Analysis |

Netanyahu Bent Over Backward to Appease the Settlers. In Return, They Humiliated Him.

An emperor who's once again shown that he's divorced from reality, a has-been trying to make a comeback, a veteran politico with an empty portfolio, a left-wing elder who's straying from the camp – a disturbing week in review.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu are sweating, luggage in hand; Tzachi Hanegbi waves his 'portfolio'; A.B. Yehoshua and Naftali Bennett hang on to the letter C.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Last weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was very worried. A forced and violent evacuation of the illegal outpost of Amona looked unavoidable. The settlers rejected the generous solution that he and Education Minister Naftali Bennett offered them, and the spirits on the hilltop heated up. Hundreds of the "hilltop youth" packed the area of the outpost and built fortifications and barricades in preparation for their meeting with the police. The future looked bleak, like the cloudy skies above.

Even more than Netanyahu is worried about the fate of the residents of Amona, he is worried even more by the potential political fallout a show of force would leave in its wake. A person looks after their own interests first, as the Talmud teaches us.

The pictures of the evacuation of nine homes from Amona in 2006, under the acting prime minister at the time Ehud Olmert, are seared into his memory. The men and women who were thrown to the ground, the blood flowing from their heads, the batons wielded by the police, the children who cried and the black police horses that galloped into the crowds, neighing and whinnying, trampling the settlers with their hooves.

The man who talks about his commitment to the two-state solution was unable to bear the thought that a similar scene would occur on his watch, not even in a single, small outpost that was built through fraud and deceit.

Scared and desperate, he searched for the drug that would ease the emotional blow. Where can a leader such as Netanyahu look for a cure for his pains, a chunk of meat he can throw to the enraged mob, in order to distract their attention from the evacuation of Amona? With the Arabs, of course.

The evacuation of Amona in 2006. Credit: Limor Edry

By Thursday, his staff leaked to the press that Netanyahu had held two meetings on the issue of "increasing enforcement of illegal construction in the Arab sector," and that he would "advance the demolition of houses in the Arab sector in the south, north and in East Jerusalem already in the next few days."

This was a transparent spin, an insult to one's intelligence. The demolition of Arabs' homes takes places where the legal process has been completed and a demolition order has been issued. In East Jerusalem, it is actually the government that is preventing demolitions, fearing riots.

The announcement illustrates what Netanyahu thinks about his electorate on the right: He relates to them as utter fools. As if their pain over the evacuation of Amona will lessen and fade, and their anger at him will abate if on the nightly news they broadcast a report on the demolition of an Arab home in some town or another in the Galilee.

Netanyahu did make do with just a press release on the planned wave of demolitions. On Saturday he called Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and asked him to speed up the demolition of illegally built homes in the Arab community. Erdan reminded Netanyahu that the police do not demolish anything. They only protect the bulldozers sent by the relevant government ministries.

During that conversation, Netanyahu had another request for Erdan: To ensure that the evacuation of Amona was carried out without horses, without mounted police, without blazing hooves and saddles. After all, such visuals are unbearable, the pictures are etched in the mind, etc.

Who is as sensitive as Netanyahu is to the media, the message, the headline? Erdan calmed Netanyahu: He explained to the prime minister that the police have been conducting exercises in preparation for the evacuation, for a long time. From the beginning, no horses were included in the planned operation. Other means too, not firearms, such as police batons, which were used in 2006 - would not be there this time either. Maybe the police officers planned on equipping themselves with flowers or pom-poms, and use that to confront the gang of thugs known as the hilltop youth.

It is impossible to speak about horses in the context of removing settlers without remembering the 2006 election campaign. The Likud prepared a film that was broadcast many times as part of its election ads, with the title "It's not the horses." The film showed the bitter battles from the scene at Amona. The narrator who accompanied the pictures claimed it was not the horses who caused the numerous injuries among the settlers, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who hoped to be seen as the heir to the image Ariel Sharon, who evacuated Gush Katif, and to reap great political esteem from the left. Olmert is the one who instructed the police to use an iron fist.

Netanyahu, who probably remembered the content of that ad made him shudder, did not want for someone to come in the next election campaign, maybe Naftali Bennett or the head of a new right-wing party, and prepare a film that would document the evacuation of Amona in 2016; and also claim "it wasn't the horses." This time, for him, it is the horses.

Payback

“Look,” said a person who attended the nighttime meeting between Netanyahu and settlers of the Amona outpost this week, “Bibi did say what he was quoted as saying by [the newspaper] Yedioth Ahronoth. But at 2 or 3 A.M., it sounds different.”

How could it sound different, I asked him. He paused and then replied, “Actually, that’s exactly what it sounded like.”

We can imagine what Netanyahu felt when he learned that one of the 20 or so people at that meeting who was present in the Prime Minister’s Bureau leaked the remark, with its vast layers of insensitivity, cluelessness and disconnect.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, Netanyahu was summoned urgently from his warm home to his office – where representatives of the illegal outpost, built by fraud on privately owned Palestinian land – awaited him along with a few right-wing leaders, Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett, and a few officials from his Education Ministry and from the justice and defense ministries. The prime minister sat with them until 4 A.M. and bent over backward to satisfy the wild bunch and their leaders and the right-wing constituency as a whole. All because of his profound fear of the return of the violent images of the evacuation of nine homes in Amona in 2006 and its electoral cost.

He expected gratitude but was met with targeted (political) assassination. A media terror attack at a soft underbelly, which reinforced Netanyahu’s image as an emperor who’s divorced from the actual world and from life itself, who is preoccupied with himself and his caprices ad nauseam, and convinced that he has been anointed to reign over this nation. If there’s a public among whom he feels comfortable, relatively safe and free to be completely frank, it’s these people. Yet they, too, or one of them, betrayed him and turned him into an object of ridicule. And he can’t accuse them of leftism, of trying to subvert him, of wanting “to topple a prime minister.” They are flesh of his flesh, his solid electoral base. It was thanks to them that he won the last election; they are the foundation upon which he’s building the future.

“I understand what it is to lose a home,” he told the Amona group. “After the 1999 elections, without any warning, my family and I were driven out of the [Prime Minister’s Residence], just thrown on the street with all our belongings. We had to go to the Sheraton Plaza. It’s a terrible feeling.”

As has already been noted, far from being a move imposed on them overnight, it was only eight weeks after Election Day that the Netanyahus had to leave (and Netanyahu could have known even beforehand that he was going to lose to Ehud Barak). British prime ministers who lose an election have two days at most to pack up and leave 10 Downing Street. And we’ve never heard any of them whinge about being the suffering they endured by being kicked out.

There’s a direct connection between Netanyahu’s grotesque comment and other phenomena we’ve seen during his present term in office. The stench emanating from the German submarine and naval ship affairs is a symptom of an excessively long tenure, and loss of all restraint. The investigations being conducted into Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on suspicion of receiving gratuities, gifts, plane tickets and hotel accommodations – all attest to their, or his, frame of mind.

And, of course, the Netanyahus view the “home” from which they were “thrown out” so peremptorily – along with their stuff, just like the wretched people of Aleppo – as their own private property, registered in their name. Not as a state asset to be used on a temporary basis.

The premier’s mental state is taking him to disturbing places. Even when he tries to express empathy, it comes out askew, twisted. The same thing happened to him when he said that he saw fit to phone the father of Elor Azaria – the soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian in Hebron last March – in order to encourage him, just as he calls the parents of soldiers who are killed. For that comparison, he had to apologize. He had no one but himself to blame.

Shelly Yachimovich and Amir PeretzCredit: Amos Biderman

Back to the future

There’s something that’s at once inspirational and astonishing about MK Amir Peretz’s determination to run again, for the fourth time in 11 years, for leadership of the Labor Party. This is renewable energy at its best, as Labor MK Nachman Shai aptly put it this week. Yet, the truth is that there’s also something in Peretz’s announcement that causes one’s eyelids to droop: more of the same.

Even the old-timers among us will be hard pressed to remember a time when Peretz wasn’t either about to run, was running or had recently run for the party chairmanship. Betwixt and between, he left and returned, abandoned ship and climbed back aboard. In large measure, his decision to run now symbolizes Labor’s gloomy state: Its future is in its past. Three of the four likely contestants for the party’s leadership – Peretz, current leader MK Isaac Herzog and his predecessor, MK Shelly Yacimovich – are old news. The fourth, MK Erel Margalit, can be seen as a refreshing change, though his newness at times appears raucous, provocative and off-putting. He might turn out to be too tough for the Labor electorate to digest.

In 2005, when Peretz defeated Shimon Peres for the party leadership, there was something exciting, intriguing and energizing about his victory. Today it’s more like a faded suit pulled out of storage; once it was the height of fashion, now it’s only for fans of retro.

That’s not what Peretz thinks. “Israelis long for figures who led the country in a quieter, more judicious way,” he told me this week. “Not everyone wants a reality show. The fact that I have vast experience and successes, albeit also with scars in my flesh – which steeled me – is a means of leverage for winning voters’ confidence.”

That’s indeed the question: Hasn’t the eternal contestant completely worn down the good will of the Labor Party’s members, with all his departures and returns? Hasn’t he used up the whole quota of collective patience for his coming and going? In the 2006 election, he scored an electoral achievement – 19 seats, when competing against Kadima and the pensioners party. The Second Lebanon War that same year wiped him out in public opinion. In time, however, the public changed its opinion about the war and, concomitantly, its attitude toward the defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz. The problem is that since then, Labor has lost its relevance. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has become a haven for many of those who voted last time for Zionist Union, which is a fusion of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, which Peretz joined on the eve of the 2013 elections. Labor looks like a ship that’s sinking, while its passengers stand on the deck fighting with each other.

“The problem with Labor isn’t the internecine strife,” says Peretz. “That’s not why it has lost public support. The problem is that we say things that don’t sweep people off their feet. Our public was waiting for someone that would challenge the system.”

I reminded him of the major turn to Kadima in 2006 of the “white tribe” – namely, the longtime Labor voters who couldn’t bring themselves to accept a party leader from the Moroccan community.

“That could happen again,” he admits. “But I hope that this time they will understand that I am capable of gleaning votes from the peripheral parts of the country, so maybe it’ll be worth their while to support me. And if Likud voters see that I am capable of winning over the periphery, maybe they will agree to give me a chance.”

I asked Peretz what happened to the political love fest he had over the past year with Yacimovich, after getting relations with her back on track. There was talk of a deal: One would run for the party’s leadership, the other for leadership of the Histadrut labor federation – with mutual support. “I decided to give [current Histadrut head] Avi Nissenkorn a chance,” says Peretz. “He’s doing a good job, he’s scored some achievements.”

Did he apprise Yacimovich of his plans before going public with them? “No, we didn’t discuss it. But,” adds Peretz, “there is no doubt that she has a place in Labor’s leadership, in fomenting the revolution that will bring about the replacement of the Netanyahu government.”

Yacimovich, for her part, is now at a tricky crossroads. Should she run for Labor Party leader again, though she’s not eager to do that, given the brand’s poor condition? Or should she try for the top spot at the Histadrut, a job that’s tailor-made for her but won’t be easy to get? A third possibility is to do nothing: to be elected to the Knesset again on the Labor ticket under whoever becomes leader. And the fourth and most thrilling option: to undertake a Peretz-like move by leaving the party and establishing a social-democratic alternative that will run independently in the next election.

Peretz’s people are aware of the fourth option and the great potential harm it could cause. Which may be why, at the end of our conversation, he asked me again to write that Yacimovich’s place in the top ranks of the party that he will lead is assured and that she is a highly capable individual. Yada yada yada. I promised him that I would do so.

Author A.B. Yehoshua.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A late divorce

The writer A.B. Yehoshua, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, is one of the elders of the peace camp. If “the left” had a council of Torah sages or rabbis, like Shas and Agudat Israel, Yehoshua would be on it, along with Amos Oz and David Grossman. About a week ago, he surprised participants at a meeting of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research by saying that the vision of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which he’s been advocating for decades, is dead in the water because of the practical circumstances of the size and dispersion of the settler population in the West Bank.

Yehoshua believes that instead of continuing to talk about the now irrelevant two-state solution, Israel should consider an alternative plan: granting residency status to about 100,000 Palestinians who live in Area C (which is under Israel’s control). This would improve their economic situation, as they would be eligible for National Insurance payments, unemployment insurance and so forth. By this means, Yehoshua maintained, the “malignant” effects of the occupation would be partially reduced. He repeated these ideas in an Army Radio interview.

Habayit Hayehudi leader Bennett, who five years ago suggested applying Israeli law to Area C (and to make Area A, currently under Palestinian control, and Area B, under joint control, autonomous regions), celebrated a kind of victory in his Twitter account. This didn’t happen completely by chance: About two months ago, at the initiative of Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, chairwoman of the planning and budget committee of the Council for Higher Education, Bennett and Yehoshua met in her home. They spoke for hours. Bennett explained the logic of his plan, as he sees it. Last week, Yehoshua delivered the message.

Five years ago, when Bennett entered politics, the dominant policy approach was two states for two peoples. That was the mantra. The fledgling politician introduced his concept, which at the time seemed divorced from reality and hopeless. In the meantime, things changed. The Arab world fell apart, Western Europe was weakened, the present Israeli government became something substantially different from the Netanyahu government that was in power between 2009 and 2013, and now, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. Bennett discerns a rare chance here and a potential that must be exploited.

Uncooperative dreams

After serving for eight months as a minister without portfolio, a period in which the summit of his accomplishments was his dealing with the affair of the Yemenite children who disappeared during in Israel’s early years, Tzachi Hanegbi is being appointed minister of regional cooperation. In May 2015, when Netanyahu formed his new government, he effectively placed that portfolio – the most fictitious one that exists – in the hands of one of Likud’s most ridiculous figures, MK Ayoub Kara (the fellow who declared that the lethal earthquake in Italy this autumn was a consequence of the UNESCO resolution that denied a special connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount). Kara’s appointment then, as deputy minister in charge of regional cooperation, showed the importance Netanyahu attaches to the ministry.

Since being coopted to the government, Hanegbi had been hoping to get an operative portfolio. His dream: the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu holds in addition to foreign affairs. Alas, all the services he’s rendered the prime minister, all the humiliations and kowtowing and flattering interviews, were of no avail. The veteran politico, who’s been an MK for 30 years and has served as minister of justice, public security, health and environmental quality, will have to make do with a fancy but empty title.

And we still haven’t heard what Kara has to say about being stripped of the status he bragged about, as “deputy minister with ministerial status.”

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2011. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Park and ride

A few months ago, this column noted that former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was considering the possibility of joining Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party on the eve of the next elections as its candidate for defense minister. Well, as the saying goes, it was true at the time.

Ashkenazi has changed his tune. Yesh Atid, which is polling 25 to 27 seats in the surveys, is no more than a “parking lot,” according to Ashkenazi. The many new voters it’s attracting in the polls see Lapid and his party as a temporary haven for their frustration and disappointment with MK Herzog. They are fickle, shifting sands. They can’t be counted on, Ashkenazi is telling his interlocutors.

He now wants to hook up with a “group” that will include Lapid, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and possibly former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. According to Ashkenazi, only an attractive lineup of that ilk is capable of generating a big bang in Israeli politics. He’s not seeking to lead that hypothetical party – he’s been weaned of that childish ambition – or even to be second on its slate. Nor will he insist on getting the defense portfolio. What’s crucial, he believes, is to get rid of Netanyahu. To expel him again from the Balfour Street residence just like that, with his belongings.

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