My word: Between election spins and facts on the ground

It was inevitable that no matter what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did – or whom he met – in the days ahead of the election he would be accused of doing it as an electoral gimmick.

A BOY plays in the Jewish community of Vered Yericho in the Jordan Valley this week. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A BOY plays in the Jewish community of Vered Yericho in the Jordan Valley this week.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
The talk this week was of facts on the ground, but it was the September 17 election that was very much in the air. The fast and furious dominated when all most voters are looking for is a bit of peace and quiet.
It was inevitable that no matter what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did – or whom he met – in the days ahead of the election he would be accused of doing it as an electoral gimmick. As performers and politicians well know, it’s all in the timing.
So what did we have? Netanyahu in his element, and the opposition struggling to oppose him. It was hard to keep up.
Netanyahu called one of his “dramatic” news conferences on September 9 to announce a newly discovered Iranian nuclear weapons development site at Abadeh, south of Isfahan, where the International Atomic Energy Agency has reportedly found traces of uranium. The IAEA also conceded that Iran is continuing preparations to use more advanced centrifuges, contravening the JCPOA nuclear deal signed in July 2015.
Pointing at “before” and “after” satellite photos as evidence that the Iranians had tried to cover their tracks, the prime minister delivered his by now familiar message to the ayatollahs in Tehran: “Israel knows what you are doing. Israel knows when you are doing it. Israel knows where you are doing it.”
There were two other audiences Netanyahu hoped was listening: the Israeli electorate, whose enthusiasm for the second election in six months seems largely to stem from it being a day off work. The other audience was the US administration and President Donald Trump, who in his characteristically erratic diplomatic style seems to be eying a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, similar to his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un (and the now-abandoned meeting with the Taliban.)
The sudden dismissal of national security adviser John Bolton on September 10 could be part of Trump’s move toward some kind of warmer relationship with the Islamic Republic, which Bolton so firmly opposed (and might also bring the contacts with North Korea back on the agenda).
In another “dramatic” news conference, and while blatantly ignoring the warnings not to use the event for electioneering, Netanyahu announced on September 10 that if he wins in the polls next week he will apply sovereignty over Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, starting immediately with the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea region.
Both news conferences created a problem for his political opponents: fighting the Iranian nuclear threat – and Iranian-backed rocket and terror attacks – is very much a consensus issue. The question is not the “if” but the “how.”
Similarly, Israeli sovereignty over the strategic Jordan Valley has broad backing. Political opponents Left and Right can nitpick over the details, but the idea itself is widely accepted. Just last week, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s old-new nemesis, promised Israeli rule over Ma’aleh Adumim, outside Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s announcement was perceived as being above all an attempt to win over to the Likud potential voters from parties on the Right, like Yamina, to give his party as many seats as possible as part of his goal to create a 61-seat majority coalition – the coalition he failed to build in the April election.
Much of the – justified – criticism focused on how the veteran prime minister could have extended sovereignty to the area during this term in office had he wanted, rather than promising to do it if he’s reelected. Last-minute campaign promises are not something to build on. These are not the sort of pledges that bring about construction on the ground. The farmers of the pastoral Jordan Valley know that crops need more than nice words to make them grow.
A possible difference this time, however, is that sovereignty could be part of Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which is also meant to be rolled out just after the election. The decision last week by presidential adviser Jason Greenblatt to quit – another surprise – also implies that it’s now or never for the administration’s peace plan.
Netanyahu’s statement was couched in ambiguous terms, leaving people guessing not only what communities would be included, but whether this would extend to the open areas between the Jewish communities allowing them to grow in the future. Maybe the next peace plan will not focus on defining geo-politcal borders and focus on people instead. In any case, Netanyahu’s intent is clear: there is no return to the Clinton peace plan parameters and the pre-1967 borders. The “Green Line” is not drawn in indelible ink.
The wording of the brief statement was presumably approved by Trump. The prime minister stressed that he would do everything in coordination with the Americans. I wonder if the “Deal of the Century” itself is amorphous. I hope that there is not a new inclination to bring the Iranian question into the equation, expecting Israel to make concessions regarding the nuclear program in return for gains regarding the Palestinians. Unlike the Palestinian issue, the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel.
THE REAL drama came from neither of the news conferences but from a Likud party event in Ashdod on Wednesday night. The prime minister wanted the image of him pointing at maps and satellite photos to be the one etched on the public’s mind days before the ballot, but it was not to be. As Facebook Live streamed his appearance before supporters, Red Alert sirens wailed, and Netanyahu managed to warn the audience to take cover before his bodyguards unceremoniously hustled him off to safety. Presumably, not only Netanyahu supporters were watching the video stream. Hamas, of course, celebrated the prime minister’s obvious embarrassment, while denying it was responsible. It’s a Hamas trick to take credit while avoiding blame.
Talk about broken campaign promises: as the rockets that caught Netanyahu and several other political leaders in the South proved, the government has not managed to halt attacks by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations.
The UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva this week announced that Israel’s behavior along the Gaza border could constitute a “war crime.” It was typical UN built-in hypocrisy when it comes to Israel. Sending incendiary devices over the border into Israel to burn fields, forests and wildlife is eco-terrorism, but not, it seems, something that bothers the UNHRC. Shooting rockets on homes, schools and kindergartens is not, apparently, a shocking war crime as long as it’s aimed at Israelis. And although they might joke about it, even the prime minister’s many political rivals would not want to see him downed by a terrorist rocket as he gave a pre-election address.
As the world commemorates the 18th anniversary of 9/11, it should be remembered that the terrorists come from same camp as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In 2001, the average person had not heard of al-Qaeda, although Palestinians had literally made a name for themselves through plane hijackings and theatrical terror attacks.
In 2014, as US secretary of state John Kerry and the Obama administration obsessed over Israelis constructing balconies on homes in Judea and Samaria, the al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State grew strong enough to wipe out entire communities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. ISIS brutality – the beheadings and burning people alive – is less public, but Islamist terrorism has not disappeared. Eighteen years on, global jihad remains a challenge precisely as its name suggests: all over the world. Israel was the first to warn about it, and is helping tackle today’s special blend of primitive and sophisticated terrorism.
And that it one of the reasons that the country cannot afford to be without a fully functioning government for much longer. It takes more than spin doctors to create a healthy future.
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