Iran, trial, coalition: The triple winds buffeting Netanyahu

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: These are just some of the prime minister's problems.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin pay tribute during a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem, yesterday. (photo credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin pay tribute during a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem, yesterday.
 An outsider unfamiliar with the dramatic legal and political developments in Israel this week would have noticed nothing untoward at Yad Vashem Wednesday night at the opening memorial ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat with his wife, Sara, in the front row, right next to President Reuven Rivlin, and just a few rows away from Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Just a day earlier, Rivlin – in an apparent sign of displeasure with Netanyahu – did not show up for the traditional photo with faction heads after the swearing-in of the new Knesset. Rivlin also made clear when he tasked Netanyahu with forming the next government on Tuesday that he had serious misgivings about a man serving as prime minister while on trial.
Yet nothing of the country’s severely fractured political moment was evident in watching the ceremony at Yad Vashem. Granted, Netanyahu and Rivlin were not seen exchanging any words, nor was any interchange caught on camera between Netanyahu and Gantz. But that is not unusual at such a somber ceremony.
Netanyahu, as he has done year after year at the ceremonies marking the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day, gave a powerful speech drawing the stark contrast between the plight of the Jewish people then and now.
“During the Holocaust, we had neither the power to defend ourselves nor the sovereign right to do so. We were without rights, stateless, defenseless. Today we have a state, we have a protective force, and we have the natural and complete right as the sovereign state of the Jewish people to protect ourselves from our enemies,” Netanyahu intoned.
There was not a hint in his words, or in their delivery, that just a few hours earlier the third consecutive day of testimony in the corruption trial against him at Jerusalem District Court concluded. One could glean nothing from Netanyahu’s words or bearing about the country’s explosive legal moment.
Everything seemed as it should – the ceremony, the decorum, the speeches. But of course it would; the cameras were rolling at this most somber of state events. This was a performance of sorts, with protocol dictating the behavior of each of the main participants: the president, prime minister, ministers, Knesset members. They all knew what was expected of them, even in the most unsettled of times.
AND THESE are unsettled times. Just how unsettled came out clearly in the first three items on the KAN Reshet Bet noontime radio program earlier that day.
First up was an interview with Jacob Nagel, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser. He discussed reports that Israel was responsible for an attack on an Iranian vessel belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Red Sea on Tuesday, as well as the restart of negotiations that same day – though still indirect – between the US and Iran over reentering the Iranian nuclear deal.
Second up was the radio’s legal reporter, giving an update of that morning’s testimony against Netanyahu in Jerusalem District Court. And that was followed by the political reporter providing updates on Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government.
That roster of news stories showed that Israel was not only facing a surrealistic split screen of Netanyahu, on one hand, listening to the prosecutor’s case against him in court while, on the other hand, getting recommendations to form the government. There was also another very big “screen” worth keeping a close eye on as well: dramatic events having to do with Iran.
Netanyahu was the common denominator in all three stories. He is the one who had to give the final okay for an attack on the Iranian ship and is speaking out most loudly against reentering the Iranian deal. He is meeting various party heads to try to form a government, and he is in the defendant’s dock – even though he need not appear in person – in the Jerusalem District Court.
In Netanyahu’s ideal universe, the world would stop as he would straighten out his political and legal situation. In Netanyahu’s ideal universe, pressing issues such as the Iranian nuclear agreement, the International Criminal Court prosecution against Israel for alleged war crimes, and the upcoming elections in the Palestinian Authority would all be put on hold until he could swear in a new government.
But we don’t live in Netanyahu’s ideal universe. We live in a fast-moving, complex and complicated one, and even as Netanyahu has to deal with his personal and political woes, the international challenges are mounting.
Unlike the view from Jerusalem, the world does not revolve around Israel. The surprise announcement last Friday that Iran and the US would hold indirect talks in Vienna was most likely unconnected to Israel’s continued political stalemate, but the stalemate certainly does not help Israel’s case against resuscitating the Iranian nuclear deal.
For one thing, Israel’s continued political stalemate projects an image of chaos, of a country unable to get its own act together. A country that after four tries can’t form a stable government able to formulate its own policies loses some standing when trying to influence the long-term policy of other states.
Secondly, with other issues pulling at him, Netanyahu does not have the ability to zero in on the Iranian issue at this moment and fight it in the international arena with the same laser-like focus – his detractors would call it an obsession – as he did in the past.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu did send a clear message to the administration during his speech at Yad Vashem that Israel will not feel bound by any agreement.
“A nuclear agreement with Iran which will allow them to develop a nuclear arsenal with international approval is again on the table,” he said. “But history has taught us that agreements like these are not worth anything. Even to our best friends I say that an agreement with Iran that paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction will not obligate us at all. There is only one thing that obligates us: preventing those trying to destroy us from carrying out their will.”
His message – delivered amid his legal and political woes – was clear: He will continue to fight the Iran deal as if there were no corruption trial or political stalemate.
But there is a trial and a political stalemate, and some speculate that the decision to strike the Iranian vessel may be connected – at least to the political stalemate.
According to this school of thought, there is nothing like an external threat and possible crisis to get political parties to show some flexibility and, perhaps, walk back certain campaign promises.
Gideon Sa’ar and the five other MKs of his New Hope Party have made clear they have no intention of reneging on the party’s pledge not to sit in a Netanyahu government. But what if there is an external crisis brewing? Might that not be sufficient cause – in the name of national responsibility – to enter an emergency government?
No one but Netanyahu knows for certain whether political considerations were a part of his calculation in deciding to hit the Iranian vessel. The problem is that as long as the political stalemate continues, the perception that will always be there is that critical decisions touching on national security are not being made solely on their own merit, but that other, extraneous factors are being heavily weighted in.
Then there are decisions that have not been made, or were made at the last minute, perhaps because of political problems. It took until Thursday, a day before the deadline, for Israel to formally decide to tell the International Criminal Court that it would not cooperate with its war crimes investigation. Likewise, Israel has made no formal statement relative to the Palestinian Authority elections due to be held next month. Will Palestinians be allowed to vote in east Jerusalem? What about Hamas? These are critical issues, but no clear statement of Israeli policy has been made.
While on the one hand this could be because Jerusalem wants to maintain constructive ambiguity, keeping everyone waiting to the last minute, it also could be because dysfunctional politics is preventing key decisions such as these from being made in a timely fashion. This inability to make decisions is being noticed not only here but also abroad, and does little to enhance Israel’s stature.
While overseas those watching Israel may be drawing the connection between Netanyahu’s trial, tenuous political situation, and the country’s response – or lack of response – to various diplomatic and military challenges, people close to Netanyahu say he has an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and keep issues separate.
One former Netanyahu aide, who also worked with Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, said there were days when he would come into the office when the media were reporting on new accusations against Netanyahu, and the prime minister’s personal and legal situation seemed in chaos, and “he would enter the room for a meeting, and you couldn’t see a muscle moving in his face.”
The adviser said that this was often a topic of conversation among Netanyahu’s staff. “He has a feature that enables him to disconnect different issues. I saw it many times, and it is a mechanism most people don’t have. He has an ability to operate when things are completely upside down for him personally and politically, without anyone noticing anything is wrong.”
The adviser contrasted this with Rabin, saying that in the days when Rabin faced fierce demonstrations against the Oslo Accords, “you could see he was upset. He was much more emotional.”
With Netanyahu, he said, “you don’t see the effects of anything going on outside. His ability to compartmentalize and keep things separate is astounding.”
Referring to Netanyahu’s speech and appearance at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, the former aide said that sense Netanyahu projected of business as usual is not something he puts on only for the cameras; it is also an air he projects behind closed doors.