Bibi’s Week: Between Peace and the Police

Kafe Knesset Double Espresso — by Amir Tibon & Tal Shalev

In the winter of 2004, the Israeli Knesset witnessed the birth of one of Israeli politics’ most notorious catchphrases. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had just announced his “disengagement plan,” which included dismantling settlements in the Gaza Strip, and the Deputy Minister of Education in his own government, Tzvi Hendel –  a resident of one of those settlements – rose to speak against the idea.

Hendel attacked Sharon quite harshly, claiming that Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza was the result of a string of police investigations against the Prime Minister. According to this reasoning, Sharon never really changed his mind about the necessity of Israel’s control over the narrow coastal strip – but instead, committed to the withdrawal so that Israel’s legal elite, often considered left-leaning, would refrain from indicting him.

When Hendel finished making his case, the leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, MK Yossi Sarid, approached him with a short slogan which he thought best described what Hendel and other opponents of the disengagement tried to say: “The depth of the evacuation is like the depth of the investigation.” In Hebrew – כעומק העקירה, עומק החקירה – it sounds much crisper. Sarid, a witty journalist before entering politics, fiercely objected to any Israeli presence in Gaza, but the phrase he uttered immediately became a rallying call for his political enemies, the settlers.

Sarid died earlier this year from a heart attack. Hendel currently serves as the head of Israel’s national anti-drug authority. And of course, Israel no longer has any presence inside Gaza. But Sarid’s slogan has recently waged a comeback, whispered in the Knesset’s hallways, recited by television pundits, and hashtagged on Twitter, by users from both the left and the right.

This revival is the result of two coinciding processes making headlines in Israel in recent weeks: on the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sudden emphasis on a “rare diplomatic opportunity” which is waiting for Israel right around the corner, if only the Labor Party would join his government; and a string of miserable headlines for the Prime Minister, concerning all kinds of investigations, state comptroller reports and court testimonies concerning both himself and his wife, Sara Netanyahu.

Some commentators have referenced the famous quote, wondering whether Netanyahu’s new yearning for peace is all just a result of his legal troubles. Others have only hinted at it, but in ways that no one can mistake, by stating something like – “if peace doesn’t break out now, it probably never will.”

The writers of this column aren’t sold, to say the least, on this creative theory. Sharon had many reasons to carry out the disengagement – from demographic concerns, to constant calls by the heads of Israel’s security establishment to take a bold step in order to drag Israel out of the mud of the Second Intifada. As for Netanyahu, if indeed he decides to take some bold steps for peace in the coming months, it will probably be a result of other factors, like his desire to publicize the progress that has occurred during his tenure in Israel’s relations with certain Arab states, or his concerns over the possibility of a UN Security Council resolution targeting Israeli settlements.

As much as this argument was weak in 2004, it’s even weaker today: Israel’s chief of police and the Attorney General – both of whom are considered close to Netanyahu – are both of religious background, and aren’t exactly affiliated with the left-wing.

All of that leads us to the next question: can Netanyahu actually make progress on the peace process in the coming months, whatever his motives may be?

Of course, much of the answer lies with the Palestinians, who seem more  interested these days in generating international pressure on Israel than in negotiating with it. But even if Netanyahu would just like to run out the process, in order to once again prove to the world that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss as an opportunity,” that doesn’t seem like a simple thing for him to do.

After weeks of hectic political maneuvers, speculation and rumors, the Prime Minister is still deliberating between two different optional coalitions. The first option is to keep his current coalition, which is based on what he has dubbed “Likud’s natural partners” – the ultra-orthodox parties, Avigdor Liberman’s “Yisrael Beitenu,” and Naftali Bennett’s “Jewish Home.” It’s a purely right-wing coalition, in which the Kulanu Party, led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, is the only center-right element.

The other option is to remove Jewish Home, and replace it with a fragment of the Labor Party under the leadership of Isaac Herzog, who despite all his denials, still hasn’t completely shut the door on the possibility of becoming Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister in a more centrist coalition. And even if at some point he will shut the door, he will probably stand right behind it, with the keys in his hand, waiting for the first opportunity to open it once again.

The Bennett-Lieberman-Kahlon coalition, which has 66 Knesset seats, ensures Netanyahu some much-needed political stability. But the winds from Washington and  last weekend’s Paris Peace Conference portend short-term troubles for the Prime Minister. Resisting them would be much easier with Herzog and a group of centrist Labor members by his side (the more leftist elements of the Labor Party would likely choose to stay in opposition), than with Bennett, who strongly opposes Palestinian statehood.

The common feeling amongst politicians, journalists and political pundits is that Netanyahu and Lieberman’s peaceful messages during the last week, are mainly part of a political maneuver meant to lure Herzog into the government.

“When I see Netanyahu and Lieberman suddenly floating words of peace, surrounded by the humming of doves,” former Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich said this weekend, “I can’t help imagining the two of them wringing those doves’ heads and baking them in an oven, stuffed with what will be left of the Labor Party if we join them based on these words, god forbid.”

The only senior Labor party member who appears to believe the Prime Minister’s words is Herzog himself.

Yesterday, Herzog left all this bickering behind him and embarked on a visit to Washington, DC, where he addressed the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and the European Union’s Foreign Affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, also attended the conference. Herzog met with Mogherini and it would not be surprising to hear that he exchanged a few words with Rice as well. If any real peace move takes shape in order to justify Herzog’s entrance into the coalition, either the U.S. or the Europeans will have to be involved.

This could make life much easier for Prime Minister Netanyahu on the international front, but it would be a cause for celebration for his main rival on the right-wing at home, Bennett, who eagerly awaits the day Netanyahu puts him out of the government to make room for Herzog. Bennett will then immediately accuse Netanyahu of being a sheep in wolf’s clothing – a politician who talks like a right-winger before the elections, but chooses a coalition with the left a year later. Who knows: maybe someone from his party will even give a speech on the Knesset podium, not unlike Hendel 12 years ago.. “Netanyahu,” that member of Knesset will declare, “has decided to make nice with the leftists – and we all know why he’s doing it…”

In Israeli politics, after all, history always repeats itself, but unlike the famous quote, it’s not always possible to separate between the tragedy and the farce.



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