Netanyahu falls short of history in Hebron -analysis

All eyes are turned to PM’s visit Wednesday to the City of the Patriarchs

The Beit Rachel and Beit Leah homes in Hebron (photo credit: ENLARGE THE PLACE OF THY TENT)
The Beit Rachel and Beit Leah homes in Hebron
In 1997, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu divided Hebron, a move that left 20% of the biblical city under Israeli control and limited Jewish movement there to only 3% of the municipality.
When members of Hebron’s 1,000-strong Jewish community ponder why not to vote for Netanyahu, they need to look no further than the IDF checkpoints to their right and left, beyond which they cannot go.
So, it took political chutzpah for Netanyahu to return to the West Bank city of over 220,000 Palestinians some 22 years later, seeking the right-wing vote in an Otzma Party stronghold less than two weeks before Israelis go to the polls on September 17.
Netanyahu’s visit there Wednesday was therefore, a high-stakes political gamble, taken at a time when polls show his support is slipping below that of his chief rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz.
On the positive side, Hebron offered Netanyahu an ideal historic and diplomatic venue, the kind that fits his political rhetoric like a glove.
The prime minister loves talking about the weight of biblical history, the many centuries of Jewish persecution in the Diaspora, and the modern redemptive significance of the State of Israel, particularly when it comes to ensuring that Jews will never again be victims and will eternally remain the sovereign power in their homeland.
Wednesday’s state ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, marking 90 years since the Hebron massacre in which Arab rioters killed and mutilated 67 pious Jews, provided Netanyahu with a perfect backdrop for such a speech.
The prime minister stood in the shadow of a shrine constructed by King Herod 2,000 years ago marking the graves of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, buried in a double cave which the Bible records was purchased by Abraham (Genesis 23:1-20).
Apart from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and Western Wall, there is no other backdrop Netanyahu could choose that makes so strong a statement about the modern State of Israel’s historic roots in the land.
The Jewish return to Hebron in 1967 – when the IDF wrested control of the city from the Jordanians during the Six Day War – allowed Jews access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs after a 700-year ban, first by the Mamluks in Egypt, then the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, and lastly by the Jordanians.
The anniversary of the massacre that ended the Jewish presence in the city – which had been almost continuous since biblical times – allowed Netanyahu to underscore the need for a modern Jewish state to prevent such attacks from recurring. The Jewish community was restored in Hebron in 1979, 12 years after the Six Day War.
With his trip to Hebron, Netanyahu made a strong statement about the city’s importance to the modern state, signifying his intention to retain at least a portion of the city in any peace deal with the Palestinians.
It earned him a place in history as the first prime minister to deliver a public speech at a ceremony in Hebron, something countless other ministers and members of Knesset have done, but which prime ministers have been loath to do.
Not even former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir made such a gesture, and they were in office at a time when the “two-state solution” had not entered the Israeli diplomatic lexicon.
Netanyahu’s decision to speak at the Tomb of the Patriarchs portrayed him as a leader who can stand strong against international pressure. It could be seen as statement in defiance of UNESCO, which in 2017 inscribed the tomb and Hebron’s Old City as Palestinian heritage sites.
During his current 10-year stint as prime minister, Netanyahu has made numerous gestures to Hebron’s Jews. He granted permission to live in the Beit Shalom, Beit Rachel and Beit Leah apartment complexes.
He got the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration to authorize a building permit for a 31-unit apartment building and two kindergartens on a site near Shuhada Street that will be known as the Hizkiyahu neighborhood. This complex marks where Rabbi Haim Hizkiyahu Medini taught Torah between the years 1901 and 1905 and completed his nine-volume Talmudic encyclopedia Sde Hemed. Medini served as chief Sephardi rabbi of the city, and is buried in the ancient cemetery.
In January, Netanyahu ousted from the city the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. The TIPH’s observer force was tasked with monitoring compliance with the 1997 agreement and Israeli breaches of international humanitarian law in the treatment of Palestinians in the city. Settlers in the city had long demanded that the government terminate the multinational observer group’s mission.
In addition, Netanyahu created an autonomous local council for Hebron’s Jewish community. This included a separate Interior Ministry identification symbol and a council head who will handle municipal issues for the city’s Jewish community. Until then, under the 1997 Hebron Agreement, the Palestinian municipality had been tasked with handling such tasks for the Jewish community.
Netanyahu’s Hebron visit placed a spotlight on such gestures but also on his past negative history with the city, which in some right-wing circles puts him in the same league as former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who ushered in the Oslo era with its two-state solution.
In the past week, Netanyahu has spoken of how he is best placed to handle negotiations with US President Donald Trump over his peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because he can stand strong on principled positions where others might cave. It’s presumed that Trump will release his plan after the coming election.
Those who recall how Netanyahu defied former US president Barack Obama on Iran will have little reason to doubt the prime minister’s diplomatic courage on that score.
But Hebron is a city where daily life is a testament to the ways in which he was unable to stand strong against the demands of former US president Bill Clinton when he was first in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1996 to 1999. At the time, Netanyahu was pushed to advance the Oslo process, including the division of Hebron and the 1998 signing of the Wye River Memorandum. He also shook hands with former PLO chairman and PA president Yasser Arafat.
Similarly, after entering office in 2009 for a second term, he agreed under pressure from Obama to impose a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in West Bank settlements.
One could argue that these were the mistakes of a rookie politician, the kind that a seasoned diplomat like Netanyahu will never repeat. If anything, they could point to the very reason Netanyahu has argued that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be left to a fledgling prime minister.
Or, like Netanyahu’s decision under pressure from Trump to ban Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, his past actions could simply reflect the limits placed on any Israeli prime minister when dealing with an American president.
Netanyahu’s checkered diplomatic history, particularly with Hebron, has made him something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character when it comes to Judea and Samaria.
It is for this reason that, for some right-wingers, he can no longer talk the talk, but has to walk the walk. And even then, it was not enough for him to walk into Hebron or even speak. He had to offer something concrete.
It was for this reason that all eyes were on this Hebron visit.