Analysis

Netanyahu's Out of Luck, but He's Hoping a Photo-op With India's Modi Will Help

Netanyahu is stuck between the Ethiopian community's protest and Gaza firebombs, and Lieberman is breathing down his neck. Can a strategic trip to India save him?

Illustration: Protests, incendiary balloons and a plane landing take place around Netanyahu.
Amos Biderman

The justified protest by Israelis of Ethiopian descent in the face of the discrimination and racism they experience at the hands of the Israel Police deteriorated into rioting on Tuesday. The protesters, who took to the streets en masse this week following the fatal police shooting last weekend of unarmed teenager Solomon Teka – responded to the police violence against them with violence of their own, which targeted innocent citizens. Hundreds of thousands of people were caught in huge traffic jams during the demonstrations this week, without formula for the baby, without water, without gas. Cars were torched and dozens of officers were injured.

It was instructive to watch the behavior of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while this was going on. The fastest tweeter in the West, the galaxy’s most rapid responder fell silent. He took part in ceremonies, he celebrated (an early) Independence Day with the American ambassador, but he uttered not a word when the rioters rampaged in the streets and a entire country was stuck in traffic.

Netanyahu was waiting to see which way the wind was blowing. Most members of the Israeli Ethiopian community vote Likud, or at least that’s the prevailing assumption in the political arena. The prime minister didn’t want to irk the electorate on the eve of an election. Likud’s situation isn’t so great these days vis-à-vis the Ethiopian community. The party cancelled the spot it had reserved on its ticket for Avraham Nagosa (saying that Yuli Edelstein and Zeev Elkin would fill the position of immigrant). Kahol Lavan has two MKs of Ethiopian background: Pnina Tamano-Shata (No. 24) and Gadi Yevarkan (No. 33).

It wasn’t until 11 P.M. on Tuesday, some eight hours after the demonstrations began – and he grasped that the potential political damage of remaining silent might outweigh the benefits (Likud voters, too, were fuming in cars stuck in the gridlock) – that Netanyahu posted a clip calling for calm. Subsequently we also heard Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, also someone not known for his ability to count to 10 before, for example, blithely determing that an Israeli Arab has perpetrated an act of terror even before all the evidence has been collected. Imagine the hysterial monologues we would have heard from the two if residents of the Triangle, who also can claim to be oppressed, had blocked Road 65, which runs through Wadi Ara, and set fire to both civilian and police vehicles.

Blocking roads for hours used to be considered a criminal offense in Israel. Our old settler-politician friend Moshe Feiglin was convicted of incitement when he commanded an operation to block roads as part of a nonviolent protest against the Oslo Accords. Others, who torched cars on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Freeway, have been convicted of “attempting to endanger human life maliciously on a transportation route.” During the Oslo period and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, blocking roads was not “accommodated.” Today all that’s almost a dead letter. Causing suffering to thousands has become the first means of protest to be pulled from the tool chest.

The political consequences of this week’s events will yet become clear. But the spin still hasn’t been invented that can turn the protests of Ethiopian Israelis – which are expected to resume after the shivah for Teka – into a Likud asset. One party MK, Nir Barkat, tried, in typically pathetic fashion, to reap political benefit from the demonstrations by claiming they were financed by the New Israel Fund. Nothing demonstrates better how he’s already shed the decent, statesman-like image he had as mayor of Jerusalem. Amazing how quickly he made himself ludicrous – a clone of David (“Dudu”) Amsalem or Miki Zohar. Apparently he was that way all along.

Demonstrators block a road in Tel Aviv on July 02, 2019, to protest the killing of Solomon Teka, a young man of Ethiopian origin who was killed by a police officer.
AFP

O fortuna

In his book “The Prince,” Machiavelli wrote about fortuna, good luck, as an essential if not exclusive part of the makeup of a leader. For many years, Netanyahu was dubbed mazaliko – the good-luck kid. The stars were aligned above him 24/7. But since the new election was called, in May, there’s hardly been a day when he controlled the national agenda and shaped it to his needs, despite his standing, his power and the many tools at his disposal.

For a long time, the terrorism of incendiary devices dispatched to communities bordering Gaza was the top news. When that situation calmed down a bit, Teka was shot to death, apparently for no reason, and Black Tuesday happened.

The anger and frustration of Israelis in the south over prolonged inaction against the airborne firebombs gave way to that of Israelis of Ethiopian descent. In between came the episode of the closure of Sde Dov airport this week, which Netanyahu didn’t succeed in averting. Eilat, a Likud town with a Likud mayor (no longer, according to his declaration), is fuming at the prime minister, and promises to express its anger at the polls.

All this is happening 70-some days before the September election. There’s a feeling of an absence of governance and sovereignty, a flaccidity of various frameworks, a disintegration of the central government, a sense of floundering. Netanyahu, the all-time spinmeister, isn’t able to wrest control of the news – although in recent days he had three opportunities to do so:

1. The summit of national security advisers of the United States, Russia and Israel here bore tremendous potential. It was reported in the media, but hardly made its way into the public discourse.

2. The grotesque ceremony, on Sunday, of the breaching of a wall of cardboard and plaster in the tunnels under Silwan, the Palestinian village abutting Jerusalem’s Old City, by pro-settler U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, with wealthiest Israeli Miriam Adelson whooping it up behind him. In other circumstances, that unprecedented event, too, could have been played for Israelis as a kind of sequel to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Instead, it looked more like the messianic version of Kubrick’s “The Shining” with Friedman as Jack Nicholson (“Here’s David!!!”). The height of this perverse spectacle was when Sara Netanyahu, the convicted felon herself, arrived to destroy the fake wall accompanied, according to reports, by her wealthy friend, the businesswoman and TV star Nicole Raidman.

3. The large-scale attack (attributed to Israel) Sunday night in Syria, on arms depots and “tie-breaker” ammunition that, it was claimed, had come from Iran. It came and went without leaving any sort of impression.

The results of two polls were reported Wednesday evening by Channels 12 and 13, which also should be cause for concern at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street. Both show the Likud-rightist-Haredi bloc falling short by four-five Knesset seats of the lifesaving number of 61 if not joined by Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. As of today, Netanyahu doesn’t have a government of “natural allies.” He’s in Lieberman’s hands, and those are the last hands he wants to be gripped by.

In both polls, Likud loses seven-eight seats, falling to 31 or 32. Following the merger with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, Netanyahu should have been riding high with 39 Knesset seats (35 Likud + 4 Kulanu). A month ago, the same polls showed Likud at 35 or 36 seats. That’s a rapid and deep descent.

First conclusion: Kahlon hasn’t brought even one Knesset seat’s-worth of support to his new-old political home. His voters are scattered among various parties, or undecided. Second conclusion: Netanyahu, who’s fighting for his personal survival ahead of a hearing before the state prosecution on several cases, must find a way to bounce back. Third conclusion: The situation described next won’t help him, either.

Passage to India

In the April 9 election, three heads of world and regional powers enlisted (or were recruited, we’ll never know) to help a close colleague win. Heading the group was the buddy, Donald Trump. In the most transparent manner, from on high, the White House organized a palsy-walsy visit for Netanyahu, whose highlight was when the president signed a document recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. That was on March 25 and was Trump’s modest contribution.

Pleased as punch, Netanyahu returned to Israel, and on April 1, the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, arrived for a visit. Then, a week before Election Day, Netanyahu flew off to Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin organized a spectacular, Hollywood-style ceremony in his honor, marking the discovery of the remains of long-missing Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara celebrate U.S. Independence Day with the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman in Jerusalem, July 2 2019.
למחוק

The international lemon was squeezed to the full, the lemonade was yummy. Mr. World Diplomacy left his rivals in the dust. Gantz-Lapid and all the rest could only mutter congratulations with pursed lips.

At the end of May, after the coalition talks collapsed, the Knesset disbanded and the country was hurtled into another election campaign. The Prime Minister’s Bureau dusted off the globe. Where haven’t we visited, who haven’t we met with?

There’s Europe, of course. Lots of countries there. But it has long since become too puny for the mythic dimensions of Israel’s prime minister. Only great powers do it for him. And only two haven’t yet had the privilege of offering Netanyahu photo-ops for an election campaign: China and India.

The first wasn’t relevant. China is a tough country, with clear rules. Its president, Xi Jinping, maintains good ties with the prime minister, but the restrictions that the Americans have tried and continue to try imposing on relations between Beijing and Jerusalem, are having their effect. Bibi won’t be getting a photo-op there. 

So, the Prime Minister’s Bureau in Jerusalem called their counterpart in New Delhi and requested an invitation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a true friend. A friend indeed for a friend in need. The Indians checked their diary and got back to the Israelis with a suggestion for an August visit. Not happening, came the answer – but we’d be happy to come in the first week of September (about 10 days before the election). It’s a good bet that Modi and his aides know why the bride’s in a rush to go under the chuppah, but, what are friends for?

The result is that on the appointed day, Netanyahu’s campaign will lift off for distant India, with dozens of security personnel, advisers and all the paraphernalia involved in a trip abroad by the boss (and his wife, of course). It’ll cost hundreds of thousands of shekels, at the least. And it’s totally unnecessary: As far as is known, there are no pressing issues to discuss in Delhi.

Netanyahu will land, meet, have his picture taken, market the visit as “very important” for Israel’s security and economic interests, complain that the leftist media ignored the trip and upload something to Facebook.

Veterans’ day

MK Amir Peretz fought tooth and nail for the vote for Labor’s leadership not to be held among the party’s 65,000 registered members. He preferred the party convention, thinking his chances would be better there. Rivals Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir fought him every step of the way – in Labor’s institutions, in the media, among the party faithful. They believed that the uncommitted voters who catapulted them to the top spots on Labor’s Knesset ticket last winter would prefer the young folks over the tribal elder, who’d been there 14 years ago but had subsequently been unsuccessful in being reelected as leader three times.

Peretz’s victory this week by a convincing margin – 45 percent vs. 27 percent for Shaffir and 26 percent for Shmuli – is the victory of retro.

This is a phenomenon that’s pretty much unique to Israeli politics: preference of the older generation over the younger one. The 67-year-old Peretz is the latest example.

The same situation exists elsewhere. Likud’s leader, Netanyahu, will turn 70 in October. Three of the four leaders of Kahol Lavan – Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – are in their 60s; the fourth, Yair Lapid, is 55. Rafi Peretz, 64, replaced Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked in Habayit Hayehudi. In Meretz, 54-year-old Nitzan Horowitz won over his younger rival, Tamar Zandberg. Avigdor Lieberman, Aryeh Dery and Yaakov Litzman are all in their 60s or 70s. And then, of course, there’s Ehud Barak who, at 77, has returned to the political playing field, more alert and sharper than ever.

Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Internationally, and especially in Europe, as well as in Australia and New Zealand, many leaders are babes of 40, 45. And during the past two decades, those countries have already experienced several rounds of young leaders. Somehow, Israel is not managing to produce a cadre of future leaders. Whether it’s conservatism or fear stemming from existential anxieties that’s pushing local voters back into old-timers’ arms – it’s not healthy.

At the start of Labor’s leadership campaign, Shmuli was considered the preferred candidate. At its end he limped into third place, behind Shaffir. The reason: a series of mistakes. Instead of targeting Peretz, he got dragged into quarrels with Shaffir, his nemesis from the 2011 summer of protest. His demand that she hook up with him only hardened her determination, and riled her supporters, who adore her and were insulted on her behalf.

If Shmuli had ignored her and aimed his barbs at Peretz, the results would have been different. And he had material to work with – like clips comparing his parliamentary achievements in the past six years with those of Peretz (which are nonexistent), and who tends to show up only for election campaigns. Or he could have reminded registered party members that Peretz fought like the devil to deprive them of the right to vote in the primary.

Shmuli also didn’t bother to recruit new members to the party, as Shaffir did. Everyone she signed up turned out to vote on Tuesday. Instead, Shmuli focused his efforts on the existing roster of voters, in the hope that his popularity and the admiration for him would do the trick. Turned out that he and they aren’t on the same page anymore: They’re less activist and harder to fire up. Some of them voted Kahol Lavan in April; others now see Barak as their savior.

In addition, the moment Shmuli threw his hat into the ring, he lost two possible patrons: Peretz himself and the Histadrut labor federation. Without them he found himself a bit helpless, without an organization behind him. Shaffir never had patrons. She’s a solo artist, prideful, and she finds it hard to cooperate with anyone. If she had been elected, she wouldn’t have survived in a job that is traditionally based on cooperation and embracing others.

But it was Peretz who won, and he’s promising to rebuild the party and more than double its present strength, to 15 seats. (The two polls published 24 hours after the Labor vote gave the party an average of 1.5 seats more than its current six.) But the problem is that Labor, which is in permanent state of decline, looks more like a rehab institute than a living, functioning political body.

Ayelett the rambler

Ayelet Shaked and her family this week traveled to the cool Canadian Rockies. When she gets home she’ll decide on her future. Even before she embarked on the trip she’d become known as “Ayelet Metayelet” (Rambling Ayelet) – as per the title of a popular children’s book. Her zig-zagging between different right-wing parties, as though she were the wandering Jewess of our time, is starting to tire and turn off her supporters.

That she’s weighing things carefully is fine, but her moves have often been noisy. There are leaks from meetings, her approach to Likud even after the door was loudly slammed in her face didn’t win her any respect, and her demand for the top slot in the Union of Right-Wing Parties is seen as presumptious.

Something bad happened to her and to Naftali Bennett. From being bright shooting stars, they turned into tails. Yesterday they were senior ministers with far-reaching ambitions and the justice and education ministries were their legacy. Today everyone is running circles around them.

Moshe Feiglin issued Bennett a public ultimatum: to hold an open primary to decide who will head the new, liberal right-wing party, or he and his Zehut party will run separately. The choice, wrote Feiglin, is between “my clear vision and Bennett’s rich political experience” – meaning that the latter has no vision, only mileage.

Meanwhile, back at Habayit Hayehudi, Rafi Peretz, with well-known modesty that is constantly on display, is making it clear that there’s no way he’ll agree to Shaked being No. 1 on the party ticket, in his place. Bezalel Smotrich, a more sophisticated politician, announced graciously that he would agree to yield the second slot he holds to Shaked. They’d kindly let Bennett have the fourth place. Sic transit gloria mundi, or whatever.

But don’t forget: In surveys this week, Bennett, still without Shaked, drew the support of more voters than the entire Union of Right Wing Parties, which is mired in Peretz-Smotrich bickering. And in April, Hayamin Hehadash received only 20,000 fewer votes than the three-party alliance of Habayit Hayehudi, the National Union and Otzma Yehudit, and many more than Feiglin’s Zehut, whose failure has apparently not tempered his level of arrogance.