Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday praised the Gulf states that declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, hours after Balad and Hadash, two of the parties in the Joint List, condemned the decision because, for among other reasons, it is good for Israel.
Addressing the Knesset’s plenary in a speech about foreign policy, Netanyahu described the decision as “very important and even amazing,” but added that “what is equally amazing is that two parties in the Knesset criticized it.”
“Will you continue criticizing them when Hezbollah shoots rockets at your villages? Do they differentiate between blood and blood? [Hezbollah] wants to destroy the country, and you’re in the country. Have you gone crazy? Excuse my expression,” he said.
Netanyahu pointed to changes in the Arab world, which demonstrate that more countries in the Middle East understand that Israel is not their enemy and stands with them in the fight against Iran and Islamic State, “even if [the changes] haven’t reached certain parts of the Knesset.”
The changes in the Arab world “have great potential to change the diplomatic reality in the region. They give hope for a better future for all nations in the Middle East. I hope these ties will help advance our relations with the Palestinians, or at least the Palestinians who want to live with us in peace,” the prime minister said.
A Balad source said, “It is important to clarify that the decision of the Gulf interior ministers is risky, because it inflames the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict and adds oil to the fire of the bloody conflict and the ethnic divide in Lebanon and Syria in particular and in the Arab world in general.
“It is very dangerous to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, an organization representing a large part of the Lebanese people, despite the criticism of their participation in the fighting in Syria,” the source said.
Balad said in a statement that the decision against Hezbollah serves the regional interests of Israel and its allies.
Balad, established in 1995, has a pan-Arab nationalist ideology, similar to that of the Ba’ath Party of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Its original party head, former MK Azmi Bishara, fled to Qatar in 2007 after being accused of spying for Hezbollah. He had previously praised Hezbollah and the previous Syrian president Hafez Assad, the father of the current leader. However, there are differing views within Balad and Israeli- Arab society as a whole, with some supporting the Syrian rebels.
Hadash, led by Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, also condemned the Gulf states’ decision, attacking Saudi Arabia for spearheading the effort to blacklist Hezbollah.
“After Saudi Arabia failed in its attempt to harness Lebanese society and political forces against Hezbollah by halting its military aid to Lebanon, and after the Syrian people have succeeded in keeping Syria united, comes the decision to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization that proves that Gulf states are totally loyal to neo-colonialist and Zionist forces, the enemies of Arabs,” Hadash said.
Other MKs reacted angrily to the Arab lawmakers’ position.
Intelligence Services Minister Israel Katz, who is a member of the security cabinet, turned to the Knesset Ethics Committee to look into how Arab MKs are sabotaging Israel.
“Ayman Odeh and [Balad chairman] Jamal Zahalka: Join Azmi Bishara in Qatar, or go to Syria,” Katz said.
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said the stance of Hadash and Balad is “beyond absurd and only proves again that every day that passes and this group of terrorists continues to sit in the Knesset is a disgrace to Israeli democracy.”
They represent “the worst extremists in the Arab world,” he said.
Netanyahu’s remarks about Hezbollah were part of a debate on foreign policy, initiated by Yesh Atid, during which the opposition slammed the prime minister, saying he is leading the country into crisis.
“Mr. Prime Minister, Israel cannot go without a foreign minister because of petty political concerns,” said Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid. “We must recognize that we have a deep and significant problem in Israel’s foreign relations, and take care of it.”
Netanyahu also holds the Foreign Affairs portfolio.
Lapid listed the many foreign politicians with whom he has met in recent months, saying they all could not understand Israel’s policies and goals.
“I defended the government, but I and no one else has an answer to the question, ‘What does the government want?’ Everything is stuck. Nothing is moving,” he said.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) focused his speech on mocking Lapid, saying the Yesh Atid head wants to be Netanyahu’s foreign minister and so will prevent the Likud leader from ever losing his premiership.
Turning to Netanyahu, Herzog said: “Israel doesn’t have a policy. Sitting and doing nothing isn’t a policy. ‘Managing the conflict’ isn’t a policy... Israel, under your leadership, has no policy, so how can it have a foreign policy? How can it have public diplomacy? How can we explain the lack of policy? Yair, Yair, what exactly are you explaining... even if you want to look like a foreign minister?” Herzog said that, even though he doesn’t “make speeches as well as Bibi and Yair,” he works hard and has a diplomatic plan, which he proceeded to describe and defend again.
Liberman, who was foreign minister until last year, has criticized the prime minister’s foreign policy in recent weeks, but he and his faction were conspicuously absent from much of Monday’s debate, including the vote to accept Netanyahu’s message at the end, which the prime minister won.
Netanyahu’s message was that Israel’s foreign relations are improving in all areas, and he brought examples of the many leaders from around the world who come to the country.
The prime minister recounted that, when he was a child, when a foreign leader visited Israel, it made it into newsreels at the movie theaters.
Now, he said, leaders visit so often, that many don’t even make it into the 8 o’clock news.
“Can I get some diplomatic isolation so I have time to breathe?” he quipped.
Israel, he pointed out, has diplomatic relations with 161 countries, more than ever before, as well as others with which it has unofficial ties.
“I can count on my fingers the countries that don’t have any relations with Israel: North Korea, Iran, the Islamic State, the Houthis,” he said.
The true picture of Israel’s international standing, Netanyahu said, is that “there are problems, but there is a great flourishing in our relations with the nations of the world. As a responsible government, we will continue to strengthen our ties with these states, and I am convinced that the diplomatic momentum we see will continue and increase. There will be obstacles, but the trend is clear and undeniable."
“Our [international standing] comes from our strength and our consistent and determined policy. The way to protect our standing is not to weaken ourselves with dangerous concessions. If there’s something that will harm our standing, it is only that. The way to strengthen our standing is to continue growing stronger in all areas. That is w hat we did and what we will continue to do,” he said.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
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