Analysis: Pressured premier, at home and abroad

Palestinian violence has left Netanyahu feeling the heat on the domestic and international fronts.

Netanyahu and Kerry meeting in Berlin (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Netanyahu and Kerry meeting in Berlin
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
For the first time since his reelection in March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself under severe pressure both at home and abroad. The latest wave of Palestinian terror has put a host of ideological, diplomatic and security problems on his plate.
On the strategic level, it places in sharp relief the two rival visions of the Israeli-Palestinian future: Two states for two peoples, with security maintained through deterrence, demilitarization and the creation of common interests, or a single state with security maintained by the force of occupation in the face of endemic violence and terror.
The young knife-wielding terrorists have given Israelis a glimpse of the kind of future they can expect if the Netanyahu government’s do-nothing policy on the diplomatic front is allowed to continue, leading both peoples willy-nilly into a joint one-state hell.
Netanyahu also finds himself under strong international pressure. This is partly due to his bitter clash with the Obama administration over the Iranian nuclear deal.
Israeli officials who initially approached the administration for help in cooling the terrorist violence were reportedly met with a sarcastic “why don’t you ask Congress?” in reference to Netanyahu’s controversial use in early March of a congressional platform to slam the president’s Iran deal and his subsequent efforts to get Congress to scuttle it.
This was followed by State Department Spokesman John Kirby erroneously affirming the Palestinian claim that Israel had changed the status quo on Jerusalem’s holy Temple Mount – one of the main reasons for the terror – and ostensibly accusing Israel of using excessive force in fighting the terrorists.
Although both statements were later retracted, the fact that they had been made highlighted the lack of empathy in Washington for Netanyahu’s Israel.
Eventually, after allowing Netanyahu to sweat for a day or two, US Secretary of State John Kerry came to the rescue. He immediately torpedoed a French initiative to send international forces to monitor proceedings on the Temple Mount, and, instead, called for clarity on the status quo.
The Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif (the noble sanctuary), holy to both Judaism and Islam, has often been a source of friction between Israelis and Palestinians. The latest disturbances and ensuing terror erupted after highly publicized visits by Israeli government ministers, temporary changes in times for Jewish ascent to the mount during the High Holy Days in September, Jewish groups seen to be praying on the mount and Israeli police entering the holy al-Aqsa Mosque on a regular basis to check for hidden explosives – all seen by the Muslim side as violations of the status quo.
Kerry hopes that spelling out status quo conditions agreeable to all parties – including prayer and ascent times, policing and other procedures – will help lower the terrorist flames. After meetings with Netanyahu, Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has special standing on the Temple Mount, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he announced an agreed status quo package, including the fact that only Muslims pray on the mount, while non-Muslims visit. To ensure that all status quo conditions are upheld and to identify responsibility for future provocations, closed-circuit television cameras will monitor all goings on at the holy site on a 24/7 basis.
The terror though is not only about the Temple Mount. It is also a result of stagnation in the peace process, Israeli neglect of impoverished Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and widespread Palestinian despair at ever being able to end the Israeli occupation, now in its 49th year. Part two of Kerry’s plan, therefore, is to squeeze Netanyahu to make the gestures needed to restart peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
This would mean implementing the fourth prisoner release Israel was supposed to carry out under the terms of the negotiation, which broke down in April last year, declaring a building freeze in Jewish settlements and committing to the 1967 lines plus land swaps as the basis for talks on borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Kerry hopes the specter of international pressure, for example, French and other moves to set a timetable for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, as well as the prospect of continuing terror, might persuade Netanyahu to make such a sweeping move.
The chances of this happening though are negligible. Domestically, Netanyahu is under strong criticism from the right and the left. The right accuses him of weakness, and of signaling that Israel has no real right to the Temple Mount; the left says he has no vision, thereby condemning Israelis and Palestinians to incessant conflict. But given his narrow right-wing government – he has a majority of just two in the Knesset with a crucial vote on the budget around the corner – Netanyahu seems to have decided to ride out the storm by moving further to the right. And that means no moves toward reconciliation with the Palestinians.
On the contrary, Netanyahu’s tactic so far has been to play a no-holds-barred blame game, which has done nothing to cool the situation. His main argument is that the violence is primarily a result of Palestinian incitement, especially by Abbas – and has little connection to occupation, diplomatic deadlock, Palestinian hardship or his own hard-line policies.
To buttress his argument, Netanyahu claimed the incitement and the violence stemmed from a deeper underlying cause – a primordial Palestinian hatred of Israel and of Jews. The knifings were not geared to achieve political ends but to exterminate Jews. Pursuing this line of argument led to one of Netanyahu’s most bizarre claims: that it was the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini who, as late as November 1941, first planted the idea of exterminating European Jewry in Hitler’s mind.
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews,” Netanyahu told the 37th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in mid-October.
According to Netanyahu, at a meeting in Berlin on November 28, 1941, Husseini complained that if the Jews were expelled they would go to Palestine. “So what should I do with them? Hitler asks in Netanyahu’s account. “Burn them,” Husseini replies.
This supp osed conversation is purely a figment of Netanyahu’s imagination.
There is no such protocol. Indeed, the actual protocol of the meeting suggests quite the opposite. A detailed scholarly account meticulously based on the protocol can be found in Maryland University history professor Jeffrey Herf’s 2009 “Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.” According to Herf, Husseini comes to the meeting cap in hand seeking a promise from Hitler to back Arab independence after the war and eliminate the Jewish national home, arguing that the Germans and Arabs have the same enemies – the English, the Bolsheviks and the Jews.
Hitler refuses, saying he will only make such a commitment at a later date, after progress of his armies in Russia and North Africa. But he explains to Husseini that the German conflict with Soviet bolshevism and English capitalism is in both instances a fight to the death between National Socialism and the Jew. And he reassures the mufti that after eradicating the “Jewish element” in Europe, he will do so in the Middle East too. In other words, it is not a case of Husseini planting anything in Hitler’s mind, but Hitler, long committed to the annihilation of European Jewry (which had already begun before the meeting with the mufti) assuring Husseini that the extermination policy will be extended to Palestine and the rest of the Middle East.
So why would Netanyahu make such an outrageous assertion, seemingly belittling Hitler’s well-documented obsessive ideological basis for the Holocaust and mitigating German guilt? For one, to score PR points by besmirching Abbas by association with the Jew-hating and would-be Jew-exterminating mufti. Netanyahu has targeted Abbas as a main cause of the terror to shift responsibility from Israel or the occupation – accusing the Palestinian leader, despite his declared opposition to the violence, of joining hands with rejectionist forces like Hamas and ISIS.
The implications are that Israel and the Palestinians are locked in an uncompromising struggle to the death, that Netanyahu can’t be blamed for the lack of a nonexistent diplomatic horizon, and that Israel needs a tough leader like him to weather the long storm ahead.
Until recently Netanyahu equated Iran with the Nazis; now he seems to be trying to do so with the Palestinians, too. In both cases, it is to suggest that right is clearly on his side, and that Israel, in these dark days and against such dark forces, needs a Churchillian leader like him. Although elections are still theoretically four years away, Netanyahu seems to have his eye already on the ballot box. Indeed, to win elections, he has been known to invent scenarios with potential toxic fallout before – for example, his racist and totally false claim on election day last March that Arabs were being bused to the polls in droves.
It is too early to say how Israeli opinion will react. Blatantly false claims in the past, although ridiculed in the media, have often served to win him more support.
This time though Netanyahu may have gone too far.
Polls taken before the mufti claim indicated widespread dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s handling of the terrorist violence.
For example, in a mid-October poll by the Panels research group 67 percent of respondents said they were unhappy with his performance and only 28 percent were satisfied. Interestingly, 48 percent said they supported a two-state solution with the Palestinians, while only 11 percent backed the status quo and 14 percent a single binational state.
Compounding Netanyahu’s problems, Palestinian opinion does not augur well for an early end to the violence. The uprising is popular on the Palestinian street, and mid-level Palestinian leaders have been outdoing each other in their use of inflammatory rhetoric. Moreover, according to the Palestinian narrative, the two previous intifadas had positive results: in their view, the first intifada, which erupted in 1987, sparked the Madrid peace conference in 1991 leading to the Oslo process; the second intifada to the establishment of the international Quartet in 2002 and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
Worse, the mutual distrust between the two leaderships is filtering down to the people on both sides, exacerbating ill feeling and ill will.
On the Israeli side, this has elicited new calls from several quarters for unilateral steps to rebuild confidence and create conditions for a two-state solution. (See Ami Ayalon, “What this war is about and how it will end” on page 6).
Netanyahu, however, is the father of the “reciprocity” approach toward the Palestinians.
Only if they give, will they get, he used to say. Unilateralism is not part of his political lexicon. For anything like that to happen, Israel would need a new and very different style leadership.