What Kind of a Man Grins Like That, Knowing the Gaza Death Toll Is Rising by Ten an Hour

All of Netanyahu's Zionist wishes just came true. Killings and all

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

What kind of man is this?

What kind of man says these things? Does these things?

What kind of man grins like a kid in a candy store, knowing that in Gaza, the death toll is rising by ten Palestinians every hour? Knowing that just outside Gaza, thousands of Israelis are under grave trepidation for their families, their neighbors, their future.

Okay, he was busy at the time, helping the Trump administration formally open a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. 

But what kind of man talks like this, at a time like this?

"Dear friends, what a glorious day!" Benjamin Netanyahu gushed, barely able to contain his glee. In fact, unable. "Remember this moment!"

As Netanyahu spoke, the casualty count mounted, eventually reaching 60 dead and well over a thousand wounded, many if not most by sniper fire.

What kind of man, well-read, well-spoken, aware of irony wherever he sees it, chooses just that moment to tell this kind of anecdote: 

At the age of three, Netanyahu told the crowd in a memory of growing up near what is now the embassy, "I would approach this place right here, but only so far, because my mother told me, ‘You can’t go any further.’ This was near the border. It was exposed to sniper fire. That was then. This is now, today."

What is this man made of? He does not think like other people. He has a vision and a way of operating which are his alone. He has hopes and wishes and dreams and goals for himself and for Zionism which he has harbored for the length of his decades-long career.

And now, in the space of barely a week, his every Zionist and personal wish list just came true.

Days after the prime minister was televised worldwide lobbying against the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal, the crowning foreign policy achievement of the president Netanyahu hated with open and undisguised passion, Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement. 

The next day, on May 9, Netanyahu's status and apparent freedom of movement took another leap upward, as he held talks in Moscow with the unrivalled power broker in Syria, Vladimir Putin.

Within 24 hours, one of Netanyahu's most cherished life goals – bombing Iranian installations – had come at least partially true. Ascribing to Tehran a late-night rocket barrage targeting the Golan Heights, Netanyahu launched Israel's largest air offensive in Syria since the 1973 war, striking at nearly all of Iran's military positions there. 

But Netanyahu was only getting started.

This is a man who found in 2016 that he could gain popularity by openly siding with IDF medic Elor Azaria, who, on his own initiative, carried out a field execution against an incapacitated terrorist. 

This is a man who then found he could further enhance his power by undermining his own army chief and firing his defense minister, because they insisted on prosecuting Azaria for violating the IDF's rules of engagement.

This is a man, that is, who has found he can benefit from the deaths of Palestinians – provided he can titrate the killings to what an increasingly sympathetic press calls a "reasonable'" level.

This was a man who for months this year pointedly turned aside the pleas of senior army brass, who repeatedly urged Netanyahu to act immediately to address a crippling humanitarian crisis in Gaza – lest the Strip boil over into mass unrest. They gave ample evidence of the dismal plight of Gaza's two million residents, driven to new depths of desperation by high unemployment, infrastructure collapse and lack of opportunity.

Netanyahu's response? Banning officials from using the term "humanitarian crisis."

What kind of man is this? The kind who turns aside any contacts with Hamas, which more than once before the current wave of Gaza protest and bloodshed began, made overtures to discuss a hudna, or long-term cease fire.

This is a man who for years failed to act seriously on warnings by the state comptroller and others, that the fence bordering Gaza was inadequate to the threat of being breached and overrun in the event of mass demonstrations.

This is a man who failed to act on clear forewarnings that the army was ill-equipped and under-trained to confront and repel tens of thousands of protester by non-lethal means.

We know what kind of man this is.

This is a man who finds himself praised for the level of violence in the military's response in Gaza.

On Monday, citing a news bulletin in which The New York Times wrote "Israel responded with rifle fire to a mass attempt by Palestinians to cross a border fence, killing at least 28," an admiring Ann Coulter, an icon of the pro-Trump American hard right tweeted:

"Can we do that?"

In a macabre win-win, here is a man who only benefits at home when Israel is condemned abroad.

Here is a man who would do anything to avoid peace talks, and who has over the past year seen the issue of Jerusalem taken "off the table" by Donald Trump, the issue of territorial compromise taken off the table by his hardline, pro-annexation coalition partners, and the issue of refugees effectively taken off the table by his diversionary insistence that African asylum seekers be expelled at nearly any cost.

This is a man who, addressing that embassy crowd on Monday, was euphoric.

It was not only his loyalists who exhorted Israelis to put aside their feelings about the deaths in Gaza and, in the words of Likud cabinet minister Ofir Akunis, "regardless of their political leanings, every Israeli must celebrate with us today."

On the other side of the aisle, Avi Gabbay, head of the opposition Zionist Union, chimed in with "This is a very important holiday for the state of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole."

As for Gaza, Gabbay added, "What's going on there is very very troubling, but we have no alternative. In this situation, first of all we must win."

Netanyahu could even take some comfort in an unusually sympathetic press, including, in some cases, appreciative coverage in unlikely outlets.

CNN, for example, which in the past has come under criticism from pro-Israel activists, invited Gil Hoffman of the right-leaning Jerusalem Post as a guest analyst during the ceremony.

"Things are going in the right direction," Hoffman said. "The embassy moving and the Iran deal being cancelled are steps in the right direction toward the moderates winning, over the extremists."

What kind of man is this newly, dizzily ebullient Netanyahu? The world has yet to come to grips with the directions and confluence of Trump's sudden new world order, but the prime minister is basking in it, even as blood and fire remake the Gaza border, and the army warns that we are closer to war than at any time since 2014, when the last conflict with Hamas took place.

And as for the rest of us? I'm trying to remember a time when this place was more depressing. I can't.

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