Politics: Netanyahu, all alone and under fire

PM is unquestionably isolated, but does he mind?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Octobe 8, 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Octobe 8, 2015
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The highlight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s week was undoubtedly the visit to Israel of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.
Mukherjee is not considered a big fan of Israel like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On his visit to Ramallah he said many things Israelis do not like to hear, even boasting that India voted against the United Nations Partition Plan in 1947.
But the visit gave Netanyahu an opportunity to put the Palestinian wave of violence behind him, and he milked it for all it was worth.
When he greeted Mukherjee at the Knesset, Netanyahu bragged about the productivity of Israeli cows, which are among the best in the world. India, which is the world’s top milk producer but is less productive, has sent politicians and experts to learn from Israel.
Though they usually attack the prime minister until the cows come home, for a few short moments the opposition let Netanyahu bask in the success of the Jewish state’s consummate cattle.
The rest of the week was more complicated for the prime minister. It was enough to make him have a cow.
Netanyahu faced allegations from Washington of excessive force and changing the status quo on the Temple Mount. The State Department later took back its charges about the Temple Mount but not about the excessive force.
He asked Israeli ministers not to blast the US for the excessive force allegations. But by the time he sent the memo, four of his ministers had already gone on the radio and mocked US President Barack Obama’s administration’s hypocrisy, inaccuracy and lack of understanding about how to fight terrorism.
The prime minister had to deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continuing to inflame his people rather than calm them down.
His office released pictures easily disproving Abbas’s lies, hoping the international media would report the truth.
Even inside his own Likud faction room, Netanyahu could not feel secure. When he boasted about the amount of construction in Judea and Samaria during his tenure in the closed-door meeting, it was leaked to Army Radio reporter Michael Shemesh.
The context of what told the MKs, which was not broadcast, was that he is doing what he can to build Israel while “behaving responsibly” under the world’s watchful eye.
The following day, US Secretary of State John Kerry said a “massive increase in settlements” built by Israel in recent years had stoked the conflict and led to the Palestinian violence. Even worse for Netanyahu, Kerry announced that he would come to Israel soon, apparently bringing along his message about Israeli policies being the cause of the hacking of its people.
In the speech to Likud MKs that was leaked, he sounded exasperated by attacks on him from ministers and MKs in his own party, some of whom even attended a right-wing demonstration against their own government’s policies.
“We are working hard and I am getting criticized from both sides,” Netanyahu told the lawmakers.
“From the Left, I don’t mind being criticized, but from our team? I expect support and not games from people looking for votes. Be leaders and stop playing games!” Likud faction chairman Tzachi Hanegbi responded to the leak by writing the party’s ministers and MKs that they would be required to leave their phones in the entrance to the faction room from now on.
There was another report that bothered Netanyahu this week, this time by Channel 10 political correspondent Sefi Ovadia. The report said that Netanyahu had given up efforts to bring the Zionist Union into his government and would now focus on Yisrael Beytenu.
Netanyahu’s associates said the prime minister is actually under no illusion that there is any real chance of bringing former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman back into the government. He knows Liberman’s strategists well, because they once worked for him, and they advised him to stay out and build himself as an alternative in the opposition.
That advice has turned out well for Liberman. Thursday, the third poll in 10 days indicating that the people want Liberman in charge of their security and not Netanyahu or Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and certainly not anyone to their left, was published.
The other reason that report irked the prime minister is a wellkept secret: Yes, he would like it if his government was widened.
He said so on TV in a press conference last Thursday in response to a question that caught him off guard.
Yes, he realizes that a coalition of 61 MKs makes it difficult to govern.
It gives inordinate power to the likes of Likud MK Oren Hazan, who called reporters together this week to say that he was suing one of their colleagues and that he understands how to defend Israel better than Ya’alon.
But Netanyahu sees benefits to his narrow coalition as well. His associates said he actually does not mind not having the diversity of opinion in his cabinet that he had before.
The last time Israel faced security challenges in Operation Protective Edge 14 months ago, he faced challenges from inside his cabinet from Liberman and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett on the right and from then-finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni to his left.
It bothered Netanyahu so much, he even initiated an election to try to bring about a government that would give him more freedom to run the country the way he sees fit.
The prevailing assumption since the coalition of only 61 MKs was formed was that he failed, due to his mistake in ruling out a unity government with the Zionist Union and Liberman’s surprising refusal to join a right-wing government.
But Netanyahu’s associates indicated that he might have succeeded after all in getting the kind of government that allows him operational freedom.
They stressed that he did not send Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to call for a unity government during Tuesday’s memorial session for slain tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
Edelstein did not inform Netanyahu in advance of the speech.
He did, however, coordinate it with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, who would be happy to enter the coalition, despite his firm statement Monday that terrorism is not a reason to join a failing government.
Herzog made the statement because he is under tremendous internal Labor Party pressure from the likes of former party leader Shelly Yacimovich, who sent her supporters a long diatribe about how it is not only permitted but obligatory to fight Netanyahu while the country faces security challenges.
While staying in the opposition, Herzog has shifted rightward, calling for the West Bank and then eastern Jerusalem to be closed off.
He even expressed support for temporarily banning everyone, including elderly Muslims, from entering the Temple Mount.
It does not appear to be working.
A Panels Research poll broadcast Thursday afternoon on the Knesset Channel found that only 4 percent of Israelis want Herzog in charge of their security. Only 16% of respondents are satisfied with his performance as opposition leader, compared to 70% who are unsatisfied.
What could have made a difference for Herzog was to bring a serious security figure into the Zionist Union when he had the chance. He had reserved slots at his disposal, which he could have offered to former defense minister and IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, but he instead humiliated him.
He also could have put former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin on the Zionist Union candidates list but declined.
Without a serious security figure in the next election, the Zionist Union, or whatever it will call itself, will have a tough time.
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who was just cleared to enter politics due to a loophole in the cooling-off period law for former security officials, could be a solution. Another former IDF chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi, is being wooed by Labor and Yesh Atid.
But at least until then, Netanyahu is in charge of the sacred cow that is Israeli security.