Editor's Notes: It's time people realize there are alternatives to Netanyahu

Israel existed (and even thrived) before Netanyahu, and will continue to do so after him.

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August 4, 2017 18:09
Editor's Notes: It's time people realize there are alternatives to Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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Sometimes in Israel it seems there is no limit to cynicism.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participated in a cornerstone-laying ceremony in the West Bank settlement of Betar Illit. The prime minister rarely visits the West Bank, let alone participate in a ceremony celebrating the construction of settler homes.

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It was the first time since returning as Israel’s prime minister in 2009 that he has engaged in such an celebration, a move that would have been unheard of during the Obama presidency.

The visit was part of Netanyahu’s effort to restore his credentials among right-wing voters, following the Temple Mount metal-detector fiasco – or more specifically, his cabinet’s decision last week to remove the protective measures from the entrances to the holy site.

Ever since, and in light of polls that show a sharp drop in his approval ratings, Netanyahu is on a mission to rebuild his rightwing voter base. Zigzagging on issues? Who cares. The ends justify the means.

The first sign was his sudden support for the controversial “greater Jerusalem bill” that would add the settlements of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Betar Illit, Givat Ze’ev and Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, creating a greater metropolitan area and, in effect, annexing those settlements.

This was amusing, since just a few weeks earlier the same Netanyahu had blocked legislation aimed at creating a special majority to divide Jerusalem in a future peace deal.



Next was an announcement expressing his desire to close the Israeli offices of Al Jazeera, a move that is ethically questionable for a democracy, and one that would anyhow require passing legislation in the Knesset.

Then came his announcement that he favors the death penalty for the terrorist who murdered three members of the Salomon family in Halamish. Finally, his office issued a press release just minutes after the verdict in the Elor Azaria case stating that he supports a pardon.

I am actually in favor of some form of capital punishment – mainly to deter terrorist attacks – but I don’t think an off-the-cuff comment is the way to set policy on such a sensitive issue. This is a topic that requires deep thought and deliberation, not something a prime minister should just announce during a condolence visit.

Regarding Azaria: while a pardon might also be appropriate, this is a decision for the IDF chief of staff. The pressure being put on him by politicians like Netanyahu is wrong and out of place.

To top it off, there were the photos and videos Netanyahu released from his conversations and meetings with Ziv, the security guard who shot and killed two Jordanians in self-defense in Amman last week. Ties with Jordan? Not as important as showing that his decision to remove the metal detectors brought Ziv home.

What exactly happened in Amman still remains unclear, but releasing those photos served only one purpose: political gain. Everything else is secondary.

Does the public not see this? Does it not realize that it is being played by the prime minister? Does it not get fed up with the cynicism that seems to know no bounds?

One of the reasons this hasn’t happened is due to Netanyahu’s political brilliance. He can betray his right-wing constituency, but they always seem to go back to him because of two words Israelis hear all the time these days: ain alternativa, Hebrew for “no alternative.”

What this means is that many Israelis, particularly those on the Right, feel that there is no one else in the Knesset, or even in the country, whom they believe is suitable to serve as prime minister. Netanyahu has been prime minister now for almost nine years straight, nearly 12 years in total. Nevertheless, many people cannot imagine one day him not being there.

Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron can come out of nowhere and become presidents of the United States and France, but, these people say, that wouldn’t work in a country like Israel.

The fact that almost every public and private organization changes its leadership every few years – the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet are just some examples – means nothing for these Netanyahu supporters. Yes, they admit, new leadership is important for refreshing an institution or a country, but not for Israel, where the threats are unprecedented and incomparable to anywhere else in the world.

This is a bit presumptuous. Israel existed (and even thrived) before Netanyahu, and will continue to do so after him. The idea that there is no alternative is ridiculous. There are a number of people currently in the Knesset and outside who would make fine prime ministers.

Yes, it is true that most of them would not come close to Netanyahu’s intellectual depth or intimate familiarity with international affairs; but that does not mean they would not make good prime ministers for Israel.

Like many countries, Israel faces challenges in three prime categories: security, economic and social. If Netanyahu’s term as prime minister would come to an end tomorrow, he would be remembered mostly for keeping Israel safe in recent years, particularly during the unprecedented and historic upheaval that continues to rock the Middle East.

Israel’s success in staying out of the Syrian civil war is a major accomplishment, largely to Netanyahu’s credit. However, the sentiment that there is no alternative is directly connected to the pessimistic viewpoint pushed by Netanyahu and shared by many Israelis regarding the Middle East and Israel’s security.

By getting people to think that the horizon heralds only doom, then they will have no reason to believe that a change in leadership would bring a change in the region. It is a perfect formula that manages to create unparalleled political power, while at the same time establishing an overwhelming sense of pessimism and despair.

People are being misled to believe that Israel’s future is tied to a single leader. There are alternatives – not just regarding Israel’s leadership, but also its future.

***

Imagine that a new president were elected in the United States and decided to appoint a mediator to the Middle East named Jonathan Ibrahim. Ibrahim would come to Israel often in pursuit of peace, and would meet regularly with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Now imagine that during his periodic trips here, he would regularly go to the Old City of Jerusalem to pray at the al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Imagine that this mediator came here during the recent crisis surrounding the Temple Mount and tweeted a photo of himself praying at al-Aksa with the following text: “A difficult two weeks have brought me to al-Aksa again. I pray for lasting peace in this special place and across the region.”

How would you feel? Would you perceive the mediator as being balanced? Or would you consider him biased to the Palestinian narrative?

I mention this since it is important to understand how the Palestinians perceive Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s envoy to the region. Greenblatt regularly comes to Israel, and regularly prays at the Western Wall. And he did tweet the above text last week – except instead of al-Aksa, it said Kotel.

A few days later, Greenblatt tweeted a video about Tisha Be’av made by StandWithUs, an amazing and effective organization that fights for Israel on the front lines of the narrative battle. It is a pro-Israel advocacy, public diplomacy organization, not a religious one, set up to counter Palestinian incitement and propaganda. Tweeting out their video has political significance.

The Palestinians are paying attention to all of this. They noticed Greenblatt’s visits to the Kotel during the Temple Mount crisis, but for the most part have remained quiet. In general, the feeling in Ramallah is that Greenblatt is anything but impartial when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The same feeling applies to Jared Kushner, whose own voice was heard this week in a leaked recording published on Wired, in which the president’s son-in-law and top adviser said that the administration supports the installation of metal detectors.

The question that remains unanswered is whether this is all part of the White House’s grand strategy, or these are simply rookie mistakes. If they are mistakes, then they will be difficult to repair.

For decades, America has worked hard to appear impartial when it came to the conflict. Being impartial is what helped it broker peace between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, and what conferred status as the lead negotiator in all of the talks that have been held since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Loss of impartiality will make negotiations more difficult to renew.

On the other hand, this might be part of a larger policy shift meant to send the Palestinians a message that America is indeed biased and stands with Israel. If that is what is happening, then we should welcome it, especially after eight years with the Obama administration which seemed to be solely focused on Israeli violations and the settlement issue. This new approach - if that’s what it is - might actually work by cornering the Palestinians and pressuring them to ease up on some of their outrageous demands.

Whatever the answer, it might no longer really matter. As Kushner said in the recording, there might not even be a solution to this historic conflict. He also admitted that after studying the issue, he has yet to come up with unique ideas for how to get the ball rolling.

Either way, I commend Kushner for his honesty. That is a step in the right direction.

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