Analysis: The ramifications of Netanyahu's double u-turn

Here are a few takeaways from the last head-spinning 36 hours

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting on February 4, 2018. (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting on February 4, 2018.
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
In his nearly 12 years in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had his share of policy blunders and reversals. It comes with the turf. But few moves he has made have seemed more incomprehensible than his 360-degree turn on the African migrant issue.
And yes, this is a 360-degree turn. Semanticists quibble whether it is appropriate to use the term “360-degree turn” to describe an about-face on an issue, because – mathematically speaking – that would be a complete circle, bringing the person back to where he started. A more accurate description of a flip-flop, they say, is a 180-degree turn.
But what Netanyahu has done over the last 36 hours is indeed a 360-degree turn.
UNHCR hopes Netanyahu gets support to implement agreement on refugees’ relocation, April 3, 2018 (Reuters)
First, he abruptly and dramatically changed his policy on African migrants, even going from using the loaded term “infiltrators” to describe them, to the more neutral term “migrants.” That was the 180-degrees. Then, in less than 24-hours he canceled this policy, and went back to where he was before his press conference on Monday, even reverting back to the use of the term “infiltrators.” That is a complete circle.
Here are a few takeaways from the last head-spinning 36 hours:
Forget about a diplomatic accord with the Palestinians.
As one colleague noted, if Netanyahu cannot get an agreement on migrants through the cabinet, there is no way on Earth he would be able to push through his government any significant deal having to do with the Palestinians.
US government officials have said in recent weeks that the peace plan the Trump administration is working on will necessitate tough choices and steps by both Israel and the Palestinians. But how would Netanyahu be able to push through his government any plan that calls for concessions to the Palestinians if he was not able to get his government to agree on allowing 16,250 African refugees remain in the country?
What’s up with the decision making process?
When Netanyahu suddenly announced on Facebook on Monday night that he was freezing the policy he just as suddenly announced a few hours earlier, he spun it by saying that a leader listens to his people and is willing to hear them and change direction. But shouldn’t a leader do that before announcing such a dramatic shift in his own policy and signing an agreement with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees?
It was not as if Netanyahu’s announcement of a deal with the UNHCR came at some impromptu press availability. Netanyahu announced the move at a press conference where he was joined on the podium by Interior Ministry Arye Deri, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Shlomo Bar-Yosef, the director-general of the Population and Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry. Netanyahu wasn’t winging it here: This was something that was thought out, planned and negotiated.
The textbook order in a decision-making process is to first sound out all sides, and then make the decision; not announce a decision, and then listen to the interested parties. To listen to Netanyahu’s explanation is to believe that the latter is exactly what happened, which makes one wonder about how decisions are being made now in his government.
How many people did Netanyahu anger, let us count the ways.
In one fell swoop, Netanyahu managed to antagonize a disparate and vast array of people, countries and organizations.
First, and apparently most important, was his political base. Netanyahu’s turnaround is being widely attributed to the extremely negative reaction he received from his political base, those on Twitter and Facebook who could generally be counted on to support him through thick and thin, through one police investigation to the next.
It was said famously of US president Lyndon Baines Johnson that while watching a critical CBS television report by legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite of the Vietnam War he was waging, that Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” A similar sentiment might have been going through Netanyahu’s mind when he saw a critical tweet by Channel 20 analyst Shimon Riklin, “If I’ve lost Riklin, I’ve lost my base.”
Second, he antagonized his own Likud ministers by the way in which he suddenly sprung the new policy at a press conference, without consulting or seeking advice – a fait accompli. The ministers reportedly felt humiliated that they were not at all in the loop on so important an issue. Even Netanyahu’s most loyal and ardent defender around the cabinet table, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, came out against the plan. As above, with Riklin, Netanyahu had to be thinking, “When I’ve lost Regev, I’m in trouble inside the party.”
Third, Netanyahu annoyed friendly governments in Europe and Africa. In Africa, Rwanda – which signed an agreement in the beginning to take in the migrants – scurried to deny that any such deal existed, after Netanyahu identified it as the third-party country that had agreed to take in the deported migrants.
 In Europe as well, Germany and Italy – among the countries Netanyahu said would take in migrants as part of the UNHCR plan – issued disclaimers. Both those countries are struggling with their own considerable refugee problems, and announcements that they were willing to take in refugees who first went to Israel is obviously not going to be popular on the streets of Berlin or Rome.
The UNHCR also has to feel that it was burned by this whole episode. And though some here may dismiss its anger as insignificant because, after all, it is only a UN agency – “and the UN hates us anyway” – the cancellation of the deal obviously calls into question the viability of agreements with international organizations that Israel signs on to.
Netanyahu also annoyed others along the way as well, including the EU, because in his Facebook post on Monday evening he blamed the New Israel Fund and elements inside the EU for placing pressure on Rwanda to renege on the deal.
In an uncharacteristically undiplomatic tweet, the EU delegation in Israel responded with the following sarcastic post: “Guess it’s just one of those days. At 20:57 you congratulate #Israel & @refugees on their agreement, at 21:46 you like @IsraelMFA announcement on the deal, at 22:50 the PM suspends it and blames, among others, #EU (where #UNHCR hoped to resettle significant number of refugees).”
Israel’s enemies are watching.
Netanyahu’s dealing with the migrant saga is undoubtedly being watched carefully in Tehran, Beirut, Ramallah and Gaza, and not because either the Iranians, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas could care less about the plight of a few thousand African refugees.
What they do care about, however, is how Netanyahu operates. If they look at the last 36 hours and interpret the sudden flip-flops as an indication that the prime minister – perhaps under the weight of the police investigations or his own domestic political situation – is now very pliable under pressure, then the conclusions they might draw is that it is time to turn up the pressure.
It’s all politics.
One of the striking elements about the prime minister’s press conference on Monday was how convincing he was. He told the nation that although he had wanted another deal, he had preferred transferring all the migrants to a third-party country, when that became impossible, the UNHCR track was the second-best option. He effectively sold the deal; he seemed believable.
Did conversations with angry south Tel Aviv residents constitute an epiphany that suddenly turned him against the framework he convincingly advocated for at the press conference? Doubtful. The epiphany was of a different sort – a political one. He felt, judging by the negative reactions to the plan across the political Right, that if he went through with the deal, his government could be endangered.
This felt strikingly similar to the saga involving creating an egalitarian space at the Western Wall. There, too, Netanyahu made a decision that he obviously thought was the best one for Israel – to allow for this space – only to renege on it afterward under political pressure.
The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties threatened to bring down his government over the Western Wall issue, and Netanyahu, faced with a choice between keeping his government and pleasing Diaspora Jewish organizations for which the Western Wall issue was of extreme importance, chose his government.
Likewise, on Tuesday Netanyahu apparently felt that he could either accept the UNHCR framework – which he had defended a day earlier as the most viable option – or risk a collapse of his government. Now, as then, he chose his government. The only difference was that when it came to the Western Wall deal, there was an 18-month lag time between the original decision, and the cancellation of it. On this issue, the lag time was a whiplash-inducing 20 hours.