Analysis |

The Week Israelis Felt Invincible

In fact, the entire month has been merry for Netanyahu, thanks in no small part to his mega-powerful friend in the White House. But dark clouds continue to gather

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu do a chicken dance a-la Netta Barzilai, Israel's Eurovision winner.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

An unfamiliar surrealistic atmosphere prevailed this week in Israel. Many felt it but didn’t quite know how to define it. It was a pleasant, sort of ticklish feeling, but at the same time false and deceptive, of our being a superpower with tremendous force and unlimited abilities.

Some likened it to the frame of mind that seized the country following the Six-Day War, in the run-up to the Yom Kippur debacle. We are invincible. Who can touch us? They’re deterred, frightened and will think very carefully before messing with us.

The events of May, described in recent weeks as having the potential to spark a general regional conflagration, ended in a total knockout. In a brief period, Israel chalked up a series of military and intelligence achievements and successes: the revelation of the stolen Iranian nuclear-project archive; the broad aerial offensive in Syria that devastated Iranian infrastructures there; the suppression of the disturbances along the border with the Gaza Strip, which ended earlier than expected, with zero losses or damage to Israel; the ongoing quiet in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and of course the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, with all the who’s who, the son-in-law, the daughter and representatives of the Christian and Jewish holy spirits.

Twice we whacked the Iranians, without having to pay for it. We perpetrated a bloodbath in Gaza – more than 100 killed and thousands wounded since the start of the fence protests on March 30, without Hamas firing so much as one rocket at us (as these lines are being written).

Even those who were appalled at the number of Palestinian fatalities have to admit that a different scenario – the breaching of the fence and the abduction of a soldier, an explosive device going off, penetration of an Israeli community or an attack on civilians – would have been a thousand times worse.

The fact that Donald Trump, a kind of mega-powerful world bully, is ensconced in the White House and signaling to the world that as far as he’s concerned Israel is incapable of making mistakes and can do no wrong, is a tremendous boon.

With an ally like that on Israel’s side, it’s no wonder the Europeans made do with lame condemnations, that Egypt is behaving like a diligent, efficient branch of the Israeli Defense Ministry, and that the Gulf states can hardly suppress their delight at the battering sustained by Hamas.

In this state of affairs, which is liable to slide into euphoria, it’s easy to go overboard. A political source who met this week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came away with the impression that the PM is actually “not getting carried away with himself.” He’s very pleased, the source said, but seems to have both feet planted firmly on the ground. I asked whether Netanyahu is an imperialistic mood. My interlocutor replied in the negative. I wondered about an early election – the only subject of discussion in the coalition, although there are no concrete indications that one is in the offing. “He says he has no such intention,” the source said.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner pose for a selfie during the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.Credit: Kobi Gidon

Everything written here last week about Netanyahu’s glory days is even more relevant this week. If he could just stop the clock and freeze time on this day, May 18, before something goes awry, the skies turn gray and police investigators return to his residence. Or before the court considers, once more, in another month, a request to lift the gag orders on the incriminating testimonies of Nir Hefetz, Ari Harow and Shlomo Filber – confidants who crossed the lines and became state’s witnesses in Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

Initial signals of an impending change in the national agenda were seen in the evening newscasts on Wednesday. Hefetz, Netanyahu’s former strategic adviser, was reported to have provided the police with new recordings of the prime minister, which necessitate another interrogation under caution in Case 2000, which involves Netanyahu’s conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, on the fate of the freebie paper Israel Hayom.

Apropos the Bibipaper, as Israel Hayom has been dubbed, and in particular its casino-tycoon owner Sheldon Adelson – the heads of the Republican Jewish Coalition in the United States, who came to Israel for the embassy opening, held a celebratory dinner in Jerusalem on Sunday evening. One guest couldn’t help noticing that in Adelson’s speech, in which he praised a host of people who contributed to realizing the age-old diplomatic dream, he failed to mention one name: Benjamin Netanyahu.

That was not the only blatant omission involving the premier. On the day of the embassy event, Adelson’s wife, Miriam, published a lengthy article on Israel Hayom’s front page, titled “A great day for Israel and America.” She heaped praise on “our president” Donald Trump, described him as the successor to Harry Truman, who recognized Israel in 1948, and lauded him for making the United States a beacon of world morality (!) and courage, etc. But again, oy, one name didn’t appear in the article. Yes, that one.

Restive Regev

In the meantime, the only war that erupted this week around here was between Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, both from Likud, over who will manage the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Jerusalem. Regev launched her assault even before Netta Barzilai left the stage in Lisbon, informing the jubilant nation that she was on the case. Except that she isn’t.

Guatemala President Jimmy Morales speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara ahead of the dedication ceremony of the Guatemala Embassy in Jerusalem, May 16, 2018. Credit: Ronen Zvulun/AP

The constitution of the European Union states that responsibility for overseeing the event and its broadcast are exclusively in the hands of the public broadcasting authority in the host country. Kan, the new Israeli broadcasting corporation, falls under Kara’s responsibility; the Culture Ministry has nothing to do with it. But Regev’s hunger for territory, publicity and control knows no bounds. Much like her close girlfriend from Balfour Street, who was caught this week insinuating herself vulgarly into a joint photo of her hubby and the president of Guatemala, at the modest ceremony in which the embassy of that country was inaugurated in Jerusalem.

And if we’re already on the subject of imperialism and territorial imperatives: Over a week ago, at the height of the Israel-Iran tension, Regev popped up at a meeting of the security cabinet, to which she’d been invited by the prime minister – the most recent, at least for the time being, in a series of Likud ministers who are close to the boss and have become more or less permanent guests in that forum.

It started with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was appointed a permanent observer in security cabinet meetings after the coalition was formed. Then Tzachi Hanegbi, the regional cooperation minister, started to attend. Next in line was Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s political-coalition strongman. And three weeks ago (just by chance, after the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony in which Regev delivered the goods in full to Bibi and Sara), it was her turn to get a coveted invite to the supposedly secret society.

As has already been seen elsewhere, liberated territory will not be returned: After Regev was invited twice, maybe thrice, it’s inconceivable she won’t be invited again. That would be a public affront.

The permanent members of the security cabinet, by dint of their ministerial or party-leadership posts, don’t dare say a word to Netanyahu. Among themselves, they are embittered about the increasing cheapening of the country’s most important security body. They see the premier using their cabinet as a consolation prize or as a political payoff, and are silent.

Who’s next, they wonder. Ayoub Kara? The Druze in Syria are in distress, after all. Their brethren in the roiling Golan Heights will not calm down until this Druze minister – who is frequently embroiled in screw-ups and embarrassments – takes his deserved place at the table of the decision makers.

Prayer meeting

President Reuven Rivlin tells a story about how, years ago, when he was Speaker of the Knesset, he met former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton asked, “If you were an American, which party would you vote for?”

“For the Republicans, of course,” Rivlin replied. Clinton was taken aback. “Really? With your liberal and humanitarian views? You’re a Democrat in your blood.”

“Look here, Mr. President,” Rivlin said. “I remember your saying that when your pastor was on his deathbed, he asked you to protect Israel always. You promised to do that. That’s wonderful and touching, but what would happen to us if the pastor had returned to you in a dream and told you to stop siding with us?”

It would be interesting to know what Rivlin thought on Monday afternoon at the religious, black-skullcap-rife ceremony, which smacked of a Diaspora mentality and embraced messianism, in the Arnona neighborhood of West Jerusalem, the new home of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. And what he thought about how the face of the Republican Party, once the bastion of political secularity as opposed to its Democratic sister, has changed unrecognizably.

Rivlin, like others, quoted Scripture, but he, at least, mentioned – and was the only one who did – the Democratic Party, whose presidents, notably Barack Obama and Clinton, aided Israel infinitely more, with weapons, intelligence, diplomacy, with the 2015 memorandum of understandings, than the act of moving the embassy did.

The ceremony itself was pretty much a microcosm of American and Israeli politics. Two leaders, both totally secular and absolute atheists, are in the firm grasp of the right wing in their countries.

The evangelicals, Donald Trump’s solid electoral base, effectively took over the embassy event. Pastor Robert Jeffress – a Trump supporter, racist, anti-Semite, abhorrer of every religion that is not Christianity, and someone who once wished for the Jews to be fried in the fires of hell – was invited by the (Jewish) ambassador, David Friedman, to recite a prayer. Of all the preachers in America, no more positive fellow could be found than this wacko, who shut his eyes in affected ecstasy and delivered his verses heavenward, direct to the Almighty.

The way the ceremony, which was organized by the American embassy, was conducted turned the stomach of secular invitees but not only of them: Some religiously observant participants also thought that the religious-nationalist-mystical tone exceeded good taste. “I felt like I was at church in a Midwestern town,” one of them told me. “I was glad when it ended.”

Yair Lapid addresses his Yesh Atid faction.Credit: Emil salman

New horizon

This is not an easy time for MK Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party. He seems to be in free fall. He probably feels a little like the Cypriot singer whom the surveys predicted would win the Eurovision Song Contest, until reality intervened. Lapid’s series of zigzags, attesting to hysteria and irrationality, have made him the laughingstock of the social networks.

Last week, he switched from one strongly held opinion to the opposite strongly held opinion within hours – with regard to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran. From being against to being for, instantaneously.

This week, after yet another show of cursing and bad-mouthing, with anti-Semitic overtones, from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in response to the fatal casualties in the Gaza Strip, Lapid tweeted: “The conciliation agreement that Netanyahu signed with them [Turkey] was a mistake. You don’t reconcile with an anti-Semite like Erdogan.”

But Twitter doesn’t forget (and doesn’t forgive). Lapid’s tweet from June 2016, following the agreement with the Turks, was immediately retrieved. As part of that accord, Israel paid Turkey about $21 million in compensation, for families whose members were killed aboard the Marmara, a ship that participated in the ill-fated 2010 Gaza flotilla.

“The agreement with Turkey is hard to digest,” Lapid wrote two years ago. “There’s what we all feel and there’s the national and security interest, and the national interest takes precedence.” So what’s changed since then, other than the fact that Yesh Atid has taken a nosedive in the polls, from a projected 24-25 Knesset seats two months ago, to 17-18 today? The “national and security interest” remains intact today. The conciliation agreement was not a “mistake.” The Turks promised – and kept their promise – not to file charges internationally against Israeli soldiers involved in the raid on the Marmara. Turkey transports oil to Israel from countries of the former Soviet Union; Turkish intelligence cooperates with its Israeli counterpart in thwarting attacks on Israeli targets; and there are also flourishing commercial relations that benefit both countries.

So where is the “mistake”? Lapid isn’t bothering to explain. He’s making do with a philosophical, transparent tweet aimed at the feelings of insult and rage that many Israelis have for Erdogan. He didn’t say, “I was wrong when I supported the agreement.” Because he’s one of those who’s never wrong. Just like his ‘bro in the art of spins and shticks, Netanyahu.

Tough times, indeed. But there’s a horizon. The inherently fluid agenda will shift rapidly. Not only will the corruption and interrogations of Netanyahu come back to dominate the day: With a bit of luck and divine intervention, the state-religion issue – in the form of the contentious draft bill, which seeks to protect ultra-Orthodox Israelis from mandatory conscription – which is Yesh Atid’s electoral gold mine, will also resurface.

In fact, a first indication of this emerged Wednesday, after the dust, fire and smoke in the south had settled. The two leaders of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (Agudat Hatorah) and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah), fired off an ultimatum to Netanyahu: If the Haredi-draft bill is not passed by the end of the Knesset’s summer session (in early August), they are threatening to pull their joint party, United Torah Judaism, out of the coalition.

For the legislation to be enacted by the specified date, the coalition will have to start preparing the law already next week. But Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) is waiting for the report being drawn up by a committee in his ministry, which is working on changes in the text of the legislation. He’ll get the report in two or three weeks. He believes it will be possible to get the political sides to accept its terms.

The coalition partners were surprised at the sharp language of the letter sent by the two Haredi politicians, who in private conversations continue to insist that they have no desire for an early election. Yet the immediate suspicion is that behind the letter is a scheme to bring about just such an election. They’re a pair of experienced manipulators. What was the rush in sending the letter this week? They could have waited until next week, after the Shavuot holiday.

If Netanyahu wants an election in early September, before the attorney general makes initial decisions in the cases against him, he has to dissolve the Knesset at the end of this month at the latest. The draft law could act as a fine excuse, as it almost did last March. At that time he was persuaded to back off, though now it’s said he regrets doing so, and again we’re embroiled in a familiar furor.

Respectfully yours

On Monday, when the U.S. Embassy was inaugurated, another American organization, the Orthodox Union, held a breakfast in a Jerusalem hotel. A few members of the American delegation, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, were there, along with U.S. Ambassador Friedman, a few Israeli ministers, including Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Zeev Elkin, and a large number of MKs.

The senior U.S. guests and the ministers were seated at the head table, at the front of the hall. Bennett entered and took his place, and then noticed that opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union-Labor) was sitting at a side table. That upset him. We’ve already seen that he has flashes of statesmanlike behavior, as in his speech at the Israel Prize ceremony.

People noticed that the education minister got up, went over to the organizers and exchanged a few words with them. A minute later, he went to Herzog and asked him to move to the head table. Herzog was surprised and grateful. “I was seated at a forward table but at the side,” he noted, “next to Miriam Peretz” (who a few weeks earlier was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in strengthening the Jewish-Israeli spirit). “But Naftali made a fine gesture. Everyone in the room saw that he was going out of his way for me.”

I told Bennett that I was deeply touched. He didn’t appreciate the implicit sarcasm. “Bougie is a good man,” he said, using Herzog’s nickname. “He serves as the leader of the opposition in Israel. He deserved to be treated in a dignified manner.”

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