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Netanyahu's Morning-after Bill

How the Israeli prime minister cracked the Druze hitch in his otherwise perfect nation-state law plan

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu the magician makes a Druze man levitate.
IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Early this week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grasped the true scale of the Druze community’s opposition to the nation-state law, he marked Wednesday evening, ahead of the television newscasts, as his deadline: the last chance to defuse the bomb.

The job had to be done 72 hours before the protest rally set for Saturday evening in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, which Netanyahu and his associates saw as a strategic threat. The timing was critical: He had to make his move before the volatile Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem on Thursday, and before the advent of Shabbat, when it would be too late and the rally would blow up in his face.

The planned speeches at the event by two senior “exes” – former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former Mossad director Tamir Pardo – horrified the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The permanent atmosphere of paranoia there led Netanyahu and his staff to contemplate disastrous realms: The rally could spark the political movement they fear so much.

Even as he was holding talks with Druze leaders and MKs, the premier’s bureau received reports of a possible revolt: a mass resignation from the IDF whose buds were already visible, and a refusal to serve. At the beginning of the week, an MK who’s close to Netanyahu attended an event in the northern Druze town of Julis, which drew some 1,200 residents. The lawmaker reported that “fumes of fuel” could be felt in the air. One match and Allah yustur – God help us. That match could be the rally.

All in all, however, the saga of the nation-state law is a political bonanza for Netanyahu. Public support for it extends beyond the borders of the right-wing camp. The fierce resistance by the opposition is only helping him, as always. It sharpens the debate between right and left, and redraws the “us” and the “them,” the former being those who love the country and the latter, its denigrators. This is one arena where Bibi always wins.

He has been looking for new and effective weaponry to use in the approaching election campaign. The groundless, unnecessary and harmful law turned out to be a real jackpot, and a double-barreled cannon – against Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), and against the left and the Arabs. Bibi did not foresee or deploy for the painful reaction of the Druze. A decades-old abscess burst.

In the eyes of Netanyahu and his aides, one member of the Druze community said to me this week, we and the Arabs – who don’t serve in the army and aren’t killed or wounded in the line of duty – are the same: second-class “minorities,” grade B produce. Many of his friends expressed similar sentiments. The real insult was not their exclusion from the Jewish tribe but their inclusion in one package with Muslim Arabs. They now realize they will never get to be part of the majority in this country.

Netanyahu received the information that was steadily flowing in and analyzed it, and on Wednesday evening the sophisticated machine spewed out the remedy: Additional financial benefits for those who serve in the security forces; a promise to support and strengthen Druze locales and to find solutions for housing shortages there; enactment of a Basic Law “to recognize the contribution of those who participate in the defense of the country”; and, of course – how could it be otherwise? – establishment of a ministerial committee to oversee the whole plan.

Bottom line: If all those promises are fulfilled – a big “if,” as significant budgeting is involved – the Druze will be granted a status superior to that of other minorities that do not perform military service. Money, and lots of it, plus a declarative law, and everything will be hunky-dory.

For her part, newly crowned opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni hurried to Julis and spoke about the Declaration of Independence, about equality and about values, all of which is wonderful, marvelous. Except that she has no money to offer.

Ironically, the mobilization on behalf of the Druze by her and her opposition colleagues has created a situation in which discrimination between Jews and Arabs – and between all those who serve in the IDF and those who don’t – has been augmented. That wasn’t what she intended ... but oops! That’s what happened. Once the Druze issue is resolved, any continued opposition to and activity against the nation-state law will look like a way of trying to side with the Arabs. Netanyahu can’t wait.

And there’s also the issue of the legislation about induction of the ultra-Orthodox. That bomb continues to tick, but it might end up being postponed until after the next election. Still, how is it possible to deal with the Druze problem without clearing the table permanently on the broader issue?

The vast majority of the Haredim, of course, don’t serve. Bibi’s new deal with the Druze will push them to the margins economically, too, along with the Arabs. The Haredim will demand suitable compensation. He will submit and accede. What will remain of the budget? And what will the position on all this be of the finance minister, the current one and the next one?

Yes, the bomb-disposal expert is at it again. The rally will take place in Tel Aviv, but instead of a protest it will be a show of solidarity with the Druze. True, not every member of the Druze community is happy with the result, but the monolithic front that they had presented had already fallen apart on Wednesday evening. Now they’ll argue among themselves. It will be an internal issue that will quickly become boring and uninteresting. And the dog days of August are here. Who has the strength for all this?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: rami shllush

Incite and rule

Like a person who had a hard day at work and beats his kids when he gets home, Netanyahu this week laid into his favorite scapegoat: the New Israel Fund. He’ll always have it to savage and accuse falsely. And so, as he was being smashed against the rocks of the domestic and international damage the nation-state law was causing, he (through his aides, of course) found a pretext for another round of incitement.

On his official, popular Facebook page, he shared two sensational findings. The first came from the Im Tirtzu organization, according to which the NIF donated some 310 million shekels (about $78 million) to “activity against IDF soldiers.”

Nonsense. If you add up all the donations the NGO transferred to human rights organizations in Israel over the past decade, you’ll barely reach that amount. What exactly is the problem here? The problem is that the beneficiaries are groups that oppose Netanyahu and the right-wing government. Which is why it’s considered “anti-Israeli” activity.

The second was a segment from the Channel 20 program of Shimon Riklin and Erel Segal, in which the NIF’s executive director in Israel, Mickey Gitzin, is heard explaining to the CEO of the NIF in the United States, Daniel Sokatch, what the Israeli branch is doing in the wake of passage of the nation-state law.

The segment was posted on the NIF’s official Facebook page and is available to everyone to listen to. Gitzin’s presentation details NIF activists’ mode of operation against the legislation: 1. Getting individuals and groups to speak out against it; 2. Helping to organize demonstrations; 3. Recruiting academics and getting them to sign petitions; and 4. Petitioning the High Court of Justice, once the law goes into effect.

It’s all legal, legitimate, accepted behavior. It’s the routine activity of every public political and ideological body, left or right, that seeks to influence legislation and discourse in Israel. It has a name. What is it? Gosh, I can’t remember. Oh, yes: democracy.

Netanyahu shared the post enthusiastically. In fact, he also copied the Riklin-Segal headline: “The staged method for intervening in Israeli policy.”

Those words are fraught, as we know. The staged plan, or the method of “the stages,” is a notorious term from the 1970s and ‘80s. It refers to the pre-Oslo plan of the Palestine Liberation Organization to establish a Palestinian entity in all parts of Israel through an armed struggle and other means. At the time, no term was more reviled and more threatening. When the prime minister uses it to describe the activity of a civic organization that objects to his policy, he is implicitly comparing it to a terrorist organization that is out to liquidate Israel.

Well, the fallout wasn’t long in coming, and included a Facebook post by a vile creature who described how he would kick the bodies of executed NIF staff out of a plane into the sea. The NGO filed a complaint with the police against the person behind the post for incitement to murder, but he’s only the rotten fruit that grew on the toxic tree that will go on sprouting this evil.

The heads of the NIF know that in any upcoming election campaign they will be targeted, together with the media and the left, and God help us all.

MK Eitan Broshi.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

With friends like this

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay planned a relaxing “roots” trip to Morocco, where his parents were born. But instead of relaxation he got flames that pursued him to the Maghreb and gave him no respite. It began with the announcement of MK Zouheir Bahloul that he was resigning from the Knesset to protest the nation-state law. Then, when that dust settled, the episode involving MK Eitan Broshi erupted anew and wrecked the rest of his vacation.

If there’s one lesson Gabbay learned, it’s that the leader of an Israeli political party can’t afford to absent himself from the country for two weeks. Especially when the party is Zionist Union, with its majority Labor component, which is being put through the grinder in the polls every week. In his/their situation, even a long weekend is a luxury.

In a phone call from Marrakesh, Gabbay didn’t retract the term “sex offender,” which he attached in the plural and implicitly, to MK Broshi, whom he suspended from party activity. But it was fairly clear that he wouldn’t use the term again: On Wednesday, Broshi slapped him with a 300,000-shekel ($81,600) libel suit in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court. Legally speaking, as of now, Gabbay has no case. Broshi was never convicted and was in fact never charged with a sex offense. Besides which, what is permitted to Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich – whose email box has been filling up with disturbing, and in some cases (allegedly) hair-raising stories involving Broshi – is forbidden to a party leader: He cannot tweet offhandedly from some colorful alley somewhere.

On the other hand, no manual has yet been written for this kind of complex situation. Regardless of what Gabbay did or said, he would have taken flak from one of the sides, as happened after the case last month of Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin. At that time, female activists in the party and outside it castigated him for not punishing Broshi (who had touched Nahmias-Verbin on the buttocks) and perhaps also demanding his resignation, rather than making do with a mere reprimand.

The time has come to address this issue. The lawsuit states, in slippery language, that at a meeting at Kibbutz Be’eri around three weeks ago, “a situation was created, to the plaintiff’s great regret, that should not have happened, in which the plaintiff touched the bottom of the MK After he grasped the mistake, the plaintiff assumed responsibility and apologized The MK accepted the sincere apology.” Every sentence here would have a hard time passing a polygraph test. “A situation was created”? It sounds as though Broshi slipped on a banana peel and his hands, flailing for something to grab onto, found, by mischance, Nahmias-Verbin’s rear.

Not exactly. Here’s the account she gave her friends: She wanted to leave the event and as she passed between the crowded rows of chairs, she felt a sharp blow on her posterior. A “flick,” in her word.

Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

At the end of the meeting, she went over to Broshi in a fury and demanded that he apologize. He turned his back on her and walked off. Later, she approached him again and asked for an apology. Again, according to Nahmias-Verbin, he showed her his back. Only after MK Yoel Hasson, chairman of the Labor faction, spoke to him and delivered a trenchant message from Gabbay, did Broshi “grasp the mistake.”

He called her a few times. She ignored his calls. A few days later, she agreed to hear him out, in the Knesset. He asked her to forgive him, said it was a “friendly act” that had been misunderstood. She answered with heartfelt rage: “What made you think you could do that? It’s a total crossing of the lines. What would you say if someone did that to your daughters?” He was amused. “It’s like I’m passing between the seats in the Knesset and I pat you on the head,” he said. To which she replied, “Really, cut it out. I feel like a dog.”

Afterward, in the midst of a marathon debate in the Knesset chamber, he was caught by the cameras of the Knesset Channel, of blessed memory, going over and speaking with her. It looked as if he was apologizing again. Absolutely not. He wanted to make sure that her decision to say nothing was still in force and that she didn’t intend to discuss his behavior with the press. If she had done so then, or were to do so today, his political career would be sealed.

Refresher course

Gabbay saw the whole kibbutz incident. “It wasn’t a touch, it was a smack. A strong smack. But the moment Ayelet accepted his apology and said she didn’t want to ruin his life, I didn’t want to be nasty.”

As for the woman who says she was sexually harassed by Broshi in an elevator 15 years ago: Gabbay claims – contrary to the allegation of the MK’s lawyer that the Labor leader didn’t interest himself in Broshi’s version of events before he passed judgment and suspended him from the party’s institutions, via Twitter – that he did in fact speak to Broshi. Not once, but twice.

The first time was immediately after the report by Akiva Novick on Channel 10 on Sunday. The second time was about an hour after Gabbay’s aides ascertained that the director of the earlier event where whatever happened, happened, confirmed that the assaulted woman had in fact complained to him in real time and that he had authenticated the complaint and had reprimanded Broshi.

“He didn’t deny it totally,” Gabbay noted. “He said he doesn’t remember, that 15 years had passed.” The sweeping denial, in the it-never-happened mode, was born after the lawyer entered the picture.

Broshi hasn’t yet seen fit to go on camera and defend himself in person. He’s sending his lawyer, Ilan Bombach, to the radio and TV stations to do that as best he can. Maybe the programs’ editors should make the extensive airtime they’re granting to someone who’s alleged to have committed the serious offense of sexual assault conditional on his deigning to reply to questions directly?

It’s cowardly and brazen to hide behind the robe of a lawyer/PR person. An innocent person who is being falsely accused should want to appear before the voters who sent him to the legislature and are paying his salary – and refute the allegations.

On this un-festive occasion, I also asked Gabbay about his cool and disinterested reaction to the resignation announcement of MK Bahloul last Saturday. He chose to toe the line with Naftali Bennett, who said, in so many words: Good riddance.

“People complained that I didn’t express regret,” he replied. “I am not a hypocrite. I don’t express regret when I don’t feel regret. I found no reason to be sorry about his resignation. In the past year I didn’t see that he did anything good in the Knesset other than compete with the members of the Joint List in extremist comments. That’s not what the members of our party are looking for in their Arab representative.”

About Broshi’s parliamentary work, however, Gabbay has only good things to say. “He was a very effective, active MK. He worked for his constituency. Never mind, the next slate will be refreshed,” he said. But the next slate, according to the latest polls, will be short and shrunken, and not necessarily enriched with new faces. Most of the old faces aren’t sleeping well at night, either.

Livni’s appointment as opposition leader didn’t foment the hoped-for turnabout in the polls. Twelve seats for Zionist Union, according to a Walla News poll this week. I asked Gabbay if he’s considering asking for political asylum in Morocco. He still has a sense of humor. No need to ask for it, he replied. In Morocco you can get citizenship from four generations back.”

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