Analysis |

The Hamas Talks That Silenced Netanyahu's Twitter Account

While Netanyahu and Lieberman pretended like the Hamas talks didn't happen, Bennett rallied for war

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennett, in military uniform, sit around under a tank.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

A war that’s averted at the last minute isn’t news – like a “near-collision” between two planes in midair – an event that usually gets a minute at the tail end of the newscast. In the summer of 2018, the lives of dozens of soldiers and civilians were spared. Their time may come in another year, two years or three. But today and tomorrow they’re here. Their families weren’t shattered, graves weren’t dug, eulogies were not delivered.

What’s been said of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu many times in the past remains true today: He doesn’t rush to send soldiers into war, certainly a war that’s unnecessary and pointless and after which we will only return to square one. He’s also succeeded in recruiting to this judicious and mature policy of containment a defense minister who took over that portfolio two years ago in the guise of James Bond, Rambo and Conan the Barbarian.

The size and bitterness of the pill that Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman had to swallow for negotiating with Hamas, with vigorous Egyptian mediation, on the terms of an agreement or “arrangement,” are beyond measure. Netanyahu already knows the feeling, going back to the deal that brought about the release of Gilad Shalit. For Lieberman, it was a new experience. A rite of passage.

The two gentlemen at the top processed the difficulty in different ways. The former simply went mute and disappeared, fearing for the effect on his electoral base. The prime minister didn’t tweet, didn’t write a post, didn’t upload a clip. Zilch. He wasn’t there. It’s as though, if he didn’t comment on it in his voice, it didn’t happen.

Lieberman chose the sweeping-denial option: We didn’t enter into an agreement with Hamas, we didn’t agree to quiet in return for quiet, there is no cease-fire, and the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing for the passage of goods and the extension of the fishing zone for Gazans are not an Israeli response to the worst four days in the area around Gaza since last March 30. After all, if it sounds like a negotiation, smells like a negotiation, and concludes like a negotiation, it’s a negotiation, isn’t it? No! No way! What a ridiculous suggestion!

Questions on this subject shattered time and again on the rock of his automatic replies. He was like a boy who’s caught alone in the room, holding a soccer ball, with a broken vase on the floor, who insists: It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!

The political right is angry and feels betrayed. Its voice is being articulated by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi). The response to more than 130 days of incendiary balloons and kites, tens of thousands of dunams of scorched earth, mass demonstrations along the fence and hundreds of rockets fired at the communities in the “Gaza envelope” was a series of benefits and easing of restrictions. Bennett wanted to get the whole thing over with, and now. He submitted to the security cabinet a plan to topple Hamas without the need for the Israeli army to enter the Gaza Strip.

His plan refers to “fragmentalizing” the Strip mercilessly. If so far the Israel Defense Forces have used 5 percent out of 100 percent total capabilities, Bennett’s plan would unleash the whole 100 percent in the IDF arsenal. After that, Hamas will be a thing of the past. It’s doubtful that much would remain of Gaza either.

After that, though, he would be ready to give the Gazans half the kingdom and more: a seaport, factories, open crossings, whatever economic aid is needed. Netanyahu and Lieberman rejected the plan outright. Bennett believes the day will come when it will be taken out of the drawer. By his thinking, the time for decisive action is now, before Hamas can rearm and rebuild its strength. Netanyahu and Lieberman chose the second path. The education minister sees a political opportunity in this.

In the meantime, he’s squabbling publicly with Lieberman, accusing him of yielding to terror, of rewarding Hamas. He is sparing Netanyahu his wrath. Bennett is looking toward the next government. He will demand the defense portfolio, which was promised him on the eve of the last election. To that end he’s busy smashing the militant, aggressive, tough image (now retired) of the serving minister.

Netanyahu and Lieberman in June 2018.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Hit list

The Labor Party is facing one of the most brutal primary seasons in its history. About half of its 19 current MKs (out of Zionist Union’s total of 24 MKs, the others being from Hatnuah) will not be around to take the oath of allegiance to the State of Israel and its laws in the next Knesset – in light of the gloomy forecasts of how the party will fare in the next election, the promise of places on the slate to MK Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party and the places that Labor leader Avi Gabbay is setting aside for his personal choices on the slate.

And, for the first time, the bloodbath that will encompass those who compete in the primary will be further upended by a new element. Gabbay recently told confidants that he intends to do something that none of his predecessors have dared do: He will publish a list of candidates he recommends and will call on party members to tick their names on the primary list.

Leaders of democratic parties, not just Labor, customarily assist those whom they favor by way of discreet, subtle means and by a kind of wink in their direction or through emissaries. It’s always been that way. When the leader is asked about his personal preferences, he will always come up with an evasive reply that purports to reflect objectivity, while behind the scenes he’s involved in intensive stirring of the pot.

But no longer, it seems. The widespread custom among heads of party branches, central activists and leaders of groups – to distribute a list of recommended candidates whose mirror image is effectively a hit list – will become official.

No words suffice to describe the effect this will have on candidates in the primary. Some of them – they know who they are – who are reading about this for the first time here, will likely have trouble sleeping in the period ahead. For others – they also know who they are – it will bring a smile to their face.

My list, Gabbay said this week in an internal conversation, will not be made up of my friends or confidants. There will be people, veterans and newcomers, about whose ability and desire to work as a team and demonstrate collegiality there is no doubt. That’s what’s missing in the Knesset faction today. Teamwork, a team spirit. That’s what the party faithful are always complaining about – an absence of internal cohesion.

I asked Gabbay if this is really his intention. He confirmed that it is. “I know it’s a big drama,” he said. He noted that he could have gone a different route, sent his aides into action, had his photo taken with whomever, leaked messages to the media from “circles close to the chairman,” issued remarks of support or reservations about one candidate or another. That’s not his thing. Everything will be aboveboard, without subterfuge. As party chairman, he thinks it’s his obligation to speak his mind to members, as a recipe for success in the election and for the benefit of the teamwork to follow.

He knows he’s in for savage attacks. He’ll be accused of forging cliques, settling accounts, seeking revenge and changing the time-tested rules of the game. That’s why he was elected, to do thing differently.

Last call

The person who once supported Gabbay and described him as the nonpareil candidate for prime minister is shifting into higher gear ahead of the possibility that the general election will be moved up.

Ehud Barak is everywhere: on Facebook, on Twitter and in the media. His attacks on Netanyahu are becoming increasingly savage. He’s employing vulgar language, insulting images, and sometimes hitting below the belt. In interviews he seethes and froths, in more of a monologue than a dialogue. His references and allusions make reference to the days preceding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995.

“A direct line connects Bibi’s speech back then, in Zion Square; his betrayal of the IDF’s values in the [Elor] Azaria episode; and his shameful silence today in the matter of Im Tirzu against Yair Golan” – referring to a campaign by an ultranationalist organization against deputy chief of staff Golan’s possible appointment as the next chief of staff. “Aalek [so-called] patriot,” he tweeted this week.

Of late he’s begun to recall, seemingly by the way, two indisputable facts: 1. He’s the only one ever to defeat Netanyahu in an election (in 1999); and, 2. He’s the only person in the political arena with the experience and the security-diplomatic qualifications to place him in the prime minister’s league. Almost in the same breath he hurries to say that he has no interest in talking about himself and with the question of his return to political life.

The large number of trial balloons he’s floating could burn down an average jungle in Tanzania if incendiary devices were attached to them. The hints, the signals, the messages add up to a critical mass.

Something more was added to this activity during the week: a new WhatsApp group is making the rounds among Labor Party members and inviting them to join. Its name: Calling Ehud Barak. The visual element is a flattering picture of the person who’s doesn’t want to deal with any of this, and the caption states: Only Barak can defeat Netanyahu.

The group is headed by a businessman and party member whose name is not widely known. He supported Gabbay in the past. His WhatsApp announcement is everywhere. Labor MKs who meet activists are asked what they should do – join, express support or ignore it. In the meantime, dozens have already signed up.

Netanyahu meets with Druze representatives. Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Is there a Druze in the room?

On Monday, Netanyahu convened the “ministerial committee on the matter of the Druze, the Circassians and those from the population of minorities who serve in the security forces.” The committee had been cobbled together hastily, in despair, following the Druze protest against the Nation-State Law.

In the first meeting only five ministers (apart from the prime minister) showed up, out of 11 members. Netanyahu’s subsequent shaming of the absentees did the trick. This time, nine ministers came, accompanied by their directors-general, advisers and aides. The meeting didn’t last long. It addressed, according to the official communique, the “blockages” that “exist in the plan for the development and empowerment of the Druze and Circassian communities for the years 2016-2019.”

The chaos that characterizes the Prime Minister’s Office was apparent in this gathering, too. Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) was the first to notice that something didn’t make sense. “Why weren’t the heads of the Druze local authorities invited?” he wondered. “In our community we say, don’t ask the doctor what the illness is, ask the patient how he feels. They should have been here.”

The prime minister looked at his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, who has also been serving as director general of the PMO since the departure of Eli Groner. Horowitz shrugged. Netanyahu looked around the room frantically. Finally he spotted a Druze aide of one of the cabinet ministers. “Maybe you’ll tell us how you see the problems in the community,” he said to the embarrassed aide.

About 40 pairs of inquiring eyes were trained on the young man. After recovering from his shock, he gave a short survey of the well-known problems of his fellow Druze.

Following the meeting it was announced that the prime minister had instructed the acting director general to meet with the heads of the Druze and Circassian municipal authorities and to submit “practicable steps” to the committee. Netanyahu looked more calm than he had two and three weeks ago, at the height of the Druze protest. He knows that the worst of it is behind him, the dust has settled, the energies have faded.

There’s no one like him for fudging and dodging things and making them go away. Does anyone remember the agreement regarding the Polish law on Holocaust references? The country was in an uproar, the historians were outraged, the Holocaust survivors protested. On July 8, the prime minister told the cabinet that he was attentive to the criticism and “would give that expression.” The criticism vanished, the expression was not given and will not be given.

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