Forget for a minute all the hubbub about the judicial overhaul proposal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners seem to be in a competition about who can best alienate this country’s allies.
Consider what has happened this week alone.
A lot of damage in one week
On Sunday, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – he of “Huwara should be erased” fame – gave a speech in France declaring that the Palestinians were not a people. Making an undiplomatic moment even worse, he made those comments from a podium that featured a map of Greater Israel that included Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
While no immediate benefit accrued from his comment, the diplomatic fallout was swift. The Jordanians called in the Israeli ambassador for a dressing down, the US characterized the remarks “dangerous,” the UAE called the words “inciteful,” and the Saudis – with whom Israel is hoping to start a formal relationship – said they were “racist.”
On Tuesday, the Knesset passed a repeal of the 2005 disengagement bill in northern Samaria, triggering sharp condemnations from around the world. The US led the pack, summoning Israel’s ambassador for a reprimand for the first time since 2010.
Netanyahu was forced to issue a clarifying statement saying that Israel had no immediate intention of establishing new settlements in those areas.
On Wednesday, the right-wing and Christian media in the US caught wind of a proposed bill put forward a week earlier by United Torah Judaism’s MKs Moshe Gafni and Yakov Asher stiffening the country’s anti-missionary laws. Evangelicals in America, perhaps the strongest supporters Israel has today in the world, were not happy.
Newsmax TV’s anchor said the bill would “make it criminal to tell people about Jesus in Israel.” Former Kansas senator and governor Sam Brownback, a huge supporter of the Jewish state, said: “When you start to limit your religious freedom… in your nation, that’s against the UN Charter of Human Rights that Israel and almost all of the rest of the world signed onto, too. You’re entitled to practice your faith or change your faith and I think this is dangerous for Israel, really, since they’ve been such a beacon of an open society in that region.”
Netanyahu was forced to issue another clarifying statement, this time saying “we will not advance any law against the Christian community.”
Also on Wednesday, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, for no apparent reason, felt compelled to insult the United Arab Emirates, saying at a conference, “I was in Dubai – not that I will go back there, I didn’t like the place.”
This time the clarification came from Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on a visit to Warsaw. “I love Dubai, and so do one million Israelis that visited the UAE last year,” he posted in separate tweets in Hebrew, English and Arabic, along with a picture of himself shaking hands with UAE President Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. This list of steps that alienate allies is, actually, quite worrying.
It bespeaks of a government whose ministers either do not care or do not understand – and it is not clear which is worse – about the ramifications and repercussions of their words and actions.
It is worrying because it gives the impression that no one is in control, that every minister or MK can sound off as he/she sees fit, that there is no discipline or self-restraint. That’s no way to run a government or a country.
Following the November election, when there was concern around the world about what the victory of the right, far-right and religious parties would mean for Israel and the region, Netanyahu sought to reassure people by saying in various interviews that it would be his government and that he would have two hands firmly on the wheel.
This week’s diplomatic gaffes show that this is not the case, because if Netanyahu had two hands on the wheel his ministers would not be taking steps and making comments that alienate friends. Forget two hands on the wheel, at this point even one would be an improvement. Netanyahu needs to take control of his ministers and instill discipline and order before they cause more gratuitous damage to Israel’s relations with key countries and constituencies around the world.