Political drama: Abnormal times in Israel

Netanyahu’s political future seems as uncertain as ever with a top confidant turning state’s witness in a widening corruption probe.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to give a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel February 14, 2018 (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to give a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel February 14, 2018
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
In normal times, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s rare speech before the UN Security Council on Tuesday would have been big news in Israel.
In normal times, Abbas’s presentation of a “peace plan” to the world body, with the centerpiece being the convening of an international peace conference by midyear and creation of a multilateral mechanism to replace the US as the key mediator between Israelis and the Palestinians, would have dominated the news cycle, with politicians and pundits talking the issue to death on the various radio and television programs.
In normal times, Abbas’s assertion that the Palestinians are “descendants of the Canaanites that lived in the land of Palestine 5,000 years ago and continuously remained there to this day,” or his claim that there are today 13 million Palestinians worldwide, would have been discussed ad nauseam in the media.
In normal times, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s sharp rebuttal to Abbas, and her saying “she will not shut up” in response to PA negotiator Saeb Erekat’s recommendation for her to do just that last month, would have stirred some waves in Israel.
But these are not normal times.
As such, the entire debate at the UN on Tuesday was completely ignored that evening by Channel 2, the country’s most-watched news program. There was one brief mention of the events in passing, but no dedicated report to the goings-on at the UN during the hour-long program.
And in the newspapers? Yediot Aharonot ran a small item on page 19 of its 24-page front section, and Maariv ran a story and an analysis on pages 8 and 9. (The Jerusalem Post devoted a good part of its front page that day to the story.)
Abbas was for the most part drowned out in Israel by Shlomo Filber, the former Netanyahu confidant and director-general of the Communications Ministry, as the news that he agreed to turn state’s witness in Case 4000 – the “Bezeq-media affair” – pushed everything else off the agenda. Everything: Abbas’s plan, Haley’s retort, the resurrected idea of an international peace plan, the Canaanites. Everything.
The lack of Israel’s focus and attention to these issues now will not be lost on decision-makers abroad.
ABBAS DID NOT time his appearance at the UN and his unveiling of a plan to coincide with the news about Filber. Nevertheless, he is well aware that Netanyahu is otherwise preoccupied these days, that there is a diplomatic vacuum, and that he can win some PR points by being the party trying to fill it.
So he did. With no small degree of bombast, he said, “I present to this august council a peace plan that addresses the core problems that have undermined peace efforts across the decades.”
In actuality, however, there was nothing really new in the plan, aside from the proposed date – mid-2018 – for yet another international peace conference.
It also included the following demands: acceptance of “Palestine” as a full member of the UN; mutual recognition between Israel and “Palestine” on the basis of the pre-1967 lines; the creation of a new multilateral mechanism to assist the parties negotiate the core issues; preservation of the two-state solution and rejection of partial solutions or provisional borders; a cancellation of the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem; minimal land swaps and east Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state.
While Abbas – by putting forward a plan – will be seen as the party now taking the initiative and putting Israel on the defensive, if he had hoped that his appearance at the Security Council would give the plan some traction, he is likely to be disappointed.
Not because there are not some on the council – such as the Swedes, French and Russians – who would like to move it forward, but, rather, because they, too, are not blind to what is happening in Jerusalem, and realize that they will have to wait so see how the current political drama plays out in Jerusalem, before moving forward with dramatic diplomatic steps.
THE ADDITION this week of two other cases of alleged corruption involving Netanyahu and close associates to the three already under investigation have added more weight to Netanyahu’s heavy legal burden.
While last week – after the police recommendation to indict Netanyahu on alleged corruption charges – the sense in Jerusalem was that the international community would continue to deal with Netanyahu as if nothing had happened, the addition of two other weighty cases this week may give leaders abroad pause. Not because of any great understanding of the intricacies and merits of the cases at hand, but simply because the addition of more cases only increases the likelihood that – somehow – the life of this government will be shortened.
Uncertainty about Netanyahu’s political future increased this week, both in Israel and abroad, and this uncertainty will slow down anyone considering moving forward grand diplomatic maneuvers. How can you seriously put forward any major Israeli-Palestinian initiative not knowing how long this current government will last? Netanyahu, for his part, continued to exude confidence that he will remain in power for long. He ended a meeting at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday evening in Jerusalem by saying, “We will meet again next year, right here, in the united capital of the State of Israel.”
The next morning he posted on his Facebook page an article linking to a Gallup poll showing that his approval ratings were running at 52%.
“Thank you all very much,” he wrote on Facebook, with a link to the story. “I continue, and will continue, to lead the State of Israel responsibly, with good judgment and with a great deal of dedication.”
Netanyahu did not mention that the Gallup poll reflected attitudes in 2017, and – as Gallup itself stressed – painted a picture of attitudes before the recent allegations.
Netanyahu’s Facebook post was the latest in another salvo of efforts to project business as usual, and a “they are out to get me, this too shall pass” attitude.
These efforts will likely get a considerable boost in some 10 days when the prime minister will take his fifth trip abroad this year to travel to the US, where he will meet President Donald Trump and deliver a speech to the annual AIPAC conference.
His trip to Washington follows trips he has already taken this year to India, Davos, Sochi and Munich, meaning that since January he has already spent some 14 days, or 25% of the young year, out of the country.
(In 2017 he logged 59 days – or 16% of the year – either abroad or in transit.) Those trips play to Netanyahu’s strengths: they put him in the role of statesman, a role many believe he fulfills quite adroitly. The speech he will give to AIPAC will undoubtedly be received well – as was his speech this week in Jerusalem to the Conference of Presidents – and Trump is expected to greet him warmly.
But eventually the meeting with Trump will end, and the applause at AIPAC will cease. And then the prime minister will have to return home, and the focus will not be on Netanyahu the statesman, but, rather, on other aspects of how he performs his job.
Eric Sumner of the Jerusalem Post asks the people on the streets Tel Aviv if PM Benjamin Netanyahu should resign (Yocheved Laufer)
Statesmanship is important, articulately and convincingly representing Israel’s interests is critical. But, as one senior government official said in a candid moment during this tumultuous week, the question now is whether that is enough.