Editor's Notes: Is Netanyahu a victim after nearly 11 years as PM?

Netanyahu and the rest of the Right should take the prime minister’s successes, build on them, and have the confidence to adapt their message to the public to one that provides hope.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu. Is he a victim of unfair press? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu. Is he a victim of unfair press?
December 10, 1976, was supposed to be a day of celebration.
The first batch of F-15 fighter jets was scheduled to land in Israel, making it the first country in the Middle East to receive fourth-generation combat aircraft, thus providing Israel with aerial superiority and a qualitative military edge over its regional adversaries.
The air force planned a massive celebration, and 3,000 people arrived at the Tel Nof Air Force Base, including IDF chief of staff Motta Gur and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Given the name Baz – Hebrew for Falcon – the F-15 was slated to become Israel’s primary multi-role combat aircraft. Which it was, carrying out some of the IAF’s legendary operations including the bombing of PLO headquarters in faraway Tunis in 1985.
A few days before the scheduled arrival of the first three F-15s, the IDF Spokespersons Unit contacted military reporters to invite them to the ceremony. One of them was Yisrael Katzover, then the military correspondent for Sha’arim, a daily paper aligned with the haredi Agudat Yisrael political party.
“They said the ceremony would start at 4 p.m.,” Katzover recalled this week. “I looked at my calendar and saw that December 10 was a Friday, and that Shabbat was scheduled to begin at 4:04 p.m.”
Katzover called back the IDF Spokespersons Unit to alert them of what he was sure must have been a mistake. They weren’t interested.
He kept on pushing until he got through to Benny Peled, at the time commander of the IAF.
“Nevertheless, no one was willing to listen to me,” Katzover said.
Despite a censor-imposed ban on publication of the planned arrival of the jets, Katzover published a story on the front page of Sha’arim the morning of December 10 reporting that the F-15s were scheduled to land just as Shabbat would begin. The Agudat Yisrael faction convened for a special meeting that Friday, and on Sunday they submitted a no-confidence motion in the Knesset.
By Monday, Rabin’s government had fallen and new elections were called.
I spoke to Katzover this week because aside from being the only journalist in Israel to ever topple a government, he also knows haredim – Katzover has covered the military beat for haredi newspapers for the last 50 years – and has a sense of just how much the recent brouhaha over train construction on Shabbat is a threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
Katzover recognizes the similarities between the desecration of Shabbat in 1976, when the F-15s landed after sundown, and the desecration today, 40 years later, with the work being done by Israel Railways. But, he said, there is a sense that Netanyahu is different than Rabin.
“There is a readiness by the prime minister today to listen to the haredim and try to solve problems,” he said.
At the same time, Katzover cautions that Netanyahu is walking on a thin line.
“Governments have fallen before over religious issues,” he warns. “If the rabbis give the haredi parties the order to leave the government, then that is it. It is over.”
Netanyahu, it seems to me, knows this, and likely had Rabin and those fateful F-15s on his mind this week when deciding to fight with Transportation Minister Israel Katz about work done on Shabbat along the country’s rail system.
While Rabin held a grudge against Katsover for publishing that story, he really had himself to blame. As prime minister and defense minister at the time, Rabin pushed the limits of what haredim could tolerate when it comes to issues of religion and state, and pushed them into a corner: once the story was in the paper, there was no way the haredim could ignore the desecration of Shabbat.
The same happened last week. By making the political spat with Katz public and turning it into front-page headlines, haredi MKs Ya’acov Litzman and Moshe Gafni had no choice but to present Netanyahu with an ultimatum: either stop the work on Shabbat, or we leave the government.
This is exactly what happened in February, when the cabinet approved a revolutionary plan to formalize the establishment of a pluralistic egalitarian prayer plaza at the southern section of the Kotel.
The deal was originally made with Gafni and Litzman’s knowledge – as long as they didn’t have to actually do anything to make it happen though, all sides thought it could sneak under the radar.
But when it reached the haredi papers, pashkevilim – posters glued on walls throughout haredi neighborhoods – went up overnight slamming the haredi parties.
Within a few days, the pressure was too much – Gafni and Litzman told Netanyahu that if the Kotel deal went through, they would leave the government. Nearly seven months have passed since the cabinet decision, and a pluralistic Kotel seems like a faraway dream.
What Netanyahu and the haredi parties didn’t know is that the rules have changed. Deals that once upon a time could have been brokered behind closed doors with a wink and a nod are exposed today, like they were in 1976, in the haredi press. What happened to Rabin has been happening here every few months.
An argument could be made that the best solution for creating governmental stability in Israel is actually by separating religion and state. While the haredim would of course oppose such a move that would weaken the rabbinate’s control over marriage, conversions and other life cycle events, it would also have a huge upside for them and their politicians: the next time F-15s land on Friday after sundown, or railway construction takes place on Shabbat, Gafni and Litzman won’t have to threaten or worry about a negative article in the haredi press. They would be able to tell their constituents that they had no hand in the matter, and that due to a formalized separation of religion and state, they don’t get to decide if work is done on Shabbat or not. That would create stability in the government since the haredi politicians would not be pressured to topple a government over religious issues.
Here is the catch, though: for this to happen, a prime minister would have to be willing to stand up to the haredim and endanger his or her coalition by taking steps to separate religion and state.
Since that likely won’t happen anytime soon, we should not be surprised or upset that haredim extort the prime minister every now and again. For better and for worse, that’s Israel’s system.
*** ON MONDAY, The Jerusalem Post editorial board met with Netanyahu. The prime minister, as has been reported, has been meeting over the last two months with editors and reporters from across the Israeli media, print and electronic.
Due to the rules of engagement – all content was off the record – not much can be said about the meeting. What can be told is that Netanyahu put on an impressive show. He went through his life story, explained why he joined politics, summarized his career, the economic reforms he instituted in Israel, and what exactly he is doing today to keep Israel safe.
At times, it was theatrical: Netanyahu paced the room, occasionally slammed his fists on the table, leaned in one direction and then the other, wrote a question on the whiteboard, and then drew a picture on another board to explain a certain military strategy. It was all the more impressive considering that he has put on the same performance for hundreds of journalists and he still isn’t tired. Being prime minister apparently provides unlimited amounts of energy.
As has been reported by other journalists who have attended previous meetings/shows, Netanyahu has two key issues on his mind that are important to get across to the media. First, he seems to be concerned about the upcoming comptroller’s report on the tunnel threat that the IDF encountered two summers ago during the Gaza war. The second is a feeling Netanyahu has had since his first term as prime minister in the late ’90s: that the Israeli media is against him, does not give him credit for what he has done for the country, and has a double standard only when it comes to him.
Netanyahu and his team of advisers are convinced that the press would treat him differently if he was more left-wing in his policies.
The wife of another prime minister, they believe, would not be ridiculed in the press the way Sara Netanyahu is.
There is no question that Netanyahu is one of the more impressive politicians around today, not only in Israel but also throughout the world. The knowledge and intellectual depth he embodies are hard to find on the Israeli political landscape. He has also done a tremendous amount for this country – the economic reforms he instituted back in the ’90s and the policies he enacted through the economic downturn in 2008 have kept Israel’s economy strong while Europe’s tanked.
In addition, while there have been wars in Gaza and stabbing attacks across Israel, Netanyahu has, for the most part, kept Israel safe during one of the most volatile periods the modern Middle East has ever known. Nation states are falling all around us, but in Israel, tourism is up, people travel overseas in the millions, and foreign leaders head here in the dozens.
Nevertheless, he is not a victim. Is the media critical of Netanyahu and his policies? Yes. But after nearly 11 years as prime minister – including almost eight consecutively – how exactly can he be a victim? He has been elected prime minister four times by the Israeli people, and based on all recent polls (except for one this week), he would be reelected if elections were held tomorrow. A victim he definitely is not.
What has changed? The Israeli people. In recent years, the Right won elections with a campaign slogan that for the most part can be summed up with negativism: “No, we can’t,” in contrast to Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can” slogan of hope back in 2008.
No, we can’t trust the Palestinians, and no, we can’t trust the Iran deal. No, we can’t count on the world to ensure our security, and no, Europe will not change and will continue to be anti-Semitic.
But Iran is no longer as immediate a threat as it once was (as long as the nuclear deal is enforced), and Israelis have, to some extent, gotten used to the presence of murderous terrorist gangs along their borders. Israelis are also reluctant to cut off ties with Europe, and refuse to look at the world as such a negative place.
Netanyahu and the rest of the Right should take the prime minister’s successes, build on them, and have the confidence to adapt their message to the public to one that provides hope. The first step? Stop playing the victim card.