the relations between the two countries, exactly a year before Barack Obama leaves the White House. Shapiro was signaling Israel and the international community that the narrative bruited by Netanyahu after his last visit to Washington – about the “excellent meeting, the best ever,” that he supposedly had with Obama – deserves an honorable mention in the next storyteller’s festival.

Teacher’s fret

Two education ministers, one past and one present, delivered similar messages at the INSS conference. Gideon Sa’ar, still on a time-out from politics, for the first time expressed views different from those of his former colleagues in Likud. In the face of a ruling party that is becoming increasingly more extreme, Sa’ar sounded like the sane center-right that doesn’t feel obligated to fight the entire world, holds relations with the United States dear, and doesn’t repeat the automatic no-no-no policy of resentful defiance of Likud and its leader, in its current form.

It’s not clear whether Sa’ar will return to political life, and if so, to which party. If he remains in Likud, he’ll probably bring something new, antithetical to the dominant Netanyahu rhetoric. From Sa’ar’s point of view, there’s no point sparring with Netanyahu on his turf, because that’s a no-win situation. If he takes the independent route, he’ll have to come up with some original ideas for the center-right constituency.

Sa’ar – like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (who, for the first time this week, suggested that Israel part with East Jerusalem’s villages and neighborhoods), MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and, in his way, Ambassador Shapiro – each shed light, from his or her own perspective, on the major problem with Israel’s behavior under Netanyahu: the absence of initiative, the passivity, the tendency to respond but not take action. But the speakers didn’t direct their fire at the prime minister, who has assumed the senior role in the right wing of fanning flames.

How did Netanyahu open the cabinet meeting Sunday? With a solemn declaration of support for the NGO bill sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, an unnecessary law that will only tarnishe Israel’s name more abroad, and augment the hatred between political camps in Israel. Netanyahu proposed a minor amendment – not forcing the NGOs’ representatives to wear an identifying tag when visiting the Knesset – but nothing else.

He steered the dialogue toward what for him is the rock of our existence, right vs. left, and mumbled something irrelevant about Iran, whose leaders publicly mocked him this week. As though anyone that’s chomping at the bit to get to the Persian markets is listening to him. But this is the only politics he knows: old, moldy, totally out of touch with anything happening in the international community. His positions are all known, expected, reflexive. He doesn’t even pretend to be striving for a breakthrough.

All his energies are mustered to entrench his rule and crush opponents, real or imagined. The rest of the time he spends looking for enemies. Iran is out, so ISIS is in. And the old standbys, Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas, Hezbollah. Now Sweden has a top place in the bank of targets, along with Breaking the Silence and the Arab MKs.

A week ago Netanyahu guaranteed that he’ll be Likud leader until the start of the next decade. What is he offering his nation, apart from fears and threats and the promise to live by the sword eternally? At one point he mentioned a regional political move and got a headline. Then nothing. Standing puddles of water are more active.

Lexical riches

In his brief political career, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has specialized in enriching the political lexicon with bon mots that have entered the hall of fame: shrapnel in the posterior, loss of a moral compass, a bullet between the eyes. This week, in his speech at the INSS conference, he accused the Israeli leadership of “conceptual fossilization.”

Of all the speakers at the event, Bennett put on the best show of opposing the government – of which he’s a member. He compared the Netanyahu government to the government of Golda Meir, in referring to the mistaken “conception” that brought disaster on Israel in the 1973 war. Bennett’s speech drew volleys of vilification from the bureaus of the prime minister and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Examples from the latter: “charlatan,” “infantile,” “deluded by messianic madness.”

Afterward, Bennett went out of his way to cast his remarks in a substantive light, shorn of political interests. His speech was in fact serious and thorough, and shed light on problematic corners in the political and security performance of the Netanyahu government. Bennett wants to be seen as a statesman, a strategist, an expert in security. That’s fine. But first and foremost he’s a politician, leader of a right-wing party fed by public dissatisfaction with Netanyahu in light of “the situation.”

Bennett reads polls. He discerned the premier’s weakness in security matters and pounced on this, after his party was trampled by Likud in the last election. This riles Netanyahu, because it’s exactly what he would do if the tables were reversed. Bennett learned the ropes in Netanyahu’s bureau.

People who spoke with the education minister in the last two days found a satisfied man. He’s pleased by the tempest he generated. He feels politically immune, that without him there is no government. The speech, he says, was intended to exert pressure, shake the cradle in order to prevent the infant’s death.

What are you, someone asked, some kind of Cato the Younger? Yes, that’s it! Cato the Younger! According to Bennett, Netanyahu views the security cabinet as a mere nuisance, something to navigate through safely every week, without serious discussion. Netanyahu, Ya’alon and defense establishment leaders convene prior to its meetings to make the real decisions. All that’s left for the frustrated ministers is to vote. When Bennett burst the balloon, Netanyahu and Ya’alon went ballistic.

A replacement?

Even after more than five years of obsessive media preoccupation with the Galant/Harpaz/Ashkenazi affair, the reasonable citizen who heard the news on Wednesday, about closure of the criminal investigation against the former IDF chief of staff, found himself rubbing his eyes. So who is the real Gabi Ashkenazi? A victim or a criminal? A politician in uniform or an officer and a gentleman? Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein broke foot-dragging records in this affair and only closed the case 10 days before departing his post.

Now that the criminal cloud has been lifted from Ashkenazi, he is considered qualified to run for prime minister; anything less is of no interest to him. The black mark cited in the report – referring to conduct unbecoming in regard to compilation of material aimed at incriminating then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak – is serious. Here’s the chief of staff, siccing a pack of confidants, collaborators and sycophants on the responsible minister “to collect stuff so we’ll have ammunition.” And we thought he was supposed to be concerned about ammunition of a different kind.

But in Israel this won’t be an obstacle to Ashkenazi’s future path. Not in an era when norms are disintegrating and what’s not criminal is hunky-dory. In other Western-type places, a retired general who was the subject of two sharply worded reports – from both the state comptroller and the attorney general – would keep his distance from the public sphere. Not here. The public has a short memory, its patience for details is limited. The people will forgive and forget, if they wish.

In the end, it’s all up to the man himself. As far as we know, Ashkenazi’s desire to reach the top has not abated. He hasn’t yet made a decision. But he has let things cool down. A few days ago, when it was already known that Weinstein would close the case, Ashkenazi told someone that politics doesn’t attract him and he’d prefer to go into business.

But if he opts for politics, where will he go? The option of being No. 2 under Yair Lapid, which he examined in many conversations with the Yesh Atid leader (the talks were revealed in this column recently, and caused an implosion in their relations), is no longer on the agenda. No. 2 is not for him. He’s out to be No. 1, without any stops along the way. That’s a mistake. We’ve already seen where megalomania has led us.

Ashkenazi is also turned off by the idea of contesting the leadership of the Labor Party, which is known for devouring its leaders; the brand isn’t so attractive anymore. Some Laborites speak of him as a possible savior, but in reality he would have to forge alliances and create fronts with key forces in the party to hack his way to the top.

Since Isaac Herzog will not be happy, to put it mildly, to yield his position to Ashkenazi, the latter can pin his hopes only on MK Shelly Yacimovich. Ironically, she is his only chance to carve a path into Labor. Or not. “Ashkenazi’s behavior emerges as problematic, political and manipulative,” she tweeted on Thursday. In short, she gave him a cold shoulder and signaled him not to count on her.

Informed sources say Ashkenazi is toying with a different idea: to form a new party, stock it with “attractive figures” (hmm, that sounds daring and new, something we’ve never tried here) and try to win enough seats – at the expense of Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Kulanu – to induce the leaders of those parties to crown him their leader and make him the candidate of the center-left bloc for Israel’s next prime minister. Ashkenazi believes that if Lapid, with a pretty face, gel in his hair and lots of TV time, garnered 19 seats on his first try, three years ago, he can do the same.

He may be right, but in contrast to Lapid, whose weakness – zero political experience, hence zero skeletons in the closet – was also his strength, Ashkenazi will not be entering politics as pure as the driven snow. There are many recordings that have not yet been made public. And Netanyahu, the most dangerous destroyer and decapitator of politicians, hasn’t yet begun to get on his case.

Apropos Netanyahu, from our knowledge of him, we assume that news of the case being closed will ruin his dreamy weekend in Davos. When he comes back, he’ll probably order a few polls to try to see which way the wind is blowing, and if he feels that Ashkenazi is a threat to him, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the unity-government-with-Zionist Union scenario come back to life.

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