Coming Back From the White House, Netanyahu Is Left With a Bitter Aftertaste

Since Trump's Mideast plan was unveiled, Netanyahu has been trying to extract some kind of mini-annexation to appease his disappointed base

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Even in the messy Israeli reality in which major news stories that have dominated the headlines for days suddenly vanish (who’s Naama Issachar?), it’s still amazing how President Trump’s “deal of the century” has disappeared from public discourse. About a week ago, the American peace plan was talked about as a regional, diplomatic and particularly political earthquake, measuring at least 8 on the Richter scale – as dramatic a historical event as Israel’s declaration of independence, something that would not only redesign the Middle East but jump-start the tiring and dull Knesset election campaign.

Where is the plan today? Signs of it are bleeding in the West Bank and Jerusalem, in a series of shooting and ramming incidents that resumed over the past couple of days. Remnants of it are also apparent at the protest tent pitched by West Bank settler leaders across from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. How pitiful they are, sitting there in the cold, bitterly lamenting the annexation that was missed.

Netanyahu's 'annexation nation' is ready to strike again. Listen

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Upon their return from Washington, where they went so that, God forbid, Netanyahu wouldn’t for a moment forget who is really in charge here, these leaders were convinced that the annexation of the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea, Ma’ale Adumim and 150 other settlements was a done deal. A mere formality.

Israeli territorial concessions in the West Bank and recognition of a Palestinian state were a hard pill for the most ideological among them to swallow, but they consoled themselves with the knowledge that it wouldn’t happen. The Palestinians won’t go along with the plan and Bibi will drag things out, as usual.

Diplomatic sources say that Netanyahu is devoting hours every day, either directly with the Trump administration or through pressure from Trump’s Evangelical supporters for example, trying to extract something before the Israeli election, some kind of mini-annexation, anything to appease his disappointed base. That would spare him the image of a tireless master of spin and catapult him to the level of a Beginesque statesman who actually delivers rather than just promising.

Someone knowledgeable about what’s going on tells me that the prime minister is acting as if his entire life depended on it. Who knows? He might even be successful. He’s not one to give up.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is going into this third election campaign – which like the two last year, is a consequence of the prime minister’s legal situation – with two strategic goals: shaking its electorate from the apathy that kept many of them at home in September and recruiting new groups of voters from outside “the bloc.” That was the goal. And how would it be done? By planting the belief in the minds of the voters that this time around, there will be a decisive outcome, that the accursed stalemate will finally be broken.

But such a horizon is steadily receding. There is no sense (on either side) of a decisive outcome on March 2. Not only are there no signs that the voters who sat out the second round are set to head to the polls this time around – those six to seven Knesset seats that Likud + Kulanu + Feiglin lost between April and September. The evidence from the field indicates precisely the opposite.

Likudniks who were faithful to their party in the two prior rounds are admitting that that’s it. They’re finished. Not again.

That’s also apparent from internal polling. The (declared) readiness of Kahol Lavan voters to turn out to vote appears, for now at least, to be greater than that of Likud voters. In September, at more than a few “Likud” polling places, the turnout was significantly lower than the national average: 40-50 percent compared to 70 percent nationwide.

The goal that Netanyahu has set for his campaign headquarters is to increase the turnout at those polling places by at least 10 percent. But how can that be done? It seems as if all the rabbits have already been pulled out of the hat. Netanyahu visited Washington and then Moscow. Naama Issachar was freed from a Russian prison – and then from Sara Netanyahu’s iron grip. Then Sara and her husband went to Africa, but not before carefully coordinating their outfits: He wore a bright red tie to match her suit.

There was also an off-camera meeting with the leader of Sudan. And Uganda, which is not of interest to anyone, may soon open an embassy in Jerusalem (or just an empty interest section with a brass plate on the door).

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at State House in Entebbe, Uganda, Feb. 3, 2020. Credit: Stringer/Retuers

A plane takes off, a plane lands. The leader doesn’t rest for a second, frantically scurrying hither and yon, making declarations and promises and producing countless teasers, but the voters remain unfazed, indifferent, weary, shrugging their shoulders, refusing to get excited. It’s three weeks and three days until Election Day. There are better odds that the first case of coronavirus will be discovered in Israel than that the malignant stalemate between the two large parties and the two political blocs will be broken on March 2.

“If we carry out an annexation before the election, we could win, but that’s not certain,” a minister close to the prime minister told me. “If annexation remains nothing more than an election promise, we will lose for sure. The only question is how badly.”

Sting of the century?

The prevailing theory in Israeli circles is that the American flip-flop regarding the immediacy and scope of Israel’s annexation in the West Bank was the product of the arm wrestling between two political camps: that of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and influential adviser, and that of David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador, who supports the settlements and hates the left. According to the version taking root in Israel, there was a disagreement and Kushner’s camp prevailed.

The administration’s consent to a quick annexation, which had led Netanyahu to announce it to the press and to the settler leaders as soon as the Washington summit ended, was supplanted by what in the Middle East is called shwaya, shwaya – not so fast there, Jews. But the theory ignores an important factor in the equation: President Trump himself.

The prime minister takes his cue from the president, not from Friedman. Netanyahu would not have raised expectations so high on the Israeli right if he hadn’t had good reason to think he was on safe ground. After all, Netanyahu sat with Trump twice, and he has a good command of English – better even than the president’s. Netanyahu understood whatever was said to him.

An alternative explanation

A diplomatic source offered an alternative explanation this week for the (apparent) American about-face: that Trump, Kushner, Friedman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo worked together as a coordinated task force rather than as soloists or separate space capsules unconnected to the mother ship. That the conflicting messages that they outwardly conveyed were designed to accomplish a clear two-pronged objective: 1. Reducing Arab opposition to the plan to a minimum; 2. Increasing Israeli support for it, from the left and the right, to the maximum.

They told everyone exactly what they each wanted to hear: Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz was explicitly told that everything would be put off until after the election and that not a single hilltop would be annexed without America’s consent and approval. He was asked to keep it secret after his meeting with Trump, and he did.

The Gulf states were told that Netanyahu was not given a blank check to go wild, massively extending Israeli sovereignty as soon as he returned to Israel. Not at all, and they would do well ignoring what they heard from him. That explains the tepid pan-Arab backlash over the plan, which was not roundly condemned in the days immediately following. To the Israeli right, there was the implication, or more than an implication, that major annexation was a story separate from consent to a Palestinian state, and that there was no connection between the two provisions of the plan.

Kushner was put in charge of conveying the reassuring message to the Arab world. Friedman’s audience was the right-wing media in Israel. to which he plied a messianic, biblical message on the elimination of the 1967 border and annexation in the blink of an eye that would totally wipe out any Palestinian readiness to even begin negotiations over the deal.

The administration did not really retreat from its position, the source claimed. This was what it was aiming for from the beginning. After all, it’s not reasonable to assume that any American ambassador, not even one as extreme as Friedman, would pursue an independent policy that was 180 degrees removed from that of the president who appointed him. American diplomacy has a long tradition and that’s not how it approaches things. If Friedman had conducted himself that way, he may not have remained as ambassador.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a conference in Jerusalem, Jan. 8, 2020Credit: Ronen Zvulun

A lesson in modesty is in order here: the Israeli tendency is to ascribe total brilliance and sophistication to ourselves and amateurism and stupidity to the Trump White House. Maybe the time has come for a new mind-set on this. The explanation provided by Netanyahu to West Bank settlement mayors on Wednesday, that the change in the American position was due to “an internal misunderstanding in the administration,” is strained and doesn’t hold water.

The administration spent three years working on the plan, but then at the moment of truth, they had a misunderstanding? Was it perhaps Netanyahu who didn’t realize that he was the one who was being duped?

Immunity from prosecution

If Likud Knesset member Haim Katz could prompt any kind of association with the concept of righteousness in its various expressions, the following saying could have been applied to him: “Righteous ones, your work is done by others.” Except that the righteous, even the not totally righteous, such as Katz sought to portray himself, don’t need parliamentary immunity from prosecution such as he received this week from the Knesset House Committee.

The committee was not convened for his sake but rather for another tortured saint more senior and more corrupt than he. Benjamin Netanyahu must have been fuming this week seeing Katz gleefully hopping around in the corridor outside the committee room with his big prize in his pocket. For the past few years, immunity has been Netanyahu’s obsessive and intensive life’s project, his most precious wish. What hasn’t he done to pave the way for himself to evade the trial that he and his changing cast of lawyers knew there was no escaping, from the earliest stages of the investigation?

We’ve nearly forgotten the “French law” that he plotted to get passed, that would thwart the possibility of putting a serving prime minister on trial. Or the “expanded” override clause designed to authorize the Knesset (with an ordinary, passing majority) to rescind a High Court ruling that surely would have overturned any immunity granted to him by members of the Knesset. Or an amendment to the law itself: Instead of a Knesset member being required to requesting immunity, the attorney general would have the burden of submitting the request, explaining it and providing the proof.

Every possible twisted and crafty ploy was considered, including clearing the field of potentially disobedient Knesset members: Gilad Erdan was to be sent to the United Nations as ambassador and Gideon Sa’ar and Michal Shir were to be wiped out in the Likud primary prior to the April election.

But none of this came to pass.

One die after another was cast, only to hit the floor of reality. Then at the beginning of the year, Netanyahu submitted his request for immunity to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, despite all the lies and denials, and all the “Me? Immunity request?! No way!”

Likud Knesset member Haim Katz at his hearing before the Knesset House Committee on his immunity request, Feb. 4, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

He had hoped, with no real basis, to be able to delay the convening of the Knesset House Committee until after the election. That didn’t work either. The committee was “also” formed to consider Katz’s immunity request, which had been submitted prior to the last election.

The futility of the move and the damage that would have been caused to Likud from the public hearings on the request ultimately prompted the prime minister to withdraw it. Therefore, the only matter left before the committee was Katz’s request, which, as expected, was granted. The full Knesset has to ratify the decision, 10 days from now. Whether it would provide a lifetime of immunity or would only apply while the current Knesset is in place is still a matter of argument.

If Netanyahu had not initially submitted his own immunity request, against the advice of ministers who support him, Katz would not have obtained immunity himself. His request would only have been considered after the election, by the next Knesset. Who knows, maybe even after a fourth election. It would be one thing if he and Katz were friends, or allies, like Arye Dery and Yaakov Litzman. Maybe then the frustration and resentment would have been a little more bearable. But they are neither. Katz is in Gideon Sa’ar’s camp.

After the full Knesset ratifies the House Committee’s decision, after the indictment against Katz is quashed and the threat of a trial lifted, Katz will call the Prime Minister’s Office and request an urgent meeting. He will demand that Netanyahu give him back the job of labor minister (which he was forced to resign from when he was indicted). The prime minister will have a hard time saying no.

Ofir Akunis, who received the portfolio a couple of weeks ago with “a sense of national mission and heavy responsibility” (as if he were being sent into space to single-handedly blow up a killer asteroid making a beeline for our planet) will surely be glad to be relieved of this responsibility. It had been added to his other major responsibility, as science and technology minister. It’s a wonder that Akunis manages to sleep at night.

The meter is running

In January 2016, Netanyahu returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos brimming with motivation on the issue of competition. He had met there with the CEO of Uber, who griped to him about all the obstacles his company had been facing in its efforts to move into the Israeli market. Netanyahu wanted to make a public display of his commitment to lower the cost of taxi rides. He used the public occasion known as a cabinet meeting to castigate the transportation minister at the time, Yisrael Katz, who under pressure from the union of taxi drivers, many of whom are Likud members, had seen to it that Uber was barred from the Israel market.

“Yisrael, you need to see to it that there is competition,” said Netanyahu, implying that there had been a surrender to political pressure. Katz then suggested that Netanyahu take up the matter himself and shot off a barb of his own: “I worry about the public, not the tycoons.” Uber was kept out.

The taxi drivers, whose livelihood is threatened, have been protesting for a long time, and in the well-known Israeli style, by causing as much pain as possible to the public. They have blocked major intersections and kept exhausted passengers who just landed at the airport waiting for hours.

On Wednesday of this week, we were informed that the prime minister had “directed” the ministers of finance and transportation to immediately sign an order rescinding the new cab rates. Legally, certainly in a caretaker government, such a directive has no validity. But Yehuda Bar-Or, the chairman of the taxi drivers' union, hastened to call off the protests and insisted that  he had been promised that the rates would remain unchanged: high.

And Uber, a global company whose efficiency and reasonable prices are familiar to nearly every Israeli who travels abroad, will remain barred from the Israeli market. This is what distress looks like. In his desperation, the great reformer, the purported champion of the free market, becomes the great defender of the taxi drivers.  

There's an electoral glass ceiling over Netanyahu and his Likud party, consisting of a maximum 32 or 33 Knesset seats. It's a respectable number that in days gone by, before Lieberman kissed the right-wing mothership goodbye, could have produced a glorious right-wing coalition. But no longer.

Expanding the boundaries of his party – and the bloc he leads – requires that Netanyahu identify new voters and/or voters who sat out the vote in September, and that he get them to turn out on March 2. Or at the very least, that he hold onto the negligible number of votes of those who have been loyal to Likud.

In the absence of leverage and of hope, he has had to try to scrounge up the missing votes within his narrow and familiar comfort zones while spitting in the faces of millions of Israelis who don't belong to a powerful pressure group. And as has almost always been the case, he has gotten got away with it.