Analysis

A Parody of a Prime Minister: Netanyahu Offers His Greatest Capitulation Yet

What we saw in the past 24 hours from Netanyahu is a tragedy for the state he heads

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on March 23, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

In the face of all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s past capitulations, it was the most disgraceful, the most transparent. In comparison to all his reversals, it was the quickest, the most humiliating. The man had already taught us a chapter on zigzags and back-and-forths – in the story of the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space and the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, for example – but this time he outdid himself, in both speed and flexibility. A contortionist could only dream of having such a liquid backbone.

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What we saw in the past 24 hours is a parody of a prime minister and a tragedy to the state he heads. There’s never been anything like it: The Israeli government signs an agreement with an international organization over an issue that is at the heart of the public debate and about which the government has a firm position. The prime minister declaims to his nation the details of the deal in a jubilant news briefing in the midst of the intermediate days of Passover, and within hours he backtracks.

The main question isn’t why Bibi folded. The answer to that is obvious: He underestimated the resistance he would face. From the right, Naftali Bennett, his longtime rival for the votes of his electoral base; from inside Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, who is working his way back into politics, was the first to break the omerta against disagreeing with the leader’s policy; and from his left, Moshe Kahlon.

These three, in addition to the bear hugs from the human rights and left-wing organizations that he detests, as well as from Meretz and Labor Party politicians, led him to race to his Facebook page Monday night to compose his letter of surrender. The measure was described as a “freeze” of the agreement.

The formal cancellation announcement came on Tuesday morning, during his meeting with a delegation of longtime residents of south Tel Aviv. He didn’t wait to listen to their complaints. Right at the start he announced the decision he’d taken the previous evening, reading from prepared remarks.

It’s possible that when he returned home Monday evening, Netanyahu spoke with his wife, Sara, and their son, Yair, who had already faced the right-wing social-media tsunami and possibly also read the comments on the prime minister’s Facebook page. The influence his wife and his eldest son wield over him is famous – especially that of Yair, who doesn’t spare his father the rod when he strays from the path. There’s no doubt that by the time Netanyahu climbed into bed Monday, the deal was dead as far as he was concerned.

As noted, that isn’t the question. The big mystery is why he made the decision in the first place to extend legal status to at least half of the 36,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Israel – a decision he announced Monday afternoon, his face beaming.

After promising to “get rid of them all,” after describing the asylum seekers as an immediate threat to Israel’s Jewish character, after touring south Tel Aviv and expressing solidarity with the suffering longtime residents – suddenly, in secret, he reaches an agreement that is the polar opposite of the policy he preached for years. Something is very, very fishy.

We have no choice but to dive into the murky waters of conspiracy theory in search of a plausible explanation. Here’s one: Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Dery, two criminal suspects, cooked up this stew to win points with the judicial system, and particularly with the High Court of Justice, whose position on forced expulsions is clear: The justices prevented it. The same justices who could be ruling on their cases in the future. Perhaps their growing legal distress led them to take action. Perhaps they wanted to signal to the judicial system that they are the responsible adults, capable of taking decisions that are contrary to their own interests and to the emotions of their voters.

It was the judicial establishment that in the past proposed several possible solutions to the refugee problem, including conferring legal status and dispersing them throughout the country. Presto, that’s exactly the agreement Netanyahu and Dery reached with the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations, which is anathema to the Israeli government and in any event unlikely to be capable of relocating some 17,000 refugees.

What followed was the very embodiment of the favorite concept of senior Likud figures: the Netanyahu method. (“The prime minister not only waits in line, he also argues with the salesman, pays an inflated price and in the end leaves the store empty-handed.”) This time it was the Netanyahu method on steroids.